Updated: Mar 21
updated March 2023
One of my all-time favourite activities is people-watching. People-watchers can be young or old, athletic or sedentary, at home or away. People-watching can be done alone or with others. People-watching can be a fun, imaginative game, a passive observation, or a creative exploration. It used to be a much more common skill but with growing dependence upon our devices, I fear it is a dying art that I am determined to keep active. I consider myself to be an expert in the field.
People Watching for Travellers
You're at an international airport, train station, ferry port, plaza, park, or another gathering place. You are in no rush or you have no choice but to stay put. There's a vast range of people heading in many different directions with an unimaginable number of purposes. Maybe you are at a city park, cafe or beach. Find a place to sit back and watch folks moving around. Maybe you can sip a coffee and savour a snack. Take time to notice the people around you. Notice their clothing, bags, activities, and companions. Which ones catch your eye? Who is distressed, happy, tired, angry? Who is fashionable; who is ragged? Who is in a rush? Who is just enjoying their day?
Be a Detective There's gotta be an international spy, some newlyweds, or the world's richest kid somewhere. Find him/her/them. There's a family moving overseas, an elite athlete, a genius, or perhaps, an escaping criminal. Compete with a travel buddy to be the first to find the archeologist, orchestra conductor, or bounty hunter.
Be an Author What's the story with the lady wearing glittery animal print leggings, who is pulling 47 suitcases? That long-haired young man currently sleeping on top of his backpack? Where is he travelling to/from? Where did that couple meet? What's in that businessman's oversized briefcase? Those nuns wearing baseball caps and taking group selfies in front of the Vatican must be up to some sort of mischief ... what is it? That odd fellow who seems to be at every stop on your tour... maybe he's following someone in your group? Who in your group is the most likely candidate?
Top people-watching locations need to attract both locals and visitors; they must have places for an observer to sit comfortably without drawing attention to themselves. Ideal people-watching locations are everywhere. However you enjoy your people-watching, these are my Top 10 Places for People-Watching, let me know where you like to go to watch people.
10. Jack Poole Plaza, Vancouver BC
While in Vancouver, head downtown to Jack Poole Plaza to see the 2010 Olympic Cauldron. You can grab a quick takeout meal from one of the vendors in the neighbouring Vancouver Convention Centre or enjoy summertime patio seating from the surrounding restaurants, Tap & Barrel or Cactus Club Cafe. You'll see children delighted with the seaplanes landing in the harbour, There's likely to be a lineup of characters waiting to get a photo next to the pixelated whale statue. You are sure to see plenty to spark your imagination including visiting sports teams, convention go-ers, cruise and travel groups, as well as locals passing through.
9. Any Parisien Café
It doesn't matter where the café is located in Paris. It helps if there is a view of something iconically French but all you really need is a place to sit with a view of the street. Order café gourmand to receive a small espresso-sized coffee and the chef's choice of 3 desserts. Once you're settled enjoy the hugely diverse population walking past, providing a rich source of people-watching content. Add some French characters into your detective game. If you are a visual artist, find some scenes to sketch.
8. Marrakech Medina
My people-watching brain became delightfully overloaded in the Marrakech medina. Between the sights and smells of the many kiosks, shops, the snaking streets of this maze, and the sheer press of humanity will keep your eyes darting around trying to take everything in.
Treat yourself to juice from one of the hundreds of kiosks and wander around the central Jemaa el-Fna Square. You'll be watching vendors and customers haggling, street performances of all types, monkeys and snakes performing for tourists, overloaded carts pushed by ancient grandparents as you dodge the motorcycles whipping past following no apparent traffic rules or conventions.
7. The Forum, Rome
The huge archeological site of the Roman Forum is very much in the thick of the modern city of Rome with busy streets surrounding the area. To accomodate tourism, these sidewalk areas are very wide, and include lots of places to rest or set up a street performance or artist's easel. During peak tourist season there's always something magical to see.... like a bubble-master leprechaun
6. Puerta del Sol, Madrid
Puerta del Sol is the best known and busiest public square in Madrid. It is considered the junction of all important historical and modern roads in Spain. It's also a major hub for the city's metro system. Surrounded by shops, businesses, and restaurants, it is bustling at all times of the day and throughout the year. Early mornings is the time to watch local commuters going about their morning routines. Later in the day, the square is hopping with shoppers and the common urban comings and goings. In the evening, the square explodes with action as the restaurants and bars fill, and the street performers, vendors, skateboarders, artists take to the plaza.
5. Plaza de Armas de Ollantaytambo
Almost everyone who hikes into Machu Picchu in Peru will start their trek in the town of Ollantaytambo, tucked into the Sacred Valley approximately 100 km from Cusco. Home of a massive and incredibly well-preserved ancient Inca temple and fortress this town attracts both the intrepid hiker and the history buff.
The tiny main plaza is surrounded by locally-owned bars, restaurants, small hotels and tourist shops. Collectivos hustle for customers on the streets while local seniors chat in the center garden. On every side of the square, there are restaurants with open balconies. After trying several balconies, I decided the one belonging to La Serranita Restaurant had the best view of the action and had really tasty food, too!
4. Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain
I am a huge Gaudi fan. I love the look of everything he did so Barcelona is a truly happy place. Parc Guell is a private UNESCO park of gardens and buildings designed by Gaudi, very reminiscent of Dr. Suess. I like watching the expressions of delight of the other visitors discovering Gaudi weirdness. One of the best perches to watch tourists searching for the perfect Instagram photo is from the walkway across from main terrace. Another spot to watch people jockeying for Insta-fame is next to the Salamander mosaic.
3. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, USA
The stunning and vast Golden Gate Park attracts thousands of visitors, locals and tourists. The heavily used park offers nature walks, bison herds, botanical gardens, multiple gathering areas, museums, and many, many recreational activities and other attractions I haven't named.
I never miss a chance to hang out, usually getting to the park multiple times a visit. There's always a fun activity happening, like "Lindy in the Park" -- a long-running public swing dance event that happens on Sundays, weather permitting. It's fun to see all the different skill levels of the various dancers but the prime people-watching is amongst the audience.
2. Trafalgar Square, London, England
Without question, my absolute favourite spot for people-watching is Trafalgar Square. Upon arrival in London, one of my first stops is the Pret-A-Manger for a posh pickle sandwich, to be eaten sitting on the steps, amongst the locals. From Trafalgar Square you can watch the entire world do their thing.
An hour (or two) spent at Trafalgar Square is a treat for any dedicated people-watcher
1. Random Sightings
Sometimes people-watching just happens. We stumble across people that demand our attention. These people will almost always encourage conversation and photo-taking.
These are splendid examples of people who need watching, like this shared-sweater couple, encountered on an amazing California day spent with a friend. People-watching is a fine activity and is especially grand for the solo traveller.
... or even out your own window.
What's your favourite people-watching spot?
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