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Survival in the big city.
First of all, make sure you know where you want to go or at least how to get downtown from the airport, train station or bus station.
My experience of this was pretty simple. If you are in Chicago (that's the place of my exchange university) you have to take a taxi to get downtown from the airport.
(if you don't want to get lost on the train). If you are at train station you are almost downtown near the well-known Sears Tower. If you are at the Greyhound bus station you have to walk about five minutes to get downtown. There is one "but" about Greyhound bus station in Chicago, it is situated in an unsafe part of downtown, so you'd better know where to go if you arrive there at night.
The other important thing about transportation is to make sure that you have some cash. In a big city, public transportation system works just perfectly, you can get almost everywhere on the bus or L-train/subway, but you have to put your money on the card to get on the train or bus. You should not expect any change from the driver. A useful thing might be an all-day pass, just make sure that you stopped at the train station to check whether this is provided or not. In Chicago you can get this pass for only 5 bucks and use it for 24 hours no matter how many times you take the train or transfer (the same pass can be used for both bus and the train). From my own experience I know that passes in Washington, D.C. are about $ 1.5 or $1.6, in Chicago it is 1.5 for one- way ticket, so it is obvious, that one- day pass can be very helpful.
Make sure to get the map of the city and buses/subway in the place you are visiting, they are usually free or not very expensive, anyway you will need this map.
My personal advice would still be not to wander around the areas you don't know on the first day, stay closer to tourist attractions. If you feel unsafe, go away or at least make sure that you have change to make a call or there are some people with you.
Reading this you might be skeptical about simple things I am talking about, but this is the result from my own experience of accidentally getting in the biggest dope area in Chicago and having no change for the bus after 8PM. I ended running to the nearest bus from the suspicious policemen and begging the bus-driver to take me without any money. I was lucky enough to get out of there, but you 'd better not try.
2. Where to go and what to do and how to find this out.
There certainly are some places you have heard of and are just dying to see. Check on the Internet (http://www.mapquest.com/ and tons of other sites) or ask people in decent looking stores and cafes. Again, my own experience of living in Chicago, being in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, tells me that most of the sights are in the downtown area. Inner city downtowns are crowded during the daytime, you can always find help and feel safer. I don't know about other cities, but in Chicago they have a free newspaper called "Reader" that tells you about all the museums, theatres, restaurants and other entertainment. I would try to find something like this and sit down somewhere in a coffee shop (personally I prefer "Starbucks", but if you are low on money, you can get coffee relatively inexpensive in other places).
Look through the paper and decide what you want to see and how to get there (you, of course, have a map with you to check it once again). Another place you can find this kind of information is in a library. Public libraries are so helpful: free Internet, some advice and safe people. Sometimes, they can even provide you with a brochure on the sights. But probably, the first place to check is the Internet (make sure you are looking on the sites provided by city government, because they usually contain information about free places and a list of general events going on).
It is not a surprise that McDonald's is the cheapest place to eat. Oh, yeah, it is not the healthiest place. We want normal food. I want to warn you: big cities are expensive. Usually McDonald's can be a lot more expensive that you are used to. Attractions are also expensive. Museums and souvenirs are expensive, too- be ready to spend a whole fortune on that. I wouldn't go to an expensive restaurant, unless I had a good friend without financial problems with me. …Subways, Jimmy John's sandwiches, Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee, and other places you have heard of in any part of America are better ways to save money and get food. If you are willing to pay a little extra cash to get some good food or something ethnic and special, then big cities are great. Oriental cuisine, Greek restaurants, Italian (pizza), even something more familiar like Russian or Ukrainian cuisine can easily be found. From my own experience, I remember paying MONEY for this pleasure. There are some exceptions, though. For example, in a Ukrainian restaurant in Chicago you can pay about 8.50 to get a plate of borsch and a whole lot of vareniki as a carry out meal.
One more thing about food: there are famous, but RELATIVELY inexpensive places to eat. To find these out contact people you know or check on the Internet. In Chicago, those are famous Gino's East, Giordano's, etc. You can get a lot of food for a price from 7 to 12 bucks, which is better then McDonald's, but requires a little bit more of a saving effort.
4. Night Life.
This is too exciting. I can imagine myself having this kind of insomnia after Greyhound (I hate it! But it's the best choice to see more) and a day of total observing and exploring. I am just kidding. I can't. I will be dying to sleep on the first day, BUT let me sleep a little bit and even after total exhaustion of museums or any kind of sights I will get to wander in the city. Not by myself, of course. It is important to be alert. This is really very dangerous, but I would be too stupid to assume that you will be locked in your hotel room right after the dusk. So, let us ramble a little bit about exploring the night city.
Bars or disco clubs... Definitely, if you are 21. You can find exciting places downtown or in special areas. Safe places. If you are not, you can get into worse places, but if you are not alone that is not a problem (I certainly don't mean it is a good idea for two women to go out, especially with all the make-up and heels we can imagine). I know some places where you can get anything possible and do everything you want to do for about 10 bucks paid at the entrance. Haven't been there, though. I just keep in mind some random gangs passing through our small campus or our area sometimes and shooting into the air. I don't want to be killed by a random psycho on my way back from a weird place in a weird area. I prefer knowing where to go and what to expect from this or that place. Seriously, just ask people in the hotel you are staying at or the policemen what neighborhoods in the city are bad to avoid them.
The police, by the way can be really helpful. Once we came to Philadelphia at three in the morning looking for a certain place and a police car showed us how to get there. I mean they did it literally by us following the car. Be bold and ask, this can save you from many troubles.
Bars are great if you like that. Another interesting activity is to go to the neighborhood of different minorities. One neighborhood is Belmont in Chicago. Gays, lesbians, punks, hippies, or anyone you have or haven't heard of can be found here. It is interesting to watch how different America is in this aspect of life from our countries. Be especially careful in those areas.
Don't forget about theatres, concerts and sport events. All this requires money, but the prices range. In Chicago a famous place like this is The House of Blues. If you want to listen to the Dave Matthew's Ban then it's at least 45 bucks. If you are looking for someone different, you can be lucky to get therefore the price from 15 and up.
The question is obvious, how to find out about all those attractions. Remember, there was a little talk about free newspapers. Also, listen to the radio when you are in the room and watch TV. Find the Tourist's Center in the city you are going to. Be creative, eager, and cautious and you will get the most unforgettable experience ever.
P.S. If you are going to visit Chicago, feel free to e-mail me and ask.
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