First and foremost - try to pick a city where you have a friend or acquaintance who is willing to play tour guide. It saves you from wandering aimlessly around town.
Second – try to do your research on the net/magazines, etc. before you arrive so you can have a plan of attack. When I was in Savannah I knew I needed a house and an office for my character and I wanted them within walking distance. I needed to see and smell (Yes, it was springtime) the city. i.e. they have horse-drawn carriages and with horse comes horse smells.
Third – Give yourself permission to be a tourist. I went into a quaint little bookshop and the sales person recommended a great book on Savannah complete with pictures.
Fourth – go to the visitor’s center. They have the best grid maps and they’re always helpful when it comes to distances. i.e. I needed to know how long it would take to go from downtown Savannah to Bonaventure cemetery.
Fifth – go hungry. Taste the foods to get a feel for what it’s like – Leopold’s was the greatest ice cream parlor and restaurant and the owner happens to have been a movie producer, so they have lots of movie memorabilia in the store from films like The Big Chill to Mission Impossible III.
Sixth – get a good street map and mark points of interest. I had to find the hooker hangout, so we drove that street. I’d have to consult my notes, but I think North of Gaston is the seedy part of town.
Seventh – take a gazillion pictures. I always photograph the cross streets, then take pictures so I know where the shots were taken. And while I’m at it, invest in a good camera. I have a DSLR, so I can snap non-blurry shots with ease. But if you don’t have a decent camera, get out of the car and snap away.
Eighth – If possible, get many angles. We went out on Amy’s boat so I got to see the harbor and the waterfront with all the antebellum houses from the water. I also learned that those houses face backward from the road, with the majestic fronts only viewable by sea.
Ninth – Find something unique about the setting. In Savannah I found the steep steps down to the cobblestone walkway along the Riverwalk to be a real challenge. Hat’s off to Bob Fetzer for finding the elevator back up to street level. The other thing I noticed? People are really friendly. They say hello or good afternoon/morning to everyone they pass. I also learned that parking is a real bitch. And that you need a permit in most of the areas around Forsythe Park.
Tenth – take some time off just to let it all soak in. I was lucky enough to have fab author Amy J. Fetzer as my hostess and my tour guide, so I was all set. We even snuck in a brainstorming session for my value-added Finley short.
If you’re traveling to another city, make sure go prepared, have a plan, and use the voice notes feature on your phone – so much easier than a pad and paper.