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There are a lot of options when it comes to a vacation, and it can be overwhelming when exploring a new city. The key is to know what to see without making the trip feel too regimented.

This template will help guarantee vacation nirvana no matter the next port of call.

1. Start with a rough schedule and a list of must-see attractions

Statue of Liberty, New York

The real enemy of a vacation is over planning. Nothing ruins a trip like creating a schedule and adhering to it like a stickler. Might as well say goodbye to fun now.

However, what is important on a vacation is not waiting until the last minute to open the guidebook, unless spontaneity is on tap. While spontaneity is a virtue, it is important to know how much time is available for exploring a city and how long it takes to drive from Point A to Point B. It’s also good to know museums and attractions hours as not all destinations are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

This is also important for budgeting purposes.

2. Break away from the touristy areas

A group of people on rental bicycles ride past Crissy Field toward the Golden Gate Bridge Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in San Francisco. At a nearby press conference two state assembly members announced legislation to prevent the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District from assessing a sidewalk toll on pedestrians and cyclists crossing the bridge. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

There is nothing wrong with the tourist zones, and in many cities, they are the safest parts of town. The drawback is sometimes they can seem a little generic.

As part of the pre-trip research, take a moment to explore the parts of town that have interesting sights to see and that are located in neighborhoods that are friendly both day and night. Take Las Vegas as an example; it’s an extreme example, no doubt.

People usually come for the glitz and the glamour. But, when the bright lights start to become blinding — or the bank accounts are overdrawn — take a walk off The Strip and explore. Try heading over to the lesser-trafficked attractions in any given city. The Pinball Hall of Fame in one such place.

The museum features an extensive collection of working pinball machines. It’s cheap, fun and not full of tourists. The downside is there are no free drinks like there are at the slot machines.

3. Know where to find that quintessential photo opportunity

Kaye Kerr, left, and Ian Kerr take photographs from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. The couple from Winnipeg, Canada, visited the Grand Canyon on the 90th anniversary of its designation as a national park. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

Every city has a vantage point that is built for the guidebooks. It’s no fun to return home and find a photograph on the web and think, “I wonder how I could have captured a similar snapshot.”

In Indianapolis, that means making sure the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is on the itinerary. The historic memorial in the heart of the city offers some of the best views from atop the 284-foot, six-inch-tall obelisk-shaped monument.

4. Find a museum that tells the local story

Barbed Wire Museum, McLean, Texas

It’s safe to say pretty much every city has a museum dedicated to either local history or an industry that helped shape the city into what it is today. In Nashville, Tenn., given country music’s inextricable link to the city, that might mean a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum or the Johnny Cash Museum.

In Nashville, a side trip might also be to the Grand Ole Opry or the bars along Broadway, the city’s major thoroughfare. Many of them feature up-and-coming acts for a fraction of the cost, good for those travelers watching their dollars and cents.

5. Find an oddball attraction

Beer Can House, Houston, Texas

For example, if Houston is on the docket, a visit to Johnson Space Center Home is an absolute must. It is probably the quintessential Houston attraction.

However, visitors would be remiss if they also didn’t take in the Art Car Museum, a museum that puts an emphasis on art cars — basically cars that are transformed into works of art using paint and whatever else floats the artist’s proverbial boat. This contemporary art museum, which is a Houston original, features works of art “that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged by other cultural institutions,” as the museum noted on its website.

That might also mean a detour to take in American Statesman Park, better known as Mount Rush Hour. Houston artist David Adickes created the 18-foot-tall concrete statues that today reside near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 45. This is a true oddity that can only be found in Houston and something that will stick with travelers for years to come.

6. Enjoy the local craft brew

Yankees Pirates Spring Baseball

The rise of craft breweries is welcome news to beer aficionados everywhere. While so many breweries are expanding their distribution networks, there are still hundreds, probably thousands, of breweries across this great country that can only be enjoyed when in town.

For example, a trip to Atlanta might mean making the short drive to Alpharetta, Georgia, to visit Jekyll Brewing. Sure, many people know Atlanta for SweetWater Brewing Co., but the beer scene in the “City Too Busy to Hate” is so much deeper with new breweries seemingly opening up weekly.

As an alternative, consider a visit to a bar or restaurant that features an extensive selection of brews. Places like the Brick Store Pub in nearby Decatur, Ga., offer beer choices from across the country, but more importantly the state.

7. Find that local farm-to-table restaurant

Sam's Chowder House serves it's famous Lobster Roll, "naked style" lightly tossed in butter and celery, and served on an artisan bun, with chips and coleslaw. Sam's Chowder House, reminiscent of a New England style seafood house, announces it's second location in Palo Alto, CA. Sam's flagship restaurant is located in Half Moon Bay, CA. (PRNewsFoto/Sam's Chowder House) THIS CONTENT IS PROVIDED BY PRNewsfoto and is for EDITORIAL USE ONLY**

Chain restaurants are everywhere. Look, TGI Friday’s is fine and they serve up a mean mudslide, but it can’t compete with the local flair that a one-off community restaurant offers. And, that is what will put the icing on the cake for a vacation, as they say.

In Phoenix, Ariz., that might mean a visit to Beckett’s Table. In addition to the restaurant’s Southwestern-inspired dishes, it also offers a great wine list featuring Arizona wines. Coincidentally, these are some of the best under-the-radar wines available today (which one wouldn’t know without visiting a truly local restaurant such as Beckett’s).

(Photos: Associated Press)

Todd DeFeo About the author:
Todd DeFeo is a writer, marketer and wanderer. Follow Todd on Twitter and check out his blog, The Travel Trolley.
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