This really should be called 'why I like to photograph cities first thing in the morning', because that's basically what this is about.
When travelling, particularly in larger, more touristy cities, the big ticket monuments, sights and even districts are often swarming with people during the day. This makes it difficult to not only see the place, but get into museums, find food, and, the part that bothers me the most, have something of an authentic experience. And this is why I recommend rising as early as you can.
This is my number one reason for getting up at the crack of dawn when travelling. If you've ever been to the Eiffel Tower, or Buckingham Palace, or the Brandenburg Gate, you will also know the crowds that form in the squares and lawns in front of them. Making a bee line for these places at first light, you may not have it completely to yourself, but you'll have a much clearer view than at midday. This also applies to wandering around cities in general. One of my favourite pastimes, wandering down narrow streets is always better without swarms of other people. In Paris, Barcelona, or in front of the brownstones of New York, you'll thank me when you get the quintessential photo, without having to fight others out of your frame.
The Best Light
You've heard this one before. Golden hour - the hour or so after sunrise and the one before sunset are the most flattering for photographs. The sunrise golden hour is better mostly because of the aforementioned lack of people, but it also provides a slightly less golden, softer light than the sunset hour does.
When looking to get photos of a city at first light, you'll be greeted with moody shadows that create interesting patterns on monuments or buildings. You might find rays of light down narrow alleyways that give a certain mood to your photographs. And you'll find beautiful soft light to photograph your friends in too.
Glimpses of Life
The only people who are usually around at 6am in the morning are those who haven't been home yet, or locals. You'll see people walking their dogs, on their morning jog, fetching the paper, or a bag of croissants, if you're in Paris. Glimpses of what it's like to live in this city. When I'm in a new city, I sometimes get this strange feeling of loneliness, it's usually when I find myself surrounded by swarms of tourists, all there but so disconnected. It also happens in the evenings when the city is alive, bright lights, loud, and filled with people. I find it difficult to draw a connection to people who live here, to what life might be like, behind the tourist facade. That's exactly what you'll find first thing in the morning, when everything is calm, the local life shines through a little more. It's the best way, I believe, to really get a sense of a city, a step toward understanding it and the people who live there.
First in First Served
Another huge upside of rising early, is that you'll be (one of) the first to get coffee from that super hip, super popular place that always has a line. You'll also be able to get yourself fed, caffeinated and into the line for the first monument/museum/activity for the day. Hot tip here: pick which ever monument/activity is likely to be the busiest later in the day and make a beeline for it first thing.
Starting early, obviously, gives you more daylight hours to explore. This is a huge plus for me, because I'm the kind of traveller who wants to fit everything in, plus some time to sit and people watch in the city square. You can fit more in when you start early, it's as simple as that.
Starting the day at sunrise isn't easy, let's be honest, but I've found it to be the best way to see more of and truly experience a city when travelling. And there's nothing wrong with a quick mid afternoon nap when everyone else is lining up to see the Mona Lisa.
Do you rise early when travelling? I want to hear all about it!