Talk to locals. That sommelier who recommended a perfect match; the woman sitting next to you on the plane reading an arts magazine; the gallery attendant wearing a local designer. They know their city, and they likely love to share some insider knowledge.
Read ahead. The local newspaper might be a good start, but also seek out arts publications, listings, and blogs.
Wander the back streets. Street art, intriguing boutiques, unique galleries: a city's culture often thrives in the small alleys and lesser-known, off-the-beaten path neighborhoods. Step off the tourist trails and explore.
Seek out your passions. Whether you travel for the architecture, theater arts, indigenous art, or jewelry making, read up on the culture and design specialties of your destination, and make time to go down the rabbit hole.
Gather experiences, not things. Culture and design aficionados gain their travel stories from the gallery walls, the stages, the building facades—not necessarily from the gift shop.
But gather some things, too. Bringing home something unique from a trip, whether it's a locally made clothing item, jewelry, or a piece of art, will serve as a special reminder of your travels.
Don't fear the organized tours. Outfitters like Artisans of Leisure can organize private tours based on your interests. Travel agents (including the experts on AFAR's Travel Advisory Committee) can get insider access and first-hand destination knowledge.
Value improvisation. Some experiences might not be booked ahead. But if you get the chance at tickets to a local theater festival, or come upon a gallery opening on your way to dinner, improvise.
Support the arts. Tickets can be expensive, depending on where you're traveling. But supporting the arts in a destination will never be a bad investment.
Get inspired. Give yourself time to think about the places you've seen, the artists and creative types that you've met, and incorporate your travel experiences into your daily life once home.