When I was twenty and really traveling on my own for the first time in England, I was devastatingly afraid of drinking alone. I’m not talking about 2am G&Ts up in the club. Nope, just a refreshing cider in a quiet local pub while I waited for my mid-afternoon train. I would walk by a pub – perhaps the most family-friendly drinking establishment in the world – three or four times, trying to eyeball a peak in through typically frosted windows. Was it busy? Deserted? Were the clientele intimidating? Would I know what to do when I walked in? Would I look weird, drinking alone in the corner and reading a book?
As I got older, the anxiety turned into frustration. I started putting more emphasis on food when I traveled and, consequently, drinks. Growing craft beer scenes, cultured wine legacies, creative cocktail bars. I knew I was missing out on all of it. I wasn’t brave enough to delve into nightlife alone, so my solo travel days tended to end at sunset.
Until one day I’d had enough of being left out. I think it was in Montreal where I started to test the waters of solo drinking. And in the trial and error of my experiments since then, I’ve crafted a personal guide to drinking alone to keep my solo drinking fun, safe, and chill. From New York to Ukraine, it’s served me well. So if you’re a solo traveler who feels a little hesitant or self-conscious about hitting up a bar alone, here’s some advice.
0. Drink responsibly.
Let’s start the Guide to Drinking Alone here. It’s a given, but I don’t want anyone leaving me nasty comments that I’ve turned their daughters into alcoholics. That’s not the point of this guide. Here’s what I do to stay safe while drinking alone:
- Two drinks max. I can indulge in both at one establishment if it’s really wow-ing me or break it up if I have lots of ‘research’ to do.
- Stick to establishments in the center. If I’m going to break this rule (in Chernihiv, there was a brewery on the outskirts of town that was the main reason for my visit), then I go even earlier than typical to stay within daylight hours.
- Know how you’re getting home beforehand. Maybe you’re within walking distance, maybe you’ll need to call a cab; regardless, plan it out in advance. And it’s always good to have a taxi number or app on your phone.
- Watch your drink. Just like at home.
1. Sit at the bar.
At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, bartenders have a soft spot for solo female drinkers. They will take care of you with attentive service, curious but polite questions, and a protective eye. Or they will just serve you and ignore you, but even those guys I’ve been able to soften up with a little appreciation for their craft. And bartenders are great local sources if you want the inside scoop on a city.
Sitting at the bar makes it less obvious that you’re drinking alone (people who have a tough time eating alone, I especially recommend this stealth style). It does, sometimes, make you more available for conversation – which might be what you’re looking for. But if you’d prefer to keep to yourself, consider my next piece of advice—
2. Bring something to do.
I’m not talking about a coloring book or knitting (though that would definitely work in some establishments). And I encourage you to put away your phone. Bring a book, a crossword puzzle, or a notebook. You will look less like an alcoholic if you pair that craft beer with a little intellectual activity.
3. Know the (bar) culture you’re in.
One of the places I felt most awkward drinking alone was in Brooklyn. It was a gorgeous night, a rooftop bar was calling me, but no one was available to tag along. Determined not to let that stop me, I took a book and went anyway. I couldn’t concentrate on my book the entire time and left after one drink. I think I felt so awkward because in the States going to the bar is a social activity and I rarely see other women out for a solo drink.
On the flip side, in Ukraine, I have mastered the art of drinking alone. While it’s still not super common to see women out by themselves at a bar here, they do dine alone and are fiercely independent anyway. I’ve also rarely been approached in a Ukrainian bar. I don’t know if it’s the overall culture or maybe I just go to classy establishments, but I don’t get the feeling of bars as meet-and-greet places. Whereas if I were to go to a more notoriously flirtatious culture, I’d alter my expectations and consider my choices more carefully.
4. I don’t go to clubs alone.
Maybe you can pull this off, but solo clubbing is where my desires end. Perhaps it’s because clubbing often is about meeting people, not cultural exploration through alcohol (swear that’s a real thing), and so I feel it’s outside the scope of the Guide to Drinking Alone. But I feel zero regrets about passing on solo clubbing.
5. Go early.
Girl, cocktail hour is a real thing for you. Going early solves a multitude of quandaries – fewer clients to judge you for drinking alone (the loitering staff will notice, but curiously), the comfort of choosing basically any seat you want, and less competition for the staff’s attention. You want the waiter to explain the differences between the microbrewery’s selection? Would like to ask the bartender about their specialty drink? Get there ten minutes after opening. When I travel solo, I prefer a pre-dinner drink around 6pm, dining a little later, and then meandering back to my place. Also by going earlier there are fewer drunkies around. Hopefully.
I love going out when I travel. I love learning about the manufacture of Cuban rum, being educated in the resurgence of Serbian wines by an experimental winemaker, hunting for Singaporean craft beer in hawker centers, being impressed by the creativity of mixologists in Odessa. These are the flavors of a culture.
And just because I sometimes travel solo, I don’t want to miss out on that. I’ve climbed pyramids in Mexico, navigated the metro maze of Tokyo, hiked forest parks in Oslo, spent countless nights on Ukrainian sleeper trains, and wandered the neighborhoods of Istanbul in search of local cuisine, all by myself.
So I have no problem taking a seat at the bar all by myself either.
How do you feel about adventuring into nightlife solo? Would you add any other advice to the Solo Female Traveler’s Guide to Drinking Alone?