When I tell friends from other walks in life that I am going to a conference their usual response is, "Oh, right a 'conference.' So what are you going to do with your paid vacation?" It is hard for them to understand that for us, these conferences really are the main attraction. You get to see your favorite books walking around in person! (for more on how much I love history conferences, see my earlier post) In short, history conferences (particularly public history conferences) are not like those "conferences" we see in the news linked to outrageous misuse of tax dollars. NCPH is not a boondoggle: we work, and learn, and yes, there is the obligatory partying...oh, I mean networking!
But having said that, I do think that it is important to take some time to get to know the city that is hosting the conference. The surrounding city is part of the context and flavor of each conference and I believe that it is important to experience that aspect as part of a comprehensive conference experience. I always find at least one block of sessions where nothing truly grips me as being compelling, and I use that time to go do some exploration. While I do often have some landmarks set aside that I want to visit, I often like to just meander over a city on foot to see what I happen to discover.
In part, I think this comes from my survey training at the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU, but I know that it is also heavily influenced by me reading John Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic early in my Public History classwork. What it comes down to is that I think one of the best ways to experience a place is on foot. You get that visceral experience of the landscape/streetscape that you can only acheive by hoofing it.
I end up gathering interesting examples of architecture, signage (I'm a signage fanatic), public programming, public planning, etc., and you get a real feel for the people in those spaces. I also have a habit of getting photos of myself interacting with public art/landmarks. That makes for good fun on facebook when I post the photos (the best one is me posing at the wrong end of the Bull on Wallstreet when I was in Manhatten for OAH...good times).
Even those who do not have the same penchant for mischief that I have will get a lot out of exploring the conference city. Go to the sessions that NCPH has to offer and interact with those walking books (or walking exhibits or public programming), but also make time to discover Providence while you're there. Get that authentic experience!