Just a few hours before the city of Vienna awakes, Celine and Jesse – the characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise, first released 20 years ago – make a spontaneous decision to wander the streets together.

They have only just met on a train, but these two strangers quickly kindle a romance that extends over years (and two later films). I don’t blame them for being distracted by each other, but if they had been paying more attention to Vienna, they might have discovered a different kind of romance: the intimacy of a city in the early morning.

As travellers there’s almost no avoiding being awake at strange hours of the day wondering what to do with yourself. It can happen to anyone: an overseas flight that arrives in the early morning while your stomach thinks it’s lunchtime; the hotel-bed-induced insomnia of that first night; a marching band that spontaneously materialises and marches in deafening spirals around your Madrid hostel in the middle of the night (I swear this happened). Some travellers will curse their luck, and lie in bed until a ‘decent’ hour; others will waste time watching the dregs of morning television. Smart travellers, however, will realize they’ve been handed a gift: a behind-the-scenes tour of a city at its most revealing.

Cities like Shanghai reveal something of their personalities at dawn. Image by Scott E Barbour / The Image Bank / Getty Images

I’ve watched enough poorly dubbed episodes of Law and Order to know that better things await outside. I’ve stood in the middle of Westminster Bridge in central London on my own without the assistance of a zombie apocalypse. I’ve watched the sun’s first rays hitting the sheer walls of Kauai’s Kalalau Valley as a native Hawaiian owl glided like a silent spirit along the cliff face. Meanwhile, the night owls were asleep and, selfishly, I’m glad they were.

Morning people don’t necessarily want to be alone; we just don’t want to be in a crowd. Much like hikers will greet each other on a remote trail, and motorcycle riders will wave as they pass each other, there’s a camaraderie in the early morning that transcends culture. In Kuala Lumpur, in the shadow of a luxury high-rise and a tourist night club, a group of construction workers beckoned me over to have some roti and tea with them. The day was barely dawning as they poked fun at me like a group of old and close friends would, and showed me the right way to scrunch up the roti to sop up as much curry as possible. I’ve yet to top that breakfast.

Some claim that morning people are more productive, more moral, but there’s no need for value judgments: it’s not that the morning person is better than the night owl – it’s the morning itself. Nightlife’s defenders are many, and in truth I’ve happily raved the night away from Bangkok to Boston. But here’s the difference: you can have essentially the same drunken noise-filled night out in most cities, have a fantastic time, but come away none the wiser about the culture of the place. Same booze, same soundtrack, same headache, different city. A morning exploring the city, on the other hand, is an intimate and local experience, and one whose colours and aromas linger long in the memory.

Unconvinced? Ask a photographer. Professional photographers love the oblique, color-soaked light of the morning’s ‘golden hour’. And it’s not just for the light: morning photos tell better stories. A photo of a lone baker opening her shop, sweepers cleaning up after the previous night’s parade, or fisherman pulling in the day’s catch is much more revealing of the place and its people than an anonymous crowded street etched in harsh midday sun. Globalization might be homogenizing the world’s cities, but only during business hours.

So whether you’re a night owl, an early bird, or a bird of another color, set your alarm to chime in the dark of the morning just once. No camera, photographic eye, or stranger on a train necessary. All you need is to get up and out the door before sunrise to start your romance with the city.

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