Though people might tell you otherwise, there is nothing wrong with exploring a new destination with a guidebook in hand and a camera hanging around your neck. It is perfectly okay to travel with a tour group, get a bite-sized destination vacation experience at cruise ports or stay an an all-inclusive resort. There really is no wrong way to travel.
But if you do want to have a more authentic travel experience—an experience that leads you to say, “Only in Mozambique/Fiji/Estonia/Uruguay/some other destination”—then you’ll need to make an effort to immerse yourself in the local culture. It’s only once you take part in activities side-by-side with the destination’s residents that you’ll truly feel the real vibe that makes a place tick.
If you’re interested in getting to know your next vacation destination beyond its potentially superficial facade, here are a few things you can do to go local:
Find where the locals eat. This place generally isn’t the American-style burger joint or hotel restaurant. Instead, you’re more likely to find people on their lunch hours or out with family and friends at locally owned, corner-side cafes or pubs. If the city you’re in has street carts, buy from the one with the line of people. Not only does it have the best food, but it’s also safer due to the high turnover.
Ask for recommendations on how people spend their free time. Though people working for attractions or hotels have good reasons to get you to pay for the touristy stuff, if you can get under the surface of a destination, that’s where you’ll find the locals. Ask people where they go with their families or what they do on the weekends. Are there hiking trails that aren’t noted in marketing brochures? Is there a great dive bar where everyone gathers on Friday night? Do families spend time at a cheap water park in town? These are the places you want to be in order to explore the local fabric.
Walk. Don’t rent a car, grab a taxi or ride the bus. All of these things restrict where you can go. In some cases, such as in New York City, there are public transportation lines meant to keep you in line with the predefined tourist attractions. Hop-on, hop-off touring shuttles will not take you into the nitty-gritty neighborhoods of a big city. Instead, make an effort to walk around your destination. Feel free to wander down side streets and pop into shops or cafes that pique your interest. Another good alternative is renting a bike.
Stay at locally owned accommodations. Pass up the chain hotel for a bed & breakfast inn or locally owned boutique hotel. At a smaller, more intimate property, you’re much more likely to have the chance to chat with local people going about their daily lives. If you ask, you may even have the opportunity to help with some household tasks, such as doing the dishes or helping on the farm. At the very least, you’ll be exposed to a side of the community that isn’t run by an HQ halfway around the world.
Learn the language. You don’t need to be fluent or even conversational, but knowing even a few key phrases in the local language can help open doors where you might otherwise meet walls. In destinations where English is not one of the main languages, it can help to know a bit more of the local tongue, otherwise you’ll be stuck hopping from one English-speaking place to another, all of which somehow probably cater to travelers.
Enjoy some down time. Don’t book every spare moment of your trip. If you leave some extra time to wander at your leisure, enjoy a long lunch or embrace whatever else comes your way, you may be treated to a memorable experience you hadn’t planned for.
Visit the green spaces. I’ve often found that you’ll find families, festivals and food carts at the local parks, regardless of the country you’re visiting. These are great places to relax, write in a journal, sketch the surroundings or strike up a conversation with someone else.
Attend local events. Whether it’s a show by a local band, a poetry slam, an arts festival in the park or a soccer game, buying a ticket to a local event guarantees you’ll be surrounded by people that live in the area. At these events, you’ll be immersed in the local music, have access to popular food, feel the energy of community engagement and meet people who are out for another normal afternoon.
Strike up a conversation. Despite what your mother told you, it’s okay to talk to strangers. In fact, it’s by chatting with people who live somewhere that you’re likely to learn the most about a place.