Let’s be honest… Nobody wants to be a stereotypical tourist. You know the kind I mean. The kind that wanders round bumping into small children and animals blinkered by their sprawling maps. The kind that seems to find anything from a town hall to a public toilet worthy of a photo. The kind that you end up unintentionally photobombing as you elbow past them on your way to work. The kind whose bookshelves are littered with seldom-used rough guides and even more seldom used phrasebooks. Yeah. Those guys. Ugh! While nobody wants to be perceived as a clueless outsider fecklessly trying to replicate local life without bothering to absorb the cultural nuances that comprise it, it can also really compromise your holiday. Nobody wants to be a nuisance to the locals, nor do they want to miss out on topographical and architectural gems of the area because they have their faces buried in a map (or, more likely, smartphone).
All that aside, travelling as a tourist but living like a local is a really, really difficult balancing act to pull off. You have to assimilate local knowledge that takes the indigenous people years in a few days or even a few hours. There’s no right way or wrong way to do this but there are many little (and some large) ways in which you can help yourself. Follow these tips and you’ll be swaggering through the streets like you’ve lived there all your life in no time…
Stay away from package tours
The kinds of tours where you ride around on a bus while a local guide imparts knowledge in three languages are, tragically, how most of us experience the world outside of our own country. Now, don’t get me wrong. The purpose of this entry isn’t to sneer at bus tours. The guides are hard working and often incredibly knowledgeable and they provide an elegant solution for people who want the “whistle stop tour” experience. But if you really want to roll up your sleeves and immerse yourself in local colour they’re not the best option for you. Thanks to free roaming data you can do your research and organise your own travel itinerary and immerse yourself in the experience rather than the knowledge. Simply put there’s a huge difference between driving past some beautiful flowers and getting close enough to see them.
As a matter of fact… Who needs a hotel?
The digital realm affords us so many alternative options that a hotel seems almost passe if you’re looking for the perfect self catering holiday. After all, how can you expect to traverse your destination like a local if you’re staying in the one locale that they would, by definition, never frequent. If you’re on your honeymoon or looking for a relaxing or luxurious experience then hotels will be just the ticket. However, if you’re looking for some local colour and adventure you may prefer to stay in a local holiday home or even an Air BnB. You’ll be better situated to experience the nearby sights and attractions and even if you’re travelling with kids you can travel in safety and security without paying hotel prices.
Make a real effort to learn some of the local language
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to navigate a conversation with a passing tourist who doesn’t share your native tongue. Unfortunately many nations (but, let’s be honest, mostly English speaking nations) have an even more infuriating double standard when it comes to this. Even a token effort to learn the local language can go a long way, and even if they do speak a smattering of English, few locals will try that hard to engage you in your tongue if you haven’t bothered to learn theirs. Don’t believe me? Go to Paris and spend a day speaking only in English. The next day, speak in French as much as you can. Suddenly those famously hostile Parisians are much more amiable. Start learning before you go (even a hasty crash course on the plane is fine) and you’ll find people are far more accepting and appreciative of you. You don’t even have to become fluent overnight. The very act of making an effort is often appreciated.
Stay away from the big brands
It really is bewildering how many people travel thousands upon thousands of miles only to scour their destination looking for a McDonalds or a Starbucks. Sure, there’s comfort in familiarity and it may even be fun to see how a local take on an international chain may differ from your experience (I can get a beer with my Bic Mac meal, whoopee) but clinging to familiar brands will inevitably cheapen your experience rather than enrich it. Of course you’ll see locals in Starbucks but the local economy and your tastebuds will benefit more from trying the independently run coffee shop around the corner. If you have a food intolerances or special dietary requirements like veganism it may be tempting to turn to the familiar but there’s always another way. Learning enough of the language to communicate your needs is a great first step while apps like Happy Cow can help you find vegetarian and vegan food options all over the world.
Make friends with locals
Your barman, your waitress, your concierge; they’re all great resources. They’ll not only help you to find the bars, restaurants and cafes that the hip local types patronise, they’ll also be able to give you the inside track on how to order when you get there. They’ll likely use these establishments themselves and have strong, even passionate opinions on what you should try. Better than any rough guide, surely!
They’ll also be far better attuned to the cultural subtleties that make tourists stick out like a sore thumb. They’ll be able to identify “safe” menu options that are there for the benefit of unadventurous tourists and don’t offer a true reflection of the local taste. Plus… What’s nicer than making new friends?
Avoid “must sees” they’ll almost always disappoint you
If you’ve ever been to the Louvre you know that it’s one of the most sprawling and comprehensive odes to contemporary and historical art anywhere in the world. It houses 70,000 objets d’art over 650,000 square feet of gallery space. It is home to priceless classics from all around the world, yet it seems that there’s one piece that everybody absolutely has to see… the Mona Lisa. Even before Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code raised the profile of the famous painting and its Parisian home, tourists flocked from around the world to see it. While it is certainly an impressive and beautifully restored piece the ubiquitous queue to see it cannot help but make the experience seem somewhat underwhelming.
So it is with many “must sees” all over the world. If you have a genuine and burning desire to see them for their natural, artistic or engineering merit then go right ahead and see them, but if you’re just seeing them out of a sense of obligation… don’t bother.
Take some time to… just wander
Ultimately, the only real value that matters in any location is the value you ascribe to it. Look back on your travel experiences and you’ll find that your most precious memories aren’t concentric around the huge things like the Eiffel tower, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, San Francisco bay or Darling Harbour. The best memories take place in that little taverna, by that gorgeous fountain or in that glorious garden. Take the time to wander around without a destination or agenda and you’ll start to forge your own personal relationship with your destination. This is by far the most meaningful way to travel like a local.
*This is a collaborative post. For further information please refer to my disclosure page.