Want to actually feel like you’re getting to know the place you’re staying? Skip the super-touristy tours, and heed these tips.
Every Average Joe will tell you he likes to travel. It’s right up there with sports, music, and hanging out with friends. “I love seeing new places, learning about cultures, and stuff,” he’ll say. His Tinder profile likely explains that he’s looking for someone to go on “adventures” with. Why, then, are all of his London Instagrams posted from Buckingham Palace and Big Ben? He’ll boast about how nice his hotel was, and how good the food tasted in that 2-Michelin-Star restaurant that’s been written up more frequently than the royal baby.
Your pal Joe travels comfortably, but he isn’t doing much to seek out local culture. (Or, for that matter, to travel economically.) His method is akin to chugging wine instead of sipping it, and he’ll tell you he hated Vancouver since it rained a lot. “Uber prices were surging the whole time! Sad!”
No offense to Joe, but the most enjoyable travel experiences—and the most impressive ones—happen when you really live a place, and try to experience it like a local, even if it’s just for a long weekend. Skip the Wikipedia-lite bus tour and head instead to the farmer’s market, or trade in the crowded art museum for a walk along the canal. Sure, you’re just a tourist in disguise, but you’ll now form a solid opinion and understanding of the place, rather than checking off a long list of Googleable attractions. (Also, wouldn’t Tourist in Disguise be a great name for your tell-all travel memoir?)
There’s more to “living like a local” in a new place than renting an AirBnb to save a few bucks. Yes, that’s a good start, congratulations, but there are a few other ways to blend in, and to actually make your vacation stand out. Joe won’t be impressed, but that’s exactly the point.
Stay Thursday through Monday
Chances are, the city you’re visiting has no shortage of things to see and do. That’s exactly why you’re there. But why hustle from Friday night until Sunday afternoon trying to cram everything in? Instead, arrive early on Thursday and stay until Monday night. You’ll see how the city transitions from workweek into weekend, then back again. Plus, in many international cities, the Sunday nightlife is among the best (since that’s when it’s a ‘locals-only’ vibe, after weekend tourists depart). Staying five days gives you enough time to pack in the sites without having to hustle between each attraction. (All this reasoning aside, it’s also safe to assume that the place is snooziest on Tuesday and Wednesday. So, in planning your five days, you should feel OK sacrificing those two.)
Shop the Farmer’s Market
You’ll eat plenty of meals out, and that’s fine, but plan one meal each day around ingredients or snacks you buy yourself. Plus, local markets make for good people watching. You needn’t buy the freshly gutted fish, but at least snag some inexpensive regional fruit for breakfast, or some crisp veggies for an at-home appetizer. (Heck, at least get some flowers to spruce up your AirBnB.) You can easily spend an hour wandering through a foreign supermarket and ogling their selection of candies, or tinned fish, or spices; these things often also make great things to take home as edible mementos of your trip.
If you feel relatively capable in the kitchen, try to cook at least one meal in your Airbnb, incorporating a couple new-to-you ingredients. Ask someone at the market how to cook whatever you’re buying, or, if there’s a language barrier, just Google it. Chase it with some regional beer or wine, which always makes it taste better, even if the results are mildly disappointing.
Resist the Urge to Uber
Yes, technology makes it very easy to get door-to-door service, pay electronically, and not worry about a language barrier. Just once, though, try relying on your own wits to flag a car or taxi and actually interact with the driver. They might very well be one of the more interesting people you meet there, I promise.
Better yet, skip the car ride altogether and walk. Even if it’s a couple miles, put on some comfortable shoes and make the trek. You’ll see how one neighborhood evolves into the next (both architecturally and demographically); this is the joy of meandering through residential pockets rather than breezing past them on the main streets. Of course, make sure that the neighborhoods you’re walking through are safe (and navigable). Best to do this with a little daylight.
Get a Haircut
No, you don’t need to return from England looking like a mohawked football fanatic. But, on your aforementioned walk, you could check out what the good-looking men in town are sporting, and then use your Googling powers to locate a reputable barbershop. Even if you get your usual crew cut, it’s the process that will make you feel like you live there. You only get haircuts when you make time for them, when you feel comfortable in a place. Scheduling one in your destination city forces you to slow down and make extra time. And your barber is a real-life local you can connect with, one who can offer recommendations or recount local history—things that you can’t learn online. Assuming no language barrier, ask him (or her!) where you should go for your next meal (but don’t just treat them like an advice machine; ask about their personal life, too, since it’s bound to be different from your own).
Go to Your Favorite Restaurant Twice
When you pass through a place, it’s natural to want to do as much as possible, without replicating any single experience. To repeat anything would mean to pass on something new. That’s a good way of thinking, especially as a traveler.
However, there’s comfort in familiarity. It’s how we build relationships. You’ve spent the whole trip translating phrases or staring at your maps app or cooking with new ingredients, so why not spend the last night at your favorite restaurant—whichever one you visited and liked most—and order something different from the menu? That can be tonight’s new thing, and this restaurant can be your place. The waiter might recognize you. You might get to eat that sinful dessert a second time. You can order the expensive bottle of wine this time, since you’ve been regretting it the past few days. Trust me here: There are hundreds, if not thousands of restaurants in this city. It’s hard to say whether you’ll love or hate any one. It’s a gamble. So, play it safe this one time. Go back to a spot you already loved, and give that restaurant just as much love in exchange.
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