When in Rome, I really try to do as the Romans do. One of the biggest hurdles I face while traveling is not knowing the local landscape. My parents have always taken this sentiment to heart, annual summer vacations to the White Mountains of New Hampshire steeped with our longtime traditions. Anywhere else we’ve gone generally sees us wandering until something appears. As I’ve begun traveling separately, I’ve tried to maintain this, and sometimes try to be more proactive. Because, as we all know, it can be easy to lose sight given a number of variables.
We all do it: read the guidebooks, roam around the popular attractions, and then, somehow, miss the true flavors of a place. And while seeing all of the “must-sees” of any given location is always incredible (they are must-sees for a reason), it doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to the contemporary culture. History, sights, and famed dishes make my heart flutter, but my soul is ignited by the inside knowledge.
Collectively, we are becoming more conscious of and invested in the art of authentic travel. The idea of traveling like a local stems from our craving of the exotic, and our curiosity about the connectedness of culture. I think that today, given the overwhelming oomph in experiences over materials, that it’s more important than ever to continue along this vein.
Craving these sorts of trips for yourself? Here are some tips to make local travel a piece of cake!
Get recommendations from a local
The most common way to travel like a local is to score advice from one. Strike up a conversation with your barista, ask a tour guide or employee, or, heck, a neighbor. The magic words only need to be “good spot for lunch” or “afternoon free” and the golden gates of a reliable source are opened wide.
Staying in an AirBnB or HomeAway property, you’ll find most hosts leave a homemade booklet of their favorite places to go. There’s more on this point later, but leaf through the pages and decide what to add to your itinerary!
Walk around with an open mind
It started in August of 2015, when my 25-minute walk from my apartment in Dublin to the academic center spurred on an incessant obsession with my feet. (Definitely not like that.) My feet wanted to deliver me to my destination. More than that, they wanted to take me all of the roundabout ways there. I must have gotten back to my apartment at least five different ways by the end of the semester. It became my signature travel style, that walking. Walking tours, both fact and self-fabled, were often a package deal. My good friend Kayla and I found a common bond in that respect, and with cameras strung over our shoulders, would set out on weekend and longer break excursions with no clear end. Only dessert was the unspoken understanding. We reverberated in the pulse of every city’s veins, and ended up chasing quite some adventures.
All because we walked.
Still, I am a big proponent for walking, as a lot of you know. Along the way you will undoubtedly uncover some amazing finds that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. I am also a firm believer in enjoying a city in the way that you want to, not how others before you have. You don’t have to feel pressured to visit a site or eat at a restaurant because someone else said you do. Find the things that you like, and the rest will fall into place. Lacing up those shoes is the first step. Plus, you’re raking up those step counts and while scoping out a brand new place. Walking brings you to the brink of a traveler’s salvation.
And when you recount any resulting story, your reasoning will be this: “I just sort of stumbled upon it!”
Check out Instagram
Instagram often results in a rabbit hole effect. Given its revamped search tools, it’s A. clear WHY and B. worth it. I’ve found that surfing the ‘gram is the best of both worlds when looking for inspiration, because you can more efficiently cruise beyond the ordinary tourist line of vision and see some lovely photos of the real deal city.
The photo app now allows you to view stories of a location, meaning that you get to see what people are up to daily and can track those places that spark your interest. All you have to do is search for the city or country, and an image will pop up bordered by a pink and orange circle. You’ll often find a story equal parts tourist attraction and local haven.
To make a dent, start out with hashtags like #exploreCITY, #igersCITY, #CITYeats, and #CITYfoodie. City can be replaced with state and country as well. With instagram’s related hashtags feature, you can now skim a number of options closer or similar to what you’re looking for. These are perfect jumping off points for your search, and are used primarily by local instagrammers. A lot of times, you’ll find people who tag photos with other local Instagram pages, as well as the pages for certain restaurants or shops. Makes location-scouting a piece of cake, which you can find hidden gems of EVERYWHERE.
Look at “local” travel bloggers
Unsurprisingly, I often visit The Art of Exploring for Dublin-spiration and new, less-known things to do. I love her blog because she . My family and I followed her advice on visiting Herbert Park to see cherry blossoms in April! They weren’t in bloom yet, but that’s besides the point. Herbert Park itself was a nice spot for us to stroll around, be chased by ducks, and ignore the woes of mid-morning traffic beyond. The founder of World of Wanderlust lived in Berlin for a time, and some of her suggestions for brunches and sightseeing made it into my trip there. Reading the impressions of locals makes me crave those clandestine moments all the more.
Whether it’s blogs, magazines, reimagined travel sites, or even partly-based-on-real-places books you like to read, inspiration can be garnered. A couple of other great places to start are at Electrify and Here, digital travel publications with a fondness for the largely unbeknownst. Many travel writers these days like to share guides to their hometowns, or cities that they’ve spent extended lengths of time in. Check out your favorites and see what suggestions they’ve lent.
Which brings me to my next point…
Spend more than three days anywhere
For weekend trips, two or three days isn’t a big deal. You’ll sample the city’s offerings and still get the escape you were hoping for.
When it comes to extended travel, though, the longer the better. The ideal scenario is a lot of time in fewer places and later anticipating your next trip, rather than a little time in a lot of places and wishing you’d had more time entirely. I understand how hard a policy it can be to mind. Wanting to fit in as much as you can in your allotted time frame sounds perfect, in theory. We need to make the most of things; it’s in our nature.
I will speak more on this in an upcoming post, but booking a handful of flights to be taken in one vacation is exhausting and eats your time like a greedy child. Why waste something so precious on another sight that can be saved for later? And after three days, more golden gates appear and unfold. Without realizing it, those three days have made you aware of what’s behind the scenes, because by then you’ve seen and done a fair amount. There’s room to sit back and dawdle in the presence of a cafe that jumped out to you but that you didn’t make it to sooner. You’ve been given the opportunity to hit that museum you passed a few times on your way elsewhere. The more time you spread out, the more a city makes itself available, and the more you two become one.
Stay just outside main city centers
Most big cities are surrounded by eclectic, under-the-radar neighborhoods that, in some cases, are way cooler than the main attraction. They are vibrant, not oversaturated with tourists, and usually more affordable than staying directly in the city proper. You’ll get a better perspective of what it’s like to live in a given place locally, because local color stems from those areas still mostly untouched by outsiders.
The community is rooted in its space, and there is where you’ll find treasures of shops, restaurants, and activities. And then, for a while, you are weaved into the exposition of this home.
Travel in the off season
The summer months are flooded with travelers, but just pushing your dates back or forward a few months will make a world of difference. From September to April, flights, accommodations, and even attractions are significantly less expensive than they are the rest of the year. Furthermore, you won’t be stuck in a muddle of others going away on holiday.
Do yourself a favor and jet set in the off season. Already, you’ll be seeing the city in a local light.
Follow local time tables
This is specific to international travel. In countries like Spain and Italy, the norm is to eat dinner around 10pm. If you’re like me and eat five meals before 8pm regularly, I know that can be a difficult adjustment. To miss the tourist drift and plunge headfirst into immersion, do a little research on your destination’s customs. There’s more to be gained from a late night bite among natives or longtime expats, and it will probably make evenings far more attractive and memorable.
Take a class
One of my favorite travel activities to date has been taking an apfelstudel cooking class in Salzburg, Austria. It was hands on and the final product was ours to eat and take home for later, but my best friend and I entered the culture more so than we did eating apple strudel on top of a mountain (also a highly-marked experience). We were able to fully see and understand the history of the pastry as we rolled the dough into its log shape.
Cooking classes are only one option. Wine tastings, yoga and exercise classes, ceramics, cheese making, and sports lessons are among many interests out there to try out. Whatever your interests are, do a quick Google search and see what pops up for your destination. It’s one really fulfilling way to walk away gaining some new skill or knowledge about a place.
The pleasure in travel is escaping your norms to explore somebody else’s. Connecting with the genuine source of them is magic.