How to Experience a Destination Like a Local: 8 Tips for Authentic Travel
Traveling to a new place can be an exciting and enriching experience, but it’s easy to fall into tourist traps and miss out on the essence of the culture, people, and places. With all the resources at our disposal today, it’s never been easier to plan a vacation, but the downside of this convenience is that we can miss the real essence of a place. To experience another culture, we need to see, smell, and taste it like a local. If we stand in a never-ending line just because guidebooks say it’s a “must-see” attraction, we will never truly experience the authenticity of a place. Here are eight tips to help you truly get a feel for the place you’re visiting.
1. Skip the hotel.
Instead of staying in a generic hotel room in a touristy area, find a rental in an area that’s representative of the local culture. You can find a home or apartment for rent on VRBO.com or you can try staying with locals through Couchsurfing.com. By staying in a real home in a real neighborhood, you’ll get a more authentic experience, plus you’ll have access to amenities like a kitchen where you can prepare food you’ve picked up at the local market.
2. Eat like a local.
If you want to really get a taste of the local flavor, you’ll need to stay out of the restaurants recommended in the travel guide. Instead of hitting those overrated tourist hotspots, ask locals, cab drivers or people on the street what they recommend. Find out what signature dish(es) the city or country is known for, and don’t be afraid to try something you wouldn’t normally eat.
3. Do some people watching.
Pack your itinerary with too many activities and you’ll end up feeling exhausted and empty. Instead of rushing frantically from one attraction to another, find a cozy park bench or sidewalk cafe and just soak in your surroundings. You’ll pick up a lot about the people, their habits, and the general pulse of the culture.
4. Strike up a conversation.
While you’re dining at a local establishment or people-watching in a shady plaza, don’t be afraid to chat up other diners or passersby. It’s a great way to get firsthand knowledge about the area, as well as recommendations for restaurants and other lesser-known attractions.
5. Go exploring with a local.
Not to knock all the professional guided tours, but the best way to see the sites in an area is with a local. Instead of taking the crowded tram to the top of the volcano, grab a backpack and hike it with someone who’s done it a dozen times. Rather than boarding an organized charter, see if a local fisherman will let you tag along on the day’s voyage. If you’re lucky, he might ask you to stay for dinner and grill up some of the fresh catch.
6. Get lost.
Fold up the map and just explore aimlessly. You never know what you might find. Sometimes there are much more interesting things to see just a few steps off the marked path.
7. Pursue your interests.
Vacations are not just a great time to experience new things, but they’re also the perfect opportunity to do some of your favorite things in a new context. Say you’ve always wanted to try Latin dancing. Sign up for a class at a local studio. Love going to yoga when you’re at home? Try a class that meets at sunrise on the beach.
8. Give back.
Volunteering can be incredibly rewarding. By helping out with a building project at a local school, aiding with relief efforts after a disaster, or just taking food and supplies to a local shelter, you can truly identify with the local population and their struggles. Not only can you make a difference, but you can also help bridge the gap between cultures.
In conclusion, to really experience a destination, we need to see, smell, and taste it like a local. Instead of booking an all-inclusive travel bundle, we should try a trip that’s a little more a la carte. Avoid tourist traps, and opt for authentic experiences that will give you a mental scrapbook of memories that will last a lifetime. By staying with locals, eating like a local, doing some people watching, striking up a conversation, exploring with a local, getting lost, pursuing your interests and giving back, you’ll have a truly authentic travel experience.