11 expert tips to discover a country like a local
For many of us, traveling isn’t just about seeing a place. It’s about the physical experience of being there. Put yourself in your shoes and understand what it’s like to live or grow there. When we try to move to a place like a local, we broaden our horizons and open our minds to other ways of life.
But you have to make a conscious effort to avoid the crowds and explore a place as if you are not a tourist. There are things you need to do before your trip, as well as when you are in the field, so be prepared. After all, many find planning an exciting part of the adventure.
So if you normally rush from monument, museum, and park to park, why not challenge yourself to leave your watch and schedule behind and keep reading.
Before you leave
1. Learn the language
You don’t need to be fluent in the local language, but a few everyday words are enough. “Hello” and “thank you” are always helpful, and “toilet” can certainly be helpful. There are many free and paid apps that can help you, such as Hubbub, Duolingo, Where Memrise.
Having a few basics will not only help you get around, it will also make it much easier to break the ice with the locals. Most people like to know that a stranger has made the effort. You might feel silly trying new words or phrases, but traveling is leaving your comfort zone.
You can also take language holidays if you plan to stay somewhere for a while. Then you can use your new skills and use them in shops and markets and immerse yourself in the local culture. ‘Not in the Guide’ also offers language stays in France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
2. Fly to a regional airport
Start your journey the way you want it by landing in a city that is not the capital.
Small town airports are often less stressful and less expensive, while still giving you the opportunity to explore places you might not have thought of visiting. Consider departing from another city to expand your route.
3. Avoid hostels
Hostels are very attractive if you are on a budget, but other than the local staff they tend to be full of other foreign travelers. They don’t give you a lot of opportunities to experience a place and its culture. Instead, organize self-catering or local accommodation. They might be more expensive, but you’ll come home with a lot more trivia and memories than a regular hostel can offer. When looking for accommodation, look for neighborhoods where people live on a daily basis and choose one of those nearby neighborhoods. It will also help keep costs down as they are likely to be outside of the city center.
4. Stay with a local family
Host families are another great option. Staying with a local family is a great way to meet people and find out how they live. You will be able to eat local food, experience this country’s most popular sitcoms and it’s the perfect way to improve your language skills. AirBnB, Couchsurfing.com, or Homestay.com often have hosts willing to meet their guests.
5. Ditch the bus tour and use local guides
Local guides can show you how the locals live, eat, socialize, and what is special to them. They are always full of fascinating anecdotes and ideas for which the big bus tours will not have time. Book a trip with “Not in the guide”.
They offer immersive trips off the beaten path with guides who know their destination intimately and can show you how to dodge the crowds and see a side that many miss. They can also give valuable advice on how to stay safe and possibly areas to avoid.
During your trip
6. take a free walking tour
One of the best things to do when arriving in a new city is to look for free walking tours. It’s a great way to find your way around a new place. They will often make stops at attractions or popular neighborhoods, allowing you to decide if they are worth returning on another day.
Guides are always locals who often grew up in the city or town, so they’re full of local stories and gossip that you won’t find in any guidebook. They also have extensive knowledge of transportation, what you should pay for food and souvenirs, and they are happy to introduce you to the best and worst local restaurants.
Walking tours typically last two or three hours, and you usually only need to book through their website a day or two in advance. There is no charge, but it is customary to tip your guide at the end.
7. Really get lost
Rather than eating in a place recommended by the guide, give it up and get lost in a place and see what you stumble upon.
Choose a restaurant away from tourist areas or near famous attractions. Look for places with authentic local cuisine that doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket, then ask the bar and waiters for advice. You’ll get a much more local experience and come home with a list of dishes to make in your kitchen.
8. Dinner with a local
Social catering applications like Good Appertour allow you to book a meal sharing experience hosted by a local. They could also give you practical advice on where to go.
9. Search the markets and streets
Local markets, not those geared towards tourists, are the best place to really see the locals at their best. Shouting, bartering and joking will tell you a lot about a nationality, let alone teach you a “colorful” language.
Try to buy local foods that are grown in the country. Not only is this a greener way to eat, but you’ll experience the local version of familiar foods or a coke that doesn’t taste like coke.
Don’t be afraid of street food, either. If you see queues of locals lining up for a street cart, it’s a good sign that the food is popular, hygienic, and tasty.
10. Using public transport
Whether by bike, scooter, rickshaw or metro, using public transport is a great window into a new culture. Even if you don’t understand the local language, you’ll see familiar images, like people on the bus getting mad at the boy playing video games or the crying child. A local metro card is also a good way to get around town and cheaper than hiring a car or taking a taxi.
11. Watch the world go by
Enjoy a cappuccino at a local cafe, sit back and admire the people watching. You might end up spotting people heading to the best places to visit or eat. Try to start conversations and you might come away with some helpful advice and maybe some new friends to keep in touch with. If you can, read the local newspapers to find out what’s going on locally or nationally and get ideas for events to attend.
What do you do when traveling for a local experience? Share your tips with us on Instagram.