More of us want authentic experiences when traveling. Often this is summed up as “living like a local”. But what does this involve? Is it shopping at a local farmer’s market? Deliberately thumbing your nose at the most popular tourist destinations? Taking a walking tour? Sometimes these things make a difference, but doing them might still not bring you a truly authentic encounter with the local. The five tips that follow will enrich your holiday and show you aspects of cities that average tourists miss.
1. Book your accommodation in a more residential location, near transit.
It might take an extra 20 minutes to reach the sights (and you will want to see at least a few typical tourist destinations). But by staying in a neighbourhood you may save money, and definitely will experience more of the local daily rhythms of life. These encounters can be very pleasant- especially when you’re not the one commuting to work. For example, in Rome, the bars and cafés set up to handle a local client base, while less chatty, are often more relaxed, more competitively priced, and even atmospheric. To choose an interesting neighbourhood, do your homework. Search the web for up and coming neighbourhoods in that city, and read at least five different postings discussing the most interesting neighbourhoods before making your decision. A hint: areas where university students live can make great choices in Summer. And peruse a transit map before making your final choice, to ensure that your accommodation is on a good route. Subways are particularly easy for travelers to navigate, even lacking local language skills, with routes visually displayed in each station.
2. On at least one day, navigate to a specific destination in another inner suburb (choose a different part of town from the neighbourhood where you are staying), and enjoy the journey.
Choose a key destination filled with locals –a library, a park, a theatre, restaurant, or even a used clothing store (London is great for these). Often the journey there will reveal quaint homes with lovingly tended gardens, parents pushing strollers or leading their kids to school, and interesting posters. I will never forget one shop-keeper’s sign in Rome using a photo of Osama bin Laden and cut-out letters (of the sort kidnappers in bad ‘70s and ‘80s movies used to write ransom notes) to warn of dire consequences to those who dared park illegally in front of his store.
Try also finding a place linked with one of your hobbies. As a quilting enthusiast, find a local quilting supply store. Model train shops will also lead you off the tourist track. A few years ago, my interest in city planning prompted a visit to Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighbourhood. Its claim to urbanist fame? Combining eco-friendly redevelopment with affordable multi-age housing –while still accommodating the red-light district and sex trade workers that have been there for decades. Some of the retail window displays were in keeping with the red light theme when we visited – and just half a block away from a beautiful, safe park with people from all walks of life strolling in the sun.
If the town you’re visiting has a subway or light rail, consider buying a day pass and riding for an entire line. Then get off at each stop and photograph at least one interesting thing within a 500m or half-mile radius of each transit station. Keri Smith’s The Wander Society recommends focused ramblings where you concentrate on finding items of a particular shape or colour on a given day. This jars you out of familiar thinking, while still giving purpose to your stroll. You may even take more innovative photos than usual. Often random discoveries (from rambling with a method) yield the most memorable landscapes and episodes of your trip.
3. Pick a local coffee shop, and have your morning coffee there every day (or at least most days) of your trip
A regular hangout builds connection with a neighbourhood (the relaxed vibe will show too); and soon the staff will also recognize your face and treat you more like a local, or at least an ex-pat. You may even meet and have conversations with regulars after they have gotten used to seeing you there for a few days.
4. Learn more about the things that locals care about today.
If it’s an English-speaking city, read the local newspaper- during, and even before your trip. (Also read blogs / online media.) You’ll learn more about the debates and projects impacting daily life. Is a new development proposal getting citizens up in arms? Could a new regulation put a particular retailer at risk? Has a local philanthropist donated a new park? These things give you a better feel for local life on your holiday –the events, and, perhaps more importantly, how they are interpreted by the locals. You will gain more insights than the average tourist and have things to talk about with the locals you encounter. This is not to suggest that you take a polarizing stance in these conversations. But it’s a great jumping off point to ask people (in that local coffee shop you’ll be frequenting) for their views on the items you’ve read about.
What if the city isn’t English-speaking? If you have access to another language besides English, this is less of a problem. But even if you are a unilingual Anglo heading to a city in Eastern Europe or Mexico, sometimes the city you’re heading to may have at least one major publication written in English, or some great local commentators who write in English for the Internet. I was pleasantly surprised when researching the Czech Republic, to find an array of great resources.
Finally, although it should be obvious, Tip #5 is one that cannot be stressed enough.
5. If you’re planning on visiting a place where you don’t know the language, learn at least four, and ideally eight, words in that language.
Before visiting Prague, I was nervous about my complete ignorance of the Czech language. Fortunately, my husband and I stumbled on a wonderful little app for our smart phones called Nemo Czech that helps English speakers learn a few basics, flash-card style. (Of course, lower tech versions are also available in the form of books.) We learned to say “hello”, “good-bye”, “thank-you”, “please”, “excuse me”, “yes”, “no”, and “delicious!” to people in Czech. And people would beam when they heard us try. It may be a cliché that people like it when you make the effort to speak their language- still, clichés exist for a reason. I think of it as basic respect. One may not always be able to converse effectively in a local language, but by learning (and using) at least a few words, as travelers we send the message to the people we encounter that we honour their culture and community. And even a small vocabulary will help you relax and feel more at home in the city.
These are just a few of the tips that might help you to have a more authentic experience in your next holiday destination. For more thoughts on how to deepen your travel experiences, my next posting discusses five books, each about a major world city, that shed fascinating light on these destinations.