No matter where in the world you go the best way to experience your destination is to see it as a local does. The food is always better, the hidden finds idyllic, the sites less crowded. But how exactly do you do this? To be completely honest with you, it isn’t always easy however I have delved into my best kept travel tips and written about my top three tips for how you can hopefully have an authentic travel experience and see it like a local.
How to Travel like a Local
1. Ask a Local
It takes some self confidence to strike up a conversation with a stranger but it is well worth it. It is easier to talk to someone if you share something in common and the advice here centres on this approach.
Ask your Neighbours & Host
Some people recommend that you ask a concierge, as a local, to give advice on where to go, but unless you stumble across a fabulous one they will often just list the tourist attractions, and if you aren’t staying in a hotel then you wont have one on hand anyway. I personally wouldn’t travel down this path. I would however recommend booking your accommodation through a service like airbnb where you can often get better recommendations from your host. Better yet, these properties are often in real neighbourhoods and you can be in amongst the locals straight away. Ask your neighbours when you bump into them in the stairwell, walk the surrounding streets and observe where they go. We were able to go to the traditional Yi Peng Festival in Thailand because we were able to talk to the locals and follow them.
Read a Blog & Ask a Friend
Before you even leave home try to find an awesome online blog that can share some local insights, these are people who write for the joy of it and they always offer up some gems. If you have friends that have lived there, been there or know someone who knows the area well talk to them; talk to your best friends sisters ex boyfriends mother. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone who can offer up some insight. Once you do start your trip, chat to the people on the plane, if they are locals they will no doubt have some great places they could recommend. Travellers are passionate people and could talk forever about great experiences they have had.
Eat with the Locals
If you find yourself in a great cafe/bar/restaurant ask the staff there what they would recommend or where they go when they aren’t working. It will often have the same vibe as the venue you are at and will likely be a good fit for you. We have eaten some of the best food of our lives by talking (or mostly gesturing) to the locals when we did find somewhere good, and they would send us on to somewhere else that was even better for our next meal.
Walk with the Locals
Take a local walking tour, whether it is free or paid, the guide is usually good for further recommendations, especially if you can strike up a good rapport with them to begin with. Also make sure you stop them and ask questions if you spot something along the way that looks to be of interest to you.
Follow Your Passion
You can make quick friends with some locals by booking into something you have a passion for – for instance you might be in your local surfing club at home so check out the local surf club at your destination and get friendly with someone who shares the same passion. If you are good at photography try to take some photos of the locals and show them. You will soon be invited to meet the whole family or at least be in for a good chat.
Go to Popular Local Hangouts
Hit popular local spots like playgrounds if you have kids, a corner pub, the newsagent, anywhere you know locals will be. Try picking up a local newspaper, the free ones are often the best (though you may need to skip ahead to tip 3!) and attend some local events. You will bump into plenty of locals here who share the same interests and would be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
2. Don’t Look Like a Tourist
If you can manage to look like a local you will open up opportunities to talk to them; avoid drawing scam artists and pick pockets; have the chance to experience the real essence of the destination. It might be hard when you are visiting a lot of popular tourist sites, but if you do it with confidence you will look less tourist like.
The first step to this is to pack carefully. You want to blend in so you are treated like a local and the best way to do this is to dress like the locals. This usually means leaving the joggers, backpack and fold out map at home. I remember once in Paris I was mistaken for a local and asked directions to somewhere in French, while very flattered that I had blended in well I could offer absolutely no help to them. Dressing like a local not only shows cultural respect, it also helps you to blend in and will give you a more comfortable trip as only a local truly knows how to dress for the local climate.
Follow Local Customs
Find out what the local customs are and follow them. In some countries it is polite to remove your shoes before entering a building, sometimes it is about tipping or how to place an order, other times it is about refraining from public displays of affection or knowing when to be modest and cover up. Do some research before you go to find out what you should and should not be doing. Not only is it polite to follow local customs but if you show them some respect they will be more likely to help you out.
If you have ever noticed tourists in your own town you will notice that they usually make a fast beeline to site X then Y and quickly on to Z. Don’t do this. I encourage you to slow down and wander aimlessly. The best things I have seen in many cities are a result of getting myself purposefully lost. The trick is to wander confidently, not to look lost. Similarly, ditch the travel guide – the whole idea is to avoid the tourist traps. And if you absolutely must take it with you – leave it in your room!
Have Small Currency
Nothing screams tourist more than a money belt and only large currency. Ditch the money belt, it is more obvious than you think, and extremely uncomfortable. Try to have small currency that will be easier to handle and the store holders will be much happier if they don’t have to go looking for enough change for you.
Rent in Residential Suburbs
As I mentioned in the tip above, try and book accommodation in residential areas, so when you step outside each day you are already one of the locals. The transport you can catch from these areas opens up a plethora of opportunities to talk to real locals and to blend in with them. You will also be able to emulate the way locals actually get transport, like how to hail a taxi, catch a songthaew, if it is better to walk, and it is usually more cost effective too.
3. Learn the Language
Whether you are an over planner or a laise-faire traveller, learning the local language is one of the best things you can do to prepare for travel if you want an authentic experience. You don’t need to speak the local language fluently but if you can say a few basic phrases, or better yet read a few signs you will easily be able to find your way to local hot spots.
Do a Quick Course
You don’t have to be fluent, even if you get an app and do it on the fly, or download a quick course to listen to on the flight. Meet up with a local group at home, you can often find these through your library or online. The basics will get you such a long way! With some basic Italian I was able to chat to a couple of people in the Cinque Terre to find a great little free beach and head there with a couple of beers. And these useful Thai Phrases saved us many an embarrassment when ordering local food.
Fumble & Smile
Fumble your way through a conversation with a friendly local, add in a good spattering of smiles and laughs and you will likely be treated as a friend and given some local insights. When you do this, try to be flexible with your plans so you can be open to opportunities and follow the locals around. I distinctly remember being lost in the French countryside because our GPS didn’t recognise the small country roads and we ended up stopping in a small town where no one spoke English. Thankfully my husband was able to fumble through with some French and get us back on the road again.
Try to Read the Language
I have even been able to pay local fees for entrances on several occasions (the zoo in Thailand and parking in France come to mind directly) because I could read some basic phrases which essentially said that tourists paid more. And if you can read some signage you will be able to understand prices and navigate around your destination much easier without looking like a tourist.
Create a Bond
When you can speak the language you get more meaningful interactions with the local people, you can absorb more of the culture, gain some of the locals respect for trying, and you will get better bargains at the markets if you can haggle in their own language. Besides it is a lot of fun blundering your way through and having at laugh at yourself. I tried to speak Khoisan in Southern Africa with all of the clicks to much hilarity from the locals – but I tried. Get the kids involved too, when we were in Sapa our daughter drew the locals attention and learned a few words from them. If you haven’t learned the language, try asking a local, ‘how do you say …’ then laugh together as you try to wrap your tongue around the pronunciation. This is always such a great conversation starter.
So next time you plan a trip, try to travel like a local by following some of my best kept travel tips and you will have one of the best holidays you have ever had and a lot of memorable moments that will make it that much more special. Then hopefully you can pass on your local advice to someone else.
Do you have a ‘locals’ travel experience to share?
Do you stay in amongst the locals?