The more I travel the less of a tourist I’m becoming. I’ve been traveling for the last six months around the world without a single guidebook. This Spring I went hiking in the woods for four days without a map. I haven’t made a bucket list of top attractions and I could care less about tourist destinations. What I’m really looking for are the nooks and crannies, the hidden gems found in narrow alleyways; a window into the way people think, feel, and live.
Venice, Italy 2011
Seville, Spain 2013
People make places come alive and that’s the experience I’m really after. I’ve made some mistakes along the way and fallen into some tourist traps myself, but I’ve developed a few strategies for seeking an authentic experience and they never seem to fail. To really travel like a local, try to do the following:
As a white girl hailing from the Midwest, my dance moves are limited to awkward shoulder wiggling and feet shuffling. If I’m feeling really crazy, I might do some roof raising within the safe confines of my car when Jay-Z comes on the radio (Yeah, I’m that girl).
Dance isn’t part of my DNA, but it’s an extremely important part of most cultures around the world. Dancing is integrated into rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, and leisure. Participating in or observing traditional dances can provide a window into the beliefs of a culture and the way those values and beliefs are preserved. You don’t have to know how to salsa or move your hips to the beat of a djembe to experience the joy of dance. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to join or watch, pull out your best white girl moves and be prepared to laugh! Dancing with school kids in Zambia and watching the whirling dervish in Turkey have been some of my favorite travel experiences (not to mention seeing Flamenco dancers in Spain)!
2) Take public transportation
In all of my travels during the last six months I’ve taken a taxi only a handful of times. Not only is public transportation easier on your pocketbook, it gives you an opportunity to bump elbows with locals and enjoy the scenery. In Mexico you might even get serenaded by a mariachi during your bus ride. In Ecuador you’ll have the chance to buy snacks, hot food, and random items from hustlers. In France, try car sharing to save money on train tickets. You might even strike up an interesting conversation with the person sitting next to you to pass the time. If you want to travel like a local, hop on the bus, metro, and train. You’ll be glad you did.
Sometimes taking public transportation means riding a donkey!
Santorini, Greece 2011
3) Get lost
I am the most directionally challenged person I know, so for me this is no problem. Sometimes I find myself even more lost and confused when I have a map with me! If you’re limited on time and have an agenda, try to hit the main things you want to see in the morning and reserve the afternoon and evening for wandering. Getting lost is humbling and exciting. It awakens your senses and heightens your observations. It also forces you to ask for directions, another great excuse to interact with locals who may give you tips and advice you wouldn’t find in a guidebook.
Marrakech, Morocco 2013
4) Eat street food
I know, I know. Everyone always warns you not to do this, but c’mon! How are we ever going to build a healthy immune system for our weak North American constitutions if we don’t start somewhere? Street food is cheap, delicious, and usually a pretty good indicator of the kind of food people are eating at home. Shop from the outdoor fruit markets and look for vendors with delicious smells and long lines emitting from their stands.
5) Stay with locals
The best way to travel like a local is to live with them. Forget hostels and hotels which isolate you from your environment and give you a false sense of place. Seek out programs like Workaway and Couch Surfing which foster cultural exchange and promote hospitality. I’ve traveled the world this way and have always been warmly welcomed and treated as family or a dear friend. As a bonus, most of the people who participate in these programs speak very good English which can be an immense help, especially if they are willing to be your tour guide!
My French family from Pamiers. I stayed with them for two weeks!
There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist and seeking top destination places. Many of the cities and countries I’ve traveled to are world renowned for tourism. But just because you’re in a touristy spot doesn’t mean you have to be a tourist. The best advice I can give is to travel with an openness to your surroundings. Watch, listen, and travel slowly. If you’re only focused on the touristic sights and getting the best posed photos to show off to your friends, you’ll be missing out on the best gift traveling has to offer. The ability to leave a place changed and to return home a different person than the one who left. As Miriam Beard says, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Journeys are about growing, stretching, interacting, and letting a place leave its imprint on you. Hopefully, you will have left an imprint as well. Travel like a local and you’ll go home with a fuller awareness and understanding of the world around you and the beautiful people living in it.
What tips do you have for traveling like a local? Do you agree or disagree that it’s the best way to travel? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!