This is a guest post from Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.
There are many styles of traveling. Some people prefer to stick to the familiar, to take the stress out of being somewhere foreign.
You will never catch me eating at McDonald’s in another country (well, you wouldn’t catch me eating at one in the U.S. either!). I veer away from Starbucks. I don’t need to find an English speaker everywhere I go.
My motto is: travel like a local.
What it Means to Travel Like a Local
For me, this means staying just outside of my comfort zone. I move away from what I know and embrace what I don’t. The result is that I have fantastic memories, meet interesting people, and eat delicious food.
It took me a while to really let go of my fear of the unknown to travel like this, so cut yourself some slack if you can’t dive in completely on your next trip trying to travel like a local!
Tip 1: Walk 3 Blocks Away from the Tourist Area
Tourist areas are like magnets. Once you reach them, they are hard to leave. Let’s say you visit the Eiffel Tower and decide to eat nearby. Only, the food turns out to be terrible in that particular neighborhood. That’s because restaurants that cater to tourists don’t have to be good! Every day, hundreds of people will eat at a given restaurant and never return again, so there’s no standard for quality.
However, if you walk just a few blocks outside of the tourist zone, you end up in neighborhoods that locals frequent. There is where you’ll find great food and even cheaper prices.
Tip 2: Stay in a Bed & Breakfast
When you stay at a chain hotel, you don’t get the personal service that you get at a bed & breakfast. One hundred percent of the time that I’ve stayed in a B&B, the hosts have been exceedingly helpful in suggesting what to see and do, as well as where to eat. They may be able to tell you the best time to see a popular attraction to avoid lines, or about a special meal that their favorite restaurant is offering this weekend only.
Be friendly and open with your host and they’ll bend over backward to ensure you have a fabulous time in their city!
Tip 3: Shift Your Thinking about What’s Worth Seeing
Here’s a secret I don’t tell many people: I’m not that keen on going to museums when I travel overseas.
When I was in my 20s and visited Europe for the first time, I visited every writer’s house in England. Every grand museum on every “must see” list. But you know what? I was left not satisfied and very tired.
So I threw my expectations out of the window. I just walked around cities, and when I saw something interesting, I stopped. That might be a store with cool clothes or a street fair I wandered into. I might overhear someone talking about a music festival.
Instead of checking sights off of someone else’s list, ask yourself what do you really care about. These days, I’m really into wandering around old churches and parks. Both are free and don’t require an agenda. From there, I see what else I can stumble onto in the area.
Tip 4: Take a Walking Tour
I used to be so down on tours, thinking they were for tourists, but when I booked a walking tour in Genoa, I changed my tune. A wonderful woman showed us around her neighborhood — not the tourist attractions — and that made the experience memorable. She greeted her local butcher and several store owners, and I felt like I was a part of her world, not a tourist.
It’s also a great start for your first day in a city; get an overview of the city and decide what you want to come back to check out on your own later. You can also get great recommendations from your guide.
Tip 5: Smile and Make Friends
I’ve found that no matter where I go, people are friendly when I am, too. Once they hear that I’m American, they’re quick to want to help. One time in Provence, my family visited a local restaurant. While the proprietor was a bit grumpy at the start of our meal, we warmed her up by talking to her throughout our meal. By the end of the meal, she was over-accommodating and told us that if we needed anything — anything at all — to just ask.
If you’re at a restaurant, chat up the server. If you’re sitting on a park bench, smile and ask a question to the person sitting next to you. You never know where that interaction may lead!
Trying to travel like a local will change your impression of a place and give you a different experience on your next trip.