There’s a lot of talk about traveling off the beaten track, but how do you get to places that are often only frequented by locals? I’m not just talking about remote destinations, but also places in the most touristy destinations, like Paris, London or New York. The issue extends even to destinations within our own country. There’s more to it than museums, monuments or the so-called “POI – points of interest”: there are, for example, the trendy restaurants and cafés, those small, secluded concert halls, the local grocery store. Not forgetting the tourist circuits which, of course, can be very interesting, but are sometimes so crowded, or so “manufactured”, that we lose the sense of local culture.
So how can we visit a destination and really get to know its customs, life and culture? These are my eight tips for exploring the sites like a true native!
SEARCH AND COMPARE OFFERS
The work always starts at home, and before you leave: research your destination, what awaits you, where you’re going, what the cultural habits are. You’ll find more and more information on the top places to visit in each destination, and this is an excellent way to start exploring a city. You’ll get a sense of the most popular/visited places, and probably the things you’d like to see but aren’t finding yet…
If you’re planning a trip, research the same destination in different agencies. Price doesn’t always dictate everything, make sure they have a complete itinerary that gives you the full experience, rather than spending the whole day stuck in traffic, or closed off from the group and with few opportunities for truly local experiences.
Bloggers or influencers can give you some ideas of places to explore. First, you can try to figure out if their work / text has been paid for, as in such cases the content “may” not be genuine.
The advantage here is that you can identify with the person writing the article: there are explorer bloggers, urban bloggers, artistic bloggers, chic bloggers, feminist bloggers, sports bloggers, you name it! Because you identify with the authors, you can eventually identify with the articles too, and that in itself is a good starting point. Then take a look at all these points below!
As a general rule, the “pearls” are just around the corner: all you have to do is leave the tourist street or take an alternative route. If you have time, drive around for a few hours without a map, just follow your instinct, your gaze and your sense of smell. Use your sense of direction to get from A to B without a map. This is often how I discovered great cafés, stores, small cultural niches, where I inevitably also ended up meeting incredible people who opened up new opportunities for me. I went to unimaginable places, went into locals’ houses for tea and private karaoke parties, learned the language and the customs. There are things that guidebooks, maps and manuals don’t explain, and there are other things that are constantly changing, and by the time you read the guide, they’re already out of date. And of course, there are people you only meet by pure chance. Sometimes we lose ourselves in order to find ourselves!
Not only does it help you save money on travel, but it’s the ultimate way to experience local routines first-hand. The same applies to Airbnb’s and the like, except that they will be preparing a space for the tourist, with as many comforts as possible, since they are paying, so they can end up becoming places like a boutique hotel. But couchsurfing is usually pure and raw. You’ll have the “privilege” of rummaging through the fridge, catching the local bus, discovering the best tavern in the neighborhood, and even understanding the dynamics of the neighborhood. Most likely, your host will give you invaluable tips, from that café that has the most amazing cakes, to the best vegetable market, and other tips that you’ll never find in any guide or blog.
If traveling alone isn’t really your thing, join a group trip, but do your research on the agency and the itineraries they take you on. If you’re going in groups of 20 people or more, with local guides who welcome you with a flag, give you a wristband to recognize you in accommodation and restaurants, wear identical t-shirts or give you folders with vouchers on arrival, I’m sorry: you’re in the wrong group! Join groups that travel in small numbers, have personalized itineraries, with free time so you can also customize the trip to your liking, and that have an experienced travel leader in the destinations, who speaks your language and knows both cultures.
QUESTION TO NEIGHBORS
That’s it, ask the neighbors, any neighbor! The neighbor in the room, the neighbor in the house, the neighbor in the store, the neighbor in the café. Imagine you want to see the sunset: ask everyone you interact with today where the best sunset in the city is. You’ll probably get several answers, but you can always analyze and see which one best suits your taste. Sometimes you can also ask for directions, as if you were lost. The habit of asking around is increasingly lost with the ease and amount of information we have access to online, but the old way of communicating is still the most effective way of discovering local secrets.
Try to find routes by taking local buses instead of cabs or private drivers. As well as being a more environmentally friendly gesture, you can see what’s on the route, learn the names of the stops and see which areas are busier than others. If you’re lucky, you’ll ask someone on the bus about a nearby café or restaurant, and if you’re really lucky, someone will guide you to that special place. Not to mention that you’ll save around 90% on the price of the trip compared to a cab!
The perfect excuse to get to know a place is through its palates! Don’t go to restaurants full of tourists, look for restaurants full of locals instead. Get away from the food you have at home and enjoy the local flavors. Look for the markets and cafés, guide yourself by smell, ask your accommodation, your driver.
Contrary to what you might be told at the Traveler’s Consultation, try and abuse street food – pay attention to its preparation, but don’t be extreme. It’s usually in these little street carts that you’ll find the most authentic flavors! Unleash the Anthony Bourdain in you and let yourself be carried away by the traditional flavors of each culture. As he himself said: “If I’m an advocate of anything, it’s moving. As far as they can, as much as they can. Cross an ocean, or simply a river. You can even walk in someone else’s shoes, or at the very least, eat their food: it’s a win-win!“