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How Do You Travel Like a Local?
Travel like a local: it’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean?
Better yet, how do you even do it?
For me, traveling like a local isn’t about snubbing famous landmarks and getting up on your high horse because you’re a REAL TRAVELER, not a TOURIST like the rest. There’s a word for people who think like that, and it rhymes with moosh-bag.
Rather, it’s about taking some time on your trip to connect with locals in your destination, find some cool spots that suit you, and get to know the place you’re in on a deeper level, whether it means getting closer to a country’s language, cuisine, culture, way of life, or anything else that interests you.
If you’re on board with my philosophy and really want to travel like that, what’s the next step?
Well, today is your lucky day, because I took a break from
procrastinating planning my next trip to write down 101 ways to travel like a local!
Now, the following tips might seem like they entail a lot of work, but this isn’t meant as a checklist – you don’t actually have to do all these 101 things every time you travel. I’m not your teacher and this isn’t homework.
Instead, use the list as a starting point to give you some ideas about what to do, or just skip to the section that interests you – only care about local food? Skip right ahead to “Eat Like a Local”! No, really. It’s not like I put hours of work into this and kept banging my head against a wall for days to get it just right. Just skip it all. It’s fine. I’m fine.
Anyway, dear readers, use this list as an inspiration, and as a pretty kickass list (if I do say so myself) of resources, apps, websites, and hacks to travel like a local. Then just let your impulses take you wherever!
General Rules for Traveling Like a Local
- Remember: Traveling like a local doesn’t mean pretending you’re local! This can get really aggravating really fast to those around you, and there’s no realistic way for you to do it unless you spend a year or more in your destination. These tips are about seeing a different side of your destination and connecting with people.
- Don’t pack too much into your itinerary. If you’re running around between pre-planned activities and attractions all day, you won’t be able to take your time, explore neighborhoods, and find some truly great local places.
- Be willing to change your plans. If you’re in the middle of a tasty meal with three people you just met, but you had planned a visit to a temple in twenty minutes, it’s OK to decide you’d rather stay and talk.
- Lose the Map! For real though. There’s a reason that’s the name of my blog. Forget about getting to a destination and just experience and enjoy everything along whatever route you happen to follow. Sometimes the best experiences and places are found wandering down a random street.
- This is hard for a photography nerd like me to say, but designate a camera-less day or half-day. Your camera can help open doors (I’ll get into that later) but without it you will be able to absorb so much more of what’s happening around you.
- Be confident. Most people don’t connect with others on the road or try new places not because of language barriers, but because of shyness.
- On the flip side, accept that not everyone will want to talk to you. Use basic social awareness to get a sense of who may be up for a conversation and who may not be.
- Travel like a local doesn’t mean skip out on museums or attractions altogether. Definitely visit museums and attractions that look interesting as they give you a better sense of the area’s culture, art, or history.
- If you do want to take a tour, try to use locally-owned and operated services, so you can get an inside look and also make sure your money doesn’t go right back out of the country. I had one of my best learning experiences that way, with Greeking.me in Athens.
- Pick places that you personally find interesting, rather than strictly following the guidebook. Hang out at places you would gladly visit if they opened up in your hometown.
- Accept that you are, no matter what, still a tourist. Again, this can’t get emphasized enough. Don’t. Be. Obnoxious.
Pre-Trip Research for Local Travel
- Look up what neighborhoods are good and safe for aimless wandering. Then go forth and aimlessly wander in them one fine afternoon.
- Use Eventful to look up events and festivals happening in your destination. Whether it’s an underground rock concert or beer festival, you’re sure to bump into plenty of local people in a good mood on a day out.
- Get an idea of basic customs and no-no’s before going, so you don’t risk accidentally offending your new friends. The Ultimate Guide to Worldwide Etiquette is a good starting point, though it doesn’t cover all countries.
- ALWAYS be up on tipping etiquette. You don’t want to embarrass yourself and, more importantly, leave a waiter in the lurch. (Ex: US waiters will hate you for anything less than 15-20%, while Japanese waiters will get quite offended if you leave a tip at all). Get more info on my tipping post.
- Research what the low season is at your destination, and try to travel during those times. Not only will it be easier to travel like a local, but you will also probably have a cheaper trip.
- Look up the weather in your destination and be aware that some areas experience huge temperature fluctuations during the day. This should be common sense, but I’ve seen plenty of people completely unprepared for a destination’s climate.
- Get a good idea of the local dress code. You don’t want to get weird looks for your too-casual, too-formal, or too-revealing attire. This Remarkable Travels blog post is a good start.
- The “Currency” app will help you wrap your head around the exchange rate, so prices in your destination don’t catch you by surprise and leave you rifling through your bag at any and all checkout lines. Keeping people with ten pounds of groceries in their hands waiting? NOT a great way to make new friends.
Use Social Media to Travel Like a Local
- Browse a couple of the destination’s social media accounts on FB or Twitter, but NOT their tourism accounts. For example, for my hometown of LA I follow @hiddenLA and @LAist, and they usually unearth and share some great events in the area.
- Go to your current neighborhood on Instagram when traveling, and browse what people have posted in that area. See a picture of a really great dish or cool-looking coffee shop? Check it out.
- Use Trippy.com to ask questions that aren’t really researchable. You can ask anything from “Favorite neighborhoods to get lost in Tokyo?” to “Best coffee in Cape Town?”, and have a local or someone who knows the destination well answer you.
- If you want the same kind of function on the go, try the AskNative app.
- Put up your next destination on FB, and ask your friends if they know anyone living there. You’ll be surprised at the number of places in this world in which you can connect with the cousin of a friend of a friend.
- Many travelers have told me they live by Foursquare to find great places on the road. I will definitely be trying it out on my next trip.
Where to Stay
- Look up the general reputation of neighborhoods in your destination, and try to stay in or near the neighborhood that you would choose to live in, rather than the most tourist-heavy place. You like your alternative, hipster spots? Crazy nightlife? Quiet, family-friendly neighborhoods? Book your accommodation there.
- Use Airbnb to stay in a house or apartment and feel like part of the neighborhood. Use my link to get $35 in travel credit when you sign up!
- Couchsurfing gets you free accommodation, as long as you don’t mind crashing at someone’s house.
- For long trips, Workaway will help you find a temporary job in your destination in addition to housing you. Employers usually look for people with language, creative, or craftsman skills that can help them out with a project, in exchange for free room and board and perhaps a stipend.
- HomeExchange lets you trade places with a local for a week, a month, or more.
- If you’re on a long-term trip, find accommodation AFTER your arrival. Hear me out, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Rent a cheap hotel for the first couple of nights, and spend some time looking at classifieds and telling everyone you bump into/know you’re looking for an apartment. Chances are, something better and cheaper than you would have found abroad will turn up.
Explore Like a Local
- Use Matador Network’s TravelStoke app to really travel like a local, by finding cool spots other travelers and locals have recommended, or connecting with someone in your destination.
- Flip through a local magazine or weekly. Try to find some new trendy bar, restaurant, or neighborhood the local publication is talking about (even when you’re not reading English, you can usually pick out a name and picture). Go there.
- Ask the following people what local places they recommend: bartender, cab driver, waiter.
- Use the Spotted by Locals app to check out locally recommended spots in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.
- Go on a date. I’m not even kidding, IF you find someone you’re interested in and want to go on a few dates with, it’s one of the best ways to get to know a place when you’re running around discovering cool date spots. (If you’re not single and decide to do this, I refuse to take responsibility for the slap you’re about to get.)
- Vayable connects you with “local insiders” that guide you through cool experiences in their city.
- Reference Atlas Obscura to discover a REALLY quirky spot in your next destination.
- You’ll be surprised by how close off-the-beaten-path places are to main tourist centers, as I found out in places like Shibuya, Tokyo. Try walking just a couple of blocks over from a main tourist road, and a lot of the time, you’ll find yourself in a completely different kind of environment.
- If you want to go on a guided tour, try Context Travel. They have small walking tours lead by very knowledgeable local guides who give you some context – hence the name – to everything you’re seeing.
Eat Like a Local
- When deciding on restaurants, try to find one that doesn’t have a menu in English (if you are in a non-English speaking country, of course). Then be adventurous and ask the waiter what he recommends.
- When picking restaurants or bars, look at the crowd; avoid places that seem to be filled with other tourists and expats.
- If you want to find a great restaurant ahead of time, Google “destination + food blog”. Local food bloggers are probably the most in the know people when it comes to dining, so pick out a couple of restaurant names they mention and try them out.
- Also, it should go without saying, avoid restaurants right next to big tourist attractions. They are usually overpriced, overworked, with mediocre food at best.
- Always eat at least one dish you’ve never heard of before.
- Maybe you’re feeling a little less adventurous today? The Foodict Gourmet Food Dictionary app tells you what almost every international food term means, and what ingredients it includes, so you know what you’re ordering.
- Your stomach can handle more street food than you think. 9 times out of 10, it will be surprisingly delicious.
- Go to the grocery store/local market and shop for a home cooked meal at least once. If you want to get a quick glimpse at peoples’ daily routines and the country’s cuisine, there’s really no better way.
- If you want to find local dishes you absolutely must try, check out EatYourWorld.com.
Speak Like a Local
- Use italki.com to learn a bit of the local language BEFORE leaving, and ask your local language buddy what places he or she recommends before going.
- When you get to your destination, use language exchange program Meet2Talk to meet someone local. You will have to help your new friend learn your native language as well.
- Apps like Memrise and websites like Duolingo help you keep up basic language skills while you’re on the road.
- If you can’t get too in depth in a language, learn a couple of simple phrases, and a few sentences you would normally say when describing yourself (I am from…, I work at…, I like (insert hobby)). Even a horribly mangled attempt to speak the local language will get you far with most people.
- If you want to memorize/practice phrases, the index card learning app Anki can really help you.
- Keep an eye out for how formal or casual people seem when interacting, as well as the general personal space everyone seems to keep. Try to reflect this style in your own interactions so people feel more comfortable with you.
- Always have Google Translate handy in a conversation if you really can’t get a point across, or can’t understand something that was said. It may provide an awkward, terrible translation, but you’ll get the picture.
- Accept that you’re going to pronounce things wrong and sound foreign. It’s OK. I have yet to encounter a city where people didn’t appreciate the effort.
Connect With Local People
- Join a Meetup group while you’re abroad, and you’ll get to meet locals with similar interests (Photography? App development? Pokemon? Sure! Why not?)
- Use Tinder, Bumble, or whatever else there is to connect with someone (public place, be safe).
- Use the WithLocals app to connect with people and dine in their home, or learn another interesting local custom.
- Head to a low-key pub or bar and grab a drink. People are usually much more open to talking in these situations aka with beer.
- Still having trouble getting the courage to talk to people? Challenge yourself to find the next place you want to go to without your guidebook, cell phone or map. You have to find a good place and directions to it relying ONLY on the people around you.
- It’s been mentioned before, but did you know Couchsurfing will also connect you with locals with no couchsurfing actually required? If you’re uncomfortable crashing at someone’s house, use Couchsurfing profiles to see who you have common interests with, and go ahead and connect!
- Your camera can be your best friend (though you should also spend some time with it tucked away – see above). Ask people if you can take pictures of their store, themselves or their kids. It usually opens up a lot of doors and friendly conversations.
Get the Best Out of Your Conversations
- When you strike up a conversation with someone, ask what they like about or think about their country. You’ll get a better sense of the country’s culture and prominent issues.
- Listen more than you speak. You’ll learn something.
- Think about first date rules; avoid getting too vocal and aggressive on touchy subjects like religion, politics, etc., which might cause an argument (or in rare cases, more serious repercussions, depending on where you are traveling).
- Ask everyone you meet about their favorite spot in the area, and add it to your list if it sounds interesting.
- People usually love teaching others a couple of words in their language (and not just curse words). Ask to learn a new word.
Habits That Help You Travel Like a Local
- Take local transportation (metro, bus, tuk-tuk, donkey, whatever) at least once.
- Speaking of transportation, pick one morning/afternoon to explore your destination using the slowest method of transport available (whether that’s on foot, bike, Vespa, etc.) You’ll be able to take in a lot more of your surroundings.
- Create a routine on your trip. Pick a place you really love, whether it’s a cafe, pub, or bookstore, and swing by there multiple times during your trip. You will start to recognize the employees and regulars there, and get your own little hangout spot.
- Get up early at least once. Seriously. There’s nothing quite like watching the city go from empty through starting the day to rush hour. Plus, it’s likely you’ll be one of very few tourists around at this time.
- After you’ve done the above, try to get your daily routine to reflect the schedule most locals follow. Does your destination die down in the middle of the day for a siesta? Do people get up super early or stay up until dawn? Follow along to see what some other travelers might miss while sleeping!
- PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN FOR A MINUTE. Observe. Exist. Engage. You can’t travel like a local with an iPhone glued to you at all times. So switch on that Airplane Mode, and you’ll thank me later.
Find Local Hobbies
- Crazy about sports? Go to a local game of a popular sport, since major tournaments are expensive. Pro tip: in about half the world that popular sport would be soccer/football.
- Take a class in your city – dance, cooking, etc., whatever you’re into, take a one-time local class in it to meet people with similar interests and learn a local skill.
- Speaking of cooking, sit down for a meal with VizEat or one of the many other services you can use to get a traditional local meal in someone’s home. I had the best experience with VizEat in Budapest.
- Browse through a farmer’s or flea market. Pick up a knick knack from here if you want something to remember your trip by.
- Go to a local concert, whether it’s an underground rock show or outdoor performance.
- If you’re a movie buff, head to the local cinema and catch a movie. I have a soft spot for film, and I always feel it’s a great mirror of a country’s culture.
- Try to find local markets or boutique stores if you want to pick up clothing or accessories.
Party Like a Local
- There is an app called Party With a Local. There, my job is done.
- Also, the Keyflow app will help you find trendy spots and get on the guestlist at nightlife venues around the world.
- Check out what most people next to you seem to be ordering before heading up to the bar, or ask the bartender for a recommendation. You’ll soon learn that some cultures have stronger livers than yours does, or you may be pleasantly surprised to discover you can handle this liquor. Usually, it’s the former.
- After having said the above, don’t be “that drunk tourist” at night. Go enjoy a night out, but no one wants to be the drunkest person in the room, and you will have a harder time actually connecting with people this way – unless they don’t have the best of intentions.
- Don’t get so carried away that you forget to be safe. Most bad travel stories, robberies, etc. happen thanks to late nights in bars or nightclubs, so don’t let the atmosphere and fun distract you from a) minding your drink and b) your decision making.
Relax Like a Local
- Take some time off from exploring. Sit at a cafe you find for a couple of hours with a book or notebook. People watch like nobody’s business.
- Pick a fair weather day to relax in a local park or square. This is a great way to sit back and observe the rhythm of life in your new place, as well as what most people like to do outdoors.
- Turn on the TV before you drift off to bed and catch a local show or the news for a little while. I discovered Graham Norton in London and my life has never been the same. The news can show you what the big issues of the country seem to be at that moment in time (if you can’t get subtitles, images and video footage should give you a basic idea of what’s going on). Also, you’ll have something to ask people you meet in your city.
- If you’re in a major city, take a day trip to an outside town (within 1-1.5 hours) or cool suburb. Ask around to find out where most locals go for their weekend getaways.
What to Avoid
- Luxury resorts and hotels. They are designed to keep you on the grounds and in touristy areas as much as possible. They’re great every once in a while, but if you stay there all the time it’s hard to really immerse yourself in your destination.
- Bus tours. You can take one, but you won’t really get to travel like a local much.
- International chains, when it comes to restaurants and hotels. Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a comfortable, familiar spot once in a while, just try not to make it a habit.
- Getting too comfortable in your group of friends. This can easily happen when you’re traveling with a big group. Don’t be afraid to venture out and meet new people together.
- Fear of speaking to people because you don’t know the language well, or maybe you can’t speak it at all. It’s fine. Remember, you’re not trying to PASS for a local, you’re trying to TRAVEL like one.
- Going only where the expats go. Some of these places are fun, but try to vary it up a bit.
- Going local in a country that has a really serious security warning in place. You can if you want to, but I personally think the risk of finding yourself alone off the beaten path in an area with civil unrest or severe gang activity isn’t worth it.
- Staying in a place that’s so unconnected from public transportation, you can’t get to most of what you want to see. Unless, I guess, your aim was to relax in solitude.
- Taking stupid risks with your safety to get a local experience. No, you probably shouldn’t head into a favela alone at night to see how the other half lives.
Final and Most Important Tip
- Don’t get so hung up on “going local” that you become obnoxious and forget to enjoy yourself. These are all suggestions for how to experience your destination on a deeper level, connect with locals, and learn something new, but you’re also on a trip; relax, have fun, and do something insanely touristy or head into Starbucks when you feel like it! In the end, it’s all about having a great time!
What are your favorite ways to travel like a local? Comment below and if you like this post, Pin away!