When you’re headed to an unfamiliar city, and your goal is to avoid the touristy neighborhoods and see how the locals live, how can you get the authentic flavor of a place fast? Here’s how travel experts and savvy frequent travelers do it:
- Hit the supermarket.
“There are usually very few tourists there, so you can watch the locals go about their business and check out all the unfamiliar foods and brands on the shelves. Bonus: Grocery stores are the most affordable places to buy edible souvenirs to bring home.”
—Sarah Schlichter, senior editor, Independent Traveler
- Take the public bus.
“Especially in London or New York City. In London, with an Oyster Card, you can travel all day by bus for ‘free’ once you reach a minimum daily spend. Some cities have unlimited day or weekly passes (sadly, not N.Y.C. any longer). You can often hear interesting conversations and see the same sites you’d see on a tourist bus.”
—George Hobica, founder, AirfareWatchdog
- Go for a run.
“It’s the best way to get a feel for the landscape through the eyes of someone—a runner—who lives there. Map My Run has good, local intelligence on the best running routes.”
—Paul Bennett, founder, Context Travel
- Rent an apartment.
“I like to rent an apartment rather than stay at a hotel to get a sense of what it is like to live in a new place. I shop the local grocery store, and walk or take the bus to immerse myself in a new place.”
—Lissa Poirot, editor in chief, Family Vacation Critic
- Talk to strangers.
“I just pick someone with an ‘open’ face and either compliment them or ask a random question. In Poland I’ve gotten tips this way – from a cool local restaurant to ideas for a nice walk. In Vienna I’ve gotten great local shopping tips this way: Locals are always better dressed than me, so I compliment them on it!”
—Gwen Kozlowski, general manager, Exeter International
- Seek out farmers’ markets.
“Farmers’ markets are great not just for shopping, but because they’re in neighborhoods where people live and work—and you get to see what’s grown and/or made where you are at that moment.”
—Pam Mandel, founder, Nerd’s Eye View
- Go to church.
“I attend church. The people are wonderfully welcoming, and it is interesting to see the differences in congregations. A bonus is often a concert, supper, or other church-related event that is certainly not on the usual tourist itinerary.”
- Play your favorite sport.
“Find out if there is a pick-up basketball / soccer game, a good place to swim, a local surfing break, a skate park, or whatever. Sports unite people, and you’ll make fast friends who may turn you on to local attractions or even invite you to their home!”
—Zachary Rabinor, director general, Journey Mexico
- Find a park.
“Head to the nearest green space for a family outing. If the weather is nice, picnic, if not, just take a stroll. Even in very touristy areas, parks always attract locals. Bring a ball or frisbee and you may find opportunities for your children to play with local children, the ultimate joy in local engagement.”
—Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder and managing editor, Ciao Bambino!
- Get a haircut.
“I always go to a traditional barbershop. I’ve had my hair cut in about 40 international cities and towns—Rome to Rio, Sicily to Shanghai. The group hanging out there invariably likes to chat and has lived there forever, and the ‘ceremony’ of the haircut is a little different everywhere, but taken very seriously and in a way that often gives you a feel for the way men interact.”
—Richard G. Edwards, founder, GreenSpot.travel
- Find local hangouts via Instagram.
“I use Instagram to research location-based hashtags and geotags in the area I’m planning to visit. You can see what locals are posting about their favorite spots. It’s better than a list of things to do because you have insight into the vibe of the place through photos. I’ve found hidden shops, the best cup of coffee, and the most stunning places for sunset viewing all through Instagram research.”
—Tyler Govaars, founder, The Weekend Edit
- Hit a coffee bar early in the morning.
“Get up early and grab coffee at the local coffee bar. Talk to the locals, read the newspaper, and then wander the area. People are always friendly in little walk-up bars and seem happy to chat.”
- Work out at the Y.
“In the United States, I use my YMCA membership to check out the Y at my destination. Nothing like locker-room chatter to fill you in on local doings.”
- Find a hardware store.
“It’s a peek into local homes and the relative exotica of another country’s household goods. Humdrum items like an orange Home Depot plastic bucket are somehow more interesting when all of the bucket’s script is in, say, Polish (yes, I might have one of those in my garage). I found a sign in a hardware store in Thailand: ‘Please Always Keep Clean,’ in English and in Thai. It sits in my kitchen and always makes me smile, even if I forget to actually clean anything.”
—Sheila Scarborough, featured contributor, Perceptive Travel
- Meet with local groups.
“I check out MeetUp.com and, since I am a hiker and a birder, look for local groups to join. I also look into the Chamber for volunteer opportunities. It doesn’t take very long to get integrated into the local community.”
- Chat with bartenders.
“I find a long-established restaurant with a bar and try to friend the older bartenders. They know the best places to go.”
- Stay longer.
“Not everyone has this luxury, but we stay a little longer in the places we visit. Once we’ve checked off most of the sights and attractions on our must-see list, we invariably wind up going back-to-school shopping or to the orthodontist!”
—Jamie Pearson, founder, Travel Savvy Mom
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