With all the resources at our disposal today, it’s never been easier to plan a vacation. You can book your accommodations, arrange for transportation, make dinner reservations, and even have a bottle of wine sent to your room long before you ever set foot on foreign soil.
The downside of all this convenience is that it’s entirely possible to visit an exotic destination, stay busy the entire time you’re there, and leave without ever having truly experienced the essence of the place, its culture, and its people.
The real way to experience another culture is to see, smell, and taste it like a local. Why stand in a never-ending line just because the guidebooks say it’s a “must-see” attraction? There are plenty of non-touristy activities that you can do pretty much anywhere you go.
Here are 8 tips to help you truly get a feel for the place you’re visiting. You’ll get to know it on a deeper level and, who knows, you might even save a few bucks by skipping out on that all-inclusive travel bundle.
1. Skip the hotel.
Instead of staying in an impersonal hotel room in the middle of a touristy area, find a rental in an area that’s more representative of the local culture. You can find a home or apartment for rent on VRBO.com or, if you’re really adventurous, claim a murphy bed in a stranger’s living room on Couchsurfing.com. By staying in a real home in a real neighborhood, you’ll get a more authentic experience plus have access to amenities like a kitchen where you can prepare food you’ve picked up at the local market.
2. Eat like a local.
Speaking of food, if you want to really get a taste of the local flavor (pun intended), you’ll need to stay out of the restaurants recommended in the travel guide. Instead of hitting the overrated tourist hotspots, ask your cab driver, or just some guy walking down the street, what they recommend. Find out what signature dish(es) the city or country is known for, and don’t be afraid to try something you wouldn’t normally eat.
3. Do some people watching.
One great way to ruin a vacation is by over-scheduling. Pack too many activities into your trip and you’ll only end up feeling exhausted and empty. Instead of rushing frantically from one attraction to another, find a cozy park bench or sidewalk cafe and just soak in your surroundings. You’ll pick up a lot about the people, their habits, and the general pulse of the culture.
4. Strike up a conversation.
While you’re dining at a local establishment or people-watching in a shady plaza, don’t be afraid to chat up other diners or passersby. (If they speak another language in your destination, you’ll want to learn a few words and phrases before you go.) It’s a great way to get firsthand knowledge about the area, as well as recommendations for restaurants and other lesser-known attractions.
5. Go exploring with a local.
Not to knock all the professional guided tours, but the best way to see the sites in an area is with a local. Meaning just you (and the rest of your party) and him. Instead of taking the crowded tram to the top of the volcano, grab a backpack and hike it with someone’s who’s done it a dozen times. Rather than boarding an organized charter, see if a local fisherman will let you tag along on the day’s voyage. If you’re lucky, he might ask you to stay for dinner and grill up some of the fresh catch.
6. Get lost.
Now before you take this tip too seriously, let me explain. Tours, whether commercial or private, are a great way to see an area. But sometimes there are much more interesting things to see just a few steps off the marked path. Don’t be afraid to fold up the map and just explore aimlessly. You never know what you might find.
7. Pursue your interests.
Not only are vacations a great time to experience new things, but they’re also the perfect opportunity to do some of your favorite things in a new context. Say you’ve always wanted to try Latin dancing. Sign up for a class at a local studio. Love going to yoga when you’re at home? Try a class that meets at sunrise on the beach.
8. Give back.
There are a number of benefits to each of the tips on this list, but none are quite as rewarding as volunteering. By helping out with a building project at a local school, aiding with relief efforts after a disaster, or just taking food and supplies to a local shelter, you can truly identify with the local population and their struggles. Even better, you can do much to make a difference and to help bridge the gap between cultures.
So on your next vacation, avoid the urge to book the package deal and opt for a trip that’s a little more a la carte. Instead of a tourist with a fanny pack, you’ll look like someone who really belongs. And instead of a suitcase full of mass produced souvenirs, you’ll come home with a mental scrapbook of authentic memories that will last a lifetime.
Featured photo credit: photographer-407068_1280/SplitShire via pixabay.com