Holidays are great and being a tourist is just fine. But what if you want to go deeper? What if you want to shake off the limitations of retail tourism and experience a place as the locals do? How do you travel somewhere and allow yourself to be absorbed into the culture as much as possible, while still being polite and respectful?
I’ve been to three continents, 45 countries and countless cities. I might not always fit in, but I try. You can, too. If you have your heart set on a certain place, go for it. The tips here will help you live like a local while you’re anywhere. But there are places where it’s way easier to live like a local than others.
Think it’s going to be expensive? It doesn’t have to be. Whatever you’ve budgeted for your adventure is going to go a lot further in Morocco than Tokyo, or Riga than Paris, but it’s possible to live cheaply in any city. And often, traveling like a local makes a trip less expensive, since you’ll be avoiding all those pricey tourist-traps and gift shops.
The other thing to consider is whether it will be easy to live there in general. Are the locals welcoming? Are there grocery stores nearby? Are the accommodations affordable and desirable to you? Turns out those questions aren’t that hard to answer.
Some places are famous for how expensive they are. London and Hong Kong come to mind. This isn’t to say you can’t do Paris or Iceland on a budget, it just means either you can’t go for as long, or you’ll have to be extra careful when you’re there. Don’t worry, I’ll cover how to do that below.
Picking your destination to match your budget is an option, presuming you don’t already have a specific adventure in mind. For example, it may be a challenge, though not impossible, to live on €50 a day in Paris, including accommodation. In Marrakech, Morocco, it’d be hard to spend €50 a day. Yet both cities offer incredible sights and mind-blowingly good food. London can be brutally expensive, but other parts of England cost far less and might scratch that old-world itch. As a general rule, the best-known cities in a country are usually the most expensive.
Getting there (and back, maybe). The single biggest cost for any trip is the flight. Saving some money here may mean you get to add more days to your adventure. A handy tool is Google Flights or SkyScanner. There, you have a range of options, including a way to see the cheapest destinations from your closest airport. There’s also a calendar that shows when it’s cheaper to fly between the airports you select. It’s not a booking site; you do that via the airline directly or through the links the website provides.
Figuring out a budget. Once you’ve subtracted the price of the flight from your budget, there’s always the question of how long you can go. For most people this will be limited by personal circumstances, such as vacation time, of course. That certainly makes the maths easier. If your time is more flexible than your budget, how much might you spend on this adventure?
Costs for everything may also vary when you’re travelling. Europe in August, when many Europeans take their vacations, is going to be a lot more expensive than in the spring or autumn. Most places have a “busy” season that should be easy to research. I’m a big fan of travelling in the “shoulder season,” as in the time right before or right after the busy season. The weather will be largely similar to that of the peak season. For example, southern Spain in September is still warm, still beach-worthy, and way less crowded than in August.
Big World, Big Adventure
Now that we’ve dealt with the practical money questions, what do you want to do? City or wilderness? Nights out or nights under the stars? Are you an outdoorsy person or is your idea of camping a two-star hotel? How locals take their holidays in their home country varies a lot, but if it’s something you want to do, chances are it’s something some locals want to do somewhere. This might take a bit more research, though. Just keep in mind that if there is a beach, park or area known as a spot for locals, being a tourist there might be unwelcome. Be respectful, it’s their home and you’re the guest.
Where the Tourists Aren’t
Another thing to keep in mind is that, especially in the summer, certain cities are crowded with tourists, especially smaller cities. If the city or town is a stop for cruise ships, expect it to be packed with non-locals during the season. Venice, Barcelona, Santorini, Dubrovnik and many other cities have considered or implemented restrictions on cruise ships due to overcrowding. If you’re picturing being surrounded by locals, do some research so you’re not instead surrounded by 10,000 tourists all trying to get the same photo.
Finding Friendly Locals
The best way to learn about what to do and see in a place is to ask locals. They’ll have a far better idea of what’s fun to do, what’s a tourist trap, where there’s good food, and more. Perhaps they’ll share insights into their culture in a way that might not become apparent if you’re just visiting a place, especially if you travel with them. The good news is that there are friendly locals everywhere. This isn’t to say that everyone is friendly, but even in the unfriendliest places most people are good.
If you need help finding something at a grocery store or a market, ask. A conversation may follow that leads to the chance to meet for coffee. This applies to anything you do as well – don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation on a train, at a café, sitting in a pub, or browsing around a shop. In many countries, locals are extremely warm and relish an opportunity to chat with new and unique faces! Learning about a place is all about learning about the folks who live there and how they do so.
I have lots of anecdotal stories about friendly or rude people all over the world, but that’s just it, they’re anecdotal. They have to be. So if someone tells you, “Oh, don’t go there, those people were rude to me on my holiday,” all that says is that person met someone rude. Nothing more. I’ve encountered rude people in countries known to be super friendly, and I met countless friendly people in countries known for being rude. It’s all just stereotypes.
Learn the Language Basics
I’ve often been mistaken for a local during my travels. This has happened so often to me it’s difficult to recall individual events. Provided I am in a country where white-skinned people are common, people tend to think I live there so long as I’m not opening my mouth and giving it away with accent/inability to speak the primary language of the area.
Having said that, it’s important to try and make an effort in the local language, no matter where you go. Start with the niceties. Learn to say:
- Thank you
- Where is the bathroom?
- Good morning
- Good evening
Even if you are not great at languages, starting with please will let locals know you are at least trying to be polite as you ask for help. Be ready to pronounce things badly and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself while attempting new pronunciation techniques. Laughter is accepted worldwide as a common means of communication!
Stay in Locally-owned Accommodation
As much as possible, try to stay in locally-owned accommodation. Whether this is a boutique hotel or an apartment, this will give you more of a local experience, as opposed to staying in a chain hotel. Plus, if you book an apartment you have the perfect excuse to visit the local market and do some basic cooking in your flat. You might also consider joining a home exchange group that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the community.
Once you’re settled in your room, it’s time to stretch your legs! Fill your bottle of water and check out a nearby park, or other unique green spaces on offer. Travelling can take a toll on our mind and body so it’s important to refuel by getting out into nature whenever possible!
Try the Local Cuisine
As a rule, it’s good to eat as close to the ground as possible. If you’re in Italy, make sure to taste Tuscan wine, eat plenty of olives (and olive oil!), and maybe even try wild boar. Make sure you also make a second attempt if you find a food you are not keen on. Sheep’s cheese is an acquired taste, but once you have developed the palate for it, you will never forget just how luscious that tangy bite can be. As well, trying a food in places that are known for specializing in that particular morsel can provide a totally different (and much tastier!) experience than what you remember.
Around the world there are so many incredible foods to sample (moussaka in Greece, Aji de Gallina in Peru, tagine in Morocco, and mole in Mexico to name a few!) Seeking out the best local restaurants that specialize in certain dishes can be a great way to get off the tourist trail and meet warm locals who are eager to share the meals they are most proud of. Being willing to dive in to local cuisine is a surefire way to win the hearts of fellow foodies around the world!
Use Local Transportation
Local transport can be an awesome way to explore. It helps you immerse yourself more in the destination, and it’s also great for people watching. Plus, it’s a perfect way to practise slow travel. Of course, local transport requires you to do your homework in advance. This may mean getting a MetroCard before you get to your destination or learning the route maps ahead of time. Don’t hold up the locals while you figure things out!
To that end, be smart about your goals. If you have the time to travel the length of Manhattan, take the regular bus and do some sight-seeing along the way. If you need to take the subway in Tokyo, or one of the 11 tube lines in London, download the app and be ready to navigate the systems.
Another great way to get around like a local is on two wheels. Renting a bicycle can be a fun, active and interesting way to see all the in-between places that many folks zoom by. Again, be sure you know what you’re doing before jumping on bicycle in a new city or locale – road rules can vary around the world, and some cities are far more bike friendly than others. Or you can just walk around.
Participate in Local Activities
Before travelling to a destination, look into what type of activities or events the destination is known for. For example, if you plan a trip to Malta, try going in February so you can attend Carnival. And be sure to bring your hiking shoes! February is a great time to hike the islands. Perhaps you also want to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. If so, you should aim to visit in winter instead of in summer, so as to have the best chance of seeing them!
When you arrive at your destination, you can also look for activities that will help you meet locals. Perhaps you can attend a yoga class or cooking classes. Maybe there are live music events or local festivals going on that you can participate in.
Wherever you go on your next trip, these tips are sure to take your experiences to the next level. Remember that as much as iconic sites are marvelous to see, unique moments interacting with locals and finding off-the-beaten-path treasures are often the stories that stick with you. See what happens if you prioritize quieter, more subtle moments and slower travel experiences on your next trip abroad. It just might change the way you travel forever!
However, when you’re travelling, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re a visitor. It all may seem wondrous to you, but to the locals it’s their home. Treating it, and them, with respect will go a long way.