5 Ways to Travel Like a Local

City Travel, Featured, Traveling Solo & Together — By on December 30, 2010 at 6:00 am

The authentic culture of a city lies among the “locals” who don’t spend much time in tourist-filled places. Rather, traveling throughout a city like a local allows you to immerse yourself in it. It adds something special and authentic that you cannot find in a museum or a cathedral. The real city isn’t always advertised, so travelers will leave a city thinking they have experienced it all, but really they only saw a small portion. After much practice, I have discovered a few methods to be extremely helpful when trying to experience a foreign culture.

1. Befriend the concierge

This works best if you’re staying in a hostel. In hostels, the concierge is more likely to tell you the truth because they don’t have anything invested in what you do on your trip. They live and work in the city and they probably like to avoid tourist traps. In Costa Rica, we became friendly with the concierge at our hostel in Arenal. He recommended a small restaurant down a side street where we could find good local food. The restaurant was quaint and felt authentic, it was owned by a family. We each had a “casado,” which was a plate of meat, potatoes, vegetables, and dessert, for $7. He also recommended that we go to “el salto” (the jump). We walked out of central Arenal and found a river with a small waterfall. Local kids were jumping into the water, from a rope tied to a huge tree, and they encouraged us to join them. Besides getting a little water in my ear, it was the best part of our trip. Those tiny details made us feel that we had a true Costa Rican experience. If you are in a hotel, ask the concierge what he is doing that night.

2. Ask your friends or family

I try to go to places where friends or family have lived or are currently living. This way they can give me advice from their personal experience as locals. Even if you know someone who knows someone, definitely do not hesitate to contact him or her. In Rome, I stayed with my friend’s friend’s grandparents, and every night I had a home-cooked authentic Italian meal. They gave us insider tips on sightseeing and other things to do in Rome, which included going to a beach on the city’s outskirts. The beach was filled with Italians from the neighborhood, enjoying the warm weather with friends and family; it was definitely not a tourist attraction. We wouldn’t have found the beach if we hadn’t consulted with friends!

3. Do not solely rely on guidebooks

I always bring a guidebook when I’m visiting a new place. However, I do not rely on them for everything I do. Even the budget-friendly books still will advertise certain attractions that probably you could do for a lot cheaper, and might not even be necessary on your trip. These books are great at selling things! In contrast, the locals do not advertise their hangouts because they don’t want them to become infested with tourists. These neighborhoods and spots most likely can’t be found in a book.

4. Explore the outskirts

The outskirts are usually not considered “central,” literally and figuratively. These neighborhoods don’t contain many tourist attractions (if any); this is where the locals live and spend their time. You will see the city through their eyes here. You will find schools, small family-owned stores, and restaurants with dishes authentic to the place you are visiting. For example, Prague seems to be very small because all of the main attractions are in one condensed area. However, my friend and I journeyed to Praha 7, a neighborhood that is farther from the main attractions and nothing like the rest of the city. There were no hotels, big restaurants, or nightclubs. The locals were out shopping, kids were having fun in playgrounds. It was a really beautiful and interesting neighborhood, and gave us a taste of something we wouldn’t have discovered by only staying in central Prague.

5. Get lost

I usually find the local gems by getting lost, which is usually inevitable in a foreign place. So let it happen and don’t freak out (as long as you feel safe, of course). Going off the path will lead you to other paths you didn’t know about, and to places and people you would never have stumbled upon without getting lost! The local haunts are not going to be on the map they give you in the hostel or found in your guidebook. Losing yourself in the city is one of the few ways to find them. I am not the bravest person, so the fact that I can appreciate getting lost shows that it really isn’t that difficult. Getting lost while wandering through the Albaicín allowed my travel companion and I to experience the culture of Granada. We ended up just outside of the historic Albaicín where there are schools, homes, and some small businesses. We saw children getting out of school and walking home. One woman told us about a beautiful little church that not many people knew about. Getting lost made Granada more than a tourist attraction for us; we saw it as someone’s home.

Add on additional methods you find useful and stay safe by making smart decisions and trusting your judgment. My most satisfying trips were the ones where I truly immersed myself into an unknown culture. One way to accomplish this is by finding a healthy balance between being a tourist and trying to be a local. Well-known attractions can’t make up an entire city. Let the locals show you their city.

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    9 Comments

  • Briana P says:

    Maggie, great ideas! For me, travel means getting to know a place and its people as they are, and I definitely think these tips can help.

  • Nikki says:

    Great Post! I too believe that real travel involves seeing a place for what it truly is rather than just the pretty manicured tourist areas. I have always found it very helpful knowing someone who has lived there or even using resources such as Couchsurfing. Even if you’re not comfortable staying at someones house, many people are willing to just meet you for coffee and give you suggestions on the best places to go.

  • Expendition says:

    Wherever you go to travel,proper study about this place is essential, above post show that local visibility of our journey. Your handful tricks drive away

  • Maggie P says:

    Thanks! I just read your post about doing a language stay (assuming you are Briana Palma!) and it was very convincing and informative, I am trying to do something similar myself sometime soon.

  • Maggie P says:

    Thanks for reading! Good point, I know a lot of people who aren’t totally comfortable couch-surfing, but it is a great way to meet a local even if you don’t surf their couch! ha.

  • Briana P says:

    I definitely recommend it, even if only for a week or two. Feel free to get in touch if you need any help planning or have questions!

  • Cristine says:

    Hi there! I stumbled upon this post thru Twitter!

    Nice tips! I have done #1…I actually befriended most of the staff in the hotel where I stayed at in Vientiane, Laos. During their off hours, some of the staff took me around the city and invited me to watch local amateur football game. They also took me to the local market and other places. It was fun!

  • Maggie P says:

    so glad you stumbled upon my piece! Sounds like a great trip, I had a similar experience in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, some waiters at a restaurant we frequented invited us to a bonfire…so much fun and soo unexpected!

    Thanks for reading.

  • Meg says:

    I know this post is older but I just came across it and love it! I wanted to add that a new local travel website I use to find out what the locals really like to do in an area is http://www.guidedbyalocal.com. Locals post tips about the best things to do in their home city so travelers can better explore local culture. You can also connect with locals at your next travel destination. Thanks!