How to engage with local culture
- 6 steps to a more authentic travel experience
If you’re like me, you don’t just travel to see something new, you also want to experience a different place or culture. My most cherished travel memories are almost every-day moments of sitting in a nice café, buying home-made sweets at the local market or discovering the hidden gems of a city.
Here are a few tips on how to immerse yourself in local culture to get a more authentic experience out of your trip.
1. Venture off the trampled tourist path
The first point is quite obvious but also essential: If you stay on the main tourist path, e.g. between the beach and the restaurant mile or between Champs Elysée and Eiffel Tower, obviously you won’t see much of what the place is really like. Sometimes, it only takes a few turns to the left or right and you are right in the middle of ordinary life.
Especially in big cities, I love just wandering around in a neighbourhood without a certain goal in mind. That way, I come across tiny bakeries on street corners, cute little cafés where neighbours meet, street vendors, hidden squares shadowed by old trees, and of course many every-day scenes of mothers taking their kids to school, grandpas reading the newspaper in tiny parks and people rushing off to work. Those little scenes each tell their own story and piece together as a mosaic of the city.
Of course, you should be careful about the neighbourhood you choose, especially if you’re new to the city. If you feel uncomfortable, turn back. My intuition has worked well so far in telling me where it is safe to wander around and where not.
2. Become an observer
The second point goes hand-in-hand with he first. As you venture off the beaten path, take in everything around you like a curious child. Soak up the energy of a place. Are people rushed or are they walking slowly, stopping for a chat with a neighbour? Do they seem happy and relaxed or grumpy and worried? Do they greet or ignore each other?
Is there a place that people gravitate to? What might that be? Is there a long cue in front of that little bakery which emanates the delicious smell? It might be worth joining the cue.
Is there a certain snack that many people seem to buy? Maybe you want to try it. When we recently were taking a little break in front of a neighbourhood market in Oaxaca, we noticed that almost every other person entering the market stopped to buy something from the lady who had set up her stall next to us. We had no idea what those white pudding-like pieces were she was selling. But before we walked on, we bought a piece to try it. It was delicious! It’s called nicuatole and is a typical desert from Oaxaca, made with maize, milk or coconut water and deliciously spiced with cinnamon and other spices. Definitely worth trying what locals like!
3. Go to the local market
The local market – and by that I mean a market where locals actually buy their groceries, not an over-priced gourmet market such as La Boqueria in Barcelona – is a great way to engage with local culture. Going to the market is part of every-day life for housewives, restaurant owners and of course the vendors. I’m sure you will discover something new and interesting on a local market. Maybe it’s fruits and vegetables you haven’t seen before, or it’s life chicken being traded or the way in which people haggle.
In most countries, they also sell breakfast and snacks from little food stalls. This is a great opportunity to try home-made local food at low prices. For me, the market is the heart of a neighbourhood. At least in most countries.
4. Take time off sightseeing
If you really want to get to know a place, of course you cannot achieve this in a couple of days. The longer you stay, the more you will become familiar with the culture and habits of locals. That being said, you don’t have to stay a month in Paris in order to get a bit of a feeling for the city. But you need more than just three days, especially if it’s your first time there. If you only spend a few days in places with a lot of sightseeing to offer, it’s likely that you will be busy the entire time ticking off your must-see list. If you want to have a more authentic experience, however, you need to take some time off the sightseeing and just have a “normal” day in a chosen neighbourhood.
5. Pretend you live there
When I really like a place, I like to imagine that I lived there and do every-day things for one day. Okay, maybe not completely every-day things, since I obviously don’t go to work. Let’s say weekend things. I have a lazy breakfast at the Airbnb or a nice café, go to the market, go to a local park, check if there is a theatre play or some other cultural activity going on, read or write at a local café, just take a stroll around the centre, things like that. To be honest, oftentimes, those low-key days are my favourite days of the entire vacation.
5. Engage with locals
Last but not least, if you get the chance to engage with locals, that is of course the best way to get to know the culture. If you stay with an Airbnb or Couchsurfing host, they can give you some insider tips and answer your questions. You can also ask if someone is willing to show you around their city on Couchsurfing or other platforms. And naturally, you can always start a conversation with shop owners, the waiter who serves you in a restaurant etc. However, in many countries people are quite suspicious and reserved, especially when it comes to any kind of personal information. Don’t take it personal, it’s cultural.
In less touristy cities, you might even run into someone on the street who is excited to talk to a foreigner. Beware not to fall into any traps here, again trust your gut instinct. But there really are people out there who just want to practice their English and are excited someone is showing interest in their home town.
Do you have more tips on how to engage with local culture? I would love to hear from you in the comments below or write me a message here.