Whenever we travel, there are always sights that we want to see when we get there - the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London, the Great Pyraminds in Eqypt, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.
Even in my own country (USA), the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge, and Old Sacramento are must see sites. Every city has their tourist areas and main attractions.
But isn't there more than that? Where are the good places to eat? Where is that great spot no one knows about? Where is the local hangout? This is actually one of my favorite things about travel. No matter where you go in the world, every place has its unique sights and fun places to see that are outside of the touristy areas. However, you won't find the answers to these questions hanging around other tourists.
How to go local when traveling
There are not always going to be articles, websites, and reviews from locals to help introduce you to places you are seeing. Anyone can see the sites and attractions that a place has to offer. However, it takes getting off the beaten path and finding undiscovered places to really get to know a place. So when you want to see more than just tourists, restaurants with menus in English, and crowds at the famous sites, try these tips for going local:
Carry a map and get lost! - Yes, I know it sounds crazy. However, if you get a couple of days to spend in a city you are visiting, get your bearings and then wander off. Always be safe, take a map with you, and be aware of any dangerous areas but wander the side streets and back streets. Ask a local for directions in your broken spanish, french, italian, arabic, etc. and see who you can meet. Ask the person for a good place to eat, where a nice park is, or where is their favorite place in the city. Be daring and be courageous. As a tourist, people expect you to be lost and not always know where you are going. And remember if you are that person being asked for directions in your own town, you are more than likely going to be as helpful and understanding as possible. So will others.
A few years ago, I was in Venice wandering around seeing the sights. I decided to walk along the wide street near the water on the other side of St. Mark's. I wanted to see how far back I could go. I wandered upon a neighborhod where families were out walking. I went to a park and saw parents playing with their kids on swingsets and playgrounds. I saw small stores and hole-in-the-wall places. Seeing these things put a human touch on a romantic city and made it come alive even more. On my way back, I got lost. I am horrible with my sense of direction. I turned to head back and ran into a dead end canal every time. However, I asked someone in my broken Italian (I know NONE) and eventually found my way back. And I had a story to tell and a memory that beats all others from my stay in Venice!
Go shopping! - Before you get too excited, it's not what you think. When I say shopping, I mean go to the grocery store or mall where locals hang out! Go see the stores where they shop, what music is popular at the music store, or what fashions are in. Go pick up some items for a picnic. See what brands and foods locals can shop for. Compare the price of milk and what types of milk they have to what you have back in your hometown. Ask a local in the store or the butcher where something is or get advice on somewhere to go to have a picnic. To understand what going local is, you have to see where the locals go. When we were in Spain, we went to one of the big department stores there, El Corte Inglés. Despite the name, it is a major Spanish store where people go to shop. We went there in Sevilla and found a huge supermarket on one of the floors. While there, we packed up bread, condiments, deli, drinks, and snacks for our long bus ride to Portugal. These weren't brands we were used to and we still have the packaging from those souvenirs.
Go to the market - In many countries around the world, people shop at a local indoor or outdoor market in their neighborhood rather than a store. People buy because of their relationships with the sellers in the market and the quality and reliability of the items they are shopping for. You can often get a sample of foods for sale. You can ask what foods are. There is often no better way to get a taste of what every day life is like than in the local market.
Be an extravert - For some people, this comes easy. For people like me, it is hard. However, if you never break out of your shell and risk sounding silly, you may miss out on a great experience and seeing things you would never see. A few years ago, I traveled Europe for a month on a tour and also my own. On my final day in Europe, I was in Paris and just wandered off onto some back streets in a neighborhood. I broke down and just wanted something familiar to eat so I went to McDonald's. While eating, I asked this woman next to me what time it was in French. She could tell I wasn't French but we began to talk. I spent the rest of the day going with her to the doctor's office in her neighborhood, seeing a movie in a theatre with all French people and the movie dubbed in French, ate at a Lebanese restaurant where this woman often ate, and saw a different side of Paris I would have never seen on my own. All because I was bold enough to ask what time it is!
Go to a sporting event - Let's face it - countries all over the world have sports fans. So go find out who the local team is and go see a match or a game. If it is a small city with not a lot of sports teams, see if you can find out where the local recreation league is playing and watch kids play soccer or basketball or a sport you don't know much about at all. One of the best and most memorable experiences I had was going to the Camp Nou to watch Barcelona FC (soccer) play a match with 90,000 screaming Catalans. Awesome!
So why even go local when you travel? It's the question of why we travel. What do we want to see and experience?
Written and contributed by Jeremy Branham
Sacramento Budget Travel Examiner