Traveling Without Being a Tourist: How to Have an Authentic Local Experience
Back in 2015, I flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina with some girlfriends. We wanted to experience the city like a local, rather than the tourists that stereotypically go tromping and stomping around a new place without care for customs or conduct. Instead of a hotel, we got an Airbnb in the artsy, Palermo.
And instead of opting for typical suggestions like a Tango Show from Tripadvisor, we followed a 72-hour New York Times itinerary on how to experience Buenos Aires like a local.
The suggestions were solid and “non-touristy”; a private wine tasting from a local vineyard, dinner at a private paladar (a private home) and tantalizing rib eyes from a renowned neighborhood steak house known for its perfectly charred crust and chimichurri.
Each activity was memorable, but especially because, at each place, we ran into Tammy and Paul, a couple from Austin, Texas who had found the same article and were on an identical trip as us. Exploring like a local, it seemed, had become sterilized, and repeated for consumption.
Traveling today is no longer local, but a series of Instagram likes, Top 10 lists, all of it watered down for mass consumption.
While traveling like a local has gotten to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues in the past few years, it is still possible to experience the true culture and city one is visiting without getting pulled into the assembly line of “local, but not really local” adventures. With our tribe of expert travelers, we’re here to share our best tips with you on how to truly experience travel like a local. Don’t be a tourist. Be a traveler.
Stay in an Airbnb and rely on your host. A Lot.
Staying at a hotel has its benefits. Comfortable lodgings, turndown service, and soft robes. Not to mention the pools and hot tubs! The flight deal might be a good one and come packaged with hotel accommodations. However, relying on the concierge for suggestions often garners “touristy” suggestions that either give the hotel incentive to turn customers towards them or simply, are not that local.
Many major destinations will have your McDonald’s or generic restaurants designed to cater to those with mild palates, especially travelers. Maybe these places are good for a sense of familiarity, but they’re also not really engaging with the local culture, embracing the experience.
To do that, you want to meet locals, which is something no flight deal can procure.
Real Local Dining
If your idea of local is eating at the neighborhood restaurant, elbow to elbow with the chef/owner, then perhaps finding an Airbnb in a neighborhood on the outskirts is a better option. There are plenty of gorgeous apartments and homes.
Additionally, Airbnb hosts tend to know their neighborhood best and offer up mom and pop suggestions that they would go to. Some of them may even have recipes that they will share with you (or prepare it for less than it would cost at a fancy restaurant).
Many of us who are more experienced in dining out know that the little hole-in-the-wall places are usually the ones with the best food. Locals will know the best little places that might not show up on a fancy travel itinerary designed for maximum capitalism, and would otherwise go unnoticed.
Airbnb hosts know this, and often have secrets to share about their city that even well-researched travel sites just can’t match. If you want to learn how to meet people in a new city, start with Airbnb hosts.
They’re likely your best guide to meeting locals and getting the truly authentic feel.
Talk to Locals
Earlier this year, I visited Isla Mujeres, an island just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Our goal was for a local experience, so we chose a location that was on the outskirts of a touristy town. Location-wise, we would still have the option of all the activities that we wanted to enjoy in Mexico, but still, be able to feel like we lived there.
We didn’t want to be outsiders come to gawk. We wanted to feel the same things as the people who really lived there, have that authentic experience.
We found an incredible Airbnb overlooking the beach, and one night while sitting on the porch watching the sunset, we saw two women walking their dogs. We chatted with them as their dogs ran to greet us, and we asked them for their favorite places to eat, the must-see spots, and where they went out. A quick 15-minute chat turned into one of the most incredible meals we had during the entire trip.
What was a surprisingly simple way to meet locals blended into an amazing, one of a kind travel experience?
There’s no one method for finding locals to speak to, but exploring the neighborhoods in which they live is a start. A quick Google search will often show the “artsy” or up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Chatting with pet owners, baristas at coffee shops, Taxi drivers, and servers at mom-and-pop shops are all simple ways to engage.
Lose Your Itinerary to Find the Sweet Spot
We all love to have our days planned, but experiencing a day as a local will require time and effort. I suggest leaving one of the second to last days without an itinerary to go explore. Ideally, the neighborhood is one that you’ve learned about or have been wanting to explore from speaking to locals. Then, it’s simply a matter of walking, and going in the direction your gut tells you to, sans map.
This is a day that I truly call “The Sweet Spot.” Living like a local, or exploring like a local, doesn’t require fancy dinners or nights out. It’s a slower pace, with an eye toward the little details. You can go grocery shopping during the day, talk to people, try some of the local delicacies. Explore the wares at the local mom-and-pop shop. Ask them about where the items came from, what significance they have in the culture, and where you might find similar things.
What matters most is being open to trying new things. You aren’t here for some website’s highlight reel.
What you really want is to get a sense of what it’d be like if life had been different and you grew up in such a time and place. Focus on the experience, because this may be a “once in a lifetime” trip. At the very least, you might not get a good chance to find out the secret to an authentic local experience again.
Why miss out on the opportunity?
Local Guides from People Who Know Them Best
We also love using various apps, such as self-guided audio tour created by locals. The app condenses all the information you need to know from locals, guides, and publications into one place. No more research! However, if you want to go off the beaten path and try the less populated spots, you’ll still need to meet locals, hear what they have to say, and simply explore the amazing opportunities before you. As long as you keep an open mind and, perhaps equally importantly, open ears, you’ll be living it up like a local in no time.
Now, go out there and enjoy it!
In 2014, I walked into a vintage bookshop and discovered an old printed magazine in the window. It was a worn, blue thin pamphlet, only about 30 pages thick with the words, “THE MENTOR” written across in fine calligraphy. Inside, was a full, in-depth guide to traveling Cuba from 1910. Old black and white images of haciendas and ocean views, write-ups of residents lounging in the sun on sleepy streets and stories, countless stories about experiencing Cuba like a local.