As avid world travelers, we are always looking to learn about the local culture of our destinations and expand our knowledge. Whether you’re on a group tour, traveling in style, or backpacking on your own – try to carve out some time to experience the local culture. Here are 7 ways to do just that.
Experience local culture through a food tour
One of the best ways to soak up local culture is by taking a good food tour. I like to do this at or near the beginning of a trip because it’s an excellent primer on a city. Look for food tours that take you through a local market, walk through interesting or historical districts, and have guides that sprinkle in local lore and history during the tour. Check out reviews online first to make sure past visitors were happy with the quality of guiding. A great guide can really make a city and the local culture come to life!
Arrange a homestay or AirBnB
I LOVE homestays. There’s no better way to get to know the beating heart of a place than to stay with a family. Some countries (like Kyrgyzstan) have homestay programs organized by the government which ensure tourist dollars are helping residents. I’ve also found great homestays by doing language immersion classes. The language schools usually have relationships around town and can set you up with a family to stay with. Otherwise, AirBnB is a great option. You’ll at least get to see a real home and some local culture in a real neighborhood, even if the family isn’t in town during your stay.
Stroll through a residential area of town
Local culture typically takes place outside the tourist zone. If it’s safe to do so where you’re visiting, get out of the main areas and stroll through a local neighborhood. Give yourself some time so you’re not rushed. One of my favorite things to do is to pop into a local grocery and check out what interesting flavors of potato chips there are (you’d be surprised at how different they can be country to country)! Check out other local shops and partake in some “normal services,” like getting a haircut. One of my favorite local experiences has been getting a Taiwanese hair wash in a neighborhood salon in Taipei!
Observe local culture at a popular café
Find out what one of the most popular local cafés is in the town you’re visiting. Don’t search for one on TripAdvisor – rather ask at your homestay or hotel, ask your food tour guide, or just ask some locals on the street. Once you’ve picked a place, order some food and a big pot of tea or cup of coffee and just relax. Watch people come and go, notice what’s different from your home, and savor the moment. If there are other types of places (say local temples or parks) where people watching and relaxing is more common, go that route instead.
Splurge on a private tour with a local
For those of us who are a bit shy about making friends while on the road, think of a good private guide as a built-in friend. You can learn a lot about local culture by spending time with someone, especially if she is an expert in her field. A good service to start with is Context Tours who’s “docents” are vetted and usually professional guides. Tours by Locals is another good option. For getting time with non-professional guides, AirBnB experiences is really interesting and boasts a wide range of options in the cities it’s operating in.
Get out of the city
One of the best ways to get to know local culture is to visit the countryside. I try to get out of the city on every trip I take, no matter how short. You can slow down, see traditional housing, try local food, and of course be immersed in nature. On my trip to Lithuania, I got out of Vilnius and stayed in a tiny village called Labanoras inside the national park. The food was amazing and there were ZERO other tourists there. A couple months later I met someone from Lithuania and we really became friends after bonding over Labanoras – his family spends every summer there!
Ask locals for suggestions
Of course, chatting with locals is by far the best way to immerse yourself in local culture! Find ways to meet and converse with people –
whether through an app-based meetup service or just chatting people up at the pub. Their recommendations will always be better than TripAdvisor. One of my best tricks is to check the alumni database at my university for people living in that city. I then reach out ahead of time for recommendations and ideas, and every once in awhile I get lucky and get to meet up with him or her!
Now that you’re armed with a few tips for experiencing local culture, make sure to work some of them in for your next trip. You’ll find that your experience is more enriching and you’ll be able to come home with far more interesting stories to share!