You’ve chosen to travel independently, or you have some time to spare on a trip and want to really understand the place you’ve dreamed about for the last 6 months. As anyone who has been to somewhere like Paris and left unfulfilled would tell you, visitors don’t automatically experience the authentic fun, chat and culture of any place they may find themselves. The obvious answer is to have contacts all around the world and just friend-hop. But this isn’t an option for the majority of us, and even then you would need to know these friends very well, to consider imposing on their time or even home. There are other options though, and most involve the holy grail of pre-planning combined with the blessing of spontaneous enjoyment. Let’s take a look at how to be a true traveler rather than a tourist. Source: chicagogreeter.com
Your Own Personal Tour Guide
Who hasn’t wanted to be shown around a city or beautiful region by a local? It can be risky to accept offers from people you don’t know, no matter how friendly they seem, so booking ahead is the best option. And it really will get you an exciting experience. In US and Australian locations, these guides are known as “Greeters” and often concentrate on specific districts of your chosen city, and this concept has spread around the world. They are knowledgeable and can satisfy your need for history, fascinating insights into the local culture and perhaps the best local burger spot.
Another advantage to this is flexibility – if you need to make a pit-stop of any kind (I’m talking kiddie comfort breaks here) you can just ask your personal guide to take a break! Some of the highlights are Greeters in Marseille focusing on this year’s UEFA tournament, for football fans only. Elsewhere, you can catch a Greeter in Chicago with a past as a city planner, ready to give you the best possible tour of that great city of architecture, all for free. More often than not, these greeters may end up being your new friends. Source: thefuturekept.com
Good Old-Fashioned Research
This may be a little less glamorous than some of our other tips, but good planning really should play a part in every trip you take. The trick to finding information that is up to date and genuine is where you go and what you read. A good place to start is Cereal magazine, a bi-annual travel and style journal you can read online and in print. Their city guides are rightly famous, and feature beautiful photography and correct contact details for the shops, attractions and cafés… Surprisingly, UK clothes labels often have useful guides, especially if you’re visiting London, so a quick search for Whistles or Reiss brands will take you where you need to go. Blogs are also a good idea, if a little hit and miss.
The point is to not only look for attractions, but depending on your time and mood, to find out what locals enjoy doing, in order to really immerse yourself in the culture and lifestyle of the places you’re visiting. Did you know that Bagh Chal is an ancient strategy board game still played in Nepal or that Russians have been playing Gorodki for centuries? Board and card games and their origins may sound a little redundant in the age of technology, but they provide a chance to act like a local for a few hours as well as actually bond with fellow travelers and locals. When looking for a restaurant to have dinner, look for places that seem packed with locals, especially in more touristy locations. They have to be good if people keep coming back. Research is not only about books and guides – ask locals, even if it’s just your hotel’s staff.
A More Immersive Experience
It could be that the “chat” we mentioned earlier is really what you’re looking for. If so, an immersive experience could be the way to go. Questions of safety are a given, so always go with your gut if you’re unsure and err on the side of caution. However, there are a host of Airbnb-style sites out there that can connect you with a local person for a specific experience. Withlocals is a site which works on the Airbnb model, with hosts offering to cook you dinner in their home, or “home restaurant” as the site has it. You can also learn new skills – up-cycling workshop in Bruges, anyone?
Triip works in a similar way, linking you with hosts who have devised tours of their city or region, often combined with photography, eating delicious things or canyoneering (wow). The difference between these guys and a Greeter? They’re definitely not for free. If you’re interested in languages, it’s one of the best ways to experience another culture: try the Scuola Toscana in gorgeous Florence.
Take a Chance on Social Media
This one’s a bit unorthodox for some, but the world of social media can be useful for all sorts of things. It could be as simple as a message to Facebook friends or friends of friends in the country you’re about to visit, or a message on Twitter asking for suggestions for places to eat dinner. This has become quite a phenomenon, as this Twitter-hitch-hiker will attest. According to recent research, 46% of Twitter users use the site to get local information while on holiday – and they’re smart to be doing so.
Once you have a recommendation, it goes without saying that Google Maps will be invaluable (though we find that in London especially, a mini A-Z is more discreet). I would also like to make some suggestions for useful travel apps. If you’re spending time in a new place and something happens, these may be useful to have, especially if you don’t speak the local language. The aforementioned Tripit allows you to plan an itinerary and share it with a group, lessening the chances of losing an overexcited travel companion.
There you have it, the sky really is the limit for your next authentic travel experience, especially if you go canyoneering. Meaningful and truly exciting travel is so available to everyone these days, it would seem a pity not to explore the possibilities, especially now that the internet is connecting the world. Enjoy getting out there, and remember to keep your wits and your phone about you. Feed your curiosity and there’s no doubt you’ll have a great time.