The best kind of travel helps you truly get to know your destination. If you want to have an authentic experience of your destination, there’s no better way than to meet the people who live there.
But this can be tricky. As a tourist, you’re shuffled along on a certain path every day — from hotel (likely in a business district, not residential) to attraction to restaurant to bar to hotel. It’s completely possible to go somewhere and never really see it.
A perfect example of this is Florence, Italy. Florence is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I recommend it highly; but the No. 1 complaint most people have about the ancient Tuscan town is that it can feel a bit like Disney World. Flooded with tourists, the only interaction you have with locals — especially during high season, from June through August — is with those who work in the tourism industry, serving your food and drink and checking you into your hotel.
Fortunately, it is possible to break from that path, but it takes conscious effort. It means overcoming shyness and positioning yourself where you’re likely to meet them. Here is my best advice for people who want to meet locals in their destination:
1. Join a language exchange website.
Before I went to Bogota, Colombia, I joined a few language exchange websites in hopes of finding someone there who would like help with their English (and would help me with my Spanish). I figured I would get a chance to hang out with a Colombian for an hour or so, and maybe get some advice about local culture and hot spots. I was lucky and met a very kind, generous woman around my age who not only showed me her version of Bogota, she went well out of her way to pick me up from the airport, too, and we are still friends.
This route does mean that you’ll have to at least attempt to learn and speak the language — which I recommend whenever possible, anyway. Making the effort to understand and communicate in your destination’s language shows respect and opens doors that may have otherwise been closed.
2. Rent an apartment from a local.
Skip hotels and stay with a local instead. Rent an Airbnb apartment or room from someone you think you would get along with based on their profile. This works best when you’re actually renting someone’s home, rather than a company listing vacant apartments intended for travelers — and even better if you rent only a single room and your host continues living there during your stay. You can also try Couchsurfing — some even say that this site is just as good as any other at finding language exchange conversation partners!
3. Book a guided tour with a local insider.
There’s an entire marketplace online for finding and booking unique experiences led by people in popular travel destinations around the world. Vayable is the most popular site, with guides offering experiences like midnight street food tours, hosted in-home meals and street art tours.
4. Be outgoing!
Using sites like Wikitravel, research the various neighborhoods and restaurants and bars in your destination city to get a sense for what’s most popular with locals. Hanging around the local watering hole — and then making a concerted effort to be outgoing — positions you with a greater probability of making new friends. If you’re naturally shy, consider this a chance to try out a different side of your personality. The experience of traveling and being in a new country and language tends to bring most people out of their shell, so enjoy and go with it!
Photo credit: Megan Van Groll