What distinguishes a tourist from a traveler? Whilst this is a little bit of an abstract question I would hazard a response. A tourist is there to see the sites, the scenes, the places. They want to check out the main attractions and are often around for a short burst, enough only to catch a brief glimpse at the culture. A traveler on the other hand is in it for the long haul; they have seen all the attractions and the tourist lures, and now they want to understand the culture, and see what the people have to offer. They want to engage with the world, and the people in it.
One of the most direct ways to gain a better understanding of a country, is by connecting with locals. Here are 10 tips to help you:
- Get Away From Tourism
When a place becomes full up with tourism, the locals quickly lose interest and can even become aversive towards people exploring their land. This is not their fault, as they have seen their local area ruined by tourism, as the charm is replaced by bars and junk food stalls. Extremely touristic areas are not the best place to meet locals. Consider traveling out of season when places have become quieter, and make sure you get off the main tourist strips, in order to get a more authentic and local experience.
- Ask For Help
This is one of the most simple ways to meet locals, and in a lot of cultures people are all too happy to help. When you need directions, advice on places to eat, or places to visit, ask a local for their advice. They will be able to give you knowledge that a tourist office couldn’t, and it can be an easy way into a deeper conversation. You could even receive an offer to dine with them.
- Go To Local Bars and Cafes
Look for the places that the locals hang out; the pubs, clubs, bars, and cafes that pull in the crowds that live nearby. Not only is this a good tactic for finding quality establishments, it is also good for connecting with the locals. They will feel comfortable in their environment and will see that you have found your way off the tourist path. Cafe cultures, such as can be found in Europe, offer intimate outdoor seating with sociable and open atmospheres.
- Ask About Culture and Customs
What better way to connect with a local than to ask them about the cultures and customs of their country. This will give you fast-track understanding, them an opportunity to talk about something they have a passion for, and the fact that you care about the culture, and want to know more, will make you pretty popular. Locals love to know that you care about the country you are visiting, and are not just there to get drunk, or to lie on beaches, or to live for cheap. Be genuinely interested, and you will attract attention from locals for all the right reasons.
- Shop Local and Visit Markets
In some cultures the local shops are a focal point for the community. If you are staying in one place for a while then you will have the opportunity to find out which shops the locals are using. Here you can find local produce, and have an opportunity to chat to local people. Markets are even more sociable, and in some countries, such as France, the whole community seems to find their way out for a morning of casual bartering. Talk to stall owners too; they could even find you work.
- Attend Local Events and Festivals
Back home, no one is in better spirits than when an event or festival is on. The same is true when traveling; it is a bit of a universal truth. Attend local festivals rather than tourist parties. You will be able to learn a lot about the culture, and the local people will be happy you have found it, and happy to tell you more about the history and meaning. It is another sign that you are interested in the culture, and that is all a local needs to know sometimes.
- Travel Slow
If you are always rushing around from city to city, with only enough time to see the main sights, then it is unlikely you will be able to connect much with locals. Instead, consider traveling slowly, and getting to know a place. Visit the same cafe a few times during your stay so that you become a familiar face. I spent a month in a place once and knew all of the locals in the small town, at least by face, by the end of it. I went to local meeting points, cafes, shops, events, and felt accepted in the community after a while.
- Learn Some of the Language
This is an important one. Some countries it will be more crucial than others, especially those that do not speak your native tongue. In this case you will need some of the language to communicate at all with most locals, and this can be challenging. Even in places where fluent English is spoken it is important to learn some of the language, even if it is only the basics, such as manners and some phrases to ask people about themselves. Speaking the same language, at least partially, is fundamental for communication. In a country where it is not so crucial, it will still be greatly appreciated, and will set you apart form the rabble who have not taken the time to bother.
- Volunteer and Couchsurfing
Communities such as WWOOF and workaway.com allow the traveler to work and live with a local family, sometimes for a month or more. This is a very cheap way to travel, but it is also one of the best ways to understand the local people, and the culture. You get to live intimately alongside a local, and can form very deep and meaningful relationships. Couchsurfing is similar; a local puts you up on their spare bed or couch for a night or two, and you can talk about life together. This may be the easiest way to really get involved, and to connect deeply with local people.
- Always Talk To Strangers!
A lot of youngsters are told never to talk to strangers. Try this traveling and you will never talk to anyone! Just go for it. Talk to locals often. Sometimes it could be awkward, but often it will be rewarding.