Most of us travel to experience new cultures, ideas, foods, and see the sights we've always dreamed of visiting. Before relocating to Europe, my travel style was fairly fast-paced - a day or so in one city, then on to the next. I loved being able to see as much as possible in a short time, without compromising or missing out on my priorities. However, this fast pace, and also being a tourist to begin with, tends to create difficulties when it comes to maximizing exposure to new cultures and ideas. While it's easy to go to Paris and take your picture in front of the Eiffel tower, eat a baguette, and visit the Louvre, can you really say that you "experienced" French culture?
Over the years, I've come up with tricks to ensure I'm making the most of my time abroad. I don't like to be just a tourist - I want to experience a culture directly in order to gain new insights from each trip.
Whether you are a solo traveler or backpacking with a group of friends, hostels are always a great way to meet others from all over the world. People in hostels are generally open minded and approachable, making it easy to make new friends in each city you visit.
Believe it or not, as a solo traveler, it is almost impossible NOT to meet other people! You're bound to strike up conversation with other travelers in the dorms or common spaces. You might be sharing a room with people from South Korea, Brazil, Ireland, Australia, and Germany. Cooking dinner? You're sure to get to know others in the kitchen...maybe even find a group to hit the bars with.
I have made some incredible friends from over 20 countries and have kept in contact through social media. For example, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, I met a group and we cooked together, went out, and explored an abandoned areas nearby. Just a year later, these same friends came to stay with me in Boston.
Not only does CouchSurfing offer free accommodation for those on a budget, but it also allows you to live and interact with locals in the city you are visiting. Don't worry, you don't necessarily have to stay on a couch, many hosts offer a guest room. The CouchSurfing platform acts just like a social network. Create a profile, search your dates & destination, and reach out to local hosts. If you're concerned with awkwardness or safety, check for users who are verified and read reviews from other travelers who have stayed there.
If you're still a bit hesitant to stay with a stranger, it's still useful to have a profile. There are often meet ups and ways to meet locals. You can post or search discussion boards in a new city to find anything from salsa night, to pubs night, to language exchange.
I found CouchSurfing to be a wonderful way to get a local taste of a city in a limited amount of time. While budget backpacking for a summer, my friend and I stayed with three amazing students in Berlin. They showed us the best beer gardens, a student film festival, and the coolest neighborhood pubs to watch the ongoing football tournament. Our Norwegian guide in Bergen, was excited to meet other travelers and offered to tour us around his city.
Cultural exchange doesn't have to stop when you return home! You can set up your profile to host other Couch Surfers in your hometown.
By far, my best travel memories have been occasions where I've made local friends. The easiest way to do meet people is at a language exchange. Many hostels coordinate their own exchanges on different nights of the week or even the Couch Surfing community. Keep an eye out for fliers posted at a local cafe...you never know what other local events may be coming up.
While solo traveling in Romania, I met a fellow young woman and business owner at my hostel's language exchange one afternoon. She was so excited to share about her city while practicing English. I was even more stoked to have made a local friend. The next day Marina showed me all her favorite local parks and art and recommended everything I should try at the restaurant that night. My experience wouldn't have been nearly as memorable had I simply wandered Bucharest on my own.
TOURS BY LOCALS
ToursByLocals are a great way to get a unique perspective of a city. These are typically focused in neighborhoods that are not frequented by tourists. Think street art, vintage shops, local food stalls, unique cafes. You'll hear personal stories from your guide about what its like to actually live there.
I loved the street art tour I did in Bucharest. Our local guide, Andrea, not only exposed us to the cultural context behind the art, she also gave personal anecdotes about her family's life under the Communist regime. I did another ToursByLocals tour in Dubrovnik, Croatia. As an avid Game of Thrones fan, I wanted to see all the spots used in filming the show. Our guide Dimitri did a great job having us pose for pictures where the actors stood. He also had interesting stories about how local life changed when the film crews rolled in. We even paid a visit to a local hostel where one of the actors drunkenly wandered into and passed out one night!
ToursByLocals offers private tours with local guides to create unique travel adventures. Find out more.
So there you have it! A few strategies to help you experience culture more authentically in a short time. By no means are these the only ways to do so...In fact, the best opportunity is to volunteer and live in a local community or even to teach English abroad. When this isn't practical, however (How many of us have more than a few weeks off a year anyways?), be sure to connect with the culture you are visiting by truly engaging with the people around you. Keep an open mind, get lost on purpose, and don't be afraid to adjust your plans and expectations.
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