Go Local: Four Tips to Explore a New Place When You Travel
We really love to plunk ourselves down in the middle of town and wing it when we travel, not enslaving ourselves to guidebooks or hotel staff, but leaving ourselves open to whatever catches our fancy. Granted you might not see every landmark or frequent the restaurant that the concierge is promoting, but with a little advance preparation, real and digital, you can make your experience more real and rewarding:
1. Take Your Interests With You
You hang out with people of like interests at home, so why not do the same while you are away? Meetup is a network of local groups in 196 countries with almost 400,000 monthly get-togethers. With 13.27 million members, you’re bound to meet someone with similar interests on your next trip. And that’s exactly what our good friend Katherine did when recently she went to Paris over the New Years holiday. A cyclist, photographer and wine aficionado, she went to Meetup.com before she left and searched for events in Paris.
“I wasn’t expecting a lot of meetups during the holiday season but found Champagne tasting that was beyond my dreams and certainly didn’t stretch my budget,” she said.
A bit more research revealed that the organizer was an expat American wine blogger and the event, featuring exquisite finger food and a wide assortment of champagnes, was held in a warm, welcoming gutted-out apartment near the Pompidou center that had been turned into tasting and conversation space. Katherine also found a photography meetup. In Paris there are several photo jaunts every month with different leaders. Lasting 4.5 hours and free, they’re a great way to discover a city and meet people when you gather afterwards at a café to share and discuss the day’s shoot. Photos from the meetup were posted to the site and members have stayed in touch with each other ever since.
2. Travel the Way the Locals Do
We like Second Class train travel because we meet the more of the locals. First Class passengers often bury themselves in their newspapers.
We are great fans of the Métro in Paris, the London Tube and New York’s MTA (See Russ Johnson’s article about Grand Central Terminal’s 100th birthday). MetrO for iPhone and Metro 24 for Android help you navigate around the subways of several countries The Moscow version of Metro 24 will even use the NFC on your phone to read your train ticket.
Want to get the street-level view? Taking some time to ride around on a local streetcar is a low stress way to get the lay of the land. You might even try going to the end of the line. In larger cities you might even opt for…dare we say…a city bus tour. You may have to endure moldy jokes and a bad PA system, but it’s a great way to check out attractions you may want to visit later.
3. Eat breakfast where the locals eat
Get up and smell the local coffee. Every town has a café where “everyone” goes for breakfast. Check into Foursquare and discover a nearby café that people love. Then carve out some time to people-watch. Not only do the patrons have different personalities, but so do the coffee shops. In our old home town of Mill Valley, California, for instance, there are three cafes on the square, each clearly catering to a different audience: mountain bikers and soccer moms; entrepreneurs; local philosophers. Pretty soon you’ll get a feel for the locale and find yourself engaged with locals who can point out their own favorite haunts and must-sees. And it is lot cheaper than the hotel buffet .
4. Talk to the oldest person you can find
Mom told me not to talk to strangers, but I can’t resist saying hi to senior citizens who have a twinkle in their eye. They’ll tell you far more than any pamphlet from the tourist office could. Ask them where they like to walk, how the town has changed over the years, what brought them there in the first place and where their happiest memories are. And then go explore those places. You’ll get a deeper appreciation and idea of how time has affected a place and its people.
It costs nothing to get information from people. Next time you travel, resist racking up landmark visits much as a hunter bags and tags prey. Rather, allow yourself to get lost in people, their places and their stories.