Stop trying to live like a local when you travel. Everyone today is obsessed with finding “off the beaten track” restaurants and “authentic” experiences. They want to avoid the main attractions, large crowds, and pushy vendors because that is what a real traveler would do. Well, guess what? Being a tourist is wonderful.
Take your friends in your hometown, for example, do they know all the off the beaten path restaurants and bars? Probably not and they likely don’t look for them too often either. Now maybe you don’t live in a city like Boston, New York, or LA, but it still applies to any city where tourists venture. Most locals I know frequent the same restaurants, don’t go to new exhibitions at museums, and haven’t experienced what their city is famous for in years. Locals have routines, favorite spots and go places where they feel comfortable. Being a tourist allows you to see things with a virgin perspective and not worry about what is trendy and what is not.
I will be the first to admit I am guilty of this. As a kid growing up in Boston I had to walk the famous Freedom Trail which is a red-brick walking path through the historic streets of Boston. This seemed like torture on a 5th grade field trip and I didn’t do it again until I was 24. It wasn’t until I brought my girlfriend home to visit that I actually saw all of Boston’s amazing history again. The freedom trail is not touristy. Yes, tourists walk it, but it goes through the heart of Boston and skipping it would mean missing out on a great experience. Some of my favorite parts of Boston are heavily trafficked by tourists but I always return. Of course I frequent favorite and lesser known spots but there is always a nice balance to it.
This applies to touristy places all over the world. Nobody is going to tell me not to go to the Great Pyramids of Giza. No matter how overcrowded and aggressive the vendors are at Giza I am going. It has been one of the most amazing sites on the planet for thousands of years. Some may argue the less crowded Pyramid of Khafre or the Red Pyramid are more enjoyable. It may be true these offer a better experience, however missing a photo-op at the most famous pyramid on the planet is not an option. The same can be said for all the famous sites around the world.
As I return to places I have been before I still enjoy seeing the same touristy site at a new age. For example, I have been to Paris four times and every time I love seeing the Eiffel Tower. It is a tourist trap but a truly awesome one. If you can’t enjoy the Eiffel Tower then you are missing out on what travel is all about. I have been to Venice multiple times but still love a romantic ride through the canals in a gondola with my wife.
How to Turn Touristy into Traveler
Angkor Wat is one of the most famous temples in the world but this was my least favorite of the ancient temples in Cambodia due to the tour buses and hoards of people. However, to skip it would’ve been a shame. With research, I learned that I could hurry inside after the overcrowded sunrise and tip the guard $5 to gain access to the highest level of the temple which was ordinarily off limits. That type of experience turns the tourist into a traveler.
Another favorite example of turning a tourist activity into a traveler’s experience was in Amsterdam. I wanted to cruise the canals but no way was I going to ride one of the jam packed bus-boats. Instead I learned about a local non-profit organization of captains who will take you for a ride on their personal boat. They hold no more than 10 people and it was free with a recommended tip of 10 euros. All I had to do was use some online research to learn where to sign-up, since they do not advertise.
The True Way to Live Like a Local
I believe seeing what a city is famous for is important and would never skip it. Even if it is just for one photo you should go and see those sites. After getting the major tourist attraction out of the way, it is time to explore the city as the locals should know it. This starts with doing your research at home and knowing what to do when you arrive in a new city.
- Find unique spots to eat
- Explore local bars
- Engage with locals at activities
- Buy food at the local market
- Go for a walk or run in the park
- Leave the tourist zone (every city has one)
- Rent a room, apartment or house (AirBnB, Roomarama,Wimdu, or VRBO)
- Schedule a meet-up
This is why I try to be a tourist in my own town. I don’t want to fall into a routine and become the lazy local taking for granted my wonderful city. When traveling, striking a healthy balance between tourist attractions, museums, and local activities is the perfect way to enjoy a vacation. A great place to meet locals in your hometown or abroad is on Meetup.com or even buying someone a coffee on Couchsurfing.com. Remember, it is ok to be a tourist — just don’t forget to do your research, get out there and explore. Before you know it, you will be recommending places to the locals.