The authenticity of our experiences as we travel is a concept that has gained increasing importance over the last few years. Tourism has transformed many parts of the world, and travellers can sometimes feel that – while there are benefits to being so catered for – that they don’t get a true picture of the places they visit.
While travellers in the sixties and seventies could take for granted that they would see the real character of a location (even if they were visiting tourist hotspots like Ibiza) today this is not a guarantee – and people often miss this aspect of travelling. But even though the world has changed, it is more than possible to experience local culture, we may just have to put a little more thought into it.
Choose a Villa or Apartment
Before you book your holiday, consider choosing an apartment, villa rental or vacation home. Even if you choose a resort, a holiday rental gives you more freedom to explore and settle in, providing a home away from home that’s more in line with the normal rhythm of daily life. Hotels, on the other hand, often feel apart from their surroundings – as if they are their own little world. This can be enjoyable at times, but not always as conducive to an “authentic” experience.
Go in with an open mind
We are all influenced by the way things are presented to us. If we have never been to a country before, it’s likely that we have a picture of how it will be in our minds – made up from the tales of our friends, how it’s presented in the media and broad national stereotypes. While it’s important to have a handle on the customs and traditions of a country, in order to truly make the most of local culture, it’s good practice to put your pre-formed ideas aside and go in with an open mind. This way, you can discover the unexpected and dive into experiences that may not match your assumptions.
Visit the Local Food Market
Food markets are a glorious microcosm of society, where you can see everything that’s authentic about a community – from how they dress to how they interact with each other. It also gives you a chance to really talk to (and learn from) people, discussing produce and the dishes you can cook with vendors, observing which food stalls the locals like most, and soaking in the vibrant atmosphere. If you choose a food market to visit a few times during your stay, you may even find yourself making friends.
Ask the people you meet what their favourite thing to cook is and the restaurants where they most like to eat. This allows you to experience a country’s food culture outside of the omnipresent eye of TripAdvisor – and if you observe the kinds of food people eat every day and get some pointers on local recipes, you can try your hand making your own authentic version back at your accommodation.
Don’t be afraid to wander around
Unless you’ve visited a location where it is truly inadvisable to do so, you can see more to a country if you brush up on your street smarts and go for a wander. You might be amazed what you find between subway stations, or how much you discover by avoiding the urge to jump in a taxi. It can be a little intimidating trying to explore somewhere new (especially a bustling city) but if you take care, even getting a little lost can be an educational experience.
Halve your Itinerary
Alongside allowing yourself to walk and explore a little more, you can also cut down on your holiday “to-see” list. While it makes perfect sense if you are in Agra to go and stare in awe at the Taj Mahal, or spend a day enjoying all things Disney if you’ve decided to visit Florida, doing a few less of the “touristy” things will really free up your time. Local culture can often be found in the cafes hidden down side streets, or in the bookstores you only notice at second glance. Freeing up your time simply to get a feel for the character of a place can be a great way to discover something special.
Check Out Festivals and Events
Going to the local museums will definitely give you a feel for an area, but it’s in the local festivals and events that you will truly make the most of local culture. Whether it’s a small local festival celebrating part of their heritage or a larger city celebration which draws crowds from miles around, you’ll see a place its most welcoming during a local event.
Perhaps the most important thing about making the most of local culture while you are travelling is to really unleash your curiosity. While you’ll discover something about Paris by enjoying a morning chocolat chaud and visiting the Louvre, the only way to really become immersed in it is to nourish your sense of inquisitiveness – the sort which the greatest travel writers indulge in every place they visit. Fuel yourself with the desire to discover as much as you can, and you’ll be rewarded with a truly authentic experience of culture.