This is the Very Best Way to Experience a Foreign City

This is the Very Best Way to Experience a Foreign City

Nancy Mitchell
May 3, 2015
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

The whole point of travel is to experience something different, right? So why do so many vacations wind up feeling like a marathon sprint through new sights, resulting in many Instagrams but few lasting impressions? Sure, if you are a real trooper, you could see 17 different countries in 15 days, as one enterprising European traveler I knew did. But if you want to do more than just see things, if you want to really know what it's like to be in a strange and different and wonderful place, there is a better way. Call it 'slow travel', call it whatever you like, but as far as I'm concerned it's the very best way to go.

The very best way to experience what it's like to actually live in a strange city? Actually live there. Whether it's for two weeks or six weeks or six months, the best way to understand a new place is to make a life there — to figure out public transportation, find out where to buy groceries, even make friends in a new city.

About a year ago I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of spending six weeks in Paris, once of the world's most beautiful cities. I was in transition between Houston and New York, and with a go-ahead from my editor I spent a month and a half working remotely from Paris and having, as an adult, the study abroad experience I never got to have in college.

But I realize this advice is a bit obtuse. Not everybody can afford to take a lot of time off of work. Not everybody has responsibilities that they can put on hold for weeks at a time. Not everybody has a job where they can work from the other side of the world. If you're one of those people, you can still have the 'I live here' experience — even if you're only staying for a short time. Here are some ideas.

1. Avoid hotels and stay someplace local.
If you are an adventurous sort of traveler, where you stay can make a huge difference in your experience of a place. You can eschew a hotel and choose to use a site like Airbnb or Vrbo to find a local place, where you can rent a whole house or apartment and hang out and cook meals and do laundry just as if you lived there. You can also search Airbnb for single rooms that are available at host houses. At the very least your host can offer suggestions for things to do in the city you're visiting, and you may make a connection with a local that you never would have otherwise. For the very outgoing there's Couchsurfing, where you can stay with, and make friends with, people all over the world.

2. Leave a little time for wandering.
When you're planning your trip it can be really tempting to maximize your time by packing every minute full of visits to museums, landmarks, and restaurants. But you may find later that the sweetest moments from your trip are those where you allowed yourself to be a little spontaneous, and explore that park or pastry shop or twisty street you happened to find. It may sound counterintuitive, but try to work a little spontaneity into your plan.

3. Make an effort to meet local people.
When I was in Paris I was very worried that I'd be lonely — six weeks is a long vacation, but not a long time to actually make friends. But a lot of folks I met recommended meetup to me, where I was able to meet and spend time with lots of friendly, local people. In my experience people were very welcoming, even thought I was only there for a short while. For shorter trips there are sites like Eatwith, where you can share dinner at a local's home, and possibly make new friends.

4. Learn a little bit of the language.
Unless you are some kind of genius, you will probably not have time to become fluent in whateverish between the time you plan your vacation and the time you actually take it. But learning at least a little bit of the language will help endear you to locals, and will help you to feel much more natural and at home in a new place. Even in a country as (allegedly) hostile as France, just knowing to say 'bonjour' when I walked into a shop and speaking a very little bit of French really helped. Most people are nice, and they will appreciate your effort and give you credit for trying. (Duolingo is a great way to start learning, on your phone, for free.)

5. Go off the beaten path.
This is one of those times when I'm so grateful for the internet. Sure, every city has its well-known, unavoidable tourist destinations. But it's become quite easy to scope out restaurants and bars that are a little bit off the beaten path, where you'll wind up rubbing shoulders with locals. My advice would be to stay in hotel (or Airbnb!) that's in a neighborhood just outside the tourist radius, and then do a search for restaurants and nightspots that are close to where you're staying. You'll be rewarded with delicious food, shorter waits, and a more authentic experience.

6. Stay in one place as opposed to trying to cram in every spot you possibly can.
I get it — plane tickets to Europe or South America or Asia are expensive, and you want to get your money's worth. But consider that five years from now, it may mean more to you to have truly gotten an an experience of one city, as opposed to having done a whirlwhind trip through four or five.

And of course, all these ideas are not for everyone — in the end, your vacation should be something that relaxes you and makes you happy. But if you want to relax and get happy by experiencing true local color, consider incorporating a few of these suggestions into your travel plans. Maybe you'll be glad you did.

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