I’ll never forget the first time I went to New York. For four days I wandered the city and took in every morsel I could. I ate pizza at a hole-in-the-wall shop in The Financial District. I watched 42nd Street on Broadway. I marveled at The Empire State Building and Times Square.
Just a few years later, I moved to New York. Going from tourist to local made me realize that I did all the wrong things on my first trip. As much fun as I had, I didn’t get to see the city for what it really was. I missed out on the wine and coffee of the East Village, the many book readings and small playhouses throughout the city, and the joy of wandering through pocket parks. Why? Because I didn’t know any better.
From that time on I vowed to never miss out on a city’s true self again.
Want to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes I did? Read on to learn how not to be a “touristy” tourist.
Discover What the City Is Known For
Every city has its tourist attractions, but they’re not always what the city is most proud of. The Statue of Liberty and The Golden Gate Bridge are amazing sites to see, but natives of New York and San Francisco would tell you there’s a lot more to absorb than just that.
The next time you plan a trip, read beyond the typical tourist guides to find out what a city is known for – both by travelers and locals. Then you can discover the heart of the city.
Ask the Locals
I once was getting my hair done for a wedding in Florida when I asked the hairdresser what her favorite things to do were. It turned out she and I were both avid salsa dancers so she recommended a few places to go that only the locals knew about. Just by striking up that conversation, I got to check out something I never would have heard about otherwise. Bonus: I got to experience that town the same way the people who live there do!
When you meet locals, ask them what they like to do in their hometown. They’ll be sure to steer you to their favorite hangouts, which often won’t be listed in a guide.
Caveat: keep in mind the safety of the place you’re visiting. Sometimes tourist areas are the only safe place for non-locals to go. Take people’s suggestions, but make sure to research the safety before you go.
Make a Plan Around What You Love to Do
So often when we decide travel, we think we have to see what everyone goes to that place to see. And while it’s great to see noteworthy sights, you’ll have a lot more fun if you make time for the things you specifically like to do.
For example, I love coffee shops (so much so that most of my weekends are spent sitting in my favorite coffee shop or looking for new ones to try). Therefore my idea of getting to know a city has a lot to do with finding the best coffee shops, as rated by the people who live there.
In this way I’ve been able to chat with the busy baristas of New York and the chill roasters in San Francisco, enjoy the high quality beans of Portland, and much more. Specifically, I like to learn about how they prepare the coffee and why. Believe it or not, this actually tells me a lot about what makes the city unique!
What about you? Perhaps you like restaurants, wine, cars, the outdoors, art, or more. Whatever it is that you enjoy, plan your next trip around learning that place’s take on the same thing. You’ll get a completely unique view of the city you’re visiting – one that’s relevant to you.
Be Considerate of Local Customs
Humans are habitual creatures. If you think about it for a few minutes, you’ll recognize routines you’ve built into your daily life without even realizing it: what you eat, when you eat, how you talk to people, how you work, etc.
But when we’re traveling, we have to let some of those habits slide – or we could end up disrupting the lives of the people who live in the place we’re visiting.
For example, you could get frustrated that things close down in the middle of the day in Spain, or you could enjoy the one place that gives you a two hour break during “work hours.” Or you could gasp at the portion sizes in France compared with other countries (such as the U.S.) or you could revel in the richness and quality of the food.
I made this mistake when I visited New Orleans for the first time. Being a typical New Yorker, I kept speed-walking around everyone on the street and thinking, “Why is everyone so slow?” Then I realized that I was being rude. I already knew that I was visiting a place that has a slower lifestyle and celebrates that. I should have been mindful of their culture and worked within that rather than getting upset that things weren’t done my way.
Everyone loves when tourists come to their city – it brings in income, creates jobs, and it can be a point of local pride. But this can all quickly turn to frustration if tourists aren’t considerate of the city’s local customs. Don’t be one of “those” tourists when you travel.
Remember: Everything is What You Make Of It
No one can escape it: creating high expectations for our travel plans. It’s so hard not to have high expectations when we book that ticket, look at the glossy brochures, and start daydreaming about the adventures we’ll go on!
The problem is that few places or experiences can live up to the expectations we place on them. If you travel to a new place and it’s not what you thought it would be, don’t be disappointed. Remember that every trip you take (whether it’s for work or fun) is exactly what you make of it.
Keep an open mind. Explore things outside of your comfort zone. Ask a lot of questions. Then you’ll get to experience the joy of travel no matter where you go!
Image Credit: Vladimir Kudinov