We hear it all the time as travel advice: do what the locals do. It can give you a great experience of a new place, but if you're in an unfamiliar location it can seem easier said than done. Thankfully, with a little preparation and some on-the-fly Google skills, it's entirely possible to experience a city just like the locals.
Photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
A quick initial point: there's nothing wrong with "acting like a tourist". Many well-known attractions are famous for a reason. If you're happy with those places, we're not judging you; just offering some advice for what to do if you're not after that experience. The choice is yours.
While learning the language and understanding local customs is important, experiencing a city like a native is also about "going where the locals go." What it really boils down to is ditching the travel guide, and hitting up all those "hidden gems" within a city. Let's start with the hotel.
Stay In A Neighbourhood You'd Actually Live In
Deciding how you want to approach the local experience from the outset is key. Are you more interested in restaurants and clubs? Or do you want to sit on a beach for the day? Deciding that ahead of time will make it easier to decide what part of town to look for a hotel in.
Your hotel's location is essentially your neighbourhood for the duration of your stay, so investigate what's on offer nearby. On a basic level, you can hit Google Maps and use Street View to get an idea of what the neighbourhood looks like. Use the search nearby function to check if there are restaurants or clubs in the vicinity.
That said, locals don't sleep in hotels, so why should you? If you're a little more adventurous, home-renting service Airbnb will give you a wider range of choices for areas to stay in. If your search for the perfect neighbourhood isn't turning up much, try posting a question on Twitter or Facebook.
How To Find Amazing Things To Do
Finding the right neighbourhood is a good first step, but you still need to find your way to the best local places. Here are some suggestions.
Eat And Drink Like The Locals
Randomly walking into restaurants can be fun, but if you're on a budget (or just don't have that much time), then a little research is required. Eat Your World provides a good starting place to get you familiar with what a city's known for and its culinary staples. Sites like Urbanspoon and Yelpall provide a good mix of different restaurants with a mix of user and professional reviews. The goal here is simple, stray away from anything familiar and try something new.
Find Local Events And Weird Landmarks
When you want to find something to do when you're in town, it's all about digging into what a local would do, and searching through the same web sites (or papers) they'd read.
Weekly papers can be a great resource to find local events, whether it's a special day at a local restaurant, or a hot new dance club. Most larger cities will also have an events page listing the big stuff — orchestra performances, events in public parks, or parades.
If you want to dig into the weirder side of a city, few sites are better at chronicling odd tourism spots than Atlas Obscura. The site lists bizarre restaurants, strange architecture, tiny museums, and lots more. Triposo catalogues interesting places to eat and find events You'll find options ranging from dance lessons to art openings.
Respect Local Culture And Customs
Customs and etiquette vary, especially in unfamiliar countries. Even if you have a grasp on the language, every place is a little different. Apps can help here.
For iOS, we like TripLingo (the Android version was recently removed as it's getting an update) because it teaches you phrases that matter to you and that you'll actually use. For Android, Google Translate is still one of your best options, even though it doesn't teach you the language in context the way TripLingo does. A good collection of apps that break the language barrier are always handy to keep around.
The Ultimate Guide to Worldwide Etiquette provides a quick overview of customs, etiquette and tipping standards around the world. When all else fails, try and follow the lead of people around you.
Ask Questions To Find Everything Else
Once you're on the ground, it's time to really dig into the city and find what you're looking for. Online research aside, sometimes the best choice is to simply chat to the locals.
Asknative for the iPhone is one way to do this. Simply type in the city you have a question about, and ask away. Hopefully some locals will respond. Otherwise, forums for local city groups are great, and people will often offer suggestions on where to go and what to do. Even traditional travel guide forums like Fodors can be a good place to chat with people who live locally or know a city well. And simply asking a question of someone at a restaurant or bar will still go a long way.