How to find local culture in any city, big or small


APRIL, 2017


Regardless of the number in your travel party, you can find opportunities for local culture on vacation. Culture is often a broadly used term, and depending on who you ask, it has varied meanings. Regardless, we’ll take the traditional definition of culture when we consider those social studies classes we took in school and examine how people live and do what we do, just in their own traditions. Finding local culture in any city, big or small, is about the customs, routine or special, that give us a glimpse into their lifestyles within their settings.

Travelers seeking those hidden gems (and, in some destinations, even those are not as rare and already discovered) can resourcefully find experiences that will give them lasting memories and anecdotes to share that sound like no one else’s.

Every trip should involve an email correspondence with the Tourist Board/CVB/DMO in advance. Convention & Visitors Bureaus, Destination Marketing Organizations, Tourist Boards essentially offer free services including brochures, maps, tips, itinerary planning, and more. You can find all that on the website or in a travel guide. You may consider emailing them and asking if they customize itineraries based on your travel party and interests. They’re often willing to give you more time than a larger location, although, ironically, they have less staff to help but will often go that extra mile.

Yes, the calendar of events on a tourism website will tell you the festivities that are of interest and the biggest draw but check out the community calendars for some of those exceedingly local events, maybe a trivia night at a pub or a weekday farmers’ market or even a neat fundraiser (cake bakeoffs, chili competitions, etc.).

Consider the customs. Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning, at the coffee place (before 11am), and they have a pastry with it… all while standing around the bar area and not lingering at a café table. Order food and drink the way all others are because while you may like your venti mocha latte with extra foam and a sprinkling of nutmeg, consider the experience of dining as locals do.

Check out local meet-ups, if you’re traveling alone and interested in meeting people who like doing similar things as you, but this time, you’re in their backyard. No, a book club night isn’t necessarily the event to attend, but maybe a rock climbing or hiking group can serve as unofficial guides to less congested trails that you’d miss in the tourist handbook.

“Check out those diners, grills, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and immerse yourself in conversation at the counter, bar, or picnic table”

No matter how indulgent the trip, filled with spa treatments, rounds of golf on pristine courses, and fine dining at those eateries with acclaimed chefs, a true experience of a local is likely not so princely. Check out those diners, grills, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and immerse yourself in conversation at the counter, bar, or picnic table. Food trucks are great for take-out and have upped their game in the last decade. Picking up dinner to take home after work is pretty common for busy working individuals so you will likely meet locals in line to learn their insights of their home. Keep in mind that you may have to play journalist a bit; often, the facets of a town that residents don’t generally find exciting are going to fascinate you and you’ll have found that unique thing to do, see, eat, or experience to try.

You may not be religious but some services are non-denominational and don’t necessarily happen in a traditional place of worship, such as a temple or church. Hong Kong and so many other cities offer tai chi or yoga in a park, vineyard, farm, or other setting. Ask around—the Chamber of Commerce or other local organizations might post this information online.

When you aren’t staying in a luxury hotel, you may find yourself in a location in which the only options for accommodations are a bed & breakfast inn or AirBnB home. Non-traditional lodging is often in a neighborhood, so find that neighbor who loves to chat or talk to those walking their dogs.

Taking a hike? Use your hard copy map or GPS as a guide but find those departure points that lead to places that might be equally nifty to photograph or offer a bit of history but aren’t ‘clean’ for the tourist seeking a Disney type of trip.

Don’t just ask the concierge. Ask the flight attendant, the server at the neighborhood bar, the grocery clerk, the staff at the library, the approachable person taking public transit with you, the caddy, the spa attendant—everyone who seems willing to chat about their hometown. Sometimes, you’ll get that person who focuses on what’s wrong with his community but take it in stride and maybe there’s a morsel there too about a place being rundown by tourists (avoid it) or locals, or a location that doesn’t fascinate him, or even an off-the menu dish.

Flexibility is important. You may be disappointed, but have a Plan B so you can shift gears easily and abandon a site you don’t like. You may encounter some unfriendliness or just some stoic locals, but take it all in and try to live among them.