Travel and sightseeing are often mistaken for the same thing, but meeting the locals and experiencing the culture really open your eyes.
Let’s be honest, you’ve probably seen all the world’s great sights. Even if you haven’t physically visited them, you know what the Pyramids looks like, you’ve heard all about Macchu Pichu, Venice won’t be a surprise to you if you go there soon.
Of course, we all want to see the world’s great monuments, cities and sights – but what about genuinely experiencing the culture and meeting the locals?
First of all, what do we mean by culture?
In a broad sense culture is the daily habits and routines of the locals, the way food and life are intertwined, what local people do in their free time, celebrations and festivals – the more down to earth side of everyday life.
So how do you genuinely connect with the locals wherever you go? In some places it is easier than others. Language for example will mean that English speakers will find it easier to connect with the locals in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, USA etc. But what about if you don’t have any of the local language or even if you’re a bit shy…
Regardless if you’re in town for a day or a month, there are many ways to immerse yourself in the local culture and really get to know a place.
Bars And Cafes
Everyone needs to eat and drink, even the locals! So find somewhere away from the tourist traps and put on your brave head.
In small local cafes for example you can usually ask someone what they’re eating or what they recommend. In countries like India, Thailand, Spain and Italy you’ll often find the locals very enthusiastic about their cuisine and happy to share their knowledge – sometimes in broken English.
In places like India or Thailand it’s not unknown to be invited to a table with a family just for being an obvious out of towner. In much of Europe, being an English speaker means people will want to practice their speaking with you. Embrace the opportunity!
Don’t be afraid to talk to people at the next table. If it’s not welcome (like they’re having a private moment or they’re just not in the mood) it’ll be made obvious. But more often than not you’ll end up having a good ol’ chat.
If you’d rather know where to go, or turn up with a local check out EatWithALocal which pairs up travellers with locals willing to take you out for dinner. You’ll probably need to pick up the bill of course…
Have A Go At The Language
You might think you’re hopeless with languages, but when you’re a stranger in town, this is the time to give it a shot.
If you learnt some basic French, German or Spanish in school then dust it off and have a go. Sure, you’ll be clunky and your pronunciation and grammar will be all over the place but after a few false starts you’ll start to get more confidence and have fun with it.
In non latin language countries it can be even more fun. The locals tend to appreciate any attempt at their language from an obvious foreigner, no matter how badly done. Japanese and Koreans are usually very receptive to attempts by foreigners to try their lingua franca. Russians, who tend to have a rep for being steely and unfriendly when abroad also warm up when you engage with them in any level of Russian.
Start with simple phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ and probably ‘I don’t speak [language]’. Keep a dictionary or at the very least Google Translate to hand.
Break out your language skills whenever you can… In a bar, on a bus, waiting for a train or even in the local market.
For more about learning languages for travel take a look at our more in depth article here.
If you’re travelling more long term you’ll find a lot of opportunities to get involved with local projects. Volunteering a few hours or days of your time is a great way to get to know whats going on and often make a few friends too.
There are numerous sites for finding proper holidays where you volunteer your time – from building schools, to cleaning up mountains to helping nesting turtles.
Often, arriving in a town that you want to get to know or spend time in, you can ask around if there is anything you can volunteer in. Ask at local tourist offices, check out the expat community or search online for volunteer groups.
You can also just walk into places like schools or local charities and ask if they have anything you could help with. If not, ask them to recommend somewhere you might have more luck with.
Speak To Everyone/Be Generous
Some people will find this easier than others, but a simple way to interact with local culture is… Interact with everyone!
Talk, ask, joke, mime, be chivalrous, sing, dance, flirt, smile. Make the most of every interaction with whoever you meet, from the lady at the market stall to the guy in the ticket booth. Sure, some people will think you’re crazy, but so long as you’re not offending local sensibilities, go for it.
If you don’t speak the language no problem, work with what you’ve got. Miming works wonders and using limited vocab will go a long way.
Sharing food is another great way to interact, especially on long journeys. Bring a packet of nuts or sweets and share them with your seat buddies on trains or buses. You’ll often find it reciprocated anyway.
If you’re in town on the day of a big festival then don’t be an observer, get stuck in. Some are famous and easy to assimilate into – Holi, Songkran, Mardi Gras for example. But if there’s music, a big procession and much fun being had, don’t be shy and join in. If you’re not sure what the deal is, ask.
We often mention CouchSurfing and for good reason. It’s free accommodation and it’s a great way to meet the locals.
As you’re staying for free with someone it is usually expected that you’ll bring a present or a token of your appreciation. Paying money is not the done thing so don’t try, it’s not what CouchSurfing is about. You’ll also be able to spend time with your host, chat to them and perhaps even get shown the locals eye view of the town.
Another excellent website which has really changed the way the world of interaction works, Meetup is a fantastic way to meet locals around the world.
The best thing is to sign up (uncheck all the notifications as it can be a bit much), search for some groups in your target town and watch what is happening. Often the best are language exchanges, but there are options for more diverse hobbies from dance meetups to sports through to kinky swingers (which in itself is a whole other meeting option).
In bigger cities there is normally a good selection of meetup groups whereas in smaller towns you may only have a few to choose from.
Searching for events or groups on sites like Gumtree, Craigslist and MercadoLibre can also yield some surprising results. You might end up singing in a band or attending a free yoga class for an instructor who needs to practice. Browse the ‘community’ section of the city you’re heading to and see what you can find.
Facebook also has region specific groups so take a look at pages about certain towns or areas. You may find opportunities to house sit, couchsurf, work/volunteer or get involved with local groups.
The old fashioned skill of hitch hiking is the cheapest way of getting from A to B and of course a great way to meet locals.
Dress nice, have a wash and get your thumb out on a busy road for best results. Prepare to be patient as hitchers aren’t always warmly received. Having a sign with your destination helps.
In some countries this is one of the main way for locals to get around. Parts of South America, Africa and Asia you may find yourself bumping along in the back of a pickup with a motley assortment of people. Keep smiling and enjoy the free ride!
There are also more organised ways to hitchhike including car share sites like BlaBlaCar, GoCarShare or Liftshare. You’ll normally need to chip in your share of the fuel but it is often cheaper than local transport and a great way to make a trip buddy.
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Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to add any suggestions in the comments below. If you have any other tips about meeting the locals or making friends when travelling we’d love to hear them! Don’t forget to share…