A couple of weeks ago, Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe.com and business travel columnist for Portfolio.com, told us that "the best way to get a quick feel of a place and get at least a basic understanding of the people is this: Go to their food markets and their local photography studios." (Read his full tip in 10 More Hardcore Tips for Frequent Travelers.)
This got us to thinking about other ways to get the feel of a place quickly and intimately; here are a dozen tips to get you oriented and underway on your next trip.
1. Two words: two wheels.
Adrian Shoobs, a New Jersey-based cycling advocate, offers the following: "Rent a bike, if you can. You cover a lot of ground quickly, but must pay attention to what's going on around you. A Razor scooter works well too and fits in a backpack. I did Paris on a scooter and a Metro card, and had a blast."
A scooter or a bike offers two very good benefits: speed, in that you can cover a lot of ground fairly quickly (probably just as quickly as a car in many places), and openness, as it has no windows to close and shut you off from your surroundings. Shoobs offers a bit more advice: "The scooter worked really well, and if I were to do it again I'd bike or use an adult scooter. An outfit called Xootr makes them and they're great. You see lots of them in NYC."
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2. Or your own two feet.
Gabe Winkler, a rowing coach and world traveler, advises: "Go for a run. You'll see the real parts of the town and you'll work off your jet lag." I agree completely; this is what I did in Beijing, before five in the morning no less, and it was one of the most memorable and enlightening parts of my visit there. Read more about my morning runs, the resulting run-ins with people and sheep alike, and more, at Beijing Dispatch: Glimpses of the Real China.
Gabe has done runs in places from Rome to Phuket, Thailand. In Ketchikan, Alaska, running is the best way to see all the totem poles, he says. "Some of my best discoveries of a city were by running. You get away from the tourist sections and get to see the real place. Sometimes you'll run in places where everyone will stare and point at you. Other times, you'll look like a local and people will ask you for directions. If you are a runner that covers a lot of ground, you just might be able to give them the directions (that is, if you can speak the language). It's at that point that you 'know' the place."
New Jersey-based lawyer Karl Piirimae agrees with Gabe and Adrian: "Nothing beats going for a run or, if readily available, a bike ride. Last year I rented a bike in New Orleans and rode all over town and down to Jazz Fest. You can get to know the place with all of your senses."
A number of correspondents recommended walking, as well -- and walking a lot if you can handle it.
3. Or try public transportation.
Igor Belakovskiy, a software engineer in Boston, advises that you "take a train/bus/subway somewhere -- [there's] always an interesting amalgamation of characters on public transportation."
IndependentTraveler.com editor Sarah Schlichter agrees: "Take the bus. And not the tour bus -- the local public bus. Many tourists find public bus networks confusing or intimidating, so you'll be riding mostly with locals, and it always offers an interesting peek into the culture -- everything from the music the driver plays on the radio to the ads on the sides of the vehicle. My favorite bus experiences have come on small, brightly painted vans in the Caribbean, where I've discussed American politics with locals and listened in on exuberant conversations between young girls on their way home from school."
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4. Search for the best place to eat lunch.
Dining out can be an unreliable way to get to know a place -- even in my tiny home town, many restaurants show only an extremely small sliver of local life, and a couple cater mostly to out-of-town folks and tourists, so you wouldn't interact with locals almost at all, save for your server. Even your Yelp or Urbanspoon shaker apps can sometimes be just as likely to steer you to a tourist trap as to a local hangout.
However, there is one meal for which Google/Bing/etc. searches will most often direct you to the local joints: lunch. Lunch is the meal that takes place during working hours for the vast majority of folks -- and as such is the meal for which the most glowing reviews will often mean that the locals are happy. And when the locals are happy, they go back to a place again and again. And when they go back to those places, well, when you go, you get to mingle with the locals.
Give it a try -- go to your preferred search engine and type "best place for lunch in..." and then add a favorite city or upcoming destination. Even in a giant city like New York, among the top results I found a tiny cafe, a hardcore deli and a mobile food truck. It won't fail you.
For a more specialized search, Ceci Flinn, an American based in London who travels frequently for business and pleasure, uses Roadfood.com, a growing database that can help you "find authentic regional eats"; it's worth a look.
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5. Linger in cafes -- and don't count out chain establishments.
Ah, geez, I might as well say what I mean: go check out the local Starbucks. Anti-corporate and anti-chain restaurant sentiments aside, locals go to Starbucks to sit around, to gossip, to work and to meet friends. If there is a locally preferred alternative to the Starbucks, go there instead, by all means. Near me, Small World Coffee is popular with locals, and its two outposts typically offer all the local flavor (and hopefully a little weirdness) you could hope for in a suburban university town.
Folks are often at their least guarded in a coffee shop -- after all, they are indulging their obsession with, or even addiction to, coffee. When you visit, linger for a while, and do so quietly; you will see and overhear quite a bit of local life.
Oregon-based frequent traveler E. McGrand concurs: "Cafes and grocery stores give the gestalt."
6. Walk to and from all meals.
Getting to and from restaurants is your best opportunity to have a look around. For example, finding the mobile food truck I mention above can be an adventure in itself. In most locations, eateries are somewhat centrally located, so get off the subway a stop early, or park your car a little ways away, and hoof it for a few blocks coming and going. The amount you will see that you would have missed otherwise will pile up nicely after a few days.
7. Ask around at the bar.
Traveler Mike Sullivan counts on the local bartender to get the scoop: "I walk into pub, ask for a local brew and open up a conversation by asking what's the most interesting local history to them." Sullivan adds: "It only got me in trouble in one place."
In his work as legal counsel for large-scale real estate projects, Piirimae has used a similar tactic: "Professionally I have done some effective snooping to get a sense of local attitudes toward development projects by hanging out or having dinner at local bars when I hit town. You have to find the right kind of place, but you can learn a lot quickly."
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8. Go see some houses.
Another advocate of going running, sports medicine physician Andrew McMarlin of Sullivan's Island, SC, also recommends going house-hunting: "The two best methods I've experienced have been having a realtor show me around (in the States) and running a different loop each day of my trip (everywhere)."
Going house-hunting with a licensed realtor will get you inside homes, where people do their real living. While McMarlin does this mainly in the U.S., I have heard of folks doing the same while in Southeast Asia, China, Japan and South America. In a place where folks live very different home lives from yours, you can learn a whole lot fast; a middle-class home in Beijing, for example, is very different from one in Atlanta. We recommend being up front about your intentions and offering compensation for the real estate agent's time. Keep in mind, too, the potential inconvenience to the locals whose homes you're visiting. A better option may be to look up and attend some open houses on your own.
9. Do something extremely mundane.
For several years my go-to tactic on this score has been to get a haircut -- nothing could be much easier, or more likely to put you in a room among folks where few tourists ever go. I have had haircuts in Marathon, Greece during the Olympics; in Henley-on-Thames during its regatta; and in Tangier, Copenhagen and La Libertad.
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10. Find a club.
When traveling, indulge your skill or hobby. If you play a musical instrument, look for local open mic nights; if you do yoga, go to the local studio; if you are a photographer, seek out the local photography club -- you get the idea. In doing these things, you are not necessarily hoping to take great photos or get a workout in, although that may happen -- you are looking to meet the locals. Folks with similar interests are most likely to take you in and show you around.
11. Read a book.
McGrand recommends reading a book that is set in your destination: "Good local fiction ahead of time." Seeing a place through the prism of a good novel can be extremely satisfying, and certainly it has become part of the travel industry -- tours based on massively popular novels like "The Da Vinci Code" can be found in a number of cities. It is easy to get over some of the notorious inaccuracies in many historical novels (it is fiction, after all) when following the thread of the novel takes you to new and fascinating parts of a city or country.
12. Watch the news.
If you just want a vacation and these tips seem too strenuous or challenging, you can even stare at the boob tube right from your hotel room. Architect Jeff Peterson recommends this simple trick: "Watch the local news. It is particularly enlightening if you are out in a rural area."
Have a tip we missed? Post yours in the comments below.
The Independent Traveler