Truly understanding and appreciating a new culture can take months or even years. When traveling, most of us don’t have that luxury. Those for whom a few days to a week is about the best that can be hoped for have to figure out how to get the most out of limited time. A checklist of museums and attractions is a common instinct, but it won’t give you the deep connection that makes travel rewarding. After years of planning events around the world I have learned that taking a few simple steps allows travelers to better connect to new places, make amazing memories, truly feel at home in a strange land, and always have the best travel stories to tell.
1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE. I know that this is obvious, and the obvious response is that it’s difficult and time-consuming. But you don’t have to be fluent to get the benefits of putting in a little effort, and it will make you much more comfortable. Learn the most important phrases: “Hello,” “Where is the bathroom?” and the most important in any language: “Thank you.” I also like to learn to ask for the check and how to say the equivalent of “Cheers!” every place I go. Ask a native speaker to check your pronunciation; with those basics you may even convince passerby you are a local. And on that note…
2. DRESS THE PART. The more different you look the more different and isolated you will feel. People in obvious tourist garb always look so awkward, and are easy targets for scams. Do some quick research – Pinterest is a fabulous resource – on what the locals wear and pack your suitcase accordingly. Are they more casual or more dressy than you are used to? Are they having fun with colors and prints or are they in muted earth tones? Do they all have scarves or head coverings? Most importantly check out the shoes, because they will tell you what the most fashionable and practical choices are. Are most of the women wearing cute ballet flats? Low heeled boots? Wedges? They probably know that it’s the best way to be comfortable in the lifestyle and climate and look fashionable at the same time. Nobody in New York City is wearing white or super high heels; follow their lead because they know something you don’t. Dress like a local and you may even find other tourists asking you for directions.
3. READ LOCAL LITERATURE. You may not be able to pick up the language in a week, but pick up a translated novel that takes place in the city or region you will be exploring and start it before you leave, giving your mind a head start on adapting. In Paris read Émile Zola, J. M. Coetzee in South Africa, Haruki Murakami in Tokyo, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar in Istanbul, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia. Walking the streets of Cartagena reading Love in the Time of Cholera imagining Florentino Ariza spying on his beloved Fermina Daza from his park bench gave me a stronger connection to the city, as if we shared a secret. And during the afternoons when it was too hot to do anything but lay by the hotel pool, my mind was still exploring as I turned the pages.
4. CATCH A LIVE PERFORMANCE or festival, outside of the tourist zone. While I’m sure the hotel’s dinner buffet hula dance extravaganza is lovely (and you should learn the history of the hula in Hawaii), find out where the locals go for a good show. One of my favorite traditions is finding a great jazz club no matter where we are, from Shanghai to Krakow. Sitting in a small club, surrounded by locals and visitors from around the world with a shared love for jazz, introducing ourselves to the band members (from Poland, playing New Orleans jazz, in Istanbul) after the set and drinking with them and their friends until 4am is still one of my favorite memories. In New York or London, skip the long-running big spectacle shows that everyone has seen, and pick instead an avante garde performance. Go downtown to see an Off-Off-Broadway play. You are much more likely to be surrounded by locals and to feel as if you are one.
5. HANG OUT IN A CENTRAL SQUARE. There are the classics like Washington Square Park in New York and Trafalgar Square in London, but try hanging out in Krakow’s Rynek Glowny and Prague’s Old Town Square too. Learn the history. See the commerce. Listen to the conversations and the protesters. Take pictures, but also eat the street food, tip the musicians, feed the birds and read your book on a park bench. Don’t rush on to the next attraction; just sit, rest your feet, take it all in and fall in love with your surroundings.
6. And while you’re at it? TALK TO PEOPLE. As always in a big city anywhere in the world be cautious and streetwise, but often the locals are as genuinely curious about you as you are about them. Ask them questions. If they’re interested, buy them a pint and get their life story. Some of my favorite travel stories are just repeating someone else’s. In a tiny restaurant in a hillside German town we ended up spending hours with a chef from Ibiza, his Russian winemaker friend, an American GI (who was initially just looking for an ATM), and a dog named Snob, all of whom remain seared into my memory years later. It all started because we asked questions.
7. JOIN A TOUR LED BY AN EXPERT DOCENT. There are plenty of big group options that teach you less than a common guidebook, but with a little research you can find engaging, unique, and highly intellectual tours. A 6am bicycle tour through Montmarte, while the shops are just opening up and the empty wine bottles still litter the streets of Paris, will give you a unique perspective of the city. An artist-led graffiti tour of Bogota will teach you more about the culture, politics, and history of Colombia than any other. A historian who has hiked the entire length of the Great Wall of China can point out things nobody else would notice.
We were guided around London a few weeks ago by a docent from Context Travel, a network of scholars and specialist in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, environmental science, and classics who lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups (6 or less). With her we not only got a personalized tour helping us to understand the city’s history and major landmarks, we discussed the upcoming election, the conflicted feelings on currency and immigration, and the true purpose of Her Majesty the Queen, and were surprised with a visit to what once was The Texas Legation in London. The company’s website makes it easy to pick a city (they currently operate in 25), pick an interest, and reserve a guide. It is well worth it.
8. FOLLOW CURRENT EVENTS. Watch or read their news (BBC World is a great resource when traveling). Even if you can’t take a tour, do a little online digging to understand the struggles of the people. What are they concerned about? What have they been through? No matter how pretty and peaceful a place can seem, there is always a group of people who are unhappy. Understand them and you come closer to understanding the whole culture. If you are in a place where your country’s policies are not appreciated, find out why and try to see yourself and your politicians from their perspective. People around the world want to be heard; offer them an ear.
9. MEET UP WITH A FRIEND. If you know someone who lives there, even if only casually or from years ago, reach out and ask them to meet up. If you don’t know somebody, chances are there’s a friend of a friend somewhere. Maybe a coworker once studied abroad and maintained some connections. In this global village, you can find people with similar interests via Twitter or Instagram in advance of your trip and meet up when you get there. You will let down your guard and forget you are in a strange land for an hour or two. Locals anywhere rarely get to experience their own tourist attractions, and usually love to show off their neighborhoods when someone visits. Give them that chance.
10. Most importantly, BE YOURSELF. What do you like to do at home? If you’re into sports, arrange to see a game while traveling or find out where there’s a pub showing a match. Soccer isn’t my favorite sport, but watching a big match with a rowdy crowd in a European pub is an experience everyone should have at least once. Do you enjoy live music? Hiking? Theater? Exploring new restaurants? People do those things around the world. Find your passions and experience them in a new place, because it will make you feel at ease, it will ignite your spirit, and it will show you how alike we all really are on this planet. And that is the very purpose of travel, isn’t it? That and the stories.
Follow my travel adventures on Instagram at @SeeJayneGo