Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Experience REAL Local Culture

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of talk about experiencing real local culture.  When travelling today, people avoid the foods, entertainment and activity that they typically engage in at home, seeking out favorite local hangouts instead of chain restaurants and shops.

As a student traveler, this behavior makes a lot of sense to me.  I chose to study abroad in order to enhance my education; I believe living in a foreign culture will give me both perspective on my own culture, as well as an appreciation for human diversity.  More simply put, change is good, and it can be fun and energizing to learn how people across the world spend their time!
Photo Credit: alexallied

Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalized world, it becomes difficult to identify local customs and traditions. Multinational corporations can own even seemingly local businesses, so that a student tight budget and schedule might find themselves eating at Starbucks and McDonalds rather than sampling local fare.  Even backpacker’s oases like hostels are being bought up by multinational corporations; While I enjoyed the St. Christopher’s Inn in both Berlin and Edinburgh, they were almost identical, and neither added to my knowledge of German or Scottish culture.

With a little practice and a lot of patience, however, it is possible for young travelers to get a bit of local 
  • Do your research ahead of time- Before you even think about stepping on a plane, get online and read up on your destination.  Go deeper the usual stops like Trip Advisor and try visiting blogs, forums, and local business’s websites.  These will allow you to get an idea of how locals, not tourists, spend their time in your destination.  Don’t forget to write down all your plans in a travel notebook!
  • Opt for smaller touring companies.  If you plan on taking any sort of tour, try and book with a small, locally owned company.  This will help you support the local economy, rather than big companies with tours all over the world.  Plus, local tour guides can point out hole-in-the-wall hangouts that would never be included in a major tour.  
  • Talk to adults.  Student travellers’ first impulse may be to seek out advice from other young people, but “mature” natives have simply spent much more time in their home city, and can often offer much better suggestions on enjoying local culture.
    For instance, I recently attended a folk music night at a tiny Edinburgh pub. Although my first impression upon entering the venue was “I’m the youngest person here by about 15 years,” by the end of the night I felt this was my most authentic Scottish authentic experience yet.  I heard real Scottish music by talented musicians and spoke with welcoming and enthusiastic locals who were happy to provide their opinions on life in Edinburgh.
  • Consider couchsurfing.  This form of travel allows you avoid hostels and hotels, which can be impersonal, and stay at a local’s home. I haven’t yet tried couch surfing, so for more information on its implications and benefits, check out this excellent article from the Indie Travel Podcast.  If you do decide to try couchsurfing, be sensible and keep these safety tips in mind!
  • Be patient.  As wonderful as traditional customs are, it’s not always possible to act like a local on limited time and budget.  Don’t feel guilty about patronizing chains every now and then to save money- seeing how these places pick up local flavor can be fun and interesting too (did you know that Scottish McDonalds’ sell doughnuts?)


  1. And try a local bed&breakfast occasionally if you can afford it. We did that a couple times visiting Scotland. I recall well one place that was a pretty old but well-kept farmhouse of a small farm. We slept in the upstairs apartment that was likely once the room of one the children who had grown up and left. For breakfast we had bread, eggs and tomatoes produced on the farm. And we were woken by the sound of the goats outside. Still cheaper than a hotel, and there really weren't very many hotels way out in the countryside.

  2. That's a good tip, Walt, and one that I plan on doing- a hearty, Scottish breakfast and a warm bed in the Highlands sounds amazing, like something out of a novel!