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10 Ways to Experience Local Culture

10 Ways to Experience the Local Vibe While Traveling

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“He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.” Chinese Proverb

In our family, travel is one of the most rewarding experiences we have together. However, not all travel is created equal, and there are as many different ways to travel as there are destinations. Our adventures tend to be most gratifying when we don’t limit our itinerary to the top tourist attractions, but instead also seek to veer off the beaten path and, ideally, mingle with the locals.

Don’t get me wrong, I will absolutely take my kids to the Eiffel Tower when we bring them to Paris for their first visit to the French capital this fall. There are certain iconic attractions one simply has to see when visiting a city or a country, especially for the first time. But when we are done checking out some of the popular sights, I hope we also get to experience some of the “real” Paris, the local vibe.

Obviously, you are never really a local if you don’t live in a place, but you don’t have to move to Paris or spend a year backpacking throughout South America to get the pulse of a certain city or start feeling the beat of a certain culture. Here are a few ways to experience the local culture of a destination when traveling with your family. This little bit of extra effort is worth it for us because it can lead to some of the most memorable and special travel experiences.

1. Learn some language

If you are traveling to a foreign country, try to learn a few phrases in the native language. It never fails to boost our interest in our destination and its culture and usually helps create an immediate connection once we are there. It’s even better if the phrases have local relevance.

For example, in Spanish, pura vida means “pure life” translated literally, but it is a phrase distinct for Costa Rica, often used as a greeting or a well wish. It evoked a genuine smile every time we used it.

In Colombia, we learned that que chévere is a way to describe something as “awesome” or “cool.” It was also a sure way to score instant points with the locals. No matter our accent, we could tell they appreciated the effort. It even helped us score a table in an otherwise completely sold out restaurant.

Read More>> 7 Tips for Learning the Basics of a Foreign Language

2. Ask the locals

The Internet makes it easy to do plenty of research these days and, as a result, can almost make you feel like an insider. Don’t be fooled. Nobody can provide the same perspective as the people who live in the place you are visiting. Seek interactions with and recommendations from the locals whenever you can. Talk to hotel employees, restaurant staff, the taxi driver or the friendly stranger who helped you with directions and is equally happy to tell you about her favorite view of the city or the best place to get the local specialty dish.

Experience culture of Costa Rica - An authentic breakfast

Locals know the best places! Thanks to our guide who was from the area, we enjoyed the most delicious and authentic Costa Rican breakfast at a place we would have never discovered our own.

Look for other opportunities, too; our home city of Chicago provides city tours led by local volunteers. They often take you away from the usual attractions such as the famous Bean, which you can check out on your own, and instead show you some hidden gems or even their own neighborhoods should you be interested. As a bonus you may develop a lasting friendship, something that happens to us all the time on our travels.

3. Get lost in neighborhoods

A great way to “feel” a new city is to allow yourself to wander around some of its neighborhoods. Our family enjoys simply walking the streets, ducking into a store or two, and sitting down at a café where we can refuel and at the same time enjoy people watching. If your kids are smaller, visiting a local park can be a great authentic experience, especially if your kids get to interact with their peers while you strike up a conversation with their parents.

Sometimes getting lost can be a lucky turn of events. Last summer we ended up on the side streets of Barcelona while looking for a bus stop which gave us a chance to see kids playing on the sidewalks, people hanging up laundry from their windows, old men playing cards in a park and Barça flags cheerfully flying from every apartment, proudly proclaiming the city’s devotion to their local soccer club. It was a great way to get a feel for one of the city’s biggest passions.

4. Take public transportation

It may not always be cheaper than Uber and sometimes a bit intimidating, but using local public transportation at least once during your visit is a great way to experience “everyday life” at your destination. Our kids still talk about how fun it was to take the subway in New York City even though we got lost (or perhaps because of it). Similarly, sitting on a city bus, in a complete traffic jam in Rio de Janeiro and observing the locals exit their vehicles and argue in the middle of an intersection was priceless…and so Rio.

Read More>> Tips for Navigating Public Transportation with Kids

Experience culture of Rio - Public transportation

Catching the city bus along Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro allowed us to experience the local culture and was easier and safer than we imagined.

5. Savour local food

Our family is a bunch of foodies, and in our opinion there is hardly a better way to experience the local vibe than to sample some truly local delicacies. It is also a great way to teach your kids respect for another culture, the importance of being open minded, and even the value of taking a leap of faith. Turns out, the iguana stew, a local delicacy in Curaçao, was absolutely delicious and so were the pig ears in Brazilian feijoada (a stew of beans with beef and pork).

Another great way to experience the local culinary scene is to take a cooking class, just try to find something that feels authentic as opposed to a large event clearly organized for tourists. I’ve had an absolute blast learning from local chefs in Spain, Italy, Colombia and Bali.

Our kids loved the cooking class they took at our resort in Costa Rica and still claim the empanadas they made were world’s finest. The best part is that learning through local cooking classes usually goes well beyond food, often involving culture and history, making the end result not only delicious, but also fulfilling in other ways.

Read More>> Picky Eaters? Tips to Help Kids Eat Foreign Food

6. Browse a local market or a grocery store

This is another one of my personal favorites! What better way to experience the local culture than through the unique sights, smells, flavors, and offerings of a local market. We seriously try to do this in every new city we visit and are never disappointed. Make sure to sample along the way!

Experience culture in Bogota - Flower market

Colombia is the world’s second biggest exporter of fresh cut flowers. It was a unique experience to walk through Bogota’s enormous flower market where businesses and locals come to shop.

Local supermarkets can also give you a great insight into local culture. During our recent visit to Bogotá we popped into a local grocery chain for some supplies and ended up chatting with a woman who advised us on what brand of coffee we should buy to bring home with us as a souvenir. It was a much more fun and authentic experience than purchasing a bag of coffee in a duty free store at the airport before boarding our flight, not to mention cheaper. Our kids also got a kick of seeing familiar U.S. brands dressed up differently for the local consumer.

7. Cheer for the local team

I have said it before and I will say it again: attending a sports event and cheering along with the local fans is a unique and superb cultural experience. Our soccer-obsessed family welcomes any opportunity to watch the beautiful game during our travels. We prefer to enjoy the game in a stadium, but a TV screen in a hotel lounge or at a restaurant filled with local fans will do too. Instant bonding with the home crowd guaranteed!

Read More>> Camp Nou, A Must-do for Soccer Fans Visiting Barcelona

Experience culture in Bogotá Colombia - Buying a soccer jersey

Soccer brings the world together! Our son bought a Colombian soccer jersey from a street vendor in Bogotá so he could show his support for their team.

8. Relax with the locals

Another way to experience the vibe of a place you are visiting is to do what locals do in their free time or on the weekends. We went surfing and took hula lessons in Hawaii, played volleyball and soccer on Ipanema beach in Rio, and had a Brazilian BBQ with local friends in São Paolo.

In the Big Apple, we simply hung out in Central Park with hundreds of New Yorkers who came to jog, play baseball, enjoy a picnic or visit a playground in their beloved green oasis on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In Santa Monica, we rented bikes to cruise up and down the beach, because that’s where the local action is.

Experience culture in Rio de Janeiro - Ipenema Beach

Catching the local vibe on Ipenema Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Beach soccer, anybody?

9. Be flexible and open to the unexpected

Some of the very best and authentic experiences are not planned, and you can easily miss the magic if you are too tied to your itinerary. Full disclosure: I am a master planner when it comes to our family vacations. But over the years I have learned that it is important to leave some room for the unexpected and be open to just going with the flow from time to time.

I clearly remember the time during our last spring break in Colombia when we were returning from visiting a famous attraction an hour outside of Bogotá. Hot, tired, hungry, we suddenly found ourselves in front of a roadblock with no way to get out. Our driver, immediately understanding what was going on, nervously told us that “it would be a while.”

Our brief exasperation immediately dissipated when we realized that we ran into a Holy Thursday Procession, typical for Semana Santa (the holy week celebrated before Easter) in Colombia. Instead of waiting in the car, we got out and joined the crowd, mesmerized by the scene, sounds and emotions around us. It was an incredible experience, absolutely worth the delay in returning to the city.

Experience culture in Colombia - Holy Week Procession

Witnessing a Holy Week procession in Zipaquira, completely unplanned, was one of the most memorable and authentic experiences we had during our trip to Colombia.

10. Slow down

Travel time is precious for most of us given limited number of vacation days or days off from school, not to mention budget. It can be very tempting to cram as much as possible into our travels to justify the time and cost, often leaving us zooming from one destination to another, trying to do it all. In my experience, however, this is a sure way to miss out.

Experience culture in Hawaii

When you make the effort to reach out to locals, you can really experience the culture of the place you are visiting. Who would have thought that the amber necklace worn by this beautiful baby girl, whom we met while shopping at a local grocery store in Maui, is a popular remedy for teething babies among the native Hawaiians.

Over our years of traveling together, I have learned the importance of slowing down. (Yes, this is your type A personality author talking!) I will admit, this approach often leads to making some tough choices on what we do now and what we’ll have to save for the next time we visit. But the countless special moments, life long friends or the way we continue to carry every place we have ever visited in our hearts, tell me we are making the right choices.

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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…

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