The thrill of discovery runs deep for those of us who love to explore the world through travel. One of our greatest joys is when we learn about a place, its people, and its culture through personal and authentic experiences. Sometimes it can be a challenge to get past the tourist businesses and attractions, especially in a foreign country when time for a visit is limited. But we’ve got a few tips for how to get to the heart of a destination quickly so you can have an authentic experience abroad.
We get excited whenever we think about planning a trip abroad. To get the most out of the experience we want to know what to expect, what we absolutely must see, and how to start to understand the culture that we will encounter. Reading books and articles, watching movies, documentaries, and videos starts to give us a greater sense of a place. Listening to podcasts and even checking out music from our chosen destination can help us get a deeper understanding of the people and environment we will be visiting. Sometimes we even plan to have our own personal “launch party” where we treat ourselves to a meal complete with decorations and entertainment, like a Greek taverna at home, that really sets the mood for where we are going.
If you have a certain subject or passion that you hope to explore in your travels, check out trusted resources for what you might want to include in your trip. Architecture lovers can enjoy city guides. Spotify offers music from around the world. TravelAwaits.com has loads of ideas like how to get the most out of Oktoberfest in Munich or gorgeous seaside towns near Lisbon. Doing some pre-trip research before you go is a great way to ensure you have an authentic experience abroad.
2. Take Some Language Lessons
Depending upon where you plan to travel abroad, you might find yourself surrounded by people speaking another language. While your pre-visit media may be in your own language, you may not find many similar resources abroad. That’s why we think it’s a fantastic idea to learn even a little bit of the language from the place you are visiting before you go. We’ve noticed a huge positive response from the locals when we genuinely try (even if our pronunciation is lousy) to say a few words.
Greetings like “Bonjour,” “Ni Hau, “Bom dia,” “Guten morgen,” and simple phrases of thanks are a good start, but if you really want to have an authentic experience abroad, take some language lessons to learn proper pronunciation, useful key phrases, and even a little bit of cultural context. We have enjoyed learning Portuguese from a wonderful virtual tutor at Preply, a fantastic online platform with 40,000 tutors teaching over 50 languages for whatever your learning goal. We had so much fun and found our progress was so much faster that we decided to continue our studies with our tutor. Being able to communicate even a little in your host language will add a meaningful dimension to the authenticity of your experience abroad.
It’s no secret that when you put your feet on the street you get to know the territory better than just about any other way. That’s why we always recommend walking everywhere you possibly can. Now, some places are more challenging to walk around than others (can you say hills in Portuguese?) but there are some areas in most destinations where visitors can find at least a few spots to explore comfortably on foot.
When your feet are dragging or you want to get another perspective, enjoy all kinds of local transportation. Rideshares and taxis are common in urban destinations. Buses and trains are often how the locals get around. Many destinations have a city pass with discounts on attractions and transport. Bike and scooter rentals are great ways to sustainably see the sights.
4. Eat At Neighborhood Spots Where The Locals Eat
We can’t think of a better way to have an authentic experience abroad than to eat where the locals eat. Having a meal surrounded by folks from the neighborhood leaves a lasting impression and provides a unique perspective that will last a long time. We look for the tiniest spots that are jammed full of local diners. You can be sure that the locals have tried most of the places around them, and if they’re eating somewhere, that’s where you want to go.
While you’re at it, try using some of your newly acquired language skills. We’ve made many friends just by asking about some of the menu items or what the server would recommend. Look around you too. Is everyone ordering the same item? It could be a specialty. Or if there’s something you particularly like, give it a try. You can even practice before you travel by eating like a tourist in your own town.
Pro Tip: Look for midday meal deals at local restaurants. In many places abroad, lunch is actually the main meal of the day. Restaurants hope to attract diners with full meals at discount rates.
5. Check Out Local Shops And Markets
Maybe you like to collect magnets for your fridge or spices for your kitchen when you travel. A fun way to get an authentic experience abroad is to visit the local shops and markets that are sometimes away from congested tourist areas. Little shops with arts and crafts, handmade preserves and baked goods, home decor, accessories, and more can be found at local shops. The shopkeepers are usually quite happy to have new visitors, giving you a chance to ask questions and learn more about the cultural context of what they are selling. We learned all about the fascinating history of ceramics in Portugal from a shopkeeper who happened to be an expert in Bordallo Pinheiro’s whimsical tableware
Our favorite spots are often the local street markets, which sometimes only happen once or twice a week. In Cascais, Portugal, where we live, there is a fantastic farmers market twice a week and a weekly flea market. Listening to the vendors calling out to attract attention to their stalls is a deep dive into Portuguese daily life. We love learning about the fresh fruits and vegetables as well as seeing glassware and pottery that are crafted by local artisans.
6. Allow Time To Wander And Wonder
While there are always a few things on any traveler’s must-see list, we would recommend that for an authentic experience abroad you throw away the checklist. One of the truest joys of travel is the ability to immerse oneself into the local environment and see through different eyes. Spending too much time running from one checklist item to another is not only exhausting, but it might also just cause you to miss the wonderful things around you that are not on the list.
Showing a genuine curiosity in a place will lead to many more authentic experiences there. Follow the local leads you encounter along the way. If all the tourists head to one beach while the residents sneak off to another, wander off in the direction of the locals. It’s great to discover hidden gems, especially when you can see the culture of a place through the natives’ eyes. We have found some amazing places in Portugal just by allowing ourselves to wander and wonder with our minds wide open. We’ve discovered a beautiful park full of sculptures and trails to wander and where chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, turtles, and peacocks all happily live side by side!
Pro Tip: Go to a local grocer to pick up a snack and beverage. Then find a bench, grassy spot, or another place where you can sit and do some people-watching. It’s a fun way to see how people go about their daily lives.
7. Talk To Everyone You Meet
There’s no better way to have a truly authentic experience abroad than talking with people who live in the area you are visiting. Rideshare drivers, grocery clerks, restaurant servers, street vendors, and others are fabulous resources for finding out what to see, do, eat, and explore. We’ve learned about some of our favorite activities by chatting during short rides with drivers about where they like to eat and what they do for fun. Recommendations about where to get the best local dishes, uncrowded times for popular spots, best views, even free or discounted admissions to things we already planned to do came our way through the people we meet.
We know it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with strangers. Sometimes they won’t understand you and sometimes they may not engage. But most of the time they will and they are more than happy to share their incredible local knowledge with you. We’ve even been invited to go to lunch with people we met while standing in line at the post office. Allow yourself the freedom to be friendly. The rewards are truly enriching.
Having an authentic experience abroad is well within reach. Taking some time before you go to research and plan your trip will get you off to a great start. When you arrive, be open to exploring whatever intrigues you and strike up conversations with those around you. More likely than not, they will be thrilled to share their favorite spots and give local suggestions you might not otherwise discover. Once you enjoy an authentic experience abroad in one destination, it won’t be long until you’re planning your next one.