When the topic of travel comes up in conversation, one of the first things I say is I love to travel, but I hate being a tourist. As someone who grew up with a passion and a knack for foreign languages, I’ve always been very intrigued by other cultures and, to me, being a tourist doesn’t allow me to truly experience those cultures. When I go to another country, there’s nothing more I want than to see the city from the point of view of a local. And as much as I wish I could snap my finger and turn myself into a native, I haven’t quite figured out how to do that. But there are several things I do to make myself blend in as much as possible and today I’m sharing those with you!
If you Google “tourist”, the pictures that immediately come up are folks with big backpacks and cameras around their necks. Are backpacks and cameras bad? Of course not – I’m a photographer and my camera comes with me everywhere all the time. But that look is an immediate tell-all that you are a tourist. And there’s 2 reasons I like to avoid that.
First and most importantly, by so blatantly branding myself a tourist, I’m making myself more enticing to pickpockets. And secondly, avoiding that look allows me to blend in a bit more so I can soak everything in without having the stigma of being a tourist. It’s almost like it presents me in a better light to the locals so they aren’t immediately sure if I’m foreign or local, which usually starts things off on a less presumptuous note. (This sounds harsh, but like it or not, there are definite stereotypes when it comes to tourists…a few bad apples can ruin the bunch, am I right?).
So what I typically do is carry a canvas zip tote bag. Something that gives off a “maybe she’s just running errands” vibe. Inside, I will have 1-2 cameras, my wallet, my phone, a snack and a water bottle. Having the bag be something other than a backpack gives me the freedom to keep my camera safely tucked away, but quickly and easily accessible when I need it.
I’m going to say that last part again: WHEN I NEED IT.
Consider this a bonus tip for you. Another big reason why I’m a fan of getting the camera off the neck and into a bag is because it removes the temptation to overshoot. To me, it’s far more important to be present in the moment and not worried about capturing every mundane detail. When a moment is important enough, I will pull the camera out, capture it, then put the camera back. To borrow and paraphrase a quote from one of my favorite shows (HIMYM): “If every moment is legendary, no moment is.” Wait for the truly legendary moments and capture those – for all the other moments, keep your camera away and just enjoy being in them.
This is a huge soap box of mine. I understand that foreign languages are hard and are not everyone’s cup of tea (I personally LOVE them). But it’s incredibly disrespectful to show up in another country and immediately start speaking English to whomever you are interacting with. Do they likely speak English? Yes. Will they likely start speaking English to you even if you try to speak their language? Yes. But it’s more about the attitude. Attempting (even poorly!) to connect with someone in their native tongue is a sign of respect and shows that you value their culture.
So my BARE MINIMUM rule, no matter where on this planet I am going, is to learn these 7 words/phrases:
“Do you speak English?”
Between Google Translate and the countless free apps available to us these days, there quite frankly is zero excuse to not know how to say these things by the time you arrive to your destination. Here are a few of my favorite apps:
Learn _____ (insert language) …this one is more just like a handy dictionary of words and phrases with a recording of the pronunciation
Bonus: If you feel comfortable with those and have some extra time on your hands, it may be nice to add: “Where is the bathroom?” and “I’m lost, can you help me?” to your list 🙂
In case you weren’t already aware, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily follow American eating habits. So I always do some research before my trips. I like to find out where they eat, when they eat, and what they typically eat for meals so that I can schedule my days accordingly. In Spain, for example, most places are closed for several hours in the late afternoon and don’t open up for dinner til 8 or 9. So I know in advance I better get on board with their custom of eating a giant late lunch, otherwise I’m going to be hungry at 6pm and my only options will be tourist traps.
FIND OUT WHERE THEY EAT, WHEN THEY EAT, AND WHAT THEY EAT
Speaking of tourist traps, doing this research also helps me immediately spot these when restaurant hunting. For example, if I’m looking for a good dinner spot and I find a place that doesn’t close in the afternoon, I’m probably going to avoid it. Not because it’s inherently going to be bad, but because I know I’m going to be getting a more “American-ized” experience. And that’s not what I want. Another rule I have for picking a restaurant is that there cannot be pictures on the windows or on the menus. Generally speaking, these places are designed for tourists. And I much prefer to eat where the locals eat.
I usually start my restaurant searches by looking for recommendations in blog posts or travel articles, with more weight given to writers who actually live in that city. (Read: I NEVER start my searches on TripAdvisor!) If I find a few that sound good or that have been mentioned in a few different blog posts, I’ll start cross checking those on TripAdvisor and Google Reviews to make sure there aren’t any major red flags. FYI: Yelp isn’t as popular in Europe as it is here, so I rarely, if ever, cross check on there. It’s a bit of legwork, but it pays off BIG TIME. The meals are always incredible and the experiences are very authentic. More often than not, there are no other English speakers there and that’s when I know it’s a gold mine 🙂
This one is just a tiny tip. But it goes a long way in making you appear local. Aside from your attire, one of the biggest signs you are a tourist is standing in the middle of a sidewalk with Google maps open on your phone (or a real map in hand if you’re a bit more old school!) trying to figure out where you are.
So here’s my trick: before I move from one site to another, I find a bench and sit down with my map. I pull up the itinerary, twist my phone around to figure out which direction I need to start walking, and memorize the first two steps (i.e., I’m walking straight on Rue de Bac then turning left on Rue de Verneuil). Once I’ve reached that point, I’ll quickly open up my phone (I try to time this with a red light so I’m not being obnoxious on the sidewalk) to check the next two steps, put it away and walk.
By chunking it up like this, I’m a) not walking around with my head buried in a map, meaning I can enjoy the sights more; but b) I’m not relying too heavily on my memory, meaning if I mess up I’m not likely to end up too far removed from my intended path.
Again, this is just a tiny thing, but it truly works wonders in how I come across. I can’t tell you how many locals have stopped me on sidewalks to ask me for directions to Metros, etc! I’m not usually able to help them, but I consider it a win that they even thought to ask me 🙂
So there you go friends! My little recipe for ditching the tourist garb and attempting to blend with the locals. I encourage you to try one or all of these out the next time you travel! And be sure to let me know how it goes 🙂