Many travelers who want to visit a foreign land think of seeing the archaeological ruins, visiting the national monuments, and touring the museums. When in Cairo, everyone sees the Pyramids. When in Rome, the Colosseum is the big draw.
But traveling overseas is not just about visiting famous landmarks and snapping Instagram pictures. It’s also about immersing yourself in your destination by experiencing the local culture—the food people eat, the clothes they wear, their customs, songs, the way they speak, how they behave, and so much more.
In this article, I’ll share how you can experience culture when visiting a place.
What is the best way to experience other cultures?
When you take the time to experience local culture while traveling, you will be able to learn so much more about the country. This will make your journey unique and much more memorable.
There are so many different cultures around the world. Visiting another country is an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, experience local customs, and learn about another culture. Doing something like this is sure to enrich your life.
But will you be able to learn about the local culture of these cities or countries by visiting landmarks? Probably not, because you will be mostly surrounded by tourists. The best way to learn about a new culture is to go off the beaten path and meet locals.
Here are some top ways to immerse yourself in a different culture.
1. Read up about the travel destination before you arrive
Every country is different, so start learning about your destination even before you visit. Carry out extensive research to raise your cultural understanding. You can start your learning online, by checking for events about art and culture, reading travel blogs, as well as watching documentaries, movies, and YouTube videos. Books and novels set in the location, as well as travel guides like Lonely Planet, can give you even more cultural insights.
Research is essential if you want to avoid making faux pas. Did you know that not everyone is comfortable with a handshake or direct eye contact? Find out how they greet each other. Check whether it is okay to hug your host or give a kiss on the cheek.
In some cultures, it is considered impolite to refuse a drink or offer of food. In many places, you are expected to remove your shoes before entering a home.
The more you know about accepted and expected behavior before you arrive in a country, the more confident you will feel while engaging with the locals.
ⓘ PRO TIP: If it helps, Kizik makes slip-on shoes in a variety of styles, from sporty to business casual. My pair is super comfy. It’s dressy but feels like I’m wearing sneakers.
2. Try local food
Western food is available almost everywhere, so it can be tempting to go for the usual food you eat at home. But it will be totally worth it if you try the authentic delicacies of the foreign land.
Some things might look and smell strange to you at first. But you won’t really know what it tastes like until you try it. That’s why we tried durian in Malaysia and “stinky tofu” in Taiwan. At best, you’ll discover a new favorite. At worst, it will make for a good story when you get home!
Learn about the local favorite food and the local street foods and try them. Visit the food markets, local kitchens, grocery stores, and the farmer’s market. Take a local cooking class.
Research a list of the popular local restaurants and make it a point to try out the street food. It is usually fresh, cheap, and delicious.
ⓘ TIP: Don’t worry about getting sick from the food. If you are unsure, choose things that are cooked in front of you.
3. Choose local lodging
Consider a homestay or renting through sites like Airbnb, Vrbo, or Plum Guide rather than staying in a hotel. This will give you a much more authentic experience. Not to mention, you’ll save money!
When you live in an apartment, you’ll buy your food in local markets and meet your neighbors. Basically, you’ll live like a local, which is the best way to immerse yourself in the local culture and learn about the day-to-day lives of the people.
In Madrid, we were able to interact with our landlord and learn where to eat and shop. Landlords are also a good resource, so ask them for tips on how to get around town and what to see.
4. Use the public transport
Tourists take taxis to get around. A better option will be to travel like the locals – on a bus, tram, train, or the metro. Or walk. Not only will you save money, but you will also be participating in, rather than observing, everyday life.
Public transport is a great place to people-watch and observe what the locals are doing. You will meet locals of all ages and may even be able to interact with them. Blend with the crowd and you may even feel like a local yourself!
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5. Dress like a local
When you are in a foreign land, consider wearing the local dress. It shows that you have some respect for local traditions. It will make you look less like a tourist and helps you blend in more easily.
Besides, locals know how to dress for the climate! For example, Dan discovered that a loose-fitting galabeya is a lot more comfortable in Egypt’s blazing hot weather than jeans are. In humid and sticky India, I wore what the local women preferred – a kurti – and stayed cool without being immodest.
Of course, you don’t have to wear traditional clothes when you’re traveling. But it sure is a lot of fun. It’s almost like dressing up for a costume party, but you don’t look weird for doing it!
6. Go on cultural tours by a local
If you want to experience the local culture, book a guided tour. Locals know their city better than anyone else so they can take you to the best places. Odds are, you’ll visit some places that you won’t find in the travel brochures.
Whether it’s a food tour, a walking tour, or even a museum tour, you will see it all through the eyes of a local. You’ll learn about the history, culture, and food of the place you are visiting, as well as get insights into customs and beliefs from somebody who is knowledgeable about it.
When we booked out street food tour in Delhi for example, we didn’t expect to be taken into a Sikh temple. But it happened, and we learned even more about the Indian food culture than we’d hoped to.
Guided tours are available in every city, and they are usually very affordable. You’ll come away with some lasting memories.
7. Get festive for the holidays
One of the best ways to experience the local culture is to attend a festival or event that is important to the community. These are usually held to celebrate religious or cultural occasions and often last for several days.
Festivals are a great time to take photos and videos to remember your experience. You’ll be able to see people in their national dress who are observing time-honored customs and traditions. The atmosphere is usually very festive and happy, and it’s always lots of fun.
There are so many festivals around the world. You can visit Christmas markets in Europe, India during Diwali or Holi, Spain during Tomatina, and Thailand during the Songkran festival, among others. They are all mass events involving thousands of people, so you’ll fit right in!
8. Talk to people
When you’re in a new place, look for opportunities to interact with the locals. It’s one of the best ways to break the ice and start a conversation. Not to mention, you may gain a new perspective or make a new friend!
It’s okay to be shy sometimes but try to break out of your shell a bit. Talk to the barista, the shopkeeper, and the person sitting next to you on the bus. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions or recommendations, or just smile and pay a compliment.
The majority of people will be interested in learning more about you, and some may even welcome the opportunity to use their English with you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how nice and helpful people are.
9. Buy souvenirs from locals
It’s not hard to find a souvenir shop near a famous landmark in New York City, London, Paris, Rome, or Tokyo. Fridge magnets, t-shirts, and a whole bunch of other generic stuff, most of it made in China, are all available in seemingly infinite varieties.
If you’re looking for a unique keepsake, skip the tourist traps and head to a local market or artist’s studio instead. You’ll find more unique items, ones that are handmade and reflect the local culture.
Not only will you be helping a local artisan out, but you’ll also be decreasing the demand for imported or mass-produced goods.
10. Attempt to learn the language
Most people rely on Google Translate to overcome language barriers but imagine how much more enjoyable your trip would be if you were to speak French in Paris or Japanese in Tokyo.
Obviously, it is easier to communicate when you speak the local lingo. But it goes beyond that. It warms a local’s heart to hear a foreigner trying to speak their language, even if they mangle the pronunciation!
At the very least, make the effort to pick up a few local words like good morning, thank you, and please. It’s a kind act that makes people smile. I can tell you from personal experience that people are more likely to be helpful and pleasant if you make this small effort.
Final thoughts about experiencing the local culture
The world is your oyster, so pack up your bags and go out there to explore it. Visit somewhere you’ve always wanted to and make sure you take the time to appreciate all that this other culture has to offer. Instead of simply taking in the sights, make an effort to understand the culture and customs of the people who actually call this place home.
There is something beautiful and captivating to be found in every culture, whether it be language, activities, food, or art. So don’t let life pass you by while you sit on the sidelines and miss out on opportunities for growth. It’s a great way to create lasting memories while simultaneously expanding your worldview.