How to Experience Local Culture While Traveling

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Many travelers who want to visit a foreign land think of seeing the archeological 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.

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 experience local culture.

1. Read up about the travel destination before you arrive

Book with various world landmarks springing from its pages

Every country is different, so start learning about your destination even before you visit. Carry out extensive research to raise the LEVEL of knowledge about culture. You can start your learning by checking for online events about art and culture, reading travel blogs, books, novels, and travel guides, as well as watching documentaries, movies, and YouTube videos.

Research is essential if you want to avoid making faux pas. Did you know that not everyone is comfortable with a handshake? Find out how they greet each other and whether making eye contact might be an issue. Check whether it is okay to hug your host or give a kiss on the cheek.

In some countries, you are expected to remove your shoes before entering a home. In others, it is considered impolite to refuse a drink or food.

The more you know about accepted and expected behavior before you arrive in the country, the more confident you will feel while engaging with the locals.

2. Try local food

two people sharing a durian buffet
Trying a few durian varieties in Malaysia with Trevor James, The Food Ranger

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 cannot really know its taste unless you try it, which is 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 fast 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 about the hygiene, go for the food that is cooked in front of you.

3. Choose local lodging

traditional apartment in Cuenca, Ecuador. Dinette and sofa, plus cabinets in the distance
Our apartment in Cuenca, Ecuador

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.

When you live in an apartment, you will have to cook your own meals and do your laundry. This way, you can fully immerse yourself in the local culture and learn about the day-to-day lives of the people.

You will get to interact with your landlord or landlady and learn about their favorite places to eat and shop. You can ask them for tips on how to get around town and what to see.

4. Use the public transport

subway in Panama City, Panama
There’s a thoroughly modern subway system in Panama City, Panama

Tourists take taxis to get around. A better option will be to travel like the locals – on a bus, tram, train, or the metro. Not only will you save money, 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

author wearing a Kurti in Delhi, sitting with her husband and a local girl
Dan and me, posing for a local girl’s selfie in Delhi

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

Sikh at a temple in Delhi India

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.

You can book tours online through reputable companies like Get Your Guide and Viator.

7. Get festive for the holidays

Women wearing traditional dress at a festival in Passau Germany
We happened upon a religious festival while we were in Passau, Germany

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

Author with a waiter in Bratislava

When you’re in a new place, look for opportunities to interact with the locals. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions or recommendations, or just smile and pay a compliment. It’s one of the best ways to break the ice and start a conversation. Not to mention, you’ll learn how people think and make a new friend.

It’s okay to be shy sometimes, but try to break out of your shell a bit. Talk to the shopkeeper, the barista, and the person sitting next to you on the bus. Most people will be curious about you as well, and some might appreciate a chance to practice their English.

You will also be surprised at how friendly and helpful people can be.

9. Buy souvenirs from locals

Linda buys a handmade basket from an Embera Indian woman in the Darien, Panama
The handmade Embera baskets are one of Panama’s best souvenirs.

In popular cities like NYC, London, Paris, Rome, or Tokyo, you are sure to find dozens of souvenir shops, especially around the landmark sites. You can find an endless variety of fridge magnets, t-shirts, and a lot of other generic stuff, much of it made in China.

Instead of going to these tourist shops, consider visiting a local market or a workshop for your souvenir. You will find handmade products that reflect the local culture.

Not only that, you will also support a local craftsperson and be reducing the demand for imported or factory-made goods.

10. Attempt to learn the language

German language class in Viking lounge

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 be understood 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 and makes people smile. Besides, I can tell you from personal experience that such a small gesture can make the locals much friendlier and more eager to help.

Final thoughts

Travel expands your horizon and helps you learn more about the world. It is fun to visit new places and see the famous landmarks. But you cannot really know about the country or the city unless you have some understanding at least about its local culture.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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