Tips to Experience a Destination Like a Local

The world is becoming smaller every day which means that we all need to take active measures to not only visit foreign lands for a fun vacation, but to also learn about the people who live there, their culture and their customs - to experience a destination like a local. I haven't been a “globe trotter" for long, but in the past three years I have been able to visit various countries in Europe and also China. From these experience I have learned many things, but the greatest, I think, is to “do as the locals do".

Take time to relax. Traveling is often as much work as, well, working. On more than one occasion, this has left me wishing for a quick nap to recharge. Enter Parisian living. After a long morning wandering through room after amazing room in the Louvre, I was ready for a break. The Tuileries Garden provided the perfect setting. In Paris an afternoon nap is common and many locals were sprawled out in the garden lawns dosing over lunch. It was just what I needed. This, coupled with late, unhurried dinners allows you to pause and enjoy life for a moment without hurrying on to the next item on your list.

Off the beaten path. Some trips are short, but the time I spent in the Netherlands takes the prize for a “micro" visit. I met my husband here during a business trip where we had planned to go to Paris by train. This left me less than 24 hours to overcome jetlag and explore a little of what the country had to offer. Our hotel was halfway between Amsterdam and Haarlem. I could either be overwhelmed and leave feeling that I had seen only a tiny sliver or I could more deeply explore a smaller, more restricted (and big plus- less touristy!) area. We took the bus to a small area outside Haarlem where we found what was unquestionably the best restaurant we have ever eaten at: Specktakel. We spent the evening strolling the streets and alleys, and watching locals dining on the patios under the setting sun.

Get to know the locals. Although my visit to London was one of the most 'touristy' trips I have taken, the time I spent in taxi cabs gave me the perfect chance to talk to people who had lived in London their entire lives. Each time we got into a cab, my father-in-law would initiate a conversation with the driver. Although, at first, it would seem they were not in the mood to talk, after only a few minutes we were all chatting like old friends. The most memorable conversation I remember occurred during a four-hour drive back from the Paignton Zoo. We talked about the monarchy and how the people feel about having a royal family versus other types of government. Its these kinds of conversations that really allowed me to understand and learn about another culture from the source.

Immerse yourself. I will admit, I was more nervous traveling to China than any of my previous treks. A wise man told me, “learn just a few Chinese words and you will be amazed at the reaction". He wasn't lying. Ne hao (hello), zai jian (goodbye), xie xie (thank you). That was all it took to show that I had made an effort to communicate. When I heard words commonly used I would ask what they meant in English and try to listen for them in future conversations, a skill that helped a great deal more than I would have guessed. I also was surprised to see how many comments my amazing (for an American, anyways) chopstick skills drew. During my entire two-week stay I opted for chopsticks, even when forks and spoons were offered. This small action translated into big returns and now I feel as comfortable with a pair of kuàizi (chopsticks) in my hand as with a fork.

Seize the moment. When trying to decide what to write about for this blog, I tried to think of all the places I had traveled to. Somehow, initially, I missed out on all my travels within the US! But there is one place that sticks in my heart after only two visits: Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park. Visiting this coastal town in the fall is one of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring and peaceful experiences I have had. During my last visit, I was given the opportunity to hike up the Precipice Trail, a half-mile vertical trek requiring you to clamor over boulders, shimmy across giant rocks and pull yourself up ladders inserted into the side of the 'mountain' (notice the metal rod at the bottom of the photo). Maybe not something for someone afraid- deathly afraid- of heights. We were to leave as a group by 5am and hike up in the dark so we could reach the summit by sunrise. I slept little that night going back and forth in my mind whether or not I should go along. Afraid of plummeting to my death, don't do it…chance of a lifetime, do it…your sick, don't do it…don't miss this chance, DO IT! I am glad every day that I took that 'leap'- I have so many wonderful memories from that single morning.

This was a guest post by Amy Irvin, an avid traveler who before 2008 had never really been outside North America but has traveled as much as she can since, including trips to Europe and China, to meet her partner's family. You can follow her adventures via her blog - just click here.