The idea of deep travel and immersion into local culture has certainly evolved over the years. While many travelers are still content with simple sightseeing and checking boxes at top attractions, the new age traveler is looking for deep and authentic travel experiences around the globe. They seek experiences to create memories that will last a lifetime, rather than just adding a picture to the scrapbook that will eventually end up on a shelf to collect dust. In addition to that inevitable photo, there will also be a story – a lasting impression of cultural differences and understanding, an engaging story of connection and similarities. The desire to connect with locals for an authentic experience has never been greater and off the beaten path travel is becoming a common theme among travelers these days. So, ask yourself… what is your meaning of travel? What do you hope to get out of your next adventure – just a picture to show or a story to tell?
How to Have a Local Travel Experience
Hire Local Tour Guides
There’s no better way to see a destination than through the eyes of a local. Whether in a big city or a small village, and no matter if you want to see the popular sites or you’d prefer to get off the beaten path, hire a local guide, as they will know just where to take you for a truly authentic experience. We went on a private tour with a local gal in Ben Tre, Vietnam (pictured below) and got a close look at how members of the community spend their time and earn their daily living through various trades. It was one of our most unique travel experiences to date and truly helped us feel deeply connected to a culture so different from our own. So, how do you find a local guide, you ask?! Companies like Get Your Guide and Viator hire local guides to conduct many of their tours, so that’s a great place to start. You can also search AirBnB and look at their Experiences tab; here you will find guided tours, cooking classes, and many more unique and local experiences. Finally, you can access the Global Greeter Network to search for volunteers who love their city so much, they want to show you around for FREE! If you want to see a city on your own, but still want the insider’s scoop from a local, check to see if there is a Use-It Map available for download. These free maps are available for a variety of cities in Europe and are geared toward young travelers. We used a Use-It Map while in Bruges, Belgium, and thoroughly enjoyed the recommendations!
Use Public Transportation
Another way to feel like a local when you travel is to use public transportation just as the general population would in that particular region. Sure, it may be a little more challenging to navigate public transportation, but then again travel should have an emphasis on ‘local experiences’, so hop on the local train or bus to get around town. Just like hiring a local tour guide in a city, you could also hire a private driver to show you around. We’ve done this in several locations around the world. In Athens, Greece, we hired an awesome cab driver for a few hours to show us around the sites. In Cambodia, we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to take us to the different temples in Angkor Wat. In the Czech Republic, we hired a private driver to take us from Prague to the charming town of Cesky Krumlov. In all of these instances, we got to talking with our driver and learning about their country, their life, and their customs. Often times, we’ll rent our own car and try to deviate from the popular tourist routes and simply head off in search of adventure! No matter how you get around town, have fun and make it an experience to remember!
Where to Stay for Authentic Travel Experiences
AirBnB – Stay With Locals OR Live Like a Local
For truly authentic travel, we advise you to look beyond loyalty points with a hotel chain and instead consider staying with locals. There’s no better way to experience authentic tourism than by living how the locals live. For a unique lodging option, rent a room in the home of a local. You will gain insight into how they live, what they eat, and what their customs and traditions are. We once rented a room just outside of Dublin, Ireland, and upon talking with the homeowners realized that we had both traveled to the same remote region in southern Vietnam, mentioned above, and had the exact same local tour guide. Talk about a small world! With sites like AirBnB, you can not only rent a room, but you can also rent out an entire home if it’s privacy and space that you desire. This is typically what we do when we travel, because we enjoy longer stays and want to come and go as we please without disrupting others. If you’ve never used AirBnB before, feel free to use our unique link to check out available properties around the world and save $ on your first stay! We’ve stayed in AirBnB rentals all over the world and highly recommend this as a viable, enjoyable, and safe accommodation option for your travels. Properties and hosts are reviewed, so you can see what others think of the place before booking.
VRBO – Vacation Rentals Around the World
VRBO is similar to AirBnB in that you can rent the home, apartment, or villa of a local, but you do not have the option of actually staying with locals, as you are renting the entire place, and not just a room. Keep in mind that some of the places listed on VRBO, and AirBnB for that matter, could be owned by a property management company, but we typically look for properties specifically owned and operated by local residents of the region where we are traveling. Locals often provide their guests with wonderful recommendations on things to see and do in the area, along with advice on where to dine and how to get around town. It’s much more personal than the concierge desk at a hotel. VRBO is another one of our go-tos when we’re looking for a unique travel experience. Unless the property is a brand new listing, you can read through previous reviews to ensure you are booking a high quality rental. Check their inventory to see what’s available where you’re traveling to next!
Cottage Rentals in the UK and Ireland
While Ireland and the UK also offer AirBnB and VRBO, we learned of another rental company that connects travelers with locals willing to rent out of their charming cottages throughout the British Isles. Sykes Cottages is a family-run business that has been around for over 25 years and has a listing of over 6,000 privately owned cottages, all of which have been personally inspected and approved. We’ve used Sykes on a few occasions in Ireland and had nothing but pleasant experiences. In fact, one of my best travel experiences took place during our cottage stay in Connemara (pictured below). Our visit coincided with the lamb birthing season in the spring and our owner just so happened to raise and breed sheep. He told us he had a few sheep that were set to deliver any day and I asked that he let us know if they delivered during our stay. Not only did he come and tell us that a few babies had been born, he showed up at our door with two baby lambs that were born just hours earlier and even let me hold the babies! I would’ve never had this truly cultural experience had we stayed elsewhere. To read more about Sykes Cottages and this particular stay, including my snuggles with baby lambs, check out our post UK & Ireland Cottage Rentals with Sykes Cottages.
House Sitting Around the World
Another way to have a truly authentic travel experience is to house sit. The premise of house sitting is that you will look after someone else’s house (and most often their pets) while they travel, in exchange for free accommodations. Over the course of 14 months, we completed 5 house sits for a total of close to 5 months of free accommodations! 4 of the 5 house sits included anywhere from 1 dog to 2 cats and our longest sit (3 months) involved no pets. Owners often left their vehicles behind for us to use and we truly got to live like locals during our sits. We’d explore the surrounding area, shop at the local grocery stores, go on walks through the towns and villages, and it would quickly start to feel like home. House sits are available all over the world and can range anywhere from a short weekend to several months! Want to give house sitting a try? We use Trusted House Sitters and if you use our unique link, you can get 20% off the annual membership price. When you consider the average price for a night of accommodation, the membership fee will pay for itself in your first sit, even if you only do a short weekend. As mentioned, we’ve already racked up close to 5 months of free lodging, all for the price many people pay for one night of accommodation!
In order to have a truly local experience, stay where the locals stay. Try to avoid booking your lodging in super touristy areas, unless your main objective is to be close to all of the attractions. Another option for staying WITH locals is to book through a site called Homestay. To make the most out of your stay, find hosts with similar interests to your own – seek out an eco-friendly or yoga-focused homestay, or search for a stay with an emphasis on cooking or arts and crafts. The goal of a Homestay is to connect with locals on a deeper level, rather just renting a room and never interacting with the host. If you’re looking for a super budget-friendly local experience, you can always try couchsurfing. Although we’ve never personally done any couchsurfing, we know that it’s yet one more way to connect with and stay with locals during your travels.
Check out our post -> Places to Stay Around the World for even more unique lodging options!
Where to Eat for an Authentic Experience
Dine With Locals
Dining with locals is another fairly new form of authentic tourism. Companies such as BonAppetour & Eat With bring together travelers and locals to share a meal, customs, and conversation. We met the nicest family through BonAppetour while in Budapest, Hungary, who opened their home to us and provided a traditional multi-course Hungarian meal. The delicious food and overall experience was way more than we would’ve gotten if just the two of us had gone out to a local restaurant. We can wholeheartedly recommend dining with locals if it’s a unique cultural experience you’re after. Read more about our fabulous and memorable meal in Budapest and book your own dining with locals experience for your next trip. See what’s available where you’re traveling!
A food tour is an excellent way to sample traditional cuisine and get off the beaten track, as local guides typically won’t take you to super touristy restaurants. Get insider tips on local restaurants and dine on authentic and local foods in the company of someone who knows their city inside and out. We’ve done several food tours throughout our travels, like a personally guided tour through one of Prague’s outlying neighborhoods and a Taste of Slovenia Food Tour in Ljubljana. Check sites like AirBnB Experiences and BonAppetour to find food tours where you’re traveling!
Shop at Local Grocery Stores & Farmer’s Markets
One of the main reasons we enjoy staying in AirBnB and VRBO rentals as opposed to hotels is because we have access to a kitchen and can cook our own meals in. This not only helps save money, but it also allows us to live like locals by shopping in nearby grocery stores and visiting local farmer’s markets. We are able to sample the local cuisine without the expense of dining out for every meal.
More Dining Tips for Authentic Travel Experiences
We understand that the last thing many travelers want to do on holiday is spend time cooking. In order to have an authentic dining out experience while traveling, we encourage you to steer clear of restaurants obviously geared toward tourists (the menu printed in multiple languages is a dead give away). Don’t be intimidated if a menu is only available in the local language; with phrase books and apps like Google Translate, you should be able to manage just fine. Also, try to stay away from restaurants located in the most touristy regions of a city; get off the beaten tourist track, wander down the side alleys, and find those hole in the wall gems that only locals know about! Be sure to ask a local (like your AirBnB or VRBO owner) his/her favorite place to eat and they’ll probably recommend a stellar place not listed on Trip Advisor’s Top 10 list!
We hope this has given you some ideas and inspiration on how to connect with locals and have authentic travel experiences no matter where you go in the world! Hopefully you desire to get more out of your travels than just saying been there, done that, snapped a picture! The best trips to take are the ones that give you endless stories to tell of the experiences you had and the people you met. So, how will you ensure amazing cultural experiences on your next trip of a lifetime?
If you know of other great ways to connect with locals for unique travel experiences, please share in the comments section below!