In an age when Instagram-worthy selfies and travel bucket lists are top priority for many tourists, it’s easy to find yourself wanting more out of your trip. Whether you’re seeking insider tips on where to eat or party, hope to gain a new perspective on your destination, or simply want to meet up with kindred souls around the world, finding a local connection can help give your travels meaning. There’s no better way to discover a country or understand its culture than meeting the locals. To help you break down the boundaries and seek out unforgettable experiences, here are 10 ways to connect with locals on your travels.
1. Organize a homestay
The most authentic way to immerse yourself in a new culture is to spend a night with a local family. There are some incredible homestay tours to choose from, whether you wish to spend a night in a traditional Vietnamese stilt home in the Mekong, join a local family to celebrate Diwali in India, or camp out with a nomad tribe in Tibet. For the most memorable experience, look for tours that allow you to live like a local and help out with the shopping, cooking, and farm work.
2. Learn the language
Mastering a few phrases in the local language can be a real door-opener; even a clumsy attempt at a sentence will be sure to elicit a smile, especially in countries where the local language is rarely spoken by tourists. Book a language class at the start of your trip and practice some useful phrases, or join an immersion course to take your skills to the next level. Keep an eye out for conversation classes and meet-ups, and be sure to practice – strike up a conversation with local parkgoers, talk to a friendly stranger on the bus, or quiz your taxi driver on the best local spots.
Volunteer opportunities are available in almost every country around the world and are a great way for visitors to get to know the local community. Doctors, nurses, and TEFL/TESOL qualified teachers will find a large demand for their skills, especially in less developed countries, but there are opportunities for every traveler. Look for something that interests you and matches your skills. Animal lover? Help out with giant pandas in China or the turtle conservation in Central America. Love kids? Visit a local school or help out at an orphanage. Want to work outdoors? Swap farm work for a free bed through volunteer programs like WWOOF or HelpXchange.
4. Hire a local guide
Even if you normally prefer to go it alone, exploring a destination with a local guide who is truly passionate about his or her hometown can add a whole new dimension to your visit. Look for a guide who has similar interests, whether it’s history, art, or nightlife, and don’t be afraid to ask questions – most guides are more than happy to offer their opinions, give recommendations or explain local customs.
5. Make connections online
There are new travel websites and apps springing up all the time, so make sure you log on before you board your flight. Connect with like-minded locals on Couchsurfing, or rent a room (rather than a whole apartment) via Airbnb to benefit from your host’s local knowledge. Alternately, sign up for a unique foodie experience via EatWith (international) or Feastly (U.S. only), where professional chefs will cook for you in their own homes, or use apps like MeetUp, Party with a Local, or Withlocals to find yourself some friends.
6. Attend local festivals and events
Whether it’s for Munich’s Oktoberfest, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, or India’s colorful Holi Festival, visiting a town or city during one of its famous festivals guarantees unforgettable travel memories. To make the most of your experience, find out where the locals go: Rather than heading to Rio for Carneval, why not check out the less-touristy festivities in northern cities like Recife or Salvador? For a better chance at meeting locals, consider joining some of the world’s more unusual cultural traditions, like the Naadam festival in Mongolia, Up Helly Aa! in Scotland’s Shetland Isles, and Catalonia’s ‘correfoc’ fire-running festivals.
7. Use local services
It can be easy to stay inside the “tourist bubble” when you travel. But even with a busy itinerary, there are easy ways to incorporate local life into your stay: Hop on the subway or tram to get around, pick up picnic supplies at the town market, or stop by the supermarket to grab some snacks for your journey. Whatever you need to do, consider if there’s a local service you can use, whether that’s doing your laundry at the local launderette, heading to the hairdresser or barber shop, or treating yourself to a traditional massage or manicure.
8. Escape the tourist trail
Climbing the Eiffel Tower, walking the Great Wall of China, or marveling over Machu Picchu might be on your travel bucket list, but you’ll likely be shoulder to shoulder with other tourists the whole way. For a more local experience, take the time to get off the beaten track by traveleling to smaller villages, lesser-known beaches, and suburban neighborhoods. Don’t be shy about asking for recommendations either – quiz locals on the best places to eat or shop, or follow local insiders to the coolest bars or clubs.
9. Try something new
Even if you’re only in town for a few days, look for classes and activities that will give you a chance to meet others. Attend a yoga class in the park; take part in a cooking class or crafts workshop; or join local running, walking, or rollerblading groups for an off-piste tour of the city.
10. Travel slowly
If you’re aiming to connect with locals on your travels, the best advice is to take your time and travel slowly rather than rushing to check off the sights and hopping back on a plane. Opt for a leisurely road trip, ride the sleeper train, or sign up for an epic multi-day trek. Keep your itinerary flexible, be spontaneous, and give yourself extra time in each destination so you are open to invitations. The best moments always happen when you least expect it.