How To Travel Without Feeling Like a Tourist

(It’s out for debate whether wearing a conical hat in Vietnam makes one blend in or look like a tourist… 🙂 ) There’s seeing the big sites and then there’s getting to know a culture…

At a recent networking event I had an interesting conversation with a man considering a 3-week vacation to Spain. He wanted to know how to go about taking a vacation without feeling like all he did was visit the tourist sites and come home. That got me thinking because I’m getting that non-tourist feeling in my travels, so I thought I’d share some ways you can travel and feel like you had a deeper experience than the average tourist.

Strolling down the streets of a small village in Northern Vietnam I found a family of water buffalo.

Don’t overly research. I know everyone wants to tell you what you “have to see” and where you “have to go” and guidebooks will fill your head with desires to go in 20 directions when you can only go in 2 and cause your head to explode with travel planning anxiety. Instead, pick one or two “must see/do” experiences that you know you’d be upset about not doing. Then pick your destinations by the people you meet that you may want to travel with, or the person that just got back from XXX and talks about some amazing hidden little town that you can explore. Put the guidebooks away. The more time and space you leave open, the more likely you’ll find amazing sites by simple exploration. Let your feet walk you to sidestreets and parks nobody talks about. Let the amazing smells guide you to restaurants nobody’s heard about.

“Let in the moment experiences be the guide to your destinations.”

Chill out. The typical tourist will run around all day, every day, trying to do and see something because time is short and they want to take in as much as possible. The non-tourist will spend hours at a cafe or restaurant watching people go by, enjoying a drink or a coffee. A benefit of this is that you can easily meet people at the tables next to you. Waiters will sometimes be friendly and are another great source of information on things to see that the average tourist might not.

A street food vendor in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Photograph by Heather Markel

Be a foodie or a winie. Explore a place through it’s food and wine, especially if you’re in Europe. A rule of thumb someone gave me year’s ago in France, that I think is true for many places, is that restaurants that are located in the middle of nowhere, and one of the only ones there, tend to be good. They have to work harder to get people to come back since they’re not in a touristy location. You’re probably not going to like every meal you have, but if you at least try to choose places because something appealed to you on the menu, or you liked the view, etc. you can eat and drink your way around places where locals eat.

Consider staying in a hostel. Many of them have single rooms and yet you can still share in the common table for meals and meet great people. Many of them are probably traveling around or have been for months and can be an excellent source of information on places to visit, and might even become friends.

Use the Sightseeing buses as a map. I’ve started using those hop on hop off buses as my tour guide for a new city. They are so much better than staring at a map and trying to pick places I actually stay on the bus for the entire ride and note any places I want to come back to later. This way I can get a quick overview of a city and feel like I got some of the touristy stuff out of the way, and leave myself free to return and explore on my own. When I do that exploring, I’ll choose a location because of something that appealed to me and simply walk along the streets. I have no agenda in mind other than to explore the architecture and see how the neighborhood feels. To me this strategy is like dating – instead of trying to see if I like a place by a photo or description and risking a left swipe I regret, I actually go see everything quickly, and then let my eyes and my feelings bring me where I want to go.

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