Passport and plane tickets in hand. A new adventure ahead… To me, travelling is about exploring. I am not after an Instagram perfect view of a city. I want to feel its pulse, whether vibrant or nostalgic. Understand it rather than just check a list of iconic places. Fall in love with it fully. Easier said than done, might you think? It’s all about stepping off the touristic path, even if you are only staying a couple of days… Here are a few tips to get you started.
My favourite choice? Airbnb. Preferably those really “lived in” rather than part of a carefully designed portfolio. The owner will happily let you onto the best gems in the neighbourhood – his favourite bakery, a weekly market not likely to appear in your travel guide, a slightly hidden street art piece… I once stayed in a home decorated by a couple fascinated by the Royal Family who told me the best places for flea market bargains in town (which made much better souvenirs to bring back home and give family and friends!)
Staying in a residential building also gives you a better understanding of commuting times and routines (school, family dinners, apéritif times, brunching at the weekend and so on). Say hi to your neighbours and dive in.
Take the time to stroll through the nearest market
Seriously, do. See where the locals queue, fill their basket with, copy them. Not sure what this amazing vegetable is? Ask. Even better, ask how to cook it. You are sure to strike a passionate conversation with a few people joining in… Make it a real feast, indulge in as much street food as you can and check out the regional cheeses too. You will have access to a much larger (let alone cheaper) flavour palette than at a restaurant.
Choose a local café
… and go there every day, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine… or work from your laptop if you freelance like me. My favourite feeling is being recognised by the waiters, feeling part of the family somehow. You will be amazed at how quickly they will start a full conversation with you, share jokes and local news, tell you the best way to prepare a local dish.
Public transport will save you time, true. But you will miss on the sweet little streets, discreet peaks into courtyards, fantastic architectural details, tiny heart-melting shops, music practised, the music escaping through an open window… What you will lose in time, you will gain in priceless memories.
Prefer tours led by locals to official guided tours
Sounds obvious, yet… not so many people do. Airbnb Experiences are brilliant – I ended up playing dominos, smoking cigars and drinking guava liquor in a farm in Cuba and learning more about the country in one afternoon than in my whole 5 days in Havana. Wild swimming in Vienna. But try Show Around (which can be tailored to your interests), Meet Up (always a nice vibe in these groups) and, if you are in London, Unseen Tours (this charity works with homeless people to give you quite a rare insight on a neighbourhood mixing history and social anecdotes).
These tips work wonderfully well when you are moving abroad and trying to immerse yourself in a new culture. Want more? Check out Western Union’s How to Become an Expat blog post for more information and to see my feature!