Out of all the cities and countries I visited in Europe this spring, the locations where I spent a significant time with locals had the most impact on me.
Connecting with locals emphasized that traveling is so much more than an itinerary and collecting photos. Travel is strongly enhanced by who and how we interact with the people that live there. It's what we learn about different cultures and how it alters our beliefs and opinions. It's the stories we collect and can't wait to share with our friends back home. It's vulnerability with other dynamic human beings and finding common ground despite different upbringings.
Connecting with locals is the best thing you can do to receive a more intimate and genuine experience of a new destination.
So how do you do it?
- Utilize Friends of Friends: Start with people in your immediate circle and tell them your travel plans. Ask if they know anyone nearby that would be interested in meeting up or hosting you. This really worked in my favor while I was in London and made me want to stay longer than my original 1-week plan. An email introduction from one friend to another led me to an expat from Seattle. My first day in the city, I immediately dropped my bags at her apartment and we spent the day walking around the city as she pointed out the main attractions in Picadilly Circus, Leicaster Square, Covent Garden, Westminster and Buckingham Palace. It was a great way to orient myself in a new city and a much more enjoyable walk with company. My jackpot win for London was staying with the coolest couple, in one of the trendiest neighborhoods, all thanks to a friend who reached out on my behalf and put in a good word. They got to know my interests and gave me recommendations based on what I was excited to learn and see. It was also really wonderful to come home after a day exploring and share a meal with friends who just days ago were strangers!
- Talk to Your AirBNB host: This is, of course, assuming you are using AirBNB. And if you don't, here is my argument for why you should. I think the best benefit of AirBNB is the ability to share space with a local. More than half of my destinations in Europe involved renting out a room in someone's house/apartment. Not only did this turn out to be the most cost effective option, but I found most hosts really want to share their culture and city with you. We shared great wine and conversation with our host in Florence. We ate breakfast and learned where to find the best-baked croissants in Paris. Our host in Tuscany cooked a 9-course meal with the most delicious ingredients. We took every suggestion our host in Rome gave us and experienced the city through his eyes. If an AirBNB host is offering a room in a shared space, they are more than likely eager to meet travelers and share information. Make friends and utilize their knowledge!
- Search on Social Media: Look up tags and places on Instagram to find people who are in the area. It might sound like a creeper tactic, but I find it genius. At home and abroad, Instagram has connected me to great people! In France, I found a fellow photographer and blogger by searching for ' third wave coffee' in the town we were staying. I immediately messaged her and a day later, we were sitting in a cafe enjoying coffee and forging a friendship. The day evolved to her giving my friend and I a tour of the town, a trip to the outdoor market where she became our gracious translator and an impromptu photo shoot.
- Make Conversation with Your Server, Barista, Taxi Driver, etc: This suggestion might be more challenging if you are working with a language barrier, but I've found most foreigners will appreciate the effort you make to speak their language. The best recommendations come from those who actually live in the area. I like to ask where they would go for dinner, which museum they would choose to spend a day in, where to catch the best sunset, etc. There are so many places you can't find online or in a guide book that are worth exploring. Everyone has different interests so you're bound to get a variety of answers and options to choose from.