Living ‘la Vida Local’

Where are the best restaurants and unique shops? The scenic vistas or the “hidden gems” that tourists miss? The locals know all the secrets, and you can discover them by getting past the tour package or guidebook. There are many advantages to living like a local: meeting new people, experiencing a culture, setting your own pace and thoroughly exploring your destination.

Not sure how to get started? We’ve got some tips:

1) Find a “home base”
Want to really get to know a place? You’ll miss out by limiting yourself to hotels or resorts, or not staying long enough. Instead, consider renting an apartment, villa or vacation house for a couple of weeks and explore from there. These accommodations are often less expensive than hotels and offer many amenities such as a kitchen, maid service and laundry. Look for one that is close to the places you want to visit and things you may need, such as a market, grocery store, public transit or access to buses and trains. Try renting a car for day or weekend trips.

2) Learn the language
Absorbing the culture and meeting new people will be easier if you can communicate effectively. Even in areas where English is spoken, people will be more receptive if you speak (or try to speak) their language. You don’t have to be an expert, but basic conversational skills such as greetings, ordering food, understanding currency and asking directions are a must. The more you know, the more opportunities you may have for conversation and friendship.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many free online resources such as BBC Languages that have interactive lessons. Try searching by language for other sites too.

3) Research and respect local customs
At home, we take for granted how we eat, greet people, accept or offer invitations and tip servers. Abroad, it’s easy to unintentionally offend someone, but a little research can smooth the way. Find out what may be offensive such as hand gestures or showing up late. Use humour with caution to prevent misunderstandings, and beware that politics and religion are often touchy subjects. Keep an open mind and avoid being critical.

Where to look for information? Guidebooks are a good source, and there are many tips from seasoned travellers online. Another resource worth a look is the Centre for Intercultural Learning’s Country Insights website.

4) Understand local laws
Did you know that eating on church steps in Florence can result in a ticket? Or that you are required to carry your passport at all times in France? Violations, even unknown or unintentional ones, can result in hefty fines or arrest. Take a look at the Local Laws and Customs section of your government’s travel advice for more information.

Local laws and regulations are especially important if you plan to drive. Do you need a special license or insurance? What traffic laws are different? What emergency equipment do you have to carry by law? What’s the proper procedure if an accident occurs? These are all things you should know before you set out.

5) Dress the part
How we dress affects how others perceive and treat us, and nothing says “tourist” like inappropriate clothing. In order to blend in, take a few minutes to find out what works best for both climate and custom. For example, in many countries, men wear pants rather than shorts even in the hottest weather, and women’s styles often include long skirts and tops that cover the upper arms. Flashy jewellery and designer labels will draw unwanted attention in many areas.

When in doubt, dress conservatively and follow the example of those you see around you. Leave some room in your budget (and your suitcase) to purchase some items of clothing while you’re on the go. Clothing can be practical and unique souvenirs.

6) Look to local resources
A map, transit guide, train schedule and phone book or local directory are great resources to have at hand when planning your day. A local events guide or calendar can highlight interesting activities such as festivals, shows, concerts and sports.

Picking up a newspaper also has many benefits: It will keep you informed of local events such as strikes or demonstrations, make you aware of politics and sensitive issues, provide topics of conversation and warn you of any health or weather concerns. If you can’t read the local language, look for English-language editions. The radio and television are also great sources of information.

7) Eat like a local
Use your kitchen to save money by preparing your own meals. Take advantage of local markets and grocery stores for fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods and other local fare. Grocery stores are also the cheapest place to purchase bottled water and other essentials. A health hint: make sure to properly wash and thoroughly cook foods to prevent stomach upsets.

If you’re looking for a great restaurant, follow the locals. Busy restaurants crowded with local patrons are an indicator of good food and service. If you meet new people at your destination, invite them to enjoy a dinner out with you at their favourite restaurant.

8) Use your legs
A leisurely stroll through a village or a scenic bike ride can impart much of the local favour that tourists often miss and give you the opportunity to explore. Pay attention to the sounds and smells around you as well as the sights. Exercise is also a great way to moderate indulging in local foods and wines.

A health tip: Get plenty of extra exercise before your trip. It will improve strength and muscle tone, as well as increase stamina.

9) Ask questions
Looking for a good restaurant, beach or site you don’t want to miss? Don’t be shy to ask questions or seek recommendations. Many of the “off the beaten track” places won’t be in a guide book, so you’ll have to do some investigating on your own. Use your eyes as well to watch who goes where. Is there a particular place people flock to after work? What do the locals do on a Saturday night?

If you are unsure as to whom to trust for information, ask at a shop or hotel or look for families. Chances are someone will know the answer or be able to direct you to someone who does.

10) Be flexible
Unlike a package tour, living like a local allows you a lot of freedom to choose where to go and what to do. While you may have sights and activities already in mind, leave room in your schedule to be spontaneous. Give yourself time to go to dinner with new friends, return to a favoured attraction, or take a trip to a place you just discovered. Plan for some down time to relax, read or take a walk.

An open mind and willingness to learn will help you embrace this type of travel. Watch for future articles on living like a local in destinations around the world.

Photo © William Walsh

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