Too many times when people travel, they only skim the surface of their destination. They may check out some sites listed in their guidebook, snap some photos of interesting buildings, and eat at a few recommended restaurants, but what about finding a deeper connection? To help you really sink your teeth into a country and get a sense of place, here are 14 ways to immerse yourself in the culture that surrounds you.
1. Give Yourself a Mission
Giving yourself a mission in the city you’re visiting can help you delve deeper into one specific facet of the culture. While in Rio de Janeiro you may want to learn how to samba like a professional, while your quest in Barcelona may to be to find the city’s best tapas restaurant. Maybe in Ghana you become interested in Ghanaian lingerie beads, so you set off to learn what you can about the handicraft.
During a trip to Australia I set out on a mission to find the county’s quintessential dish. I ate and drank my way from Melbourne all the way down to Kangaroo Island, interviewing locals, chefs, restaurant owners, and wine connoisseurs. What did I learn? Australia’s quintessential cuisine isn’t a dish but a philosophy; a melting pot of cultures creating high-quality dishes with locally sourced ingredients served in welcoming spaces.
2. Take Part in a Homestay
To learn about a culture from ground level, a homestay is your best option when it comes to accommodation. For those who don’t know, a homestay is when you actually live with a local, getting a glimpse into the everyday life of a member of the community. Websites like Couchsurfing and Homestay.com can help you find a host. Make sure you take part in daily life as much as possible, even if the activity is not something you would normally do. For example, when I lived with a family in Ghana I had the opportunity to attend a Sunday church service. While I do not attend church in my hometown of New York, I found it an interesting cultural experience in Africa.
If doing a homestay is out of your comfort level, opt for an accommodation that reflects the local culture. Hostels, guest houses, ranches, ecolodges, and boutique hotels are usually good about this. For example, the Art Factory in Buenos Aires adorns the walls with graffiti to reflect the city’s street art culture, while the Southern Ocean Lodge on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island uses panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the property to allow guests to take in the island’s untouched nature at all times, while also using locally sourced ingredients on the menu and organizing nature activities for guests.
3. Befriend Locals
Instead of only talking to your travel companions, try chatting up some locals. Cab drivers are a good start, as it is their job to know every corner of the city. Talk to baristas, artisans, waitresses, tour guides, chefs, market vendors, hotel staff, and anyone you encounter who lives in the city. You’ll naturally learn about proper ways to interact and daily rituals, and can find out some lesser-known but worthwhile sites in the city.
4. Travel Alone
When you travel in a group you often become confined to the group and are less likely to venture off and meet locals. Moreover, if there’s a cultural facet you’re interested in learning about and your travel companions aren’t, you may end up missing out. As someone who has traveled both alone and in groups numerous times, I’ve found traveling alone more conducive to cultural adventures, as you’re forced to get out there and explore.
5. Research Etiquette Beforehand
In order to build a good rapport with the locals, you’re going to want to make sure you aren’t doing anything to offend or upset them. Did you know in Japan it’s impolite to sneeze or cough in public? Or that in Thailand it’s taboo to sit with your legs pointing straight out or to touch someone’s head? Don’t assume every culture is the same in terms of taboos and etiquette. Do your research and make sure you know the culture.
6. Pay Attention
Lessons in culture are happening all around you at every second, from the way someone orders a coffee to how friends greet each other. For instance, I remember sitting at a fast food restaurant in Ghana with a local friend, Michael, when I heard the man next to us propose to his girlfriend. She laughed and declined. When I asked Michael if it was normal for a man in baggy jeans to propose to a woman over fried chicken and french fries, he told me it was. Not only that, but many men would propose to a woman by the third date. After that a proposal may be seen by a Ghanaian woman as the man taking advantage of the friendship.
7. Attend a Festival
Not only are festivals fun, they’re also culturally enlightening. Whether it’s music, art, religion, history or something else that interests you, find a festival that centers around it and plan your trip around the event. Some exciting cultural festivals around the world include the Chinese New Year in China, the Magh Mela Festival in India, Carnival in Brazil and the Festival of San Fermín in Spain.
8. Dine in the Streets
Instead of asking the concierge which restaurant you should head to for dinner, hit the streets and see what’s on display. While some people are afraid of street food, it’s where you’ll get some of your most authentic and fresh cuisine. Choripán in Argentina, cuy in Ecuador, crepes in Paris, pho in Vietnam, and pad thai in Thailand have been some of my favorite meals abroad, and all from street vendors. If you’re really in the mood to sit in a restaurant, at least make sure to go to a place that is away from the tourist area, sources locally and — if you’re in a non-English speaking country — doesn’t have an English menu.
9. Don’t Just Browse Markets
Try to stay away from touristy souvenir markets and check out ones where locals shop. You’ll see how many locals make their livelihood, what types of crafts they favor, and what materials they use to create their items. When exploring a market, make sure to not just browse, but touch, smell, taste (if it’s edible) and ask questions. You can also try to seek out specialties of certain areas. For example, Ecuador has many smaller communities that specialize in certain handicrafts, like Panama hats in Sig Sig, gold and silver filigree jewelry in Chordeleg and mazapan in Calderon.
10. Learn Some History
The only way to truly understand a place and its people is to understand its past. Spend time in museums and libraries, and try to pull out some interesting facts that may help you understand why a certain practice or ritual is in place. For example, in Bolivia the pollera skirt you often see indigenous woman wear was actually imposed on them by the Spaniards who overtook them in 1548. While once a symbol of oppression, it is now viewed by locals as a symbol of pride.
11. Take a Class
When visiting a city, look into taking a class or signing up for a workshop that will teach you more about a cultural facet. For example, cocoa is a rich part of Saint Lucia’s culture, so why not take a chocolate-making class? There are plenty of other possibilities wherever you travel: karate was born in Okinawa, tango in Argentina, and samba in Brazil.
12. Do as the Locals Do
An easy way to learn about a place and its culture is to do as the locals do. Mimic their behavior and try to put yourself in their shoes. This, of course, is much easier if you’re doing a homestay and interacting with people in the community. If most people take the bus, skip the taxi and opt for public transport. If they eat rice and pork for breakfast instead of cereal, give your palate a makeover and give it a try. Try to adapt as much as possible for a more immersive experience.
13. Get A Job Or Volunteer
A good way to dive into local culture is to actually be a part of society. By getting a job or volunteering, you’ll be an important part of the community and will be forced to interact with locals, experience how an average person might go about their day, and will learn more about local business and community issues. Having a routine like this will also put you in a local mindset, which helps for cultural exploration.
14. Hire a Guide
While many people are against hiring a guide, there are actually many benefits. Local guides are trained to know a prodigious amount of information about certain sites and places. If there’s somewhere you want to explore or a site you want to know more about, a guide will enable you to learn as much as possible, including quirky facts and lesser-known history not apparent on the surface. For example, when visiting Cajas National Park in Peru I hired a guide, who taught me about the medicinal purposes of the plants, ancient Inca legends set in the forest, and about how the park was home to a secret brewery during Prohibition. The twisted quinoa woodland at Cajas is also the world’s tallest forest, something I wouldn’t have known without a guide. Having a guide is also a plus if you don’t speak the local language and want to ask questions to artisans, vendors, and other people you meet along the way.