I left Seattle at the beginning of February with a rather aggressive travel plan. Five months, five countries. From India through Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China and finally to Mongolia. I was going to conquer each of these countries!
Except that after seven weeks in India I discovered my itinerary was starting to feel more like work — and work was preciously what I decided to take a break from when I sold my IT consulting company last year.
So, I abandoned my original itinerary and down shifted. I started spending more time in fewer places and seeking out different experiences — fewer of the top ten tourist hits and more of a connection to the people and culture of the places I was visiting — this was what I realized I most wanted from my time away from home.
Here are the strategies I used as I spent time in a few different cities during the past four months, including London, Berlin, Zurich, and Dubrovnik. All of these helped me connect with people and get involved in ways that were deeper and more meaningful than what I’m usually able to experience as a tourist.
1. Meet a local
I love meeting people when I travel. In fact, my best memories almost always have to do with the people — both locals and fellow travelers — I met along the way.
The folks I meet not only provide an insight into and a connection with the place I’m visiting, but they also remind me that the majority of the people on our planet are good and really not that different than you and me (and certainly not our enemies, as some would have us believe). In this way, connecting with the locals is both interesting and fun, but also important.
There are a ton of ways to meet people — sitting at a bar and talking with the bartender, saying hi to locals that are hanging out in a cafe or park, or getting involved in an activity. While the venue can help set the stage, being friendly and putting yourself out there is really the key.
There are also sites like Badoo and CouchSurfing that can help too. And don’t forget to ask your friends and colleagues who they know in your destinations — a quick post to Facebook will often yield great connections.
Exercise is not only an important element of staying healthy while you’re traveling, it’s great way to connect with people and take in a physical environment or landscape that you might not otherwise get to experience as a visitor.
Depending on whether you’re interested in exercising with a group (which is a great way to meet locals) or prefer to set out on your own, there are a few ways to get started.
For group workouts, search for clubs that practice your activity of choice. For example, in many cities you’ll find a running group that comes together on a regular basis or a swim team that has regularly scheduled workouts. Most welcome visitors — just be sure to contact the group leader ahead of time as some groups require advance notice of your arrival.
If you’re setting out on your own, use the internet to search for suitable routes (e.g. running, biking, open water swimming) or facilities (e.g. indoor swimming pools). For example, MapMyRun publishes running maps and routes their members have recorded using the company’s mobile app.
3. Make a meal
If you have access to kitchen, actively participating in the local food economy is a great way to connect with the people and culture of a particular place. (Not to mention the health benefits and savings that come along with cooking for yourself.)
Start by hitting the nearest farmer’s market. There you’ll be able to pick up fresh and local fruits and vegetables and maybe even things like honey, nuts, jams, fish/meats, eggs, and bread. Then pass by a supermarket for anything else you might need like olive oil, sea salt/pepper, spices, pasta, grains, beans, or wine. And be sure to invite one of the locals you’ve just befriend to share your meal.
There’s probably no quicker way to connect with the place you’re in than by getting involved with a local issue. Volunteering is a great way to meet the people and it provides exposure to the challenges the community is facing.
Check your guidebook for suggested organizations and causes for the city you’re visiting. Also, organizations like International Volunteer Headquarters and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) can help connect you with volunteer opportunities.
5. Take a class
Learning a new language, cuisine, craft, dance, song, or instrument — these are all great ways to deepen your experience and connection with the place you’re visiting. Plus traveling is a perfect time to pick up a new skill.
Check your guidebook for recommendations on classes, talk with the folks that manage the place where you’re staying, and also look for flyers posted in local restaurants and cafés.
6. Go to the movies
This is certainly an activity that you can do at home, but seeing a movie in a foreign city is an entertaining new experience.
From the architecture of the theater, to the commercials aired at the beginning of — and in some cases during — the movie, how seats are assigned (movie houses in some countries operate more like theaters with assigned seating and flash-light equipped-docents that help you find your seat), they way the audience behaves (audiences that rely solely on subtitles can sometimes be a bit chatty), and the different refreshments available for consumption — all of these elements provide a glimpse of the people and culture you’re visiting — plus, there’s also the movie to watch!
What are some of the ways you’ve connected with the people and places you’ve visited?