Connecting with locals has been the most satisfying part of our travels so far this year. By far. Not seeing the Sagrada Familia, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State, or any other important monument or major sight. Because we haven’t visited any of those, in fact.
As much as we love great architecture, we’d rather take a stroll (or have a cocktail) with an interesting architect or talk art over dinner with a local painter. Meeting locals has been what has made our travel experiences truly memorable and is one of the very reasons we embarked on Grantourismo.
Not a day goes by when we don’t meet someone who, upon learning that we’re travel writers, asks us to name our favourite places. While it’s a difficult question to answer (we love different places for different types of trips and for different seasons), and it’s even more challenging to narrow the destinations down to a few (we love too many places), one question we never hesitate in responding to is “what was the best thing about the place?” We’ll always say “the people”.
When we’ve been asked what we loved most about Austin, Texas, we could have said the live music scene, The Broken Spoke, breakfast tacos, and the brilliant properties we stayed in. But to be honest, our most memorable experiences involved talking vinyl with America’s most popular record store owner and watching local musicians like Amy Cook, Dan Dyer and Suzanne Choffel perform – and meeting them.
We had fun dancing at honky tonk joint The Broken Spoke, but the best bit was chatting over beers with owner James White (my god, we’re just one degree of separation from Willie and Clint!), meeting his family, and getting invited to their ranch. Not to mention learning about life, love and regret as I danced the Texan Two Step with a very wise old gentleman.
We dug the tacos we tried, but what we really loved was dissecting Tex-Mex and Mexican street food over lunch with ‘the taco mafia’. We stayed in beautiful holiday rentals in Austin, but you know what, it wasn’t the décor or amenities that made our stay, but the warmth and hospitality of the owners, Rusty Irons and Joel and Dani. Perpignan was particularly special because of Carl, owner of our old town studio, while our Marrakech stay was made more memorable by dinner with Rob and family.
Our stay in New York? We loved catching up with old friend Scott, eating hot dogs with Craig from Not for Tourists, getting food tips from writer David Farley at his favourite bar, and meeting a bunch of travel writers and bloggers for beers including Nomadic Matt, Paul Brady, Mike Barish, Kristen Joerger, and Jeannie of @WhereisJeannie among others. And what we really loved about the East Village was getting beneath the skin of the place through its community gardening movement, and characters like Rob Hollander and the Mosaic Man.
Venice was special because we went to the fish markets with restaurant owner Francesco, cooked with Countess Enrica Rocca, spent a day on the lagoon with water scientist Luca, and drank vino with bookbinder Pablo Obli. In Barcelona, Michelin-starred chef Jordi Artel taught us one of his grandma’s recipes, we learned about cava from Catalan winemakers, and did a 99 cent wine tasting with some new local friends. In Paris, Terence ‘mastered the macaron‘ with a couple of lovely chefs, we broke baguettes with a food blogger, and the world’s greatest bartender taught us how to make a cocktail he invented called (appropriately) Serendipity.
In Jerez, Terence learned flamenco guitar and we visited guitar-makers with flamenco guitarist Sebastian. In Ceret we hiked the hills with a local guide and talked Catalan stripes with a fashion designer, while in Paris I chatted about ethical fashion with a Montmartre shop owner. In Tokyo, our guide to yakitori was graphic designer Yuto Yamada, journalist Melinda Joe gave us sake sipping tipes, our guide Etsuko Nakamura took us to the fish markets.
We learned about Sardinian wine on a winery visit with Antonio and his family, cooked home-made pizza in our own wood-fired oven with Maria and had a moonlit pizza party with her family in Puglia. After ambling around Alberobello with Anna, we went back to her parents’ restaurant where they fed us with hearty homemade cuisine and shared their recipes for limoncello and cherry liqueur. In Marrakech, Jamila taught us to make tajine, while in Bali Desak shared traditional local recipes.
While learning and doing things has obviously been an enriching part of our travels, none of those opportunities would have been possible without the people we met, often informally, occasionally serendipitously, who made those experiences so special.
‘Local travel’ and connecting with locals isn’t for everyone. We all travel differently at different times of the year and different times of our lives. Sometimes we’re up for meeting people and learning things, sometimes we just want to lie on a beach and read a book. While at other times, we enjoy playing tourist and ticking off sights, especially if it’s a first time visit to a place. But if you are eager to meet locals when you travel, how do you go about it? Well, here are our tried-and-tested tactics…
HOW TO MEET LOCALS
- Use social media: before you travel, do research to identify local likeminded blogs at the destination you’re visiting and make contact; use Twitter to connect with locals informally or through more organized tweet-ups; get in tocuh with friends of friends, friends of family and even complete strangers on Facebook; and (if you don’t hate your job too much) use LinkedIn to make contact with professionals in your field in the place you’re going – we’re not suggesting you have a meeting, just meet them for a beer.
- Learn some language basics: sign up for a language course or, at the very least, use a phrasebook, dictionary, language CDs, or mobile apps to learn some of the local language to facilitate communication and boost your confidence.
- Do a course: learn something you’re interested in, even if it’s just a day-long course, but whether it’s cooking classes or jewellery making workshops, make sure the school is ran by locals, who can offer the best local insight into the place and culture.
- Rent an apartment: the best reason being you can pick the brains of the owner (and even ask for introductions) and strike up conversations with locals in the corridors and stairwells of where you’re staying.
- Do a tour: that might not sound very ‘local’, but companies such as Context use local specialist guides and offer small group tours where you have a greater chance of befriending your guide or at the very least getting local tips.
- Develop habits: buy your groceries at the same store each day, shop at the same stall at the local markets, go for espresso at the same café every morning, enjoy evening beers at the same local pub… this is one of the best ways to meet locals, get local tips, and feel part of a community even if it’s just for a short time.
- Be confident and open to conversation and friendship: in our experience this is what makes the world of difference to our ability to meet people and our experience of a place.
Any other ideas? What are some tactics that have worked for you? We’d love to hear your suggestions.