Meeting locals when you travel has long been the most satisfying part of our travels, no more so than during the yearlong grand tour that launched Grantourismo. Not seeing the Sagrada Familia, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or any other iconic monument or major sight. But engaging with people, because meeting locals is what travel is really all about.
As much as we love great architecture and art, we’d rather take a stroll (or have a cocktail) with an interesting New York architect (about her passion for speakeasies) or chat about French art over dinner with a local painter at her Paris apartment.
Meeting locals is what has made our travel experiences truly meaningful and memorable and was one of the very reasons we established Grantourismo in 2010 and embarked on the 12-month global grand tour that launched the site.
Rarely a day went by when we didn’t meet someone who, upon learning that we’re travel writers, asked us to name our favourite places in the world. While it’s a difficult question to answer (we love different places for different types of trips and for different seasons), it’s even more challenging to narrow the destinations down to a few (we love too many places).
But one question we never hesitated in responding to was “what was the best thing about the place?” We’ll always say “the people”. Because for us, travel has long been about the people we meet on our travels, as much as the places we go to, and that was one of the reasons we began Grantourismo.
This post was originally published midway through that 12-month grand tour, but we think it’s still inspirational. These were some of the local people we connected with during the first half of our yearlong round the world trip advocating local travel, slow travel and experiential travel.
What We Love Most About Local Travel – Meeting Locals
Meeting locals when we travel has long been one of the most satisfying parts of travelling and was one of the reasons we launched Grantourismo with a yearlong grand tour around the world way back in 2010, aimed at promoting slow travel, local travel and experiential travel, all more immersive, more engaging and more interactive forms of travel.
Throughout the trip we were continuously asked by our readers here and on social media and by people we met in person what the most memorable local encounters with people were. These were so very many but these are some of the highlights.
Talking Vinyl, Eating Tacos, Going to Gigs, and Dancing the Honky Tonk in Austin, Texas
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 homes we stayed in. But to be honest, our most memorable experiences involved talking vinyl with America’s most popular record store owner, John Kunz and watching local musicians like Amy Cook, Dan Dyer and Suzanne Choffel perform – and meeting them and spending time with them.
We had fun dancing at the honky tonk joint The Broken Spoke, but the best bit was chatting over beers afterwards with its legendary owner James White (we were just one degree of separation from Willie and Clint!), meeting James’ family, and getting invited to their ranch. Not to mention learning about life, love and regret as I learnt the Texan Two Step with a 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 journalists AKA ‘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 home owners, the charming boot-wearing cow-girl Rusty Irons and filmmakers Joel and Dani.
Walking, Drinking and Dining with the Locals in Marrakech, Perpignan and New York
Our stay in Perpignan in France was particularly special because of our culinary walk and wine in the sun with Carl, the cheese connoisseur and wine-loving owner of our old town studio, while our Marrakech stay was made more memorable by dinner with hairdresser to the stars and DJ Rob, our riad owner, and his family.
Our stay in New York? We loved eating out in Brooklyn with our old music producer cum jazz musician friend Scotty Harding, eating hot dogs with Craig from Not for Tourists, getting restaurant tips over drinks with writer David Farley, discovering speakeasies with an architect (see above), and downing craft beers at a meet-up with a bunch of writers, bloggers and travellers at a local bar.
But what we really loved was meeting locals in the East Village, the neighbourhood that we stayed in and focused on, through its community gardening movement activists and garden strolls, and through characters like our guide to the East Village history and counter-culture, historian Rob Hollander, and local artist, ‘the Mosaic Man’.
Shopping the Markets, Cooking Local Specialties and Breaking Baguettes with Locals in Venice, Barcelona and Paris
Our stays in Venice, Barcelona and Paris were also extra special this time, because after multiple trips to each of those cities over ten years, we really felt like we got beneath the skin of those places this time thanks to the locals we spent time with.
We had a lesson in shopping Venice’s Rialto fish markets with restaurant owner Francesco, we learnt to cook the local seafood on a cooking class with Countess Enrica Rocca, we spent a day on the Venice lagoon learning about the city’s flooding problems with water scientist Luca, and we learnt about the art of book-binding and drank vino with bookbinder Pablo Olbi.
In Barcelona, Michelin-starred chef Jordi Artel taught us one of his grandma’s recipes, we learned about cava from Catalan winemakers, and we did a fun 99 cent wine tasting with some new local and expat friends.
In Paris, Terence ‘mastered the macaron‘ with a couple of lovely chefs, we broke baguettes with a food blogger and culinary guide, and the world’s greatest bartender taught us how to make a cocktail he invented called (somewhat appropriately), Serendipity.
Learning Flamenco Guitar, Hiking the Hills and Tucking into Yakitori in Jerez, Ceret and Tokyo
In Jerez, Terence learned flamenco guitar basics 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 textile lover and fashion designer, while in Paris I chatted about ethical fashion with a Montmartre shop owner.
We learned about Sardinian wine on a winery visit with the owner of our beautiful home, Antonio and his family, cooked home-made pizza in our own wood-fired oven and learned to make the local pasta with our Alberobello host Maria and had a moonlit pizza party with her family in our conical house in Puglia.
After ambling around Alberobello with local guide Anna, we went back to her parents’ restaurant where they fed us their hearty homemade cuisine and shared their recipes for limoncello and cherry liqueur. In Marrakech, Jamila taught us to make her favourite tajine, while in our villa in Bali Desak shared traditional local recipes and Terence taught her some European recipes in return.
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.
How to Meet Locals When You Travel
Local travel and connecting with locals when you travel 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 good 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 for meeting locals when we travel. We’d also love to hear about any strategies that you have for how to meet locals when you travel.
- 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 touch with friends of friends and friends of family 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 travel sites such as Get Your Guide and Klook list loads of small group tours offered by local guides, where you have a chance of befriending your guide or at the very least getting loads of 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.
First published 20 August 2010; Last Updated 30 April 2023
We’d love to learn what your methods are for how to meet locals when you travel. Please let us know in the comments below, by email or on social media.