Have you ever had the feeling after visiting a foreign country that you didn’t really get any feel of the place? Globalization has created something of a worldwide tourist culture that can easily come between you and an authentic tourist experience. Of course I’ve had friends who have hired armed guards to visit remote sites in Kenya or who’ve cured Dengue Fever in India with OTC valium or who were trapped in a luxury hotel in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution this past spring. That’s not me, however, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Such experiences are either born of serendipity or suicidal self-confidence. It’s actually not that difficult or dangerous to get to know a place if you follow some of these tips.
Use Public Transportation and Walk: Most people in major cities travel around by bus or metro. When I lived in Istanbul my friends who had cars mainly used them to visit the countryside. Crossing the Bosphorus by ferry is a classic Istanbul experience. Traveling from one town to another by shared taxi or bus is a great way to observe real people without being nosy about it. Half of any New York City dweller’s amusing anecdotes take place on a subway. Traveling by mass transit is also cheaper, especially compared to winding up with an unscrupulous cab driver.
Walking is, without a doubt, one of my greatest pleasures when visiting a foreign city. I have walked from one side to another of Rome, London, Madrid and Prague. Getting lost or winding your way down interesting side streets is one of the great ways to discover the cafes, clothing boutiques or weird little churches and mosques that you won’t find in guide books. Many European cities are not actually that big and can easily be navigated on foot. In Venice it’s practically a necessity unless you want to spend a fortune on gondola rides.
Eat the Food: While obvious, this is not as easy as it sounds. Some cities are so overwhelmingly built around tourism that you have wade through a sea of hamburger and pizza places to find one or two authentic eateries. It’s very difficult to find authentic Venetian cuisines. Half of the “Italian” restaurants you find are owned by immigrants and serve extremely generic pasta. Most of my best dining experiences in the city were actually by recommendation of our Fodor’s guidebook. My wife and I also tended to eat out at restaurants off the beaten path in the more pedestrian areas of Castello and Cannareggio.
There are a few unique alternatives to tourist food. Firstly, cook. Visiting a market in a foreign country is one of those experiences that is so familiar that you really notice subtle differences. I remember buying groceries from a corner store in Budapest and mimicking the motion of cracking an egg to the store clerk because I couldn’t find the eggs. Finally an old man who was watching figured it out and said “Tojas.” The clerk then suddenly realized what I meant and we both started laughing. Another way to experience local cuisine is to be invited to someone’s home for dinner. During our first Ramadan in Turkey my wife and I were invited to an iftar meal at the home of one of our coworkers. We sat with several other couples eating breaded anchovies and cold sides while listening to music and talking for several hours.
Buy Locally Made Souvenirs: I think it goes without saying, but there is nothing special or memorable about a plastic trinket manufactured in China and embossed with an image of the Grand Canyon. Some countries are overflowing with handicrafts. In Turkey you can easily find Turkish-made porcelain, hookahs or leather work. The Cloth Hill Market in Krakow is also awash in cheap local woodwork and gorgeous amber jewelry. Basically, what you need to do is figure out what are the traditional handicrafts in a country and then look for them away from the more obvious tourist traps. As you move away from the tourist center of any country you’ll find that the quality of what you buy increases while the price drops.
Make Friends: Whether you court the companionship of locals or other expats, a fresh set of eyes can help you find the attractions that never make it into the guidebook. As an English teacher in Turkey many of my students took me to see a lot of wonderful sites I never would have found. One student brought me to see an authentic Ottoman military band at the Military Museum in Harbiye. It was a rousing performance and it was a unique insight into Turkey’s past. Five years ago my ex-girlfriend, who was born and raised in Budapest, drove me out to see Statue Park, the final resting place of the many Soviet-era monuments that used to adorn the city. It was a positively James Bond experience. Friends make travel more fun. They can also protect you from the most obvious scams and dangers.