For me, the point of traveling is to experience a new place to the fullest. I love experiencing the culture, local cuisine, and talking to locals. For me, I don’t want a fabricated experience that isn’t real and is expensive. That is why it is so important to me to find authentic travel experiences.
Major cities are filled with tourist traps and people fall for them because they are convenient or fit their preconceived idea of a country. For example, I always think it’s funny how many ‘coffee houses’ are directly outside of the Amsterdam train station. However, I live just east of Amsterdam, I cannot think of one ‘coffee house’ in my area.
Or, another example, how many chain restaurants in many major cities say something like, “Authentic local cuisine”? If it’s really authentic, do you have to say that?
In my experience, it is best to run away from the tour buses, run away from the tourist trap restaurants, and run away from the tour packages. Instead, buy a cheap map and walk out of the touristy section of town. Why? Because I want to see what is down that side street and I want to find where the locals eat.
Creating an authentic experience happens when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone and start learning and experiencing the culture of the area.
Here are my tips for finding authentic travel experiences
1. Buy a map
Get out of the touristy section of the city. Instead, go down that small side street.
One of my favorite things is getting lost exploring a new place. It’s exhilarating to me to find interesting spots that aren’t necessarily listed in a guidebook.
2. Rent a Car
If it is in the budget, I highly recommend renting a car. It is so freeing to be able to drive around. But also, it gives you the option to drive to the small towns or areas that aren’t on a tour bus route or train route.
When we went to Scotland last year we rented a car. I’m so glad we did because most of the Highlands are only accessible with a car. We were able to see so much more and stop when we wanted it. So freeing. You can read about our road trip here and here.
3. Dine where the locals dine
Walk into that hole-in-the-wall restaurant. These are the best places.
Or, did you know that in a lot of major cities you can dine with the locals? In Amsterdam, there is a program that will connect you with Dutch people and you can go have a meal at their house. It’s called dine with the Dutch. Can’t get more authentic than that! Here’s one for Italy, France, and this one you can search by country.
4. Airbnb over a hotel
When we went to Scotland last year, we stayed in Airbnbs over hotels. Our last stay was outside of Edinburgh, in the home of a very sweet retired couple. We rented a car, asked them what we should see and do and eat. It was amazing, authentic, and eye-opening. We got to see more of the Scottish countryside and small towns that we wouldn’t have seen if we stuck to a tour.
5. Talk to the locals
While you’re dining with the locals and staying at their Airbnb, ask what they suggest you see or visit. In number 4, I explained that our hosts were incredible and gave us more authentic, and maybe under the radar, suggestions. But it also is fun to talk to locals that you meet on the street or in a restaurant. For example, when I was in Ireland I went to this little tiny restaurant. There was a man there who clearly ate there all the time. He knew all the staff and they were joking and chatting with everyone. I joined in on the conversation and asked him what his favorite dish was at the restaurant. His favorite dish is what I ate that night and it was incredible.
When you talk to locals, you get more of a feel for the area and the people.
6. Visit a local grocery store
Grocery stores always fascinate me. Even in the States, grocery stores can show the uniqueness of the area. I’m from New Mexico and stores there carry a lot more Mexican style foods: Hot chilis, fresh tortillas, etc.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t see important, historical monuments or museums. Art museums are my favorite. I’ve spent entire days in museums.
But I do think that finding authentic experiences is my favorite way to travel. I love exploring small towns and areas off the beaten path.
Do you enjoy finding authentic travel experiences? How do you find authentic travel experiences?
xo, Erin Kay