The Anti-Tourist Travel Rules
When I went to São Paulo, Brazil, last year, I loved it—in good part because I didn’t have to do anything. (Quick: name a tourist attraction in São Paulo.) The trip made me realize that I’m increasingly uninterested in traditional sightseeing. In Rio de Janeiro, I didn’t bother to visit Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer. In Rome, I took one look at the throngs of people outside the Colosseum and went for gelato instead. I didn’t make it to the Louvre until my fourth trip to Paris, and I went then only because my sister was with me (for her first time in the city). Lucky for me, my sister turned out to be a sightskipper, too—we left after 45 minutes.
I’m not saying I’ll never visit another major attraction again, but more and more, I don’t feel compelled the way I used to. Too often, depending on where you are, you end up surrounded by other travelers, and who wants that? I accept that I’m a visitor, but I don’t want to be reminded of it.
Instead, I like to go where the locals are—their neighborhoods, their restaurants, their shops. I may miss some good stuff, but I just want to have a travel experience that’s mine and mine alone, something that’s near impossible if I go to the same places as everyone else. The best way to the heart of a destination is to explore the everyday side of life there. By pretending you live somewhere, you can discover the minutiae that make one place different from every other. Here are 10 new rules for traveling.
Hotels, for all their charms, can’t help serving as buffers. In a rented apartment (or house, or villa), you’re likely to be in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by locals, and you get to explore a place from the inside out. The rhythms of life are totally different than in a hotel—in Venice, for example, you’ll be taking out the garbage every morning, hanging a plastic bag from your building’s doorknob.
Get a Massage or a Haircut
After days of walking around Tokyo, my feet were throbbing. I had read somewhere that foot massages were plentiful and cheap, so when I finally saw a sign offering them in Roppongi, I indulged. While the massage itself wasn’t so different from the kind of massage popular in North American Chinatowns, the whole experience—walking up three flights in a random building, waiting in the reception area, trying to comprehend the staff’s instructions—made me feel alert and alive. Isn’t that feeling, as awkward as it can be, among the chief reasons to seek out new destinations? You can get the same sort of immersion (and a guaranteed anecdote for friends back home) by going for a shave at an old-school barbershop in Austria, an ear candling in India, or a scrub in South Korea.
Skip the Souvenirs
So many objects sold as souvenirs were made somewhere else, and besides, who wants to buy the same thing as every other visitor? Instead, shop at the stores you would frequent if you made the leap and became an expat: supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores, art-supply shops…. Many foreign brand names, in particular, are catnip for word lovers. Who wouldn’t make extra room in his suitcase for Kook salt and Stiksy pretzels from São Paulo?
You’re not exactly likely to meet locals at your hotel gym, aside from an attendant. And how other cultures stay in shape—whether at a neighborhood fitness club, swimming pool, or yoga studio—is a window on their world. (I knew I wasn’t in America anymore when I discovered female attendants inside the men’s locker room at a Stockholm health club.)
Rent a Bike
Besides being good exercise (see No. 4), cycling is an opportunity to experience areas you otherwise might not visit. Take Amsterdam: by renting a bike, you’ll instantly look more like an Amsterdammer and be able to zip right over to districts like the Eastern Docklands—where you’ll see a developing area of the city—and some noteworthy contemporary architecture, too.
Run an Errand
I could have waited till I got home from Paris to have someone fix the zipper on my pants, but where’s the fun in that? The tailor in the Marais district and I could barely communicate, but we laughed a lot while trying. One can only wonder what a bystander would’ve made of our gesturing when he insisted that I button my pants before I zip, even making me demonstrate that I understood. The interaction was all so much more quintessentially French than, say, a dinner cruise on the Seine.
Find Your Crowd
If you spend too much time following a guidebook—with its emphasis on museums and history—you’ll give short shrift to topics you might also care about. Love knitting? Collect knives? Follow jazz? Search the Web for a meet-up or get in touch with a related local enthusiasts’ group—if you can’t find one online, ask at a specialty shop—for an in-depth look at how people in another country view a mutual interest through a different lens.
Go to a Neighborhood Church
Watching people worship is one of the more intimate cultural experiences a traveler can have—which is why you should confirm in advance that you’ll be welcome at a religious service, either by dropping by, calling, or asking at your hotel (if you ignored No. 1). You’ll also do well to ask what’s appropriate in terms of dress and behavior (for example, can you participate in rituals, or should you stay on the sidelines?).
Speaking of sidelines (and worship of a different sort).... Imagine what someone from India would make of a major league baseball game: sports, and how we watch them, say more about us than we think. The more culturally attuned to the place the sport is—polo in Argentina, cricket in the Caribbean, sumo in Japan, curling in Canada—the more you’ll probably gain from the price of the ticket.
Free time is a major luxury for most of us, but if you can afford an extra day or two, spend it! The best trips I’ve ever taken were ones where I stayed for a week in a place—Uluru, Australia; Ojai, California; Panarea, Italy; Trancoso, Brazil—that many people spend only a few days in. It’s like driving: the slower you go, the more you’ll see.