Dear Savvy Traveller: When I’m visiting a new culture for a brief time, what are some ways to get an insider look at real life, real quick?
This is a great question that applies to a huge variety of people, including to people who travel for business, have long layovers or do weekend getaways, and so many more random circumstances that bring people briefly to new lands.
What really attracts me to your question is that you asked about seeing local culture, not how to pack the most top attractions into a day or two. Attractions are awesome, and I always try to see what I can, but they (usually) are good for photos and bucket-list check-marks.
Culture is what leaves an imprint on your life. Thanks for the reminder that sitting in a park may be a better use of one day than dashing through four museums and faking candids in front of a monument.
When I lived in Rome, my best friend, Melissa, came to visit me. Rome has a seemingly endless supply of must-sees, should-sees, and could-sees that would take years to exhaust, but I showed her as much as she could power through in five days (true story: I ran her around so relentlessly that she fell asleep leaning against a wall in the Vatican Museums).
So what do you think her strongest memory of Rome is? It’s the half-hour we spent at the grocery store, picking up ingredients for dinner. I’m sure she was impressed by the towering monuments and timeless art, but seeing how real Romans shopped—what they bought, what was available, what was noticeably absent—gave her the most illustrative impression of real Roman life, and this is an excellent way to snag a solid sense of any destination.
Think of all those mundane errands you loathe—all those places you have to stop after work before you can get home, kick off your shoes, and get comfy after a long day. These obnoxious moments of real life are just that—real life. And trust me, they’re a lot more fun when you’re travelling, not under any stress to find a specific item and get home to let the dogs out. It may seem strange to intentionally run nonexistent errands while travelling (you are on vacation after all!), but for true entrée into a local culture, spend time acting like a local.
Here are my favorite stops for uncovering local life in half a day, because you still need time for the monuments and museums.
1. The grocery store. Check out colorful produce you may not have seen before, see what animals people regularly eat here, and, my personal favorite, check out their snacks. Snack varieties and flavors change everywhere, and this is a really fun glimpse into local preferences. Grab an interesting snack or two for later (and maybe some fruit too, just to feel better about your decisions)
2. The convenience store. Jumping on the snack food bandwagon, there may be no better place to find an assortment of local favorites than the convenience store. The cool thing about snack food is that, no matter what other culinary elements your two cultures share, snack food inevitable varies dramatically. It’s a great insight into which flavor profiles local people prefer (spicy? sweet? starchy? fishy?), which tells plenty about a culture. Check out what else is and isn’t available in a convenience store to get a sense of what locals need in a pinch and what surprising items they do without. These revelations are interesting enough on their own, but they’re also good conversation starters for later.
3. The pharmacy. It’s interesting to see which products a different culture uses to combat ailments, and even just to take note of which ailments they’re trying to soothe. You’d be surprised at how drastically this changes from place to place. It’s also fascinating to note the prices of such products. Admittedly, if you don’t understand any of the local language, it’s harder to visually translate pharmaceutical packaging than food packaging, but take a peek either way. Check out what else is being sold in the pharmacy for a quick glimpse of what a community prioritizes (is the rest of the shop full of beauty products? books? candy?). Whether or not to try any of these local products is up to you, and how well you can communicate with the shop clerk or Google. This isn’t a place to take great risks, but to pick up great intel.
4. The park. Take the items you’ve gathered from the shops above and head to a local park enjoy them. First, wander the park to see who in this community uses a public park, and take note of what they’re doing. Is this a fit culture, with bicyclists and joggers as far as the eye can see? Is there a lot of music and excitement, or is this a quiet, contemplative culture? Are the parks meticulously manicured, or au naturale? Take a look, too, at the trees and flowers that grow here; they’re sure to be a bit different than what you’re used to. Find a pretty patch of park and settle down to enjoy your snacks while people watching. Observe how locals interact in this public space, both with each other and work the park itself. If you want to be absorbed by a culture, you’ll have to sit still long enough for it to surround you. The park is the place for this.
5. The bar. Take all the info you’ve gathered through the day and pop into a bar or pub to have a drink and ask locals about what you’ve seen. This is, by far, your best chance for a deep dive into real local life. Drinkers talk, and while you should take some of what you hear with a grain of salt (remember: they’re drinking!), you’ll still get a robust taste of local life while meeting the people themselves. A culture is defined by its people, so you really can’t do better than this.
Let me clarify one major point here, Milo. I’m well aware that not all cultures have many, or sometimes any, of the establishments above. Plenty of the world is populated by tiny villages with local vendors, and maybe a small market, but no grocery stores or commercial pharmacies. You’re unlikely to find yourself in one of these more quaint locales for a brief stay as brief as you’ve asked about, though, and if you do, you’re not going need advice to encounter the culture of daily living.
When life is as intimate as it is in those magical milieus, and each day depends so heavily on personal interaction, you’ll be swimming in real life from the moment you arrive!