Many people travel to see and experience new places, but apart from small talk with locals on the streets, it can be pretty hard to get in touch with anyone personally. I always have things I’d like to ask when travelling, and as a tour guide myself, I’ve been asked many questions that the guidebooks don’t have answers for – everything from “How do you get TV channels?” to “Why do you have wires in the gutters?” To be honest, if you want to meet people when travelling, you just need to be very open and talkative, but here are some tips that can help. After all, it’s the people that make each place special.
1. Skip the maps and ask for directions
Google Maps and your smartphone are great for helping you find your way in a new place. Nevertheless, sometimes it can be much more fun to write the address on a piece of paper and ask for directions on the street. It might take more time, but you’ll get to interact with locals and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find out if the place is even worth visiting or if there’s something else you should see instead. Don’t be afraid of the language barrier – you’ll manage with basic gestures. If not, just smile and pretend you understand everything.
2. Start a conversation
I remember reading a book in Istanbul airport and someone coming up to me and asking “What book is it?” It turned out we were travelling to the same city, so I acquired a travel companion for the rest of my trip. It doesn’t have to be a book – it can be anything you’re interested in, and usually this is enough for people to become curious about who you are and where you’re from. It’s not much, but it could be the start of one of the most memorable conversations of your life. Another useful line is “Do you have a lighter/charger/pen?” Some travellers deliberately leave a few of the things they need at home because there will always be someone who they can borrow from. It probably wouldn’t work with a toothbrush, glasses or money though…
3. Public transport
People often spend lots of time on public transport in bigger cities, making it a good way to see locals going about their daily lives. There will always be surprises – I’ve heard locals singing folk songs on a bus, whereas in my city it seems like letting others know about your existence is a sin. Also, be aware of traffic jams and make sure you always have a ticket. Public transport is different all over the world and in many places it’s not punctual, so be patient and embrace the local way of life.
4. Guided tours
There are plenty of guided tours to choose from. Tour sizes can range from small groups of up to 10 people to bigger groups of 40–60 people. Of course it’s easier to approach your guide in a smaller group, but either way it’s up to you to get what you want out of a tour. Guides usually know much more than they have time to tell you in the few hours you spend with them, so it’s always a good idea to ask questions about what you’re interested in. For example, you could ask them to describe the local people, customs, a typical Friday night, their views on different issues… You could also ask them to recommend places where locals typically eat or hang out, giving you even more possibilities to get to know someone new. You can find plenty of great guided tours on Like A Local Guide, such as walking tours, bike tours, day trips and Segway tours. There’s even a Vespa tour! After all, your tour guide is a perfect example of a local person.
Couchsurfing is becoming popular, with more and more budget travellers trying it out. You don’t have to be a broke student who only wants to wander around a city to try Couchsurfing. Even if you have most of your accommodation already arranged for your trip, you could try to find a nice host in at least some of your destinations. There’s a good chance you’ll get to know your host pretty well. Some hosts will be willing to take you out and show you around, but just make sure you’re not too demanding. If you don’t like staying with strangers, ask your friends if they known anyone in the places you’re travelling to. You might be able to save on accommodation costs and meet people you’ll remember.
6. Local cafés and restaurants
There are tourist traps and there’s plenty of them. Restaurants and cafés where the prices are two or three times higher than normal usually don’t attract many locals. You can avoid such places by using your common sense (in other words don’t dine on main squares and main streets). Take the time to venture beyond areas overcrowded with tourists and seek out hidden cafés that locals love. Like a Local Guide offers plenty of tips from locals about decent places to dine, as well as food tours and pub crawls. Taking the time to read reviews and plan ahead might just save you money and give you a better experience.
7. What would you be doing at home?
Try to imagine what you would be doing at this time if you were at home. Would you be sitting in front of the TV, or maybe hitting the gym or going to a pub? Who says that you can’t do the things you love when you’re abroad? If you’re a keen runner, pack your running shoes and take some time for a nice jog. You could even combine sightseeing with fitness by joining a running tour. There are many other activities where you can meet locals, for example kayaking, photo shoots, Polaroid tours and cooking workshops. Art freaks can even dine at a local artist’s home. You could also write to a local sports club or art class, for example, to ask if you could join for one or two sessions. Going to the cinema, the theatre, concerts and clubs are also pretty local thing to do.