How to Travel Like a Local

Feb 26, 2015    /    get off the beaten track, philosophy

I leave for Rome tomorrow to spend four days with a bunch of bloggers riding around on vespas and wandering town in search of the perfect artichoke. And so it seemed appropriate, today, to post this excerpt about my past Rome experiences from Italy: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Eat, & How to Fit In.

On traveling like a local…and why I love winter in Rome:


How to Travel Like a Local

The first time I went to Rome, I hated it.

The sun beat down mercilessly as I weaved past each cultural landmark on one of those bus tours. The earphones were broken, so I could barely make out what the guide was saying about each ruin. I was sweating so badly that I was sticking to the seat. I rushed around to some of the main monuments, but none of them spoke to me and I left each one quickly, feeling overcrowded, overly hot, and simply out of sorts.

I was supposed to stay in Rome for a week, but I left the next day.

But the second time I went to Rome—more than five years later, with a lot more travel experience under my belt, and with a brand new travel philosophy—I fell in love.

Instead of a bus tour with a big, well-advertised company, I went on a food tour with a smaller, passionate-about-what- they-do tour company (whose founder gave a Rome interview in the Rome & Lazio section of this guide!). I tasted sweet liquors in the marketplace. I had conversations with people who lived there. And I bought the best balsamic vinegar I’ve ever tried in my life.

I was only supposed to stay one day, but I thought, “Hmm, I could see myself spending a month here.”
There were probably a number of reasons for this massively different experience. One is that it was winter (off-season) the second time I went. The streets were bustling, but not over-crowded. I was wearing a winter coat instead of sweating through my dress.

But more importantly, I think, is that fact that I was experiencing a different side of Rome.
Instead of rushing along from monument to monument with the other tourists, frantic to see everything, I was dedicating a day to the simple pleasure of discovering Italy’s food—and not even through restaurants, but through small, local butchers, cheese shops, and marketplaces.

Instead of choosing a big bus tour company because it was convenient, I chose a small, passionate walking tour company that cared about connecting its tour groups with the local culture.
And this time I wasn’t in a rush. I didn’t have a checklist. I wasn’t treating Rome like something on my bucket list.

I was, instead, trying to dig into authentic Italy, to experience what a local would experience, to meet people who really lived there, to eat what locals really ate, to shop where locals really shopped.
Which is the whole point of this book.

Yes, there are lot of amazing monuments and tourist attractions to see all over Italy. There’s a reason places like the Colosseum or the Vatican attract the masses. Many of these things are worth seeing and experiencing. (And many of my interviewees will tell you so.)

BUT.

They aren’t the whole story of Italy.

And, personally, I want to know more of the story, to get into the culture, to feel, even if I am only there for a few days, like I am truly living in Italy, experiencing something authentic.

In over 15 years of short-term international trips and two years of traveling full-time, mostly in Europe, I’ve come up with a routine that makes me feel more like a local. Before you dive into this book, I thought I’d share.

1. Travel slowly. Spend some real time in a place. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it shouldn’t be seen in one either.

2. Rent apartments, preferably in a neighborhood full of local people. (Not sure how to find the right neighborhood? I’ve asked locals to tell us in the interviews you’ll find in this book. Not sure how to find apartments? My personal starting point is Airbnb.com.)

3. Shop at fresh markets, small butcher shops, and neighborhood bakeries. This is where you’ll find the best food (as opposed to the grocery store, though that can also be a welcome adventure).

4. Make friends with people who live there. Ask people about their lives, their thoughts, and their cultures. Expats and locals are both incredibly fascinating and every conversation will teach you a lot.

5. Try to fit in. In Italy, this means dress nicely, don’t wear flip- flops if you aren’t at the beach, order cappuccino at the right time of day, and offer a hearty buongiorno! to the proprietor when you come into a restaurant or café.


Is this how you travel? If so, my unconventional guidebooks were written for you.

Photo credit.

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One Comment
  • Hung Thai
    January 29, 2016

    Very nicely written and I agree with the slow approach. It’s so easy to say “travel like a local” but it’s much harder to do in person. First… language barrier. Second… fear. Third… you have to go outside your comfort zone. Although I’m getting better at it, it’s still not something I can just do naturally – so thanks for the tips :)
    Hung Thai recently posted…Brave New Yorker tells all: Manhattan is SMALL! and other local travel tipsMy Profile

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