Once I began traveling more often, I started to turn away from a lot of the touristy gimmicks in certain places. Not because I felt like there was anything inherently wrong with the touristy places I was going to, but because I began to feel like every time I would go to a new place, especially big cities, I had the impression I'd already been there before. It wasn't déjà-vu, but rather the feeling that every city just had this big church and maybe a few nice bridges and a cute café. There would be a sprinkling of nice restaurants and a couple of cool museums and the select neighborhoods where tourists flooded the streets.
Of course, I still loved all of my trips, but I started to veer away from TripAdvisor and sponsored advertisements and more towards reading through personal blog posts and following my own intuition. My trips around France became less about train rides to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and more about seeing little cities in the country-side, meeting locals, trying the best food and drinks, and finding myself in little hole-in-the-wall restaurants .
One of the most important factors into people's happiness is their sense of belonging, meaning the more connected people feel to their social groups and the more groups they are connected to the happier they feel (excluding surface-level online connections). For me, the more countries I visited, the more my honeymoon phase with travel slipped away and the more I craved this sense of belonging and a greater sense of connection and authenticity in my travels. I wanted to feel like a local for a few days, interact with the people who'd lived in the city for years, try interesting food, learn a few new words, and come in touch with historical and modern culture.
So now when I go to new cities I still pass by that big church and that cute café. I go to one of the famous museums and walk by the monuments the city is known for, but I don’t spend all of my time doing that. Instead, I started doing little things that would put me outside of the regular tourist circuit. And I know I'm one of the tourists I'm trying to avoid, but my new habits led me to experiences where I got to meet locals, find hidden gems, and feel more apart of the culture and I'm loving it.
1. Go to Grocery Stores
This might seem like a weird suggestion, but it’s seriously something I do every time I go to a new place. Not only are grocery stores the best place to go to see what the locals are shopping for, but you also get to see all of the food that doesn’t exist in your hometown grocery store.
In Barcelona, I was obsessed with a mid-afternoon snack of churros and their thick, rich hot chocolate and lo and behold when I was in the grocery store I found out they sold the hot chocolate as a powder and I got to take it home and have a little part of Barcelona with me for months. In France, I love everything that is “apéro,” which is a snack-y meal that goes with drinks before dinner or before going out for more drinks in town. I have a love affair with a cheese dip called Madame Loïc, but pretty much all French appetizers are amazing.
In general, heading to the snack or the dessert section is never a mistake in any country because it's usually filled with tons of options and a lot of crazy flavors. So instead of going out to lunch one day, have a picnic. Buy a bottle of local wine/beer/juice, lots of crazy snacks, cheese, bread, and whatever else your heart desires. You won't regret it.
2. Wake Up Early
This is one of my favorite things to do when traveling. I love doing it because you get to miss a lot of the tourists in the more crowded places. It gives you the opportunity to go to places like the Eiffel Tower and the Sagrada Familia without being overwhelmed by crowds and cameras.
You also get to see the little things about a foreign place that makes it seem more tangible, like little kids walking to school, garbage men yawning as they empty the trash into their truck, the smell of freshly baked bread and desserts floating out from the bakeries. It just makes visiting a place seem more than just some spot on a map and rather a place where people have just as rich and busy lives as your own.
3. Support Local
Every time I go to a new city I try to support local as much as possible. I go to farmers markets, head into little jewelry shops, pop over to flea markets, and eat at off the beaten path restaurants and cafés. People love to talk about their passions so heading to a locally run business will not only put you in the path of other locals heading to the same places, but give you an opportunity to talk to the locals who run them.
Usually once you get involved in someone’s business and get them talking about it, then they are happy to help you with other things around the city. You can ask them about their favorite restaurants, bars, neighborhoods, shopping, etc. It's also nice to contribute to the small-business economy anywhere you go.
I would also recommend choosing airbnb or couch surfing over hotels. Airbnb hosts are always willing to give you their tips and they're usually chock-full of good ones. Also, try sites like eatwith.com or withlocals.com where you can make a meal or take a tour with locals instead of going on commercialized food tours or heading to restaurant chains. My friends and I did this in Vietnam and it was seriously the highlight of our trip in Hanoi. A local took us to a grocery store where we went shopping for a few items and then we went back to her apartment where we made dinner with her and her mom (and her dog!). We loved it because we got to see a different side of Hanoi through her and got this amazing homemade meal out of it.
4. Don’t overplan
This is one of the hardest rules for me to stay faithful to because I tend to over research every place I go to. I want to find the best of the best, but I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the best discoveries come by accident. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life from little restaurants I never would’ve found by searching online. They didn’t have Trip Advisor stickers pasted on their windows or translated menus and were the kind of places you’d just stumble upon.
So some tips for finding hidden gems? Walk around and see what’s busy with locals. You can tell a lot from a place by the kind of people who are in it. If you see a restaurant that’s filled with tourists or families with young children it’s probably going to be an average meal. You should look for restaurants filled with young couples or older groups of adults. Young couples usually around 25 to 35 years old are more in touch with new and up and coming places. They and their friends usually have more time to spend eating out than those with children (also children tend to just love a good meal of mac n' cheese and chichen tenders). Older groups of adults are usually trustworthy too because they’ve been around the block a few times and know a good restaurant/café when they see one.
I also tend to avoid restaurants with pictures on the outside of the building or on the menu because they’re usually marketing to tourists who might not be able to understand menus in languages other than their own. While this is nice of the restaurants, it also means they'll probably have less local cuisine and more food that is catered to tourist tastes. Big menus are also usually a bad sign as well because it means not everything is going to be made to order. Most of the time looking at how the clean the place is/the ambiance is a good indicator of how clean the kitchen is and how much the owners care about the place. While a Google search of restaurants, bars, and cafés is never a bad idea, finding that hidden gem can really make you feel like a local.
5. Do a work-out class
This is an odd one and honestly one I didn’t even think about doing until my college roommate (thanks Leah!!) came to visit me in France last year. She travels a bunch too and loves spin classes so in every new country she tries to do a spin class. This is something you would’ve never caught me doing when traveling, but I honestly loved it. Not only did we get to take the class for free since it was our first one, but we also got to experience the culture in a way that is totally local as tourists aren't usually coming for the workout classes. But, I loved it because it was a great way to start the day, feel a part of a team, meet new people, and interact with the culture in a completely different way.
6. Facebook Events
You can find some really interesting events going through Facebook. Even just doing a quick search for events near me in France now I see there is a nearby fair, a “vente à kilo” (which is a clothing sale where everything is sold by weight and this one is just $5/kilo), a hockey game, and a concert. Going to these local events can be a great way to talk to locals and feel more involved in the city.