Travel Europe Like a Local
If you run from one tourist attraction to another, you’ll see a lot, but you’ll miss out on experiencing a country’s culture and daily way of life. For a deeper travel experience, embrace the day-to-day rhythm of the country you’re visiting and try out a different lifestyle.
Here’s some ideas to help you live life as a local in a European country.
Stay in an apartment or house
Forget the hotels and stay in a Paris apartment, an Italian country house or a cottage on a British moor. Through services like Airbnb and HomeAway, and even through local tourist offices, you can rent a home or apartment for a few days, a few weeks or even months. These accommodations come furnished including a fully equipped kitchen.
If I’m only staying in a town for a few days, I like to rent a room. This way I get to know a local right way, learn about the city and fall quickly into the local pace of life. Whether you have your own place or a room in someone’s house, staying in a European home places you in a real neighborhood where between sightseeing, you can meet the neighbors, shop where they shop and hang out at the local coffee shop. You might even receive recommendations on local attractions that tourists generally don’t know about or seldom visit.
Shop at the supermarkets and weekly outdoor markets
Since you now have a kitchen, why not enjoy one of my favorite pastimes, exploring European supermarkets as well as local bakeries and food specialty shops. I can spend hours perusing the grocery aisles for unique food items like hazelnut cookies, rhubarb yogurt and soupe de poisson (fish soup). It’s fun to discover new products, regional pastries and specialty items.
Check out the personal care items at supermarkets and pharmacies. There’s no need to pack a two-month supply of skin and hair products when you can have the pleasure of trying a French soap or skin cream.
And don’t forget to visit the weekly outdoor markets and food halls. Most are open year-round. You’ll find the freshest produce, meats and fish, as well as artisan cheeses, sausages, breads, jams and other local specialties.
Bring all your fresh ingredients back to your new home to cook up a local specialty. Or take your cheese, bread, sausage and fruit to a park for a picnic. With your own kitchen, you’ll no longer have to eat every meal in a restaurant. You’ll save money and eat healthier.
Europeans walk. And cities, towns and villages are highly walkable. When you’re on the street, you’re seeing life up close and personal. If you see a shop you like, you can walk right in. You can stop and talk to people, and you’re bound to meet some locals. Get off the main drag and the tourist traps and explore the back streets. Wandering the back streets was one of my favorite things to do in Venice, where I discovered unique antique and book shops secreted away on narrow alleyways.
Ride mass transit
Familiarize yourself with the bus, subway or train system. The central train station will usually have timetables and maps, and you can find schedules online. Purchase a transit pass for the time you will be in town. It’s a cool feeling being on a subway commuting with all the locals and nobody knows you’re an American tourist.
Attend festivals and concerts
After you’ve hit the cultural and tourist sites, see what the locals do in their off hours. Visit the tourist office to inquire about current events. Pick up the local paper or Google an events calendar online. I often stumble across music and dancing just by walking around a city.
Learn some of the language and customs
Even if you only know “hello,” “please” and “thank you,” it can go a long way towards making a good first impression. It’s always nice to be polite. Before you leave on your trip, learn the basic customary greetings. I know the French appreciate any attempt to speak their language. And after I say “bonjour” with my American accent, they usually start speaking English. There’s no need to ask, “Do you speak English?” If they don’t, you’ll know soon enough.
Start a conversation
This can be scary when you don’t know the language. But you’ll be surprised how many people speak English. Europeans grow up speaking at least two and often multiple languages. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and see where it leads. When I was in the small Mediterranean coastal town of Collioure, France, I started talking with a woman in her shop and quickly learned she had family in the US that were only five miles away from my family. Yes, it's a small world, and we all have more in common with others than not.
Dress like a local
Although fashion trends are changing, Europeans typically wear neutral colors and solids (and some stripes), but nothing loud or with logos or slogans. Europeans tend to be a little dressier than Americans. So leave the sweatpants at home. Dressing like a European will not only help you feel more like a local, but can also keep you safer because you won’t stand out like a tourist and be a target for pickpockets.
Be a tourist
Lastly, it’s okay to be a tourist. That’s what we are when visiting a foreign country. Do all the sightseeing and touristy things you like, but leave time to slow down and experience real life in the country you’re visiting. You’ll come away with an appreciation for the culture and a richer and more memorable travel experience.