A major highlight of travel is always the people we meet along the way, especially local inhabitants. Local people burst the tourist bubble and offer valuable insight and access to incredible experiences. They are a traveller’s best inroad to a place.
Just what are some of the best ways to meet locals while travelling? We sat down with the staff of the WHL Group to tease out their thoughts about how to infiltrate local life, find out what in-the-know residents are doing and maybe even make some new friends. From attending local festivals and national sports events to salsa dancing, we’ve shared our tips on how to “do as locals do” in any destination.
In Transit Together
“I’ve often found that a safe way to meet locals is by taking local transportation. There’s nothing like being trapped on a rickety bus for three hours, or an old ferry boat in the middle of a storm, to inspire that true feeling of friendship and solidarity. Maybe it’s suffering together that creates that spark, but probably something else as well. It’s these long (and sometimes hellish) rides that let you see how much you really hold in common with your seat mates.”
Bars, Restaurants and Real Urban Life
“While travelling, my favourite way to meet locals is at local restaurants and bars. If I’m alone or with one other person, we head up to the bar, grab a stool and make friends with the bartenders. This is especially great in restaurants, because patrons are typically not too busy to have small conversations with you (and it’s usually not too loud in there). You end up getting great insight into local life, excellent tips on where else to eat/drink/explore in the destination and sometimes even make a new friend!
In my home of Toronto, the best place to find locals is in the neighbourhoods outside the ‘touristy’ areas right downtown. Head to Queen West, Leslieville, Cabbagetown, the Danforth, the Village or Roncesvalles to find where the real locals hang out. Toronto is full of food festivals in the summertime, so any of those are a sure bet for meeting locals. Same goes with jazz festivals, Pride and Nuit Blanche (to name a few). Also during the summer, locals sit on patios and stay there for hours. The Black Bull is a mainstay (and legend), but places like Bellwoods Brewery are quickly becoming new favourites. During the wintertime, we all tend to hibernate, with the exception of the long-standing Toronto tradition of going ice skating in Nathan Phillips Square.”
Join the Local Travel Movement
For many people, the simple act of travelling is a bold step outside their safety zones. Leaving the comprehensibility and security of the familiar has taken so much self-convincing that suggestions they edge further out the branch of risk – into local eateries or anything off the beaten track – is a very big ask. And yet, these people are just as covetous and deserving of local travel experiences – a unique means of engaging directly with the host destination that isn’t filtered through a sanitised tourist lens – as more intrepid types.
Fortunately, a growing number of travel entrepreneurs has created alternatives for precisely this kind of person: structured and somewhat predictable services that help anyone keen to get under the skin of a place connect with the kinds of locals eager to let them in. They come with all the magic of local connections without demanding a degree of confidence that some travellers don’t realise they have. A great many of these services are now listed together at the Local Travel Movement, a not-for-profit platform started by people with a passion for local travel and commitment to local travel values. These latter values are as important as they are simple. Anyone can adopt them without feeling like they are putting themselves or anyone else in a position of discomfort. In fact, by adopting them you are making yourself and the people whose paths you cross in places of greater comfort!
The Lime&Tonic Answer
“Meeting locals is one of the most important elements of travelling. Wherever you go, you want to know that you are getting the real, local experience, not just something that has been pre-packaged for tourists. Most experienced travellers have their own ideas about the best ways to meet locals, whether it’s searching online or seeking out bars and restaurants that are off the beaten path. None of these assures success, however, especially in a serpentine city like Prague or a metropolis like London, which has so many unique experiences to choose from.
Fortunately, Lime&Tonic has the answer. Our member events are fantastic ways to ensure you’re getting the most unique and authentic experiences possible, no matter which city you’re in! Live in New York and you’re going to visit Prague? Check out our Prague guide, which features dozens of fine dining, relaxation and adventure experiences that our team has locally sourced and curated for our members. Our teams on the ground work with the best merchants in each city to ensure we offer our members the experiences that might not show up in the guidebooks, but are certainly what in-the-know locals are up to. Best of all, since we work closely with our merchants, you’re sure to be treated like a regular no matter where you go.”
~ Stephan Delbos, Content Manager, Lime&Tonic
Rallying Around Local Sports
“People are crazy about sports. No matter where you go, it’s likely that there is some national sport that whips the local population into a frenzy. If you want to speed up the process of making some local friends, brush up on the rules of a sport that they love and stick around to watch a game or two. Of course, you may want to do a little research before you randomly pick a team to support. Find out who the locals are cheering for before you march into a pub dressed from head to toe in the colours of the opposition. But if you can find out who to cheer for and, almost as importantly, who to swear at, then you’re almost certainly in for a memorable night!”
Eclectic Pubs with History
“San Francisco is a very eclectic city with many colourful sights and sounds. But the hidden gem that deserves recognition is Specs Simmons’ pub, officially called Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café. Having opened its doors back in 1968, this North Beach haunt was home to a menagerie of misfits including merchant marines, poets and strippers. Nowadays it is a dimly-lit exposé of San Francisco’s past. Oh, if these walls could talk! They almost do, with the décor of quirky and eclectic relics from yesteryear including animal bones, newspaper clippings and an Egyptian mummy wearing sunglasses. Located in a small alley off Columbus Blvd between Broadway and Pacific and featured on our San Francisco Urban Adventure North Beach Walking Pub Tour, this local favourite is a must-see.”
~ Mark L. Nessle, San Francisco Urban Adventures
Dance Your Way In
“When I travel, one of the easiest ways to meet locals is by going salsa dancing! I’m an avid salsa dancer back home and it’s something I always look forward to in other countries. Believe it or not, every major city in the world has a salsa bar somewhere. I always make it a point to find out the schedule for their salsa nights either through searching the web or word of mouth. It’s a great way to meet people in a friendly and highly energised atmosphere. Not to mention, you get to exercise too!”
Key Phrases of Local Lingo
“Whenever I travel, meeting and interacting with locals is a ‘must do’ in order to experience a real sense of place and the local culture. Depending on the destination, using public transport, going to a local bar or market and eating where the locals do are sure-fire ways to meet up with locals and strike up conversations. If the local language is not familiar, it helps to know a few basic words and phrases beforehand and asking directions is as good a conversation opener as any.”
Just Ask (The Right Questions)
“One of my favourite ways to meet locals while traveling is simply to talk to them! Most people are very willing to share their culture if you just ask and show interest. When I landed at the airport in Puerto Rico, I asked the car rental desk employee where he goes to lunch nearby (not where the tourist hot spots are) and was directed to the most fantastic chicken BBQ I have ever tasted, in a slightly rundown building that I may not have noticed otherwise.
Another tip: take some lessons! As a scuba diver, I’ve found that all dive leaders (and local instructors of any activity) are willing to share their favourite spots. You already have common ground. Other great resources are employees of the hotel or hostel you’re staying at – just be sure to ask where they eat or what they do, not what they recommend to the majority of tourists.”
Distilling Down Life
“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the local people of the small city of Medjugorje are warmly accessible to visitors. We still live an old way of life, happy to open our doors to you. I especially love November. It is the month of fermentation and distillation. My wife’s uncles spend countless hours alongside stills and boilers. These are the days of solidarity in the towns of Herzegovina. Distillation is a neighbourhood rite. It is the good time. Everyone uses the community distiller and each person brings individual plums or grape skins. People pass the day around these boilers, swapping stories of old and of course predicting the quality of the brandy. For fast friends and fine drinks, get thee to the distillery.”
~ Niall Leacy, Medjugorje Tours & Travel, the whl.travel local connection in Medjugorje
Signing in to Social Networks
“The internet is an awesome tool for meeting locals while travelling. There are so many ways to find local groups and events. My favourite site has always been CouchSurfing.org. That’s how I met a great community of locals and travellers while living in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Another thing I tried in Mallorca was an online classifieds website like Craigslist, where I posted an ad about a language exchange. The response was great! Then, while I was living in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, I got really creative. I decided to meet local people and discover the city through an online dating site! Sometimes, though, enough is enough online. That’s when I close my laptop and wander over to public spaces like the plazas and parks of a city and chat it up with the vendors and craftspeople.”