When travelers spend a lot of time and money on a vacation, they often discover that they’re in the midst of a pre-packaged, manufactured environment that’s about as authentic as the Las Vegas Egyptian Pyramid. Here are a few ways that travelers can immerse themselves in a place, and a few reasons why this is a memorable way to travel.
- Visit in the off-season
Knowing when the crowds are at their peak is invaluable - not only is it cheaper to travel in the off-season, but a meaningful interaction with the locals will be much easier if you’re just one of a few visitors, not one of a few hundred or a few thousand.
Always wanted to see the colorful cliff-side towns of Italy’s Cinque Terre? Check it out in January, when the locals reclaim this tourist hotbed for themselves for a short time. Determined to visit Venice, or the David in Florence? Visit anytime between October-April, when crowds are at the lowest numbers.
- Avoid the big tourist destinations
Everyone wants to go to the Roman Forum, Stonehenge, Venice, the Eiffel Tower. And when you go, that same “Everyone” will be there. Steer clear of these sites, in favor of little-known alternatives. Discouraged by the busloads of people crowding the Cliffs of Moher? The remote roads to the south offer nearly identical views in peaceful solitude. Want to see ancient Roman sites? Skip downtown Rome altogether and check out the extensive - and often empty - ruins at Ostia Antica, just a few minutes from the airport. (Bonus: These alternatives are a lot cheaper, sometimes even free!)
- Venture out into the countryside
The small towns are where the real country is; real food, real people, real places that are not designed for tourists. This is where you’ll find an authentic experience of a place, not a location that’s been dressed-up for a travel brochure. Small town restaurants, pubs, and artisans have to appeal to locals, and that means they have to meet the locals’ standards.
- Skip high-end spas/resorts/hotels
Instead, opt for B&Bs, lighthouses, castles, or pubs/restaurants with rooms. These unusual places offer a real immersion into a place, whether it’s a cozy village tavern, a renovated medieval gatehouse tower room, or the keeper’s cottage at a 200-year-old lighthouse. These options are not only more interesting, they’re often priced comparably (and sometimes much less) than a typical upscale hotel. Instead of fancy soaps, bellhops in designer uniforms, and mints on your pillow, you’ll get unique, unforgettable places to stay.
- Learn and mimic the local, traditional schedule
Find out and plan to embrace the way things are done where you’re visiting. In Italy, take in the community’s bar culture, enjoy long lunches, watch the locals chatting and catching up at markets and stores. In the UK or Ireland, settle into the pub life - it’s frequently a family experience - and take the time to chat with folks over a pint. Rushing from one place to the next on your checklist deprives you of the chance to truly experience the place you’ve spent so much time and money to visit. After all, isn’t the saying “When in Rome...?”
- Learn about the history of the places you visit
It doesn’t require much advance research - though it helps - to get to know the background of a place, whether it’s World War II history or the life of the ancient druids of Britain. Look for historical sites on your road map, or follow the signs (they’re often the brown or green ones) to monuments and other important landmarks. You can learn a lot just by reading the historical markers and the occasional brochure. Often historical sites will have information about similar sites nearby. If you have created a flexible schedule, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to truly explore.
- Visit local artists/artisans
Many small towns, and almost all of the big ones, have any number of artists’ studios and workshops. Some artisans/craftsmen have been plying their trade for decades - like Tuscan ceramic artist Linda Bai in Pienza - and some family trades have been operating for centuries. The local art scene represents a town’s personality - and chances are, you’ll start to recognize an artist’s wares in other shops throughout a town or region. Bonus: local artists can tell you where to find the best food!
- Focus on the seasonality of food
So many places are strongly defined by their food, whether it’s Italian olive oil, Irish beef, or German lager. Find out what are the seasonal, local foodstuffs, and then look for these things in menus. (For example, look for strawberries in spring, and avoid fresh tomatoes in January.) Learn something about the cooking styles of a place; for example, Tuscany’s “cucina povera” came out of frugal “peasant cooking”, but it’s now a highly regarded culinary tradition that relies on the local and seasonal ingredients. Learning what produce or specialty ingredients to look for can help you figure out which restaurants are worth going to, and which are set up for tourists.
- Learn the special places for foodstuffs in the region
Each region has its specialties, and certain towns are particular for very specific food. Brunello wine in Montalcino; seafood chowder in coastal Ireland; culatello ham in Zibello, Italy. Some of these foodstuffs are produced by artisans as well, like the 200-year-old Falorni family butchers in Chianti. Knowing a little about the food culture and history will make your trip much more authentic and immersive -- and it will also help you interact with locals! If you have put a little effort into learning and respecting their culture, you’ll often be rewarded with funny stories, appreciative smiles, or maybe even a complimentary glass of wine!
- Create a light schedule so you’ll have lots of room to linger
This may be the most important tip: Don’t pack every day with back-to-back activities. Aside from being less stressful if you get a late start or make a few wrong turns on the way, a light schedule allows you the time to sit with an extra coffee or a gelato while you watch the comings and goings of the people in a town square. You’ll be able to take a few more minutes to chat with the folks at the bar, or stroll through the streets and watch the neighborhood cats, or have that extra or extra course of pasta at your epic lunch, or take that turn down the little road that piqued your interest when you passed it on your way into town. A packed schedule is a harsh mistress. If you wanted a minute-by-minute schedule, you could have just gone to work!