5 Ways to Immerse Yourself in Local Culture

Posted in Cafe| Culture| language| lost
Have you ever traveled to a foreign city spent a few hurried days, got back on a plane and headed home only to feel like you never really experienced the city at all? I sure have.

Usually its when I travel on a business trip. I spend more time in sterile offices, eating box lunches and looking at project plans than getting out and seeing what the city is all about. Of course the corporate entity funding my trip is not really concerned with whether or not I’ve gotten a chance to try out a few words in the foreign language or take a spin through a top art museum. They just want me to get the work done and earn my keep.  But if you do have the time on your next trip abroad, here are 5 Tips on how to emerse yourself in the local culture.

1. Phone a Friend
Heading off to a new city and don’t know anyone who lives there? Chances are in this global society, that you know someone who has a contact for you.  Ask friends, co-workers or family members if they can put you in touch with a local just in case you have any questions once you get there. At the very least, the contact should email you a list of great local places to check out. But more often than not, they will agree to meet you for a drink or dinner or even invite you into their homes.  And if you can’t find a contact through your own network, just do a bit more digging. Groups like couch surfing often have meet ups with locals in cities around the world or try the Lonely Planet website’s Thorn Tree message board to ask for local advice. Just make sure that you’re willing to return the favor if someone new reaches out to you when they are visiting your city. Travel Karma is amazing!
2. Speak the Language
I’m not saying you have to be fluent in Portuguese to visit Mozambique, but I’ve always found that it makes a world of difference if you can smile and say something as simple as Thank you or Good Night in your host city’s language.  And if you can put together a couple of full sentences, even better. With all of the cheap/free language pod casts and smart phone apps out there, there’s no reason you can’t put together a few things before your plane touches down. Even if you butcher the pronunciation of a word, people will smile, laugh and try to help you say it correctly…and you will definitely make more of a lasting impression on them. 
*Note: I find this works best in countries where most people do not speak English. Where English is readily spoken, locals will still be impressed by your attempts, but will quickly switch over to English, giving you less of a chance to practice.
Knowing even a few words opens many doors. 
3. Cafe Culture
This one is easy…just grab a lunch or a cup of coffee resist the urge to burry your face in a book or type away on your smart phone, and truly soak up the world around you. You can’t help but notice how people are dressed, what the speed of the city is, what the local foods are and how people carry themselves…all things that give insight to the local culture. 
Grab a seat, sit back and absorb the world around you!
3. Get Lost
As I’ve said in earlier posts, I love getting lost in a new place. Not like lost in the middle of a cold, rainy night miles from any civilization, but lost in new area of a city or in a public park.  Just walk and take different streets that will lead you into new areas to explore. You’ll often come across small shops, corner restaurants and other little gems that you wouldn’t find if you stuck to the main streets that you know like the back of your hand. Also if you’re shy like me, getting lost always forces me to interact when I might other wise keep to myself.  I either have to ask someone for directions or if I stare at a map long enough someone will offer to help. And with google maps and wi-fi service, you never really have to stay lost for long if you don’t want to.
Take a new path…get a little lost.
4. Have a drink
It’s common knowledge that people start to loosen up and become a bit more outgoing when they’ve had an adult beverage or two, which makes a local pub or wine bar a great place to check out a local culture.  I’m not saying get wasted with the college kids until 4:00 am (thought if that’s your thing….) but having a pint or a glass of something in a bar is a great way to meet locals or at least see how they unwind.  Even if you don’t drink alcohol, grab a soda and settle in.  This is usually best done on week nights when people are less like to get crazy. Just a happy hour drink or two before heading home.  Also, if you’re a single female, be smart about where you go, but by all means go.
Extra credit if your beverage of choice is a local drink.
5. Game On
Plan a little personal scavenger hunt/challenge for yourself when you’re in a new city.  You can keep the same list for wherever you go, the new city will keep it interesting. Add challenges like: take a picture with a local resident, buy one kitschy item under $2.00, go to a neighborhood restaurant and tell the waiter to bring you their favorite item on the menu, take a dance class…whatever you want to do. Just make sure there are a few challenges that make you engage with new people and step outside of your comfort zone. 

My cheap find in Korea…and one of my favorite souvenirs ever.

These are my 5 suggestions, but there are countless others…let me hear some of your favorite ways to slip into a new culture!


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  • April D. Thompson December 19, 2012, 11:55 pm

    Totally agree with all of your tips. I’d have to say that getting lost is tends to be a favorite. It’s the easiest (least prep) and has been the most rewarding!

    SN: I love the Korea socks! 🙂

    • Nailah December 28, 2012, 5:16 am

      Thank you, April! Luckily I’m pretty good at getting lost even when I don’t intend to. Glad I can find the benefit it in! Aren’t the Korea socks great?!? I’m going to wear them to the airport tomorrow so when I’m annoyed about having to take off my shoes during the security check, I’ll have a reason to smile!

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