It doesn’t matter if it’s two weeks in Taiwan, a month in Sicily or a year in Australia, there never seems to be enough time when you’re travelling. You’d always happily take a few more days to fit in something that escaped the original to-do list. Time is definitely precious, but there are ways to maximise it when you want to get to know a new country.
Sure, you can quickly tick off the top tourist spots on a tour bus and get your fast-track tickets up the towers, but are you seeing the country’s real culture? To get a proper insight into your new destination of choice when you’re on a tight schedule, here’s what to do:
Do your homework
If you want to see the real Fiji or insider Portugal, then preparation is key. Take some time before your visit to skim the guidebooks, Google the blogs and read the reviews so that when you get there you have some idea about the culture, cuisine and customs. It’ll help you find your way around and give you some idea of what you want to see on your trip. That way you can hit the streets, exactly the way you want to, as soon as you arrive.
If you research right, it may even save you some precious hours, and possibly money too.
Live with locals
Ditch the hostels and hotels – if you want to see what life is really like, go straight for the home stays. Whether it’s casas in Cuba or Airbnbs in Bulgaria, staying with locals can be the difference between simply seeing the culture and truly experiencing it for yourself.
The people who open up their homes to backpackers are usually really friendly and more than happy to tell you all about their town or city. They’ll help show you around, give you their recommendations and some will even offer you their home-cooked food. If you’re lucky, you may even make a new friend – the perfect excuse for coming back to visit.
Guided tours are great for a crash course in the history of a place, but you don’t always have to follow the leader’s umbrella to see what a country is really like.
Try taking a side street and venturing away from the tourist hotspots –most of the time that’s where you’ll find the best food and prettiest views anyway. Although saying that, always be sure you stay safe and let someone know where you’re going.
If nothing else you can always test your language skills when you need to ask for directions.
Get those tongues wagging
Even knowing just a few key words in another language can make a big difference. Being able to talk to those who live in the area can give you access to way more information and, basically, it’s just polite. This is where local language courses come in.
In just a few days a good teacher will have you saying ‘hello’, ‘thanks’ and ‘a beer please’ – all the important things. Then you take it to the streets to try out your new skills. They’ll help you meet new people, discover cool places and possibly even get you a few discounts and freebies (locals love it when you make an effort to speak their language).
A big part of any location’s identity is the food, and a quick-fire way to learn about the tastiest grub is to take a cooking class. Not only will you learn how to whip up some exotic dish– something you can later wow your home friends with – but you’ll also pick up snippets of information on delicacies, cooking techniques and local produce.
The best bit? You get to eat it all afterwards.
Do ‘the thing’
Most locations have something that defines them: an activity, a must-see location or a famous food to try. You could buy cowboy boots in Nashville, surf the waves in Bondi or even just eat cheese in France. Whatever your place’s thing is, do it. It’s one quick way to discover the true culture of a location, no matter how dated it might be, and that activity will usually be on every tourist’s bucket list anyway. Has to be done!
After a few months of backpacking, the golden arches of McDonalds and the Starbucks WiFi can be tempting, but always head to the local bars and restaurants if you’re short on time and want to find out what a destination is really like.
In the one-off joints you’ll usually be able to try the traditional drink – an Icelandic shot of fermented shark or a Brazilian caipirinha – eat authentic food and listen to the local bands. A few hours of sitting in a downtown bar can sometimes be the best education.