What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at a new place abroad? It might be mistake.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll quickly Google the area’s star attractions – restaurants, museums or iconic monuments – and work out how many you can knock off the list.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a tourist in the foam-finger sense of the term, most people will follow this accepted format for getting to know a new destination.
But, as we’re all too aware, sights or venues classed as “must-see” are often by their very nature crowded, expensive and generally stressful to explore.
To truly understand a place, it’s good to amble around and get a feel for it. You want to touch, see and smell things; and spend a little time just being.
But this simply isn’t possible in many of the world’s most venerated landmarks.
There’s no room to wander around the Colosseum in Rome. You simply jostle for space in a long line of tourists, in an experience almost guaranteed to dampen the soul of the place.
New York’s Statue of Liberty is a marvellous sight to behold. But good luck spending any time alone with Lady Liberty; you’ll have to wade through a thick horde of selfie-takers first.
The Great Wall of China seems remote and adventurous, yet sections such as Badaling and Mutianyu can rival Oxford Circus at rush hour in sheer crowd capacity.
And don’t even think about musing over Mona Lisa. The Louvre in Paris attracts more than eight million visitors a year and most make a beeline to the world-famous portrait.
On top of this, the mere thought of “having” to visit certain attractions in a place weighs us down before we’ve even begun.
Much better, says global backpacker Ben Groundwater, to simply kick back and live like the locals do.
Groundwater, an Australian travel writer, says one of his favourite things to do on arrival in a new place is to rent a flat in an ordinary residential area and soak up the feel of the place – by walking for miles, and eating and drinking at low-key neighbourhood spots like the locals do.
Not only does this approach means he avoids the hassle of mainstream attractions, he also neatly side-steps the FOMO associated with feeling like you *must* visit somewhere.
“Why not assume that the hunt for ‘attractions’ is ruining what could be an amazing experience in any place in the world?” he writes, in a piece for stuff.co.nz.
“This isn’t even about lofty goals of ‘authenticity’ either, or cultural education. It’s simply about enjoying yourself, about having the best time travelling that you possibly can.
“Live like a local. Why not? It’s never been easier. You can rent an apartment in a tourist-free suburb, easily. You can use a translator app to go to cafes and restaurants that don’t have English menus. You can utilise cheap flights on budget airlines to justify travelling to a city and doing none of the touristy things you would normally be expected to do.”
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For example, Groundwater says, instead of making the mistake of visiting the Trevi Foundation and Sistine Chapel in Rome, “you could get up late and have a coffee and a pastry at a local bar.
“You could wander the streets of your neighbourhood and see what’s around. You could buy lunch from a deli…. You could repeat this over a few days until you start to know people, and people start to know you.”
It’s a simple premise but a very appealing one.
As Groundwater says, living like the locals doesn’t need to be about proving a point or showing how in-tune you are.
It’s merely to do with chilling out and spending time the way you want to – rather than making the mistake of jostling for elbow space as you traipse around yet another medieval attraction in 40 degree heat…