When people travel to a new destination, they often get caught up with the typical tourist sights. Running around snapping photos of iconic scenes, breezing through museums, or performing cheesy “tourist” obligations, like a picture holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa (yes, I have that shot). And while there is nothing wrong with checking off your “must” list, it’s important to think about other things you can do to enhance your travel experience. Below are some ideas for unique travel experiences that you may not have thought of.
1. Hire a local guide
The best way to see a destination is with a local. There are a number of organizations and websites that will link travelers up with guides. One new resource out there is called Guide Buddy, it’s an online marketplace where you can find a buddy who will give you the inside scoop on the destination. In a way, it’s better than a tour guide; it’s like visiting one of your friends who takes you not only to the main sights, but also the hidden gems that most tourists don’t know about. They can also help you plan your itinerary, and if there is a language barrier, having a local guide can be a HUGE help.
2. Take a class or attend a performance
Another unique travel experience is to attend a performance or take a class. Depending on the destination, the options vary; so you may want to do some research in advance. Regardless of the amount of time you are visiting, this is a great way to peer into the soul of the culture.
To find these opportunities, we recommend starting with the tourism boards or a similar local organization. For example, in Hong Kong you can take a tai chi or feng shui class, or attend a classic cantonese opera. While throughout Thailand you can participate in meditation classes with monks at different monasteries. All over Italy you can participate in cooking classes, and throughout Central America you can volunteer for a day of teaching children English and practicing your Spanish.
3. Dine with a local
As many travelers know, one of the best ways to connect with a new culture or destination is to experience the food. It is even more enjoyable when you can chat with a local who can give you recommendations, and perhaps even a bit of explanation or history behind the food you are tasting. There are a number of organizations and websites that will connect travelers to locals who enjoy showing visitors their food culture. Whether it is dining out at a restaurant, taking a cooking class, or throwing a dinner party at their house for you and their friends (yes, that exists)!
Another option is to strike up a conversation with a local during your sightseeing activities, and then offer to buy them a meal in exchange for further conversation. I’ve spoken to a number of travelers who have done this and had a wonderful time! It’s a great way to make new friends and connect with the locals.
4. Stay in alternate accommodations, rather than hotels
Josh and I are not keen on hotels, unless we are in the mood for luxury relaxation. While we have stumbled across a few budget hotel gems over the years, we typically find that budget hotels often lack charm and character. For those reasons we enjoy staying in other types of accommodations, such as bed & breakfasts or hostels, where we can get to know the owners and chat with other travelers in the common areas.
Apartments are also a great way to go! There are a number of websites out there that rent out apartments short term, even for a week. You can also look into a homestay (where you stay with a family) or house-sitting. This allows you to feel a part of the local culture by staying in a neighborhood, visiting their shops and restaurants, local markets, and even doing a bit of your own cooking (which can save you money too).
5. Work for it!
If your budget is tight, or if you are interested in doing something very unique, you can choose to stay in an accommodation where you can work in exchange for some (or all) of your room and board. This is an awesome opportunity, and a very unique travel experience. Websites connect travelers with people who offer work in exchange. Many of these jobs will be physical in nature, such as helping out around a farm or even helping with household duties, but we have stumbled across opportunities where you can put unique skills to work, like helping someone build a website!
In Italy, agriturismos are also popular. These are basically family farms who offer room and board in exchange for help around the farm. The experience gives you an opportunity to form a friendship with the owners and other people staying there, as well as a way to connect with the region through life’s daily activities.
In the end, it comes down to the experience that you are looking for. Every traveler is different; however, it’s important to realize that there is more to exploring a new destination than just what is written in a guidebook. Looking beyond the obvious, and finding ways to connect with the people and experience the culture provides unique travel experiences that you will cherish, even more than the standard souvenirs or postcards.
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