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Four Ways to Best Culturally Experience Your Destination

Harar Market - Smaller

In my travels, the experiences that have had the greatest impact on me are those where I have dedicated time to familiarize myself with the culture of the destination. Culture is composed of many elements – some of the most common being food, history, sports and art. Once you dig beneath the surface and step away from the tour buses, a deep appreciation of the layers that comprise the society emerges. Here are four pointers on how to get the most authentic cultural experience out of your next trip.

Tella Ethiopian beer

Research the Regional Cuisines

Asking a server in San Sebastián if the house has good patxaran before dessert will earn you a big smile, if not a free glass of the blueberry liqueur. If a restaurant has a mix of international and local dishes on the menu, selecting the local meal will also be met with approval.
Poulet Braise Cote d'Ivoire
By spending time researching the national and local cuisines of your destination before your departure, you: 1. Gain insight with respect to the foods that will be most expertly prepared and 2. Understand which ingredients local chefs will combine best. Knowledge serves one well in these circumstances and a good base is an important tool. Also, once you have sat through a few meals, a favorite dish may emerge. Ordering without looking at a menu will also please your hosts.

Stelae Obelisk Ethiopia Axum Aksum

Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The UNESCO sites, of which there are now more than 1,000, are those determined to be of outstanding universal value. After being approved for World Heritage Site status, governments receive funds to promote the preservation of these natural and man-made areas. UNESCO conveniently lists these cultural and natural sites on their website by country.
Harar Gate
Western and Southern Europe have the largest cluster of the sites, many of which travelers have likely experienced unwittingly. When visiting a country with which you are not entirely familiar, the UNESCO list serves as a great starting point for planning your travel and for digging deeper into the culture. The sites also make for excellent photographic subjects.

Mestalla Valencia stadium

Attend a Sports Event

In most countries, organized sports play an important role in society. Pastimes are occasions for friends to get together, whether at the stadium or in a bar. Emotions run high and a few drinks will make for a gregarious crowd.
If the timing is convenient, attending a local sports event can be a fascinating couple of hours (or days if it’s cricket) that will provide insight as to how many people let off steam and interact. Following the game, the match is an excellent conversation-starter in a bar or restaurant, especially where the other person is passionate about the sport or a team involved.

Sabahar Silk Addis Ababa Ethiopia

Search Out the Destination’s Art Locally

If you live in a larger city, there’s a chance that art from the country or region you are visiting is on display at a nearby museum or gallery. Viewing the paintings, crafts or even performances that are emblematic of the location will bring a greater understanding of what you will experience on the ground. They can also be an introduction to the artisan traditions that form the cultural backbone of society. Plus, what’s better than spending a rainy Sunday afternoon at a museum and supporting the arts?

The foregoing are merely a sampling of the ways to better culturally experience your destination and many other creative options exist. How do you experience local culture on your travels?

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer October 24, 2014, 5:53 pm

    Great tips for experiencing the local culture of a destination. One of the big things for me is trying out the local cuisine of a place or a country. Food is always a big part of everyone’s culture and I always try to eat what the people of a particular place eat 😀
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    • Dave October 24, 2014, 6:35 pm

      Thanks, Chanel! The food is easily my favorite part. Exploring a new cuisine is so much fun and some knowledge that’s great to bring home.

  • Jen October 24, 2014, 6:14 pm

    I am a big fan of going to the grocery store (or market) wherever I travel. Seeing how people shop for basics is a fantastic way to understand more about their daily experience, and you’re guaranteed at least an interaction with the cashier.

    • Dave October 24, 2014, 7:07 pm

      Great point, Jen – especially like the idea of the guaranteed interaction! I love going to supermarkets, too. The local products are always fascinating to me.

  • Katie October 25, 2014, 1:46 am

    For me, the biggest part of really experiencing the culture is food! I love going on food tours, taking a cooking class and just eating my way around a place. I think a particularly good way to get a feel of the culture is go to the local market and just explore. In Italy I tasted the best mozzarella I’ve ever had from hanging out near a cheese booth at a market, and met the cutest elderly couple selling it!
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  • Steph @ EverySteph October 27, 2014, 10:47 am

    These are great advices, and I think they enter in the concept of responsible tourism. Getting to know a culture in the deep, not limiting ourselves to know which monuments we want to see, is a sign of respect and will be greatly appreciated by the locals; do something as simple as knowing the local cuisine will open the doors to connections with the locals.
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  • Samantha October 28, 2014, 5:37 pm

    I agree about the sporting events, that’s a surefire way to mingle with locals! Great tips!
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  • Alejandra October 28, 2014, 9:13 pm

    Great post Dave! Im vegetarian and I always struggle with local cuisine. I always find things to eat, of course, but normally not their typical food. its a bummer but I was the one making that decision. I do love going to the markets and buying fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown locally.
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  • Laura G October 31, 2014, 8:32 pm

    All great suggestions. I’ve never thought of checking the UNESCO site as part of the trip planning process. I’m leaving for Spain and Portugal tomorrow so I still have a little time. I tend to focus heavily on the cuisine, and always take a cooking class (preferrably an authentic one). Staying in an apartment instead of a hotel also lets me live more like a local.
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  • Jenn of Who Needs Maps November 1, 2014, 11:22 am

    Great tips! Thanks for your insight! I think a great tip is to stay in a hostel or in a not 5 star hotel, that way you are forced out to explore. If you have a fantastic hotel you wont want to leave, or try anything other than the hotel food. Getting an acceptable bed and bathroom is good enough to make you want to get out and see what else is out there. You really get to see more local places and restaurants, and meeting new people!

  • Michele {Malaysian Meanders} November 4, 2014, 9:28 am

    I like these suggestions, and honestly, I have not considered some of these before. I always remember to focus on food, but I’ve been remiss about sporting events. As I’m totally clueless about sports in my home country, I guess I won’t be any worse off if I attend some new ones. Great list.
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  • Renate @ Renate's Travels November 8, 2014, 3:31 pm

    So many great tips! When I travel I definitely aim to experience the place culturally, and not follow in the footsteps of every tour bus load of people.

    I always shop in local supermarkets, it’s so much fun to see what different countries are selling, and you always meet locals there. I also go to religious places, like churches, mosques etc. Especially onces that aren’t on the tourist grid. I also go to local street markets, and eat where the locals eat.
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  • Elaine J. Masters April 30, 2015, 7:22 am

    Great. Great. Great. I love these tips and follow several already. There’s so much to discover in a new country and food is the best, especially if you can get in the kitchen! The UNESCO sites are fantastic especially if you can keep away from the major tourist sites in high season.
    Elaine J. Masters recently posted…Walking Barcelona – Tapas, Picasso and the vineyards of MontserratMy Profile

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