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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?