There comes a day in every traveler's life when they realize the experience they are getting through Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor is not fulfilling their travel needs. It is heart wrenching moment - the travel equivalent of discovering Santa Claus isn't real.
You're standing there, staring at the most famous monument, surrounded by people from everywhere but the country you're actually in...and suddenly, it clicks.
I am in Rome, but this isn't Rome.
After that, you're on a forever quest to get the real experience, no matter the cost.
Achieving this lofty goal is even an unspoken competition between travelers:
"I read about this really good restaurant on a blog." - 3 points
"I was just walking around, and found this place..." - 5 points
"Well, absolutely no English was spoken where I stayed." - 6 points
"I have a family friend who lived here for a while, and they told me where to go." - 8 points
and, of course, the traveler's jackpot...
"I had a local show me around." - 10 points
So, how does one find these pockets of authenticity that provide a window into a different culture? Let me tell you - it ain't easy. I would go as far as to say that it is actual work. This work usually takes longer than the time spent in the locations.
And of course, sometimes, even after you put in the research..... you come up with nothing. C'est la vie.
Usually you get lucky at least once per city. And be happy if you get that.
Here are my strategies for finding undercover places in a foreign city...
TIPS FOR GETTING OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN A NEW CITY:
1. USE LONLEY PLANET TO CONFIRM THE "BIG ONES" (aka the top sights)
You know what I am talking about- the 'can't miss 'sights. These could even be the reason you came to the city in the first place. The first thing to do before arriving in a new city is to compile a list of all the top places (even if you don't plan on seeing all of them). I use Lonely Planet and Google (ie: searching 'top sights Florence' and looking at the ranking Google provides) to make this list.
2. RESEARCH IF YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO GO TO THESE PLACES
Odds are, you don't have all the time in the world. So do not blindly follow your top sites list - research further!
Look up pictures, history, and talk to people who have already been there. Are these sights worth your time? Do they strike your fancy? It is okay to say no, and visit something you actually want to see. Trust me - being the #1 sight on TripAdvisor does not guarantee a life changing experience.
3. USE PINTEREST AS A BLOG SEARCH ENGINE
Blogs are often the best source for finding spots off the beaten path. Why? The answer is simple: the person who took the time to write that post feels exactly the same way you do about travel. No one spends 2 hours (minimum) compiling a list of, "22 Things to do in Chiang Mai" without being passionate about travel, and seeing the real parts of a city.
But how do you find the best blogs? I have two approaches.
1: Use Pinterest as a blog search engine. At the top I search the city name, or the city name + food, or the city name + sights. I then comb through the posts and get more ideas.
Approach number 2...
4. COMB THROUGH GOOGLE/GET SPECIFIC
I am sorry to tell you, but the algorithm of Google makes it pretty much impossible to find anything other than TripAdvisor or official tourism sites on the first few pages of Google. So, what do you do to combat this? Keep hunting!
Hit page 10... hit page 20. Get more specific: instead of searching, "Bangkok" search, "Top places to eat in Bangkok," or, "Best brunch in Bangkok." Hit page 10. Then page 20... you gotta work for it!
5. WALK AROUND
This should be number one on the list... figure it out for yourself!
Walk around and keep your eyes peeled. Put your phone in your pocket and get lost. You never know what you will find!
Even better than walking. You can cover more ground in less time, and you are more likely to keep pushing when you start to get tired.
7. TAKE A RISK
If something looks interesting, whether it be on a map or passing by, why not give it a try? You might have just found the best place to get Indian food in Vietnam, but you won't know until you try!
8. EXPAT BLOGS
This is the ultimate traveler's resource. This is what you are looking for - a city/country specific blog, written by an expat living in the country. Why? Because they have the time to actually explore, compare, and write informative posts. They probably speak English natively. Plus, they fricken moved to a different country - they love to travel and know what travelers want. Good luck finding them, as they are diamonds in the rough. Try google (they can often be closer to the top if they are established), Pinterest, and maybe even just searching something like, "Expat blog Cambodia."
If you find an amazing expat blog, pay it forward! Don't keep it for yourself! I know it is hard to share secret tips, but as a blogger, I can tell you that it helps the writer continue to produce content if more people read their site.
9. LOCAL ENGLISH NEWSPAPER
Many cities (especially those with large expat communities) have daily, or weekly, newspapers written in English. These are a great source for restuarant reviews, festivals/events going on, or general happenings areas. Keep your eyes out for printed papers, or articles online that are part of larger publications. For example, I found a ton of great spots throughout Cambodia by reading the Phnom Penh Post.
10. ASK TRAVELERS THAT HAVE ALREADY BEEN THERE
Just as I would be nothing without my electronics, I would be nothing without the insight of other travelers I meet along the way. They are the best resource for tips and places to visit. Why? They have already done it! Don't be shy - if you meet someone who just spent 2 weeks in a city you are visiting, pick their brain! Trust me, travelers love to show off all the knowledge they've gained.
11. BE SKEPTICAL/TRUST YOUR GUT
If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump? Same principle applies to cities and sights. If you have a feeling something won't impress you, don't go. It is fine. Use the time to visit that interesting cafe you passed on your way into town.
12. ASK YOUR HOSTEL
Hostels are awesome resources because, once again, they know what you actually want. Moreover, the workers are usually locals, or backpackers who have been living there for a while (basically expats). They will know some good, off the beaten path spots.
13. CHECK OUT THE CLASSICS
Every city had a famous religious site and a market, guaranteed. These are travel classics. Even if no one has mentioned them, seek them out yourself. One my best experiences in Laos was going to the morning fish market. No one told me to go. I just figured there would be one. Use your brain.
14. PIN SPOTS AS YOU DRIVE
Cars and motorbikes cover more ground - that is no surprise. As long as you are not the one behind the wheel, cruising around is the best time to look for interesting spots.
Keep your phone ready - if you pass a cool place, drop a pin to check it out later.
15. GET A GUIDE
Hey big spender.....
I take it back. While expat blogs are great, local guides are really it. The issue? They are expensive. However, if you can afford it, what are you waiting for?
16. LOOK AT A MAP
Some of the best places I have ever discovered were found by looking at a map and thinking, "What is that?" Seriously - just spend some time looking over a map, whether it be Google, or the classico paper variety. You are guaranteed to find something interesting.
17. STAY IN MULTIPLE DIFFERENT AREAS
While it is nice to establish a home base in a city, it is also nice to stay in different areas in the same city. The latter gives you the chance to explore multiple neighborhoods and see different things. I usually prefer this - my home is my backpack, not my bed. You'll also meet more people this way.
18. LOOK THROUGH INSTAGRAM LOCATION
This is a neat little trick. It is possible to search an entire cities or locations on instagram (ie: Chiang Mai, Thailand). You can then see every picture that has been posted in that area. This is a great way to discover restaurants and sights. This is one of my top tricks because people usually only Instragram pretty things.
Sometimes, when I want something specific - let's say a bagel - I just scroll through the Instagram location of the place I am in until I find a picture of a bagel. Boom - I now know where to get a bagel.
19. DO AS THE LOCALS DO
I don't care if I'm not hungry - if a long line of locals is queuing for something food related, you best believe I'm jumping in that line. If you see a place jam-packed with locals, go there. Seriously. Stop what you are doing, and go. Restaurants, shops, or even just crowded public spaces.
20. LOOK UP SPECIALTIES
Every city/region has something that they are known for. Figure out what it is, and then try to find the best place for that. Generally speaking, being more specific in your searches is the best way to find more unique spots.
It is easier to ask a local a specific question as opposed to asking them a broad questions, ie: "Where do you eat Com Tam?" (good question) vs, "Where is a good place to eat?" (bad question)
21. ASK CAB DRIVERS, SERVERS, BARTENDERS, OR ANY LOCAL WHO SPEAKS ENGLISH
I hope you've already started treating every local you interact with who speaks English as an encyclopedia to the area. This is how you discover spots. Don't be shy - strike up a conversation! Odds are, they will be happy to practice their English, and probably want to ask you some questions about your country as well!
22. ANTHONY BOURDAIN CLIPS
Sometimes places get overexposed, but for the most part, Tony knows what he is doing. Right after I look up all the top sights, I do some Youtube searches to see if Anthony ever came to town. If the spot looks particularly interesting, I add it to my agenda.
23. OLD FAITHFUL BLOGS
Before you freak out Mom and Dad, I have never done this. I just happen to know that it is basically like getting a free local guide. Please vet someone before you stay in their home... please.
25. BE OKAY WITH FAILURE
Sometimes you take a risk - walk 2 kilometers to a new cafe, eat suspect looking food and get sick - and end up disappointed.
Don't let this dissuade you from trying again! It happens to everyone!
There you have it!
Get out there, and when everyone is going right.... go left!
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