When it comes to socializing on the road, backpackers tend to stick to their comfort zones – with people who look like them, grew up in similar cultures or cities, or are traveling just like them. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it pays to break out of the hostel bubble and seek out conversations with locals.
Hostel common rooms are the perfect place to socialize and to find company on the road when you need it – besides, splitting travel costs with your hostel mates works out to be cheaper for everyone. But, don’t let that restrict you to only following them around the sights in a new city.
Like most new backpackers, when I first started traveling, I often found myself making an effort to please my new friends. We would take day trips, split costs, and share incredible experiences. It was great because I never felt lonely. But soon enough, the conversations at every hostel began to feel repetitive. While I did make a few lifelong friends, I also realized that it was mainly through meeting locals that I would learn about life in foreign places.
Luckily, today, it’s easier than ever to connect with locals and explore cities through their eyes, rather than as an outsider on a sight-hopping mission. Other than meeting locals the old-fashioned way – by initiating a conversation at a café, bar, or park, or asking the local staff at your hostel for recommendations and tips – you can also connect with locals online through Facebook groups, Instagram, or websites and apps such as Couchsurfing and Eatwith.
While going from one tourist attraction to the other can give you great photos for Instagram, it’s the cultural experiences in foreign countries that’ll make your travel stories authentic and original.
Everywhere, people are proud of their traditions and heritage, and most locals are happy to welcome tourists into their festivals and celebrations – that’s if they get the sense that you’re really going to appreciate deeper cultural immersion.
A chance conversation with a girl working in my hostel on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago earned me an invitation to an intimate summer music festival on a neighboring island. As I drank beers and danced to rockabilly with local families all day and night, I felt incredibly lucky to be the only non-local at the festival.
Another conversation with my guide from an ethnic tribe in the mountain village of Sapa, Vietnam found me in her family home, watching as her wrinkled grandmother wrapped me in a traditional dress that she had made, and her younger sisters danced in perfect synchrony to show off their traditional folk dance.
It’s nearly impossible to have such unexpected cultural experiences if you don’t talk to locals and express a genuine interest in their ways of life.
As an introvert, you often feel out of place in large groups where several conversations are happening at once, but no one seems to be talking to you. But that’s a great opportunity to build a few quality connections and talk to locals.
While I often find myself lost and intimidated in hostel common rooms, where there are many sub-groups that have already established a rapport, I find it much easier to approach locals at my hostel, in cafés, or those that might have been my guides on a tour. They’re usually warm and friendly when they see that you’re just asking for tips and recommendations.
If this still sounds overwhelming, it can be helpful to connect with locals online before you arrive. Many cities have groups for travelers, where locals share tips and offer to connect with tourists when they arrive and show them around.
When it comes to exploring new cities, consider doing this through themes like food, history, art, architecture, street art, or music – all of which are more interesting with local expertise. If you like street art, seek out a local who shares the same passion and is knowledgeable about their city’s street art, and ask them to take you along on a tour.
If you like food or cooking, find a chef who offers tours of their city, so you don’t just eat at touristy restaurants but also explore food markets and little hole-in-the-wall places that don’t have English menus.
A similar food tour that I did with a local chef in Athens remains to be one of my favorite culinary experiences on my travels – it was like exploring the cuisine with a passionate local friend.