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How to Travel the World Like a Local on Your Gap Year

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 15 / 12 / 2015

Gap Year Advice

Live in your own city like a tourist and travel the world like a local...

These wise words, told to me by a fellow traveler on my own gap year, have stuck with me for many years. And quite right, too - we can all be guilty of being the tourist that ticks off the sites to see as if it were a shopping list.

If you've had this experience, you'll know that sick feeling you start to get as you traipse yet another museums or famous site that you're meant to visit before you leave. Here's the thing about doing that:

When you travel just to see the sights, you forget to take in the surrounding area, culture and all that a place has to offer.

So here are my top tips to help you spend your gap year travelling the world like a local and soak up the atmosphere in the process - whether you're in Siem Reap, Quito or Bangkok.

#1 Travel Slow

Rather than producing a neverending list of things to do that day, start your day with coffee at the local coffee shop.

Wander down the streets in the morning, take a pew outside and order your favourite drink and morning snack. Now kick back and relax, people watch and chat to whoever happens to pass by or sit near you.

This way you’re bound to pick up the best places to visit, restaurants to eat at (although you'll struggle to find any as good as Six of the World's Wackiest Restaurants to Visit on Your Gap Year) or bars to have a great evening out.

Once you’ve done this, set some roots down in a place. Instead of moving to a new place each day, spend a month somewhere and allow yourself to settle. This will mean you're able to return to same coffee shop and market stalls several times. Trust me, once you’ve gone back two or three times, you’ll be greeted like an old friend!

As soon as you take your time to make your way up the East Coast of Australia or across the length of Laos, you will have seen some hidden gems and got a different view of the local area than those rushing through.

#2 Stray Away from The Familiar

It’s time to ditch the guide book, say goodbye to the tourist trail and head off to explore. Pick one spot to explore. If you’re struggling for where to focus on, ask local people where you’re staying or at that coffee shop in the morning, they are bound to give you great ideas.

Take your map but put it in your bag, spend the day wandering around the area, don’t be afraid to get lost. I’ve found the times I have been lost have been the times I stumble upon the quirky shop with friendly shopkeeper who invites you in for tea with his family.

Getting away from the familiar by no means has to involve wandering the red light district, instead it’s about making the effort to see what is out there. Are there some cool local events in the area?

When wandering the streets of San Diego, I saw a cute little sign for an outdoor cinema in this beautiful open courtyard. I could no longer tell you exactly what the film was about but the memory of everyone with their chairs, blankets, sleeping bags under the stars in this stunning setting will never be forgotten.

Or maybe you decide to head to the market where the locals shop, pick up one ingredient you have no idea about and ask people how they would recommend using it. Not only will you start to make conversations with locals who may offer to show you their city but you will also have great new ingredients to use in your cooking when you’re back home.

#3 Eat and Drink where Locals Eat and Drink

Keeping on the food ideas, travelling like a local doesn’t have to be difficult. It could just mean ensuring in each place you head to, you check out the local eatery.

The best way to see if a restaurant is any good is to check out how many people are eating there. Somewhere that is busy is pretty sure to be an amazing place. Be prepared to take a risk, that restaurant that looks a bit of a dive may have some of the best food you’ve tasted.

Wandering the streets of Jerusalem, there was a street vendor who was super busy, the cart looked old and certainly wouldn’t withstand the hygiene test of Britain. However, it seemed to be buzzing so I took a seat on the bench ordered the most popular dish and crossed my fingers.

Forty minutes later I was full, happy and had made friends with two lovely people sat next to me who promised to show me the best parts of Jerusalem in the morning. If you need a little help finding those places Yelp, Urbanspoon and Eatwith are great apps to help you find locally recommended places.

The local tipple can also be a great and easy way to get to know the local culture and in some places can offer you a new outlook on the country – and no not just because suddenly you have your beer glasses on! Japan’s local drink is Sake and it is seemingly at odds to the refined nature of the Japanese as it is pungent and fiery. An evening sip on this opens your eyes to another side of Japan otherwise hidden.

#4 Learn the Lingo and Customs

How much local interaction you have is ultimately down to you. If you have at least a grasp of the key words in a local language this will massively help. Be proactive and have a go at talking. Don’t stress your linguistic failings, this isn’t class anymore!

If language is not your strong point, there is so much more to communication than just the words we speak. Use body language, hand signs and the sharing of snacks always goes down a treat! Once you’ve engaged it is always pleasantly surprising how willing people are to make an effort to communicate with you.

As well as language, the customs of an area, if learnt, can help you get on well living as a local. The Ultimate Guide to Worldwide Etiquette is a brilliant source to help you with the basics of each country.

#5 Ride the Public Transport

If you’re wanting an experience that offers something different I would suggest riding the public transport. As I noted in the beginner’s guide to Africa, a ride on the local bus to the next town can provide great entertainment, local friends and a different view of the area.

Public transport is one way that you can travel like a local. You take their mode of transport and you start to see the city through their eyes. You also get the opportunity to meet the local people, it’s hard to meet locals if you just hang out at the local tourist hotspots.

#6 Volunteer

Last, but by no means least, is the idea of volunteering abroad. It gives you the opportunity to spend quality time with local families, in some cases living with them, and most definitely working with them.

It offers the chance to be able to learn how their way of life works and have conversations that will open your eyes to different views of the world, life and what is important to them. Spending your downtime with a family or friends can also give you an idea of how they spend their time off and what local activities are on offer.

What better way to travel slow, than to spend three months in one country over two or three different placements. It’s guaranteed to give you roots without having to consciously ensure you stay put.

Get Stuck in to Local Life

How will you travel on your gap year? Head out, push yourself out of your comfort zone, plan little and talk to everyone. This way you will alter your perspective and those diamonds in the rough you discover will be what makes the trip memorable.

Have you found some gems on your travels? Or maybe you have a great recommendation for somewhere to visit off the beaten track? We’d love to hear about it and so would the other travellers out there, so share them in the comments below :)

Oh, and if you're struggling - download our comprehensive (and completely free) gap year advice guide The Gap Adventure Blueprint, which contains several chapters that will help you get your head around all the options and offer advice on how to raise funds, plus much more.

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