This is the third and final instalment of our How to be a Traveler, not a Tourist series. The other articles discussed being honest about your reasons for traveling and leaving the tourist areas behind once you’ve seen the sights.

Pardon my blasphemy, but ‘do as the locals do’ is my ultimate travel commandment. This was not always the case, though. It wasn’t until a completely unexpected, yet particularly poignant, experience altered my travel style forever.

On May 28th, 2009 we rolled into Barcelona around 9am after a tremendously delayed flight from Nice and a horrendous and sleepless experience at a hotel near the airport. After roaming around the city for many hours and acquainting ourselves with the main tourist neighbourhoods, we were borderline delusional with exhaustion. So, like all good travelers, we attempted to delay the inevitable and have a drink.

As we  nonchalantly sipped our drinks at the most cliche spot in all of Barcelona (I’m quite mortified to admit it was an “Irish” bar just off of Las Ramblas), I noticed a massive, exuberant crowd clad in blue, scarlet, and yellow bustling down the street. And then I heard them. Jovially chanting at the top of their lungs was the largest concentration of sports fans I had ever encountered outside of a stadium. They were exuberantly celebrating the win of their beloved FC Barcelona over Manchester United the night earlier, giving them the title of UEFA champions.

How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist: En Route to Camp Nou

In a rare moment of spontaneity, I threw down some euros for our drinks and we joined the rowdy procession. We weren’t sure where we were going and what would happen once we got there, but the atmosphere was so enticing that we couldn’t sacrifice this experience. We followed the crowd into the metro, wedging ourselves onto a train while trying to keep up with the football chants that everyone was wholeheartedly singing. We eventually gathered that we were all en route to the Barcelona FC stadium, Camp Nou, to welcome the players back from Rome where the final match took place.

A group of locals took us under their wing, imparting on us the personal importance of this win, bringing us to the best spot to view the celebration, and attempting to teach us the many local cheers. It was a joyous and proud moment for the packed stadium of fans and looking around we could not see any other non locals. It was an unexpected adventure that instilled in us the importance of experiencing aspects of local life, something completely unobtainable from a guide book. Call it divine intervention.

How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist: Camp Nou Celebrations for FC Barcelona

Check out neighbourhoods that are popular with locals

In the other articles of this series, I explained that it’s okay to visit popular tourist attractions, but that it is just as important to explore other, less visited areas once you’ve finished. In pretty much every large city the area that is the most engaging for locals is not where the tourists are. Many residents would prefer Travestere over Piazza Navona in Rome, The Marais over Champs-Élysées in Paris, or Dalston instead of Leicester Square in London.

A great way to experience a city as a local is by renting an apartment for your visit. Short term rental sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway offer a wide range of accommodations from the economical to the opulent. As you’ll be staying in someone’s home, you’ll often find yourself in more residential areas of the city, providing a unique opportunity to live as a local. An added bonus is that most hosts are a great, and unbiased, resource of information on restaurants, attractions, and events which will certainly differentiate your experience. You can read more about this in: Hotels vs. Hostels and Everywhere in Between.

Another way to find interesting neighbourhoods is to do some research before you travel. One of my favourite resources is Airbnb’s Neighbourhood Guides, which I can best describe as photo essays portraying the individualities of various neighbourhoods in a given city. They give you a visual sense of a neighbourhood with some practical information, which can quickly help you identify specific areas of the city. The incomparable Trip Advisor is always a great source of information as well, especially in the forum sections where locals and seasoned traveler’s are always willing to answer an inquisitive traveler’s questions.

Always apply the majority rule to restaurants

How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist: Pintxos

If more than half of the people in a restaurant are tourists, don’t eat there. This golden rule of dining was passed down to me by another traveler and it has saved me from many mediocre meals over the years. I used to find myself gravitating towards centrally located, busy restaurants (noticing too late that they were mostly tourists) only to discover that they were overvalued and underwhelming. At that time, I equated quantity with quality, failing to grasp that a busy restaurant and a good restaurant are not mutually exclusive. I have had some of my most memorable dining experiences since I embraced the local majority rule, and it’s worked beautifully across the broad spectrum of food options, from fine dining to street food and everywhere in between.

So you’ve followed this rule and found a brilliant local spot, but now you have decide on what to order. Just because a restaurant has a staunch local following, doesn’t necessarily mean that every dish they serve is phenomenal. Look to the local patrons to see what they’re ordering or ask your server what the specialties are which set them apart from other establishments. The value of this became apparent when we were in San Sebastian, traversing the old town for delectable pintxos (bite-sized tapas). There is a high density of pintxos bars in this area, adored by locals and travelers alike, all with a large menu of similar offerings. We quickly observed though that everyone was eating one particular pintxos in each bar, the house specialty, and would move along to the next spot once consumed. After this realization, we would follow the pack and choose what others were enjoying instead of ordering something that appealed to us right off the bat. We tried such a wide variety of pintxos that we would never have chosen on our own, which truly elevated our experience as a result.

Find out why locals love their city

Often what makes a city special are the quirky and offbeat attractions that locals are proud to call their own and tourists are usually oblivious to. Using my hometown of Toronto as an example, it’s probably been fifteen years since I visited our most popular landmark, the CN Tower. That’s not what makes me love my city. It’s the indie galleries on Queen West, the up & coming restaurants in Leslieville, and unique events such as Cask Days that make Toronto special. When you catch a glimpse of these moments while traveling, you develop more meaningful and memorable experiences.

While you shouldn’t expect these attractions  to be featured in traditional guide books, it may be even less likely that you’ll stumble upon them coincidentally, unless you luck out like we did in Barcelona. Try to find local city guides before you travel, such as  Spotted by Locals where residents share favourites in their city from entertainment to dining to cultural events. Or if you find yourself in a city with no idea what to do, try a local event guide or magazine which often lists cultural happenings in the city. If you’re still at a loss, ask around – check at your hotel/hostel/b&b for some locally tailored advice or just strike up a conversation at a neighbourhood shop or cafe.

Get out of the city

How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist: Cucayo, Spain

Many city dwellers will tell you that their region’s true culture resides in the traditional towns outside of a city’s borders. These outlying areas are the true heart of their districts, the origins of what makes a particular country/region/city endearing in the first place. Travelers flock to regional capitals and dominant cities to find this authentic character, but often it has been distorted by decades of tourism. While there are certainly unique neighbourhoods within these cities that are worth seeking out, usually developed in defiance of this hyper tourist degradation, they typically offer a hyper modern snippet of local culture.

Supplementing your city experiences with less urban locales will give you a deepened perspective of local life. These spots usually experience less tourism, thus have not been forced to cater to tourists, and embody the qualities one usually equates with a certain region. One way that we like to incorporate this into our travels is to rent a car for a day or weekend to explore more rural areas around a city, such as our day trip from Galway into Connemara or our weekend trip from Madrid into the Picos de Europa. I use Trip Advisor most often to get ideas for local diversions but simple searches in Google usually finds relevant information as well.

This concludes the How to be a Traveler, Not a Tourist series. What’s your advice on being a traveler versus a tourist? Share your experiences and comments below!

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Lauren Barth co-founded Departful in 2012 and is the Managing Director of Departful Media. Since then she has worked between North America and Europe and has published content in partnership with a variety of tourism boards and businesses based around the world. Lauren is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experiences. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time and energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.


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Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experience. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time & energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.

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Departful is affiliated with TravelOnly.

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ON, Canada N3R 3V6

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