Let me start off by saying that I am definitely NOT hating on museums! There is no better place to do a deep dive into the history of a country than a well-curated museum or art gallery, and blocking off some time during your trip to visit one is 100% worth it.
That being said, while historical context is handy, it’s not everything—odds are that the way locals used to eat, sleep, work, and play is a far cry from the way they do those things now. To truly get a taste of modern local life, you’re going to have to earn your cultural education outside of the museum.
Wondering where to begin? Here are five quirky ways to learn more about local life while you’re traveling.
1. Sign up for a cooking class
Food is a major cornerstone of cultural identity—wars have been fought over spices, bitter feuds erupt between countries over ownership of a specific dish, and journalists pen articles about cultural appropriation in the food world.
So it makes sense that if you want to really sink your teeth (heh) into local culture during your trip, signing up for a cooking class is an excellent place to start.
Not only are cooking classes objectively great (who doesn’t love an activity that ends in a tasty meal?), they often go beyond just telling you how to make something. Lots of cooking lessons, like those offered by the Baan Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Thailand, start with a trip to the market to learn about the fresh ingredients you’ll be cooking with.
Whipping up a favorite local dish from scratch will give you a better understanding of both the country you’re visiting and the people who live there. (Not to mention you’ll be able to put that delicious knowledge to good use in your own kitchen back home!)
2. Go to the theatre
And no, I don’t mean the cinema. (Although you can uncover some interesting cultural quirks there too—did you know that many movies in Italy still stop for an intermission? Or that up until last year it was compulsory for Indian cinemas to play the national anthem before the start of each film?)
Theatre is one of the oldest art forms in the world and therefore offers a unique window into local culture and history. From the music and set design to the costumes and storylines, every facet of the performance is steeped in tradition. Paying attention to the dialogue, lyrics, and plot can reveal a lot about what locals value, what they dislike, and what they find funny.
If you’re worried about the language barrier getting in the way of your enjoyment, read up on the main plot points of the play or performance you’re going to see beforehand so you’ll be able to follow along more easily. Some big theatres make things even easier for foreign audience members by supplying plot summary pamphlets or, like the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, screening English subtitles onto a personal tablet so that guests can understand exactly what’s happening on stage.
3. Hit a festival or sporting event
A bit of a no-brainer, but with all the craziness of planning your flights and accommodation it can be easy to forget about looking into the local events that will be happening while you’re visiting! Consider this your friendly reminder to Google “festivals in [destination]” before you jet off 😉
Massive cultural celebrations like Holi, Songkran, and Carnival are undoubtedly once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but there are a bazillion smaller festivals celebrated in every corner of the globe that are worth checking out as well.
Fancy tossing some red wine in a stranger’s face? Try Spain’s Batalla de Vino. Dying to wear something silly and dance to live music? Glastonbury in the UK is a safe bet. Or maybe the Lantern Festival in Taiwan is more your style? How about Oktoberfest in Germany? The options are endless.
If the festival scene is going to be quiet during your vacation, sporting events are a great alternative to get your culture fix! People can get super passionate about their favorite sports team, and attending a game is the perfect way to learn more about your destination’s national sport and its players. (Plus it’ll give you something to bring up when making small talk with locals later on!)
4. Visit a convenience store
This one’s a bit unconventional, but hear me out: convenience stores are a treasure trove of social insight. These little shops are basically cultural microcosms of everything locals consider essential, from snacks to pantry staples to toiletries.
Take a trip down the cool, fluoroescent aisles and you’ll discover stuff ranging the spectrum from the everyday to “they sell that here??”: 99-yen neckties and gravesite decorations in Japanese conbini, prune milk and funky black licorice candy in Icelandic corner stores, Marmite and ready-made scotch eggs in English shops, bamboo salt toothpaste and hangover tonics in Korean pyeonuijeom.
Buy every strange-looking snack you can find and give them a try if you’re feeling brave, or just enjoy browsing (and maybe snap some pics for your artsy new Instagram series “Convenience: A Photo Essay”).
5. Book a homestay or temple stay
I love luxury resorts and 5-star hotels as much as the next girl, but there are few better ways to really experience a culture than staying with a local, even if it’s just for a couple of days.
Homestays give you the chance to experience life in a foreign country on a granular level—you’ll explore neighborhoods and local hangouts that are completely off the tourist track, eat authentic homecooked meals, pick up a bit of the language, and forge friendships that will often last well beyond your flight home. Depending on where you travel, you might also be contributing some much-needed revenue to a struggling community, which is a win-win in my books.
If you’re looking for a unique twist on the homestay experience, why not try a temple stay? Typically available in countries across Asia, temple stays allow visitors to escape the urban grind, unplug for a while, and experience traditional temple life. People from all religious backgrounds are welcome, and programs range from strictly regimented and spiritual to more relaxed schedules dotted with cooking and meditation.
Wanna know the secret to a life-changing trip? Get down in, explore, and experience the culture to its fullest. Sometimes planning your whole trip from start to finish isn’t the way to go! Give yourself some wiggle room to get off the beaten path a bit and go where the mood takes you.
If a go-with-the-flow, slow travel-style adventure sounds right up your alley, we can help! From restaurant recommendations to hidden cultural gems to insider tips on where to find the best sunsets, we work with our travel friends on the ground all over the world to make sure your trip is perfectly curated every single time ✨