Dear Fathom: My sister and I are traveling this summer and we'd like to meet locals who can show us the real France and not the typical tourist traps. How can we do this without feeling silly?
The best way to see a city is through the eyes of someone who lives there, but meeting strangers doesn't come naturally to everyone. We turned to experts Thomas Beug and Tim Kafalas, two freewheeling Brooklynites who created the independent travel show This Is My City. In it, they let total strangers take them on mad adventures all over the world.
Traveling is a social endeavor for us. We arrive in a city and meet people — lots of people. We urge you to do the same. Locals are proud of where they live and are your best resource. By giving yourself over to the wisdom of a stranger, you get to experience what makes a city truly great — not the musty churches and touristy restaurants, but the hidden gems that define its soul and personality. So how do you do it and do it without feeling foolish?
1. Before a trip, hit up your friends for contacts. Chances are you know someone who knows someone who lives in Beirut, Berlin, or Beijing. If you get an email address of a local, pose the question: What would you do if you were visiting for a weekend? In our experience, this query yields awesome results.
2. Leave your guidebook at the hotel and hit the streets. We found the best club in Vancouver by chatting to local kids in a bowling alley. That was one of the experiences that inspired us to make our show.
3. If you're shy, head to the nearest pub as early in the day as you like. You're on holiday, so this kind of behavior is okay! Sit at the bar, make nice with the bartender, and chat with the people around you. Say yes to all invitations. Before you know it, you'll be on an adventure.
4. Check the local listings. Musical performances and other random events can be great ways to feel the pulse of a city. In Wellington, New Zealand, we went to a cabaret life-drawing event called Dr. Sketchy that took place in a pub called Mighty Mighty. All types of characters showed up and it turned out to be a great spot for meeting people.
5. Stalk people. Not in a weird way. But when you're out and about, follow folks you like the look of and see where they go. They may be on their way to the best party in town.
6. There are more structured ways of meeting locals, too. These avenues are least likely to make you feel awkward. Check out Tripping, the trusty Couchsurfing, and — in Dublin — City of a Thousand Welcomes, a civic program that connects first-time visitors with locals for a cup of tea or a pint. If you're lucky you might get a personalized tour out of it.
In general, we think it's important to be positive, open-minded, and friendly while on the road. If you make an effort with the local language and express interest in more than the most-visited tourist attractions, you'll be surprised at the positive response. We asked a local to show us her favorite sushi joint in Tokyo. A few hours later we were in a small unassuming restaurant called Mikawa Sushi enjoying omakase with a chef known as The Master. It was an incredible experience that lead to an invitation to join him on his daily trip to the market. We never expected a sushi dinner to turn into a personal tour of Tokyo's world famous Tsukiji fish market.
Traveling is about new experiences and occasionally being out of your comfort zone. Embrace it!
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