There are as many different ways to travel as there are places to visit in the universe. And if you're the type who loves walking around a new city in a herd of people dressed in matching outfits and led around by a person holding a flag, there's no shame in that. But, if the thought of being an obvious tourist makes you want to crawl under a double-decker bus and hide, then you've come to the right place.
Setting aside the fact that you're not really ever a local if you're just visiting, you can still do things to blend in and get a real sense of what life is like wherever you are. I've found that doing this will afford you a truly special, connected experience that's worth the extra effort. Here are a few of the secrets I've learned over the different trips I've taken in my life—and especially so from a recent trip to Iceland this January.
1. Ditch the bus tour*. I mean the kind that you rely on to take you everywhere you're looking to go. There are upsides to the bus tour: The guides can be amazingly knowledgeable and you'll learn a lot, but the major downside is that you'll miss out on handling any transactions on your own. Package tours take care of itineraries, tickets, meals, and rest stops for you—you get on, you get off, and you're asleep when you're not getting talked at. Nice if you're terrified and lazy, but not if what you're looking for is to really get to know a place and the people who live there. The same goes for the all-inclusive resort. Unless never leaving your hotel or seeing anyone who's not a part of the tourist ecosystem is part of your plan, skip.
*Full disclosure: I took this picture while on a bus tour through the southern coast of Iceland. In my defense, at that point in my trip, I was so exhausted from having jammed the trip with activities that a day of hand-holding and napping was exactly what I needed. But overall, don't let your whole vacation be dictated by bus tours.
2. Make a local friend. I'd been to Iceland once before with a couple of pals, and we spent the days driving around the country's Ring Road in a rental car. It was such a life-changing trip and one that I highly recommend—but we didn't meet that many actual Icelanders because we were in our own bubble the whole time.
This time around, I went to Iceland with my Cosmopolitan.com colleague Charles Manning and we spent the first 48 hours of our trip with our Icelandair "stopover buddy" Hjördís. The Stopover Buddy program is a new service that the airline launched in February; Icelandair already offers free stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days, and now travelers can request a local buddy—an employee of Icelandair—to show them around. (Helpful because according to a study done by the airline, 80 percent of American vacationers feel self-conscious about looking like a tourist when abroad.)
Anyway, back to Hjördís, who you can watch skate like a boss in the video above. On our first day together, she walked with us through the capital city, Reykjavik, and it just felt like we were strolling around the city with a friend, not being obvious tourists. We started out with breakfast at this lovely (and hipster in a good way) spot, Bergsson Mathus—a place Charles and I would not have gone had it not been for Hjördís knowing what was up.
3. Stay in a house over a hotel. So much yes on this, for several reasons, the first being that if you're staying in a hotel, you're probably in an area with an extremely high tourist concentration and you're only going to bump into other tourists (not a way to feel like a local).
The better option, for me anyway, was to go with an Airbnb rental. Charles and I stayed in a lovely studio apartment in downtown Reykjavik. It was most certainly cheaper than a hotel room would have been, yet we still got most of the amenities we would have had at a hotel (minus the hotel bar, but who needs $20 cocktails, really?).
We were still within walking distance of everything we wanted access to, yet we were in a quiet residential district inhabited by actual Icelanders. Plus, we had privacy, more space, and instant access to our hosts (who had a 5-star rating and were keen on keeping it that way).
4. Take public transportation. My favorite thing to do while traveling is to take the bus through a scenic part of town. It's a budget way to get from one place to another and take in the sights without getting on a campy tour bus. You really get a feel for the inhabitants of a place when you see them going about their everyday lives.
5. Read up on places in advance. You don't need to buy a guidebook, though they can come in handy (for the extremely frugal, there's always the library). You probably have Internet access, don't you? Google your destination. You'll probably be able to find expats who are blogging or 'gramming about their new lives in a new place—that's how I met Kaelene Spence of Unlocking Kiki—and they have loads of tips they're happy to share.
6. Don't be a dick. Icelanders make pseudo celebrities out of tourists who do stupid things, but is that really how you want to get your 15 minutes of fame? By pooping near a volcano and setting your toilet paper on fire? Follow the golden rule(s)—treat other people well, be careful not to destroy the landscape or precious national monuments, and you'll be welcomed as opposed to scorned.
7. Learn some local customs and a few key phrases. Literally everyone in Iceland speaks English, but it's a gesture of goodwill if you can manage to say hello ("halló") and thank you ("takk") in Icelandic. It doesn't matter if your accent is terrible because at least you're trying.
I said "takk" a lot to the Icelandic horse I got to ride one very frigid morning.
8. Eat the food they make there. Smoked lamb, "meat soup," Icelandic hot dogs, skyr, and grilled langoustines might not be dishes you've ever had before, but if you pass on trying them for that reason alone, you may be missing out on tasting some really amazing local delicacies. Those Subway sandwiches will still be there when you get back home.
9. Don't hang out only with other people who are exactly like you. Sure, you could go to the American bar, or the place that's showing that sporting event you're dying to see, but then you'd be in a room full of tourists or expats.
10. Talk to your taxi driver. She or he knows a lot about wherever you are. You should be cautious/think about your safety and not give everything about yourself away, but you can still ask questions about places to eat and fun things to do.
11. Dress the part. "It's not cold—you're just not dressed warmly enough." That's what a no-nonsense leggings vendor told me at a flea market in Reykjavik when I said I was wearing all of my clothes at once. Icelanders are cold-climate people who relish being able to handle the bone-chilling wind, and wimping out in front of them is a quick way to get written off as a silly tourist. The other thing is to get a sense for the dress code. Reykjavik residents stick to "all-black chic" when they go out, so you'll stand out (like I did) if you show up to a hip restaurant wearing furry snow boots and a fluffy white sweater.
Chasing waterfalls in Iceland in winter: Exactly as cold as it looks.
12. Go during the low season when there aren't that many tourists. For Iceland, there isn't really an off-season anymore (it used to be winter, but now there are crowds no matter the time of year), but generally, you'll feel less like you're part of a super-conspicuous horde of visitors when there are fewer people around.
13. Be a tourist sometimes—that's what you are, after all. You may, while on your quest to have the coolest, most local experience ever, decide you don't "need" to see certain tourist attractions because of their very tourist-y-ness. But if you've never seen the Eiffel Tower or Times Square before, don't you want to see them? So I didn't skip out on Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon, even for a second time, because it actually is that cool, and really is worth doing.
14. Give yourself permission to look and act foolish sometimes. It's OK to ask for help or not know how to do something. You'll get more out of your trip if you put those reservations aside.
15. Be willing to wander. Spare yourself a few moments so you can take a detour, spend a couple extra minutes in a coffee shop you're really liking, or "get lost" a little bit. Be aware of your surroundings and always take the recommended precautions, of course, but don't be afraid to walk off the path when you feel like it. Who knows what you might find?
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