How Do You “Get Local”?

One thing we talk about on this blog a lot is “living like a local,” in a foreign environment. I think it’s really important to try to immerse yourself in local culture when traveling abroad. This is part of why I was so eager to work with Go With Oh in Rome and Berlin: their current Living La Vida Local campaign.

Which got me thinking: how DOES one actually “get local?” In places where I’ve spent months, like London, Xi’an and Buenos Aires, it was really easy to ease into local living. I had a routine, friends, a favorite restaurant or bar. But what about when you’re only somewhere for a week? How do you really delve into the local experience?

If I were going to make a mathematical equation, I would say that the amount of time you spend in a place is proportional to how easy it is to immerse yourself in the culture and personality of said place. So the less time you spend somewhere, the harder it is to get that local experience. Even so, I really tried in Rome, then again in Berlin a couple of weeks later, to get as local as I could in just one week.

In Berlin Go With Oh put me and four other bloggers up in a cozy apartment in Kreuzberg. The place was all white walls and minimalism, very German (or at least how I imagined Germany- this time in Berlin was my first introduction). All they asked of us was that we explore what it meant to “live like a local,” in Berlin.

Here is what I found:

Eating Local

Not surprisingly, the first thing that comes to mind for me is food. Cuisine can offer such an insight into the local culture, history and agriculture of an area. I think it’s one of the quickest and easiest windows into local life.

In Berlin this mainly meant a LOT of international food. Berlin is like the New York City of Europe in terms of it’s international feel: on a typical street you might see Vietnamese, Thai and Moroccan restaurants lined up. And of course kebabs, so many turkish restaurants and kebab shops. So, my local eating consisted of all of these things, plus an interesting mexican-polish fusion dinner that was surprisingly good!

Local Transportation

Whenever I take the train or bus in a new city I instantly feel more local than I really am. The anonymity, the routine every day experience that so many people have- it’s an instant equalizer. Plus, most public transport systems are easy to figure out so it’s an instant confidence boost in a new place.

Berlin in particular has a really complicated, absolutely immense public transport system. I was totally paralyzed by it on my first day there but by the end of the week I was taking the U-bahns and S-bahns with (mostly) ease.

Getting to Know Your Neighborhood

I loved our neighborhood, a tree lined canal street in Kreuzberg, one of the most happening, multicultural areas of East Berlin. The day we arrived was warm and sunny and dozens of students sat along the water eating pizza, smoking and chatting. Although the weather didn’t allow that to continue (see below), I still spent loads of time just wandering the neighborhood checking out the cool street art and old buildings.

Meeting the Locals

Probably one of the most important things you can do and one that I am not so great at, particularly on short trips. You can’t really get more “local” than hanging out with people from the area, doing the typical local things.

This trip to Berlin was mostly for business but I did get to go to some local parties and dinners. Mike even went out barhopping and clubbing to experience some of the local night life (I was at home sick of course).

There are a lot of great ways to meet up with locals in a new city, even if you don’t personally know anybody there. The couchsurfing website is a great place to start, as is Meal Sharing (which I haven’t tried but intend to soon). I’ve also met all kinds of people via facebook and twitter.

Local Weather (ugh)

If nothing else you can get the local weather experience without even trying. This is most fun when the weather is pleasant and sunny and people flock to outdoor parks and cafes. We didn’t exactly have that experience in Berlin. The weather was primarily below freezing and snowing- thank goodness we still had all our long johns from Finland! I wasn’t really a fan of the weather but it did give me some insight into what life is like in the city.

I think that living like a local not a long immersive experience necessarily, but small snatches of insight. If you make enough effort to explore, eat and listen, you can grab tiny moments of insight into what local life is all about. It’s fleeting, but it’s one of my favorite things about travel.

How do you get local?

Special thanks to Go With Oh for hosting us in Berlin. All opinions are my own.

11 thoughts on “How Do You “Get Local”?”

  1. When I travelled around the world as export mngr I was always looking for a local friend to live and find places and way of life out of the beaten path, now I changed my passion into my job: “rent a tuscan friend” is a one man company that can you feel the right way in Tuscany-Italy so…. if u wannabe toscano I am ready 4 u 😉

  2. This is actually true. It is difficult to get local in such as short period of time especially if there are a lot of things to do as travelers. But then, the simple small memories that made you part of the place for a little while count. I have enjoyed my travels and feel like one of the locals when I enjoy the simplest things they do like eat in a local restaurant, drink at a local pub or buy things from a local store.

  3. Some good advice on how to get local. I’m having better luck here in the Netherlands than I did in Germany years ago. I find the Dutch to be much more helpful as I struggle with the language. I wonder if it’s the culture that makes it easier, or if I’ve changed. Hmmm. Germany was hard, but we weren’t in Berlin. Maybe the size and cultural mentality of a community makes a difference, too…

  4. All I’m hearing about lately is Berlin! It seems we’ll have to make a trip there, hopefully soon.

    Living like a local is so exciting! When travelling through a country, you have a totally different impression of it as opposed to actually living there. Take China for instance. We travelled here for one month and are now living here (9 months and counting), we’ve learned so many things that we wouldn’t have know by just passing through.

    Food, people, culture, the sights only locals know about, where the cheapest things can be bought and definitely “doing as the locals do” (ie: riding a bicycle, going to karaoke, eating dumplings for breakfast, etc.) is all part of the fun!

    Cheers for the post 🙂

  5. I LOVED the U-Bahn in Berlin as well…. I deemed it the best transit system I’d used i Europe so far bar none! I also noticed the doner kebab thing happening there, and I was staying in the Turkish area… wow, who knew this many Turks lived in Berlin? Not me!

  6. Really liked this post, Steph (and thanks for the linky love).

    I think one of the biggest parts of getting local while you travel is to talk a lot – talk to the locals. When you order a kebab from the street vendor, ask him/her a question, too! I think talking and listening (and asking questions) is a great way to discover a place from the people who live there.

    Also – I love your comment about public transport and how once you figure it out, it’s an instant confidence boost. That’s very often true and I hadn’t thought of it that way!!

    1. You are so right, I have a really funny conversation with the oweners of a kebab shop about Justin Bieber. It’s stuff like that I always remember later on.

  7. What great tips! I like to spend a few days in one place so I have time to explore. While that isn’t always a possibility, I find that longer stays give me more time to wander around to “discover” neighborhood gems. I also love renting flats/condos in a fun neighborhood or district. Then I at least get the illusion of being a local. 🙂

  8. We usually spend about 5 days in any given city (sometimes less). So, we definitely look for local food, no matter what it takes. And local transportation is our friend. It always seems to be much more efficient in any city except our own (LA).

  9. Hey Steph, these are some great tips for living like a local when you travel. I try to take the time and slow down when I’m exploring some place new. Not necessarily slow travel as in spending weeks or months in one area, but literally just slowing the pace of my day so that I’m not rushed, more approachable, and more willing to make conversation. Like Clayton said above, taking the time to talk to people and actually listen to what they say can make a huge difference and really help to open my eyes to new restaurants or activities that I might not have found on my own. (PS – I learned something new today – meal sharing sounds pretty cool!)

  10. Time really is the most important factor for me. Talking to people is next. There was one trip where I was in Naples for a few days, but my friends and I spent time talking to the owner of the hostel. He was a great resource that turned into a friend in just a few days as we were buying him pizza so he didn’t have to eat the sandwich his wife made for him.

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