Getting off the beaten path is challenging in some places. These tips have worked well for me from Sydney to Berlin to Angkor Wat. These places receive innumerable tourists annually, but escaping the crowds for a more personalized experience is totally possible.
Have a look, and let me know if there is anything else that has helped you get off the beaten track before. Sharing ideas is always great!
1. Put Away Your Camera + Phone
Take a good look around before taking photos or video. I can only imagine what would happen if a stranger came down my street snapping photos of me, my family, and my home. Most likely I would avoid that person completely.
My goal when traveling is to get off the beaten track, and for that, I must remain accessible to locals. I want locals feeling comfortable approaching me, or when I ask for permission to photograph their environment—especially since I enjoy capturing people in the frame.
2. Running Errands
Tourists do not often run errands, so this offers a great chance to see local life completely off the beaten track. A daytime or overnight Couchsurfing host is a great resource for this type of experience, since errands are a lot more fun with a buddy to explain what is happening—they live in the place I am visiting and need to run errands, so I just join in. Often, we end up in a neighborhood that is not even mentioned in the guidebooks. Invariably something interesting happens!
Stores vary a lot from place to place. For example, in the United States, some states allow supermarkets to sell alcohol, whereas others do not, in which case everyone has to go to a special liquor store that is only open for a few hours each day. The food varies, too. Finally, I always have a look at certain products. I enjoy learning about other cultures sense of beauty, so skincare and haircare products are fascinating for me, but you should have a look at whatever interests you most.
Bike and Sports Shops are the best!
Many know the meeting dates of the local bicycle or running club. If you will be in town for a bike ride or run, try to attend and meet friendly locals and learn local routes. Plus, sometimes I walk so much each day that I am not motivated to keep up my normal exercise routine. Meeting with a group helps get me back on track—a necessity since running keeps my upper body feeling good.
Bookstores & Libraries
The perfect place for some quiet time and exploring the local literature. Or, I pick up a kids book in the local language and read it a few times to learn some vocabulary.
3. Feeding the Body
I eat when traveling. No question.
In touristy areas, I ask for recommendations of good and cheap food from the men and women who approach tourists on the street offering tours and souvenirs for sale. They are mobile, know the area well, and sometimes even walk with me to their suggested restaurant.
Fresh Market Produce
Whether a farmers market in Cambodia or a supermarket in Berlin, it is a good idea to step away from prepared food sometimes and eat fresh produce (fruits or vegetables). Tropical fruit is delicious, and learning to open a coconut with a machete or peel a mango directly from a local expert is something rare, if available at all, where I come from. And, red currants are sweet and delicious—I’d never had them before visiting Berlin.
Whether food trucks or farmer’s markets in California, night markets in Southeast Asia, or steaming tamales out of the basket in Perú, street food is delicious. I recommend beginning your search for food before you are hungry, allowing time for reviewing your options and then waiting in line. You can read my street food advice here.
Sydney-siders advised me that Mexican food in their hometown is not great, but how about Vietnamese food in Poland? Food fusion is always an adventure.
4. Ask Someone Who Wants to Sell Something
I used to wave off street vendors when they approached me. Then, I realized that if I am on their turf, it is because I am looking to buy something, even if it is not exactly what they are selling at that moment. Now, I let them know what I do want, whether it is a cheap lunch, a different souvenir, or a hidden beach. Often, they are more than happy helping me out, so give it a try! I’ve come to realize that people enjoy doing favors for visitors, and they may even be doing a favor for their friend who sells just the item I am searching for.
5. Finding a Friend
Having a friend, whether old or new, who knows a bit about me and gives advice makes it easy to get off the beaten path.
Going to a place where I already have a local friend or acquaintance is wonderful. Even if they cannot accompany me, they can certainly let me know their favorite places and advise me on others I might enjoy, since they know me. Of course, I remind them of my preferences to help them think of ideas on towns, restaurants, or hikes I might enjoy. However, I try to leave it open and ask for their favorite places.
I reach out to the local Couchsurfing and Instagram communities to make new friends in advance of my arrival. I enjoy meeting up for a photowalk or a meal—maybe a new restaurant in town that my new friend wants to try. This is a great way for me to shoot photos at locations not in a guidebook. And, how else would I find out about any new restaurants in a place where I cannot read or speak the language? So, I suggest you look for communities around your interests, whether on Facebook or elsewhere. Also, letting all your friends and family know where you are going can pay off big time. We all know that in the days before the internet it was all about an uncle who has a friend of a friend of a friend who has a cousin…
6. Out & About Early
Most vacationers do not wake up early, apart from photographers seeking beautiful light. And, even they do not always make it out of bed early enough. So, without much competition, you can explore an area tourist-free if you are willing to pop out of bed early. The best places for an early morning mini-expedition are local markets. Breakfast stalls are frequently open by 6:30am, and all the other vendors are usually setting up by 7am, so you can wander undisturbed until about 9am. In Luang Prabang, Laos, monks beg alms in saffron robes at dawn and in the United States the morning commute starts at 8am, so stake out any coffee shop to see freshly coiffured locals—New York City and San Francisco might offer the most interesting variety, if people-watching is your favored activity.
7. Ask for Assistance
I cannot remember the number of times I have come upon something I would love doing, and been too shy to ask for assistance. For example, going up the narrow stone staircase into a cathedral’s choir area.
Whenever this happens, I later regret it if I did not make a simple request. And, then there are the innumerable times I have thought “I really want X,” and approached a person in charge to find out if I can get whatever it is I want. About 75% of the time, I am given permission immediately. The remaining instances are split between “Let me check with my boss,” and “Sorry, but we do not allow X.” So, go ahead. Make your request and see what happens next!
Thanks for reading! How do you get off the beaten track when traveling? As a solo traveler, I do not often see how other folks get off the beaten track, so please share your tips with me in the comments below. Thanks again! Jess
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