8 ways to avoid tourist traps while travelling

August 21, 2023

We all have our reasons why we travel. For many of us, travel is an eye-opening experience. It’s a way to explore countries, cultures and spaces that are different from our own. We may travel to learn about the world, try new things, change up the scenery, make new memories, or challenge ourselves. But in many parts of the world (particularly ones that host a lot of travellers), these experiences get watered down when destinations are rife with tourist traps or culinary experiences that are adjusted to meet perceived expectations of international travellers. We may go to sample a culture or learn new ways of doing things but if we spend our time hopping from one tourist attraction to the next, do we really get that experience?

Of course, this isn’t to criticize activities that are geared towards those on vacation who want to have fun (I’ll take zip-lining through a jungle or rafting down rapids any day), but there is a case to be made for avoiding tourist traps while travelling. At least some of the time. When you get off the beaten path and away from the crowds, you get a chance to curate a really authentic experience. Below, eight ways you can do just that.

1. Befriend a local restaurant or café owner

Those who run cafes, restaurants and bars work with people all day every day and so oftentimes, they’re pretty social people. And, they have the pulse of the city. They know where the locals hang out, which places are popular, which ones aren’t, when the city or town is dead, and when it’s alive. It’s literally their job to know and plan for these things. When visiting a new area, ditch the book or doom scrolling and instead strike up a conversation with the bartender or owner and ask how *they* would spend a day, weekend, or week in their city. This is how you’ll really get the good recommendations and meet more locals.

2. Take yourself on a mural tour

Art galleries and museums totally have their place and are a great way to check out the local art scene. Another unedited way to appreciate local art though is to deliberately set out to find murals and street art. If you visit places in Latin America, Europe or major city hubs in North America, you’re bound to see so many street murals if you put your mind to it. Plan for a day of wandering with solid walking shoes, snacks, sunscreen, and water and simply… go where your curiosity leads you. Exploring a city in this way means you are intentionally slowing down and being open to experiences that present themselves to you.

Another benefit: graffiti art is usually done by locals and since it’s not approved or governed by anyone, you get an unedited glimpse into things like language, politics, and cultural values. Read between the lines. What can you learn from the location based on what you see painted on its walls? Do the artists use a lot of colour? Are there symbols or names you see repeated? You get the idea.

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3. Check out groups on social media

Brochures, online reviews and the tours you see promoted in your hostel are definitely a great way to figure out what to do and when. Another underrated and often not discussed way to learn about a particular spot is to see if there are Facebook groups geared toward the region’s expats. If you can find groups like this on social media, you’ll hit the goldmine. (Just look up “expats” and the name of the city you’re in.) These groups are great because you’ll be able to connect with like-minded travellers whose interests are likely to overlap with yours *and* they live there so they have the knowledge of a local. Other groups to search for on social media could include local groups focused on hiking, photography, or language exchange excursions.

4. Pick a neighbourhood to get to know

Travelling can be overwhelming because truthfully, you just can’t see everything. That can bring on a lot of heavy #fomo or overwhelm if you're trying to do as much as possible so as to justify your trip and not “miss out.” A better approach might be to pick one neighbourhood and get to know that area really, really well. When you hone in on a smaller section of a place instead of bouncing around the city, you’re likely to make more genuine connections, spot the quieter locally-owned shops and cafes, slow down, and actually appreciate what makes this particular destination special. Museums, monuments, must-see views, and Instagram-famous hotspots are always fun but it’s the corner stores, neighbourhood watering holes and parks where families gather to play volleyball that really give places their unique identity.

5. Chat with a taxi driver

After asking hostel staff and tour guides about the best things to do, hop in a taxi and cut to the chase. Taxi drivers spend their entire days shuttling locals and travellers to and from the best parts of town. They know this place like the back of their hand. Don’t just ask them where to go and what to see, but also ask them about safety precautions and things to avoid. There is arguably no better group of people to ask these questions. Think about it: they spend their days talking to so many strangers. They know the news of the day, local gossip, newly-opened venues, big events happening (gotta know those traffic roadblocks!) and every single neighbourhood in town.

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6. Eat at less glamorous places

Alright, now when you’re in a highly-coveted destination, there are always the very obvious places to eat or drink. You know the ones. They are usually well-reviewed, written about, in a prime location, and boast incredible views. They come with all the bells and whistles: swanky decor, something that begs for an Instagram post, fancy cocktails, etc. Those places are great and they definitely are popular for a reason. When you’re looking for a more laid back day or something more authentic though, ignore the top three (at least) obvious choices like these. Usually when you wander a little bit, you’ll find the places that have incredible food and a special charm that are overshadowed by the glamorous, flashy options. They’re likely to be more warm and welcoming too.

7. Travel on a budget

Even if you don’t have to. This is always a great piece of travel advice because not only do you spare yourself some whopping (and unnecessary) travel costs, but you also cut out expensive options that don’t always offer the most genuine travel experience. If the average local wouldn’t be able to afford a certain activity, there’s a good chance it’s not an authentic way to sample the culture. Again, that doesn’t disqualify it or make it a bad way to spend your time, but if you’re looking to get a true sense of the destination you’ve travelled to, go where the average local would. By reducing your budget, you’ll find where those who actually live there eat their lunch, enjoy a weekend day trip, buy their vegetables, and share a beer. I’d be willing to bet the vibes will be good, the dishes will be well prepared, and the conversation will be intriguing.

8. Get comfortable not understanding the language

Are you visiting a place where you don’t speak the local language? Get used to it and get comfortable not understanding everything that’s going on. Obviously, it’s *easier* to travel when tours and adventures are offered in a language that you understand (like English or French) but by limiting yourself in this way, you’re turning down a whole lot of locals who have a lot to offer but aren’t conversational in your native tongue.

For example, someone might know really crazy routes in the Andes that could put Machu Picchu to shame but if you were to shy away from spending the day in Spanish, you’d miss out! Or, someone might offer a wicked boat tour in the Mediterranean, but again, not speak your language. At some point, you need to accept feeling uncomfortable in certain ways for the sake of genuine and thrilling local experiences.

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