November 21, 2014

5 Savvy Ways to Soak up Local Culture

Hitting the highlights and attractions is all well and good, but for those who want an actual sense of the place they’re visiting it pays to take the time to pick up the local vibe. Here are five fab ways to soak up local culture.

Festivals:

We love seeing the sights in Venice for free during the annual Carnival when area residents march in elaborate costumes and pose accommodatingly for tourists with cameras. Festivals make memorable and affordable weekend getaways, and are available to travelers visiting virtually any destination. From Acadian events in Nova Scotia and an annual literary festival in Wales, to Maine’s Lobster Festival and the New Orleans’ mardi gras, these events provide a peek into what drives the economy and culture of the area you’re visiting.

Food:

We passed on the fried spiders in Phnom Penh, but enjoyed other Cambodian munchies at the evening food markets of Battambang and Poi Pet. From sipping honey schnapps at the farmers’ market along Slovenia’s Lake Bled, to enjoying roasted chestnuts with mulled wine at Copenhagen’s Christmas market, we enjoy exploring culture through food. Grocery shopping in Puno, on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca introduced us to area residents and great food.

Michelle Stoddart of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, recommends an annual event her organization sponsors called A Taste of the World held in Queens, NYC. It features foods from the various cultural groups and restaurants in the borough, making it a foodie’s fantasy come true. Similar food events are held around the country, including Sarasota, Florida.

Public Places:

We’ve strolled for free among the ancient ruins of Rome, and the Otavalo animal market in Ecuador. The alleys of Cairo’s Khan al Khalili have provided hours of cultural immersion, as have the market stalls in the old city of Jerusalem.  Walking tours are available in cities around the world, including Florence, London, Quito and even Tampa’s Ybor City.

Guided Tours:

For less than the price of lunch, we’ve received in-depth tours from knowledgeable locals of the Vatican art museum and ancient Egyptian ruins, as well as insider tips for photographing Petra and the Amazon headwaters near Misahualli, Ecuador. Other pricier but still affordable guided tours my husband and I have enjoyed include Peru’s Sacred Valley, a trip to Turkey’s Mount Nemrut and attractions in rural Lebanon.

Museums:

Local museums provide a sense of the history and culture that has influenced your chosen destination. Some of my favorite museum experiences have occurred in places such as Bolzano, Italy, Cairo, Egypt, Prague, Jerusalem and Shakespearean Verona. I try not to dismiss museums in more rural areas that may be off the beaten track. While their funding may not be massive, these are typically run by passionate volunteers and local civic organizations with an inside knowledge of the destination. For example, the heritage museum in Aroostook County, Maine houses artifacts and exhibits representing the agricultural background of the area and numerous family farms. These types of smaller venues often provide the perfect break during long family road trips as they don’t take the entire day to view. Pair one with a picnic for a driving respite that won’t throw you too far off schedule.