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Why You Should Stop Trying to Travel ‘Like a Local’

There are pretty much zero rules when it comes to travel, and that’s how it should be. Everyone plans and attacks an itinerary differently: city vs. outdoors, spontaneity vs. advance planning, budget vs. luxury. That said, one travel trend has taken on a life of its own in recent years, becoming a kind of mantra across traveler types—one that makes me cringe every time it’s brought up. It’s a line that I wish people would stop echoing in their vacation planning: How/where can I stay, eat, explore, etc.—if I want to “travel like a local”?

Maybe the phrase makes me squirm because I know first-hand how badly that thinking can derail a once-in-a-lifetime experience: I still regret several times I let locals and/or friends talk me out of visiting certain sites in Europe because of crowds and cost (we were broke students, after all).

Or maybe it’s because, as a resident of a highly visited North American city, I don’t want too many tourists in my favorite local joints. But most importantly, I know visitors are doing themselves a disservice by focusing on those places rather than going all in on the most significant sights a city has to offer. There are the obvious tourist traps like wax museums and hotel casinos to skip—but then there are true greatest-hits sites worth touristing-out over, which you should never write off in the name of being more “like a local.”

The Case Against “Travel Like a Local”

If you’re in London, you go to Westminster Abbey; when in Rome, you hit the Colosseum; in Agra, you wake up early for a glimpse of the Taj Mahal—crowds be damned. Locals don’t do that. “Travel like a local” is an oxymoron, even if you want to get off the tourist track. Hidden gems? Sure. Off the beaten path? Absolutely—weave in the hidden restaurants, shops, and cozy neighborhoods you want to blend into for a few hours. But do you really want to stay in a residential area and have to commute to all the best historic sites? Should you prioritize a dive-y local watering hole over the historic-yet-crowded pubs not found anywhere else? Probably not.

Bottom line: Time and again, the answer to “Where do the locals go?” is “Not where you, a tourist, should.”

But here’s the main problem I have with the idea that you need to travel like a local: It seems created more by fear of judgment rather than by any actual virtue. The trend toward traveling like a local seems like it was borne from the ethos that travelers are ignorant, talk too loudly, dress badly, and cause problems like overtourism. While all of those things can be true, it’s also possible to be a cultured, humble, stylish, and sustainability-focused traveler—and there seem to be more of them today than ever before. Likewise, staying in a local’s apartment or sticking only to local-approved spots won’t make you any more of a local, or any less of the tourist that you are. So you might as well embrace it.

Sure, you can come to Boston and, for fear of looking like a tourist, leave out the centuries-old sites that I’ve rarely, if ever, been to outside of a grade-school field trip. The same sites that make Boston one of America’s most storied cities: the Freedom Trail, Fenway Park, Paul Revere’s House, the Bunker Hill Monument. But you might leave feeling like you missed out on something pretty unique. There’s a balance to strike, and that balance isn’t only prioritizing what locals do, or what’s “authentic”—another cringe-worthy word travelers so often use.

An architectural feat and cultural icon, the Eiffel Tower was once so hated by Parisians that it was almost demolished. Created for the World’s Fair and serving no real purpose, it’s by no means “authentic” or local. But hindsight is 20/20, and smart travelers now know that you’d be crazy not to experience the behemoth lattice-work beauty, even if only for the view from the top, because you’re in Paris and there’s nothing else in the world like it.

Planning your trip solely around where you’ll find locals (hint: there are none at the Eiffel Tower) is a ridiculous premise that will have you missing all the tourist-frequented sites that make a destination unique. Those places are tourist-frequented for a reason. So let the locals be your compass, not your roadmap.

And go ahead and wear the embarrassing audio guide headset: Life’s too short not to.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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