All travelers have a fantasy list of places they dream of visiting, but unless you're ridiculously rich, have no responsibilities and plan to live for a millennium, you're going to have to narrow it down, if you want to actually go anywhere.
What's the best way to do that? Travel is personal, and the way we experience a place has as much to do with what we bring to it as what it offers us, so there are different ways you can think it through. Here are five practical methods you can use to determine the destinations with the greatest odds of giving you a memorable and un-touristy trip.
The best way to have an as-close-to-real-life-as-possible experience in a faraway place is for someone who lives there to show you around or point you in the right direction. Make a list of relatives, old pals, people you’ve met on prior travels, and friends of friends around the country and the world and see which of their locales spark your interest.
Sometimes these connections can lead to full-on hospitality — an invitation to a family’s Korean New Year celebration, a midnight sun party, a month of informal merengue lessons — and other times it may mean getting solid advice on authentic restaurants and a number to call in case of an emergency.
The way we experience a place has as much to do with what we bring to it as what it offers us.
Here's what I've found to be an almost infallible rule: The fewer visitors a place receives, the more willing locals are to interact with them.
In other words, choose places where the tourists aren't, and there's a pretty good chance the people you meet will be just as curious about you as you are about them.
I once purposefully got off a Yangtze River ferryboat in a town called Badong because it had no discernible tourist attraction. Result: The tourist became the attraction. Storekeepers practiced their English, students stopped me to see if I needed help and a hotel receptionist drove me to her favorite lamb noodle shop, ordered for me, waited as I ate and drove me back — all while she was on duty.
Traveling in the off-season is great for people who can pull it off. But if you can get away only during your high season, consider going to a place where it's currently their (less crowded, less expensive) low season.
I once spent a December week in northeast Portugal — a popular summer destination, but cold and drizzly enough in winter that, in terms of tourists, I had the place largely to myself.
Locals had time to offer more than directions. In one town, I was invited to an early-morning pig slaughter that would turn into a feast; in another, when the guesthouse owner saw I was the only one in the dining room, he invited me into the kitchen to eat with his family at their table next to the fireplace, with strings of just-stuffed alheira sausage drying above.
In the summer, think Southern Hemisphere. August is a fantastic time to go to Rio de Janeiro, when the city's winter temperatures drop into the 70s and the city is devoid of domestic tourists since Brazilian students are back in school after July break.
Which brings me to this point: Always check the local holiday schedule. The last thing you need is to arrive in a city just as the locals take off for a long weekend and close their restaurants and shops.
One reason we treasure travel is because it gets us out of our comfort zone.
One reason we treasure travel is because it gets us out of our comfort zone. I say, make that literal as well as figurative by seeking out places as different from your daily life as possible.
Live in the city? Hit the French countryside, limiting your Paris fix to a couple of days. Love your leafy hometown? Take in the honking horns of Manhattan, as well as the art museums and award-winning restaurants. Go from hot to cold climates or cold to hot, flat terrain to mountainous or mountainous to flat. The bigger the break, the further you’ll feel from the stress — or humdrum — of home. (All within reason, of course; don’t feel like you have to do a homestay with a Papuan tribe in the hills above the Baliem Valley in Indonesia to exit your comfort zone. Though, if you do, take it from me and bring an inflatable sleeping pad.)
— With additional reporting from Life and Money by Citi editors.
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