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7 ways to go local while traveling

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNN
updated 4:23 AM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
Become a regular at a local cafe or bar to get a sense of the real patterns of daily life. Become a regular at a local cafe or bar to get a sense of the real patterns of daily life.
Embrace daily life
Embrace daily life
Embrace daily life
Embrace daily life
Embrace daily life
Embrace daily life
  • Visit a salon or a house of worship for insights into everyday life
  • Skip restaurants with menus translated into 10 languages
  • Rent an apartment so that you can take advantage of the local markets
  • Become a regular at a local cafe or bar

(CNN) -- Looking to create lasting travel memories? Learning to live like the locals when you're on vacation is the way to go.

As someone who's happiest with a passport and a plane or train ticket in hand, I've found that my most engaging travel adventures come not from what I see, but what I experience. No matter where I go in the world, I try to embrace the place on its own terms, finding ways to fit into the local culture rather than expecting it to accommodate mine.

"That's so fundamental to what I talk about," says travel guru Rick Steves, host and writer of the popular public television series "Rick Steves' Europe." A best-selling author of more than 50 European travel books, he passionately encourages Americans to experience the world as "temporary locals."

"You learn something; you get out of your comfort zone. You empathize with people; you become part of the party. If you're in a little town, step into a bingo parlor and if there's a game going on, join in and make some new friends. If you're on a train, bring along some food and start a picnic or a potluck."

Here are seven ways to escape the "tourist trap" rut and live like a local on your next trip, whether it takes you to a world-class global city or a charming small village across the state.

Rent a real apartment. I love great hotels as much as the next traveler, but nothing thrills me more than returning "home" to my own flat during a busy day -- or at the end of a long one.

"You create this little nest you can call your own. You don't have housekeepers running in and out," says Adrian Leeds, a New Orleans native and French property consultant whose business, Parler Paris Apartments, owns and/or manages nearly 30 flats in central Paris.

Prepare your own meals (or bring them home and dine on real dishes); invite new friends over for cocktails. Splurge on a spot swankier than yours at home, or save money by staying in a charming little studio.

The point is to savor the rhythms of daily life as local residents do. But, says Leeds, who has appeared on nine France-based episodes of HGTV's "House Hunters International," this "requires a slightly more independent traveler."

Make a neighborhood spot your "second home." When I'm on the road, I'm often flying solo, but one way to keep loneliness at bay and casually meet folks in the place I'm visiting is by frequenting the same local spots again and again, even if I'm there for a short time.

I find a cozy café with free WiFi, take my laptop and hang. Same thing in the afternoon for aperitifs: I look for a place near the apartment I'm usually renting, and one where the wait staff is friendly to women who come in alone. Whether you're traveling on business or for pleasure, isn't it nice to create your own "Cheers," that out-of-town spot where at least somebody knows your name?

Dine where the locals do. I'm a fan of so-called "hole-in-the-wall" restaurants, those tiny, often ethnic eateries that don't show up in any popular guidebook and are well off the tourist path.

You'll usually find them by chatting up locals, perhaps when you're both sitting in a park or traveling on a train. (I've found that if you want to see where regular folks eat on a precious night out, taxi drivers — no matter the city or town — always know about deliciously affordable spots.)

If you're traveling abroad, dash past that place with menus posted outside in four different languages, and the one where some poor waiter is standing outside trying to beckon you inside by hollering at you in English.

Get a lift on public transit. Whether you've barely got money for the bus or can afford your own driver, nothing gives you a sense of place like its public transportation (for better or worse). As someone who sold her car 10 years ago and relied upon Chicago's CTA buses and "L" trains to get around, checking out other cities' public transit is as exhilarating to me as a trip to a theme park or great museum is to others.

I'm a huge fan of Washington's super-efficient Metro, absolutely adore the London Underground and the city's iconic red double-decker buses, and never cease to be amazed at the slices of life I see on the Paris Metro.

Not only is it a far more affordable way to get around, but once you've ridden a jam-packed rush hour train or bus with the locals, you'll feel like kindred spirits.

Or generate your own power and bike it in cities like Portland, Oregon, and super-cycle-friendly Amsterdam.

Stir your soul: Visit a house of worship. Want to experience local culture in one of its most authentic and expressive ways? Even if you're not religious, consider adding somebody's worship service to your itinerary.

I find there's something special and sacred about these visits, which have included the cozy Rome Baptist Church in the Eternal City, the super-friendly and diverse Anglican/Episcopal St. George's Church in Barcelona, social justice-focused Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and London's famed Westminster Abbey.

But why not check out a worship style or faith tradition totally different from your own? Whatever your beliefs, you'll likely come away with a new appreciation for your hosts' differences and for those things that connect us.

Drop in to a beauty salon or barber shop. While getting your hair shampooed or mustache trimmed, you'll hear talk about politics, about religion, about the upcoming season of your host country's equivalent to "Dancing with the Stars."

There are few better ways to get a sense of what "real people" are talking and thinking about in the place you're temporarily calling home. I'm always amazed how travelers and other new arrivals to France like me find their way to Paris' Mark Clement Salon, where the Los Angeles native's multi-ethnic clients are buzzing away about some hot topic in both English and French.

If you've got the nerve, why not go for a new color or cut? Says Parler Paris Apartments' Adrian Leeds: "It gives you something to go home with that's truly a memory."

Leave time for lingering. Think about it, in every real life, there's down time. But when we're on vacation, running from this monument to that museum to that performance? Not so much.

Advises Leeds: "Don't program your day. If you really want to feel like a local, do nothing. Pretend you don't have to be anywhere. Just sit there and watch the world go by."

Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel, food and lifestyles writer. A Chicago native, she lives outside Paris and blogs about her expatriate life at

How do you live like a local when traveling? Please share your tips in the comments section below.

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