Cultural travel is about experiencing local culture wherever you go.
Talking to locals and asking lots of questions has always been one of my favourite things about travel.
I want to see and learn how people in other countries live their day to day lives. It broadens my mind and, more importantly, gives me a chance to make real connections with interesting people.
Joining tours and taking part in local experiences is probably the easiest way to get to know the most essential aspects of a culture.
These tours and experiences make things very accessible, creating a learning experience that is so much more effective than just reading about that country on Wikipedia, because they are designed with the curious tourist in mind.
“The curious tourist” is the one who asks questions, tries to be non-judgmental and appreciates the vast knowledge that only locals have.
Most tourists get to know the local culture to some extent, but if you develop a deeper interest in it, I feel you can reach a different level of understanding of what really defines the place.
There’s a nice variety of things you can do to get a glimpse into a culture.
Here are some ideas for you to try:
Eating with Locals
Meeting locals for a meal is always a good idea. They know the best restaurants and bars and can give you tips on what to select from the menu or where to go for that special cocktail that you won’t find anywhere else.
If you get a chance to be invited to a local’s house for a meal, take it!
I still have fond memories of the Turkish breakfasts I had in Istanbul and the improvised cooking class I was given by a newly found friend in Budapest (I had no idea Hungarian food was so unique).
Cooking classes have become very popular with tourists, and that’s not just because of the food.
While you learn to make local delicacies, you also learn about people’s customs, history, language and slang.
It makes the meal at the end of the class much more meaningful. You also get a chance to ask questions and be as curious as you like.
I also recommend visiting the local market at least once when you visit a new city, to check out the spices and perhaps some fruit and vegetables you might not have in your home country.
You can also take a food tour with a guide who knows the best local spots. I recently joined a food tour in Athens. The guide introduced us to the highlights of Greek cuisine, while showing us around the city.
Special events and ceremonies are a great opportunity to experience more sides of the food culture.
In Kyoto I joined a Japanese tea ceremony with a couple of German tourists who, like me, knew absolutely nothing about it. We got a full explanation of the entire ceremony and left with a new appreciation of tea!
Museums and Galleries
I’m sometimes surprised to hear from fellow travellers that they don’t like going to museums and galleries when they travel.
It’s a matter of taste of course, but museums and galleries these days don’t just offer the (somewhat stale) experience of viewing hundreds and hundreds of old paintings on walls.
I can see how that might be a bore, even if the paintings are great.
However, it’s hard to find a museum these days that doesn’t have some cool interactive elements, virtual reality experiences or all sorts of audio-visual aids that turn the visit into a fascinating event.
Museums are not just about art of course. There are many other things to explore, such as:
- Open air museums and ethnographic museums that show how people used to live.
- Design museums (don’t miss the ones in London and Vienna).
- Science museums.
- Photography galleries.
- Musical instrument museums.
- And all sorts of unique museums like the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas, the Hat Museum in Riga, the Cinema Museum in Turin or the Toy Museum in Vilnius.
Architecture and Design
I’m a self-proclaimed architecture lover and find buildings of all kinds fascinating (even the ugly ones!).
Not all cities offer architecture tours, but if there is one available, I will always take it.
It’s about the aesthetics and the design, but also the stories behind the buildings, the history, how people have wanted to present their city (and themselves) over the years, how people from different social classes live and so much more.
You can also explore the most prominent architectural landmarks, like the four villas in Brno.
I also like to attend Open House festivals when I travel. They let you go inside buildings that are not normally open to the public, often with guided tours. It’s worth looking out for those annual Open House days when you plan your trips.
If you happen to be in any city during its Design Week, you’re in for a series of surprises, from original fashion shows to innovative industrial design.
I’m a big fan of design shops and always look for them in any city I go to.
I love chatting with the owners. They are always excited when I ask them about the items they sell.
I’ve learnt that most boutique shops and concept stores would feature mainly local artists and designers, products made from local materials (for example, you’ll notice cork products in any shop you go to in Porto) and styles that are typical of the area. That’s another fun way to learn about the culture.
One of the things that’s always on my bucket list in any city I go to is taking a street art tour.
Local guides know the stories behind the artworks, the techniques used and even what the artists meant to say 😉
But that’s not all. After countless times I’d been to Brick Lane, one of London’s street art hubs, I finally took a guided tour with a local artist (who wouldn’t tell us his name…) and discovered so many artworks I’d never noticed before. He took us into side streets and parking lots where those gems were hiding.
It’s not just about the art of course.
Street art will teach you about the underground culture of the city and the things the locals are most proud of.
You’ll find out about burning social and political issues (that you may never have heard of), like we did on our street art tour in Athens.
I also find it fascinating to compare how different cities in the world view street artists – it ranges from vandalists who, if caught, are subject to ridiculously high fines, to well-respected and appreciated artists who are helping to improve the city’s look and image.
Glasgow is a perfect example of the latter: The city commissions street artists to decorate its grey walls and the result is magnificent murals. The city of Zagreb does the same and it’s definitely got some of the best pieces of street art I’ve ever seen.
Creative City Tours
Most guided tours these days rely on storytelling to keep you engaged.
Tour guides who just recite historical facts like they’re reading them out of a book will find themselves jobless in no time… 😉
I’ve been on countless guided tours and the best guides are the creative, theatrical ones who tell you stories, anecdotes and jokes while showing you around.
That’s what makes a tour memorable. You may not remember all the facts after the tour, but you’ll remember that you had a great experience.
To get to know your destination better, apart from general sightseeing tours, pick tours based on your interests. For example, alternative tours, ghost tours, musical history, street art, underground tours and other tours or experiences that are unique to the place you’re visiting.
The best sites to look for tours are:
Music and Dance
When I arrive in a new place where I don’t know the local music scene, I’ll always find someone to show me around and take me to those small clubs and bars that only locals know about.
That’s how I found myself in a tiny bar in Skopje listening to beautiful, melancholic Macedonian folk music, or in a pretty rowdy gig in Croatia jumping around to Gypsy hits with my CouchSurfing host.
As it turned out, most of my trip around the Balkans was in search of great Balkan music 🙂
On my trip to Japan, I pursued my obsession with a small and highly addictive shaker called Asalato.
Originally an African children’s toy, the Japanese turned it into a magnificent percussion instrument. This is what it sounds like:
After spending a magical night at the Japanese Asalato tournament in Tokyo, I contacted some players in Osaka, went to their workshops, jammed with them and got to know them and their mates.
It completely transformed my trip to Japan into a much more meaningful experience than it would have been otherwise.
I also geek out on musical instrument museums. I’ve been to a few of those, in Valencia, Brussels, London, Kaunas and Edinburgh, and have always discovered new instruments that I’d never heard before.
You might also want to take some music or dance workshops to delve even more into the culture.
There’s real joy in getting creative and learning some new skills, experiencing things first hand and chatting with both locals and other visitors who are itto the same musical style as you.
I met some great people at music workshops, some of them have become long term friends.
Theatre and Opera
I’m a huge fan of London’s theatre scene, both its massive West End productions and its more modest fringe theatre.
In other countries, if you don’t speak the language, you may still be able to find other shows, like the famous Black light theatre in Prague, or Kabuki Theatre in Japan, which can sometimes be suitable for tourists.
If you like opera, you can check if the show has subtitles. At the opera in Vienna, for example, we had subtitles in 8 different languages to choose from.
Another cool thing to do when you travel is to take a guided tour of the city’s theatres, opera house or concert hall in the city.
For example, I took a tour of the gorgeous theatre in Turin, that runs guided tours in English and got to go backstage and appreciate how this huge theatre operates. And if you go to Athens, don’t miss out on seeing the Greek National Opera.