When I think back to the first overseas trip Jessica and I took together—to Portugal and Ireland—I can’t help but cringe at how naïve we were. We bought that Lonely Planet guidebook for Ireland at Borders (remember Borders?!) and it sat in our house for years after. It seems like the holy grail of travel is not looking like a tourist. But we all read the same travel sites and buy the same travel guides, and that makes it difficult not to all visit the same places.
I don’t want to say the common sights aren’t worth it, because some totally are. But we have some tips for finding some of the hidden gems guide books and travel blogs tend to miss.
Online review sites? Ugh.
First up, dump those online review sites. I mean, they can work fine as a starting point for finding popular places, but if you’re using a site like Tripadvisor, you won’t be getting a local’s perspective of what’s good. You’re going to be better off with Yelp or Foursquare. Personally, I think Foursquare provides more transparent opinions than Yelp, so I tend to look there first.
But in my opinion, you can’t really beat the recommendations of your friends and trusted acquaintances. And it’s so easy to make acquaintances with folks online who are local. Start following some locals on Instagram and see where they like to eat. If you are Twitter or Facebook pals with folks who live in the area, ask them for tips. To me, this is probably the best benefit of social media.
Your local friends are the best
The last time we were in Somerset, we were so lucky to be able to stay with some good friends. Harry took us to incredible places—some touristy and some somewhat hidden. One morning we drove out to Burrow Hill Cider to taste some of their farmhouse cider.
After sampling some cider brandy and buying a 2 gallon jug of dry cider for something like £4 we were told to head through a door if we wanted to look around the place. In the States you’d never be allowed to just roam someone’s barrelhouse or distilling room, but that’s what we did. This experience was so unique and I don’t think we would’ve ever thought to do it without Harry’s knowledge.
Internet friends might know some things, too
While staying in the south of England, Jessica’s internet friends had some great ideas for us including a massive cathedral in Wells that Harry hadn’t ever visited. This was a highlight of our trip. The church was massive and beautiful. It dominated the small village of Wells like nothing I’ve ever seen. Most cathedrals we think of are set in the middle of a city like London or Paris, surrounded by other tall buildings. This towered over normal-height shops and homes.
Meet up with online friends, if you can
You know those friends you met through Twitter or Instagram? The ones you feel like you know, but you’ve never met them in person? Our advice: meet them in person.
We were so lucky to be able to meet up with our internet-now-real-life friends Jeremy and Amanda while in Edinburgh. And it was the best. They took us on a walking tour of Edi seeing countless parliament buildings (according to Jeremy, every building in Edi was once a parliament building), eating baked potatoes, drinking great vegan-friendly coffee, and exploring cemeteries.
The in-person contact with those friends is something special. In fact, next time we meet up with Jeremy and Amanda we get to explore Lisbon and Porto.
Trust the local service staff
We do this everywhere, but talk to the waitstaff at restaurants, coffee shops, bars, etc. First, because they’re the best. And second, because they’re probably experts about the best places to eat and drink in town. Our server at Heads & Tales in Edinburgh sent us to a great seafood restaurant that was booked up. But because he had sent us (and was married to the manager) they seated us. Genuine conversations opens all kinds of doors.
If you feel nervous about just striking up a conversation with your server, practice at home. Pick a restaurant, bar, or brewery and start going to it regularly. Sit at the bar or counter. Learn the names of the staff members. Make friends. It’ll change not just how you travel, but how you experience your own city.
What tips do you have for avoiding tourist traps? Share with all of us in the comments or on Twitter.