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10 Ways to Experience a Culture Authentically While Traveling

Ansan, Korea with children sharing meal served by volunteers.
Ansan — sharing meals starts early, and in many cultures, such as Korea, it says so much. There are few better ways to make friends than trading items mom packed for your lunch.

For many fellow travelers, “experiencing another culture,” means something far different from visiting museums, archeological ruins, and national monuments. While trying to visit the Pyramids and Colosseums of the world, these ancient icons do little in the way of illuminating the culture in another country. It is precisely everyday life — modern, messy, and malleable–that often interests me most.

The Roman Colosseum.
Rome — the Colosseum is a piece of the city, even today. Surrounded by busy streets, the ancient monolith serves as an everyday backdrop for life in Rome.

I’ve heard droves of other travelers and expats say it as well: I want to experience other cultures. However, how does one go about doing so? After nearly a decade of living abroad, both as a traveler and a working expat, I’ve come up with a few ideas about what makes me feel most immersed in different worlds.

1) Move Slowly: I recommend spending more time in one place rather than checking as many off the proverbial list as possible. Having nothing in particular to do often reveals much more about a place and culture than following an all-encompassing itinerary.

Imagine summing up your hometown with a dozen landmarks over two or three days. While it might offer some sense of history, it does little in the way of explaining everyday life. Life comes while sitting idly over breakfast at a regular café, going to the neighborhood supermarket for some sugar, and having a favorite bench to read a book on. Sometimes the big attractions are part of people’s life, but they don’t encapsulate it. Be cautious about treating a place like a highlight reel. There is a lot of culture lurking between the most known locations.

Istanbul, Taksim Park.
Istanbul — Parks have a way of illuminating the nature of people around you as well. I love this shot of a man smoking next to his buddy on a bench in Taksim Park.

2) Rent an Apartment: Nothing says “from out of town” like staying in a hotel or hostel, and nothing says “my town” like twirling around a set of keys to your own apartment. Luckily, it’s easy enough to rent short-term just about anywhere in the world.

I like hostels, the backpacker in me can’t help it, but I end up hanging out at the hostel with other travelers. It’s great for travel tips but often impedes exposing me to where I am. I’ll never forget Mommy, my Korean landlady who was well past grandmother age. Mommy didn’t understand that I wasn’t her child, couldn’t speak Korean, and locked my door for a reason. She had her own key and her own way of presenting me with whatever new resident perk she’d contrived: a free bag of rice cakes, a new washing machine, or just some conversation while I stood in my underwear confused.

* Homestays are another option. As a vegetarian (perhaps one of the least popular diets in some countries around the world), a beer-enthusiast, and a sometimes-moody character, I prefer not to subject hosts to my unique needs. It’s important to consider others when doing a homestay, and in doing so, I’ve decided renting an apartment is a better option for me.

Nice penthouse
Rent an apartment in old Nice in October for a fraction of the going rate during high season and cook your own food from the great markets nearby, or just hang out and people-watch from the busy cafes. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

3) The Food Market: What people eat explains a great deal about a society, the landscape, the environment of a country, the aesthetics, the rituals, as well as the general outlook on life. A traditional dish at a restaurant sometimes hardly begins to explain how a grandma goes about compiling the ingredients to make it (unless grandma is the cook).

I find a regular stall at the nearest fruit and vegetable market to my apartment. After two or three visits, the seller recognizes me, and this leads to a deeper exposure. For example, in Moscow, after learning that pickles feature heavily in the local cuisine, I befriended “a pickle lady” at the neighborhood market. Every visit, she’d give me two or three new things to sample, different versions of the pickled cabbage I’d previously purchased, or another type of pickled pepper. Then, as I paid for the food, she’d throw in a couple of extras for me to try — her favorites. How local is that?

4) Public Transportation: It’s in the very name, "public transportation." Traveling like the local public will without doubt provide more exposure than renting a car, traveling with tour agencies, or always taking a taxi.

In Istanbul, using the ferry to cross the Bosporus, I always took advantage of the chai service aboard. Once, just after my row of seats were served our tea, a little old lady sitting next to me smiled and offered me her paper-wrapped sugar cube. I thanked her politely but motioned that I didn’t need it. She offered it again. Feeling uncomfortable, I refused once more. Then, someone from across the aisle came over and opened the cube for her. I joined everyone in a good round of laughter at my social blunder and made some friends for the ride. Sometimes missing the point completely can give you a memorable exchange.

Moscow, teenagers entertaining audience.
Moscow — Arbat St. is the place to meander in downtown Moscow, and in the summer, the place fills with street performers. These teenagers entertained me for at least an hour.

5) Walk and Wander: Motorized transportation doesn’t always allow for the curious nip into an odd alleyway, the quick browse through a store with a quirky window display; these peeks are often where there is a whole different life to discover.

Think about taking the subway in New York. First of all, getting out of the subway in each borough or even sections of boroughs offers up a different cuisine, style of architecture, and crowd wondering the streets. Three stops down the line, a distance walked in a half-hour, could mean missing an entire neighborhood that could possibly be the perfect blend of bohemia, panache, and pizza. Like New York City, much of the world is pedestrian-friendly. In between subway stops, life bustles. I’ve discovered amazing markets, parks, ruins, beaches, and people simply due to being willing to get lost walking. 

6) Volunteer Somewhere: Traveling responsibly is one of the great traveling trends of the day. Now, it’s possible to take a organized voluntourism trip just about anywhere, or better yet, reach out to an NGO and lend a hand for a couple of weeks.

I was an NGO volunteer coordinator in the mountains of rural Guatemala, and our organization, Las Manos de Christine, worked with the local public school, offering several options for volunteering short-term. We had people who stayed around from a few days to a few months. Some of them came up with their own undertakings — building a clubhouse or after-school sports — and others lent a hand with art classes or ongoing construction projects. There are opportunities to get involved all over the world, and that generally leads to being part of a good project and often being part of a community. The abundant interaction between the kids and guests was quality exposure for both. 

Volunteer in Guatemala.
Volunteering in Guatemala with Las Manos de Cristine.

7) Listen to Locals: I put an emphasis on listening here because people often say they want to “talk to locals,” and for a cultural immersion experience, it’s more relevant to listen, and to learn more about where you are. Speaking about your life “back in” wherever you come from may create a distance from the people who are hosting you.

My first couple of months in Korea, I provided my Korean colleagues with Saturday writing lessons in exchange for lunch. Each week they’d take me a new eatery around town, which they'd choose. I got to sample restaurants throughout Ansan City, places I would have never discovered, tried foods that hadn’t made Lonely Planet’s rundown, and learned the nooks of where I was living. Over our meals, they taught me about Korean culture: the age/respect system, religion, unwritten gender policies, table etiquette, and on and on. It was the deepest insight into Korea I received during my two-and-a-half years in the country.

Antigua, Semana Santa alfombras.
Antigua — During Semana Santa, people work for hours to construct intricate alfombras that decorate the streets of Antigua, Guatemala. Processions, then, parade right over the carpets.

8) Festivals/Events: These even seem outright cultural. Usually, festivals are founded upon local religion, rituals, history, and/or agricultural cycles. People are out to enjoy themselves and embrace all that most defines the sacred "je ne sais quoi" of a place.

This year I’m living in Antigua, Guatemala, home of the world’s biggest Semana Santa celebration. The festival is notorious for packing the streets with tourists and beloved for providing a large percentage of profits for the year. Living here, I couldn’t avoid participating, and luckily so. The event had me out until the wee hours of morning, wondering the streets to view new alfombras (see photo above), eating traditional foods, and watching Roman soldiers careen through town with plastic swords drawn. What I thought would be a somber event found me going to bed early, nearly 3:00 a.m., while the locals continued partying.

9) Street Stalls and Hole-in-the-Walls: This seems to go without saying, but the best representation of local culture will not be found at chains like McDonald’s or Starbucks. Yes, some people (especially the young) do frequent these places, but “global culture” is generally not what we seek out when we travel.  

I first tried Thai food at a little joint in a strip mall in the U.S. The spice options were mild, medium, hot, and very hot. I went modestly, chose the hot, and spent the entire meal wiping my nose, sucking down pink lemonade. As a result, I couldn’t wait to eat when I finally visited Thailand some ten years later. The street food rocked my world, pushcarts peddling fifty-cent samplers. I was standing in line every other block, and everything was so good. It’s an easy enough concept: Look for crowded places and long lines because, where people are willing to wait, something good and unique is sure to be available. Everywhere has its classic spots, usually a little well worn but rarely franchised.

10) Get Rural: Cities are often where the museums are, but rural areas, just about everywhere, are generally known for hospitality, richer traditions, and natural beauty. Visit villages when possible: Here there a sometimes lesser sights to behold but often a very different reality. 

Juayua, a little town along the Ruta de Las Flores (Route of Flowers) in El Salvador, is one of my favorite villages. Founded in 1577, with the centerpiece cathedral and hand-carved statue of Christ to prove it, Juayua (pronounced who-ah-you-ah) has the typical charm of Latin America’s colonial towns, complete with cobblestones and all that. In addition, the village hosts a food festival every weekend, surrounded by coffee fincas and waterfalls, while offering an amazing collection of mural-like graffiti. I went there as an afterthought, and it has become my number one recommendation for Salvadoran-bound travelers.

I’ve noticed how much emphasis my tips revolve around food and people, which being a Louisiana native — accustomed to crawfish boils, fish fries, and little bowls of gumbo from cauldron-sized cast iron pots — shouldn’t be too surprising. Nothing says home, even in today’s fast food and Wi-Fi-dominated world, like a family or group of friends sharing a meal, with no one in a hurry to leave and dishes being passed around for all to sample.

Experiencing a culture, at least for me, is rarely about visiting museums or the tallest buildings in town. It’s about finding those moments when I’m completely at ease doing something, as if I’m at “home,” while not even realizing how I got there. In general, that involves human interaction and just as often occurs around eating and drinking — both a ritual and a necessity wherever we’re from. Learning to share those moments, or at least see them from another perspective, makes me feel truly connected to my current location.

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Responsible Travel
 More Articles by Jonathon Engels
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Guide to Volunteer Farm Work Abroad
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Top Jobs Abroad for Long-Term Travelers: How to Extend Your Journeys
5 Reasons Why Living Abroad is Better Than Visiting
How to Volunteer Abroad Effectively Short-Term
Dual Volunteerism in Guatemala
Eight Fantastic Experiences for Foodies in Guatemala
Teach English in Guatemala
Snapshots of a Slow Trip Through Columbia

Author Jonathon Engels. Jonathon Engels earned an MFA in creative writing. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way through nearly 40 countries between them. His many interests include permaculture, veganism, and ways to live sustainably.

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