Truly understanding and appreciating a new culture can take months or even years. Most of us don't have that luxury. Those for whom a few days to a week is about the best that can be hoped for have to figure out how to get the most out of limited time when traveling. Making a checklist of museums and attractions is a common instinct, but it won't give you the deep connection that makes travel rewarding. Taking a few simple steps can help travelers to better connect to new places, make amazing memories, truly feel at home in a strange land, and always have the best stories to tell.
1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE. Yes it is obvious, and the obvious response is that it's difficult and time-consuming. But you don't have to be fluent to get the benefits of putting in a little effort. Learn the most important phrases: "Hello", "Where is the bathroom?", "Cheers!", and the most important in any language, "Thank you." Ask a native speaker to check your pronunciation and have a few laughs.
2. DRESS THE PART. This may seem shallow, but the more different you look the more different and isolated you will feel. Travelers dressed as tourists look awkward at best and inappropriate at worst. They are also easy targets. Research on Pinterest for examples of what the locals wear so that you can pack your suitcase accordingly. Are they more casual or formal than you are used to? Are they having fun with colors and prints or are they in muted earth tones? Do they all have scarves or head coverings? Most importantly check out the shoes, because they will tell you what the most practical yet stylish choices are. Are most of the women wearing cute ballet flats or low-heeled boots? The examples you see are probably best way to be comfortable in the lifestyle and climate and look fashionable at the same time. When I lived in New York City I would never wear white pants or super high heels; you shouldn't either. Dress like a local and you may even find other tourists asking you for directions.
3. READ LOCAL LITERATURE. You may not be able to pick up the language in a week, but pick up a translated novel that takes place in the city or region you will be exploring and start it before you leave, giving your mind a head start on adapting. In Paris read Émile Zola, J. M. Coetzee in South Africa, Haruki Murakami in Tokyo, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar in Istanbul, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia. Walking the streets of Cartagena reading Love in the Time of Cholera made me feel a part of the city rather than just an observer.
4. CATCH A LIVE PERFORMANCE or festival, outside of the tourist zones. While I'm sure the hotel's dinner buffet hula dance extravaganza is lovely (and you should learn the history of the hula in Hawaii), find out where the locals go for a good show. One of my favorite traditions is finding a jazz club no matter where we are, from Shanghai to Krakow. Sitting in a small club, surrounded by both locals and visitors with a shared love for the music always makes me feel more at home. The night we introduced ourselves to band members in Istanbul after their set and went out with them and their friends until 4am is still one of my favorite memories of all time, and it never would have happened if we'd played it safe. Skip the long-running big spectacle shows that everyone has seen, and pick instead an avante garde performance. Go downtown to see an Off-Off-Broadway play. You are much more likely to be surrounded by locals and to feel as if you are one.
5. HANG OUT IN A CENTRAL SQUARE. Sit in New York's Washington Square Park, London's Trafalgar Square, Krakow's Rynek Glowny and Prague's Old Town Square. Learn the history. See the commerce. Listen to the conversations and the protesters. You can take pictures, but also eat the street food, tip the musicians, feed the birds and read your book on a park bench. Don't rush on to the next attraction; just rest your feet, take it all in and fall in love with your surroundings.
6. And while you're there? TALK TO PEOPLE. As always be cautious and streetwise, but often locals are as genuinely curious about you as you are about them. Ask questions. If they're interested, buy them a pint and get their life story. In a tiny restaurant in a hillside German town we ended up spending hours with a chef from Ibiza, his Russian winemaker friend, an American GI (who was initially just looking for an ATM), and a dog named Snob, all of whom remain seared into my memory years later. It all started because we started a conversation.
7. JOIN A TOUR LED BY AN EXPERT DOCENT. There are plenty of big group options that teach less than a common guidebook, but with a little research you can find engaging, unique, and highly intellectual tours. An early morning bicycle tour through Montmarte before the shops are open and empty wine bottles still litter the streets of Paris gives a unique perspective of the city. An artist-led graffiti tour of Bogota teaches more about the culture, politics, and history of Colombia than any museum. A historian who has hiked the entire Great Wall of China points out things nobody else would notice. There's a global network of scholars and specialists called Context Travel that offers in-depth walking seminars for groups of 6 or less, focused on disciplines of your choosing. Our guide in London not only explained the history and major landmarks of the city, but also helped us to understand the recent election and conflicting perspectives regarding currency, immigration, and the British Monarchy. The company's website makes it easy to pick a city, pick an interest, and reserve a guide. It is well worth it.
8. FOLLOW CURRENT EVENTS. Pay attention to their big news stories. Research the struggles of the people. What are they concerned about? What have they been through? No matter how pretty and peaceful a place can seem, there is always a group of people who are unhappy. Understand them and you come closer to understanding the whole culture. If you are in a place where your country's policies are not appreciated, find out why and try to see it from their perspective. People around the world want to be heard -- offer them an ear.
9. MEET UP WITH A FRIEND. If you know someone who lives there, reach out and ask to meet up. If you don't know somebody, chances are there's a friend of a friend somewhere. Maybe a coworker once studied abroad and maintained some connections. In this global village, you can connect with someone via Twitter or Instagram in advance of your trip and meet up when you get there. You will relax with a familiar face and forget you are in a strange land for an hour or two. Locals anywhere rarely get to experience their own tourist attractions, and usually love to show off their neighborhoods when someone visits. Give them that chance and make a friend.
10. BE YOURSELF. What do you like to do at home? If you're into sports, arrange to see a game while traveling or find out where there's a pub showing a match. Watching soccer with a rowdy crowd in a European pub is an experience everyone should have at least once. Do you enjoy live music? Running or hiking? Theater? Exploring new restaurants? People do those things around the world. Find your passions and experience them in a new place, because it will make you feel at ease, it will ignite your spirit, and it will show you how alike we all really are on this planet. And that is the very purpose of travel, isn't it? That and the stories.