I have recently written the Local Guide to Copenhagen and the Local Guide to Gothenburg. Both are cities I have lived in for years, thus you get to know the city like a local by default. But not too long ago, I met my girlfriend, Amy, who taught me how to travel in a way that allows me to become a local, instantly. Here is the checklist for your next holiday, and how to make it more than your average tourist-trap-trip.
Before going: Do thorough research before you go
I used to think that to explore the city like a local, I had to act like a local. To me, that meant just wandering aimlessly around, until I ideally stumbled upon this small back-alley cafe that only locals knew about. And while that has happened every now and then, the vast majorities of the cafes, bars, and restaurants I have just stumbled into have been mediocre at best, because of most places just are. But locals know where to go, they already have their favorite places. So you need to find yours before you even go there.
Make a list, check it twice
First of all, you need to know what you like. My girlfriend and I have a hobby of finding speakeasy bars in every city, which have given us a lot of great stories. I have a craving for bookshops and can spend hours and hours looking through old paperbacks, which have led to us buying a book from every place we have been to remind us of the place. When you start researching, you should make two different searches — specifics and generics.
Specifics. The specifics are the stuff you know you want to do. We usually to best burger, pizza, tacos, curry, quirky shops, English bookshops, brunch, cocktails, bars, hike, beach. But you can also do museums, nature.
Generics. This is where the local gems are, the places only the local knows about. Go for most unique experiences, how to spend 48 hours in X city. The best thing to do in the sun, the best thing to do on a rainy day. Best value for money. Here you will often find itineraries from other travelers or travel bloggers.
Don’t be afraid of the small blogs
There are a lot of great travel bloggers out there who will give you a lot of insight into the city beforehand. Unfortunately, I often lose patience with these sites, but Amy is fucking excellent at finding gems here. Forums on Reddit can be too.
Sites that will often come up with good alternative suggestions are Culture Trip, Thrillist, and Timeout, but I recommend you check out Atlas Obscura and Lonely Planet too. Also, check out Matador Network and lastly, check out Cool Cousin. Just stay clear of Tripadvisor.
Use Google Maps, a lot ?
Amy showed me a fantastic trick the first time we traveled. As we were walking around Berlin, her map was scattered with pins of places she wanted to go and things she wanted to see. This meant that where ever we ended up in the city, there was a thing nearby we could go to.
In Google Maps, you can pin stuff to your board. Based on Amy’s approach, I came up with a system to help sort through the pins.
The star I used for our hotel or Airbnb while we are there. It helps me find out where we are without looking through a hundred pins. The flag I use for places I want to go to, and the heart I use for places I have been to. Now, when I look back at my Berlin map, I can almost use the pins as a diary, and they are a great reminder of stories. Also, if people ask me what to see in Berlin, I have all my recommendations there.
Find the best places to live
First thing you want to know is where you want to live. All the pins you just made might give you an idea of where the cool area is, but it might be expensive as well. Here, Nomadlist is very helpful. Find the city on the site and look up the neighborhood guide. This is a crowdsourced map filter, that allows you to see who lives where. Normally Suits ? are equal to a lot of office buildings and tacky restaurants. Rich ? is mostly expensive living areas. You will also usually find nice green areas around there. Hipsters ? can be two things; where all the upcoming cool shit is, or slums, but you will also find cheap Airbnb here. To find out if you are in an upcoming area or the slums, match it with your pins on your Google maps. If there are a lot of pins around, it is probably a cool area. Students ? is most likely next to a university, or in a cheap area of town. Normies ? are usually just boring living areas around the city. Tourist ? is, you guessed it, the tourist attraction, often the center of town with expensive stores. Use the tags to understand how the colors differ — when you zoom in on the map you will get more tags.
After you have familiarized yourself a bit with the city neighborhood, you can start searching for Airbnb or hotels around the areas you fancy. I try to go find a Hipster area with a lot of pins around. For hotels, I usually use Booking.com as they often have a lot of deals.
Always check reviews
One thing I am not as good at as Amy is to read reviews. I usually go by the rating and if it is above 4-star rating with more than 100 reviews, I am usually satisfied. But Amy has stricter qualifications for what is good, and can quickly sort the weets out, which have saved us for a lot of money from mediocre experiences.
See how it looks, before you go
Another great trick I learned was to check out the place on Instagram before you go. Not only the place’s profile but also tags and hashtags made by people. This is a great way to tell if this is actually something you will enjoy.
Look for deals
Lastly, a great way to find cheap unique experiences is to look at local deal sites for the city you are going to. A lot of the companies there will be small local businesses who are looking to create a clientele, and the deals and food is often really good value for your money.
When there: plan tomorrow
If you have done the above, you will have a lot of pins on your Google Map. Now it is time to stop planning. You don’t want to plan every minute of every day. When you get there, plan for tomorrow. Pick 2–3 things you want to do tomorrow. If you plan a day trip, try and look up what to do when you get there. If you plan to stroll around the city, have some morning afternoon and evening plans. Don’t pack your day, leave time for flexibility — there is probably a lot of pins in your map, so if find yourself without something to do, just look up what is in the area.