The Truth About Meeting Locals Abroad

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 12th, 2011

locals in bristol englandMy recent three-week visit to Sweden was my third time there, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get a sense of the country’s distinct culture. I had planned to travel the country, but got stuck in Stockholm for all but three days – not that that is bad. I love the city, and have no problem sticking around to get to know it well. Plus, it afforded me the opportunity to spend extended time with my friends and learn the culture.

My friends took me to Swedish Easter at Grandmother’s house. There, I got to hunt for an egg (Grandmother insisted) and play a Swedish game called “tipspromenand.” It was like a trivia contest combined with a scavenger hunt. I also watched a giant bonfire ceremony for Valborg day – the Swedish celebration of spring. I got a lesson in red and green working days, and got schooled in Swedish fashion (Converse, red pants, and New York Yankees hats are really popular). I learned about local food. Best of all – my friends taught me Swedish. (Despite my failed attempt at finding a tutor, I managed to learn a lot of basic phrases.) Over all, the last three weeks provided me a lot of insight into the Swedish culture. Why? Because I know locals who have welcomed me into their private lives with open arms.

Reflecting on my experience, I can’t help but think about the old travel advice about how you should meet locals and experience local culture: get off the beaten path, experience local life, do as the locals do….and I can’t help but think about how unrealistic that advice is. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to hang out with locals. You should, but the advice conveys a sort of ease at which that is possible and frankly, it’s not.

Having traveled full-time for nearly five years, I’ve made friends from around the world. I can go to countless countries and stay with friends (locals) who are happy to show me around, friends who will take me to Easter at Grandmother’s house, to an impromptu town BBQ event, a birthday party, or Christmas at their in-laws. It’s easy for me to get a taste of local life because I have many people willing to show it to me.

But for your average traveler it isn’t that easy. Travel writing is often filled with stories of chance encounters in subways and at cafes, encounters that end up with the writer jetting off to some event or celebration that opens a window into local life that other travelers rarely get to see. While these are great stories, they create a romantic picture that makes people think that all travel is like that. If their particular trip lacks that experience, they run the danger of thinking they missed out. I commonly hear people talk about how they are going to get the local experience or wax poetically about meeting locals in the next town, city, or country.

Locals want to show the best their country has to offer. They offer advice, conversation, and a few pints at the bar. But that is different than being brought into their personal space. Bonding over beers with some guys you met at the pub is different than being asked if you want to join the family for dinner on Sunday. One is in a public space, the other in a private.

In five years of travel, I can remember being invited into this world only three times. Once each while in Amsterdam, Cambodia, and Taiwan. But in all three instances, I had met the person a few times before the invitation was extended; it was never after the first encounter. People like to know the person they are inviting first. Yes, a first time invite can happen but it is usually the exception not the norm.

My point here is that meeting locals is not as easy as it is often made out to be but still not impossible to have happened. Thanks to the Internet, there are a few ways to overcome the difficulty of meeting a nice local who will invite you to Sunday dinner.

For starters, Couchsurfing is a great site for this. While often considered a place to get free accommodation, there is much more to the site. This site has meet-ups, group events, and people who might not give you their couch but will gladly meet you for coffee and show you around. In my opinion, this is the best work around for being unable to meet locals on the street. Folks on this site are already ready to invite you into their private space. I had a brief Couchsurfing meet-up in Denmark that ended up with me at a family’s weekly dinner.

Moreover, I would check out The Ghetto Gourmet. This site is a place where people have underground restaurants and group dinners. Essentially, strangers get together and eat dinner at someone’s home “restaurant.” I have not tried it yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. There are groups in most major cities.

Meetup.com is another great site for meeting people. Out of the three, this site is the most formal, and the crowd here tends to be in their early 30s, but there is a wide variety of groups on this site where you can meet people with the same interests as you but in a foreign country! Love wine? Why not go to a wine lovers meet up in France?

Lastly, check out Travel Blog Exchange. There are thousands of travel bloggers from around the world and, as a general rule, travel bloggers tend to be a very, very social bunch of people who, if time permits, are usually more than happy to show other travelers around. After all, it’s what we love!

It’s not impossible to have that chance encounter on the street. But it’s also not that common. When I left to travel the road, I had visions of interacting with locals everywhere, but that didn’t happen as much as I wanted. Luckily, the Internet lets you kick-start that process. It takes more work, but if you really love France and want to meet French people, don’t wait for it to happen.

Make it happen.

comments 60 Comments

Good point about visiting a local’s house is a more enriching experience than chatting with locals at a pub (which is also great, though). I was fortunate to have years of experiences with locals when I lived abroad and visited friends who were in the Peace Corps or had other ways of being connected with locals. I like your suggestions, especially The Ghetto Gourmet. Another idea is doing even a short language course abroad where you live with a family or staying in one place for a few weeks so that you can get to know your neighbors and make friends.

I cannot go on enough about how awesome CouchSurfing is. I’ve been a member for almost 6 years and the locals I’ve met have been wonderful.

NomadicMatt

Couchsurfing is one of my favorite websites for travel. It’s very multi-purpose.

Great post Matt! I use the same sites ;) With Couchsurfing especially you can go to meet-ups, surf someone’s couch or just email them directly to meet up for coffee!

Another one I like is simply searching Facebook for the city name and clicking “events”; I found some cool Erasmus parties this way here in Amsterdam! I also ask in the Thorntree forum if they have advice for meeting up with people specific to a city since there is usually someone knowledgeable enough there.

Apart from such resources, the best thing by far is just to be open to saying hi to people as much as you can. Learning the local language of course gives you a huge advantage over some initial small talk and shows them that you are perhaps more interesting than the average foreigner.

It’s important too to take the opportunities you have. A lot of time you’ll hear, “if you ever come to X” when traveling…those are certainly great ways to get a glimpse of the local life.

NomadicMatt

I always take up offers to come visit people I meet while traveling. It’s a great way to reconnect and learn about a place first hand.

JP

Yes, I agree that meeting locals is one of the most exciting events in travelling abroad. My travel to Spain and my close encounter with the locals had wiped out my prejudice against the Spaniards who colonized the Philippines for 3 centuries.

I completely understand what you are saying with this and agree that many just aren’t going to have that local experience of hanging out at someone’s home and sharing a meal. However, I don’t think that is what a local experience is about.

To me, a local experience is just meeting someone who lives there and having a conversation with them. Maybe it will lead to learning something about a place you didn’t know, getting a different perspective than what is in your guidebook, or just having a great memory you wouldn’t otherwise have had if you were just visiting landmarks and taking photos.

Having a local experience doesn’t even have to involve an in depth conversation with a local at all. Local sporting events are a way to connect with locals as you root on the local team together and see how people cheer, celebrate, and come together. There are so many ways to connect with a local that doesn’t have to dinner at a home.

I agree that not everyone will have that experience but I would broaden the definition of what connecting with a local is really about.

NomadicMatt

My point was not that you can’t do like the locals when you travel. It was that meeting the locals and getting invited into their private space and getting a real close look at the culture requires actually interacting with locals in a meaningful way. A sporting event can show you a lot but it can’t show you everything.

NomadicMatt

Thank you!

Nancy

Where are you at ? I would like to meet you!i was hoping you might be in the US and could come stay at my beautiful home in Aspen! On the third of Jan i want to go to a great place until may to snorkel! Namaste mat, nancy

Ana

Great points Matt. Unless you actually aim to meet locals through couchsurfing, Hospitality Club or other club, you might end up just getting as close to locals as the next seat over in a pub.

I love couchsurfing and it has changed travel. I’ve been a couchsurfer for more than 4 years and cannot see my life without it :)

NomadicMatt

I’ve been one for three! Virtual high five!

I just moved to Sweden and was lucky enough to have friends here already, but many of them have had trouble developing a network here. It is always good to see ways that others have succeeded!

NomadicMatt

I found it easy to meet locals in Sweden, at least at night. Then again they all seemed obsessed with New York so when I told them I lived there, they went nuts over that!

Good points made Matt. Meeting locals is great, but difficult without organising beforehand.

Couchsurfing is the only way it’s worked for me before.

NomadicMatt

Check out the other sites too. When I go to London, I am going to use the Ghetto Gourmet.

I’ve been lucky. I always seem to be invited to people’s homes for dinners or teas, often right off the street – esp. when I travel alone. Maybe people feel more of a responsibility (of sorts) towards women… I don’t know.

It really depends on the traveler and ultimately how much money you travel with. I feel like, the less money you have, the more it forces you to interact with others. It also depends on what country you are traveling in. When I was traveling penniless through Scandinavia,the people were as cold and reserved as the weather and weren’t to eager to converse with me.(Though I admit, going shower-less for a month probably had something to do with it.) But when I was in the middle east, I was invited home for dinner or lunch almost every week. It feels like the poorer the country, the more big hearted the people.
I guess, in the end, to meet and interact with locals regardless of the country, you have to be fearless and humble. It’s not so easy at first but if you can get used to it, it’s one of the best things about travel.

NomadicMatt

I don’t think money you have at all. I think it’s about how you go about interacting with the people as well as the culture you are in. Middle Eastern culture is far more welcoming to strangers than in Scandinavia.

This is so true! I’ve been on the road for 6 months, and I’ve been lucky only once to meet some locals that I really clicked with and were incredibly generous. Now that I’ve stopped in Buenos Aires for several weeks, I’m meeting great “locals,” but many of them are expats. I have realized that expats are locals too, and some of the websites you provided are excellent ways to find them.

Meeting locals is still something I strive for, but I now realize it doesn’t just happen to every traveler passing through a town.

NomadicMatt

It’s a hard lesson to learn. When I went abroad, I had super high expectations but quickly realized it was the romantic picture I always read about.

A good practical approach to the issue. People can be understandably circumspect about “getting to know” you if they are perfectly aware that you aren’t sticking around. To be constantly invited into people’s homes might be something that happened to Victorian explorers but it’s an unrealistic expectation these days, and since the travel industry is such a…industry, the trails are well trodden and at times work very efficiently to take travellers in, take their money and then move them on.

Plane tickets and sight seeing won’t do it for you if meeting people is what it’s about. you have to make a concerted effort these days…

Townie Status! I couldn’t agree more Matt. Sometimes I get frustrated when I see people who’ve traveled all of South America in the same time I got to know Buenos Aires. But, when I look back at the memories I’ve had with locals, it helps me justify my way of experiencing the world. Cheers to the local prospective.

Mike

I’d like to add that meeting locals can also be dangerous. In Puerto Rico I was with a local who took us to one of the sketchiest places I’ve ever been so he could buy drugs, then we got pulled over because the cops were watching, he tossed the drugs in my lap and told me to get rid of it as we got pulled over. Luckily the didnt find the drugs tucked down the side of my seat, and we continued on to other night clubs. At the end of the night he took us to a bar close to our hotel where we witnessed a drug dealer assassination of 3 people. Now, this guy was actually very cool, and we liked him, we chose to ride with him, he warned us and would have let us out whenever, and the shooting was just bad luck.

Later in the same trip we met a guy who took us to some bars, but tricked us into stopping to buy drugs saying it was to pickup his friend (whats with Puerto Ricans and Cocaine?). Things got very sour with this guy as he was only looking out for himself, we ended up ditching him as he only wanted drugs, hookers, and for us to buy him drinks. We met up with his friend and left our car behind. Later on after an argument because his friend only took us to brothels and strip joints, he backed the car into a car full of other dudes backing out at a strip club we refused to go to. We thought this the time to abandon ship and snuck away having no idea where we were. It meant we had to walk for hours until we found a police man who was willing to take us back to our car.

I’m by no means trying to argue the point of this article, I completely agree with it and have not changed the way I travel because of these experiences, just saying, watch your back!

A tip: one way to meet locals that has worked for me is to engage in conversation with your waiter/waitress, start by asking for advice, pursue the conversation, and maybe you’ll get an invite to join them in some plan.

NomadicMatt

Kids: Use this as an example as to why you shouldn’t go hang out with sketchy people after you find out they do drugs.

I think it´s one thing to meet locals and share intimate experiences, yet it is another to keep in touch over time. One of the hardest things about being consistently nomadic – at least in my case – is keeping in touch with all your ´new´ and ´old´ friends over time. Obviously, facebook and other forms of social media help bridge the gap, but I still find it challenging at times. I think a real effort has to be made to in order to prevent things from drifting apart. Matt, I´ve been abroad since 2005 – something similar to your experience – and wonder your take on this?

NomadicMatt

My take on you traveling to 2005? I think that’s pretty awesome. Keep up the good work!

Best wishes to you as well! I always tell my friends who talk about traveling but make excuses or have some kind of hesitation – where there´s a will there´s a way :) In the fall if Korea is part of your itinerary for Asia let me know and you´ll have a free couch to crash on.

NomadicMatt

I might be there in November. I’m not sure yet though. I don’t plan that far ahead! I’ll keep yo up to date.

You’re right, it’s not easy at all meeting up with locals when you travel. Sure you can interact when asking for information and have a little chat, but of course they are not inviting you to their house or to join them for dinner straight away. To be honest, I don’t do it either when I’m in my home town and a tourist asks me for direction..
I met many people through meetup.com in London because I knew there was a specific group and I joined it, we had the same interest of political activism for Italian affairs, we ended up becoming friends and they are the first people I contact every time I go back to London. However, I don’t really use to look for people online, in general I stay long enough in every destination to have the possibility to meet locals and other expats. If I travel for only a week, I don’t expect any close interaction, and if this happens, it’s a welcome surprise :)

You’re right that it’s not easy! On our many many years of travel, we’ve only been asked to a local’s home at first encounter once (http://www.idelish.com/2011/05/17/china-come-to-my-house-enjoy-nong-jia-fan/)! It was definitely a welcome surprise and probably would never have happened if we didnt speak the local language.

Some great tips here!

Meeting the locals really allows you to experience the culture in a way you normally wouldn’t be able to if you were to stay in a hostel with a bunch of other travelers.

Richard rodriguez

Nice website.. I plan on begining my journey january 2012.. Hope to end up living in the amsterdam for a while.. I’m currently paying off my small credit debt so I have no worries about monthly bs payments seeing how I will travel a while with no job. I’m fluent in english and spanish yo campico un po le italiano. Seeing how spanish is close to alot of languages. And I have a nack for picking up a language easily even though I might forget easily some words, I’m sure I can manage.

Im applying for my british passport (american born but mum is english and I was born after 83) so living in europe won’t be difficult.

My plan is to work here and there where I can to save money.

Have you used mre’s ?
How about a camel pack for water supply?
Have you dabbled in stealth camping?

You can tell I’m frugal. Lol..

lastly? Best item in your travel pack?

Jeez, I get invites all the time, spontaneously, from complete strangers. I have to say no sometimes! (and before anyone asks I haven’t had one of THOSE offers for years!!)

One of my best recent experiences was meeting Nonot in Malang, Java when I was lost, hot and flustered and accepting his help was a great decision. I know people have to use common sense, but sometimes I think there’s just too much distrust.

But you are right that it isn’t something you can expect. You have to put the effort in, and that means getting slightly off the tourist trail (might only be a couple of blocks) and being genuinely interested in the people around you. Maybe I’m just a very curious person, but I have now had so many experiences of receiving unbelievable hospitality from locals that I’m wondering what’s wrong with everyone else.

And CS is great. I mostly host, kind of my way of giving back for all those people who’ve shown me such kindness in my travels.

Sais

We, several of our friends and our relatives have separately travelled the world and have always had people to put us up in their homes and show us around, and a lot more.

1. Be a gentleman / lady. Not sufficient – but a pre-requisite. It take you from talk to volunteering active assistance.

2. Be interested. As my mum used to say, interested people are interesting people. Try new things, learn continuously. Play sport, get a relationship to music. Be comfortable in religious settings. Choose foreign friends/girlfriends/boyfriends. If you’re interested in travel, say so. Say yes more than no. Laziness is death.

3. Care for and help other people. Help on an individual and community organisation level. Not for business, not for work, unpaid. Generosity and trust breed similar responses.

4. Like people, particularly people of the opposite sex and other countries. This goes back to No. 1, 2 & 3. Later on, those of us whom have married have married someone from another country.

5. All of us are second generation travellers. All bar one couple started travelling with our families, and then naturally progressed – expectations are self fulfilling.

6. All of us have had a period of poverty in our lives.

That doesn’t apply consistently to our previous generation.

7. We are all passing the expectation onto our friends and extended families.

All of us have done it differently, but we all have these seven factors in common.

Matt

Matt,

Me again, well you see if you go to countries where tourists are commonplace then yeah, locals aren’t going to be interested in you. It’s like Australians that turn up in London expecting everyone to be “Oh Wow, your Australian…how amazing”…..but Australians are 10 a penny in London and nobody cares in the slightest.

Now back to my point about destinations…you see, If you do go to places like Iran, then “the truth is” that you will get invited back to peoples houses for dinner. I got invited almost every single day I was there.

So “destination” does really matter, because by going to places that aren’t well trodden, you will find the locals are really interested in you, they will approach you, and not just for money…and you get to have a much more rich experience of the country and of travel itself.

Rob

Great list! I have to add that if you just simply say “Hi!” to people you might be surprised what happens. Being shy is not always the best idea when traveling. I have had some of the best times happen and greatest people met just when I decided to open my mouth :) Often the locals are the ones who are a bit shy, but if you make the first move, then good things happen…

Great post. Everyone should make an effort to meet locals when travelling — it’s what travelling is all about

Good post. We’ve been camping through Europe and Turkey for nine months now, and yes, it’s difficult to have more than surface interactions with locals. Recently though we met an English teacher in Fethiye,Turkey who eventually invited my 10-yr-old daughter to his class for a day. She spent the whole day in a Turkish school, helping kids with their pronunciation and making friends. She came home glowing with happiness, and several of the teachers have since invited us to their houses for tea. The whole experience has been one of the highlights of our trip.

I appreciate this post. I’m based in Thailand, and meeting folks without many language skills is hard. I’ve made one Thai friend in over a month here, but I’m not too worried about it. I’ve been hanging out with others from around the world and hosting Couch Surfers often, so I’m making plenty of multicultural connections for future travel!

Also, I’ve seen a couple backpackers around Chiang Mai who have been bordering on harassment of locals in search of an “authentic” travel experience. THAT is doing it wrong.

Great post, thanks! Couchsurfing is the best way to get to know the locals, at least for me it has been the easiest and most enjoyable way. I even adopted my dog from the street in one of my couchsurfing trips and still have it and keep loving it.

Then again, the culture playes part in this. It´s much easier to find a random homestay in warm Colombia than in Scandinavian countries! But once you win over a Swedish, Finn or Norwegian, you can count on them forever. Be yourself, try hard (but not too hard) and the doors might open to you.

DEK

I am not a very friendly person and apparently go about with a scowl, and so if I get invited in, anyone can. But I am not a young person, I dress neatly and can be seen attending church. I cross myself convincingly. I go to small, out-of-the-way places where strangers are rare and I talk to older people. Older people apparently want to take care of me and others like to show me off. While I would just as soon be by myself, I am sincerely honored by any hospitality or kindness shown me, and show this.

Some years ago, a beautiful young Danish woman described to me the hospitality she had been shown on a small Greek island. Though I had no doubt that the reality experienced by beautiful young women might not much resemble that experienced by a middle-aged man, I went anyway, and found it was just as wonderful as she had described.

So be the person you want to be, and if you are invited in, fine; if not, it will still be fine.

Couchsurfing is by far the best experience you will ever have! I have met the best people and really got to know the locals. One of the nicest things a couchsurfer has done for me, aside from picking me up which is nice when you have your backpack, but taken me on two cruises around Milford Sound in New Zealand. His friend happened to be working on the boat so we went for free. I can’t say enough good things about it.

I do have to admit that Couchsurfing is insanely great and one of the best tickets into the local culture, but, similar to hitching, the quality of the experience definitely hinges upon a number of factors; some within your control and some completely outside of it. On the whole, our experiences have been really positive though, and too many days in a row in the hostel bubble definitely starts to where you pretty quick.

Hello Matt. Thank you for such a great post – as always.

I personally think that traveling is all about meeting new people and getting some new friends all around globe. I have bookmarked some sites from this list, thank you for sharing this with us.

Maybe Vietnam needs a third visit to finally get a sense of the culture too?

I was always weary of strangers, but when I was backpacking I had to let go of that attitude. And I’m glad I did because I met locals that even invited me for a picnic and treated me like family.

Learning the language of that country helps a lot. You can start a lot of conversations just by asking if people mind speaking in that language with you, sometimes this leads to invitations to parties or dinners. Also being English or an English speaking native helps quite a lot sometimes, lots of foreign people want to learn English and can be happy to have you round in order to practice. Finally, looking like you need some help sometimes means you end up getting some help. God knows when I was in Poland with no shoes and no money what I would have done if it weren’t for some of the locals I met who invited me into their homes and helped me sort my life out. The last tip is probably best to avoid though, then again, saying that I’d do the whole experience again :)

It all depends on where you visit. I think it is important to learn a little bit about culture and the local customs. Simple bits of language is essential. Hello, Thank You, Please etc. Smiling helps and bear in mind most people are happy to help, if you show that you have taken the trouble to learn a bit about their culture it will do down very well.

Jessica Blueberry

Hello! My house is for sale and I am putting all my stuff in storage and going out into the world. I am American by birth but have been living in the UK (and now am also British citizen) for 26 years. I have traveled around Europe (it’s close and easy) but haven’t seen much else in the world and since my new mantra is “you are going to die” the time is now or never. I recently started this adventure by going to Malawi for 6 weeks to volunteer at a wildlife centre. When I got home I just couldn’t settle and was on my way back to Malawi when I decided that I needed to travel the world first! I am a terrified traveler and have read many blogs on this issue so am gaining confidence – however, 2 things: 1. I am not temperamentally organised, competent, nor do I possess much if any common sense (I tend to be very trusting and a bit gullible) – so am a bit concerned about this! especially as I am traveling with someone who has never been out of their country, and 2. I will be traveling with a friend from Malawi (the best person anyone could ever travel with in so many ways – easy-going, patient (beyond patient, he’s from Malawi where things go wrong all the time) and laughing – he is black with serious dreads, I am white (no dreads yet!) – does anyone have any experience of traveling as an inter-racial couple – we are hoping to go to South America, SE Asia, Borneo, Nepal? NZ, and who knows where else! I have couchsurfed once in France – it was great – anyone have any C/S’ing experience as a couple/inter-racial couple? Thanks for any help!

Malcolm

Great info and love your web site on travelling, can you or anyone suggest best sites for us couch surfing or whatever for two very active people aged 66 years. Are we welcome at most places or they mainly for the younger generation. we can certainly party too if asked .
great to hear all your wonderful travel experiences. Mal and jan

This article is very insightful! I am currently abroad in Barcelona and I think meeting locals and immersing in the culture really enhances your travel experience. But you do make a good point it isn’t as easy as it sounds. One website I came across was this: http://www.trip4real.com/

They connect locals with travelers through unique activities.. this was such a great experience for me.

I suggest checking out this website.. it really is unique and cool!

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my life high-point of being in someone’s private space within unfamiliar territory was when I was volunteer-working for the IOC in the 2004 Athens summer games, & a chance encounter with a lady working for the post office -I think- turned into being invited to a wedding of her family.
right now, I’m staying for 3 months with my wife’s family in their home at manila, Filipinas & have integrated into their families, though that’s to be expected & not to be compared to what this article’s talking about.
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