When Can You Say You Know a Place?

Beautiful Stockholm SwedenPeople always like to debate the supposed difference between travelers and tourists. Tourists are in and out of cities quickly, taking a few pictures, and following their guidebook to overpriced restaurants. Travelers, on the other hand, tend to move slower. We see many of the same sights as tourists but get off the beaten path, linger in cities longer, and make more of an effort to learn about the place. Or so we like to try. And then we leave saying “we’ve seen a place,” happy in our efforts not to be a tourist.

But have we really seen anything? At what point can you leave a place and say “I saw and know something about life in city X.” I don’t think we ever really can. No matter how long we linger, little markets we explore, or non-touristy things we do, as travelers, we’ll never fully know a place- only someone who has lived there can claim that.

I’m currently in Stockholm, where the weather is much colder than I like. Stockholm itself is small and beautiful. It’s been years since I’ve seen fall colors and the beautiful changing of the leaves makes for a nice compliment to Stockholm’s beautiful buildings. The little islands connected by bridges and ringed by little boats reminds me of Venice…if someone put Venice in the middle of Maine. If they found a way to get rid of winter, I’d live here.

Beautiful Stockholm SwedenBut because of the weather and cost here, I haven’t done many touristy things. I’ve just walked around. I saw two bad museums. I walked around some more. I people watched. I found a cool little supermarket. But I haven’t seen the Royal Palace yet or the Noble Museum. I haven’t taken a boat tour. I haven’t been to the Vasa museum yet. In short, there is still much left to see.

But does that mean I still haven’t seen or experienced Stockholm? Or did I really see Stockholm when I went out food shopping with my friends, sat and relaxed with a few movies, went to a few bars and clubs, got taught naughty Swedish words, was explained Stockholm’s vibe, and taken to a few local restaurants?

Long term travelers look for a deeper understanding of the places they visit. They have come to get to know a place through more than just a few pictures. Yet we often do the same things the three day tourists that often are the butt of many travel jokes do. We walk, we shop, we visit museums. And while we may visit a few off the beaten path places, at best we walk away only being able to say that this place is nice, or ugly, this or that. I’ve been to Melbourne. I can give advice on what to see and do and what I liked but short visits only give you a superficial feel for a place.

Beautiful Stockholm SwedenBut despite my short stay here and lack of any “real” sightseeing, I feel like I know Stockholm a bit more than I normally would have otherwise. Because the heart of any place isn’t found in walking or sightseeing, it’s found in the locals. To have any understanding of a place requires you, as cliché as this sounds, to live like a local. And for my brief time here, I lived like the locals did. I shadowed a few groups of friends and did what they did. I got to experience places where I was the only foreigner. I got to see daily life (and some good nightlife!). And I’m not sure, just armed with a guidebook, I could have done any of that.

It’s not until we begin to live like a local that we can truly get an appreciation for the rhythm of life there. That is why Couchsurfing is such a great thing. You can stay with locals, see where they go, go out with them, and put yourself into the local rhythm. After all, don’t we all just want to “hang out with locals”? One of the biggest ironies of travel is that we go to explore cities and meet locals but we usually just end up staying around other backpackers or travelers we’ve met.

So despite my lack of “sightseeing”, I’m happy with my time in Stockholm. I still would never say I know Stockholm but, through my friends, I got to see how the locals live and, at the end of the day, that is what traveling is all about.

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  1. I do agree with you regarding getting to know a city. I lived for 4 years in Liverpool, 3 of them was a student at the university. Although lived in Liverpool I didn’t feel immersed in the city, instead spending my times with the students, rather than the people.

    In the last year when I worked in the city itself, I met a lot more people, and became more linked with scouse life. Ironically I also saw a lot of the things that Liverpool is famous for (Beatles/Cavern Club, Albert Docks, etc.) in that one year.

    Incidentally, was it the mask museum you went to see in Stockholm? It was the worst museum I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to the marble museum!

  2. “A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive… Whereas a traveler might not come back at all.” — John Malkovich and Debra Winger in The Sheltering Sky

    I can relate to your comment about the weather hampering a lot of thing you might otherwise do. I just had the same experience in Reykjavík last week and in Vienna a few years back. Traveling in the winter is nicer in a lot of ways but it can also be problematic.

    I haven’t stayed anywhere long term, so I’m a far cry from claiming to “really know” any cities outside the US cities I’ve lived in, but I do embrace slow travel and make a pointed effort to live as normally as possible during my short-ish stays, renting apartments instead of hotels, shopping locally for food and such, and spending time in my host neighborhood rather than rushing from one point of the city to another, over and over. You do what you can.

    Have a great time in Stockholm. I’m thinking that may be one of my next stops.

  3. jane

    I do agree with you although sometimes I feel I have a better time with the backpackers than I do the locals. Simple reason is you all have something in common…you’re running away from something. 9 times out of 10 that’s responisbility.

  4. For me, it’s when the grocer knows your name. When the barista sees you in the morning and starts preparing coffee the way you take it. It’ when the bartender starts charging me “locals prices” rather than tourist prices. Perhaps I never get to know a place, but the place gets to know me (just a little).

  5. Very glad to see another reflecting post of yours Matt! I totally agree with you, so much so that all of my travelling is about renting a place for around 3 months to really try to get to know it, at least more than superficially. Although I’m never under any illusion that I truly know anywhere. I’m not much for museums myself for example. Natives can live in a city their whole lives and still not know it; I studied in Dublin for 4 years, and yet most 3-day tourists “know” more about the city than I do!! 😛 As you say, the day-to-day life of locals is the real heart of a place!
    I’m so pleased to see you get into Couchsurfing in the way it was meant for! :) It really is the easiest way to hang out with locals if you don’t know any already.

  6. I really like talking with people. It’s neat to learn about how they think, as much as anyone can learn how another thinks. But despite our year study of Chinese (I can now hold conversations with a taxi driver about his family and our vacation!), I’m only really able to talk deeply with those who speak English, who are generally the top of society in terms of money and privilege. What do the majority of people think?
    On the other hand, you can really connect with people without a lot of language, like we did with a dad I met on the train – no English, but we had a great time exploring the desert with him and his son!

  7. I think most people don’t even “know” their home cities. People spend so much of their free time behind a television set that they don’t even see what is happening around them.

    Every time my wife and I return to my home town, Calgary, we make a huge effort to do many things. We go to several restaurants, see a few concerts, go to many cafes, and usually try to make it to the mountains.

    Many friends and family comment that they can’t remember the last time they did some of those things. They are often amazed at how much we can squeeze in to a short visit.

    The same is true for me in Japan. It is easy to miss out on the beauty nearby just because it is so accessible that there is no rush.

    I would say that most people are tourists in their own cities. Life is short. It is important to wake up to the world right before our eyes.

    • NomadicMatt

      Most people don’t even see their own city! Most of my friends here in Stockholm have yet to see any of the “touristy” things I have. But in America, when we are little kids, we get taken to all the historic sites. I remember being taken around to learn about America and walk the Boston freedom trail…a very touristy thing to do but nonethless, giving me a good sense of my city’s history.

  8. Is there a magic point when you move from not knowing a place to knowing a place? It is an intriguing question. Like quite a few readers here, while I want to visit the major points of interest, I also try to visit places in a new destination where I am one of very few non-locals but that doesn’t necessarily make me “know” a place, just a chance to see a different side to it. I like Benny’s comment that maybe you have some knowledge of a place when a local shop starts to recognise you and acknowledge you as a “regular” as at that point, the local population treat you differently to an itinerant?

  9. Good question…I totally agree with getting to know the locals. They’re most likely to show you what matters. But I think you can live somewhere for years and never fully say you “know” it…I’ve been living in St. John’s for years, and this place still surprises me.

  10. You can say you know a place when you have your go-tos: your go-to restaurant, your go-to park, your go-to coffee shop, your go-to shopping district. If you don’t have go-tos – places you don’t have to look up in a gudebook or get shown to by friends – then you’ve only just passed through.

  11. Hey Matt, great post!
    When I stay for awhile – usually a month – at some point I get a feeling that “the city is mine”. I even exclaim to myself, “Ah, Paris now feels like it is mine.” This happens, I find, when I have seen a few main sights, when the grocer and barrista at the coffee place remember me (much as others have described), when I know my local neighborhood, and I feel I have a really good handle on the transit system. I get that feeling when the place I am staying starts to feel like home and I can find myself around to whatever I want. But there’s also a special moment I’ve referred to myself as when the city is “knitted together” for me. I have felt this in Barcelona and Paris, where I each stayed a month, and am getting close to that feeling in Berlin (where I’ve been 2 weeks so far), but I didn’t get that feeling from Rome, even though I was there almost a month… why? Well, in that case, I was staying well outside of the city centre and as the metro is marginal there, I never really “knit the city together for myself”… I made many trips into the heart of Rome, wandered for hours, and went back home… But these trips were like pieces of a puzzle that never got fit together. I didn’t get that sense of direction where I knew where I was in relationship to other spots and it took studying to figure out how to get from A to B, even if I had been to both A and B and C and D previously. As a result, I didn’t fall in love with Rome, even though I really, really liked it. I suspect my experience would have been different if I’d been living closer to the city centre and/or if I had better public transport in and out. I also suspect that if I go back, and can have a couple more weeks to put those pieces together (and stay in a more central spot), I will get that feeling that I’ve gotten elsewhere.

  12. This is a great post. I actually just moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina from Upstate New York for 1 year to try and see how long it takes to actually become a part of a foreign community.

    I created a blog to talk about all my trials and tribulations.

    Keep the great posts coming, I check out your site on a daily basis!

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