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10 things to do in every city you visit
Sample the local cuisine
One way to really get to know a culture is through the food. It's seriously incredible how much cuisine can differentiate from culture to culture, and how much the way food is prepared and eaten, as well as what the food is, can tell you about a community. When visiting Ghana, Africa, I was amazed at how most of the staple foods seemed to come from root vegetables and were eaten without swallowing and without using utensils. While I wouldn't say fu-fu and banku are my favorite foods, I definitely am glad I tried them and got to see the intense preparation that went into making these dishes. Even if you travel to a western country or a place that isn't too different from your own, try a local favorite or something that the area is known for (it will almost definitely taste better than what you're used to anyway). If you're in Maine make sure to have a lobster. Visiting Naples, Italy? Eat a slice of pizza from its birthplace. Traveling to Australia? Vegemite, Tim Tams, and barbequed meats are definite musts.
While all regions have local dishes, there is usually a signature drink as well, whether it be a cocktail or locally produced wine or beer. Many times the local libation will not only give you a good buzz, but will also give you insight into the culture and region. Drink a Guinness in Ireland and you'll also be tasting a bit of the local Wicklow Mountains. Sip on a Caipirnha in Brazil and you'll not only be ingesting the locally produced cachaça; you'll also be learning that the now sophisticated drink was originally a country bumpkin favorite, which is what the name literally translates to.
Visit a museum
What better way to get background information and get to know the roots of a place than through its artifacts, history, art, architecture, and old photographs. Maybe you'll find something of particular interest to you and you'll want to go out into the city and explore it further. Museums are great starting points for igniting a traveler's curiosity about a culture and place, whether it be to go visit a historical site, visit a local art gallery, or read a book on an ancient civilization.
See a local craftsman at work
I try to do this as much as possible when traveling, as you'll often meet people who are happy to share personal stories on their work and how it relates to their culture. In Ghana, I loved going to the shops of local painters and watching them work, asking them a million questions about what the symbols on their pieces meant and where they got their inspiration from. From this, I learned a lot about drum culture in Ghana as well as the importance of God and even some old legends. Moreover, in Morocco, I got to sit and watch a local tile maker create authentic Moorish tiles, something I didn't know was even relevant to the culture. He even gave me a tile as a souvenir, and when the Moroccan Courtyard exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my home state of New York, it felt really good to have a firsthand account of the craft and the culture.
Ride the local public transport system
Not only will opting for public transportation over taxis and car rentals save you money, it will also help you become a better navigator of the city. Moreover, you'll get to experience how a normal person in the city lives and potentially even get to interact with a local. In Ghana, Africa, their form of public transportation was the tro-tro (shown right), which was basically a packed-out van, usually with the seats barely attached to the floor. Working up the nerve to actually figure out how to take the tro-tro was scary, but once I did it I definitely felt more culturally immersed. Plus, a lot of interesting impromptu events happen on the tro-tro, like sermons, choir singing, and unique product demonstrations.
Learn some basic phrases in the local language
I don't think there's any greater accomplishment when traveling then actually being able to have a conversation with a local in their language. It can be as simple as exchanging greetings, asking someone for their name, and telling them it was nice to meet them. People will appreciate that you've taken the time to try to get to know their language, and if you can barter in the local tongue, you're also less likely to get ripped off in the markets and when taking a taxi.
Have an experience in nature
While it's important to get to know the people and culture of a city, it's also worthwhile to get to deeper understanding of the place itself. Explore the landscape; the wildlife, mountains, rivers, beaches, valleys, forests, rock, and plants. Go hiking, rafting, swimming, or climbing and just really get to know a place in its raw form. It's also great if you can go with a local guide, as you'll be able to learn more about legends and meanings of certain places, medicinal plants, and how to safely interact with wildlife. Not only is it a budget-friendly way to enjoy a region; it's also healthy to spend time outdoors and you'll get some great photo opportunities.
Befriend a local
I don't mean ask a local for directions or where a great restaurant is, but instead ask them to go to a restaurant with you. It may seem odd at first, but hanging out with a local is a great way to find out the "personal" side of a cultural and can also give you access to experiences you may not have otherwise had. From befriending locals in Thailand I got the chance to eat meals at peoples' homes, attend community events in remote villages, and learn to cook in local kitchens. I also got onto a few free-entry, free-drink guestlists at clubs that I never would have had access to by myself.
Browse a local market
Skip the high-end chain shops and the restaurants with signs that read "English menu available" and instead opt for the outdoor markets. These colorful, aesthetically-pleasing places are usually bursting with energy, delicious food, and quality merchandise. In terms of cuisine, markets offer fresh healthy, foods that are usually cheaper and more flavorful than anything you'll get at a supermarket. And the handicrafts, housewares, and clothing that are offered are usually authentic and locally-made.
Watch a cultural tradition or ceremony
The traditions and ceremonies a culture partakes in tell a lot about their values and beliefs, and because they vary so much from region to region, make for a really memorable experience. I remember in Laos taking part in the Alms Giving tradition where the locals wake up at dawn to feed the monks as they line up in a procession down the street with their food baskets. It really sparked my interest to learn more about Buddhism and monk culture in South East Asia, and my inquisition led me to go with a local to attend a prayer service at one of the temples. The tradition and what I learned really left an impression on me even after I returned home.