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What To Do When Your Travel Destination Feels Too Much Like Home
Seek Out Cultural Differences
Just because the culture looks similar to yours upon first glance doesn't mean it is. Befriend knowledgeable, friendly locals like taxi drivers, hostel owners and tour guides and ask them what some aspects of the culture are that aren't immediately obvious. Ask questions about rituals, customs, holidays, cuisine, how people interact, schools of thought, government policies and anything else that may affect the daily life of locals. You may even want to do some online research. Once you discovered some interesting tidbits of cultural knowledge, find out how you can experience it firsthand, whether through an excursion, class or site.
If you're having trouble finding cultural differences, choose a topic you find interesting and set out on a mission to learn everything you can about it. Art, food, fashion, history and architecture are some good areas that can lead you to making cultural discoveries. Set out to learn and experience as much as you can regarding this topic, digging into its past, present and future. If nothing else, you'll at least gain a new area of expertise.
Get Lost For The Day
One of the best ways to make cultural discoveries is to simply stroll the streets of the city and get lost. Although you'll be wandering aimlessly, keep your eyes open for possible points of interest. Doing this, I've discovered artisan shops, unknown classes and tours, authentic eateries, unique architecture and have just been able to get a feel of the town's vibe in general.
Head To Non-Touristy Areas
Usually, when you're walking down a street with signs in English, overpriced restaurants, Burger Kings and myriad travel agencies, you're in the touristy part of the city. While these areas often offer worthwhile shops and activities, it isn't the best location when you want to feel culture shock. I recommend spending the bulk of your time in the more non-tourist spots, as you're more likely to see deeper aspects of the local culture. Ask your hotel for a map, and have them circle non-touristy areas that are also safe to explore.
Stay Away From International Chains
Sure, McDonald's is great if you want to grab a quick burger and fries on the go, but don't expect to get any real value from your stop there. First of all, while people think these international fast food chains help them save money, the truth is eating at local restaurants and cafeterias is often much cheaper, healthier and tastier. Additionally, you'll gain cultural insight by dining at local eateries and seeing what everyday people eat and how they dine.
Take A Local Class
When traveling to a new place, I love taking a class that is related to the local culture. I've taken Tai Chi in China, learned to tango in Argentina and cooked traditional mole in Mexico. Even if the class ends up not being something I would stick with, I always leave feeling like I learned something about the city I'm visiting.
Do Something You've Never Heard Of
In a new city, it's always worthwhile to do something you've never done before; however, it's even more advantageous to sign up for an activity you've never heard of or can't do anywhere else. For example, when I was in New Zealand I saw a local agency advertising zorbing. At the time, I had no idea what it was, which of course meant I had to sign up immediately. The activity entailed jumping Superman-style into an enormous beach ball that had a pool of soapy water inside, and being rolled down a giant hill. It was one of the most fun experiences I've ever had in my life, and really showed me how much locals value innovative adventure. It's no surprise New Zealand is one of the top adventure destinations in the world. Other one-of-a-kind experiences I couldn't pass up while traveling include relaxing in the world's highest beer spa in Bolivia, learning to play mahjong from a local family in China and doing shots at the world's highest distillery in Colorado.
Skip The Hotel And Opt For A Homestay
For the most part, staying in a hotel is a surefire way to be blinded from the local culture. Sure, you'll feel pampered and have access to a great restaurant and spa, but a hotel's main focus is usually ensuring the guest has a comfortable and pleasant stay, not that they feel culture shocked. While there are some great experiential hotels out there, nothing beats a homestay when it comes to getting to experience the culture of a place. You'll get to live with a family and learn about cooking, how the home is run, dynamics between family members and general daily life firsthand.
Revel In Your Comfort
If you are really having a difficult time finding cultural differences and still feel like you haven't left home after trying the above mentioned tips, just go with it. Be happy you're in a place you feel comfortable, and just have fun exploring and discovering new things.
[Images via Shutterstock]