Preparing to travel can be exhausting. There’s a long list of things to plan from lodging to transportation and of course what to do when you get there. While tour groups can alleviate some of this burden, many people still prefer to take the ball themselves and travel like a local. Whatever your destination, getting to experience life as the natives do can bring your travel to the next level. Here are some tips on how to travel like a local with examples from my adoptive home and popular European vacation destination, Copenhagen, Denmark.
1. Go for a walk and really travel like a local
Copenhagen, like all major cities, has an array of pedestrian-friendly if not fully dedicated streets that are scenic, bustling and fun to wander. The Strøget is a stretch of car-free shopping in downtown Copenhagen that spans 1.1 km through the center of town. Popular with tourists, there’s a wide variety of boutiques, eateries, fountains, street musicians and coffee shops that make for a perfect outdoor jaunt or a nice place to find a seat and do some people-watching.
2. Do a day trip like a local
There are always sights to be seen outside of the city you visit, all it takes is a little research to get off the beaten trail and leave town for a day trip. For our friends and family that visit Copenhagen, Danish castles are always high on the travel bucket list.
There’s a great combo ticket you can purchase to see the two most famous – Amelienborgand Rosenborg – but there’s another castle hidden in the town of Helsingør, a quick 40 minute train ride north of the city. Kronborg Castle has a famous history that most people have heard – it is the setting for Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. During the summer months you can see highlights of the masterpiece performed live in the castle. You can’t get much more authentic than that and it’s a perfect day trip from Copenhagen.
3. Skip the hotel – travel like a local
Whenever we travel, Mike and I stay at an Airbnb. There’s so many reasons why we prefer them, but the biggest advantage is feeling like a local because you are living amongst them. Hotels in most major cities are in commercial areas or business districts. This doesn’t typically provide access to hip nightlife spots, tourist attractions or cultural events. Most Airbnb hosts also provide a guidebook of their favorite attractions, restaurants and other recommendations. Getting authentic advice from a local is priceless, and something you cannot gain from staying in a Hilton.
4. Cook a meal the local way
One additional benefit of Airbnb is being able to use a kitchen. Find a local market and buy some produce, meats or breads to whip up a meal using locally sourced ingredients. In Europe, farmers markets are everywhere and finding one won’t require much more than an online search.
In Copenhagen, visit the Torvehallerne for raw foods, prepared meals and gifts. Similar to Quincy Market in Boston or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Torvehallerne gives you an array of options to eat there or plenty of fresh foods to take back to your Airbnb and make a meal like a local.
5. Take me to church
Some of the most impressive structures around the world are houses of worship, so why just walk through them when you can attend a service yourself? In Copenhagen there are many to choose from, but I recommend visiting Trinitatis Church, or the church in the Round Tower.
The name of the church is derived from the word trinity, but it isn’t a religious reference to the holy trinity. The Round Tower structure linked together 3 institutions, the library of The University of Copenhagen, the Rundetårn astronomical observatory tower and of course the church. Attending service at this beautiful church will get you closer with locals, but not too many of them – Danes are a rather secular people.
6. Find a local pub
How to travel like a local? Drink like a local. Local bars will show you a completely different night than grabbing drinks in the tourist areas. Ask a resident where to go – talk to your server at lunch, your tour guide at attractions or people on the subway.
Every country has a game they like playing at the bar; whether it’s backgammon or billiards you can find a way to pass time while sipping your beer. In Denmark, you’ll find bar patrons tossing dice at the table with leather cups. They’re playing the easy to learn and popular Danish game snydt (“snoot”) and probably won’t mind having you join in. Final tip, in Copenhagen those local bars usually have the word “kro” “kroen” or “bodega” in their title.
7. …Or don’t go to a pub
Every city has a place where you can just go and sit, so bring your own beverages. Because of their relaxed open container laws and investment in public spaces, Europe is full of amazing parks and other spots to enjoy a drink. Whether you sit along the banks of the Seine River in Paris and crack open a beer or pour some wine in Budapest’s Erzsébet Square, enjoy a beverage with locals via an improvised picnic.
In Copenhagen, two of my favorite spots for a self-served beverage are Nyhavn harbor and King’s Garden. Nyhavn is the iconic image of the brightly painted harbor houses that everyone who visits Copenhagen takes a selfie with. Besides the view, there is plenty of space to sit along the edge of the water and enjoy a drink for far less than the price of a cocktail in one of the tourist-priced bars and restaurants that line the harbor.
The King’s Garden, outside of Rosenborg Palace, is the most visited park in Copenhagen and full of locals on any sunny day of the year. It was once the private garden of King Christian IV, but now it’s the perfect spot to throw down a blanket and pour a drink.
8. Get High
I’ve talked about the ways to walk around the city, but if you change your perspective you can get even better views. Many cities have places to climb and catch gorgeous views from above – Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Montmarte Hill in Paris.
In Copenhagen one great view for a thrill seeker is climbing the spire of The Church of Our Savior. The view of this structure is stunning from the ground, but once inside you can climb all the way to the top of the spire using the exterior walkway. Unless it’s windy you can make the climb daily until 4:00 PM. If you’re less of a thrill seeker, you can climb the Round Tower as mentioned above. Getting a birds-eye view will have you learning how to travel like a local.
9. Go Down on the Whole City
Another change of view is from the canals and harbor system running along the center of Copenhagen’s downtown area. There are several canal tours, or you can chart your own course by renting a GoBoat. A two hour rental of these electric boats can take you through the sights and scenes of Copenhagen from a unique angle while only setting you back about $100. With a picnic table at the center of the boat, you can fit 8 riders total and bring quite a spread of food and drinks to see the city.
You can also rent a kayak at Kayak Bar or just check them out for a drink on their floating beach, for a bite to eat or the use their sauna depending on the season.
However you travel, there’s always things to discover beneath the surface. Walking side streets instead of the main thoroughfares can show you parts of a city you would have missed otherwise. Explore local cuisines and chat with as many people as you can. Getting off the beaten path, you’ll find hidden travel gems that will make your experiences even more memorable. Then you’ll realize that you’ve figured out how to travel like a local.