10 things to do in every city you visit

While every city has its own unique landmarks, culture, and sights to see, there are certain general things you can do in any city you visit to make your experience more memorable. To enhance your next trip, take this checklist with you and try to do each of these things 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.Sip the country’s signature drink

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.

6 tips for dealing with culture shock

When traveling, especially internationally or to more remote destinations, culture shock is bound to happen. Sometimes it is just the smallest feeling of discomfort, and at other times can lead to complete panic and an intense longing to get on the next plane home. While it is completely normal to experience these feelings of culture shock, it is also important to not let it ruin your trip. Keep these tips in mind next time you are traveling to help turn your anxiety into excitement.

Research the destination before you leave home

If you dive into the trip completely unprepared and not knowing what to expect, you are literally setting yourself up to be shocked by the culture. Search the internet, read a guidebook, or talk to travelers who have visited the destination before. Find out about customs and etiquette, ask about what kinds of clothing locals wear, learn about greetings, read about transportation and how people get around, and, most importantly, safety. Basically, just gather enough information so that you can be prepared for your experience abroad and have a better chance of blending in.Take baby steps

If possible, I have always found it helpful to begin international trips in the more touristy areas and then work my way to the more rural regions. You could also try staying in a comfortable hotel, at least in the beginning, just so that you have an escape while you are getting adjusted to your new surroundings. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually begin to get away from these comforts and immerse yourself in the culture more fully.

Learn some key phrases

Many times, becoming fluent in another language just to go on a trip that lasts a few months or less just doesn’t make sense (although, if you have the time this never hurts). It can be helpful to learn a few key phrases, however, to at least feel comfortable making small talk and knowing what people are saying to you. When in Ghana, Africa, for example, the locals would constantly shout “oburoni! at me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were angry at me or making fun of me. However, I learned early on that this word, which literally means “foreigner”, is their way of trying to make conversation with you.

Keep a journal

While it may sound a little corny, it can be helpful to write about your experience for a few reasons. One, its generally therapeutic to share your thoughts and feelings, and writing it down in your own personal book can allow you to be completely open. Moreover, I’ve personally always found keeping a journal helpful in shifting my mindset from being nervous about my new surroundings to being excited. Getting everything down on paper and seeing just how many unique experiences you have in one day alone can help make it clear the opportunity you have to immerse yourself and learn about a new culture and place.

Try new things, even if you’re afraid

While it may seem scary, actually participating in cultural experiences abroad can show you firsthand just how not-scary it is. Try a new food, even if it is something you would never eat at home, learn how to play a local instrument, or attend a cultural festival. Even simple tasks such as hailing a taxi or asking for directions can seem daunting, but you should try anyway. For example, while in Ghana I did most of the talking to locals in terms of asking where to eat or where to go, mostly because my travel companion was terrified to interact with the locals. She really wanted to have a dress handmade in the village, and when she asked me to help buy the fabric for her, I refused, hoping to get her to talk to the seamstress herself. After a bit of begging and pleading on her part, she finally forced herself to choose a fabric and ask the woman for the price. Afterwards, she felt a lot more confident about interacting with locals and experiencing the culture.

If possible, make contacts before you go

With all of the company information, social media platforms, and networking websites out there, it makes it easy to connect with people and companies from all over the world. This could be as simple as signing on to volunteer with an NGO in your destination, or contacting hospitality companies in the area. Ask around travel forums or post on CouchSurfing to see if anyone will be in the same area as you at the same time or has ever been to that destination and can provide information and other contacts. Even if you can’t find someone to meet up with in the country, it is nice to speak with people who have been there and learn about their experiences.