How to avoid tourist traps (and find authentic places)

People often don’t understand me when I say that I don’t go to famous tourist places when I travel. They get confused when I tell them that I haven’t been to many famous spots even though I travel a lot.

If I want to go to a new country, it’s because I’m interested in its culture. Tourist places are the least interesting to go to because all you will see is people from other countries and those who make money out of them; there’s no real culture there.

But touristy places are not easy to avoid if you are not familiar with the country. All the guidebooks and travel information you find lure you to the most unauthentic places. But it’s possible to avoid those places and experience something real.

Be wary of TripAdvisor

Sure, you can check some hotel reviews on TripAdvisor but I would have to say that it’s not the best source of information if you are looking for authentic places.

I find it particularly unhelpful when visiting a heavily tourist-infested area like the Caribbean. I made some silly mistakes in the Dominican Republic and Barbados. Basically, I went to places that had good reviews on TripAdvisor, only to find myself in the least authentic places with other clueless tourists. I was actually interested in those countries, so touristy places were the last thing I wanted.

It actually makes sense if you think a little bit about it; those who write reviews are exactly the kind of people who are not familiar with the local culture. So it’s only logical that their reviews are very unhelpful.

Having said this, you come across good information once in a while. The key is to look for places where the reviewer was “the only tourist in the bar” and there were “only local people having fun”.

In less developed countries, you will find very little information (if any) about those local places. But don’t be discouraged. If you do thorough research, your effort will certainly pay off.

Only visit the famous places you are actually interested in

Let’s say you are going to Paris. Where would you like to visit? Paris is filled with famous places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, Notre Dame de Paris, the Arc de Triomphe to name (very) few. But do you really want to visit every single one of them?

Think what you like to do on normal weekends. If you like to go to a club, look for local clubs. If you like bookshops , go to local bookstores. (You will always find something interesting even if you don’t quite understand the language.) If you like to spend your time outside, go to parks or city squares.

Just because you are travelling it doesn’t mean that you have to go to museums. (If you actually like them, by all means go, but also consider checking out local galleries too.)

Stay in a less famous place

A big city usually has areas with a high concentration of hotels. Some of these areas are very famous and all the tourists go there. But there are often other areas that are much less famous but also have many hotels. If you choose the latter, you will see far fewer foreign tourists.

For example, in Rio de Janeiro, Copacabana would be one of the most famous places. If you stay there, you will see a lot of tourists in the beach area.

But how about Lapa? Lapa is a very good area with lots of bars where they play live Samba music. It also has many places to stay. It is still famous but if you haven’t been to Rio de Janeiro, the chances are you’ve never heard of it. For this reason, you will see far fewer tourists than in Copacabana.

Choose less touristy cities

This may sound ridiculously obvious but it’s very effective.

This technique is especially important if you go to the top tourist destinations like the Caribbean. If you choose the wrong country or city, it is absolutely impossible to avoid foreign tourists. Some of these countries are quite dependent on tourism.

The solution is very simple: go to the places where tourism is not the number 1 industry.

Port of Spain is such a place. It is one of the least touristy places I’ve everbeen to and I had such a good time there. There were very nice bars and clubs where they played local Soca music (which I love). There were plenty of young people (many of whom were hot girls!) having fun dancing. The only tourists I met during my entire stay were two Venezuelan guys who were there on business.

In the Caribbean, if you avoid famous beach resorts you are much more likely to be able to experience authentic local culture. If you go to Jamaica, go to Kingston instead of Montego Bay or Negril. If you go to the Dominican Republic, go to Santo Domingo instead of Puerto Plata or Punta Cana.

I don’t want to enumerate every good city I recommend but let me just add one more thing: if you go to India, try South India. You will not get constantly harassed by people who are trying to take advantage of tourists. South Indian people are very friendly and helpful. You will have an authentic Indian experience.

Stay in a weekly apartment instead of a hotel

I often stay in a weekly apartment instead of a hotel. These apartments are often situated in residential areas and it’s an excellent way to get to know what it’s like to live there.

Some of my favourite parts of staying in weekly apartments are going to a local café/cafeteria to have breakfast, and going to supermarkets to do grocery shopping. It’s very interesting to discover the kind of food people eat daily. Every region has different kinds of fruit, meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, crisps, chocolate etc.

Finding weekly apartments is usually quite easy. It’s often enough to search “[location name] weekly apartment”. Alternatively, you can use AirBnb.

Apartment owners are also a good source of information. They have lived there for a long time and know a lot of good places to go.

Ask the right questions

You may think that the best way to discover authentic places is by asking local people. Well, not necessarily. Imagine your friends are visiting your city and ask you where they should go. What will you say to them? I think most of you will suggest popular tourist attractions.

It actually makes sense because, for you, places you go every day are just ordinary and of no interest. But that doesn’t mean that those places are not interesting to people from outside. What you consider normal is not normal at all for non-local people.

So, if you are the one who is visiting a new place, how do you ask questions?

First of all, avoid general questions like, “Where should I visit?” or “What are good places to see?” You are likely to get guidebook answers.

Instead, ask questions like, “Where do you go shopping? Where do you take your date? What are your favourite places to spend free time? Where do you go when you go out with friends? Where do you buy clothes? Which café/restaurant do you go to most?” Those specific questions tend to get very authentic answers.

Throw the guidebook away and start experiencing!

If you try to do something different from other people, you will sometimes have disappointing results. But the kind of experience you can possibly have is so great that it’s totally worth trying!

 

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