The average traveler heading to a new destination has certain experiences in mind. You want to see the sights, hit the highlights, take in the top tourist spots. You have to go to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, right? You can’t travel all the way to India and not see the Taj Mahal! That’s all well and good. Most of those are famous for a reason and worth a visit.
But sometimes these only give you a superficial view of a foreign country or city. It is easy to see the gloss, the “pow”, the choice representation of a place you are traveling to without learning more about regular life and the culture. I recommend getting off the tourist track and gaining more immersive cultural experiences for a more rewarding trip. These things don’t have to be expensive and can give you an unusual travel experience. Here are five ideas to get you started wherever you are traveling!
1. Go to a movie.
This is an easy, cheap way to tap into the pop culture of a foreign destination. I love going to movies at home and spending a few hours in a cinema taking in a (for me) foreign film in the country and culture it was made for is actually a really cool travel experience. In India, film is a huge, thriving cultural industry. Bollywood is the Hollywood of India and Bollywood films are distinct and unforgettable, with color, song, dance, drama, many of them are long, intense, and highly entertaining.
I loved going to see a movie in Delhi, even though I could only understand half of it (it was a mix of English and Hindi). When I studied abroad in South Africa, I saw every single film that came through my local theater (tickets were only $2, half off on Tuesdays…), even if some or all of it was in Afrikaans (I did take a beginner class in Afrikaans, but not enough to really follow any film dialog). You don’t need to understand the language at all to have a great cultural experience at the movies in a foreign country, though.
If you do speak at least a bit of the language of a place, seeing a movie is a great way to test and improve your skills. I surprised myself with how much I could understand at a cinema in Buenos Aires, Argentina almost seven years after I had taken my last Spanish class. I got a real kick out of my afternoon at the cinema in Zurich, Switzerland, when I found the English language film I was seeing had subtitles in German, French, and another language I couldn’t place. The subtitles took up more than half the screen! But it served to highlight the mix of cultures and languages that are present in Switzerland. The totally basic, everyday activity of going to the movies, which I could have done at home, enhanced my experience of the foreign country I was visiting and gave me a better insight into life there. Plus, you get the entertainment factor of the movie story and visuals to complete this easy, fun, cheap cultural experience you can do in most places you visit.
2. Shop at the local market.
Another great way to get into the culture of a place is to shop at the local market. This can easily be a free experience; you don’t have to buy anything! You can just wander around, soak up the atmosphere of people going about their normal business, buying and selling food, household goods, clothes, gifts, electronics, tchotchkes. When I lived in South Korea, I used to go to the local market outside of town almost every weekend. The noise, the bustle, the smells, the items on offer, really give you a taste of the culture of the place. I always bought some amazing street food for lunch and supported the local farmers by buying my weekly vegetables there. I practiced my Korean haggling over the price of some curtains for my shoebox of a studio apartment and picked up a traditional, handmade, ceramic tea set.
Not only are markets fantastic places to get a feel for the local life, you can score some great deals as well! When I was traveling in Europe in late summer a few years ago, I decided to stay longer than I had planned and the weather was getting cold. Wandering around a street market in Torino, Italy, I picked up a comfy pair of stylish blue boots and a long, warm skirt to supplement my summer wardrobe for less than $15. Don’t get me started on the cheap prices that led me to buy much more than I was planning on in the markets of Beijing, China and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam… There are also markets that are not year round but centered on cultural events or seasons. I loved strolling through the Christmas markets in Germany that started popping up in the city squares in November. The lights, the seasonal food, the hot drinks, the beautiful gifts for sale, really put me in the holiday spirit and showed me what some of the German holiday traditions are. Markets are a real distillation of a cultural experience that you can find in many different countries around the world.
3. Take a language class.
If you are traveling somewhere where the language is different from your native one, learning even a few phrases in the local tongue can really add to your understanding and enjoyment of the place, as well as open doors to conversation and positive exchanges with local residents. When I travel, I always make a point to, if nothing else, learn how to say “thank-you” in the most widely spoken language of my destination. Not only does learning at least one foreign word give you some insight into the culture through language, but it shows locals you are interested in more than just snapping a selfie at the big attractions. You can learn a lot about a place if you make an effort to teach yourself.
When I worked as an English teacher in South Korea, I had a difficult time adjusting to such a completely different culture, language, and alphabet. I was used to at least being about to read street signs or shop names, even if I couldn’t understand them.
Once I took it upon myself to learn the Korean alphabetic characters, my experience of living abroad became exponentially easier and more positive. My Korean colleagues and friends helped teach me useful phrases like, “how much?” and “where is?”, plus the basic numbers and greetings in a piecemeal fashion that was nonetheless enjoyable and helpful, enhancing my experience of the culture.
To learn a few basic phrases like this, you could easily pick up a language learning book or app, ask any native speaker you happen to meet, or simply ask Google, for that matter (the route my introvert nature often leans toward). But a cool cultural activity to get a greater understanding, perspective, and immersive experience is to take a class. As I mentioned before, while studying in South Africa during a semester abroad at university, I took a beginner’s Afrikaans class. It was very cool to slowly become better able to understand people and signs around me. It surprised me to find unexpected similarities to Swedish (which I learned from my Swedish grandmother as a child). This is because Swedish (and English, actually!) is a Germanic language, as is Dutch, upon which Afrikaans is based due to the Dutch settlement of South Africa beginning in the 1600s. That connection really brought home that intrinsic detail of South African history to me in a unique way.
Of course, I lived in South Africa for almost six months, plenty of time to take a full college course in Afrikaans. But even if you only have a few days in the country you are visiting, search online and ask around to see if there is an hour or two basic introductory class happening anywhere. Perhaps at a language school, community center, or organization supporting immigrants. I also studied abroad in Australia during university. Of course, they speak English as I do, but one of the introductory experiences for study abroad students was an hour-long language class in Aussie slang. Even in a country where the citizens and I ostensibly spoke the same language, there were so many differences, that taking even that short language class deepened my understanding and experience living there. Try to find something similar as a traveler could give you a different kind of immersive, unusual experience of another country.
4. Take a cooking class.
Food is another very intrinsic link to a culture. Learning about (and, of course, sampling!) a country or region’s cuisine stimulates multiple senses and gives you a more immersive experience as a traveler. A lot of cities, especially heavily traveled ones, have schools or organizations that offer one-time sample cooking classes geared toward tourists. Some destinations are even known for cooking tours and classes. If you speak the language, why not try one aimed at locals?
It doesn’t have to be a cooking specific class, it can be a tasting class or experience related to food. While living in the wine-making region of South Africa, I took a wine tasting class and loved it. They taught us about the history of winemaking in South Africa specifically, and generally how to taste wine and pair it with food.
The downside of cooking classes is that they can sometimes be expensive. As a budget traveler, I have certainly looked into taking a cooking class in various destinations before ultimately deciding it wasn’t worth the cost. If this is an issue for you, try forming your own cooking “class”. Have you met a local friend? Suggest you guys get together and have a fun evening cooking up a traditional meal. Hostels are a great place to do this. I worked at a hostel in New Zealand where we had regular group dinners once a week open to all staff and guests.
These dinners were potluck. Everyone made and brought something to share. While it wasn’t a requirement, many people ended up making something particularly traditional to their home country as a way to share their culture with others. And with many people cooking up meals in the same hostel kitchen, we were all learning from each other as we worked. I picked up a few recipes from around the world at these dinners that I still make on a regular basis. Even doing this with one or two people you meet abroad can be a really fun (and delicious!) way to learn about life around the world.
5. Go to see a play or performance.
As I mentioned above, a movie is a great, inexpensive way to get an entertaining cultural experience, but if you have a little more room in your budget, consider taking in a play or performance instead (or in addition!). There’s something about a live show that makes it a little more visceral of an adventure. When I was in Japan, I went to a kabuki show. Kabuki is a style of theater that dates back hundreds of years in Japan and is a very traditional aspect of Japanese culture. It was very interesting and enlivening to see it in person.
In Iceland, I learned about their long and expansive history of myth and storytelling by going to a saga performance. This was a fast-paced, exciting, and funny presentation of tons of their traditional stories with great costumes and minimalist sets – a great way to spend an evening in Reykjavik! My inner literary geek came out on a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada, and I just had to go see a performance of Anne & Gilbert: The Musical (they also have Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which is actually the world’s longest running annual musical theater production!). It was an evening of nostalgia for one of my favorite childhood books, but also a window into life on PEI both past and present, not to mention being highly entertaining!
You don’t have to go to a traditional theater play or show to get a cool performance-based cultural experience. In New Zealand, I ate at a restaurant that featured a Maori haka dance performance. It was a unique way to see the traditional war dance, featuring lots of stomping feet, fearsome yells, and long, wagging tongues being stuck out. Or go for a more modern cultural experience. When visiting a friend in Germany, she took me to a concert by a local singer at a small concert hall in the next town. I got to listen to some good music and see how the locals spent a fun night out.
That same friend and I were traveling around Ireland just a few months ago and must have listened to half a dozen groups of locals playing traditional Celtic music in a bunch of small-town pubs. There are some destinations where you can always find live music of some sort. There’ll be someplace featuring a jazz performance any night of the week in New Orleans, for example. Going to a live music restaurant or bar is a more inexpensive way to experience the auditory culture of a place.
Getting a cool, different, immersive cultural experience while traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. These are five general examples that you can find in many different countries around the world. There are a lot of regional specific events and activities in various places, too. So next time you travel, yeah, go see that famous landmark, visit that museum, take that tour, and then check around and see what else there is on offer. Spend an evening at the cinema or theater, take that class or wander the market. Go a little deeper, travel a little more expansively, take it all in, and have a ball!
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