How to Meet Local People While Traveling

by STEVE BLOOM

Temple Bar

When I was in Morocco last year, my wife and I met an old Moroccan woman on a train. We quickly became friends and she asked us to come stay with her for a few days.

If we hadn’t been on a tight schedule to get to the Sahara, we would have gone. Some of my greatest travel experiences have happened when I took time to meet the people. In several cases, I’ve started friendships that have remained to this day.

It’s not always easy to meet locals though. There is something about reaching out to someone you don’t know and starting a conversation that can make you feel uncomfortable.

But there are some things you can do to get over this uncomfortableness.

The first thing to do is be someone who is willing to start conversations with strangers.

Believe me, it’s not always easy. I’m naturally an introvert so I know how hard it can be.

There are some easy things you can do to get started:

• Engage in eye contact
• Be friendly
• Smile
• Say hi or nod to other people

These are all great ways to get into a friendly mindset; it will make you more sociable.

Getting Into the Right Mindset

I think part of the problem with meeting locals is simply that you’re in another country far away from home surrounded by people you don’t know. So instead of being in a friendly mode, it’s more natural to be cautious.

And a big part of being cautious is being careful around strangers.

It’s natural to be concerned about safety while traveling, but if you want to meet locals, you have to show a little trust. Not everyone is out to do you harm. People are generally friendly all over the world.

I like to take an approach called “cautious friendliness”. I’m friendly enough to talk to new people, but careful enough to watch out for danger or scams.

When I was in Morocco, I met a local while walking along the shore. We became friends quickly and he took me to his home and to some food stalls I would never have found on my own.

But I didn’t just blindly follow this guy around. I made sure to be careful around him. If I had sensed that he was dangerous, I would have walked away.

Yet my fear was unfounded. All he wanted to do was be friends. It was an amazing experience I would not have had if I hadn’t turned that caution into friendliness.

To be honest, there are many people who are friendly just to get money or sell you something, but there are also many people who are just trying to meet you because they’re simply curious about you.

Most aren’t out to do you any physical harm.

Be Open and Learn About the People

You should be curious about the local people too. Learn some of the language before you go to the country and use it as often as you can.

It doesn’t matter if you butcher the language, they’ll usually be flattered that you tried.

When I was in France, I tried to speak French as much as possible. There’s a stereotype that French people are rude and hate Americans, but that wasn’t my experience at all.

Most were pleased that I tried to use French with them. It was obvious that I had some trouble, but people were really friendly and were happy to help out.

Also make sure to get to know the people you want to meet. What are they like? What should you know about them?

I did this before going to Morocco. I learned that Moroccans are known for their friendliness and hospitality. In some instances, they’ll invite you into their homes – that’s exactly what happened to me.

Other countries will be different. In Ireland it was easy to meet locals for other reasons. At night you just needed to head to the local pub – they’d often come to you and start conversations.

Learn Where to Go

I sometimes hear other travelers say they have a hard time meeting locals when traveling. But usually it’s because I see them all making the same mistakes.

They stay in their hostels or hang out in Western bars. They don’t go out of the backpacking areas of the city. I remember meeting a traveler on Khao San Road who had been there for a couple of weeks, but didn’t know why he didn’t interact with locals more.

These travelers don’t meet locals because they don’t go to where the locals are.

Here are some easy things to do:

1. Go couchsurfing – you’ll at least meet the person who’s hosting you. They might even introduce you to some people they know.

2. Ask directions – this is especially great if you attempt the local language. You’d be surprised how often looking for something has turned into a great conversation.

3. Get out of the hostel – it’s great to meet other travelers, but that shouldn’t be a substitute for meeting locals. Locals don’t often go to hostels.

4. Ask around – other travelers might know of some cool places to go. Ask guides or the owners of the hostel where to go. They’ll know of some cool places locals frequent.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck. When I was in Dalat, Vietnam, I was on the back of a motorbike heading across the city. It started to rain and the driver pulled over to the side of the road to wait it out.

So we pulled up to a café that was so unused to travelers that I was stared at when I walked in. Yet in that time, I got to meet the owners and everyone else who was inside.

It was an incredible moment when I truly feel like I got to know the local people. It’s for reasons like this that I love traveling.
photo credit: Piero Fissore

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Comments

  1. Great post! A very rewarding skill indeed. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Something like AirBnb is quite good too as locals will rent their space to you – and sometimes they live there too. Plus they can double up as a guide book !

    I usually just start talking to the person next to me. I’m not a total extrovert but not an introvert either. It’s usually easier in a bar when wine has been involved!

    It’s totally about pushing yourself to talk to people. And watching for their response. It’s easy to tell when they’re not interested in talking.

    Great post Steve.

    – Razwana

    • Bars can good places to meet people. A friend of mine goes to bars a lot while traveling and just talks to everyone. Like you said, it can be easier when wine has been involved.

      Airbnb is a good idea too.

  3. You are so right: staying in touristy areas is not the way to meet locals!

    I always had good luck in grocery stores and movie theaters. People will typically help you with suggestions at the grocery store. Also, not many tourists go to the movies. I always try to pick a native language comedy. The posters can give a good idea of which will be the silliest. Those actions translate well, even if you don’t get the dialog. I met many people waiting in line.

    • I think places like grocery stores and movie theaters are good just because you’re getting into the spots locals go. And besides, I like to see movies in other countries. I went to a Chinese movie theater once and that was a really fun experience.

  4. I love this post!! I think meeting the locals is one of the best parts of travelling as it makes your travel experience so much more rich, worthwhile and leaves you with a deeper connection to the place. This is the main reason I live travelling–to connect with the people who might have a different perspective than me–and then you always find that common thread–of wanting to be known, loved and respected. No matter where we are from it seems this runs common. It is thrilling! Thanks for writing!

    • I think it makes a deeper connection too. It’s fun to go somewhere and see sites, but meeting people is a little different. I feel like people is where a large part of culture is. The people share with you their worldview, their problems and all of that gives an insight into what the country is like as a whole.

  5. I am not much of a traveler at all, but I think your tips can also be really useful just around home, too, Steve. Or in a new job position or whatever. Sometimes just reaching out to someone in a small way is a great way to make a connection – like I love what you said about asking directions can turn into great conversation.

    Totally unrelated, you are the “smart guy of the day” on my blog today – I mentioned a comment you made on one of my earlier posts and several readers thought your words were wise! :)

  6. Have you ever tried to smile but ended up giving a really creepy one? It has happened man.

    But yea, couch surfing is great. That’s the most direct way of getting a host that might end up showing you are area himself.

    • Creepy smiles — haha!

      I’ve never couch surfed myself, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from a few “more experienced” friends!

      ….

      For me, when it comes to being abroad (or even normally) – I don’t have much trouble being social. But I need to make it a goal. I am usually not naturally social, I need to tell myself “tonight the goal is to have fun, and to have as much as as possible you need to warm up and start talking to people”. It might sound funny, but it works for me.

    • This reminds me of a story. I was walking with a friend through the streets of Hanoi and he smiled at someone. It wasn’t even creepy – it was friendly. But the woman called him out and aggressively asked him why he was smiling at her. We were both pretty shocked because it was so innocent. Oh well, sometimes stuff like that just happens.

  7. Getting engaged with local culture is an important part of travel. We can learn so much from how others live differently. In order to make this happen you need to go to the places the locals go to not the tourist traps. I’ve also met people through organised visits which I got involved with because of my partners work. Sometimes it can be a little strange but there’s always a great story!

  8. I’ve not done a lot of traveling, yet. But look forward to meeting and connecting with all of the interesting people out their once I do start to travel more. Great topic and thoughts!

  9. Hi Steve,

    I think when visiting new places, it’s not only a good idea to meet locals, it’s almost essential.

    You don’t have to become best buddies, but part of a place is the people that are in it.

    Also, whether it’s someone you already know or not, having someone local to show you around makes a huge difference to getting the most from your experience or at least not missing out on some of the things that are worth seeing (i.e. not just the touristy stuff).

    Even somewhere as well known as Manhatten is a great example – try finding great bars and restaurants there without someone who knows the place (not so easy as these were all speak-easy’s so mostly underground and not apparent whilst walking round the streets – but would be well known by someone who knows Manhatten).

    Now you’re making me want to go somewhere… it’s been a while since I’ve been on a discovery type holiday…

  10. Thanks a lot for this post man, I’ll definitely take this with me on my travels in the years ahead :) Peace brother.

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