Why ‘like a local’ is the most overrated concept in travel

David Whitley

What I did last weekend was astonishingly tedious. I did the big shop at Tesco, got through a couple of washloads, took a fence panel that blew down in a storm a few weeks ago to the tip, and watched a couple of mediocre films, based largely on which ones were free on Amazon Prime. You would be correct in thinking this not exactly inspirational.

If someone served that up as a city break itinerary for me, I’d be furious. Imagine wasting a couple of precious days in Barcelona or Rome doing chores, mooching about and watching Tom Cruise ponderously attempting to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie.

Yet it’s a fair bet that the weekends of the fabled, revered locals in either city bear more relation to mine than the riveting whirlwind of sights, memorable dining, cultural hits and cool bars most of us want on a city break.

Seeing a city “like a local” has become an ubiquitous concept, and one with a hefty dose of snobbishness attached. If you’re into feeling superior to other visitors, that idea – of flitting between incredibly cool secret hotspots that guidebook writers have mysteriously missed, but savvy locals know about – is a relatively sound one. But it’s also a complete fantasy.

There are maybe a tiny handful of locals who have an extraordinary knowledge of a city’s bar and restaurant scene. Some people really do put the legwork in, but they’re generally doing so on a professional basis and are very much in the minority. Most people are fundamentally lazy about getting the best out of the city they live in.

The average local person doesn’t go to the most interesting bars – they go to their regular haunts that they’ve frequented for years, largely out of habit and because it’s where they know their friends will be. They eat in Nando’s and Zizzi, and drink in Greene King pubs. And if you think this doesn’t apply elsewhere, check how many people there are in any McDonald’s you walk past on holiday.

Locals probably haven’t visited many of the city’s tourist attractions, either. They might have ticked off the big ones 20 years ago, and perhaps dropped into a museum or two. But the full top 20 list from the guide book? Not a chance – these places will always be there. They can be visited when we’re older and the grandchildren are bored.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone – I’ve seen far more of London and Sydney since leaving than I ever did while living in either city. There’s more urgency to be inquisitive when time is limited.

Crucially, tourists and locals often want very different things from a city. There’s a reason why walking the remnants of the Berlin Wall, or tours of the Roman Forum, or ogling the Sagrada Familia are popular. They’re amazing, well worth travelling for and not available anywhere else. If you’re going somewhere for a weekend, it’s entirely to sane and logical to concentrate on things that are genuinely unique to that place. Or, at the very least, unusual and substantially different to what you might get within five miles of your house.

Similarly, it’s OK to want to go to the cocktail bar with dazzling art nouveau ornamentation rather than the chilled-out, low-key neighbourhood pub that has an enjoyable vibe, but is essentially much the same as those you might find in Manchester or Bristol. The quest for authenticity can go too far, slipping way too easily into the dull and non-descript.

The fetishisation of local knowledge tends to play out worst when it comes to tour guides. The most useless guides are almost always the ones who have lived in the destination all their lives. It’s not always the case, but a lack of perspective often shines through, leading to scenarios where a guide is banging on about hospitals and how long the largely terrible department store has been running for. When you’ve no reference points from elsewhere, it’s tough to know what’s interestingly distinctive for a visitor and what’s a bog standard feature of similarly sized cities.

The outsider’s eye is much better at telling the difference and it’s often the case that the most valuable locals, both as guides and recommendation-generation machines, are people who have moved to the city from elsewhere. They’re the ones who have had to figure it out, be sociable with strangers they didn’t grow up with, and understand where things work differently.

That rare voraciously interested local that actually fits the “like a local” ethos? Chances are, they’re an adopted local, who once landed in an alien city in much the same way you’re doing. They’ll also be wise enough to tell you to do the big tourist sites before even attempting to simulate everyday life.