There’s this funny irony about the admonition to “travel like a local.” What does that even mean? Spend hundreds of dollars to go to a different city just to get groceries and cook dinner at your Airbnb before staying in to watch Game of Thrones? Spend two hours of your vacation at a city council meeting? Pack a bunch of dirty clothes to take to a dry cleaner? That would be all be quite local but also quite a waste.
To “travel like a local” seems to mean simply avoiding spots where “only tourists go” but therein lies the problem. Don’t fool yourself into thinking, as a tourist, that you’re a local just because you go to Moe’s Crosstown rather than Sticky Fingers. And don’t rob yourself, as a local, from a bike ride along Rainbow Row because it’s “just for tourists.”
Cities aren’t collections of discrete “tourist zones” and “local zones.” Cities are composed of neighborhoods – each with their own personality that, together, form the mosaic we call Paris or Tokyo or Cape Town. Is New York East Village but not Times Square? Is Charleston Hampton Park but not Market Street? Of course not.
In the end, behaving ‘like a local” is the same whether you are in your own city or far from home. It means experiencing, respecting, and preserving the unique qualities of neighborhoods by meeting the people and supporting the businesses that give each neighborhood its own identity.
So what does that mean, practically speaking? Well, it can be distilled down to a single piece of advice: Prioritize local businesses.
If cities are mosaics of neighborhoods, neighborhoods are mosaics of businesses – at least commercially speaking. Local businesses are, by necessity, deeply invested in their neighborhood because their bet isn’t hedged by a dozen or a hundred other locations.
Furthermore, the personality of a small business is unlikely to be diluted down to the lowest common denominator the way chain stores are. The most differentiating thing about any given Target is whether the lawn furniture is in the back left or back right. Local, independent businesses are what make our city streets interesting and vibrant.
Perhaps best of all, though, when you visit a local business, you are more likely to meet the owner and there’s nothing quite like chatting with the owner of a small business when it comes to learning about a neighborhood. These are the conversations you’ll remember, the stories you’ll share, the recommendations you’ll trust.
So whether you are packing your bags or venturing out in your hometown, don’t just cherry pick the top “local spots” from a Thrillist article and convince yourself you really know a city. Instead, live a life exploring neighborhoods and meeting the people that make them unique no matter where you are.
Joel Sadler and Allyson Sutton are the founders of Sightsee, a travel-inspired retail shop and coffee bar with a soon-to-open location in Elliotborough. By blending the energy and community of a cafe with the joy of product discovery, Sightsee introduces you to new finds in a way that breaks traditional retail categorization. Grab a cup of coffee, strike up a conversation, and learn how the brands we carry can bring a bit of adventure to your day-to-day.