We all have our favorite things to do when we travel, whether for a vacation or a longer stay. The first thing I do in a new city is hit the art museums. We all want to see famous sites and attend popular entertainment events. But what do you do when you’ve seen all the tourist spots?

That’s when things get interesting for me. I like finding the places where the locals go – exploring back streets and finding tiny hidden shops or restaurants. Even on a vacation, I like to try living like a local, staying in a short-term rental where I can cook and eat as if I was born there.

What about the local art scene? One of the best ways to see it is through exploring graffiti art. If you search local arts newspapers or magazines, you will often find maps to the best graffiti art. These works are often found on side streets, back alleys and even subway tunnels.

Speaking of maps, once you discover theme maps, you can design your own tour. You can walk, ride a bike or take public transportation to your favorite graffiti art or historic sites. You’ll find more hidden places that way, too.

Did you know there is an abandoned subway station in New York City that some claim is haunted? There is one train that goes through there to turn around. It’s the only safe way in. In San Francisco, you will find hidden stairways that can lead you most of the way from the Bay to Golden Gate Park with a little planning.

Local History

Are you a history buff? Even small towns have history museums. These are a good place to start if you like digging up the old stories. They usually have books with interesting history not found in most book stores, which often include maps to historic locations.

And let’s not forget the food! Cities take pride in their food.

A good way to find the local favorites is through cooking classes or restaurant tours… but don’t be afraid to pop into a small restaurant or neighborhood pub. These places usually have consistently good food, fair price and service because they depend on return customers, unlike those that target tourists.

Have you heard about secret restaurants? They’re usually hard to find and exclusive. These under the radar restaurants can range from affordable to high end.

Some are quite posh, while others, like the Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taipei, are very informal. This last one may not be your cup of tea, but if you have grandchildren, they will be really impressed – between the laughter, that is!

Blend In

Sometimes it requires blending in with the locals to find surprises. Be aware of local fashion faux pas. If you are going to a nice restaurant, a museum or the theater you must not dress like you are going hiking. Trust me, locals do notice.

If you are an older woman, do not wear revealing clothing – though the customs vary from place to place. In Spain, for instance, it’s common to show décolletage, whereas in Korea older women tend to not show skin.

Local Clubs and Activities

Maybe you like meeting new people, but don’t speak the language. Go online and find out what social groups there are that might include locals and expats. You will find dining out clubs, book clubs, sports clubs and more.

Bigger cities may offer yoga or tai chi groups in the park. How about special tours and classes that target locals and foreigners?

I just completed a month-long course on Thai Textiles. When I visited Amsterdam, I joined a group for knit-night at a local yarn store. On another night, there was a knitting group that met in a pub!

What hidden gems have you discovered on your travels or in your own home town? What are your favorite groups to hook up with when traveling? Please share in the comments below!

Joy HarmonJoy Harmon is a former theatrical costumer, teacher and longtime traveler. She currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she is active in the local English speaking theater. She is pursuing a new career in writing – please check out her first novel.

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