Many travelers are looking for an authentic travel experience, a thing found or personal encounter that will connect them more deeply to a destination, an event or a place that will feel like a new discovery. I’m asked often for travel advice, and many times folks start by saying that they’re “looking for things off the beaten path” or “something non-touristy”. First, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with the “touristy things”. Would you skip the Louvre in Paris because there are too many tourists? There’s a reason “touristy things” are full of tourists – they’re awesome! But, I also understand wanting to find unique experiences and to discover things tucked away that aren’t written about in tour guides, and there are ways to help you find those experiences that are personal to you and to create incredible travel memories.
If you hit up a travel forum, you might see several posts similar to: “We’re traveling to XYZ soon, looking for recommendations and prefer non-touristy things off the beaten path.” Following that request, you’ll have some folks that will give their thoughts and advice of things they found and loved. Since many of these forums and blogs have thousands of readers, by telling others of these ‘secrets’ is that place no longer a hidden gem? And, too, those experiences that others tell you about were theirs. They got to feel that excitement of discovery because they stumbled across something fantastic that they had never heard of before then. That authentic experience was theirs to tell you about, and if you only follow the advice and recommendations of other travelers, you won’t be getting your own authentic experience.
There’s nothing wrong with looking for advice and recommendations, but don’t make that your only guide. The best way to find your own “off the beaten path” gems is to get off the beaten path.
Don’t over plan and allow plenty of free time to wander.
Make a point to include unplanned time in your itinerary — free time when you intentionally don’t follow a set schedule. Not having a plan that you must follow gives you the freedom to be spontaneous and to see how the day unfolds.
Most days we’ll head out of the hotel with only a direction in mind and won’t use a map. Where are we going? I don’t know. Turn left, start walking, and we’ll see what we discover along the way.
Road trips are great for this. We continue to tell the story of the best roast chicken we ever ate that we found when driving from Heidelberg to Stuttgart. We knew the direction we needed to go but stopped using the GPS because we had all day to get where we were going. We turned an hour-and-a-half drive into a five-hour road trip, and we’d only use the GPS to make sure we were still heading in the right direction (ish). Along a quiet road, we passed a little trailer with a sign “Hänchen Imbiss”. I was still learning German (still am) and it took me a minute to translate that, and when I realized it was a small stand selling roast chicken, we decided to turn around and get a snack. It was perfect! A tender, juicy, delicious rotisserie chicken with lemon was the best lunch, and we still haven’t found a rotisserie chicken cooked as perfectly. If we hadn’t given ourselves plenty of free time, we would never have stumbled across that little Imbiss and taken the time to stop. (and no, we have no idea where we were or where that chicken stand is. I wish we did!)
Slow down and relax.
When you find that cute cafe tucked away down an alley in a beautiful courtyard (or that roadside chicken shack), stop and enjoy it. If you’re rushing to see as much as possible, you miss the quiet time and the chance to sit and take it all in.
There have been countless times when I’ve been sitting at a small sidewalk cafe having a beer, and suddenly it hits me: “Holy shit! I’m in Europe!” and that’s when I know that I’ve been going too quickly. Taking a break, letting the moment wash over me, and feeling grateful that I have the opportunity to travel gives me some perspective. It’s a privilege to travel, and sometimes we need to slow down to appreciate it. Slowing down gives you a chance to connect with a place and time and to really experience it. We rush enough when we’re at home with our daily lives, so when we travel, we should allow ourselves the benefit of slowing down and discovering what’s hidden down that quiet alley.
Those vignettes, simple and brief, are what we will remember of our travels, but we have to slow down to find them.
Avoid the tourists.
If you stay where the tourists are, don’t complain that the place is full of tourists. Instead of choosing the hot destination that’s making every list of top 10 places you have to visit, choose a smaller city that doesn’t make any list.
Travel in the low season when the other tourists have gone home, and avoid traveling on holidays. Visit the museum on evenings when it’s open late rather than during the busy peak times of the day, or get to the main attractions early in the morning while other folks are still having breakfast. To find the authentic experiences you’re looking for, travel when and where other folks aren’t.
We were once staying in a small village in Germany for a few days, and when we would meet folks we would get the question “Why are you here? No tourists come here.” And that was the point. There weren’t lines and waits for restaurants, and we had the chance to get to know some local people in the village. We visited the same pub several times where the bartender got to know us. He knew what we drank and would start pouring our beers when he saw us walk in. If the place had been crowded with tourists, we wouldn’t have received that personal attention.
In a destination heavy with tourists, like Bellagio on Lake Como, we didn’t stop at the lakeside restaurant for lunch, even though the view was magnificent. Instead, we walked up the hill and kept walking, a little further and around a corner, and there we stopped for the perfect lunch with a tasting menu of local specialties paired with wine and at an incredible value. There were only a handful of people in this small restaurant, and I think we were the only non-local diners. There’s a rule-of-thumb to follow when looking for a great restaurant in a tourist area: When you see a menu translated into ten different languages, keep walking. Find a place tucked out of the way with a menu only in the local language (even better if it’s a daily menu written on a chalkboard), and you’ll likely have a much better dining experience.
Read More: Tips for Dining Out in Europe
Again, I’ll say that there is nothing wrong with being a tourist and visiting all of the famous sites, but I understand wanting to explore a destination and dig deeper. And that requires you to work for it. That authentic, off-the-beaten-path experience, actually requires that you do a bit of planning for it. Schedule time in your itinerary to slow down, wander aimlessly, and give that amazing travel experience a chance to happen. You have to get yourself off the beaten path to find the hidden gems.
Discover your own path
Discover your own path