"How can I make my vacation more interesting?" is a question I am often asked as a cultural educator leading dual dialogue trips around the world. The reality is that it’s on us as travelers to explore the diversity each country has to offer. Even the most visited destinations can offer extraordinary experiences when you go beyond the usual tourism sites, museums, and monuments. I founded my own travel company to show tourists that no place is homogenous and no destination has a single narrative. Here are some tips that I keep in mind to go deeper into a destination.
Allow yourself to get lost.
On my first trip to Tokyo, I hopped on a train right out of the city center to explore the suburbs. I ended up in an unfamiliar area, walking around with no map or agenda. Eventually I found myself in a speakeasy which looked straight out of the 1940. Most of the patrons were older and no one spoke English. But somehow, two short hours later, I ended up dressed in traditional Japanese clothes, singing karaoke, and dancing with people I’d just met, communicating in so many ways beyond the words of our different languages.
Use food as a window to cultural diversity.
I navigated the food and drink scene in Bogotá with the help of my friend Maria, a gastronomy guide, discovering the fruits of Colombia’s diversity of climates and terrains. Later she made desserts from the fruit before we headed out to a local salsa bar. There are many local companies around the world that offer such tasty experiences, like Authenticook in India, which connects travelers to local hosts for a homemade meal. Or find a food-tasting tour, like with Frying Pan Adventures in Dubai, sampling the multicultural cuisine of the city of expats.
Find where the locals hang out.
Pick up a local magazine or check out signs posted on the street corners to find art exhibits, music festivals, or other events. If you like sports, ask around where the locals play and join a scrimmage. A few years ago while visiting Tunis, I saw a group of guys playing soccer on the beach. I approached them and asked if I could join, and they welcomed me into the game. Afterward, I joined them in their favorite café where we ended up exchanging ideas about the Tunisian Revolution, among other telling topics. Jumping right into activities and events definitely helps get the conversation started with locals.
Go beyond the most popular cities.
Leave the cities for smaller places like villages and suburbs to find the hidden treasures of many countries, with unique cultural experiences, beautiful landscapes, and powerful interactions. Near Hoi An, Vietnam, I was hosted by 90-something-year-old active farmer who shared his work and life stories, like hiding people in their home during the war. There are many options for how you can visit these villages. For example, in Thailand, you can join Local Alike, a social enterprise that helped establish experiences for travelers in more than 70 villages across the country.
Look for tour groups that give back.
Some organizations offer a unique educational value that you simply will not find solo. When I visited Egypt last year, I wanted to see the country beyond the pyramids, but didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. So I went on a tour with a nonprofit organization to learn about a neighborhood of Cairo nicknamed Garbage City. Left behind by the city's garbage collection, residents took matters into their own hands, collecting the trash and recycling around 85 percent. This area has one of the most successful recycling programs in the world. To find these types of off-the-beaten-path experiences, Visit.org can connect you with hundreds of nonprofits offering local visits all over all the world. If you are heading to Asia, try Backstreet Academy for unique experiences in 11 different countries in the region.
Ask locals for suggestions.
Don't be shy! My best food experience in Osaka happened when I asked strangers to take me to their favorite restaurant, and I would treat for dinner. I ended up in an izikaya, a small, bar-style restaurant with only nine seats. This was by far the best meal I had in Japan and certainly one of the most authentic experiences I had there. I enjoyed a similar experience in Curitiba, Brazil, where I asked a local group where to have dinner in the city; instead of pointing one out, they invited me to join them. I am still friends with them!
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Get your information from more than one tour guide.
Most cities in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, Istanbul to Washington D.C., are multicultural and diverse. But if you get all your information about that city's culture and history from one tour guide, you are likely to miss the richness of the destination. Imagine visiting Belfast with both Catholic and Protestant guides, discussing the different historical, cultural, and political narratives of Northern Ireland. When I co-founded my tour company Mejdi tours, we were determined to use multiple tour guides each from different backgrounds on every single tour, so visitors can understand the complexity of every location.
Jerusalem-born National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah is a cultural educator, leading dual dialogue tours around the world through his tour company Mejdi Tours. He also leads National Geographic Expeditions to the Holy Land. Find him on Twitter @AzizAbuSarah.