When we travel internationally, we mostly stay away from the obvious tourist attractions. Sure, when we went to Paris we visited the Eiffel Tower. We spent some time at Notre Dame Cathedral because my husband is a sketch artist and he was drawing it. We didn’t make our way to Champs-Élysées, we didn’t visit the Louvre. We might have, but it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t a priority.
What we did do was walk the streets of the neighborhood where our quaint boutique hotel was located (Latin Quarter). We sat in cafés, ate croissants and sipped lattes. We visited the little ‘ready food’ kiosks for meals. You can tell you’re staying local when the people you are talking to generally don’t speak English. And as rough as my French is, there is nothing better than trying to converse with a happy local gracing us with a big smile.
On our recent trip to Porto, Portugal, we stayed in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood far from the city center. There was a huge park across the street, a small café a few doors down, and a small market a couple blocks away. These places are where you experience local life. Watching the old men and children feed the peacocks in the park, eating at the café and asking, “What do you have?” because there is no menu.
The owner beams as he describes his carefully prepared national dishes – maybe five choices. The woman working at the market trying to describe to us which type of meat was sliced and packaged because, well, we didn’t know enough Portuguese to figure it out. Is this a jar of mayonnaise? Try asking that question with a language barrier. Lots of laughing is involved.
Of course, Praça da Ribeira is amazing, the Duoro River is beautiful, Praça da Liberdade is worth the time spent. But going to a big busy public area doesn’t give you a genuine feel of the people. We love the people.
To me there are three ‘steps’ to discovering a new city, a new culture. First, we love to do a tour bus and get the macro perspective. Learn the lay of the land. Figure out what we really want to see. Second, we will make it a point to visit one or two landmarks (Paris, Eiffel Tower… Porto, Dom Luis I Bridge) but after that we are all about local food, picking up a bit of the language, learning about the history and culture. These are the memories that last. These are the memories that make me smile.