The absolute best way to fully integrate yourself into a culture is by hanging out with the locals. They will show you where to eat, what the popular music is, how to dress, and teach you everything you want to know about their country. However, actually getting to this comfort level with residents, can be difficult and a bit daunting. Sometimes meeting new people in general can be a little scary, let alone in a foreign country. The following tips are the exact ways I usually meet locals when I am abroad. Hopefully, they will help you too.
Websites Are Your Friend
The internet is one of the most helpful ways to meet locals. People typically feel more comfortable setting up a meeting through an internet site than they would if they just happened to just casually bump into you on the street.
One of the best websites to meet people while traveling is CouchSurfing.com. On this website, super-friendly locals allow travelers to spend the night “on their couch” for free. It may seem a bit risky, but tons of people do it, and I haven’t heard of anyone ever having problems with it. However, if you believe that staying on some random person’s couch overnight is a little to shady for you, then you can also connect with locals on Couchsurfing.com who are willing to meet you for coffee or show you around their city.(Disclaimer – Always, always check the reviews and ratings of users on couchsurfing.com before staying with them. And if you know you will be staying with someone, bringing a small gift from home is a nice idea)
My favorite website to use while traveling is Meetup.com. There are plenty of people around the world using this website. Generally, wherever I am, they have some “Meet up” groups for that particular city. What I really love about Meetup.com is that the events are generally centered around an activity. You may meet up with a group to go hiking, a festival, a language exchange, or a wine tasting. So, you end up having fun and are able to make new friends at the same time. It’s great.
There are many websites around the world that facilitate your connection with the locals. Just do a simple web search before you leave and see what is out there.
Restaurants, Grocery Stores, and Shops... (Be Repetitive)
Some of the best places to meet natives are the locations you go to on a daily basis such as the markets, grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries or the bank. I have made a substantial amount of connections this way as I have traveled and lived abroad.
As I lived in Korea, there was a bakery I frequented often to fill me up on goodies (that should not have been entering my stomach!). There was one sweet lady who worked there and often chatted with me in my broken Korean. I always made sure that I was being friendly to her, and asking about her life and family. Sometimes I would bring her a few American sweets to try as well. It was great getting to know my “bakery friend” in Korea and as I told her it was time for me to go back home, I could see the tears in her eyes as we said goodbye. It was also similar for me with people in other countries as well. If you are kind to the people, they will give you this back tenfold.
If you are in town for solely a few days, then it may not be as easy to meet locals in these types of places. Usually these kinds of relationships take some time to build. However, I have had some great conversations with people I have only crossed paths with once, and I am sure that you can too.
Tip: If you are trying to make new friends with locals around your neighborhood, don’t go to those gigantic grocery stores or markets. The people are too busy, and quite frankly, may just not care as much. The best places to go are the small, mom and pop stores that have more of that “homie” atmosphere to them. Go to them regularly and you will naturally start to build relationships with the locals. And it gets easier over time!
Parties, Festivals, And Events
One of the best times to meet people is when the atmosphere is happy, there is music playing in the background, and the people perhaps have had a little too much to drink. In these situations, even the most closed people are likely to open up to meeting foreigners.
A good example is when I was living in the Basque country in Spain. The Basques, unlike the Spanish, are not usually as open to speaking with people they do not know. They are known for their tight-knit “cuadrillas” or groups of friends they have had since childhood. These groups are extremely difficult to break into, even if you are a Basque person yourself. However, if you find yourself drinking cider in a cider house with the Basques, perhaps you will be able to get to know them a bit better after a few drinks. You may not receive an invitation to their house afterward, but at least you would have an opportunity to interact and have a fun time with those close-knit Basque people.
If you are wondering how to find out where these festivals, parties, and events are located, the city website is the best place to start. It will typically have information in English and you can learn about all of the upcoming events and go to the ones that are the most appealing to you.
Volunteering is another fantastic way to make local friends while abroad. When you take your time to help others, especially in a foreign country, chances are that the locals will be more interested in getting to know you as well. While my sister was in Barcelona, she volunteered at a hospital and was able to get to know the Catalan ladies that worked with her. When I was in Korea I signed up for a volunteer group. We would work with orphan children, and in return, the Koreans would introduce us to their culture and language. It was a great exchange and I made new friends in the process.
Even if you are in a country for a short period of time, volunteering on a project for even a half a day is one of the best ways to hang out with the natives from that country. It will provide you with a different perspective of the local culture than would traditional touring. Who knows, you may even get a dinner invite afterward.
Care About The People You Meet
The previous four points I made about meeting the locals are great. Nevertheless, if you are really trying to immerse yourself in the local culture, the most important thing is the effort you put into the relationships with the people you meet. If you are friendly to the people, attempt to speak their language, respect their beliefs and customs, and learn about their culture, the locals will really bend over backwards for you. Caring is the most important piece of advice you can take away from this entire article