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Being a Tourist or Living Like a Local: Why You Should Embrace Both

It’s okay to stand out as a tourist–as long as you’re open to exploring the unknown, too

Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that the word “tourist” sometimes gets a bad rap. “You look like a tourist” has somehow become an insult, and fellow travelers may warn you that certain landmarks at your destination are “tourist traps.” I have, to my confusion and dismay, been told that certain behaviors will give away the fact that I am not a native—that I am, in fact, a tourist.

But why all the hate? When did it become so distasteful to embrace the excitement of being in a foreign place?

Real talk: when I am in a foreign city, I want to get my picture taken with every famous building I see. I want to wear my camera around my neck for easy (and constant) access. I want to tour the historical landmarks that once established a city. I want to taste escargot and baguette when I’m in France, poutine when I’m in Quebec, and deep-dish pizza when I’m in Chicago. I want people to know that I’m not a native. These might be the things that people only ever do when they’re visiting, but so what? That’s exactly what I’m doing.

chateau frontenac quebec city quebec canada image

Lame poses in front of impressive landmarks–like the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City–are all the rage!

Far too many travelers fear embracing these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and for some reason are ashamed to reveal their excitement at being somewhere new. But this is the totally wrong approach to traveling.

Growing up, my family didn’t take many vacations or travel very far outside of Pennsylvania, our home state. With four kids, it was way too expensive and difficult for my parents to manage! The first time I ever really traveled, and understood how valuable the experience of traveling is, was when I was 16 and I flew to France (my first time on a plane!) completely alone. I was going to stay with a friend, my past exchange student who had stayed at my house for two weeks just a few months earlier. I was incredibly excited, but also a little nervous to be so immersed in a new culture all by myself. When I arrived in Paris, amid the classy European architecture, the cobblestone pavements, and the slew of unique foods, all governed by a new set of social mannerisms, I was dazzled. It was overwhelming, taking in everything at once, but I wanted to observe and remember as much as I could. I wanted to see all of the amazing sites that everyone talked about, to gaze longingly at the Eiffel Tower, to stand before the Louvre—and I did all of these things!

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How could I leave Paris without getting a picture in front of the Louvre?

The bottom line: there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist!

Of course, on the other hand, a tourist should never forget to try to see a foreign place through the eyes of a local. This means grabbing drinks at the little hole-in-the-wall pub, eating breakfast at a tiny, laid-back café, visiting the local independent shops, and exploring the little-known backstreets.

During my short time in Paris (we stayed only for a bit, then returned to Margaux’s house in Alsace, France, a great region near Germany that you can read about here!), I was lucky to have Margaux and her friend, a native Parisian, to remind and show me that in Paris—and really every city across the globe, for that matter!—there’s more than meets the eye. We ate Parisian pizza in a small bistro on a narrow, nearly empty road. We roamed several barely-traveled streets, tucked away in corners of the city that someone just looking for the Arc de Triomphe would never find. I learned firsthand how a city that seems to exist only in the form of a landmark-listing guidebook can burst with beautiful, under-appreciated culture and life.

If you only ever bother to visit the Liberty Bell when you’re in Philadelphia, the infamous Hollywood sign when you’re in Los Angeles, or Big Ben when you’re in London, I guarantee that you are missing out on 99% of what your destination has to offer.

Think about your hometown. Now think about one single hotspot within your hometown that a visitor would be most eager to see. What if said visitor only stopped at that one landmark, ignoring that awesome mom-and-pop coffee shop that you recommend to everyone, or that adorable alley downtown where local artists display and sell their work? To stick strictly to the renowned, popular places in a city is to do just that. Sure, you’ve witnessed incredible landmarks that some people only dream of seeing, but you’ve also forgotten to fully take advantage of what traveling should be: the opportunity to experience life—something so similar yet drastically unique amongst every individual—in a way you’ve never experienced before, to challenge and reconsider your personal customs and the things you take for granted.

philadelphia cheesesteak from south street image

In Philadelphia, Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks get all the attention–this steak is from a small shop on South Street instead!

In the end, balance is key. Traveling should be a kind of escape—it should be a way to let loose, learn, grow, and have fun. If you don’t feel differently than you normally do upon waking up in your own bed in your hometown, it might be time to reevaluate your trip. Acknowledge the fact that you are fortunate enough to be experiencing the joys of life in someone else’s norm, and embrace the excitement!

Remember that there are two sides to a destination: the known and the unknown. Explore both. Be proud to be a tourist, but always embrace the little-known local gems!

Johanna Gruber

Boston University | 9 stories

I am a junior at Boston University with a passion for literature, writing, the arts, and sewing. I am majoring in English with a minor in Journalism, and I hope to one day write, teach, or live as a hermit in my house with a never-ending supply of novels, Netflix, and noodles. I interned with the College Tourist during the summer of 2014 as a writer, and currently serve as a senior editor. Check out my website for more info and my portfolio: www.johannagruber.wordpress.com


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