Like a flamingo in a flock of baby chicks, you just can’t miss the typical tourist walking down the street—confused look, big map, too many things hanging around their necks.
But visiting a new place does not doom you to stand out as a tourist. When I’m asked for directions on the streets of London or Freiburg im Breisgau, or asked to sign local petitions in Vancouver, Canada, I know I’ve passed the “look like a local” test. You can, too. Here are nine ways to blend in when you’re traveling.
Unless you’re in training for the Olympic track team, white athletic shoes are not a fashion statement. Avoid them outside the gym (especially with white socks). Instead, use your fashion imagination. There are lots of shoes out there that look better than athletic shoes and are comfortable enough to trek through museums, shopping, walking around sights. Honest. Go wild. Try sandals.
2. Lose the backpack
If you’re going hiking, you need the 10 essentials. If you’re a tourist, you don’t. You’re unlikely to perish from lack of food or water while touristing as most cities have grocery stores and restaurants. Locals don’t go hungry or thirsty; neither will you. Leave the backpacks, fanny packs, and purses big enough to hold a Smart car at home.
3. Get lost
Lewis and Clark didn’t use a map and they crossed the entire North American continent. Live dangerously and put your map away. Getting a little lost might help you find an unusual corner of the city or have an interesting conversation with a real local. Getting lost has resulted in some of my funniest post-trip stories to share with friends.
4. Hide your map
I’ll concede that having a map in an unfamiliar place is useful, but you don’t need to consult it at every street corner with a confused look on your face. Either look at your map discreetly (like in the privacy of a bathroom stall) or use a map app on your phone. Everyone looks at their phones all the time; no one will know you’re a tourist looking at directions rather than a local sending a text about what groceries to pick up on the way home from work.
5. Dress like you would at home
Tourists always seem inappropriately dressed. Sometimes they don’t seem to notice the weather happening directly overhead (tropical rain storm) and instead dress for the weather they saw in the travel brochures (sunshine in Hawaii). Or they prepare for a polar expedition (multiple layers of everything) for fear of a raindrop.
Look outside and ask yourself, “What would I wear at home in this weather?” Wear that. If it rains, you can always duck into the nearest doorway. When I was in Delphi, Greece, the skies opened up in a downpour, but I met some interesting folks while we huddled together under the shelter of a tree. I got drenched, then went to the hotel and changed clothes. I didn’t melt. Neither will you.
6. Disguise yourself
Buy something a local would buy—groceries, toothpaste. Not only is the visit to a grocery store or drugstore in a new place (especially a foreign place) a tourist adventure in and of itself, but carrying around your local shopping bag makes you look like you’re going about your everyday life rather than checking off sights from a guidebook.
7. Tourist creatively
Be creative with how you visit a tourist attraction. A typical tourist sight in Vancouver is an old steam-powered clock. Prague has a famous clock, too. Most people gather around these clocks well in advance, waiting for the hour to strike (and music to play, steam to belch out, or wooden figures to move). Crowds jostling to get the best photo at the right moment, children crying as they’re forced to stand there and wait and wait—it’s not a pretty sight.
I experienced both of these clocks’ antics from nearby outdoor cafes, sipping wine and eating risotto (Vancouver) or goulash (Prague). No one pushed me aside for a photo. My feet didn’t hurt. Best of all, no one could tell I was a tourist rather than a local on a lunch break from work.
8. Shrink the camera
Nothing screams tourist like a camera. Keep yours small so it fits in your pocket or purse to disguise your tourist status, rather than have it hanging around your neck.
Of course, if you’re a professional or have professional-looking equipment, that’s different. You won’t blend in, but you’ve got the additional cool factor of looking like you’re on a photo shoot for National Geographic or Vogue. Go with it. Mutter loudly about your upcoming magazine deadline or how unappreciative the photo editors back at the office are about your hard work in the field.
9. Venture off the beaten track
When you’re in an area with high tourist traffic (like the Plaka in Athens), you’re assumed guilty (of being a tourist) until proven innocent. Escape the tourist area; take a tram or bus to the end of the line. You may find delightful neighborhood parks or local restaurants. You may venture into a local grocery store or drugstore. Anywhere off the tourist track will allow you to more fully experience the place you’re visiting as well as disguising the dreaded truth that you’re a tourist.