Traveling doesn’t mean sightseeing. You can go to London and not see Big Ben, or go to Nashville and not listen to country music. The experience is your own.
When you think of your favorite thing to do in the city where you live, what is the first thing that pops into your head? I bet it’s not on the tourist "attraction" list. So then why would you follow a tourist guide when you're visiting other cities?
If you want to get the best experience possible, you need to get in the mind of a local. Treat every trip like you live there, no matter how long your stay.
Know Before You Go
In addition to learning how to ask for a beer and the bathroom, make sure you understand the norms. I always start with food and drinks, then make my way to music and customs. Understanding certain rituals and traditions means you won’t be terrified when someone smashes a dish and starts hollering next to you in a restaurant (true story).
Stop Going to Museums
Many people believe that the best way to learn about the history of a region is to go to their museums. That is most certainly not true. There is just as much, if not more, history within the city and surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about a town from locals at small establishments sharing stories, than at any museum.
Befriend the Locals
There’s no better way to see the city than with a local, which is why I typically visit cities where my friends live (plus it's a free bed). But when I’m flying solo in a new place, I head to cafes, bars, and small events to meet new people. If I don’t make any new friends, I at least ask people what’s good.
Have an Open Mind
When you’re in a foreign country, not everything is going to be how you expect it to be. For instance, the first time I saw the Thee Kings Parade in Barcelona, I was absolutely furious. As the float carrying the black king approached, I realized that he was a white man painted black. My friend saw my joy flip to anger, and quickly explained that blackface was completely normal for them. What Americans view as offensive or racist doesn't transfer to other countries - and vice versa. It was a reminder that different doesn’t mean bad.
Check Out the Local Music Scene
Scope out bars and small venues to see what kind of live music they have available. Try to check out multiple places with varying genres. The local passion is different at every scene.
My favorite city for live music is Dublin, Ireland - hands down. The Temple Bar area is full of life, culture, and professional drunks. It’s the true Irish experience.
Attend a Festival or Sporting Event
In my opinion, the best way to experience a city is through a festival. Whether it's beer, food, music, or art, you’ll get an amazing glimpse at the local culture.
My all-time favorite festivals are in Spain. Spaniards knows how to throw an unforgettable party. There’s always fantastic food, drinks, music, and, or course, dancing. Summer street festivals are wonderfully insane experiences that will keep you partying until the sun comes up… even in your 30’s.
If there are no festivals during your stay, I suggest attending a popular sporting event in the region. Like football (soccer) in Spain, rugby in Australia, cricket in England, hockey in Canada, etc. etc..
One of my favorite experiences in Madrid was going to a Real Madrid game for my birthday. The energy and excitement in that place was unreal. I couldn’t believe it.
Culture > Tourism
Small Art Galleries > Museums - Small, local galleries with featured artists will shine light on the current culture, whereas a museum will only display the history.
Apartments > Hotels - Rent an apartment on Airbnb or a similar site.
I love being in smaller neighborhoods and spending my mornings in the local cafes. I also love being able to stock the apartment with market goodies. That way I save money, support local businesses, and get to cook with fresh, local ingredients. I suggest finding recipes for regional dishes, then do your best to recreate them.
Ma & Pa > Chain - You can learn a lot about a culture through their food. Find small family owned establishments that are highly rated. Always ask what their specialty is and get it. You’ll never have order envy. Also, don't be afraid to try new things! Who cares if you can't pronounce it.
Small Neighborhoods > Major Attractions - If you’re only spending time around the Eiffel Tower when you’re in Paris, you’re doing it wrong. Locals will agree, the best places are always hiding in the surrounding neighborhoods. Not to mention everything is significantly cheaper outside of the tourist traps.
Small Boutiques > Shopping Centers - When it comes to picking up souvenirs or some local attire, skip the big name brands and head to the boutiques. You’ll find unique pieces and friendly neighbors. Plus you’ll be supporting small, local businesses that need your help.
Walk > Ride - You miss a lot of things when you take public transportation; especially the metro. Walking allows you to scope out shops, listen to street gossip, and take in the amazing smells of restaurants and bakeries. I obviously don’t walk everywhere, but I try to stroll around as much as possible so I don’t miss a thing.
Remember, the experience is your own. Just because a city is known for something, doesn't mean you have to do/see it. There are plenty of ways to experience a city. Find what works best for you.