Culture is the main reason we travel. We want to see how other people live. We want to learn new things, try new things and form new relationships. We want to know about out people’s traditions and customs, their religion and their language. The most interesting thing about culture is that it is never the same. Something will vary, no matter how small, from one town to another.
That’s why we can go back to the same country again and again and explore different towns, villages and cities. None of them are the same. People have different accents, their own traditions and celebrations. To really understand the places you visit you need to thoroughly explore the culture from all its aspects. You might prefer one aspect to another, but you have to be mindful and aware of all.
The Different Aspects of Culture and How to Explore Them
Arguably most people’s favourite part of any new culture and travelling in general. In the past, transporting food and drinks around the world was much harder than it is today. Having isolated food and ingredients has created a vast spread of different cuisines which are celebrated around the world.
In China, you have noodle dishes with spicy ingredients, but Italy is famous for its Pizza and Pasta options. This gives explorers loads of different food to try no matter where they are. Of course, nowadays, in the western world, we can pretty much get any food stuff we dream of. But not everything. And even when we can get the ingredients, it doesn’t mean we know how to use them.
The best ways to explore the unique cuisine of any destination are to eat in local spots, stay with local families where meals are provided or attend a local cooking class. I have been to parts of the world where I barely recognised any of the fruit in the market. In Indonesia they have a fruit which they call a “snake fruit” and it looks like a garlic covered in snake skin. But on the inside it is soft and segmented and tastes like a perfumed pear. It’s amazing!
Ok, sometimes the local delicacies can be a bit overwhelming (balut in the Philippines or scorpions in Thailand), you don’t have to push yourself too far, but acknowledge them and ask locals what they think. Often locals don’t eat those extremes, they’re just for tourists. So don’t just sit in a McDonalds, get out there and experience the local culture through taste.
From the very oldest civilisations to the megacities of today, music has always played a huge part in the human experience. In the past, it would be used to tell stories and the deeds of heroes, and, now, it’s used almost purely for entertainment purposes.
Throughout different times, each region has adapted and modified their sonic trends, creating a rich tapestry of sound. This is something truly worth traveling for, whether you go for an opera in Sydney or a rock concert in Nevada, there’s something for everyone across the globe.
Check out local gigs and street musicians. Ask them about their influences. You’ll be surprised what you might discover. For me I’d love to explore the country music scene down in the Southern states of America a bit more. Or the blues and jazz of New Orleans. And I KNOW people come from all over to enjoy Irish “trad” music. Even if you think it’s not your style, I’d keep an open…..ear. You might fall in love with a new style of music.
I’m obsessed with languages. If I had to choose a super power it would be to be able to know and understand every language. I hate the idea of being unable to communicate properly with someone due to a language barrier. Which is why I ALWAYS try to learn a few key phrases before I go somewhere new.
Communication is one of the most important tools humans have, enabling the transfer of information and thoughts without having to use writing. Language forms a large part of culture, and learning a little bit of it before you travel somewhere is a great way to integrate yourself. A German or Spanish school can help you to brush up on your skills if you have a few months to spare on your learning. This sort of approach will see you learning the most before you adventure.
OR you could learn as you travel. Which is what I did when I studied french in small town in France for a week. It was incredible. If you’re extremely busy and always on the go then an online language course or app might be better for you. Try something like Rosetta Stone or the Duo Lingo app.
Like music, each different location will have its own native artist creating a range of locally inspired styles. Some places are better known for their pedigree in this field, like France, Spain and Italy. Most locations will have their own famous artist and you will be able to see their works in local galleries and museum. This can be a great bit of culture to soak up on an afternoon of your trip.
I know a lot of people find this boring. Hell, sometimes I find it boring and I LOVE art. But I’ve discovered that I only like certain styles of art. I LOVE modern art galleries. I’m not a fan of ancient master painting portraits. I like off the wall stuff by artists like Dali and Picasso. BUT, I only know that because I’ve visited so many galleries and took the time to look. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I studied art history in school either, haha.
If there’s a Guggenheim in the place you’re visiting, ALWAYS GO. And if you don’t want to visit a gallery or museum simply browse the local creative market and get a feel for the inspiration behind the local artists. I went to an art fair in Edmonton, Canada and it was one of the best things I did with my time there.
Everywhere has history. It’s not always good, but it’s how the city, village, town or country came to be. It’s what makes the people who they are, to some extent. Much of the world’s more modern history has been well recorded, and a lot of places have massive relics of the more ancient past to give you an idea of what it was like back then.
Rome, for example, is famous for the Colosseum which makes its home there. History is really just about people’s stories from another time. You can only begin to truly understand the local people and the destination if you learn about the history. There are plenty of sources online if you want to read up in advance, or you can visit the local museum on arrival. City tours are also a great (non-boring) way of experiencing history. They’re a bit more lively than a museum!
Whether you are religious or not, you can’t ignore the religion practiced by most of the people in your destination. This will impact the buildings you find, the type of history they’ve experienced, and the liberal or conservative nature of a country or state. It’s worth reading up on the religion in your destination before you go so that you can bring appropriate attire or prepare for upcoming religious festival.
Going to certain countries with the wrong clothing or items could get you into trouble, with alcohol and religious symbols being outlawed in a surprising amount of places. Did you know that you’re not allowed to bring anything representing a cross into quite a few Muslim countries? Also, if you try to enter Sri Lanka and have a tattoo of any Buddhist symbols or figures you will be in A LOT of trouble.
You will get absolutely grilled in Israel if you have a stamp on your passport from any Muslim countries. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is segregated into male and female sections so your group may have to separate. You won’t be allowed into a church in Italy if you have exposed knees of shoulders. Personally I’m not down with organised religion at all (more spiritual than anything else), BUT it’s a huge part of people’s lives and we have to be respectful of the local religions and beliefs when we travel. Plus, places of worship are often absolutely beautiful.
My favourite thing about travelling is the people. I love hearing their stories, finding out about their traditions and hobbies and finding the similarities between my life and theirs. The best way to soak up the culture of a place is by getting out there and mingling with the people. The locals, wherever you go, will have the best insight into how the place works, giving you a chance to learn about it in a more authentic way.
Maybe you’re not the chatty type? But it can be as simple as asking the receptionist at your hotel for some recommendations, or going to a bar full of locals instead of tourists. If you’re single, dating a local is always an incredible experience. Get on Tinder! Not really though, well, maybe, why not?! If you truly get to know the people in a destination then you’ll start to feel more in tune with the place. Travelling like a local is one of my favourite ways to travel and certainly gives a better understanding of the destination.
Let’s Wrap it up
Hopefully, this post will inspire you to start exploring the culture of your vacation destinations before you even arrive. This is absolutely vital and will stop you from experiencing too much “culture shock”. I rarely experience this feeling but I did when I was in Israel because I didn’t do enough research before my trip. It’s best to be prepared so that you don’t make a cultural faux-pas which could offend the locals.
Things like dressing modestly when visiting religious sites in Europe are easy to miss if you’re visiting during the summer and haven’t done your research. Exposed knees or shoulders + church = no entry in a lot of religious countries. SO, read up on all aspects of your chosen destination’s culture, immerse yourself while there and you’ll have the time of your life.