I freely and unabashedly admit: I enjoy being a tourist.
On my first trip to Seattle a year ago, I happily joined the throngs taking the elevator ride up the iconic Space Needle, and I braved the cold wind to take in the views of the city from the outdoor observation area. Afterward, I roamed the adjoining Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit, completely absorbed in the graceful glass art. It didn’t bother me one bit that the attractions are considered by some to be tourist traps. I thought they were fabulous.
I’ve also been known to go a little crazy over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, the Panama Canal in Panama City, and the Grand Canyon in my home state of Arizona. All tourist attractions, to be sure, but still amazing sights.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like to dig a little deeper when I get the chance. As any traveler knows, a destination is always better if you can get beyond the usual tourist spots and catch a glimpse of the lives of the people who call the place home. My best trips have combined the two pursuits, resulting in a sweet spot I’ve come to think of jokingly as “tourcal” – a beautiful mix of the touristy landmarks that tend to personify a place, and the behind-the-scene spots that only a local would know.
I’ve been lucky in my travels to join up often with natives or near-natives, who have a true feel for their hometowns, and are more than willing to show me around.
Seattle is a prime example. My son and daughter-in-law have lived there for a year and half, and although that doesn’t make them natives, it does make them locals in their fun Capitol Hill neighborhood.
When I was looking for a picturesque pre-Christmas-dinner walk this year, for example, they were quick to suggest Volunteer Park – a 1.2-mile walk away, and a slightly off-the-beaten-track destination. I was blown away by the abundance of great views along the way – so much so that I might have taken a couple (dozen) shots of the Space Needle in the distance, visible from virtually everywhere on Capitol Hill.
Christmas Day was slightly gloomy, but that didn’t dull Seattle’s beauty. Surprisingly in the late-December chill, the grass was still green – and framed prettily by the barren, brown trees. The historic water tower in the park provided a perfect vantage point to view the city spread below. There were a few obvious tourists wandering the park (like me), but mostly, I saw locals walking dogs, young parents pushing strollers, and elderly couples strolling arm-in-arm. Lovely.
Capitol Hill is also known for its bar-and-restaurant scene, and having locals on hand was invaluable in finding the cool spots. (See “Ginger beer, cider, and wine – oh my!”).
I can think of no better example of the value of local expertise than in our choice of the Malaysian eatery Kedai Makan. On my first visit to Seattle in November 2014, my son suggested trying the cool Malaysian food stall that was just steps from his apartment. I knew nothing about Malaysian food, but quickly agreed. I joined him in line at the busy outside stall on the night of my arrival to order the exotic sounding selections – Malay style roasted peanuts with crispy anchovies and lime leaf; tender crepe-like Roti Jala Malaysian bread served with turmeric and veggie curry; and Malaysian style rice and noodles with fried shallots and star anise.
Despite (or maybe because of) the late hour, the wait for our food was long, so we stepped into the outdoor bar area of the quirky Montana Bar just down the street for a quick beer. The scent of (completely legal) marijuana wafting by, mixing with the aroma of Malaysian food being prepared, all combined for a unique Seattle experience!
When I returned to Seattle this year for Christmas, I wanted to return to the food stall, but learned that Kedai Makan had capitalized on its success and opened a full-scale sit-down restaurant just around the corner. As we sat the bar, eating the same great food, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride at the local loyalty that had helped to create an obvious success.
The next day, we took in a local Seattle tradition on a slightly larger scale. With the beloved Seattle Seahawks playing at home, we decided to take a jaunt down to Century Link Park to get a feel for the frenzy that is “game day” in Hawk country. I’m not much of a football fan, but this year (fair-weather fan that I am), I have to go with my hometown team, the Arizona Cardinals. Even so, hearing the repeated roars from the Seahawks fans as we stood in the parking lot and looked up into the packed stands offered a glimpse into the heart of the city.
Conveniently, the International District’s Uwajimaya Village food court was nearby, as was the F.X. McRory’s Steak Chop & Oyster House – both packed with green-garbed Seahawks fans – so we didn’t go hungry on our little outing. For a change of pace at halftime, we took an Uber ride to Eastlake, where waterside eateries were also busy serving chicken wings and fried mac ‘n cheese balls to rowdy football fans. Overall, an enlightening and delicious local excursion!
My love of tourist/local experiences is nothing new. I had several similar beautiful homegrown moments when I traveled to Taiwan this past year with my son and daughter-in-law – a native of the Taipei area, who is fluent in Mandarin and English, and an expert in the local culture. Of course, we visited Taipei’s famous 101-story building, and had a fabulous meal at the restaurant near the top. But with Fiona’s knowledge of the hot springs culture of northwestern Taiwan, we also were able to book a stay at the stellar little bed and breakfast, Triori, where we were served delicious Japanese-inspired meals, and got to soak non-stop in our own personal hot spring. (See “Locally sourced in Taiwan“). We also took in the historic gold-mining town of Jiufen, where we joined hundreds of Taiwanese tourists browsing in the shops along the twisting pathways overlooking the East China Sea. (See “Jerome to Jiufen: The quirkiness of old mining towns“).
Likewise, when I traveled to Panama a few years ago with a friend whose daughter was living there as a Peace Corps volunteer, we were able to go beyond the obligatory visit to the Panama Canal, and the picturesque Casco Viejo district of Panama City. Because Jessica, our host, spoke not only fluent Spanish, but also the local dialect of her Comarca (indigenous region), we had access to the remote Ngåbe-Buglé community of Chichica. (See “8 reasons I can’t wait to get back to Panama“). There, we spent a day walking through the community, surrounded by rain forest, chatting with the native people, and buying handmade clothing and jewelry. You couldn’t get more local.
And of course, I can’t forget the “tourcal” experiences I’ve had in my own backyard. With the Grand Canyon just a two-hour drive away, my friends and I are frequent visitors to the natural wonder. And although I thoroughly enjoy mingling with the tourists from around the world at the canyon’s South Rim, I love nothing more than hiking below, where I can take in the rock walls from the bottom up. I’ve come to realize that although the elegantly historic El Tovar Restaurant, which overlooks the South Rim, is a can’t-miss dining experience, nothing beats a lemonade and trail mix at the rustic Colorado River-side Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon – a true locals hangout. (See “The big one: Hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim“).
How about you? Do you have any unique ways of combining touristy attractions with local haunts? I’d love to hear about it!