How do you become a non-touristy tourist? You can’t. If you want to be like a local, you’ll grab some take out and plop down on your couch for the better part of your trip.
What you can do, though, is be a cultural tourist rather than a sight-seeing one.
Back home in Chicago, I often find myself walking around, mouth wide open, staring at things. The city is teeming with life, and I’m always startled by the glimpses of beauty that I catch while walking down the block. For example, this summer, I stumbled across a community garden that runs along some train tracks in Andersonville. It was only a few feet wide, but there was gravel path that wound through artfully arced branches, creating a (terribly romantic) tunnel. It dawned on me that that is how you get to know a city; you find the little parts that individuals and communities have claimed for themselves and try to grasp what they see.
But, I live in Chicago. I take the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) and Navy Pier for granted. In a sense, I live in Cork too. I can take my time to blend in a bit before I whip out my Nikon and start madly snapping pictures of local monuments. Amsterdam, however, was a different ball game for me. I had to try to reconcile my urge to act like a local with my panicked need to see everything the city had to offer.
And so, I found myself fully accepting that at times I would look like an overzealous goof, trying to grab my camera out of my bag while attempting to tame the wild maps and souvenirs waiting for their escape. It’s OK to want to capture a city’s unique look and feel. If you crouch down enough and angle your camera slightly, people might believe you’re getting paid to take those pictures.
The key to not annoying the natives is knowing when to put the selfies aside. I’ve found that watching how people interact with each other – especially the small things, such as which side of the sidewalk people walk on – can carry just as much weight as learning when the royal palace was built. If you want to know the place you’re in rather than just see it, grab a cup of tea in every cafe you can. Beers in pubs work too, if that’s more your style. Everyday lives don’t often revolve around the great museums and statues, they center on the minimart down the street.
The most important thing is to have a framework for the day and then leave room for happy accidents. One night, a couple of friends and I were searching for a place to eat. We found a small restaurant called Serengeti down a side street. After debating about going in there or heading back to a Chinese place with an all-Dutch menu, we took a chance. The food was foreign, the decorations were bright and the setting was so intimate that we felt like we were barging in on a private party. In fact, I think we did. But after having a fantastic meal accompanied by some off-the-handle mango beers and music performed by the owner and her brother, I knew we found a gem. When I think of Amsterdam, that’s what I’ll remember.
Throw the guidebook out the door; you’ll know what’s important by how many people are crowding around it. Walk through parks and get lost. Cities are living organisms, and culture is the undercurrent pulsing through them. You can’t see it and you certainly can’t take a picture of it. You have to live it.
And you wanna know the best part of avoiding some of those sights? It’s cheaper too. #brokecollegestudent
If anyone is interested in seeing the large amount of pictures I did actually take while in Amsterdam, here’s the link.