Local Living (or how to stake out your corner of paradise)


Tired of being on the go-go-go when you travel? Feel like you’ve got a part in the 1969 movie If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium?

Some people still have this mantra when they travel: “the more countries, the merrier, the faster the travel, the better.”

Many of us, on the other hand, want to savor special moments, understand the places we visit and create bonds with the people we meet.

Meet locals - easier when you visit a place regularlyBy putting down roots you’ll have your own touchstones – a local bar, a restaurant, a small shop where the signora waves Buongiorno each time you walk past

So many places! How to choose the perfect place to put down roots for a while

When I say settle down, I don’t mean forever. I’m thinking of at least a week in one place (more if you can, but a week will give you a head start into local culture).  

Do you already have a place in mind? A week in a studio in St Tropez? A month in a house by the sea in the Algarve?

If you don’t and you’re in the midst of planning, consider these factors before you make up your mind.

Will you be legal?

If you’re staying a week, this won’t be an issue. But if you’re thinking of staying several months, make sure you’re actually allowed to.

Long-term visas can be complicated, and some countries are stricter than others. Thailand, for example, is relatively flexible, allowing you to nip in and out of the country to renew your visa. Europe and the USA, on the other hand, will punish you severely if you overstay. 

How liveable is it?

Is this a pleasant place to live? Do people rave about it? Does it keep popping up on your ‘best of’ lists, like Porto or Bordeaux or San Miguel de Allende? What are local people like? Will you be able to meet new friends? Can you cope with the food?

Quality of life is something we can’t neglect, especially if we plan to stay any length of time. Weather, for example – I get nervous at the first sign of freezing so France, where I now live, is about as cold as I can handle. Or if the idea of tropical rains makes your skin crawl, stay away from countries during the monsoon.

Then there are all the other things that make a place liveable – public transport, entertainment, friendliness, cleanliness, health infrastructure, diseases, wildlife… make sure your chosen home matches your own values and needs.

How expensive is it?

If you’re on a limited budget, putting down roots can be a significant financial decision. We may all want to live in Tahiti or London for a few months but it’s not always possible – unless you become a housesitter, in which case you’ll be able to live like a local and pretty much anywhere for free.

Some countries will grant you a long-term visa and allow you to work as well but otherwise, make sure you can afford your stay or have a way of earning money while you’re away.

feeding cats in IstanbulEach morning in Sariyer I walked down to the water and cats emerged from the night, hungry. People always appeared with leftovers for them. Photo Anne Sterck

How accessible is it?

How near are you to major transport hubs? How easy is it to get in and out? However lovely your new home, you might get tired of it once in a while and you’ll need to escape – and that might be a bit hard if you’re marooned at the end of a high mountain road in a snowstorm or a flood.

Countries and cities served by low-cost airlines are worth a look, as are places near major train lines and bus stations.

What about safety and security?

Is the country politically stable, or do you run the risk of being sealed in by closing borders or deported? I was once stuck in Prague while the then Soviet Union decided whether to re-invade Czechoslovakia. The borders were temporarily closed and the most popular building was the post office, where people lined up for blocks to call abroad and let everyone know. It only lasted a day or two but – it might not have.

Crime abroad is always a concern, more so if you plan on living somewhere for a number of months. 

Are you thirsty for history?

You might want to stay somewhere steeped in history, with cobblestones that glisten in the rain or temples whose roofs soar to the sky. 

In a big city, try one of the more traditional neighborhoods. In Istanbul I lived in Sariyer for a week, way up the coast, and commuted into town every day from my ancient Ottoman apartment. By week’s end I almost felt I belonged, and could count a dozen or so people who would greet me each day as I walked by.

If a big city isn’t your thing, I’d go for a small provincial city – Girona rather than Barcelona, for example.

Are women treated equally and with respect?

Is this a safe country for solo women? This is key for me.

Lets face it – some countries are more woman-friendly than others. I have no desire to spend time or money in a place that disrespects me. There’s also the issue of unwanted male attention, which remains all too common…

Does it feel familiar?

Putting down roots might be easier somewhere relatively familiar. You may prefer a ‘taste’ of home – the existence of a Starbucks, for example, of bookshops or a large English-speaking community nearby.

Maybe, like me, you enjoy the novelty of difference – Arabic or Cyrillic script, for example, or a country where English isn’t the second, or even the third language. A place like Ethiopia is – at least to me – quite foreign. The only significant expat community is in the capital, Addis Ababa, but elsewhere, you’re on your own.

putting down rootsSome countries make getting a long-term visa easier than others

How well can you communicate?

Are you able to meet your basic needs? Do you speak the language or are you willing to learn? Do people speak English?

Think about it: will you be able to handle an emergency? What if you get sick?

What about connectivity?

You’ll probably want some kind of internet access or wifi. How often will you need it? Is a weekly visit to an internet café enough or will you be uploading hundreds of photos a day? In addition to access, cost and signal strength and speed should be considerations if you plan to spend any amount of time in one place.

Putting down rootsFamiliar, everywhere

Who are YOU as a person?

This is perhaps the most important question of all, because if you’re recovering from a broken relationship, you’ll be comfortable in a different place than if you’re trying to challenge yourself or if you want to learn a practical skill.

Shopping for a new (temporary) home

Once you’ve set your criteria, it’s time to start shopping – for a new home, that is!

Over and over, the same places pop up. That’s because other travelers have tried them before you and can speak from experience.

Here are just a few of the eternal favorites if you want to go local:

  • Thailand: it continues to top my list for best value for money (although prices have skyrocketed), simply ease of living (although the political situation comes and goes) and world-class medical care
  • non-EU Eastern Europe: costs are climbing but some of these countries remain hugely popular
  • Greece: low prices, glorious sunshine, fabulous food (Turkey used to rank up there as well but these days, increased conservatism and terrorist incidents would make me think twice about actually “relaxing” there). 
  • Portugal has always attracted a British expat contingent but it is broadening its reach and is a great destination for women travelers
  • Spain of course – I grew up there – people are friendly and life seems less complicated (although this just may be my bias showing)
  • Central America: my vote goes to Panama, but several other countries fit the bill and Costa Rica is always popular
  • I’m told Ecuador is a great place to spend some time, and I have friends who swear by Medellin in Colombia
  • Australia and New Zealand, assuming you have the right paperwork and enough money

In the end, all that counts is that the place is right for you – wherever it is.

I’m a great believer in putting down roots when I travel.

Some of my own homes away from home? Bangkok (more than a year); Algeria (three months – twice); Eritrea (two months); South Africa (two months); Italy (six months); Brazil (four months); Geneva (many many years). France… Canada… I’m a bit of a serial expat.

What if you only have a few days? Or a few hours?

Does that mean you can’t enjoy living like a local?

No way!

I’ve learned to appreciate the benefits of slow travel, where I can intensify my travel experience even for a few hours.

Here are some of the things I might do to “feel like a local”, even if I’m just passing through. 

Stay with locals
This can be anything from finding friends of friends who live somewhere you want to go, to trying couchsurfing-type organizations to booking a homestay for part of your trip.

Eat with locals
This is all the rage, and finding a local to eat with is now becoming the norm, not the exception, as many “social dining” groups and organizations emerge. A great way to “meet the locals”!

Take tours by locals
There are so many networks that match tourists to local tour guides that it’s impossible to keep up withe them all. The Guardian has done a great job in listing some of the more popular ones. Find local trips, take a tour with a local, or hire someone for an hour or two to visit something you yearn to see.

Go to the market
Find a local market – not one of the delightful foodie tourist destinations – and take your time walking around. Look at the produce, watch people bargaining, listen to the vendors, and pretty soon you’ll be flowing along at local speed.

Eat like a local
Trying new local foods can be a bit daunting. Not everything will appeal to you – my friends in France have been trying to get me to eat tripe for decades, but I’m a resister. On the other hand, I’ll follow an escargot to the end of the earth.

Build a habit
Nothing cements you to a place more than repetition. Keep going back to the same place for breakfast every day and you’ll soon be a member of the family, with choice bits reserved for you, along with a bright smile and a warm welcome.

Enjoy local entertainment
Ideally you could go to the theater or a local concert but if you can’t make that happen, watch local TV instead of CNN International. Even if you don’t understand a word, seeing how people behave and talk to others is eye opening, as are the newscasts. Go to a local movie. Again, don’t worry about understanding – just get into the film, and look around at others. My favorite? A local museum, perhaps not the biggest and most famous – and go at hours when you might find locals rather than tourists.

Get sporty
If you happen to practice a sport, try to find a local group you can play with. Failing that, join a local gym for a day or two and no, gyms are not all made the same. They have different attitudes towards clothing and locker rooms, different styles of sports clothes, and different attitudes to sports. Every little step you take into local life will open your eyes a bit more.

Dress like a local
Now this is not blanket advice! In many cases, dressing like a local is a bad bad idea. But sometimes, where it is appropriate, it can bring you closer to people. As they say, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

The beauty of solo travel is that it helps you connect with people. So when you can, try to stay for a while. Put down roots, even if it’s just for a week.

Remember that by trying to see more, we often end up seeing less.

Have you had any great “local living” experiences? Please let me know in the comments below!

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