The Eiffel Tower! The Colosseum! Big Ben! The Statue of Liberty! By now, I bet all you “off-the-beaten-path” enthusiasts are rolling your eyes and about to click the small red X at the top of your screens and do away with this article. I’ve just reached the height of blasphemy – the gall it takes to defend the sordid life of the modern-day tourist! FOLKS. The word tourist literally means: “a person who travels to a place for pleasure”. So unless you’ve booked a $1,000 flight to Rome to have a horrible, terrible, no-good time, you’re a tourist. I’m sure that right about now, you must be having some sort of existential crisis. “Me?” You say incredulously. “A tourist?!” So let’s take some time to ease into it together with a short story:

I’ve been traveling internationally since the age of sixteen, when I flew to Florence, Italy to meet up with my sister who was finishing up a semester of studying abroad. She had picked up some Italian during her stay there, as well as some intel of the city – its history, its landmarks, its secrets. So while we spent our days trotting around Florence, seeing all the necessary sights — the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo, the Boboli Gardens — our nights were spent in local dive bars, sniffing out Florence’s secret bakeries at 2 am and laughing on the cobblestone streets with a group that was equal parts foreign student, friendly local and red wine.

Four years later, in the blazing summer of 2013, I came back to Florence not as a visitor, but as a student. Instead of a guidebook, I had a Google Doc filled with researched places to go. Instead of a paper map, I had Google Maps on my iPhone. Instead of the tales of my sister to guide me through the city, I had a Facebook group chat filled with the cumulative advice from generations of study abroaders.

And as I read up on my travels, I kept coming across a theme that ran persistently through each article and itinerary builder. Its message permeated my young mind and informed the choices that I made as I carefully scouted out things to do and places to see. If everything that I was reading was true (and everything on the Internet is true, right?), then there was one label that I absolutely did not want to be branded with as I trekked through Florence, Italy and Europe’s other popular nations: a tourist.

So during my tenure in Florence, I would read about these “locals-only” bars and restaurants and nightclubs that faraway bloggers would heartily recommend and I would go to them, expecting the promised experience that the blogger wrote about lavishly, only to be disappointed when I just felt awkward, out of place and unwelcome.

And, really, what did I expect?

I was a twenty-year-old American tourist who thought that she could skip all the steps and land in a local bar unfettered from the barriers that divide any visitor from any local spot.

As I left my study abroad program and started my solo trot around Eastern and Western Europe, I began to embrace my comfortable tourist label – booking tours through my hostels, stumbling through menus with my English tongue, snapping annoying pictures in front of the leaning tower of Pisa.

Interested in traveling solo? Check out our helpful guide to solo travel.

And incredibly, miraculously, predictably, as I embraced my label, everything else began to fall into place. I met people in my hostel who were visiting friends in Barcelona. Friends who lived there. Friends who were born there. Friends who were, as fate would dictate, locals. This same story would play out time and time again. I would be taken to these little hole-in-the-wall restaurants in a forgotten corner of a city where no English is spoken and I would get a rush of pride, of intimate knowledge, of exclusivity. I would write about these places on my blog and tell tales about them to my friends.

And then I realized: I was giving the same fodder to wide-eyed not-tourists that I had learned to revile just a few weeks prior. I was spinning the same tired yarn that to wear the tourist label is a bad thing.

Our fascination with non-tourist culture come from good intentions – we believe that the city is so much more than the crowded landmarks and attractions that are the only things that most visitors see. We believe this because we know it to be true. We’ve had the good fortune to have stumbled into locals during our travels and to be invited, by a combination of charm and serendipity, to peek into the secrets and joys of their city.

Our writings about these charming and serendipitous moments also come from good intentions – we are giddy and excited to have gotten such an exclusive peek into such a beautiful city. If the Internet didn’t exist, we’d shout it from the rooftops! But it does exist, so we blog from our couches.

But now these secret places that we just happened to stumble upon becomes accessible to any surfer who comes across our online musings. And so they go, to feel that same exclusivity that we described having. And they may feel awkward, out of place and unwelcome, because there’s a missing link: that friendly local who reached out and offered us a glimpse into their city. Without them, the places – while, indeed, off-the-beaten-path – are meaningless. To see the city through a local’s eyes, shouldn’t we be accompanied by an actual local?

I, for one, think so.

So, my traveling compatriots, let’s all give up the non-tourist hysteria and call ourselves what we are. We’re tourists. We like to go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. We love to go to Rome and chat with our English-speaking waiter in a tourist-trap part of town. We live for Oktoberfest and all the steins, dirndls and standing on benches. And until a local takes our hand and leads us off the so-called beaten path, on that trusty path we should continue to tread.

Because nothing crashes a college house party harder than an enthused eight-year-old showing up uninvited.

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About The Author

Mary Zakheim
Content Writer

When she is not figuring out what the middle button on her headphones is for, explaining the difference between Washington State and Washington D.C., arriving to the airport too early or refusing to use the Oxford comma, you can usually find Mary in the mountains, at a show or on her couch. Mary is a content writer at Fareportal and likes annoying her coworkers with weird GIFs throughout the day.