When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. In other words, once you’re done snapping photos of the Colosseum, divorce yourself from your DSLR and start snooping around small eateries for the best bowl of tortelli di zucca. Some communities lend themselves to living like a local; these are places where a sense of town pride persists and small businesses abound. Here, like Jane Goodall, you can embed yourself deep in the trenches of local food and culture on an urban safari, recording and participating in the habits of distinct populations—from the guttural cries of sports fans to the drinking habits of college students.
Are you up for the challenge? Here are some of the top cities to explore like a native:
Baton Rouge, LA
Any vacation anthropologist can attest to the brilliance of celebratory rituals along Bourbon Street each night. By day, New Orleans neighborhoods like the French Quarter and Garden District tempt you to explore streets imbued with smooth jazz and the faint smell of fresh beignets. But while there are plenty of things to do in the Big Easy, you’ll find a sense of city pride that’s hard to match 90-minutes away in Baton Rouge.
Begin your urban trek in Baton Rouge where this capital city saw its own beginnings: Spanish Town. Walk past candy-colored houses, soaking up the air of history and strong sense of community that define the city’s oldest neighborhood. As you begin to ponder lunch, you’ll spot an oasis just ahead. It’s the Spanish Town Market, selling a sacred regional delicacy: Po’ Boy Sandwiches. Eat up.
Fueled by your afternoon feast, you’re off to investigate this community’s leadership at the Old State Capitol building. Examine the museum’s artifacts and documents, then continue your urban safari at Sally’s Circa 1857, an antiques and architectural salvage shop. Browse felt hats with a story to tell and hold vintage vanity treasures in your hands. Is that a tiger you spot as you spill back onto the sidewalk? Follow the purple-shirted creature to its den, the Louisiana State University campus. It’s here that you can assimilate yourself into a football tailgating ritual and get a treat at the legen-dairy LSU Dairy Store.
Fort Wayne, IN
You’ve penetrated the deeply committed basketball community in Indianapolis, which was no easy feat. You had to shoot a perfect set of free throws to seal the deal. Now that the athletic enthusiasts of the Hoosier State have accepted you as one of their own, your urban safari brings you to Fort Wayne (AKA Tree City, USA). With 86 city parks at your disposal, your examination of local leafy greens is sure to be extensive—and relaxing!
With nary a throng of tourists to be found, it’s easy to find a patch of green in Fort Wayne. Begin at Lakeside Park & Rose Garden, where nearly 26 acres of wide open space await. Linger under the pergola, marveling at intricate design; if you suspect the structure was modeled after a similar pergola from a bygone era—you’re right on. Just after studying the ripples in the reflecting pond, you’re off to count the number of rose varieties in the National Rose Garden. Featuring more than 100, yep, it checks out. Your tour of local parks continues at the Sunken Gardens and then Johnny Appleseed Park before it’s time for the dinner bell.
You’ll eat—where else?—at the Coney Island Wiener Stand. Locals swear the steamed buns and Coney dogs are world famous. Grab a seat at the counter and order one with all the fixings. For research. Before you leave town, you’ll make one last stop: The Arts Campus on Main. Grab a piece of chalk and write what you love about Fort Wayne on one of the available boards, leaving your mark behind…if only for a while.
The Mission District, San Francisco, CA
Ah, San Fran. To examine the City by the Bay as it deserves could take a sabbatical! Indeed, colorful communities such as The Castro and Haight-Ashbury offer a canon’s-worth of material. Stop and examine a single neighborhood, though, and your safari becomes much more manageable.
Welcome to the Mission District. The best way to get to know the vibe of a place is through its local art. Get acquainted with the colorful Mission on a street art walking tour. Continue your trek down the Valencia Corridor, where slow a meander through local shops immediately sets your heart to the pulse of the neighborhood. Shop for vintage home goods or your next good read. Dog Eared Books and Little Paper Planes are sure to have intriguing titles.
After supporting local vendors, you’re off to discover what fuels such an artistic community. You begin your hunting and gathering at Tartine, where locals get their carb fix with freshly baked bread. Next, you’re off to the Bi-Rite Market, a neighborhood store selling fresh produce and artisan cheese. Picnic in Dolores Park, and a local is sure to recommend tonight’s live music at The Chapel. Of course you’ll take their advice!
This Pennsylvania community near Harrisburg bills itself as “America’s Coolest Small Town,” so it’s definitely worth a visit when you want a Norman Rockwell type of vacation. You’ll begin your deep-dive into rural PA with a stop at the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. A local favorite, this place has been in the pretzel-making business for more than 100 years. First you twist your own faux soft pretzel, then you eat a real one. Yum. Get a taste of relaxation at Lititz Springs Park, which spans over seven acres. You can often indulge in regional art, music and crafts in the park as well—it’s a favorite spot to host events.
A trip to the mountains can mean navigating busy ski resorts or the popular streets of Denver. But then there’s Missoula. A town with a strong pulse, you will feel one part ranch hand and one part urban hipster during your visit. No matter, it’s a recipe for awesomeness.
Your endeavor to see how Missoulians live begins just after dawn, with a hot cup of mountain coffee. Head to Black Coffee Roasting to pair your beans with artisan toast, or get your fix at Break Espresso. At the latter, you have the privilege of observing the last-minute studying habits of regional college students; watch as they voraciously highlight in their text books while sipping on a piping hot latte.
Learn how Montana residents make the most of fresh mountain air at the Blue Mountain Recreation Area. Hiking, biking, and equestrian trails let you unplug from the e-world and reconnect with the real one. The Blue Mountain Nature Trail culminates at a lookout point where you will feel at one with sky and earth alike. With an understanding of Missoula’s natural splendor under your belt, it’s time to hit the local watering hole. The Montgomery Distillery is a family-run business with deep Montana roots—we can’t think of a better place to grab a stool and shoot the breeze with some life-long Missoula residents.
San Antonio, TX
Dust off your 10-gallon hat and practice integrating the term “y’all” into your vocab: You’re headed to Alamo City (and don’t you forget it). A love of brisket and an appreciation for Spanish colonial architecture will immediately endear you to the locals. Tout your love of yummy hot spots like Top Top Café and Earl Abel’s, and you’ll sound like a native in no time.
Start your exploration of San Anton with a breakfast taco. You could order a short stack of pancakes, but you want to fit in, after all—and breakfast tacos are a staple here. A long list of eateries along Hildebrand Avenue, including Taco Taco and Mary Lou’s Café, have what you’re jonesing for. While you’re in the area, investigate some local treasures at Lasting Impressions Antiques.
When lunch time calls, an epic barbecue road trip should hit the spot. Notice a pack of sweet-toothed San Antonians along the way? They may be chasing down the elusive “Paleta Guy.” Join the hunt; if you find what you’re looking for, a colorful pushcart vending frozen treats is your reward. Your day should end just northeast of the city, at Gruene Hall. This iconic dancehall has hosted Lucinda Williams and others throughout the years.
Kansas City, MO
Pssst. There’s a bit of a cheat sheet to fitting in with the locals in Kansas City. Get yourself a royal blue t-shirt (Go KC Royals!) a plate of barbecue. You’re practically stamped for approval already. Want to become even more enmeshed in this heartland hot spot? Go to the Kansas City River Market and observe as hungry patrons pile plates high with Ethiopian, Mexican, and French cuisine—then join in.
Fully fueled, you’re ready for a Warehouse Weekend in West Bottoms. Some vintage shopping at the Top Hat Mercantile and Bella Patina reveals more than a few regional treasures. Now, about that barbecue. You’re not getting the full Kanas City experience if you’re not elbow deep in a secret recipe sauce. Pull up a chair at Bryant’s Barbeque or LC’s Bar-B-Q and watch how the experts at the next table have perfected their finger licking technique. Wasting sauce is clearly a punishable offence in these parts.
Buy a bike at the 816 Bicycle Collective for under $30 and you’re off to explore Kansas City on your two-wheeled chariot. After some people watching and rose smelling at Loose Park, donate the bike back to the shop so another rider can get their own wheels. How’s that for living like a local?
St. Paul, MN
Even though it’s one of the most famous twins in the world (Olsen sisters not withstanding), St. Paul manages to maintain its own identity. The laid back, hip, brick-filled sibling to urban mecca Minneapolis, St. Paul will welcome you with open arms and easy vibes.
Viewfinder Tip: Grab a bite a Mickey’s Diner while you’re in St. Paul. This local favorite has been serving up milkshakes and burgers since 1939.
Some would argue the heart of Minnesota’s capital city is Grand Avenue, where small business reigns and the term “cozy” is appropriately used to describe the thoroughfare’s cafes. Visit during early June, and you can observe a two-day tradition in local culture at Grand Old Days. As you walk down the tree-lined street, your senses will be tickled with the waft of fried food and buzz of live music. With more comradery than you can shake a corn dog at, you’ll be making new friends in no time.
Make yourself at home in Lowertown, St. Paul’s artistic community on the upswing. Around every corner, a pack of poets or painters are visible en route to the latest show at AZ Gallery. Follow them to their destination, and you may have just happened your way into a memorable evening. If hunger strikes, partake in culinary experiences at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, Cossetta’s, or Heartland Restaurant, where local flavor takes on a whole new meaning.
A fun fact about Baltimore: It may be a major city, but some folks like to call it “Smaltimore.” That means you can still get a small town feel, even if the sight of skyscrapers does dot the atmosphere. Begin your exploration of Maryland culture with a stop at the Mt. Vernon Marketplace, a warm setting supporting local artisans and teeming with everything from cheese wheels to warm crepes. Gain some insider knowledge of the city’s great residents on a guided walking tour, where you’ll share local brews and learn historical details that will make you sound like a native.
Get a dose of caffeine at Artifact Coffee, and you’re ready to take on the world… or, at least urban safari your way through Baltimore. Behold the artifacts of the region’s favorite pastime at the US Lacrosse® Museum. Over at William J. Myers Pavillion, a real life game gives you the chance to applaud the athletic acumen of the fast-paced players.
A quick survey of the culinary landscape in Baltimore reveals that steamed crab and Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer) are a staple of the local diet. Indulge in quintessential Baltimore fare at Red Derby or L.P. Steamers to get a proper sample. Finish out your trip at a bar named, what else, Smaltimore. It’s where “everybody knows everybody, and everything about them.” Sounds like a place you could fit right in.
What city do you think has the best local feel?