I am sure that I’m not alone when, upon planning a city break, my desire is to experience the destination as a local would. “I just want to ‘live’ in this city for the duration of my stay. I’ll avoid the tourist traps and just lead life as a local… I’ll blend in… I am not going to be a tourist.”

Nice idea, but it’s a tricky one to pull off. In my experience behaving like a local requires a little more than the smattering of local knowledge that can be gleaned from the guidebook.

An Englishman In New York

The first few hours in a foreign city is when I get that real culture shock feeling – well outside of my comfort zone, everything is alien and I start to crave a shred of normality… It’s at times like this that I find myself not in the local independent coffee shop but around the corner in a familiar feeling Starbucks. Baby steps… Starbucks today, that weird looking coffee shop (is it a coffee shop? I can’t quite tell from the sign ouside) tomorrow.

I hate myself a bit for admitting this but when in Prague a few months back, on my own and craving a coffee that’s what I did. I knew that in Starbucks I’d be able to order a black coffee, get it in a takeaway cup (with my name on it – cute) and be able to check my emails on the complimentary wifi while my beverage was brewed. Convenient yes, acting like a local? No.

Fast forward a few weeks and I find myself on a press trip in Lisbon, Portugal. I know! Check me out – quite the jet-setter… My first appointment was a sight-seeing tour of the city. Could this be any more touristy? Well, as it turns out the tour was the highlight of my trip. More about that in a moment but first let me try and explain how the most touristy of all the tourist things (a tour guide) made me feel more like a local than I ever had before.

Bica & Nata

“Order a Bica and a Nata at the counter” That is what my guidebook said I should do if I wanted to “be a local” when ordering coffee in a Lisbon coffee shop. Ok, fine in principle but where’s the counter? What’s a Bica (straight coffee apparently) and what’s a Nata? (it’s a custard cream). I’m just a bit too much of a scaredy cat to walk up to what I believe to be the counter in a random coffee shop in a city I don’t know, in a country where I do not speak the language and mouth off about my desire for a Bica and Nata… Especially when there are some brits sat at a table across the way enjoying what looks to be a lovely latte and a green tea.

I was spared this potential ordeal as my personal guide took me to a coffee shop as part of my tour of Lisbon – we stood at the counter and I observed as he ordered the traditional Portuguese Bica Nata combo and we stood, drank and ate and I experienced Lisbon as a local. Later on I would order my own Bica and Nata confident in how the system worked and also reassured that when a tiny espresso arrives I haven’t accidentally ordered the wrong thing. For the Portugese espresso is the norm. Big coffees are for tourists.

See The Sights First

My sight seeing tour of Lisbon went a bit above and beyond the norm. There was no guide holding a red umbrella, reciting a familiar script as the group trudge around major tourist traps. I had a personal tour guide with a motorcycle. He drove and I was on side car detail. As we navigated the hilly streets of Lisbon, dodging trams, Tuk Tuks and vendors barbecuing sardines in the street I was given a one-on-one tour of the city from the point of view of a local. When he needed re-fuelling we stopped for a coffee (sorry, a Bica) and I learnt more about Lisbon in three hours than I had learnt about Prague in three days. My point is that in order to be able to act like a local you need to get ‘being a tourist’ done and out of the way. Embrace the fact that you know nothing about the place in which you find yourself and enlist the help of a local to help you find your feet. It doesn’t take long to get acclimatised if you get help from the people in the know.

My personal motorcycle tour was a bespoke package organised through Four Seasons Lisbon but you can go direct to the tour company Sidecar Tour Co and arrange your own bespoke sight seeing experience. They desperately need a new website (maybe I’ll drop them an email!) but don’t let that put you off, they are well organised, extremely helpful and operate throughout Portugal. It was so much fun, entertaining and really informative – from now on I’ll always be seeking out an alternative and personal tour guide of some description to help me act like a local in my destination of choice.

I’m off to Paris next – any suggestions for a similar experience?