Great Websites for Discovering Local Gems
It’s easy to figure out the major attractions to put on your travel itinerary—nobody dreams of visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. But what about the hidden gems that the major guidebooks don’t cover? The following five websites are my favorite starting points for discovering local, off-the-beaten-path treasures:
AFAR prints a magazine dedicated to experiential travel and publishes a website that thrives on travelers’ recommendations. Members upload personal highlights with photos and descriptions of meaningful or undiscovered places that they’ve visited. Similar in concept to Pinterest boards, you can create “wanderlists” to curate and organize highlights from other travelers as well as share your own. After creating a free profile, you’ll also gain access to the community-oriented Q&A section. When planning a trip to Panama, this section proved invaluable in receiving advice to my questions on booking domestic flights and sailboat charters to San Blas.
AFAR has also enabled me to meet other like-minded travelers: On a return trip to an eco-lodge in Nicaragua, I serendipitously met another AFAR member who had booked a room there based on the highlight I had posted from my previous visit! Keep a lookout for highlights written by Local Experts (like me!) and AFAR Ambassadors to get the inside scoop on these contributors’ hometowns.
Since 2002, The New York Times “36 Hours” column has been offering dream weekend itineraries for areas that range from the bucolic Hudson Valley region in New York to the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The guide is written for active travelers who want to get the most out of short trips, but it also serves as a useful reference for those staying longer. Expert travelers and journalists share knowledge of the must-see sites and offbeat locales that capture the unique character of a destination. Each column follows a similar format: an hour-by-hour schedule jam-packed with places to see, eat, and shop followed by a listing of lodging options. A photo slideshow and map accompany each article to help you plan and get inspired.
Design Sponge is best known as a blog that covers all things design with a DIY, indie sensibility. The site publishes weekly city guides to domestic and international destinations in its “Places” category. These guides are compiled by local residents who take readers on a tour of their favorite hangouts. Listings appeal to creative types searching for unique shops, restaurants, hotels, cultural attractions, and activities. This is my go-to resource for locating specialty boutiques and quirky neighborhood cafés.
A quick search on Yelp lead me to some fantastic options that were not only affordable, but introduced me to neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have otherwise visited.
You may already use Yelp to find reviews of businesses in your hometown, but it’s also a great way to discover local favorites in other areas. While planning a trip to Sedona, I was frustrated with the expensive spa options—all seemingly located in hotels—that were listed on Trip Advisor and Arizona’s tourism site. A quick search on Yelp lead me to some fantastic options that were not only affordable, but introduced me to neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have otherwise visited. Not sure how to start? Perform a general search by inputting your travel destination in the “Near” field. From here, you can narrow your results by category then filter by neighborhood or the highest rated reviews. Don’t forget to check out Yelp’s overlooked Talk forums. Users can start conversations to get answers to specific questions like “What’s the best Ethiopian restaurant in northwest DC?” If you’re researching a trip abroad, don’t forget that Yelp also covers some international destinations.
Every major city has at least one weekly or monthly publication that covers local living and culture. DC has the City Paper; Hong Kong reads HK Magazine; and Mexico City refers to the Chilango. The one feature that almost all these publications have in common are “Best Of” or “Top 10” lists. These compilations provide great insight into an area’s scene and favorite hot spots. Local media is also a great resource for researching current events, shows, and exhibits that will be occurring during your stay. If you can’t easily locate a local publication online, start with a search on a town’s Patch site for community-specific news and business.
Now that you know my secrets, let’s hear yours! What’s your go-to site for experiencing travel like a local?
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of seeing the world. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as the Art Director for the branding firm, Belmont Inc., in Alexandria, VA. In her spare time, she instructs high-energy Zumba dance classes, contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.