Attractions vs Local Life: The Traveller’s Dilemma

Making bread attractions

In talking to fellow travellers or friends who are booking trips away there always seems to be two groups. The first group are those who plan a ‘highlights package’. They bounce from city to city, spending 2-3 days in each to see the top tourist attractions before moving on. This style of travel is best seen in the itineraries of many tour companies, offering a best of *insert city name* before jumping on the bus and moving on.

The second group aim for a more ‘authentic’ style of travel. These are the ones who seek out local life and try to truly understand it. They spend chunks of time in each place, try to get to know some locals, and really find out what makes the people and place tick. They try to see the attractions, but the lifestyle is mostly what they are after.

Boats docked in the port of Essaouira alternative travel attractions

Both of these are wonderful ways to travel and there is nothing wrong with falling into either category. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about as I plan my trip to Sri Lanka. How do I get a balance of both?

When travelling I will try to immerse myself as much as possible. I will eat where I see locals eating, I will catch public transport, and I will walk the streets as much as possible to get a feel for the buzz and vibe of the place. However, there’s always a nagging feeling that if I’m going all that way then I should also see the touristy sights. How could I go to Sri Lanka and not see Sigiriya? Or the Temple of the Tooth? How can I stop for a while to get a feel for a place while also fitting these attractions into the schedule? It’s hard.

This goes doubly for popular historic places like Europe. The idea of spending a few weeks in one small Italian town sounds wonderful to me. I could rent an apartment, eat at nearby restaurants, drink at nearby bars and, over time, I would meet and get to know the locals there. I could get a taste of what life is really like. But if I’m flying 23 hours from Australia shouldn’t I see as much as I can? Shouldn’t I see more than one town, and see the Colosseum and ancient Roman sights?

Some travellers treat the local life option as something for a second trip. The first time they visit a city they will see all the big attractions before moving on. The return trip is when they go a bit slower and try to immerse themselves. Perhaps this does some cities a disservice. Take Marrakech for example. The first time I stopped there I saw Koutoubia Mosque, got lost in the Medina, and drank mint tea while watching the bustling Jemma el-Fna square. The city is wild and chaotic though and leaves many tourists with a bad taste. I met many people who saw no reason to return after seeing all they wanted to see.


The second time I visited I went slower. The beauty of a city like Marrakech is in the smaller moments. It’s seeing the people go about their business in their local neighbourhood. There is a great sense of community that is totally counter to the first impression that most travellers get on their first, quick-fire visit. Leaving the ‘local life’ style of travel to the second trip may persuade travellers that a second trip is not required at all.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m still struggling to work it out myself. But I think we would all do well to move away from the tour company style of one night and move on. Maybe spend 4 days in a city, seeing sights in the morning before just hanging out and going with the flow in the afternoon. It’s all about balance.

What do you think? How do you get the balance right in your travels? Let me know in the comments, via email, or on social media!

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