There are two things I feel are certain: 1) Everyone likes a bargain, and 2) Finding a hidden gem when you’re traveling feels a little like hitting a jackpot. So what’s the secret to scoring a win? Research … but not in the way you may think.
Sure, spending time searching through the internet and reading travel guides can help you plan a smarter vacation. Calling on your travel professional is a lot like using wikipedia. But no matter how many websites you peruse or how knowledgeable your travel provider is, finding that place only the locals know happens only when you ask a local.
On a recent trip to San Diego, we stayed at the historic US Grant Hotel in the Gaslamp District. It was close to where we planned to go sailing and the area has a reputation for a fun evening vibe. When it came to deciding where to go for dinner, we were faced with an impossibly long list of options … so we asked a local! In this case, the concierge of the hotel. LeAnn asked all the right questions: What type of food do you like? Are you walking or driving (or Ubering)? Is it a special occasion? Then she pointed us to a little Italian place around the corner from the hotel.
Dobson’s, from the outside, is fairly unassuming. We probably would’ve walked right by. LeAnn’s recommendation (and personal call to ensure we could get in) landed us a table for two with a live musician crooning the classics while we dined on a spectacular dinner. Ask a local!
A query of the front desk clerk at a hotel in Richmond, British Columbia landed us less than a block away at a Chinese restaurant that was so authentic only a couple staff members spoke English! Ask a local!
Passing through West Virginia a couple of years ago, we again asked the front desk clerk for a dinner spot. He pointed us to Sip Wine and Whiskey Bar. If you’re passing through Huntington, stop there … trust me on this one. Ask a local!
In Milan, we were searching for truly authentic Italian food, not a tourist restaurant. We wandered into the city tourism office and asked the young woman behind the counter, “When your friends from back home (she was from Venice) come to visit, where do you go to eat?”
She pushed back at first, offering a number of choices on the piazza near the Duomo. She pooh-poohed our request with, “It’s too far to walk, almost 2 kilometers away.” When we told her that was an easy stroll, she pointed us to Moma’. It was so authentic, it didn’t even open until around 8pm. We had a meal that, even years later, we tell friends about. The risotto was finished table-side in a giant parmesan wheel! I’m drooling just thinking about it. Ask a local!
When we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, we had a local place with amazing food, incredible drinks and a fun, entertaining staff. It took us a couple of months to find City Kitchen, but it quickly became our absolute go-to place. Sure, we went to other places, too, but CK was the hands-down favorite where we took visiting friends and where we still pass on glowing recommendations to anyone who asks where to eat in the DC metro area. WE were locals.
Don’t be surprised when you find yourself in a little mom-and-pop style place surrounded by people who seem to know each other well. Remember to mention the person who sent you – it can be the difference between being treated like a stranger who got lucky enough to stumble on the place or “family” who’s there because of a treasured regular. Expect the menu to be in the local language. Ask the waiter for menu recommendations; it can result in an off-menu specialty!
There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. For those hidden gems, ask a local!