Can a Trip Ever Be Authentic?

In a previous article, The Most Important Question to Ask Before You Travel, I posed the question: “What do you want to learn?” If your answer involves learning about the people and culture of the country currently hosting you at the moment, then you and I both face a common dilemma: Is our experience “authentic?”


First let’s turn the question inward. As I’m an American, that means responding to the question: What is the “real” America? Is it what one sees in movies? Is it small snippets of capitalism sprouting wings and planting themselves overseas? I’ve shocked the majority of Europeans I’ve met when I’ve claimed that Belgian fries are comparable to the fare in quality American steakhouses. The reaction I receive is: “Really? What do you think good fries are, McDonalds?” An American living in Europe will at some point find himself having to answer for American food and culture (and unfortunately politics).

It’s understandable. When someone visits America, do they prefer to see big New York skyscrapers and Texan rodeo? Or the everyday suburban existence of residents bustling through shopping malls and along highways? I would argue that the best trip is a mix of both. After all, the past places considerable weight on the enduring culture and habits of a people.

Oftentimes tradition and modernity go hand in hand.
For some travelers, as discussed in this NY Times article, the spirit of travel is captured by seeing something “different,” as if that is akin to something “special.” Why do we value methodically preserved historical districts and “traditional” cuisine? To experience the unique culture of that society? Ancient structures and traditional aestheticism are beautiful, special, essential aspects of every country. Yet, by focusing too much on experiencing the former, we bypass the uniqueness that is the everyday lives of that society’s residents.

Let’s alter the question a little bit: What do we want to experience when we travel?

For me, its the reality of the country in the present. The beauty and power of tradition in Kyoto is considerable, but it’s more likely that on an average day more locals visit Aeon Mall than Kiyomizu Temple. Seeing only the old, or “traditional,” side of a city or country would be akin to visiting a ghost town, or perhaps more gently, an open-air museum. For the attuned traveler, observing and interacting with the minds, habits, and trials of the average citizen in a bar in downtown Warsaw can be just as rewarding and educational as visiting that seven hundred year old church in Ghent.

Though it’s certainly worth going to Ghent and visiting Saint Nicholas’ Church!
The group of high schoolers who let me hold their pet snake in Taiwan, the homeless man who led me to a mystifying WWI-era cemetery in Poland, the older couple who invited me into their house for tea in Japan, the Syrian refugee who shared stories of his life in Turkey, the woman who drove me around her city after helping me find supper in South Korea – these are my fondest memories because they opened up to me a side of the people, city, and country which is not found in a guidebook, or even on a blog. They are non-replicable person-to-person experiences.

Is then an “authentic” trip one in which a traveler talks like a local, eats like a local, and lives like a local? Perhaps that’s not necessary. From my time living in Japan and Poland, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you put yourself out there, the more the world opens up to you in return. The more closed off you are to different experiences, new ideas, and foreign languages, the stranger the world seems. The Doors put it better than I when they said, “people are strange when you’re a stranger.”

Just as we may view immigrants or foreigners with a suspicious eye when they come to our country, so may we be viewed with apprehension when we travel without consideration of local customs, people, and language.

Sometimes the best way to connect is just to sit and relax on a riverbank with some friends.
Big Tourism – and I use “big” in the same way as Big Tobacco and Big Business – tells us we can experience a society – condensing an ages-old, multi-faceted, irreplaceable culture – by capturing an iconic photograph or purchasing a stereotypical souvenir. Contrarily, tourism of that caliber makes of us caricatures of the societies we represent.

The best teachers learn from their students, even as they teach. Accordingly, the travelers who try to learn about the societies they visit – not only see, do, and eat their way around each destination – will enable their own cultures to flow forth. If both parties are able to view the “other” as a person, then true understanding – on the individual and global level – will be achieved.


8 thoughts on “Can a Trip Ever Be Authentic?

  1. Good thoughts. I think it’s important to see a mixture of the old and new. I try to visit local restaurants and bars when in a new city, while at the same time not missing out on the important historical sites that have shaped the history of the area. I have equally amazing memories of staying out all night with a German couple we met in Berlin as I do from walking along the wall and visiting museums and memorials in the city.


  2. The good thing for me is that I reside to different countries in different time frames. I don’t just visit. So it is easier for me to go in depth with getting to know my host country and not just be a tourist. I have that convenience and the time. For people who are just visiting, it’s harder for them not to be a tourist. For them, if they’re paying for the hotel and transportation; and they don’t have the luxury of time, sightseeing becomes primary and I guess having a meaningful or authentic experience becomes icing on the cake.
    I have lived in a good number of countries -different neighbors, coworkers, people I encounter when traveling. I really see differences in people and culture, and it really gives so much life perspectives.
    Very well articulated. You do seem like a real authentic traveler who finds deep meaning and experiences rather than just seeing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very kind in your assessment. 😉
      Despite what I’ve written, I can’t claim to be an “authentic” traveler consistently, as I of course make sightseeing an important part of my journeys. However, as I also have some experience living abroad, I appreciate the insight that comes from deep cultural and personal experiences.

      Where have you lived?


  3. Thanks for sharing these amazingly reflective thoughts! I agree that in this quest for an imagined ‘authenticity’ we as travelers (travelers to other places or travelers in our lives) may often miss out on the more living and vibrant experience of life being lived in the moment with all its messiness and hybridity. And yet at the same time there is something to be said about transcending the throbbing chaos of the outer reality and escape to something beyond, something serene in the search for a more authentic inner experience. No right or wrong choices here….just part of the enigmatic human condition I suppose. Outer journeys are in a way not very different from inner journeys, I guess!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great question that you raised in your post. I haven’t given a thought about it, as I travel for the love of experiencing new things or new places or returning to meet people whom I have met in the past trip. I feel that most of my travels are not authentic, as I get inspired by other travelers and scuba divers but I don’t mind, as in the end, I think we might experience different thing considering to individual’s personality and so on. Sometimes I do have expectations but most of the time, I just let it flow and see what the travel will bring us. Usually, the later will bring surprises and make the trip worthwhile 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the best things about traveling is that you experience things and emotions which you wouldn’t if you had stayed home. Any way a person does it is rewarding so I agree that it’s best to let the journey take you in line with your interests.

      I found as long as I remain flexible in my plans and open to new experiences, I have a great time.

      Sounds like you dive in spots around the world; that sounds amazing!


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