Surely one of the reasons we get off the couch and head abroad is because we have questions that must be answered. Or, at the very least the desire to find new things to ask questions about.

If you ask the right questions on your travels, you’ll not only learn much more about the local culture and customs, but maybe even make some good friends along the way.

When I’m traveling somewhere new — although it’s probably because I’m somewhat neurotic and obsessed about exploring new places — I write notes in my diary about what I expect to find and what questions I have. Inevitably, the questions and answers I end up with are far removed from what I contemplated on the train or plane ride in, but I can live with that. I have insatiable curiosity — it’s a “fault” I inherited from my grandmother, apparently — but I really think it’s a benefit when you travel.

Here are my tips on the best eight questions you can ask in every new place.

#1: Where’s a Good Place to Get a Drink Around Here?

And that’s not because we can’t survive a day or two without a beer. Finding a local bar or pub — emphasis on local, not the bar where all the foreigners hang out — is one of the best ways to get in contact with local people, find out more about where you are, and see how the locals wind down.

Food stall in Java, Indonesia

Night Food Sellers in Java, Indonesia ©
Riza Nugraha

#2: What’s the Weirdest Food I Can Eat Here?

This is a question I love to ask, but I’m not so good at following through on actually eating what people suggest. I basically just love to hear people describe the unusual objects that have become part of a normal diet in their country.

It doesn’t even have to be exotic – for example, as an Australian, I still have a really hard time dealing with the American habit of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A Korean who’s already dealt with a few foreigners might give you some measured reasoning about the Korean liking for dog meat, and an Italian will get into mind-boggling detail about the cutest names for some niche pasta sorts.

#3: What’s That Big Building Over There?

Get an insider’s info on major landmarks and work out what’s worth visiting. But beware: the insider’s info is often historically inaccurate and filled with urban myths. Just think about what you really know about significant buildings or monuments in your own town. It’s usually distressingly little, because they’re just places you see every day without thinking about them. Nevertheless, the stories you’ll be told about them are a great starting point, and often more interesting than the truth, anyhow.

Snowy field in winter at sunset

Snowy Field in Winter

#4: What’s Your Favorite Time of Year Here?

This is a great question for finding out the seasonal ups and downs of your destination. Someone will answer according to the weather, another will tell you about their favorite festival, and somebody else might describe the time when most people are on holidays. The only problem with this question is you might discover that the time you’d most enjoy being in the country has just passed. That’s okay — there’s always next year.

#5: How Does the School System Work Here?

It sounds like a dull textbook question, but honestly, the answers can be pretty enlightening. From the north-east Asian systems where students might spend ten or more hours a day studying, through the kinds of schools that I consider “normal”, that is with school from around nine until three each day, and then to other countries like in South America or some parts of Europe where students are finished by lunchtime, the variety is endless. It’s a topic that everyone knows something about, having gone to school themselves, and some great debates can arise.

#6: So, What Did You Have for Breakfast Today?

Seriously, you’ll be amazed. I learned in Japan, for example, not to believe what the guide books say about the Japanese all eating rice and fish for breakfast. A bunch of my Japanese friends have already made the (regrettably unhealthy switch) to white bread and sugared cereal. Ironically, I was the one who ate rice for breakfast for the entire two years I lived in Japan. Breakfast traditions are weird habits, and worth knowing about.

Kids playing football on the beach in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Football on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil © bossa07 (Flickr)

#7: What Sports Do Kids Play Here?

Sports cross all kinds of cultural boundaries. They’re a great topic for discussion, and also to learn about how the local people spend their free time. The reason I like to ask about kids and sport is that it takes all the controversy out of it.

For example, if you ask a bunch of Australian men in a pub which is the best sport, you’ll be throwing yourself into the lion’s den. You’ll watch as each man tries to defend his own code of football, depending on where he grew up, and then an argument about the game of cricket will probably ensue. Which means you’d never hear that practically all Australian girls, and a lot of women too, play netball. And the list goes on. Play it safe and talk about the kids.

#8: Why Do You Live Here?

This might be a question for late night pondering, and best saved for philosophical locals, but I’ve had some interesting answers. Many people won’t have thought about it, really, until you ask. But, when they do, their reasons for being there can provide a lot of clues about why you might enjoy being there, too.

I believe there’s no point in traveling if you don’t ask questions. At the very least, be open to questions arising as you travel. If you have the courage to get chatting with some locals — perhaps with a bit of a language barrier — and find the answers to some of your questions, it’s a guarantee that this will enrich your enjoyment and understanding of the culture you’re visiting.

What questions do you ask the locals when you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

17 Responses

  1. Nora

    Awesome article, Amanda! I’m inspired: I’m going to start a “travel research diary” dedicated to recording the answers to those very questions for everywhere I go!

    Reply
  2. Amanda

    Sorry about that Stacy – but I’m guessing if you came to Australia and tried Vegemite (Google it) you’d have a similar reaction.

    Nora: that’s fantastic! I hope you’ll share some of the answers you get with me sometime!

    Reply
  3. Mike

    Is there anything that makes you feel more like a kid than PB&J (with the crust cut off!)?

    They actually sell Vegemite on eBay as a bit of a novelty. I’m always up for trying anything, but frankly I’ve yet to hear anything good about it.

    Reply
  4. Stacy

    My mom grew up in a frugal home, so there was no wasting food and that meant we had to eat the crust, too. Plus, she told me it would make my hair curly. ;-)

    Have you ever had a grilled pb&j? yum..

    Reply
  5. Amanda

    OK, let me make a separate question #9 to ask in a new place: What’s the weirdest thing people spread on bread around here? (which reminds me of those little packets of colorful, sugary sprinkles that you get in B&Bs in the Netherlands at breakfast time.)

    Just for the record, a few weeks ago I had a stomach virus and my doctor recommended Vegemite as the first thing to eat when I started feeling better. It’s that good! But I’ve rarely met a non-Australian who feels that way.

    Reply
  6. ET Barton

    Great article. I have to agree with Stacy. What’s wrong with peanut butter and jelly?

    However, I also really like your suggestion of asking the locals what’s the weirdest food to eat here. I think that could turn up some interesting suggestions even in my own home town. However, I will hopefully never have to eat anything like what’s in your picture.

    Reply
  7. Tony P

    Nice article, Amanda. I agree with the wierdest food (Hey, “when in Rome”…right?!), but I usually ask “what’s the typical food that they eat here? And where do the locals go to eat it?” In Madrid, I wanted paella, but my friends in Madrid said “that’s tourist food.” So off we went to restaurants that tourists didn’t go to and ate really good food that the locals ate.”

    Reply
  8. Amanda

    Sorry, I wish I’d never mentioned peanut butter and jelly :-) I’m curious to know what the weird foods are in ET Barton’s home town though.

    You reminded me of something – when I traveled around Japan I always asked the local about their ice cream specialty (every place has one) – I saw squid ice cream, black sesame ice cream, crab ice cream … but I wasn’t brave enough to try all of them.

    Reply
  9. Mike

    I guess we here in the U.S. take PB&J more seriously than I thought!

    Reply
  10. Amanda

    Tony, yes, asking about typical foods is great. And drinks, too: just today I was in a pub here in Australia with a bunch of my foreign students, and a Swiss guy asked me why there was no Fosters beer at the bar. I laughed, because everybody thinks Australians drink Fosters, but actually nobody does. We just send it abroad. So I educated him about “real” Australian beers.

    Mike, you’re right, and I have learned my lesson about PB&J!

    Reply
  11. Tony P

    Yeah, they have branded Foster’s pretty hard over here, in the US. I assume they are the Bud Light of OZ. I’m definitely into good microbrew’s and what the locals eat and drink.
    I must say that OZ is churning out some good red wines. I don”t know if Yellow Tail has a good name there, but they provide a good quality inexpensive option here if you’re in the mood for a tasty Cab, Shiraz, or Merlot=)

    Reply
  12. Amanda

    Yes, Yellow Tail (unlike Fosters) is drinkable in Australia! I really like seeing that Aussie wines are spreading their way around the world. The frustrating thing is they’re cheaper outside Australia – nobody can explain why to me, but when I lived in Germany I could pick up great Australian wine for at least a third less than in Australia, where it’s made. Crazy.

    Maybe the US should try exporting some well-preserved PB&J sandwiches and then the rest of us might not be so repelled by the idea :)

    Reply
  13. Marilyn Terrell

    These are excellent questions! I’ve had great luck asking #3 and #5. In Taiwan I asked about Taipei 101 (still the tallest occupied building in the world), and learned that despite the official explanation of how its architectural features relate to Chinese zodiac symbols, some Taipei residents affectionately refer to it as the Chinese takeout container building. You can see the resemblance here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dans180/188859143/in/set-371883/
    And in Zadar, Croatia, I gained an insight about life in Croatia by asking high school kids how the school system works:
    http://intelligenttravel.typepad.com/it/2006/10/cravable_croati.html

    Reply
  14. Djong Tan

    i love this article! :) whenever i travel, i really want to know as much about the place as i can, but i don’t know what questions to ask.

    and i especially love question #2. when i’m showing people around in my city, i make it a point to let them try our weird food (balut, chicken innards, and other delicacies).

    Reply
  15. 3 Kids Travel

    Dear Amanda,

    Thank you for these good tips. It is a good reminder of how much knowledge you can get if you take the time to ask somebody living in the streets you only visiting.
    We like to add one favourite from our travel with kids perspective> Where is the best playground in town?

    Reply

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