If you’re reading this, chances are that at some point during your travels you’ve taken the time to break away from the tourist crowds, leave the major landmarks behind and take a long walk, people-watch on public transit, or sit on a bench in a city park. As travelers, you know that doing so not only saves money, but also provides a rare opportunity to see the locals at work and at play, and to really get under the skin of the place you’re visiting.

But most of these free (and freeing) alternative travel activities involve spending a lot of time outdoors. Which begs the question: how to save money and soak up the local scene when the sun doesn’t shine?

Here are a few alternative travel spots that won’t charge you a dime, and will still give you the inside scoop on your destination:

Closeup of feet jumping into puddle
Puddle Jumping in the Rain © Sara V.

#1: The Public Library

Even most smaller towns have them, and I haven’t seen one yet where outsiders weren’t welcome. The public library is much more than a warm, dry place to relax and get caught up on your reading. Many also include exhibits on local authors or local history, special reading rooms featuring works about the area, collections of old maps and photographs of the city, and copies of all the regional newspapers. Ask a reference librarian for some local content, and settle in for an afternoon of armchair cultural immersion.

#2: The Supermarket

Where better to see the day-to-day differences between your home and your destination than here, at the grocery store?

In England, I was amazed by jars of peanut butter and honey, pre-mixed. In Budapest, I took a gamble that the toothpaste tube with the cartoon egg painted on (and the incomprehensible Hungarian label) was mayonnaise — and won. My British friends marveled over North America’s marshmallow fluff and Kraft macaroni-and-cheese (mac’n’cheese from a box?) while I was amazed by the tinned British version of the same (mac’n’cheese from a can?).

Supermarkets are a great place to wander, and to spot those tiny, but meaningful, differences that make the world such an interesting place.

Mall, Singapore
Mall, Singapore © notsogoodphotography

#3: The Mall

Yes, seriously. A shopping center — or, if you’re in a part of the world where people still walk down streets from store to store, a good shopping strip — can be another great place to watch the locals in action.

When my dad lived in Malaysia, I spent hours wandering Kuala Lumpur’s various mega-malls, mostly because the heat was too much for me — and among other things, I learned that covering up doesn’t stop a lot of Muslim girls from being just as fashion-conscious as the rest of us.

The catch here of course is that for some people, malls can be full of dangerous temptations, so keep a tight grip on your credit card.

#4: The Local Museum

There are the big-name museums — the Uffizis and Louvres and Mets of the world — and then there are the small-scale, local museums.

The latter are almost always less crowded, cheaper (if not free), and often have a lot to teach about the communities whose heritages they preserve. Oftentimes dusty and disorganized, these small collections can become a lot more interesting if you ask a volunteer or a staff member to tell you a little bit more about the place. Even if you’re not a museum buff, your guide’s enthusiasm may be contagious.

St.Vitus Cathedral, Prague
St.Vitus Cathedral, Prague © Kieran Lynam

#5: The Church

… or temple, or synagogue, or whatever else this holy place may be called in the part of the world you find yourself. Like museums, the big-name variety involve line-ups, crowds and admission charges — but often, the lesser-known buildings will be free, quiet, and fascinating.

Religion is deeply intertwined with culture in many parts of the world, and even in largely secularized areas it is still hard to understand the history of the place without knowing a little about the history of the church. So it’s worth seeking out the local house of worship and taking a few minutes to soak it in. For tips on how to respectfully visit the world’s holy places, see my article here.

What rainy day travel activities keep you occupied when the sun’s not shinin’? Feel free to let us know in the comments section below!

9 Responses

  1. Elizabeth

    Public libraries are also great institutions (beyond the books they hold) because of their historical and architectural significance. Many public libraries are sites to see in their own right–with or without rain.

    Reply
  2. Annette

    Great post. I had never realized how many un-expensive and interesting places lied within even the smallest of cities. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  3. John

    Interesting point of view, and it’s funny how we miss that sometimes..

    Reply
  4. Chris

    All great suggestions! I too have puzzeled over the various tubes of “goo” trying to figure out which one was actually the mayo, but that is the fun of traveling. I’d also add walking through the halls (or library) of a local University is a great way to pass time, see some great old architecture, maybe some old photos of student life, and people watch.

    Reply
  5. Amanda

    Lots of good ideas, Eva. I’m especially a big fan of foreign supermarkets, I can stroll them for hours. Have had a few bad purchase from them though (I wanted to make nachos once in Japan with some nice red kidney beans, which I thought I saw on the label, but they ended up being those super-sweet azuki beans which didn’t match well with cheese and meat …)

    Reply
  6. Lola

    Just to echo everyone else, great list Eva. I, too, love perusing the aisles of foreign supermarkets and marvelling at the differences in packaging of the same items.

    Reply

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