It’s no secret that blending in is difficult for tourists worldwide, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Even while backpacking through a city in a country that is not your own, there are various things you can do that can keep you from sticking out like a sore thumb. And as someone who’s spent a lot of time exploring new and strange places, I’m here to tell you exactly what those things are.
Check What You’re Wearing:
Before even setting foot outside in a new city, make sure you’re putting on the right clothes. Obviously, this means avoiding any traditional “tourist garb”, but the tricky thing here is that what may scream “tourist” in one city may be perfectly common among locals in another. For example, many people living in hot, humid places tend to wear T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, but this look is considered unfashionable in cities across Europe and many landlocked Asian countries.
Always take local fashions into consideration more so than the weather if you want to blend in.
Consider Your Physical Features:
The point above being made, in some places it can be a mistake to try to conform too much to local styles. The decision on whether or not to adopt non-Western style clothing in a foreign city will depend largely on how much you actually look like the average local. The fact of the matter is you may naturally stand out far more wearing, say, a sari in Mumbai than you would if you just went about your business in simple Western-style clothing.
On the other hand, if you are of Indian descent and/or share physical features that would not make you stand out among a predominantly Indian crowd, you would most likely be just fine wearing more traditional Indian clothing.
Speaking of physical features, one of the easiest ways to help your face blend in is to wear sunglasses. Obviously this works best when you’re outdoors in sunnier places, but you should never travel anywhere without having a pair within reach. For example, my blue eyes made me stick out while walking around in Central America (and my really pale skin didn’t help either), but I noticed that the comments and stares subsided considerably once I donned a pair of shades.
While many cultures across the world wear hats, it’s also true that tourists across the world are infamous for wearing them. You’ll call much more attention to yourself by wearing a baseball cap, sun visor, bucket hat, or— and hopefully it will never come to this — an Indiana Jones-style hat that many tourists seem to think are neat.
Wear plenty of sunscreen if you’re worried about sunburn.
Disguise Your Backpack…
Just how does one not stick out as a tourist if they are walking around with a tourist backpack?
Fortunately, locals in cities across the world carry backpacks. And if you disguise yours correctly, you can look like just a regular person just going about their business. For starters, be conscious of any stickers, key chains, or patches you may have on your backpack. It’s actually best to have none, but at the very least you should remove any that are in English (if you’re traveling to a non-English speaking city) and/or advertise travel or places.
As New Yorkers know, for example, the only people walking around in public with “I Love NY” memorabilia are tourists.
Additionally, remove any handing water bottles or other gadgets (like a GPS) and pack them discreetly inside your backpack. If you have a sleeping mat, blanket, jacket, or other item attached to your hiking backpack that may be too large to put inside the pack, consider carrying it in a shopping bag in your hand, or draping/tying a sweater over the bag (make it look like you just casually put it there). And whatever you do, do not fasten the backpack’s extra straps (if applicable) around your waist while walking around.
Yes, it may feel more secure when you do that, but in reality you’ll just stand out more to potential thieves.
Keep Your Camera and Valuables Hidden:
This is an obvious one — don’t walk around with a camera hanging from your neck or camera case / backpack.
Keep it packed until you need it, and then repack it when you’re done. When repacking your camera (or any other valuables, for that matter), do so quickly and discreetly. If you can duck behind something or step into a shop, even better. Some friends of mine actually learned this lesson the hard way when we were studying abroad in Costa Rica, and they were robbed about 10 minutes after unpacking/repacking their expensive cameras right in the middle of a busy street in downtown San Jose.
Learn Some Local Lingo:
You’re not always going to speak the language when traveling around a foreign city, but you can still pick up some key phrases in order to get around without causing a fuss. And if you happen to be traveling through a city that does speak your mother tongue, just speak calmly in your own accent.
Trying to adopt the local accent will in most cases result in some raised eyebrows, and even worse, some locals may mistakenly assume you are mocking them. Yes, you will stand out by, say, speaking in an American accent while backpacking through London, but you will stand out far more if you try to sound like them (British accents, just like those in many other countries, are far more complex and diverse than foreigners realize).
And no matter what happens, keep in mind that raising your voice or becoming frustrated will not make anyone understand you any better!
Carry Yourself Appropriately.
If everyone is walking fast, then you walk fast.
If everyone is just casually strolling along, then you do the same.
If you want to stop and look at something or take a picture, don’t come to a halt right in the middle of the sidewalk or street— step to the side and do so out of people’s way.
And if you need to look at a map, duck inside a shop or public restroom. Don’t take your map out and look over it when you’re out in the street, as this will call instant unwanted attention to yourself.
The Bottom Line.
All in all, blending in while backpacking through a foreign city is essentially just about finding that happy medium between not trying at all and trying too hard. Remember that no group of locals is ever just one big, homogenous group, and this is especially true in big cities.
Be yourself, but keep calm and adapt to the majority of the people around you.
Check out this FUN video below on “How To Backpack Europe in a Month”: