Europe is touristy. It's hard to avoid that conclusion once you've spent some time there, once you've visited a few of the major sites and hung out in the big cities and been jostled and harried by about a million other gawkers.
This is the most popular travel destination on earth, by a long way. There are a lot of tourists, and a lot of touristy experiences. It feels like it's hard, sometimes, to break free.
But the good news is that genuine cultural experiences, those that are completely natural and organic and not pitched towards tourists in the slightest, are actually easy to come by in Europe. You just have to know where to look.
Go night tobogganing in Switzerland
The setting is an alpine village, high above Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland. The venue: a small guesthouse, the Berghaus Alpiglen, where pots of fondue are bubbling, perfect fortification against the coming cold.
After the meal, you grab a traditional wooden toboggan and head out to the floodlit track, tearing through the snow, flying around corners and down steep slopes, until you get to the town of Brandegg, where you jump on the train and head back to the top. This is a genuine Swiss tradition, virtually unknown to outsiders, and it's amazing.
Eat fika in Sweden
Fika in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo: iStock
One of the easiest ways to access any local culture in a genuine way is through food. Locals eat. You just have to join them. In Sweden, one of the most social ways to dine is with "fika", the traditional and much-loved coffee break.
Fika is essential as a taking of snacks, but it's also a social time, to chat to friends and have a break from work. The coffee is usually good at a Swedish fika café. The food – the cakes and pastries and biscuits – are also excellent. But it's the atmosphere that's the main drawcard.
Eat at a trattoria in Italy
There are plenty – plenty – of tacky, touristy trattorias in Italy where you'll be served bad food by people who couldn't care less. So this isn't a foolproof plan. However, these simple, family-run eateries are also a genuine and important part of Italian culture, and to find the right one is to immediately dive right into "la vita italiana".
A good trattoria is everything that's wonderful about Italy, with hearty, tasty food served up by passionate people in unfussy surrounds. You'll hear raised voices, you'll drink cheap wine, you'll watch football on TV in a far corner. And you'll appreciate what makes this country tick (or, not tick).
Go to a sauna in Finland
The Finnish sauna experience has nothing to do with tourists. It's not a show. It's not an act. These people love to get in a hot room and sweat, and a sauna is the perfect way to tap into local culture without feeling like a tourist.
You just have to bear a few things in mind: first, you will be bare. Naked. You will be expected to gently whip yourself with a "vasta", or bundle of birch twigs. You will stay hydrated in the local way: with beer or cider. You will refresh yourself in an ice-cold lake, and it will be a shocking sensory overload. And then you'll be an honorary Finn.
See a La Liga match in Spain
Osasuna in action. Photo: Getty Images
Like food, sport is a simple and genuine window into any foreign culture. People love sport. All you have to do is get along to a game. For football fans in Europe, you could visit one of the big, famous stadiums such as the Camp Nou, home of Barcelona, or the San Siro, home of AC Milan and Internazionale.
However, for a far more intimate and personal experience, get along to see one of Europe's smaller clubs. My pick would be Osasuna, the local team in Pamplona, Spain. This is a club with great supporters who all go out eating and drinking, singing and cheering before any match, before they all pile into a small ground to watch their team play. It's pretty much locals only, and it's a blast.
Go to a brown cafe in the Netherlands
Skip Amsterdam's Red Light district: it's tacky and filled with English bucks party crowds. If you want a genuine Dutch experience minus the million tourists, call past a "brown café".
These traditional neighbourhood joints are so named because of the wood panelling on their walls: they're also quiet, no-frills sort of places where you can get a good local beer and few Dutch snacks and just watch the world go by. Far better than battling the crowds in Dam Square.
Find a different beer fest in Germany
There is no one "beer fest" in Germany, even though everyone knows about Munich's Oktoberfest and little else. That's just the biggest and most famous celebration, one that might be a genuine cultural rite, but still attracts huge numbers of tourists.
For something more intimate and interesting, try out one of Germany's other festivals of ale: the Stuttgart Cannstatter Volkfest, the Berlin Beer Festival, the Erlangen Bergkirchweih or the Bremen Freimarkt, to name a few. Meet locals, drink beer, eat sausages. Everybody wins.
Cross the river in Turkey
The Bosphorus Bridge. Photo: iStock
Istanbul is amazing, but it can feel like you're just one of the crowd there sometimes, when you're lining up at famous sights and fending off carpet salesmen and ignoring kebab stands. Fortunately, getting away from this scene is very easy: just jump on a ferry.
Cross the Bosphorus into Asia, to Uskudar, where things are immediately different. Gone are the famous sites. Gone are the European influences. Gone are the tourists. All you have to do is wander, and you're having yourself a local cultural experience.
Go to Brussels in Belgium
It can often seem like western Europe is just totally done, completely overrun with tourists, that there's nowhere new to go, nowhere to hide. And yet there, in plain sight, is Brussels, the underappreciated capital of Belgium.
All the crowds have gone up to picturesque Bruges, but you can use that to your advantage, spending time in the bars and restaurants, strolling street-art-lined alleys, shopping at markets and going to concerts with all the locals in Brussels.
What are your tips for having genuine cultural experiences in Europe? What are some of the best things you've done that have helped avoid the crowds?
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