Grace Lower | Dec 21, 2020
Every student traveler goes into study abroad with a slightly different set of goals. Maybe your goal is to become fluent in a second language. Maybe you hope to gain hands-on experience in your field of study. Or maybe you’re just looking for a change in scenery. As you work toward accomplishing whatever it is that you hope to gain, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about your host city along the way.
But rather than making your host city the backdrop of your adventure, why not make it your co-star? By crafting a host city bucket list, you can be intentional about your day-to-day exploration abroad. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Even if you’re not the photo-taking type, try to get a few pictures in front of your host city’s best-known landmarks. While you’re at it, do a little research on these sites, taking time to understand their historical, artistic, or political context. If you share your photo on social media, include a blurb with details about what you’ve learned. It’s a little nerdy, but the effort will pay off. Not only will you have a pretty memento of your trip, but you’ll have the added bonus of contextualizing your host city’s most beloved landmarks.
Sure, there are bound to be plenty of decent bars along the “main drag” of your host city. But if you’re in the city for a while, make it your mission to find the best local bar—chances are, it’ll be a little off the beaten path. “Best” is a relative term, so how you define it is up to you. Your best local bar could offer trivia, karaoke, quirky décor, or just a fantastic happy hour deal. No matter your preference, searching for the best bar will allow you to mingle with locals and enjoy a few nights on the town.
Regardless of where you travel, there’s bound to be a local dish that contains something unusual. Even when I was in Spain—which has fairly tame cuisine—I noticed menus boasting items like “caracoles” (sautéed snails) or blood sausage. Rather than recoiling from bizarre foods, challenge yourself to give them a try. You might find a new favorite! A word of caution though: 1) make sure your restaurant or food stall looks sanitary, and 2) spend some time watching whether locals order that unusual dish. While it’s good to be an adventurous eater, getting food poisoning is a surefire way to cut your culinary exploration short.
With the rise of tourism in many popular study abroad destinations, you might notice that there’s a tension between locals and visitors. Many European cities in particular have graffiti reading, “Tourists, go home!” from community members who feel frustrated by droves of slow-moving gawkers. Without diving too deeply into the social implications of travel, one way to ease some of that tension is to find a sustainable volunteer opportunity in your host city. Whether you’re serving disadvantaged community members, connecting with youth, or picking up trash, you’re ensuring that your presence is a force for good.
If you ever want proof that dance is universal, try going dancing abroad. The style of dance and music may vary depending on where you are, but the occasionally awkward joy of dancing transcends culture. If you’re like me, and you don’t go out dancing too often, don’t use that as an excuse to sit on the sidelines. Remember that you’re far from home. You’ll never see most of these people again, so why not dance?
Make it a priority to get a bird’s-eye view of your host city. That might look like visiting the top floor of the tallest skyscraper or climbing hundreds of steps to the top of a bell tower. It could look like going bungee jumping off a bridge, or even signing up to go skydiving. Regardless of your method, seeing your host city from a new perspective—literally—is bound to leave you feeling inspired.
Your professors, study abroad advisors, and every travel blog you’ve read have undoubtedly mentioned this tip. But it’s so important that it’s worth stating again: go to a conversation exchange! (Assuming, of course, that you’re in a country where English isn’t the native language.) Not only will you be able to practice your second language, but you’ll make connections with local language-learners who are just as eager as you are to connect with someone from a different culture.
I’m convinced there’s nothing more satisfying than finding a quiet, beautiful place to read. Not only are you taking time to relax and recharge, but the hunt for the perfect reading venue will force you to look at your host city with new eyes. This bucket list item challenges you to explore your host city while searching for beauty in cafes, park benches, hilltops, and riverfronts. And once you find your ideal spot, you’ll get to kick back with a good book and a job well-done.
One of the best ways to make your host city feel like home is to establish a routine. Find a restaurant, cafe, or bookstore, and make a habit out of going there often. While you’re there, see if you can strike up a conversation with employees or fellow patrons. Having a public place that you can call “yours” will help you feel as though you’re not just a visitor.
By far the best element of study abroad is the chance for human connection. Make it a goal to make at least one local friend, and you’ll be amazed by how many opportunities will open up for you. I stumbled into a friendship with an elementary school teacher when I was abroad, and I’m so glad that I did. He and his wife were incredibly generous in showing me around the city, inviting me over for meals, and even introducing me to their extended family and friends. To this day, I keep in touch with them on Facebook, and I know that if I ever make it back to my host city, I’ll have a couch to crash on. Having international friends can be bittersweet, but it makes the world seem smaller—and better yet—kinder. And that’s a bucket list item worth having.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.