Authentic Experiences

It is very common to see tourists gathered, herded together in certain spots around the city. On a parallel street or not so distant plaza, locals go about their lives. The two groups rarely interact. The tourists tend to follow mainstream or generic guide books, and only when lost do they discover a city’s more genuine quarters. – How could we get tourists to explore more than the historic centre?

Far too often when we experience a new city we do so through the eyes of a typical tourist. We herd ourselves to specific & popular spots around cities that are highlighted in guide book after guide book but often never get to experience what a city truly has to offer. As tourists we tend to follow mainstream maps & guides and it isn’t until we get lost that we actually begin to discover the authentic elements of a given place.

The places typically ignored by tourists are the very places that provide a broader and more realistic look at how a city functions and what hidden pleasures city residents appreciate and enjoy. Finding such places, off the so called ‘beaten path’, offers an authentic experience full of cultural, social and meaningful interactions. These places offer tourists an opportunity to be transformed from simply visitors to that of residents, even if only for a few hours or days, to interact with the city as it was meant to be experienced.

Experiences in cities are too often over-manufactured, directing attention to the people, places and things that have the most money to advertise on every billboard and in every guide book. Civic hubs need not be represented only in this way. There are opportunities to provide extraordinary experiences to tourists, locals and long time residents that include the people, places and things that we don’t always see in the spotlight.

What if, as tourists & visitors, we made more of an attempt to seek out these types of experiences? What if we made the choice to take the ‘path less travelled’ and step outside the comfort of what has been created for us by the tourism industry?

What if, as residents, we treated tourists as more than simply a commodity and a series of dollar signs? What if we invited the visitors of the places we call home deeper into our cities to let them experience and understand the vastness and uniqueness of what’s actually going on?

Experiences within a city, whether as a resident or as a visitor, are constructed out of many different things. Pre-conceived notions by those visiting along with the constructed realities provided by the travel industry create experiences that might not be as authentic as they can or should be.

It is up to us, as both residents and visitors, to not only seek out better experiences but to share the experiences we know of, the truly authentic ones. By seeking out these types of experiences and sharing them with those that might not be aware of them, visitors and residents alike, we have the opportunity create a better understanding and appreciation for the spaces & places we visit, reside in and occupy.

Nowadays, most of the real differences are no longer between cities, but between individual districts – those still ruled by authentic culture and ways of life tied to the region – while inner cities and suburbs become increasingly exchangeable and dominated by huge department store chains or fast food outlets lining the streets. In some cities I could not have told you where I was if you had dropped me off somewhere in the center. Today, everything is covered in the same slick of paint and the streets are empty after 8pm. – Hit the Road

A few weeks ago, with friends both new and old, I visited Windsor, Detroit, Ann Arbor & Flint. Exploring these cities we wanted to confirm & refute any of the pre-conceived notions that we had of these places. We wanted to experience these cities the way they should be experienced, for all they had to offer.

For the most part we avoided the tourist offices and the places that were continually marked on maps. We sought out the people, places and things that truly made these cities the places where people choose to live, work and play.

We talked to locals, restauranteurs, gardeners, war vets, even random construction workers building an oversized aquaplex, and continually inquired as to what “the authentic experience” was, as it pertained to the city we were in at the time. We were trying to discover where we should go, what we should eat, things we needed to experience and the people we should meet.

We found ‘threads’ throughout each city that defined the authentic experience we were looking for. These threads were not made up of sports arenas, historical buildings, chain restaurants or places outside the city limits. The things that made up the very essence of these places consisted of elements that were much more authentic. We knew them to be more authentic as they were continually suggested & commented on by each new person we talked to. The way in which people spoke of these things helped us to formulate a tour of each place that provided the type experience we were seeking out. People spoke to us with honesty, enthusiasm and candidness while sharing thoughts about the people, places and things we needed to experience.

The things we experienced included the best peanut butter cookie I’ve ever eaten, the basement of a restaurant that doubled as a brew pub, a gardner that fights off wild dogs from eating his livestock, a rooftop garden where corn is grown that overlooks a lively yet dead city and a view of the most depressing sight some of us had ever seen; the vastness of emptiness that some places are now filled with.

We had authentic experiences that were full of the best (and worst) of each of these cities.

…we’re humbly reminded that civic hubs need not always be manufactured. We’re reminded to seek and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. To look up and around. To explore the seemingly obvious, everyday places that inherently forge connections. To find the places that transcend socioeconomic barriers without even trying. – On Authenticity… | Searching for Necessity

Upon returning home we asked ourselves; “What is London’s authentic experience?”

As life-long Londoners each of us has our own preconceived notions of this city we call home. Individually as well as collectively, we think we know of all the things that a person should see and do while visiting this place but we wonder as tourists what things we’d be told of and what experience we’d actually receive. We’ve wondered how authentic of an experience would we be provided if we were to visit this city.

We’ve all had friends, family and complete strangers who have come to town only to experience the same old things. The local sports arena, the historic village depicting days of yesteryear, restaurants on the strip leading to & from the highway, Starbucks™, shopping at the malls and visiting destinations within a two hour drive of this city. We question if these things collectively create the authentic London experience. While all of these things are essential to the local economy, in and around the city, we’re not too sure if they provide the most memorable or meaningful experience.

Pick up any tourist guide, look at any map, or log-on to the popular websites promoting this city and you’ll receive an experience; but ask yourself, is it truly authentic?