If you want insider tips on what to see and do when visiting a foreign city, you’re better off asking a tourist
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Pablo Picyk
Recently, some New Yorker friends visiting London asked me to recommend a local restaurant. Nothing too complicated—somewhere nice, they said, with decent vegetarian options, preferably close to the Saatchi Gallery.
“Hmm,” I replied, having realized that not only could I not think of a single place to eat near the Saatchi Gallery, I didn’t actually know where the Saatchi Gallery was. Why couldn’t these people go to Madame Tussauds like every other tourist?
Later, after a couple of clicks, I discovered that the Saatchi Gallery is on the King’s Road, a mere two-minute stroll from TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurant in the entire city. Yes, out of 16,036 London restaurants, The Five Fields is apparently the people’s favorite, renowned worldwide for dishes that delight carnivores and vegetarians alike, along with its pleasing decor and warm welcome. Who knew?
Well, none of my London friends knew, that’s for sure. As a subsequent survey revealed, not one of them had heard of the place—which, on a global level, put us in a distinct minority. There were glowing reviews from Sydney and Stockholm, Kazakhstan and California; one may have been posted from Mars. As for the Saatchi Gallery, that came in at number 101 on a TripAdvisor “995 Things to Do in London” list. Only one of my friends had set foot inside the place, and that was for a company function. All she remembered was the awesome hand dryers in the restrooms, although in retrospect they could have been an exhibit.
The truly shocking thing, though, was how many of the wonderful Things to Do on this list had completely passed us locals by. The Courtauld Gallery (“one of the finest small museums in the world”) rang a vague bell for a few people. The Wallace Collection (“a prestigious private collection of art”) elicited nothing but a few Braveheart quips. My friends, it turns out, are all morons.
Yet wider research conclusively demonstrated that only a very small proportion of Londoners ever go to the theater, or stroll through parks, or take black cabs, or sit down for afternoon tea or visit Big Ben. It seems likely that more native Londoners have been imprisoned at the Tower of London than have paid the entry fee. It seems likely, too, that the next time my New Yorker friends come to town, they’d be far better served directing their where-to-go queries at the informed residents of Haapavesi and Madang.
But are Londoners really less engaged with their surroundings than anybody else? I’m not so sure. I once met an elderly woman who’d lived in Beijing for 50 years and had never visited the Great Wall. I know people in Egypt who have never seen the pyramids. Come to think of it, I know plenty of people who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who’ve never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. Some would sooner go to Vietnam than Greenwich Village, let alone take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. The fact is, while we’ve been busying ourselves getting acquainted with remote corners of the planet, we’ve become strangers to our hometowns.
Still, we are bombarded with the notion that when we travel, we should do as the locals do. Why? People, as we have established, either don’t know about the beauty and wonder that surrounds them or simply don’t care. They snore through sunrises and watch soaps during sunsets and are as loath to stray from their microwaves as you and I. When in Rome, stick a frozen meal in the microwave. It’s what most Romans do.
But there are downsides to the knowier-than-thou opinions we encounter online. Time was, whether home or abroad, people sought out the very best things a city had to offer. No one scrubbed the Sistine Chapel off his itinerary because someone tweeted that it is a cliché. No one bailed on the Parthenon because some dude posted that Club Med had a better atmosphere. Nobody skipped the Taj Mahal because a blogger sniffed it was not the “Real India.”
Of course, a good deal of the tourist bait out there should be avoided like a ricin omelet. No one should ever have to visit an M&M store, just as nobody should ever have to sit through “Stomp.” But it seems to me, thanks in large part to the Internet’s legions of keyboard experts, that we’ve all started placing way too much emphasis on travel experiences that are deemed to be the most authentic or zeitgeisty. Isn’t it time for the pendulum to swing back just a little?
There’s no better place to start putting this into practice than at home. On a recent weekday I visited the Saatchi Gallery for the first time. It was fun. Admission is free and the gallery has its own restaurant—just as my New Yorker friends had described it. And, yes, the hand dryers are truly inspiring.
Boyd Farrow, a London-based writer, can be found standing in Trafalgar Square asking passersby where Nelson’s Column is.