The ‘Authentic’ Experience

Image Credit: Alex Voelkel

Berat Zorlu considers the many meanings of the term ‘authentic’ when it comes to travel.

We all know that someone who is way too cool for their own good. One form of this is the quest for an ‘authentic’ experience they try to find through social media. Be it searching hashtags that stand out on Instagram, looking at trending YouTube videos on the travel section or reading the featured destinations in their favourite travel magazine. They often act as if the discovery of such experiences was their original idea. This process often comes with pity for those who choose to do tours of any kind as a part of their travel plans, and an open disdain for travel clichés even when they are most likely fond of them.

What does it mean, then, to be ‘authentic’? What does it even mean for one to seek the most ‘authentic’ experience? The question, I would argue, is not what but why. Why would one want an ‘authentic’ travel experience? Maybe, because they want to get a glimpse of the lives of locals. Perhaps, they would like to avoid tourist traps and look for a place where not many tourists go or they would like to see all the history that their travel spot has to offer. These are all great things to do and they have their sound justifications. However, their variety point to the fact that an authentic travel experience is difficult to define. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘authentic’ as “being what it is claimed to be; genuine.” This is all well and good, however, how can one be sure that what they are experiencing is truly genuine? For instance, is having a pizza in a fancy restaurant in the middle of the city of Rome more ‘authentic’ compared to a more traditional spot that most likely offers the same or better quality of food for a lesser price outside of the city? This depends on who you ask. Experiencing activities that may be regarded as cliché should not always be considered a bad idea.

Attempting to think like a native and mimicking their preferences as a means to find the truly ‘authentic’ activities may only take away from the overall enjoyment of one’s tourism experience.

When we hear ‘authentic’, people often associate the term with activities that the locals of a country would do. Most natives do not visit the mainstream touristic areas of their respective cities and countries as they do not have the same sense of urgency and determination that a tourist may have. Therefore tourists may avoid certain areas of a city as a means to avoid experiences that they would deem inauthentic. It is important to stress that, at the end of the day, it all comes to personal preference. Tourism is something that one ultimately does for their own enjoyment. Therefore, attempting to think like a native and mimicking their preferences as a means to find the truly ‘authentic’ activities may only take away from the overall enjoyment of one’s tourism experience.

Clichés are important and they should be experienced – there is usually a reason why they became a cliché in the first place, such as having a cup of overpriced Turkish coffee along the coast of the Bosphorus, waiting in the seemingly endless line to the Eiffel Tower or even making sure to go to New York during Christmas only to drop a fortune while ice-skating at Rockefeller Centre. Such activities might be a bit punishing to get to but the experience, in the end, will often be cathartic. This does not mean that one should not be mindful of tourist traps, however. Try not to fall for them unless there is no possibility of avoiding them or you simply do not mind them. The most expensive tourist activities are not necessarily the most genuine. For this reason, research plays a huge part in ensuring a good experience when travelling. Looking at Google reviews, searching various conversations on tourism-related threads on Reddit and other sites all offer some form of wisdom in this regard. If you put the work in, to establish what to avoid and what not to miss, your efforts will eventually pay off.

Food, and dining in general, plays a key part in experiencing something that could be referred to as authentic. Location is arguably the most important factor in this regard. As already mentioned, if one is looking to dine in an authentic way, chances are that there is a restaurant that offers the same quality of food for a lesser fee outside the city centre. One could prefer truly historical restaurants rather than a mainstream restaurant that has an expensive menu. Going to a dedicated kebab place that has been doing the same thing for almost a century instead of a fancy steakhouse that offers kebabs as a part of its menu will for most be regarded as more authentic. Even though the quality of the food may be remarkable in both of the cases, the tradition and expertise behind the operation of the former will most likely be unique.

Tours can also offer authentic experiences as they allow one to see almost all the places of significance of a city in an organized format accompanied by a knowledgeable tour guide. Unfortunately, not every tour will adhere to the same standard of quality which is something important to keep an eye on. However, even though tours are great, they might feel rushed. They come in a packed form, so to speak, and they will certainly have a schedule to follow. Therefore, it is important to take a closer look at their plans and make sure they actually cover experiences that you are interested in. 

If there are experiences that you would like to try for yourself that, in reality, do not necessarily have anything to do with the culture or the society of a country, do not let the “authentic” get in the way of that. These can be activities such as skydiving above the Alps, Scuba diving on the Mediterranean shores of Greece or going on a hiking trip in Japan. These activities might not appear authentic at first glance but in reality, this is further from the truth. Experiencing the natural beauty of a landscape and going on an arguably challenging adventure that not a lot of tourists would do could certainly be regarded as authentic. 

A universally ‘authentic’ experience is almost impossible to define due to its subjective nature. What is authentic to one person might not be authentic to another which creates complications in this regard. However, this is ultimately a good thing because it provides one the freedom to decide what they feel is authentic and what is not. If you want to ride the New York City subway to see all the legendary grime and crudeness it has to offer or have a bagel on your way to a casual stroll in Times Square, go ahead.