Some of the best memories we collect as travelers are of the strangers we meet along the way: the proud taxi driver who shuts off the meter and takes you to his favorite hole-in-the-wall eatery; the innkeeper who calls a friend of a friend’s cousin to take you on a breathless hike through a private tea plantation; the gentleman one barstool over who turns out to be a theater director with an extra ticket for that night’s sold-out show. But not every transformative experience comes from a chance encounter; some can be booked in advance. Think of these websites as the wingmen of the travel world, connecting curious travelers with residents eager to share their deeply local knowledge.
League of Kitchens
Lisa Gross, founder of League of Kitchens, believes food is a great way to counter toxic rhetoric around immigration and support meaningful cross-cultural exchange. She recruits female immigrants, many of them 50 or older, to lead immersive cooking lessons and food tours in the neighborhoods where they live and shop. The service is currently limited to New York City and Los Angeles, but LOK’s 15 instructors hail from around the world: Afghanistan, Argentina, Greece, Nepal, Mexico, Iran, and beyond. Each woman has a deep knowledge of her native culture’s food traditions, but they are not professional chefs. Jeanette, for instance, moved from Zahle, Lebanon, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 2006. When you sign up for one of her 2.5-hour or 4.5-hour culinary workshops, you’ll hang out in her home kitchen and hear her personal backstory while learning to make mujaddara (lentil and rice porridge topped with sweet fried onions) and bake maamoul (semolina shortbread cookies stuffed with nuts). In the Manhattan kitchen of Aiko, an immigrant from Kagawa, Japan, you’ll be schooled in the principles of mottainai, or waste avoidance, while making kinpira-burdock root simmered in soy sauce, mirin (rice wine), and homemade dashi (fish broth). Up to six guests can join a cooking class, and each participant leaves with a detailed shopping guide and a packet of family recipes.
“From as early as I can remember, I’ve craved outdoor adventure. I surf, snowboard, skydive, climb high mountains, ride motorcycles, and love camping and bushcraft,” says Pedro McCardell, a former advertising executive. “I love exploring new places, and I’m always in search of the spots that only the locals know about.” When McCardell realized he couldn’t find a digital platform to help him, he launched his own. Lyfx, pronounced life-X (short for “life experience”), connects adventurous travelers such as McCardell with local outdoors enthusiasts. The site is still getting its footing but already has 350 adventures listed, some “tough” and others “chill.” Activities are concentrated in Colorado, Utah, and California for now, but McCardell is also eyeing markets in Maine, Georgia, New York, the Dolomites, and Chile. He aims to have as many as 1,000 experiences listed by summer. (How does trekking through the Atacama Desert with seven-summits mountaineer Ernesto Olivares sound?) Lyfx adventures are searchable by region and include camping, hiking, running, cycling, landscape photography, kayaking, surfing, skiing, snowboarding, sailing, and more. Guides are required to obtain the necessary permits and certifications for each experience.
Tours By Locals
A mind-boggling number of services claim to connect travelers with in-the-know locals and tour guides, but one of the oldest and easiest to use is still one of the best. Founded in Vancouver in 2008, Tours By Locals maintains a smaller inventory than its younger, hotter competitors, yet every person featured is someone you probably want to know. (Theyʼre people like Rodolpho Emanuel in Manaus, Brazil, who was born and raised in the Amazon rain forest and can offer insight and access to unique indigenous sites.) Each profile tells you the guide’s location, languages spoken and level of fluency, background, and tourism credentials. Travelers can search by special interest (adventure, after dark, food and wine, religious heritage, shopping, etc.), activity level (minimal to extreme), wheelchair accessibility, and kid-friendliness, and read detailed reviews of other travelers’ experiences. When you find something of interest, book a spot on a pre-arranged tour or start a conversation with the guide. The ability to directly message the guides makes Tours By Locals stand out from the pack, because you can shape your own itinerary and better determine if your personalities meld before committing to an outing. With more than 3,400 guides in 156 countries, there’s bound to be a match.
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Ashlea Halpern Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.