Why struggle as a stranger in a foreign land when you can opt to travel as a friend in a familiar city? Homestays offer a more intimate alternative to traditional hotels that, with the help of a friendly host, can showcase the soul of a city shielded beneath the mask of a modern megalopolis.
In our last feature, we revealed the best cities in Europe to try a homestay. Here, we look at the best cities from around the world, from Toronto to Tokyo, and what to look forward to when you're prepared to swap the hotel mod cons for a spare room in a local's home.
From Brooklyn to The Bronx, The City That Never Sleeps strikes an electrifying chord composed of the shrieks of sports venues, cries of concert halls, whines of office workers and the drunken babble seeping from the city’s bars. A homestay in the Big Apple can help you escape from the claustrophobic cluster of hotels surrounding Midtown Manhattan and have you dancing to your own beat. Options include the arty maritime neighbourhood of Red Hook, the bustling backstreets of charming Chinatown or slow-paced Inwood, home to acres of peaceful parkland where the city’s howl dims to a pleasant hum.
That iconic snap of Sydney – the sun spilling over cocktail-swilling crowds swarming the hallowed harbour that reflects the resplendent opera house in its calm waters – can promote an image of Australia’s largest city as somewhat one dimensional. Mixing with locals in a homestay can awaken guests to the city’s myriad of exciting activities. Visitors can sink into a salt-water swimming pool, swerve through the city on a Segway or attempt that most archetypal of Aussie activities: surfing (not barbecuing).
Canadians are renowned for their hospitality, and in Canada’s largest and most multicultural metropolis it can be beneficial to have a host help cut through the city’s modern veneer. A recommendation for the best exhibits in the monolithic Royal Ontario Museum, one of the largest museums in North America, could very well turn into a day out that sees you sampling Queen Street’s sloppiest poutine and scoring rink-side tickets to witness the Maple Leafs, Toronto’s professional ice hockey team, carve up the ice. You’ve been warned.
Culture shock is Tokyo’s forte. From sumos to kimonos, the megalopolis revels in reducing even the most accomplished globetrotter to a trembling timid tourist. A homestay can really ground the experience and offer an intimate insight into modern Japan, with friendly locals keen to showcase their unique culture to visitors. Expect to be shown the correct way to slurp soba from stalls at Ameya-Yokochō market, debriefed on the history of the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo’s most renowned Shinto structure, and, come nightfall, encouraged to sip sake and sing karaoke – the newest of Japanese traditions.
A hipster nirvana, Melbourne is continually crowned one of the world’s most liveable cities, and its stylish streets, swarming with bearded gents and girls garnered in vintage threads, has started to attract an increasing number of tourists over the last few years, enticed by the city’s idiosyncrasies. Things change quickly here, and securing the expertise of a local means you’ll have a greater chance of sampling the town’s trendiest venues. A glampsite on a rooftop? No problem. A charitable whisky bar? Of course. A vegan coffee shop filled with owls? Probably coming soon.
Cuba is the king of homestay destinations; so-called casas particulares have been operating in Havana since the late 1990s, when the government allowed locals to rent out private rooms to foreigners to provide additional income. Homestays remain the only real alternative to state-run or international-owned hotels, and help visitors sample a real slice of Havana, especially its rich culinary heritage. Choose your homestay wisely and you will likely find yourself feasting on homemade ropa vieja (stewed beef) or the ubiquitous Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans). Such food should be suitably accompanied by a highball mojito, Havana being the alleged birthplace of the cherished cocktail.
A seamless intertwining of beautiful outdoor spaces and a stylish cityscape has helped Vancouver blossom into one of North America’s trendiest towns. The best way to see the sights of this progressive paradise? On two wheels, of course. Some homestays offer bicycles that’ll enable you to explore the metropolitan sprawl and its surrounds. The Stanley Park Seawall circuit, the world’s longest waterfront path, is essential pedalling, while the UBC Loop showcases the city’s historic university campus. When fatigued, hang up your helmet and sample a pint of the city’s craft beer, the poster beverage of the hipster bourgeois.
Part of LA’s appeal is the chance for the average traveller to rub shoulders with America’s high and mighty, and while your host is unlikely to be a movie star – at least a professional one – they are probably familiar with the city’s chief celeb hangouts. The Sunday morning Studio City Farmers Market is a good place to start, while a run around Runyon Canyon, popular with celebrity joggers, may result in sweaty small talk. If all else fails, see the stars of tomorrow at the excellent Upright Citizens Bridgade Theatre, where a number of America’s biggest comedic names started out.
Brisbane is certainly the city to kick back; the Queensland capital emits an easy-going vibe that’ll cajole you into strolls around the town’s koala sanctuary or simply see you sunning on the shore of Street Beach, the artificial attraction that crowns the city’s popular South Bank. Those unfamiliar with the concept of unwinding will surely find guidance from their host – Aussies being the masters of relaxation – with the treatment likely to involve an afternoon sipping schooners in the sun, or a recommendation to one of the city’s supreme spas.
Sandwiched between two handsome harbours, the City of Sails manages to squeeze a cultural cornucopia into its concentrated centre. Displays of Maori culture are on offer at the Auckland Museum, while ever-changing contemporary collections span the Wallace Arts Centre. But it is in its outskirts that Auckland excels, and with the luxury of private transport, a plethora of pilgrimages awaits. Chief among these is a visit to the wild and desolate West Coast surf beaches (and its wondrous wineries), just one hour from the city.
This feature was sponsored by Homestay.com; all content is editorially independent.
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