#F***AirBnB: When We Try Not to be Tourists

When we travel, we try to find the “Brooklyn” in every city. In other words, we prefer to stay in a neighborhood that is well situated, hip, and has it’s own flavor. More importantly, we’d rather not battle tourists the second we step out of our door each morning. You’ll notice how I just attempted to separate us from other wandering sightseers–we’d rather think of ourselves as “travelers” than tourists. This is for good reason, “tourist” has raked up such a negative connotation over the years. No one wants to be a part of the masses that swarm all the typical attractions and dine at the traps conveniently laid out along the heavily trafficked main route.

Quite sincerely we try to earn our traveler label by immersing ourselves in a culture–hours of research go into finding the most “authentic” places to stay, things to see, and food to eat. But what does that word “authentic” really mean in regards to discovering a new place? I’d like to think my nose for authenticity is most keen when it comes to food; I’ll find the tiny restaurant in an unknown neighborhood with the up and coming chef, or the random bodega where locals will actually stand in line for tacos.

With regard to sights, my husband and I tend to try to visit the “can’t miss” attractions as early as we can in the morning. We also often elect to get a guide so we can learn the history and the stories around the places we visit. I always chuckle when I think of a tour we were on in London where our guide stopped us in a pretty inconspicuous alley to explain the Great Stink of 1858. As she spoke we looked around and began to understand the beginnings of the sewer system in London; previously the Thames was used as a receptacle for all waste. Near the end of her fascinating explanation, as we stood there listening to the detail, almost able to smell the remnants of a hot summer and human excrement floating in the river, a couple walked past and became increasingly curious as to what had captivated the group’s attention. Their eyes shot around the alley confused, nothing there seemed significant. So as to not miss anything, the girl began frantically snapping photos with the camera hanging around her neck. She caught every angle before she looked back at her partner, shrugged–still unaware of what all the fuss was about, and then summoned him to move along. I see this pretty frequently when we travel–an adamance to photograph everything that may be post-worthy, but very little desire to actually know what one is looking at. I have to conclude that the subjects in these pictures are simply images–they are not places; they are captured but not remembered. They seem quite unlikely to leave a permanent impression on one’s being or truly broaden their perspective of the world. Perhaps this is what separates a traveler from a tourist–intention, or what we hope might be gained in visiting a new locale.

On our most recent venture to Portugal, we approached our exploration with what we were sure was our usual curiosity and mindfulness. In Lisbon, we decided to stay in the Alfama neighborhood. Although we read that it could be a little bit of a pain to get to since it is situated well above all the other neighborhoods, every blogger and AirBnB reviewer assured us it was gorgeous and as “authentic” as it could get. They weren’t wrong. Each night uber drivers would drop us off near, but not in front of our apartment way up in the hills; the old narrow roads offer very little access for cars and must for the most part be traveled by foot. With each exit our drivers would smile and comment that we seemed to be seeking the “real” Lisboa experience by staying in the Alfama, the oldest and traditionally poorest neighborhood in the city.

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Our pride and certainty in our choice of accommodations dwindled from the moment our host led us from the train station, and up the hills with our luggage. There were others just like us all around- English speaking and fiddling with whether it was easier to drag our suitcases over the bumpy stone streets or just pick them up and carry them. It wasn’t long before we started to feel eyes on us; we peeked above only to realize our every move was being captured by locals hanging out of their windows. As we caught stares, some of the faces behind them would smile, some would look away, and others seemed to glare. Although our host was incredibly gracious and helpful and the Portuguese people up to that point were more than friendly, I couldn’t help but wonder just how welcome we would be for the next six days. My hubs noticed the #fuckairbnb tag just around the corner from our apartment as soon as we walked up; it wasn’t the only place this sentiment was displayed.

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As we experienced and collected the feelings of our temporary neighbors, we paired them with an explanation from one of our guides, Eduardo, a local who had lived in Lisbon his entire life. His parents had actually grown up in the Alfama but moved when he was born, not wanting to raise him in the area that was considered poor and even dangerous at times. He explained that AirBnb was changing the neighborhood significantly and many longtime tenants were being forced out of their homes to make room for transient visitors. We felt a bit horrified listening to him, realizing that in our quest for authenticity we had been active participants in the gentrification of the area. The modern ikea-laden apartment we were staying in was likely once the much more humble home of two or three families.

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The Pride of Alfama–the stories of it’s tenants are a permanent art exhibition that can be found throughout the neighborhood

Noticing our disappointment in ourselves, Eduardo quickly assured us that the changes were not all bad. “It’s complicated,” he told us as we winded around a quiet and narrow passage. He explained that property laws in Portugal were kind of a mess, and many landlords were stuck with tenants whose “leases” had been passed on and unaltered for as many as a hundred years. He continued, “It is difficult because do I think someone should be kicked out of their home, no? But I also understand that the landlord is not able to keep up the property in 2017 when he is getting 25-30€ a month for rent, it is a complicated situation.” Indeed.

While we have always been aware of what our presence in a neighborhood could mean when we rent an AirBnB, we had never experienced such palpable feelings as we did in the Alfama. When we were in Vienna, Austria, we stayed in a larger building with more units. We learned from a guide that the complaint there was less about tenants being pushed out, and more about locals disliking the fact that they didn’t know their neighbors. Their buildings were becoming half residential/half hotel and it was not how they wanted to live. All of this (and this last experience especially) has made us much more conscious of our footprint as we consider travel to other areas. As much as we’d like to avoid the tourist spots, we have to remember that we are visitors. We will try harder in the future to ensure our search for authenticity buoys the economy without sinking the local spirt.

I think if we return to Lisbon, we might stay in Alcantara, which is still convenient to everywhere in the city but much more up and coming with a lot of young entrepreneurs moving in. We visited the LX Factory there and also ate some incredible food at 1300 Taberna.  We loved the ambitious energy we felt walking around that area, there was so much possibility. We would also consider the more established Campo de Ourique neighborhood for a future landing spot. While some may find it a bit far out and sleepy, we enjoyed the quieter vibe and found there were plenty of restaurants and shops to discover. We fell head over heels in love with the Mercado de Campo de Ourique and found it vastly superior to the more frequented TimeOut Market near the center.

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The gorgeous and eclectic 1300 Taberna in Alcantara

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Local families gather at the Mercado de Campo de Ourique

I’d definitely say that in Portugal, we accomplished two of the main goals we always have while traveling: We had a blast and we learned; we came back with a little better understanding of the world than we had when we left. Each trip is an opportunity to expand our knowledge and deepen our capacity for compassion by coming to know and appreciate other cultures.

Why do you travel? What are the things you consider when deciding where to stay on a tip? Do you frequent hotels or have you become an AirBnBer? Anyone else have the same or different experience in the Alfama? I would love to hear from you!

 

22 thoughts on “#F***AirBnB: When We Try Not to be Tourists

  1. Like you & your husband, my partner and I are frequent Airbnbers. I like it mostly ‘cuz it means we save money by cooking some of our own meals! I’d never quite thought too much about the impact it could have on local residents. Now I am! It’s that internal feud of wanting to feel more like your experiencing the local culture whilst at the same time not destroying it by angering the locals with your presence. Not that that is necessarily true everywhere, but it’s a tough road to navigate! Is being a traveller now becoming too ‘normal’ and less on the fringes as it use to be? Is it naive to think we can truly ‘live like a local’ when we travel now? So many questions! x

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    1. I’ve thought about that a lot Jen–if trying to “live like a local” is now just totally mainstream. I think social media has a ton to do with it, everyone documents their every single move now on fb and IG. Places that would have remained less known are blowing up like never before. It’s actually made me sad because it feels like the “why” of many people’s travel has changed, people want to go places to fill up their feeds and get likes, it doesn’t really seem to be about coming to know a place or culture different from their own. Lots of stuff to have on our minds, yes? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, please come back and do it again!! x

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  2. This is a very interesting and meaningful post. Thank you for sharing. I’ve seen posters around Silver Lake in LA that they don’t want Airbnb as neighbors. It’s a very complicated issue in my opinion. I totally understand the locals but me as a visitor also prefer to stay as far as I can from the touristy areas. My husband and I try to do everything in our power to stay polite and respectful and don’t be a hustle for the locals but I’m sure that not everyone behaves their best when traveling 😦

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  3. Very insightful article. I moved to León, Nicaragua a few months ago. I’m renting an apartment in a neighborhood called Subtiava (Brooklyn), one of León’s oldest, until our house is ready in a more touristy neighborhood called El Sagrario. We are opening a business so we want the traffic. Where I am living now, there are a lot of expats, the neighbors seem to split on foreigners moving into the area. I’m not sure how Airbnb is affecting this area. Interesting perspective.

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    1. Yeah Mary as I responded to Gillian I felt a little ineffectual after writing this, I didn’t exactly come up with a solution! I guess just being aware of our footprint is part of it. Agree though, airbnb is really a great thing–it’s changed a lot of our travel experiences for the better I think!

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  4. Very interesting food for thought. I’ve used Airbnb in the US and it’s been great. We are traveling to Paris – London – Amsterdam later in the year and we have an Airbnb booked for Paris already. We’re hoping to Airbnb in London as well. Do you have any recommendations for London neighborhoods?

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    1. So…I hate to keep doing this but…my hub and I took a trip 2 years ago to…London, Paris, and Amsterdam, LOL. Def come to me for any tips if you need them! If I went back to London I would most likely stay in Shoreditch. We chilled there quite a bit, it’s a very Brooklyn vibe. We stayed more in the city center but I would never do that again, especially because London is so large and the Tube is so great there. There’s never going to be one location that puts you near everything you want to see but the tube is so easy to use and clean and just great so it’s really best to stay in a neighborhood that feels fun and you want to chill in. I have heard Brixton is cool too but don’t know a ton about it. Also, Camden town is fun and I know you like live music right? So that might be right up your alley. It’s Amy Winehouse’s old hood. Shoreditch is very hipster (think craft beers) and Camden is a little grungier (but I mean, just a little) so either might work-both really fun. Where are you staying in Paris?!

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  5. Typically, I love traveling alone, because I feel that I can get more out of a country by interacting more with its people. I am a big fan of using Airbnb abroad; but before Airbnb was even a thing, I would stay in hostels or do home stays. The price of a place is one of my biggest criteria for choosing a place. I like to be a little cheap with my lodgings, because I know that I’m really only going to be in my lodgings for sleeping and I would prefer to spend my money on other things. I’m one of those travelers who needs to see as much as he/she can in a city, so I’m pretty much out from the morning to the late evening (or sometimes even the early morning).

    Alfama restaurant, which used to be in the far West Village, is the only experience that I’ve had with Alfama. 😉

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    1. You know I haven’t traveled much alone at all. I didn’t really have money for traveling when I was younger and now I’ve got my hubs and love to go places with him. I do love reading pieces about solo travel though, it seems like such a great opportunity to learn a lot about yourself! Btw, is your name Swosei? Wasn’t sure if that was your name or just the name of your blog and stood for something else–I like being able to respond to people by their name if possible 😍.

      Also, you should def hit up the real Alfama 😉

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      1. Ha. Swosei is an old throw back to AOL, circa 1996. Aol made my screen name based on the combination of my first (Kwame) and middle (Osei) names.

        Asking and trusting strangers with my phone/camera is one thing I dislike about solo travel.

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  6. Very interesting perspective. My husband and I have stayed in many airbnb properties for a whole bunch of reasons – I’ve always kept away from any that tell you ‘not to tell the neighbours that you’re here through airbnb’ as I don’t want to feel like I shouldn’t be there or that the locals don’t want us there. It is a tricky situation – the balance between providing people with a relatively easy source of income while meeting my travelling needs versus neighbourhoods retaining their sense of community (which is often the reason you’re there in the first place). Love that your post brings attention to it as I think that’s all we can do – be mindful.

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    1. That’s so appropriate you say that Gillian that all we can do is bring attention to it and be mindful of it because I felt very ineffectual at the end of writing this. It felt like I was just commenting but not really coming up with a solution. I always want a solution!!! 😍. I think you’re right though, mindfulness. Also, not sure if you saw Alasdair’s comment above but he said he often stays with a host–we always just get a place to ourselves but staying with a host would definitely be getting into the culture and even adding to that sense of community maybe…interesting to think about. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment!

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  7. Interesting perspective of Air BnB here. I’ve never actually stayed in one – even though I’m only in my early 20s and meant to be part of the “younger” generation of travellers, I rarely use Uber and always stay in hotels – mainly because I’m a bit too scared to go out of my comfort zone I think! Those streets in Alfama looked beautiful though!

    https://theworldincolour.com xx

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    1. I love hotels as well, we mix it up. But love airbnbs because we get to stay in a neighborhood rather than a tourist spot. I live in NYC and I would not direct someone to stay in Times Square, yet that is where most people go! Also love airbnbs cause we can cook our brekkie there!

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  8. I really enjoyed reading that post Cat! We use Airbnb a lot when we travel, in fact the last time we stayed in a hotel was in NYC last September. We do it for a lot of reasons, many similar to your own. When I travel on my own for work, which I do quite a lot, I like to stay with a host – it’s much more enjoyable than staying in a soul-less hotel on your own. I’ve met some wonderful people that way. We’re going back to London in 2 weeks to visit our daughter for a week and we’ve booked the most amazing Airbnb in Balham, where she lives. We have the top half of a house, which includes a yoga studio! Balham is about a 30 min tube ride from the centre of London, and other than getting our train to & from the capital, we won’t be venturing anywhere near the main tourist spots. Since Rebecca moved to London four years ago we’ve got to know a very different London and we love it!

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    1. It’s unfunny Ali, I never considered staying with a host before, we always just book places to ourselves. But, if my goal is really to immerse myself in the culture than that would really be the way to go–to actually get to know a local on a more personal level. I’m so glad you brought this up–might change some future travel for us! Also, love what you said about London, so great when you get to spend extended amounts of time in a place and really get to know it on a different level. I kind of wish my family lived in a more interesting place 😍.

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  9. Pat Takacs

    Thanks for the great pics and stories! Was in Germany in the 90s. At a store and in front of me an American soldierbuying an article. He was berating the salesperson saying:” Come on! You can speak English if you want to!” Threw down the article and left. I was next and had been marking my translation book with my fingers so I could speak her language. When I struggled through the request, she said:”For you, I speak English!” I apologized for the soldier and was embarrassed and sad by the event. My first adult experience lesson as to how people from other countries see us. And so people like you and hubby give hope we were well represented on your trip!!! Thanks! Pat T.

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    1. Wow Pat, thank you for sharing one of YOUR stories, amazing that it still has an impact on you all these years later. Exposure to other cultures is pretty life changing. Thank you so much for commenting and sharing that with me and others, and as alway, thanks for reading! x

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