Taking a cultural tour when you travel can be one of the most interesting parts of visiting a new place. When you visit somewhere with a vastly different culture from your own, naturally you’ll want to learn about it. One of the best ways to learn about another culture is to hear about it or experience it with local people. This often happens through cultural tours. However, there can be things to consider when making tour arrangements. It’s important to make sure the tour you choose isn’t commodifying the local culture. Being respectful when visiting local areas, especially one off the beaten track, is important. This article will help you know which cultural tours to choose & how to be a more conscious traveler.
What is a Cultural Holiday?
A cultural holiday is a travel where you immerse yourself in the culture of a place. Being an outsider, it’s important to do so respectfully. If you plan your travels accordingly, you can visit during an important time of the year for that culture. This can be during religious holidays or cultural events. Some of the most popular around the world are Holi, Ramadan, Dia de Los Muertos, the Lantern Festival, and the Midnight Mass at the Vatican. We’ll talk more about those later in this article. These celebrations of culture are incredibly vibrant. It’s a great way to experience the authentic nature of the country you’re visiting.
Since these holidays & events are different from the ones you’re used to, make sure to do research beforehand. This article is a great start! We recommend looking up traditions regarding clothing, eating, and social interactions for each country you visit. This is a simple way to ensure that your travels respect the local community, particularly during a significant cultural or religious event.
Cultural Tours – Go Local
Now that you’re excited about your cultural holiday, let’s talk about how to find the best cultural tours. Before booking any cultural tour, we highly recommend doing research on the company providing it. Make sure to look into the fine details. If the cultural tour is run by a foreign country, that is, not the home country itself, and presents the culture for you to consume, it’s probably commodification.
What do we mean by ‘consuming another culture’? Some examples are African tribal tours that present people as inherently ‘other’, as exotic, as though they exist only for you to have an experience. Another example is when inherently special elements of a culture are transformed into ‘souvenirs’ for you to buy – such as totem poles from indigenous communities or religious figures. It’s important to remember that the culture and community you’re visiting isn’t there only for your enjoyment. You’re being welcomed into their space & it’s important to respect that. Many countries rely on tourism as a major pillar of their economy. However, engaging with tours by showing genuine respect for local people and using your money to empower the community is essential.
Cultural travel will lead you to some incredible experiences. Let’s consider two different ways of approaching local culture tours. Your whole trip could be a group tour, that you book from home. Or you could be booking a cultural tour, of varying lengths, once you arrive. Either way, choose a tour and company that hires local guides! Local people who are connected to the land and the spirit of a place will be able to share its authentic side with you.
Spending your time with someone who has lived the culture and knows the language and customs will give you a rewarding experience. Plus, it’s a great way to support the local economy and keep your money in the community you’re visiting.
Cultural Tours We Recommend
It can feel intimidating to choose a cultural tour that aligns with the characteristics we’ve been talking about. Here are some of the tour providers we recommend. If you’re looking for a group travel company that works with local community members, where you don’t have to do any planning, check out GIVE Volunteers. Their trips are usually targeted at younger travelers, but they have options for people of all ages as well. They have programs in Central America, Africa, Asia, and more! Since they have locations around the world – it’s worth looking into if you want to travel & volunteer.
Another suggestion is Worldpackers. Worldpackers offer exchanges of all kinds around the world. You’re sure to find one that fits your skillset and what you’re looking for.
If you’re the type of traveler who likes to plan everything yourself and book individual tours, our advice is the same as group travel. Look for cultural tours that feature local guides instead of international ones. Many times the cultures being shared are very personal. If you’re worried about language barriers, you can usually find tours with different options. We often start the tour search with Get Your Guide. You can filter through their different options and choose a cultural tour that works for you!
For some inspiration, here are two of our favorite local-led tours from Colombia. The Comuna 13 Walking tour is a great way to learn about a community that has been transformed and is a pillar of resilience & art. The guides are members of the community who work to share their story and the culture of their vibrant community.
The Walking Tour of Bogota is a great way to learn more about the capital city of Colombia and the country’s past. The guides are Colombians who specialize in anthropology and history, making them both knowledgeable and passionate about the information and stories they’re sharing. Both of these tours are free, making them perfect for any budget. Bring some cash to tip your guides, this makes an incredible difference and is well worth the experience you’ll have.
Looking to visit Australia and want to learn about the country from an indigenous perspective? Check out this app that connects you directly with native guides. AppOrigniee will help you explore the lands in the best way while also hearing about the country’s extensive history!
We highly recommend you check out Hidden Lemur’s Featured Experiences page. Here we have investigated eight tour companies and sustainable experiences in Costa Rica, Thailand, Guatemala, Italy, Puerto Vallarta, Sumatra, Malawi, and one specifically with animals. We’ve done the research and can attest that these companies have their local people, environment, culture, and wildlife (as well as your best authentic experience), as their number one priority!
Here are some final thoughts about cultural tours, cultural celebrations, and cultural sensitivity. Be kind and treat everyone with respect. You could be one of the few people from your country this person is meeting thus, you represent them. Besides that, it’s important to treat any person you meet with respect. Especially those who are taking the time to share their intimate practices with you. Try to go off the beaten track when possible. Engage with the authentic spirit of a country instead of the commodified version you’ll see in the tourist trap areas, such as mass-produced artistic representations of culture or clothing with deities on them, for example. This reduces stress on major tourist areas & always provides a more enriching experience.
Best Cultural Events Around the World
One of the best things about our world is the vast number of different cultures we have. Each country is home to a different culture, sometimes, they’re home to many. With each culture comes its own events and celebrations. If you plan your travels right, you may even get to experience some of them like a local! Make sure to research customs thoroughly before visiting so your adventures are respectful.
Here are some notable cultural events around the world:
Holi – India
India’s Holi festival is a 4th century CE Hindu celebration known in English as the Festival of Spring. The Holi festival usually takes place at the beginning of March and lasts two days. The first night of Holi includes the lighting of a sacred bonfire. The burning of the mythological Holika signifies the triumph of good over evil. The second day is the most visually well known, as it features the colorful powders and water that cover people from head to toe. The colors represent the vibrant nature of spring after the cold winter.
This occasion also celebrates the triumph of good over evil, making this a cultural celebration for happiness and love. Holi is celebrated by Indian populations all over the world, not just in India! There are many legends and folktales surrounding these occasions – much of it surrounds Lord Krishna, Radha, Prahlad, and Hiranyakashyap.
One of the most beautiful things about this celebration is the way it unites people. Many Indians will use this holiday to visit family, friends, and neighbors – letting the energy of Holi wash away any tension within relationships. Many young people play with water to celebrate, spraying everyone around them or throwing balloons full of colorful water. Often people will wear white to make the vibrancy of the colors on their faces stand out. The pleasant nature of this holiday will draw you in, and you’re welcome to participate.
However, it’s important to make sure you’re not appropriating the culture and instead, appreciating it. This festival doesn’t exist solely for your photos, it’s rooted deeply in a cultural and spiritual context. It’s important for you as a visitor to take the time needed to understand the history before attending. If you’re looking to participate in a Holi festival outside of India, make sure it’s run by people who identify as Hindu – many spinoff events are created by people outside of the Indian diaspora and don’t accurately reflect the celebrations.
Ramadan – Muslim Communities Around the World
Ramadan takes place throughout the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and is a holy month of fasting. Ramadan begins with the appearance of the first sight of the crescent moon and ends at the next one. If you’re lucky enough to visit an Islamic community during Ramadan, you’re sure to witness a special event. There are a few things to remember about this holy month for Muslims. In general, whenever visiting a predominantly Islamic country, and especially during Ramadan, be sure to dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders and knees. For ladies, when visiting religious sites, you’ll also need to cover your hair.
For the month of Ramadan, practitioners fast from sunup until sundown. While you’re traveling in a Muslim country, you will not be expected to fast as well, but it is considered respectful to eat & drink in private. Also, if you’re carrying a water bottle, try to keep it in a bag. Places like supermarkets will be open during the day so you can buy food if you need it, however, it may be hard to find places like restaurants that are serving food during the day.
One of the most beautiful parts of Ramadan is the decorations that line the streets. For example, Egypt puts beautiful metallic streamers on most of the streets with colorful banners. Another popular feature is the many lanterns of all sizes, called the Fanous. When locally made, these lanterns make for wonderful souvenirs, and you’ll see a lot for sale. These lovely details are something special about visiting Islamic communities during this time.
The Lantern Festival – China
The Lantern Festival is thought to date back to the Han dynasty. This beautiful display of light happens on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar year, making it two weeks after the Chinese New Year. Their New Year celebration is another incredible cultural event we recommend checking out if possible. The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Chinese New Year Period. These celebrations happen all over China and neighboring countries.
Some of the most famous lantern displays are the Qinhuai International Lantern Festival in Nanjing and Shanghai Yuyuan Lantern Festival. Even if you’re in a small or large area, you should be able to catch some festivities. Every street is decorated with beautiful paper lanterns. They’re usually quite colorful and can sometimes have things written on them like riddles.
Traditional lanterns are red to inspire good fortune. Each lantern is meant to mark the letting go of the past year in order to welcome the new year with good energy. Fireworks are a common celebratory element in the lantern festival. Firework displays are sponsored by local governments in urban areas, and in more rural areas, members of the community participate. Some other common activities are lion & dragon dances, and of course, eating dumplings (tangyuan).
If you’re lucky enough to be in China at this time, I’m sure you’ll enjoy taking part in the celebrations. You can grab some traditional food to eat and practice your Mandarin with the riddles on the lanterns. If you’re not sure what to do or where to participate respectfully, you can always check with your accommodation or a local you’ve gotten to know. I’m sure they’d love to share a bit about their culture with you!
Dia De Los Muertos – Mexico
The famous ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration takes place in Mexico after Halloween, November 1st and 2nd. Dia De Los Muertos has its roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. Aztecs and Nahua people saw death as another stage of life and originally left food out to help their loved ones on their journey to Mictlan, the final resting place. In contemporary Mexico, this holiday is for remembering past loved ones and the deceased in general.
It’s believed by Mexicans that the veil between our world and the afterworld is the thinnest at this time. Making it possible for the spirits of family members to return. Because of this, many homes throughout Mexico create altars, called ofrendas, to cherish those who have passed and welcome them home. These can have photographs, favorite foods, and memories of their time together adorning them. Another popular decoration is marigolds, you’ll find this flower everywhere around this time. You’ll see sugar skulls all throughout the country as well, they’re intricately decorated to represent a departed soul. These celebrations are incredibly colorful and lively. In fact, they were named by UNESCO to be an intangible part of the cultural heritage of humanity!
One of the best places for experiencing this holiday is Oaxaca, Mexico. There are colorful marketplaces, vigils in cemeteries, and nighttime events called comparsas that are similar to carnivals. Other popular destinations to celebrate are Mexico City, the island town of Janitzio, and Merida in the Yucatan. Be sure to respect this vibrant celebration of Mexican culture if you’re participating. Dressing up as stereotypical characters, mimicking a sugar skull with makeup, and other activities can be considered disrespectful to local people. Not sure how to join in? Ask a Mexican the best way to celebrate respectfully. They will probably be happy you showed this display of respect and share tips with you. If you’d like to experience this, we recommend planning your trip well in advance. It’s a popular time to visit, and you’re likely to find accommodations booked in advance or flight prices to be more expensive.
Midnight Mass – The Vatican, Italy
The heart of Catholicism, the Vatican, is known for its spiritual Christmas festivities. The smallest country in the world is lovely any time of year, but it’s especially eye-catching during the Christmas season. It’s known for its Christmas markets, intricately decorated Christmas trees, nativity scenes, beautiful carolers, and of course, its church masses. There’s a competition among artists on designing nativity scenes, and they’re all presented in St. Peter’s Square. The special midnight mass takes place inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to leave time for the special concert, Concerto di Natale, that happens each year. The good thing is that this celebration happens over the 21 days of Christmas, starting from December 8th to January 6th, so you’re sure to be able to find time to visit!