How to Explore Cultures and Countries When You Can’t Travel
Many travel enthusiasts have a bucket list of cultures and countries they want to explore that is as long as their arm.
We can’t always travel to places that interest us. Money, vacation time, political restrictions, and Pandemics (WHAT?!!) slow down our wanderlust.
Or, maybe you’re planning a dream vacation, and you want to stretch out your enjoyment and anticipation. Prepared travelers do some fun research before setting out.
Whatever the reason, an international night or culture study will enrich your life right now and improve your future trips.
Exploring cultures at home
Explore a culture with food
One of the most valuable ways we explored other cultures when our kids were young was our epic ethnic night dinners.
A couple of times a year, we picked a country and cooked up a feast; all 6 of us in the kitchen, 8-12 recipes, chaos all day, capped off by a huge meal and culture fest (leftovers are a bonus).
If you want to raise adventurous eaters, expose your children to a wide variety of foods.
Every country features a flavor profile. Getting friendly with the spices, staples, and locally produced foods that define a culture will multiply your family’s food vocabulary.
Now, when we get together for holiday feasts, we usually pick a country or cuisine to build our meal around. Most recently, we’ve made Greek, Mexican, Chinese, Cajun, and Hawaiian meals.
Check out International Dinner: How to Make Homemade Sushi for an example of how to explore culture through food.
Plan a mini feast
On a smaller scale, pick a country you plan to visit or are intrigued by and plan one dinner with a few new recipes or foods.
I suggest checking out a few library cookbooks to get started. They give a visual overview, background information, and tested recipes.
The internet is also a rich source of recipes for exploring cultures.
Here is a great websites to get you started:
Sasha Martin from Global Table Adventures is the go-to source on cooking your way through the countries of the world.
For serious cooks, try this list of 37 New International Cookbooks for the Traveling Home Cook.
Make a shopping list.
Surprisingly, food is very similar the world over.
If you want to keep costs low, stick with recipes that use foods you regularly cook with and focus on different cooking methods. You can find the majority of your food at the grocery store.
I do encourage you to select at least one recipe out of your comfort zone – that is the point after all – to learn something.
Do you need to source a specialty item? Tap the internet.
Amazon’s International Food Market is gorgeous, organized, and well-stocked. You should be able to find even the most obscure ingredient here.International Food Market
Build a theme around a country
Create a scene
Simple table decorations add to the festivities, especially with children.
Some simple ideas:
- Make flag placemats
- Display a centerpiece of the books you checked out
- Display fruits and vegetables native to the country
- Ethnic grocery stores you visit will have paper tableware and decorations (more about ethnic groceries below)
- Over time I collected a box of inexpensive items at thrift stores to add flair
For ideas, turn to Pinterest.
- table decorations [country]
- setting a [country] table
Exploring cultures with dress up
This is fun for children.
But if you are adults and want to dress up on your cultural night – no one will judge:) You can also look at pretty pictures and call it good.
As the world has continued to “shrink,” more and more people wear what is referred to as a Western dress code.
Often, traditional clothing is reserved for formal occasions, festivals, or ceremonies.
We are blessed to have gorgeous images of ethnic dress from around the world at our fingertips.
Google Arts and Culture offers a curated page – Explore Traditional Clothing From Around the World
Rough Guides – In Pictures: traditional dress around the world
For deeper research try this comprehensive list – Folk Costume on Wikipedia
My kids spent hours looking through this colorful book:
Explore cultures by getting funky
Set the mood with music.
In the old days, this was a trick. Most of the time we had to go without music. Now you can stream any genre of music, any time of day, anywhere in the world.
Check out this Guide to World Music
Another excellent activity for exploring cultures is listening to the countries national anthem.
Here’s a playlist on Spotify of National Anthems of the World.
Learn everything you always wanted to know about every countries anthem AND flag on Flagdom.
True National Anthem nerds will want to check out NationalAnthem.info
And if you want to learn to play a few on your guitar or piano, Hal Leonard has you covered.
One more resource I found is Music, Art, and English. It’s a page of links, older and visually rough around the edges, but the suggested sources are hard-to-find examples of music and art.
Exploring culture with media
I love technology, but reading books will always be my favorite way to learn.
There are so many excellent resources for finding setting based books.
For top search capability try:
For children’s books by US States:
Reading Through the States by Wrapped in Foil
Need even more?
Goodreads has a discussion page with a massive list of location-based book resources – Around the World in 80 books
Roll em…explore culture with film
Adding a movie to your cultural night can be a highlight. Try searching for films set in the country, or produced by the country.
First, search streaming services you subscribe to – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Movies, etc.
Flixable.com is the best way to search for Netflix and Disney+ offerings. The website has multiple filter options so you can find what you want.
Here’s a great YouTube video on how to use Flixable.com.
There are also countless lists of foreign films online.
Try specific search terms:
- foreign films set in [Portugal]
- foreign films about [Cambodia]
- foreign films from [Italy]
- exploring cultures through film
The more specific your search query the more targeted the list.
As an example:
There are also general lists of foreign films for aficionado’s.
Beware! Rating systems (and guidelines) are unique to each country.
Or, cue em…explore culture with documentaries
We always love a travel documentary.
Search YouTube, Netflix, or whatever streaming service you subscribe to.
With the millions of hours of video available on the internet, I imagine you can find something about the most obscure country.
Here are a few curated lists to get you started:
Vimeo travel is another source.
1000 Words in 1 image
Look for images.
Instagram is a good source for exploring cultures through curated images. Search by location tag or hashtag for the country you’re interested in and save pictures for a slideshow.
If the IG’er includes captions – bonus!
Remember pen pals? Instagram is a modern version. Leave a comment on photos you love, or ask a question and strike up a conversation with a native or fellow travel buff.
Exploring culture with activities
Game show host
Search for trivia about your country or create your own game. Wikitravel is a go-to source for quick facts on any country.
I was surprised to find the US State Department website’s Country Information Pages to be a valuable source about every country.
Although, as I write this, amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, the State Department has one overarching message. Stay Home! You might want to take a look. I’m guessing this is the first time in modern travel that we’ve ever had a global “Do Not Travel” advisory. I took a screenshot to document this crazy time.
There are many sources of online trivia. Some of the sites seem a bit sketchy – or they’re so overloaded with advertising it’s not worth the trouble. But a few I found are:
TriviaQuestions4U.com – Here’s a general world trivia quiz to try.
Jetpunk.com is another source for geography focused quizzes.
If you want to make your own, board game style, try Hobby Lark’s, How to Make a Trivia Game in Five Steps.
Or, go all out and make a reusable Jeopardy board. My Joy Filled Life has a tutorial.
Have you got talent?
Learn a song in the official language of the culture.
Cooking Irish? Learn a pub shanty.
Spanish? How about cabeza, hombros, rodillas y dos pies…
As always, an internet search should yield a variety of lyrics, videos, and audio files.
Get messy with art exploring cultures
For makers, and many children, nothing is better than trying a new craft or art form.
What forms of art and traditional craft is the country famous for? Can you try one?
For children’s crafts and art projects, a quick internet search will have you swimming in ideas. Pinterest is the best place to look because you will have a visual index of 100’s of options in a heartbeat.
Here are a few websites with a wide variety of choices:
Arts and Crafts Kids Activities from Kid World Citizen
Education.com has a search engine of World Cultures Activities that will refine by subject and grade level.
Art Around the World in 30 Days This series by Art Class Curator is good for adults and children. Cindy Ingram put together 30 posts, each post focusing on a different country. She highlights a piece of art, includes further reading and resources, discussion questions, and suggestions for projects.
Adult-level lessons may take more digging. The more specific your search terms, the more likely you will surface something usable.
Searching for ‘Russian art and craft projects will result in an extensive list of general ideas and children’s crafts.
Searching, ‘How to make a Faberge egg,’ will deliver several excellent sources and videos for trying your hand at an accurate facsimile.
And we can’t forget books:
From general multi-cultural craft books,
To specific traditions,
You can find a book on nearly any topic.
Roll the dice…exploring cultures with games
Picking a focus country could be a game in itself. Just spin a globe and randomly stop it in any country. Armchair travel, here we come.
But why not have some fun and games while you’re there?
What are the traditional games in your target country?
Do any modern games originate there?
What do children play? What do adults play? Are you surprised to find that you’re already familiar with some?
‘Mancala’ is a series of traditional board games from African and Arab cultures.
‘Go’ is an ancient game from China.
‘Chinese Checkers’ is, wait for it…German. Or, Bostonian, depending on who you ask.
‘Checkers’ is French.
Then there are modern games. Every game comes from somewhere.
Europe, especially Germany, produces the best modern board games on the market – ‘Settlers of Catan,’ ‘Ticket to Ride,’ ‘Code Names’, and ‘Blockus,’ are a few of our favorites.
Do you know where your favorite games come from?
More game resources:
I found a fun infographic on DIGG – Around the World in 80 Games.
And to combine a true love of board games with travel check out this review of the 28 Best Map Based Strategy Board Games
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Explore culture by learning something
Be a cartographer
Study a map of the country.
You can go digital and do a little snooping around using Google Earth.
Get bookish and study a world atlas. I think a comprehensive atlas is a useful thing to own.
There are also many specialty and colorful children’s atlases to choose from. If you don’t want to invest in a copy, check your local library.
Bonus points: Print a blank outline map and fill it in with major features.
Sources for free outline maps:
World Maps Online is also a quick source for basic outlines of countries.
Learn a few polite phrases and use them during dinner.
- Thank You
- My name is…
- Nice to meet you
- You’re welcome
- Excuse me
- Do you speak English?
Google Translate will help you with all of these phrases, in just about any language you can think of – and it does a decent job with pronunciation.
FluentU will get you started with Be Polite! Learn the Politest Phrases in 9 Foreign Languages
You can go the extra mile and use Italki to meet a native speaker via video chat. Italki is a language learning platform. You can take advantage of a world of language partners by booking a tutoring session. Be ready with questions about the culture and a list of words you want to learn.
Mind your manners please!
Every culture has a unique etiquette.
Whether you are preparing for a real trip and don’t want to commit a social gaffe or you’re just having a fun culture night at home and want to know about some interesting customs, etiquette is a fun topic.
A few things to consider:
- Clothing norms
- Table manners
A couple of free sources are:
Commisceo Global offers an extensive list of country guides.
Kwintessentials guides – these are geared toward global business interactions.
If you’re planning a trip and want a more through education check out:
Blue Guides, offering an extensive list of cultural, literary and food guides.Blue Guides
Also, take a look at Blue Guides homepage for interesting travel articles.
Culture Smart produces a customs, culture and etiquette guide for just about any country you would want to visit.Culture Smart Guides
Exploring cultures around town
Again, with food…
Hand’s down, my favorite way to experience a culture is to eat!
Finding a restaurant that features the food traditions of a foreign land is a treat.
But, finding a good restaurant is location-dependent, you’re going to have to do some sleuthing.
Try searching for:
- ethnic restaurants near me
- foreign food restaurants near me
- authentic ethnic restaurants near me
- [culture] restaurants near me
Here are a few fun food resources:
How Many of These 33 Restaurant Types Have You Tried? This is a new kind of bucket list I was excited to find. I have a few new experiences to add to my list.
For cuisine geeks, check out Wikipedia’s List of Cuisines. This will keep you busy for awhile.
And finally, Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide
Tyler writes about food in general and the Washington DC food scene in particular. I appreciate his 4 Rules for finding good value.
And check out our Hometown Tourist: Local Restaurant post.
Take a field trip to an ethnic grocery store.
We love this so much; it’s become part of our regular travel routine. I search out grocery stores.
Often we pick our next country based on the grocery store we most recently visited.
We have found everything from a Norwegian grocery in a tiny coastal town in Washington State to a Uwajimaya in Seattle, which is the size of a large suburban supermarket.
The trip to the store is as much a part of the experience as the meal itself. Many staples, spices, and fresh foods that would be considered “exotic” (aka. expensive) at your local supermarket will often be great deals in an ethnic market.
Keep an eye out for table decorations and inexpensive novelties.
You might want to invest in a piece of specialty cooking equipment. Shopping where the expats shop will usually give you less expensive and more authentic options.
Be a spectator
Sometimes you want to see a movie on the big screen.
My French teacher took our class to a screening of ‘Babette’s Feast’ in Portland (many, many years ago). I remember the entire baffling, confusing movie like it was yesterday. It was a wonderful experience, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as glamorous at home in front of the TV.
Search, ‘foreign films near me’ and see what pops up.
FilmComment.com has a list of Art-House Film Venues by state. It hasn’t updated for a while, but it’s worth checking out.
In major cities, you will find dedicated groups of film fans and more options than you have time for.
Beware! Like I mentioned in the video section above, every country handles ratings and guidelines differently. If you’re selective or seeking a family-friendly film you will want to vet foreign films carefully.
Search for exhibits related to your chosen culture. Like restaurants, you will have to work with your location.
Art museums feature collections of art from around the world.
Other types of museums could include history, industry, maritime, natural history, culture, pop culture, and heritage museums.
- cultural exhibits near me
- cultural exhibits in [your city]
- arts and culture exhibits near me
- historical and cultural exhibits near me
- [chosen culture] exhibits near me
Attending a local festival can be a great way to experience some culture without leaving town. These festivals usually offer traditional food vendors, music, exhibits, and performances.
Here are 2 calendar round ups:
The first, Festivals.com covers a wide variety of local festivals – from fruit to music and everything in between. It has a robust search engine, so it’s an excellent way to survey a lot of festivals.
The other places to look for ethnic and cultural festivals are regional magazines, local radio community calendars, and the arts and culture section of your local paper.
And as always, a quick internet search will do the trick. Try, ‘ethnic celebrations near me.’
Related Posts: Follow along with our Hometown Tourist Challenge for more ideas to get you out and about.
Going the extra mile to explore cultures
Make it a party
If you’re going to the trouble of planning and preparing a special feast, you might as well invite the company.
Do you have some food curious friends, to share the evening with?
For even more fun, plan the evening together and divide the work. Or meet up early and cook together.
For years, our homeschool support group hosted an International Night. Each child selected a country to learn about and prepared a display. Many families brought food to share. An International Night can be an ambitious undertaking, but we have so many good memories.
Have a guest of honor
It’s possible you know someone from the country you’re learning about. You might want to invite them over to your feast. Maybe they will even offer to cook a traditional dish. This is the best way to ensure you aren’t buying into stereotypes or misinformation.
Guidebooks are notorious for making statements about an entire country of people.
Is there anything we can say about ‘Americans’ that is true for all people that live in the USA? I doubt it.
My current fascination is Portugal. We are planning a month-long trip, and I’ve been studying the language seriously for 8 months. My guidebook says that ALL Portuguese people LOVE soup. They love – love – love it, and eat it every day. My Portuguese language tutor says that’s a major generalization.
We have been told similar “truths” about every country we’ve visited.
Host an exchange student
For an exceptional cultural experience – without leaving home – get involved with an exchange program and host students.
You’re probably familiar with high school students coming to live with a host family for 1-4 years. That can feel like adopting an extra kid. I’m not talking about that kind of exchange.
Many agencies arrange for international students to visit for as little as a week (Spring Break style) up to eight weeks (Summer Vacation style). We have hosted many French students during the summer, and it’s an excellent experience.
Most exchange agencies prefer you to have children in the same age range as the host student.
If you don’t have children or are an empty nester, you can volunteer to host the groups’ chaperone. There are also exchange programs directed at older college students and adults.
The organization we’ve worked with is Andeo, it’ s the only one I can personally recommend. If you are within driving distance of Portland or Seattle, they are an excellent place to start.
You can search for, ‘Foreign Exchange Programs near me’ or contact your local high school or university foreign language department to see if they have any connections.
What will you try?
You may not be able to go everywhere you want, whenever you want.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to learn about the world.
Try one of these ideas, or try them all. We would love to hear about the resources and ideas you come up with. Let us know in the comments.
PS. A Staycation is a perfect time for an international night. Check out our Play Your Perfect Staycation guide.