Amsterdam-based travelers (and married couple) Sanne and Bart van Poll like to explore cities from a local’s perspective. They strongly believe that “a better understanding of different cultures” can make a positive change in the world.
A few years ago they founded Spotted by Locals, a series of online and mobile guides to 44 cities in Europe. Meant as an alternative to conventional guidebooks, the site features tips by hand-picked contributors (“Spotters”), who write about their favorite places in the cities they live in.
Sanne and Bart talked to Jetting Around about their travel philosophy and how the modern age has changed the way travelers do research. They also shared some of their favorite hangouts in Amsterdam and other European cities.
What prompted you to start your site and focus on urban destinations?
We love to travel. When visiting new cities though, we realized more and more that traditional travel books weren’t quite up to speed with the city in question. Sometimes we’d find ourselves at a spot that was raved about in a travel guide, only to find it closed or filled with tourists. We love to discover the real city and when you’re surrounded by tourists trying to do the same, you know you’re not getting the real thing.
This is also what made us concentrate on urban destinations – those are always changing, while other destinations aren’t. At least not from day to day, or month to month.
What are your favorite things to do in cities? Are there any activities you shy away from?
We love to meet locals! And this is something that’s best accomplished when you’re in the places the locals like to be. We think one great way to sense the real vibe of a city is to see it through a local’s eyes.
Obviously there’s something to be said about the famous highlights of a city, and those should be visited too. But they’re not all a city is about. Especially when you think a regular local probably hardly visits those places. So what does a local do during his/her week? That’s what we’re interested in.
Something we shy away the more we travel are the “highlights.” The more we travel, the less interested we get in places where mostly tourists gather.
What do you think drives many people to travel “like a local?”
With traveling becoming more accessible to more and more people, cities are becoming quite busy. As a result of this it’s not unreasonable to think people are growing tired of waiting in line for major tourist attractions. This would most likely make people more interested in other things a city has to offer. And locals know what that is.
Also, with the Internet, country borders are slowly fading away. The Internet is on hand to give people information about a destination and everybody uses it. But users are keen to find information that’s reliable and up-to-date. The speed of living has changed, and so has the way people travel and prepare for travel. People want to make a trip more personal. Instead of following the hordes of tourists to highlights, with the help of the Internet, travelers are able to personalize the trip to their own favors, wants, and needs.
What might be an obstacle to doing it?
Probably the time-factor. Travelers still want to see a city’s highlights, and with today’s ‘trend’ of fast moving, people like to get in, take a picture, and get out. So they’d move around in a city in the quickest way possible. Which is a shame, because walking through a city gives you the best views and you might come across secret or extremely local things!
What short- and long-term benefits of experiencing destinations the local way do you see?
Short-term would probably be the experience of that particular city. To travel like a local is to immerse yourself in a city and experience it to its fullest potential and in a more personal way. And in the long run this might change people’s views about other cities. It’s a neat way of removing negative stereotypes.
Have you noticed any changes in the way that travel guides are written? Do you think the online travel community has had or may have an impact on it?
The online travel community is breathing down the neck of paper travel guides. Like we mentioned before, with today’s fast pace and the Internet breaking down barriers, people are able to inform themselves and plan their own itineraries in a more efficient way. While folks most likely still use paper guides, they’re not doing it exclusively, but adding tips they find to it. Paper travel guides need to adapt to this phenomenon of people becoming more independent and curious.
How do you select your Spotters and keep the guides current?
We always meet our Spotters in person! We have some standard characteristics we like to see a Spotter match, but in the end it’s all about their love for that city. Are they enthusiastic, socially driven people, who are keen to share their favorite spots in town? Do they speak the language?
Once a Spotter is on board, they strive to update their articles daily if necessary. Because they write about their favorite spots, places they frequently visit, the writers are always in the know. Whenever something changes, they immediately update this online.
What are some of your favorite tips that your contributors have published? What places have you experienced thanks to the Spotters?
When we travel to a city to meet our Spotters, we run around from spot to spot, to experience as many local tips as possible. It’s very difficult to make a selection out of the now 7,000 spots that are currently online! Some of our favorites include:
1) Keret (Frame) Budapest - a secret illegal club
Two very nice people made a “club” from their apartment, and serve homemade wine. A wonderful and very special experience in one of our favorite cities in Europe!
2) Alberta street Riga - Stunning art deco
When we were in Riga 2 months ago to meet our writers, we had a hotel in Alberta street. The surroundings had the most beautiful Art Deco we’d ever seen in city – very impressive and surprising!
3) Carsija – old town Skopje
Last week we visited the capital of Macedonia for the first time. We loved it! One of the special elements of the city is the cultural diversity. If you cross the bridge from the main square to Carsija – the “Albanian” part, it feels like you’re in another world! Carsija is the largest bazaar in the Balkans, and it’s very impressive.
Can you share three favorite hangouts or activities in your city, Amsterdam?
Another difficult question… The places we hang out most often lately:
1) Cafe Brecht Amsterdam - A Berlin-like cafe with great German beers and wines
2) Basis Amsterdam - A laid back cafe where you can bring your own food, and play ping pong!
3) Buurtboerderij Ons Genoegen - A neighborhood farm with good bar and many activities, run by volunteers
What are future plans for the site?
This year, we launched our iPhone and Android city guide apps – 100% offline, constantly updated apps with tips by our locals. We want to continue expanding the amount of mobile platforms our tips are published on. Next up is a Windows Phone app.