Sometimes asking a local for travel tips is the worst thing you can do.

I’m sure the good people of Naples thought they were doing me a favor. Or maybe it was a total stitch-up, who knows.

But when I asked locals for a good pizza place, a place to order proper Neapolitan-style pizza, a place people in the know would go to, a cherished secret, a slice of absolute Italian perfection – I did not expect this.

A few hours ago I was on a train from Rome down to Naples. I’d got chatting to the girl next to me, who was heading home for the weekend. We talked pizza, the Neapolitan staple. I asked where I should go for the best in the city.

And thus began a loud and very long conversation that stretched across most of the train carriage, as everyone – seemingly – argued over where to send me. Finally, the girl next to me came back with an answer: L’Antico Pizzeria da Michele.

Amazing. A local tip. Local knowledge. And so I tucked that little nugget away in the back of my brain and made an instant decision to make da Michele my first port of call. What an introduction to the city. What a great opportunity to do something you just couldn’t do without a fortuitous conversation with those in the know.

But then I arrived and discovered that a few other people knew about da Michele, too. In fact, a lot of other people. There was a queue down the street, pretty much all the tourists.

I looked the place up on Google and discovered it has more than 30,000 reviews (another restaurant that would later become a personal favorite, Lombardi’s 1892, has 2000 reviews). It has more than 20,000 entries on TripAdvisor.

It’s in the Michelin guide. It’s in Lonely Planet. It’s also, crucially, in eat pray lovethe literary juggernaut that turned da Michele from local secret to tourist hotspot something like 15 years ago.

Sigh. So much for local knowledge.

This is a good lesson though: locals don’t always know best. And even if they do know best, they might not steer you to those places, perhaps out of misplaced goodwill or not.

As travelers we’re taught to almost idealize local knowledge, to value it above all else, regardless of our familiarity with the source. Yes, your guidebook and TripAdvisor and half the internet might be telling you to go to one place, but how about this random person you chatted to for a few minutes on the street?

The reality is that locals don’t always know best. Or know anything at all.

Anyone who has ever asked for directions in India would be able to tell you that. People tend to want to help, even if they actually can’t. They won’t say “I don’t know”. That would seem a bit rude. It would feel like they weren’t doing their jobs as hosts. And so, you end up walking miles in the wrong direction, totally confused, because of local knowledge.

Same goes for attractions. Locals aren’t tourists. Some will have a really good handle on what an outsider would enjoy experiencing in their city or their area. Plenty, however, will not.

(Bear in mind that “living like a local” actually means going to work and taking the bins out and looking after your children. It doesn’t mean hanging out at sexy bars and going on fascinating cultural excursions.)

And then we get to restaurant recommendations, which are so often the most idealized and sought after of all local knowledge. Ask a cab driver, ask your Airbnb host, talk to the bartender, ask some rando on the street. Where should I eat? What should I eat?

Sometimes this will work out really well. You will end up somewhere amazing, somewhere tourists wouldn’t usually even think to go, discovering dishes no one even knows about.

The trouble is though, you have no idea if the local you’re speaking to has any clue about food. Some people eat terrible food. Some people have absolutely no idea what constitutes a good meal, or a good dining experience. And some of those people are locals.

Just because someone exists within a great food culture, doesn’t mean they know about great food.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk to people when you travel, and get their advice. You definitely should. It will be instructive. The conversations will be interesting. You might even discover something amazing.

But you should also understand that the person you’re talking to may not know what they’re doing. This isn’t your guaranteed ticket to jealousy-inducing success. It’s a chance. A point. You have no idea where this stranger is about to steer you.

It might work out brilliantly. It might be just OK.

Or, you could find yourself near the most touristy pizza joint in all of Naples, standing at the back of a queue of singlet-wearing English-speakers that wraps around a corner and halfway down the next block, just to eat – for Naples at at least – some fairly average pizza.




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