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Stepping into bars, alone and in foreign climes, can be intimidating. Break the ice with these tips.

Photo by junku-newcleus

Recently I was talking to a female friend of mine – a friend who is incredibly gutsy when it comes to solo travel.

We were talking about my bar-hopping habit when I travel solo, and she mentioned how impressed she was by my ability to wander into a local drinking hole on the road and make myself at home.

Really? But hadn’t she survived crowds of elderly Chinese women on a Yangtze river cruise, staring at her while she peed, fascinated by her pale white butt? Hadn’t she been stranded in rural Siberia, when that famous train pulled out of the station without her?

Yes, she said. But she still found going into bars, alone and in foreign climes, pretty intimidating. I told her that for me, it was the opposite: drinking alone was the easiest part.

For anyone else who might be intimidated by hitting the bar scene solo, here are a few practical tips:

1. Find a Distraction.

Pick a pub with live music playing, or a sports bar with an exciting game on the TV.

It can feel awkward sitting alone at a table, staring into your pint. Writing a postcard or reading a book can work, but those options won’t help you meet people.

Pick a pub with live music playing, or a sports bar with an exciting game on the TV. This not only gives you something to stare at, AND something to talk about with all those new friends you’re about to make – it’s also a great way to learn more about the local culture.

I’ve soaked up live blues in the Mississippi Delta, watched cricket at a beachside shack in Barbados, and cheered the hometown rugby club on in northern New Zealand – all experiences that easily surpass any paid tour I’ve ever taken.

2. Sit at the Bar.

It’s a cliche image: the solo drinker, belly up to the bar, pouring out his (or her) soul to a sympathetic bartender. But most of the time, that image comes true.

Assuming the place isn’t swamped, the staffer behind the bar is likely to ask you about yourself and listen patiently to the answer. That’s her job.

If you’re alone at a table you’re completely isolated from all your fellow solo drinkers. At the bar, you’re all in it together, and you may find yourself passing the evening swapping stories, telling jokes, or – see #1 – cheering on the local team together.

3. The Early Bird Doesn’t Get Harassed.

Photo by malias

This one is especially applicable for solo females: drink in the afternoon.

Times are changing, but in many parts of the world (and even at home in North America) there can still be a stigma or a set of assumptions attached to a woman alone in a bar at night.

Some people might assume that your only reason for being there is to get picked up, and while a little flirting can be fun, I’m guessing a whole evening of propositions from random men isn’t what you had in mind.

An afternoon setting is much more casual, and less fraught with expectations. Not that I’m saying you should stay in at night! But starting early means you leave yourself plenty of time to make some new friends before the sun goes down.

The reverse is true for the guys as well: Drinking alone at night, it might be harder for you to meet people, as they may assume you are on the prowl. Fair? Not really. But hey, getting started in the afternoon is a pleasant price to pay for old stereotypes that won’t die.

4. Ask about Local Specialties.

Not every bartender is going to get chummy right away, but most often there’s one surefire way to get them to open up.

Not every bartender is going to get chummy right away, but most often there’s one surefire way to get them to open up.

Recently I wandered into an intimidatingly local pub in Brooklyn, full of thickly-accented regulars and a classic close-mouthed New York bartender who didn’t give a f*ck.

I’d been hovering awkwardly by the bar for a few minutes when the bartender finally deigned to acknowledge me. I asked him about local microbrews, and – just like that! – he was all smiles and chitchat.

I wound up sampling a few different options before settling on a special Christmas ale, and – naturally – turning my attention to the Giants game on the screen above the bar.

5. It’s All in the Attitude.

The key to drinking alone is the vibe you give off: you want to seem friendly and approachable, but not predatory or needy. Staring at your table or your book will ensure that you stay solo – which is fine, if that’s what you’re after.

But if you’d like to meet your fellow patrons, make eye contact with people and smile. Comment out loud on the game, or clap loudly (and look around you while doing so) after a musician has finished his set.

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with your neighbor – and don’t be surprised if he starts one with you first.

***Explore the world party scene with 101 PLACES TO GET F*CKED UP BEFORE YOU DIE. Part travel guide, part drunken social commentary, 101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die may have some of the most hilarious scenes and straight-up observations of youth culture of any book you’ve ever read.***



About The Author

Eva Holland

Eva Holland is a freelance writer, Senior Editor of World Hum and a longtime contributor to the Matador community. She lives in Canada’s Yukon Territory and blogs about Alaska and Yukon travel at Travelers North.

  • Nathan

    Nice article! … As an occasional solo bar-drinker, I’d say most of these suggestions could apply to both women _and_ men, actually. I have numerous guy friends that say, “Oh, no, I’d never go to a bar by myself and be ‘that guy’ sitting there alone!”

    To which I usually reply that I’m rarely sitting alone for long and, invariably, something interesting happens. I’m almost always willing to head out to a happenin’ place with or without a friend. Bars are such social environments that unless your attitude is really negative and anti-social, it’s hard to not get into a conversation one way or another.

    You’re right: it’s all in the attitude. Head out with a smile or your face and an interest in meeting some new people.

    Wanna practice? Try it out at a watering hole in your home country when you don’t have the added stress and complications of language barriers and unfamiliar surroundings. Easy and fun!

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  • Terry

    Great tips on how to have fun. But what about tips on how to stay safe? A lot of it should be common sense, but let’s face it: What we call “common sense” changes from culture to culture.

  • Eva

    Hey Terry, great question.

    My safety rules are pretty much exactly the same at home and abroad: Keep my drink in sight at all times, don’t get so drunk I can’t find my way home, and always have enough cash for a taxi.

    The drinking in the afternoon bit, as much as I may have joked about it, is a means of staying safe as well. Daylight is a pretty good safety net.

    I don’t mean to be too flippant, because there are plenty of potential bad situations out there, but I honestly don’t believe that bars are any more dangerous for solo female travelers than anywhere else we might find ourselves – sometimes a busy local pub might even be safer.

  • Andrea Kirkby

    One thing solo girls need to find is a way of discouraging the sleazy guy who won’t let you alone.

    Your suggestion of sitting near the bartender, I think, is a good one. Most bartenders can recognise what’s going on very quickly and discourage it if they can see you’re not happy.

    Another thing I’ve sometimes done, if going into a not very full bar, is make sure to say hello to *everyone* there with a big smile, and then go and sit alone – that seems to discourage anyone from hitting on you.

    But I’d love some more tips…

    Oh yes, I loved the ‘microbrew’ tip. If the bar person isn’t interested in microbrews, I reckon you’re in the wrong pub :-)

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  • Reannon

    I always ask for drink reccomendations…Not just from the bartender but from the people sitting around me. That's usually the best conversation starter. Something like: "That looks good. What are you drinking?" I think the live music is a good suggestion, that way you're in the bar for something other than drinking. Otherwise, I worry that if people see me drinking by myself (and in the afternoon no less), they'll think I'm an alcoholic.

  • jilly

    I LOVE this article. Here’s how I drink alone, but not really:

    (1) Aim for watering hole, not loungey club. Do this enough and the difference will be obvious. If you find yourself in a loungey-club and awkwardly alone as people cluster and ignore you, feel free to pretend like your “friend” had to bail and head out after the first drink. I like to case a bar a little bit before I post up – don’t move in too fast.

    (2) Dress girl-next-door casual (in most parts of the world) – avoid cleavage but a little polish ensures people know you’re there. Look like someone interesting that you would want to talk to.

    (3) Be a little whip smart. If you want to avoid getting hit on, don’t giggle endlessly at jokes – throw a couple back. Hold your own. Be a little challenging, in a fun way.

    (4) Learn how to order something respectable. What makes a statement will differ by location. Deliver that first order more as a statement than a question and follow it with a little smile. [But please note: don't confuse respectable with pretentious]

    (5) Like the idea of being alone and think of it in your head as mysterious and badass. This will come through when people see you sitting there, in your posture and mannerisms, and they’ll be curious.

    Watch the tv, but also acknowledge others in the room. If you look too absorbed in any one thing people will leave you alone. Looking around is a sign you’d like to be talked to. When you get particularly brazen, you start to become the person who talks to other people alone because you recognize what you’re doing in others. And as soon as you have two, the ball is rolling.

    (6) Bartenders may do this every night and being the person who makes the shift a little less dull will put you in esteem. The best ones are keen students of humanity and usually like to talk about what they’ve seen in their tenure. If the bartender is cold to your well placed compliment about the establishment, savy drink order, and general coolness – pick a new bar or locate someone else to talk to.

    (7) When in doubt, know a trick, possibly involving fire.

  • Shreya

    Very nice, I’m all for gutsy solo women travelers! Going to be one in another couple of weeks :D

  • Debbie

    My girlfriends and I (some married, some single, some attached) travel alot together. We love to go out but find when we get to a city we have a hard time finding a bar that has our age group (40+). We don’t want to “hook up” however, we would like to have a night out and talk with other men or women and dance should it be that kind of club. We buy books, go on line etc. but we always seem to end up where the average age is 25.

    Any suggestions?

  • Amanda is a traveling photographer

    I very rarely go to a bar alone, but when I do, I don’t hesitate to ask people cliche tourist questions. If you are new to a place and haven’t researched a lot beforehand, it’s ok to ask about where people like to eat, good beaches nearby ect. That kind of stuff gets a conversation going and some locals ( if they seem cold, just leave them alone ) will give you a lot of great tips.

    Debbie: If you aren’t finding the vibe at one place, ask about others from the bartender. As a former bartender myself, I was happy to give advice and travel tips too. You can ask the staff where to find an older crowd if the crowd or bar isn’t quite what you are after.

  • John M.

    I’m not sure if this was intended to be directed towards males at all. Nevertheless, I thought it was quite unbiased and well-written. Keep up the good work. :)

  • ellana

    Sorry but i would rather drink at home when at least i know my surroundings and great to unwind once a week when i am not working

  • SistahMei

    I go to bars solo all the time. I just sit at the bar, drink a few coronas and sing karaoke songs and people just make conversations with me cause they feel the good vibes I give and they love my singing…

    • SistahMei

      Maybe because I live in Hawaii and alot of people have Aloha here… lol

  • Sandra Salinas

    This was great! I just pull out of a parking lot at the Elephant Bar because I was nervous to go in! (Second time, by the way, in about one month – lol). I want to meet people, I like to drink socially, and I’m recently divorced with no family near me. So, I’m going back TONIGHT and this time, I’m walking in. I’ll wait until about 6:30ish and then head back! Thanks for the article :)

    • Sandra Salinas


    • Jennifer Perreault

      Did you do it?

  • Allie Manchester

    I looked this subject up because I have run into aggressive men lately. I realized that both times it was Thursday night (the night men scope out women for weekend hookups). Almost always in the past I only went to happy hour on Friday. I think I will stick with that plan.

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