How to Experience the Culture in Tonga
Tonga prides itself as a place where you can experience the “true South Pacific” – where traditions and customs are living and breathing on the islands, not just put on for a show for tourists. Just by going out into the community, experiencing markets, trying the food and going to church, you’re going to get an authentic slice of life in Tonga. Nevertheless, you can always dive a little deeper into the Tongan culture through various cultural tours in Tonga. We go through some of these and more in this list of ways to experience the Tongan culture.
Before you discover the best ways to experience the culture in Tonga, be sure to bookmark The Guide to the Tongan Culture for Travellers with much more advice.
1. Go to a Sunday Church Service
An easy (and free) way to experience the Tongan culture is to attend a Sunday church service. Tonga is a highly religious Christian country, where going to Sunday church is all part of the routine. Visitors are welcome to attend church services, as long as they wear appropriate clothing. The reward is listening to the locals’ harmonious singing and witnessing the passion of their faith. Learn more about church protocol in Tonga here and check out churches in the 10 Best Churches in Tonga for Tourists.
2. Try Local Cuisine
Food is an important part of the Tongan culture, so sampling some of the local cuisines is a must! We recommend trying ‘Ota Ika, which is raw fish marinated in coconut cream, lu, which is food (typically corned beef) wrapped in taro leaves, and keki, which is basically a Tongan doughnut. Check out the 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try so you know what to look out for on the menu.
3. Go to a Cultural Show
Particularly on the island of Tongatapu, cultural shows are featuring traditional singing, dancing and, of course, a Tongan feast! Cultural shows take place in some of the resorts around Tongatapu where you’ll get to enjoy a traditional form of dance known as lakalaka, which involves a mix of graceful dancing from the women and energetic war dancing from the men. Check out The Best Cultural Shows on Tongatapu for more information.
4. Take Part in a Cultural Tour
Tours dedicated to the Tongan culture are surprisingly hard to come by in Tonga, but one place you can rely on for such an experience is Ancient Tonga in Nuku’alofa. Ancient Tonga is essentially a culture centre offering one-hour to 2h30min tours incorporating many aspects of the Tongan culture, including food, handicrafts and medicine, in a comprehensive and interactive experience. Find them in Fangaloto in Nuku’alofa or opt for a transfer from the city centre. More information can be found on Viator and Tripadvisor.
5. Do a Guided Sightseeing Tour with a Local
Locals offering sightseeing tours of their islands each provide their unique perspectives as you visit one attraction to the next, making tours a good way to learn some context about the sights you are visiting compared to visiting the places on your own. Tours like Moana Island Tours in Vava’u go the extra mile to help you immerse in the Tongan culture, for instance, by including a local school visit into the tour. However, there are many amazing Tongan tours to check out, as listed in the 10 Best Sightseeing Tours in Tonga.
6. Stay in a Local Guesthouse
Tonga might have resorts and hotels, but the most “local” type of accommodation are the guesthouses. This type of budget accommodation is typically owned and run by locals who are usually eager to share their culture with guests, whether it’s through cooking, handicraft lessons or general conversation. Check out the 10 Best Guesthouses in Tonga for examples of guest houses.
7. Go to a Sunday Umu or Spitroast Feast
Sunday in Tonga is a day for church, resting and, well, eating! Occasionally, some accommodations in Tonga put on Sunday “umu” (underground oven) or spitroasts complete with a suckling pig for guests and other visitors. Sunday feasts are most common in Neiafu in Vava’u, so check the information boards, the information centre and your chosen accommodation about the upcoming feasts.
8. Browse Local Markets and Stalls
Another casual way to mingle with the locals is to go to the local markets and roadside stalls selling handicrafts and/or fresh produce. Visiting local markets is exciting for all of the senses, with amazing handicrafts to admire, fresh tropical produce to buy and taste, and fun people to meet. Learn more about shopping in Tonga in Where to Find the Best Souvenirs in Tonga.
9. Do a Handicrafts Class
Speaking of handicrafts, another way to immerse in the Tongan culture is by taking part in a handicrafts class. In Tongatapu, join Ancient Tonga for one of their dedicated tapa and weaving classes. In ‘Eua, get your accommodation to organise a weaving class with the local women. And in Ha’apai, stay at the Langi Langi Guesthouse where your host will teach you how to make your own Tongan souvenirs. Learn more in Where to Learn Tongan Handicrafts.
10. Drink Kava with the Locals
Drinking kava, made from ground-up roots of a pepper plant, is a favourite pastime in Tonga. Some guesthouses and especially accommodations in ‘Eua can organise for you to join local kava circles to try this narcotic drink for yourself. Learn more in 10 Drinks in Tonga You Have to Try.