I have written extensively on the topic of being a tourist. Whether it’s my hatred for them, tips on being one, or traveller safety, it’s a topic I am relatively passionate about as I am obsessed with traveling to every goddamned end of this earth. Although like any modern human I enjoy certain material things, I would much rather spend my hard-earned money on travel. As much as new clothes, homeware, and camera equipment gets me excited, the experience you take away from traveling will never go out of season, shrink, or get too old.
In addition to there being different forms of travel and accommodation depending on what kind of holiday you are looking to have, there is also a huge difference between traveling to fulfill your expectations and traveling with an open mind.
This topic came up when I made my first trip to Vienna with a then friend a few years back. I had previously taken a trip with a mutual friend of ours to Paris, who had a very different style of travel to that of mine. I was more interested in waking up at 10 am, sitting at a cafe and watching the people go by, eventually hitting up the most important tourist attractions to me personally. She was much more set on hitting up as many tourist destinations as possible each day (Turbo tourism). To be fair, she was very organized and prepared and knew exactly where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. And there is nothing wrong with this kind of travel if you like it. But for me it was too overwhelming. We ended up splitting up for a day and due to my lack of organization, I ended up doing a lot of wandering around and getting lost, which did feel a bit like a waste of time, but for the most part, I actually love getting lost. It’s how you discover new things.
Granted, it’s important to do some planning ahead if you want to see specific sites that require ticket reservations (unless waiting in 2 hours lines is your thing), but I like to pick out a few things to do and let the city kind of guide me through the rest.
When in Vienna, waiting on line at the Schönbrunn palace, my then friend at the time and I got into this exact discussion. We were talking about the fact that when you go to a new place with a clearly defined itinerary, you will return from your trip with the same exact expectations and ideas about a place you had prior to your trip. You also end up spending all of your time amongst other tourists and might have stunning photos of historical buildings to show your friends and family upon your return, but will be able to say very little about the local culture and people.
There is a reason why there is a 3 hour line for the Notre Dam and other incredible buildings seeped in history and architectural wonder, so by all means go and see the things to see. But do remember that a city is more than just the historical buildings that make up the geographical landscape. It is also a living breathing entity with a contemporary culture full of people who are alive at this very moment. And these are people that you may be missing out on meeting if you spend all your time queuing for shit. There are also tons of incredible things to be seen that aren’t in a guidebook, so wander around and/or meet locals because the result is bound to bring you to some incredible places Frommer or Lonely Planet never even told you about.
So just how exactly can you strike a balance between both seeing what is meant to be seen and taking in the local culture? SPOILER ALERT: I’m gonna tell you, so keep reading.
Limit the Sightseeing
Clearly if you have paid a pretty hefty chunk of money to travel so someplace new, you are going to want to see some of what makes that place so noteworthy. And you should! But don’t allow your entire trip to consist entirely of museum visits and taking pictures of important architectural structures and a million selfies. Depending on how long your trip is, I would even say to just take a day to wander around with your camera and allow your feet to bring you to new and unexpected things as well.
Pre-order tickets to your must-see attractions
By pre-ordering tickets, you will save a hell of a lot of time that would otherwise be spent standing in a line cursing your life and everyone else around you.
Go where the locals go
Generally speaking, when you visit a place heavily frequented by tourists, there is a shopping district that caters to these masses of foreigners that pass through the streets every day. Then there is the shopping district where locals shop – In Vienna, tourists go to Stephansplatz and locals go to Mariahilferstraße. Now let’s be honest here, for a minute. The touristy shopping district is generally full of designer brands no one can actually afford anyway, so unless you are dying to pick up a designer item or a particular store is famous and you want to visit it for that reason, waltz through so that you have seen it but hit up the local shopping area.
I’m not saying to go there and blow your cash because I’m pretty sure they have the same stores that you have back home, but pop into a cafe in this area, because you are much more likely to bump into locals that way. Doing so or just walking around in this area will also give you a feel for the general pace of life for those who live here and aren’t just passing on through. If you aren’t in a city, the same still applies. There are beaches that locals go to and beaches that tourists go to. Try to check out the less touristy beaches but do also keep in mind that there are places where locals really do not like tourists to be, so just use your own judgement here. No one wants your trip to end up with you in the hospital with a fat lip and black eye. (Although it would make for a pretty rad story.)
Save your money
Skip the shopping. For the most part, every city has the same goddamned H&M or Zara on the corner. Welcome to capitalism. Don’t waste your time (or money) shopping for things you can easily get back home. Use that time instead to explore. And if you do want to buy something, make sure it’s something truly unique that reflects the culture and climate of the place you are visiting or from a store you have really wanted to visit that you just do not have back home. (Exception to this rule is if you have set out planning to spend a bit of money on this trip for your own enjoyment or because prices are a lot lower in the country you are visiting, because who doesn’t like new things once in a while?)
When I was in Florence, I had a map with me to help me out and give me a general idea of where I was, but mostly had it tucked away in case I was really truly lost and instead wandered down streets that looked interesting to me. In doing so, I discovered a random vegan burger place as well as a stunning lifestyle restaurant that would be part of any blogger’s wet dream. Just remember to do a bit of research beforehand and be aware of which neighborhoods and streets are not so tourist friendly. Not every place is safe.
Hang with the locals
This is one of my biggest tips for really experiencing a place and not just seeing it. I often go to places where I have friends so that they can show me around, but as long as you use good judgement you can also try to meet up with friends of friends or locals once you get to your destination.
Sleep in and slow down
Now I’m not saying to do this every day as you don’t want to waste your vacation sleeping, but you ARE on holiday. So many people are obsessed with “getting their money’s worth” and equate this to seeing all the sees. This usually results in tons of stress, a big fight with your travel companion (if you have one), and a need for an actual vacation upon returning back home exhausted, grumpy and probably pissed off at the other person traveling with you. If you pick one day to just sleep in and lazily explore where you are you will probably experience so much more this way. Slow down. Sit at a cafe for an hour an just watch the people walk by. It’s also a good way to sort of gauge what life would be like were you to live in the place you are visiting.
Put the camera away
Okay so this one is a bit hard for me to do as I am a photographer and blogger and feel the need to photograph every little goddamned thing in life. In florence, I was photographing a scene, then snapchatting and instagramming it. Thank god I’m not a youtuber as well because I would never get anything done. But as much as I love taking photos, there is also something to be said for just experiencing a moment. I get why people were lining up to take a picture next to David or snapping photos of the Mona Lisa, but is anyone really going to spend time looking at these photos after they are taken? Maybe yes, maybe no, but in that moment, YOU ARE THERE staring at the very thing most people only get to see in photographs. You can always google the goddamn David or Mona Lisa when you get home. Take it all in with your own two eyes not through a view finder or cell phone screen. Enjoy what you have right in front of you, and then if you still feel the need, take the damn picture.
Another tip is to use one day to take most of your photos. This way, having delegated a single day for photos you can snap away to your heart’s content and not worry that you have not taken enough photos on your other days. Clearly, each day you may be going someplace different, so it’s fine to have your camera with you, but designating one day your heavy-camera-picture-taking day will help you feel less stressed out on the remaining days. If you are staying long enough in a place there may be one day where you really do not need to take any more photos of anything new, take advantage of this fact, leave the camera back in your hotel room/airbnb/etc. and just be in the moment.
Agree or Disagree with this list or have any other tips to add to the list? Be sure to leave them in the comments below.