This is the first post in our new Departful series on How to be a Traveler, not a Tourist.
A traveler, to me, is someone who’s interested in experiencing a culture outside of its sites and attractions whereas a tourist is focused on checking attractions off of their bucket list. This inaugural post discusses the importance of understanding your reasons for traveling and ensuring that you stay true to that.
Often times, we are all so focused on ‘seeing what we’re supposed to see’ and ‘doing what we should be doing’, even if these activities are out of sync with our interests and passions. This ultimately deprives us of any real and lasting experience.
I know this because I used to fit perfectly into this definition. Years ago, when Jp and I were planning a six week Europe trip (my first, his bizilionth), I let my obsessive compulsive planning disorder take over and was just barely one step away from an hour by hour itinerary. As proof, here’s a shot of my planned London itinerary for the very first day of our trip.
To the surprise of no one, the outcome wasn’t great. We were exhausted from running around from place to place and being herded like the tourist cattle that we were. It was also depressing to have items on my to do list that we couldn’t get around to and, as a result, I would leave a place wondering what I had missed out on.
The more we traveled, the more all of the museums, art galleries, cathedrals, and historic spots started to blur, blending together into one twisted travel experience. As the number of tourist sites we saw increased, the less enjoyment I extracted from each – what I now refer to as the marginal propensity to travel.
I hit rock bottom when we arrived in Paris and I insisted that we see all three main art galleries in one day: the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, and Place Pompidou. More than five years later the only thing I can really remember about this day was Jp calling an intervention at the Musee d’Orsay, exhibiting the tell tale symptoms of Stendhal syndrome.
Fortunately, there was a climactic turning point in Holland. We were staying with family in the small town of Vlijmen where I can say quite confidently that we were the only visitors for kilometres. There was no predetermined mental checklist and for the first time on our trip we had no plan and no expectations to fall short of. Instead, a 10km bike ride turned into a six hour excursion through the Dutch countryside, stopping frequently in little towns, stumbling upon an unbelievable sculpture garden, and exploring a medieval church turned private residence.
This unexpected experience is one of my best memories from that trip. It also changed the way I’ve thought about traveling since.
I genuinely believe that to have an unparalleled travel experience, you have to be honest with yourself about what you truly wish to get out of your trip. Why are you traveling and what do you want to get out of it? These are questions that you need to answer before embarking on any trip.
When traveling, especially to a highly touristed locale, don’t feel pressured to see everything ‘worth’ seeing as this will literally drain the excitement out of you as it did for me on that trip. I once witnessed a woman have a total meltdown at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence as she was so burned out from shuffling around from place to place that she loudly exclaimed to her mother-in-law through sobs “I don’t even fucking like art”.
I find that I’m sometimes underwhelmed when finally seeing a major site that I’ve earmarked for visiting months in advance. It has nothing to do with the actual attraction, but usually I’ve just built it up too much in my mind. What I’ve realized is that the most unexpected things that I’ve accidentally stumbled upon are my most memorable experiences. For instance, when traveling in Lisbon, near the end of that aforementioned trip, we randomly found ourselves at the Carmo Convent, a church that was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. We walked solemnly through the decrepit remains of the church structure, completely taken aback by it all. Stumbling upon this important site made for a great experience in and of itself.
I’m not implying that seeing the touristy sites is a waste of time – clearly they’re popular for a reason. All I’m advocating for is not letting your trip be defined by these top sites. Just because you’re not following a guidebook verbatim doesn’t mean that you’re off track. If you’re into fashion, it’s okay to skip the Louvre to peruse the boutiques and ateliers in Paris. If you’re into food, there’s no problem with going on a crawl of traditional Roman cuisine instead of hitting up the Vatican museum. It’s your trip and you have to answer to no one but yourself. Aligning your trip with your interests is a guaranteed way to extract maximum enjoyment from your travels.
Think about it this way: If you had a friend visiting from out of town and wanted to give them an authentic perspective on life in your city, you probably wouldn’t take them on a circuit of your town’s top tourist attractions. We had a friend from New York visit us a couple of months ago in Toronto and instead of engaging in the traditional tourist pilgrimage, we brought him to our favourite spots in the city. Instead of the CN Tower, we went to Steam Whistle Brewery. Rather than the Financial District, we explored the Kensingston Market neighbourhood. Instead of going out in the Entertainment District, we went on an epic food & drink crawl in the hip Ossington area.
But I still slip up from time to time. Sometimes, I try to talk myself into a relaxing all-inclusive vacation somewhere warm and remote. Then I remind myself that I burn even with SPF 60 on, don’t really enjoy the water, and get antsy after lying around for 20 minutes. While this type of trip sounds great for other people, it’s just not for me. So being true to your reasons for traveling definitely takes practice, like a travel muscle you need to strengthen.
The next theme in How to be a Traveler, not a Tourist explores finding authentic local experiences by escaping the tourist areas in a city. Have any of your own tips on how to be a traveler, not a tourist? Make sure you share them with us below.