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Friday, February 6, 2009

When you travel, do you do the things you want to do or the things you think you should do?

Do you see a church, a museum or a ruin as a sight you should do when visiting a destination or are they places you actually want to visit? And do you consider chatting with a taxi driver, tour guide or security guard as an equally engaging and rewarding experience that can reveal as much about the destination as the sight you're visiting? The way we travel and how we experience places is something I find myself continually pondering, especially after reading the comments to my post Vanity Portraits of Today's Young Ego-Trippers, along with the responses to the Travellers vs Tourists debate on Eric's In her thought-provoking comments to my post, Sandy writes: "The discussions about going into yet another church/museum/ruin that they would never have visited in their own towns was a discussion I recall overhearing 25 years ago. I am also reminded that we aren't very well trained to be tourists. I know that for all of the travel I've done, it took me fifteen years to work out, as you have, that the destination and the moments unique to a site are enriched by engaging with locals in a non-touristy and meaningful way." While I have to admit that after three months of researching books in Italy, I was less inclined to visit "yet another" church than I was at the start of the trip, I normally like to see Italy's churches as art galleries, hiding wonderful masterpieces within, but I'm a fan of art and architecture. I only visit museums I really want to experience; I love contemporary fashion, design and technology museums in particular. And get a kick out of exploring archaeological ruins, especially those that are more than just a pile of rubble or are atmospherically located; I like to imagine how people might have lived, and believe the history of a place reveals so much about its present. But I often wonder why people work their way through the highlights lists in guidebooks, ticking off the must-do attractions if those things don't really interest them. If you love churches, museums and ruins, go for it! But if you don't, then only seek out things that interest you. If you're a sports fan in Milan, skip the Duomo and fashion quarter and see a football match at San Siro Stadium or take a car for a spin around La Monza. If you're a foodie in Dubai, give the malls and desert safari a miss and do a tour of the city's shwarma stands and Indian sweet shops. You like meeting locals? Enrol in morning language classes then spend your afternoons at the local markets, cafes and bars. I've always wanted to write a kind of anti-guidebook, a guide to all the things that are worth experiencing in destinations that are left out of the books. What do you think? Now what kind of traveller are you? When you visit a place do you do the things you think you should do or do you focus on the stuff you want to do?

Pictured? When we were in Alice Springs a few months ago we spent an evening at the speedway - right after we watched a local football match.


previously.bitten said...

I try to talk with tour guides as much as possible. It's one thing to simply see a sight, it's another thing to have the experience past on to you. No matter how deep you look, there's always something more.

A Girl in Asia said...

I think your point about only seeing the things that actually interest you is a good one. I prefer to do this and spend lots of time just wandering around, exploring, eating, shopping, going for coffee etc. - soaking up a place and its surrounds. Of course, I like to go to any famous sites or must-sees a place has to offer, but if you spend all your time traipsing from monument to gallery to museum just for the sake of seeing all the 'touristy' sites, you don't get to experience a place at all, you've merely done the same kind of circuit as most other visitors without getting off the beaten track at all!

letstravel said...

The most important thing to do is doing the right thing ask for directions first to save effort, money,and time. A traveling guide for tourist vacation and destinations around the world.

Gary Arndt said...

There are certain things you should do. If you go to Cairo and never visit the pyramids.....well, that is just sort of lame. Sure it is the obvious tourist attraction in the region, but it is also the Great freaking Pyramid.

Most popular tourist attraction are popular for a reason.

I seldom go to a place to just appreciate it for what it is. I try use it as a history lesson. Angkor is pretty and all, but I also didn't know much about the Khmer Empire before I went there.

Before I started traveling I studies geology, so I probably got something out of the 12 Apostles that many people didn't.

However, I'm also a big nerd.

I say go see the big obvious things, and when you are done, go to places that are out of the way. I don't think it has to be either/or.

Fly Brother said...

I'm definitely one to visit the places that most interest me and skip the "must sees." Sometimes, even if I am interested in a site, the street life and atmosphere of a place distract me: I've been to Rio three times and not once have I trekked to Corcovado or Sugar Loaf. I reckon, if I never get to those spots, I'll always have a reason to keep going back.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi previously.bitten - I tend to agree with you (these days), although I haven't liked using guides until very recently because I'd had some dreadful ones in the past. I've also seen some how some operate - like guides of tour groups who read out loud to their groups from our guidebooks!

I think you need to choose your guides carefully (like your guidebooks!) but if you do you can get some great ones. I have loved all of Context's guides for instance - incredibly knowledgeable, but also very warm and friendly too so they help you get to know a place even faster than you might otherwise have through their own insights.

Hello Girl in Asia - I totally agree. For my husband and I and the work we do, we have to see all the most popular sights so we can write about them. But when returning to a place a second or third time or visiting purely for pleasure, we will often just wander around taking in the atmosphere, spending most of our time doing what it is we like to do best - eating regional cuisine, drinking the area's wines, shopping for local specialties, seeing some live music, etc.

Hello there Lets Travel - that's a good point! And I'll check out your guides too.

Hiya Gary - or should I say Salaam Aleikum? - yeah, look, Terry and I are the same, in that we also view archaeological ruins, ancient sites, art galleries, etc, as history lessons.

The first time we visit a destination we are definitely checking out the most popular sites to find out why they're popular. And I have to admit if it's something I love - like the Duomo in Milan or the British Museum in London or the Prado in Madrid, I'll visit time and time again.

But otherwise, on a second or third trip I'll just be hanging out and taking in the vibe of the place and trying to live a bit like the locals and even better, meet locals.

Thanks for stopping by everyone! :)

Lara Dunston said...

Bom dia Fly Brother! Rio! Ahh... One of my most favorite cities in the world. I've only been twice, but the first time I was there for a film festival so I was mainly hanging out with locals, but I have to admit that in my spare time I went to see the sights and went to Corcovado/Sugar Loaf - absolutely gorgeous - truly stunning! And I was there at sunset, after having had a couple of drinks, and it was all the more sublime. I didn't regret that, nor did I regret all the hours I spent in cinemas watching Brazilian films and not seeing the 'sights' but the hours hanging out with locals at cafes, bars, clubs, and people's homes were just as memorable. What I'd love to do next time, though, is just go and kick back on the beach all day! ;)

Vicky Baker said...

When I left uni, I went backpacking in Oz. I was definitely doing things I felt I *should do* then. The East Coast trail etc. I didn't want to "miss out" by varying off the route.
Funnily enough I don't regret it, because I needed this experience to find out what I wanted from travel.
Now I'm the opposite. I'm quite happy to miss out on "the sites" to do something different, and I try and hang out with locals whenever I can ( Oddly, it takes more effort to *not* see the sites. It's much easier to get on that tour bus or follow the guidebook. But once you start being more open-minded, switched-on and spontaneous, the more interesting experiences inevitably follow.

Fly Girl said...

Oh yes, Corcovado at sunset was an unforgettable experiece for me too. Fly Brother was too busy sipping Guarana and singing samba tunes to catch that experience, lol. But that's a perfect example of how I travel. I generally ignore guidebook lists and tourist meccas because I don't enjoy being surrounded by tourists. It's important for me to experience a place's authentic culture and that's rarely found at tourist spots. In Rio, I ate feoijada in a cafe and climbed steep hills to visit a converted quilombo. I sat in a seedy bar and heard live samba sung by a band and accompanied by spoon percussion by every customer in the bar. I had no intention of visiting Corocovado but the locals insisted that it was an important part of the Rio experience. I will visit tourist attractions suggested by aware locals because they have the most insight into their home. I loved Corcovado and because I went in the evening, I was surrounded by locals, not a tourist in the bunch.

Nomadic Matt said...

I usually do both. I do the must sees in a city but I also try to ask around and find out of the way places. Then I also go to where I want to see or avoid where i dont want to see. For instance, everyone goes to the killing fields....except for me. It's not my thing.

I think you need to find the right balance.

jen laceda said...

I like to mix and match. On a first visit, I would MOSTLY do the things I think I 'should' do. I mean, c'mon, even if you're not an arts & culture buff, how can you miss the Louvre in Paris? the Colosseo in Rome? But...

But...I always make it a point to return to a place on a second/third/fouth trip and so on...and that's when I narrow activities down to those special, off-the-beaten-track things that I love. This way, it gives me an excuse to travel to that destination again and again and again.

I guess the key thing is to learn how to "narrow it down" and "think locally". Choose a few places within a city you'd like to experience and really immerse yourself. And I find that the best way to soak it all up, is to befriend a local. And sometimes, the best way to get to know the city is through time. You know, like how you would get to know a spouse or a friend. I would compare this travel style to finding a great relationship in life.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Vicky - ah, the East Coast trail... I just don't get that one... but that's probably a blog topic in itself... but great point - I guess the more we travel the more we realise what we don't want to do as much as what we want to do.

Hi Fly Girl - my experience was similar to yours, I was hanging out with local film types - what a way to experience a place hey? I love the sound of your time spent there. Brings back memories... definitely a place I want to return to. One month was not long enough.

Hey Matt - yeah, balance is good. And we all want different experiences at different times of our lives and based on our experiences in life. The Killing Fields will be unmissable for me, because I remember that actual period and writing an essay on it at school as a kid which disturbed my teachers who thought it was a heavy topic for someone so young. And then of course there was the book and movie...

But there are things I've avoided on certain trips but later have developed an interest about something and have just had to go.

Thanks for dropping by everyone!

Perfect Escapes said...

I think there is a combination of seeing the big sites and the small sites. For example, I live in San Francisco and when people come to visit who have never been here, I definitely show them a mix of famous sites (Golden Gate Bridge) and then my favorite taqueria in the Mission. In Portugal, I can't imagine not visiting Sintra and at the same time I truly enjoyed having a 2-hour dinner at a small, almost-empty restaurant in a back-alley Lisbon Street.

It would never occur to me now to go to New York and go to the top of the Empire State Building since I have been there so many times, but I have done it before in my lifetime.

The combination of sites and out-of-the-way places are at the heart of all my travel experiences. I will always remember doing a catamaran boat trip to the Na Pali Coast in Kauai. And I will also always remember the delicious Lau Lau I ate from a side-of-the-road truck in Hanalei.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jen - I'm so glad you said you make it a point to return to a place a second, third and fourth time... I don't like it when people think of travel experiences as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Good on you!

Hello there Perfect Escapes - it seems everyone likes that balance between the best/top sights, the local gems, and the off-the-beaten-track spots... I think I feel a post coming on. Thanks for the inspiration!

And thanks for dropping by!

meesposito said...

Wow - tough question! I've done both of these things so interchangeably that I would really have to think about when I did one or the other.

I do recall one instance when I traveled to a place, really got to know the locals well, and was criticized by them (not in a bad way) for not having gone to one of the major attractions that people went there to see. From that I learned that you can go to a place, even if it's the same one that millions go to, and get something unique out of it for yourself.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Michael - great lesson, hey? We can't please everyone when we travel, so most of all we need to please ourselves, I guess. Balance seems to be the key for most people - striking a nice balance between the must-visit places, off-the-beaten-track, and local experiences.

Thanks for commenting!

Kim B. said...

I think it's truly a mix, and truly dependent on whether you're a "young" traveler (i.e. among your first times traveling, no matter your age) and whether it's the first time you're visiting a place.

I think these places become classics for a reason, and if we say we want to see what has given them their historical or artistic (or whatever) importance, we *should* take the time to see those sights that are listed in the guidebook. Else, how are we to say we've "seen" Paris? (I live here, so that's my example.)

But if one has the good fortune and the luxury to be able to return to a place, I know that I enjoy much more the . . .hours in a café, hours spent strolling the streets, chatting with the lady in the bakery, etc. But there are so many tourists/travelers who will never get that chance, and how are they to put their visit into context if they return home and someone asks them what they thought of Notre Dame, and they say, "Well, I just didn't bother, it was going to be too crowded."

I think of this because I'm from a pretty parochial place back home; my life has been privileged to be one of lots of travel, but if these folks (who are usually older adults) finally get to travel, they may get to do one tour one year to Paris and London, another the next year to Germany . . . and they don't have the luxury of spending all the time relaxing. They have saved a lot of money to be able to go, and waited a long time, so I don't think we should look down on them for wanting to see the "essentials" listed in their guidebooks or chosen by their tour directors . . . they are, after all, hoping the guidebook writer/editor and/or their tour guide has presented them with an itinerary that will allow them to see those things that are essential to the city/country/region they are visiting. And they may not have the capacity/language skills/opportunity to talk to the locals, but they will still return home having learned so much more than what they knew before they left.

Sorry didn't mean to go on for so long. But it's really something to think about!

Mark H said...

Thoughtful article (as always). I do both. If it was my first time in a city then I'd certainly want to see the biggest two or three sights and then I try to make a selection of places that I believe interest me and at times I simply want to walk and experience. On returning to places, I spend more time getting to some of the less known places that are likely to interest me more. To use your example,if in Milan for the first time, I'd certainly try to catch a football match (as sports theatre interests me) but no way would I miss one of the world's most famous paintings (Last Supper) though art is not as much in my interests.

Lara Dunston said...

HI Kim B - I think you're dead right. You've made some great points. I totally agree - ultimately I think however people travel is up to them - as long as they travel. I'm happy for you to go on as long as you like - all insightful stuff :)

Hi Mark - thanks for the kind words. Balance in travel seems to be the way to go, doesn't it? Like life more generally I guess. Thanks for checking in!

artistatlarge said...

I have a degree in painting and studied photography and art history as well as languages. I'm also a freak for history, archaeology and architecture. So when I travel I visit museums and archaeological sites as a way of continuing my education.

When I get to a new location the first thing I do is get out and walk. I spend the first day getting to know the place where I am, scoping out the markets, bakeries, etc.

Then I usually spend my trip getting to know my new neighborhood, walking, talking to locals, and of course seeing the sites that interest me. I don't do tours - although I would do a tour to an isolated place if there is no other way to get there.

So to answer the original question - I see the things I want to see and I stumble onto a lot of interesting stuff along the way.

Lara Dunston said...

Hello artistatlarge

Well we have the exact same interests - although I'd also add food & wine (oh and fashion to a lesser extent) - sounds like we'd make great travelling companions!

I love your approach. It's a bit like mine too. See the things I really want to see, then wander.

Thanks for dropping by!

Lara Dunston said...

Hello artistatlarge

Well we have the exact same interests - although I'd also add food & wine (oh and fashion to a lesser extent) - sounds like we'd make great travelling companions!

I love your approach. It's a bit like mine too. See the things I really want to see, then wander.

Thanks for dropping by!