Do you want to be a tourist? Probably not. Tourist are loud. Disrespectful. Obnoxious. They invade the best places, and ruin them. They live in a fake world of pre-packaged experiences. They are scammed, overcharged and taken advantage of. And you are one of them.
When you’re in a foreign place, for pleasure, you’re a tourist. It doesn’t matter how much research you’ve done, if you have an Instagram account or a backpack.
Aren’t we all a bit touristy?
Che brutta invenzione il turismo! Una delle industrie più malefiche! Ha ridotto il mondo a un enorme giardino d’infanzia, a un Disneyland senza confini.
What an ugly invention tourism is! One of the most vile industries! It has reduced the world to a huge kindergarden, a Disneyland without bounds.
– Tizio Terzani
We enjoy doing touristy stuff. We’ve done the Spree river cruise in Berlin multiple times (complete with overpriced sausages and potato salad). We’ve explored cities on bus tours. We’ve ridden the Peak Tram. We’ve climbed the mountain above the Fushimi Inari Shrine. We’ve been to the Louvre and the Leaning Tower.
Of course we could call ourselves “travellers” and spend a lot of time researching “alternative” activities in order to not be tourists somehow. But apart from the ability to look down at all the other tourists, where would be the fun in that?
We’ve got a book called “Don’t be a tourist in Paris” (it actually contains lots of great tips), and it shows the dilemma quite well. One reader writes to the author:
I have an abhorrence of touristy things and prefer the unknown. The though of walking around the Louvre has little appeal to me […] How can I get an authentic cultural experiences in the city, avoiding queues and guided tours, without feeling like I’ve missed the important stuff?
This sums it up nicely: We try to be non-tourists for fear of missing out on that special, authentic experience. We don’t want the touristy version of Paris, we want the real thing. But then we also don’t want to come home thinking that we missed the most important part.
This kind of thinking not only leads to anxiety, it also completely misses the point of what traveling is all about: Being open to new experiences. And the means being open to all the experiences, touristy or not.
A guided tour can easily be a lot more authentic than a self-guided walk if you get a great guide. I remember a Spree cruise narrated by some architecture buff who had a story on every building our boat passed by, for example.
The other truth is that the main sights are the main sights for a reason. There is only one Louvre, and as much as I’m going to give the Museum of Hunting and Nature a try – as recommended by the “Don’t be a tourist” guide – it just ain’t the same thing.
Your most cherished travel memories won’t be about the sight you see. They’ll be about random things you discovered along the way – it doesn’t really matter how many other people discovered the same thing as well.
For us Tsim Chai Kee Noodle Shop isn’t 600+ reviews on Google, or a picture on Instagram. It’s where we always went for comfort food, and to watch people, after long and hot days in Hong Kong. For us Zen in Harajuku isn’t the #2 hipster Udon shop in the area, it is the place we discovered next door that always puts a pickled plum into their bowl.
And when we think about the Louvre, we don’t necessarily think about the tiny Mona Lisa, but those giant paintings that you can see only there and which a replication won’t do justice.
Expect the unexpected.
To be open for random discoveries, you should put your guidebook – and your preconceptions – away for a while. And don’t be afraid to get disappointed: If you go for the unknwon, you won’t always get what you expect: We’ve had our fair share of boring attractions and mediocre meals. But if you don’t take the chance, you’ll never discover anything new.
Feel like a local, don’t act like one.
One of our favourite games abroad is to pretend we live in that place. It just feels great to come back at “your” Airbnb with your own stuff, to have “your” coffee place in the neighbourhood, and to discover how things work locally.
That does neither mean that you are local, nor that you should do everything like the locals do. Generations of German tourists have come to Verona, gone to the main square outside the arena, and taken an espresso at the bar. Because someone told them that it is cheaper, and it’s what the Italians do.
Which is all true, but Italians who take an espresso in a bar are, for the most part, on their work to or from work, or stopping over during an errand. They’re aren’t going to the opera, nor are they trying to enjoy a day off.
So if you come to Verona, don’t be that kind of not-tourist. Sit down, have a nice aperitivo, enjoy the view and don’t fret over the surcharge. That’s what Italians would do, if they were on holidays.
Even when enjoying your holidays and doing all the touristy things, don’t forget that actual locals do exist and don’t always want to take part in your holiday experience. If you live in Berlin, for example, and you want to get somewhere quickly, you do get annoyed by large groups on rental bikes.
So be respectful, and don’t be a nuisance. Even tiny things add up when done by thousands.
Use the guide to your advantage
If you hide for the main attractions, don’t forget that a good guidebook and a bit of research will actually go a long way in avoiding the most annoying aspects: Most museums and other sights have online tickets and allow pre-bookings so that you can skip the queues.
You can also try to be the crowds by coming early, or at “off” times. Just modify your experience a little bit: The Peak Tram has less of a wait going down than going up, and if you hit Yosemite Valley after Labor Day you will find it almost deserted.
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