14 tips to touring the world without feeling like just another tourist

Trevi Fountain? Yeah, people have heard of it.
Trevi Fountain? Yeah, people have heard of it.
Image: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
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Mass tourism has had its critics almost as far back as tourism itself. What Henry James grumbled about more than a century ago—all those hordes in his favorite places—is now so common that there are almost as many “off the beaten track” strategies as there are fatuous guidebooks where you are encouraged to “stroll,” “savor,” and “muse.”

International travel has more than doubled in the last 20 years. About 1.3 billion people—nearly one fifth of the world’s population—are now traveling internationally, nearly one fifth of the world’s population. And while France and the United States remain the top destinations, tourists from almost everywhere are now going almost everywhere (Thailand, Belize, Cambodia, Chile, and Namibia have all experienced big jumps as destinations). Likewise, spending on international travel has shifted. It used to be dominated by those from the US and western Europeans nations, and Australians, but now the Chinese dominate. In 2016, they accounted for $261 billion or 20% of worldwide international tourist receipts.

These trends are going to continue—there are billions of people who have not yet seen the Eiffel Tower, and as poor countries grow, and produce larger numbers of people with disposable income, they too will want to travel. Fortunately for us grumpy snobs, the majority will stay on the beaten path, checking off the must-sees on their lists—the Grand Canal of Venice, the Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel tower, Mde Tussauds, the London Eye, the Colosseum, the Acropolis, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal. But the sheer size of the tourism numbers means that a great many will also seek to go off the path, especially as newly wealthy people become repeat tourists, as so many Americans have. Having done the must-sees, the Japanese, for example, now travel the way many Westerners do, seeking new places that five or ten years ago saw relatively few tourists, and so the crowds at Vilnius, Riga, Reykjavik, Helsinki, Thessaloniki, Belgrade, Sofia, Capetown, Bogota, have grown, too.

If you would rather experience travel without the feeling that you are just another tourist, a pip among the masses, can anything be done? The contrarian guidelines that follow (the fruit of 50 years of travel with my wife) may provide some relief. But please note that these tips are not for everyone and that, of course, is the point.

1. First ditch the “fun” mind-set. Keep in mind that travel is work. The origin of the word travel, most experts believe, is linked to the French word travail, work. Travel, as opposed to tourism or vacationing, is work; we take that as a given and own it. For us, perhaps like many people, we travel to get away from our everyday lives, but it is also a kind of research—to see how the world is getting along and to affirm and marvel at both sameness and difference. There will be moments of fun and joy, quite often in fact, but they are a by-product of the work, not the main objective for us. By embracing the idea of travel as work an escape from the crowds becomes possible, even in crowded environments.

2. Walk, don’t ride. Above all no or very few taxis. Take the public transport systems’ buses, trams or trains for non-walkable distances (airport to city, city to countryside), etc.

3. Use maps, not your phone’s GPS. The GPS wants to get you places by the shortest route. This is anti-travel. A map gives you context, the larger picture, and offers you perspective on where the beaten path ends. Again you need to work.

4. No shopping. You may look in store windows, but remember there is almost nothing you cannot buy anywhere today. Last week in Helsinki I was briefly seduced by the Marttiini knives in a window—an iconic Finnish brand. My first question? Are the knives still made in Finland? Well, no, some are, but some aren’t. I noted a few prices and left, relieved that I had not succumbed. That night I looked on to find a wide selection of Marttiinis, almost all cheaper than in the store. In any case, just remember you’re not here to shop.

5. Skip lunch once in a while. Lunch is going to use up a good part of your day and make you sluggish. Since travel is work you want a reward at the end of the day, not in the middle before you’ve earned it. You can use part of your walking as way to check out places where you might like to eat at night. Stopping for a coffee at 3 or 4 pm is part of the work-reward calculus, and will renew your walking energy, so OK.

6. Don’t rely on TripAdvisor or reviews on the web. They only reinforce the mass part of tourism. For us, “popular” is a deal-breaker. If a place has 2578 reviews and 80% are “excellent,” this may be meaningless to you. For restaurants, remember that the closer they are to the tourist main drag the more expensive and probably the more pretentious and less authentic they will be. And be aware that more and more places are caught up in international foodie style, so in big cities especially you will encounter the ubiquity problem—you’ll see foreigners attracted by good reviews and high prices eating the same type of hyped-up, looks-better-than-it-tastes food they get at home. Go off the main drag, take chances. You don’t have to be Anthony Bourdain exactly, but at least try (see # 7.).

7. Explore “ordinary” eating, eating as if you lived in the place you’re visiting. Outdoor markets, the further from the main drag the better, street food stalls, and even supermarkets, themselves an off-the-beaten-path experience, offer not just more data for your research, but unadorned real food. In some big cities, like Berlin for example, the food floor at the KaDeWe department store will provide you with more choices of take-out authentic food than you can imagine.

8. Look up as well as ahead of you. One of the few unique things about big cities these days is older architecture, but you won’t see it unless you look up. Classic Art Nouveau in Riga, a starker Finnish take on Art Nouveau and Jugendstil in Helsinki, Haussmannian buildings in Paris. Notice things like balconies, windows, shutters. In the Baltics, windows tend to be one horizontal light, over two vertical. In Ireland there are no shutters; in France they are everywhere. In Paris the second and fifth floor of Haussmannian buildings have the most ornate balconies. Buildings in Valletta, Malta give off a hint of North Africa. Why? Ask people. Talk to anyone you can.

9. Visit secondary cities. Think about Maastricht instead of Amsterdam, Trondheim instead of Oslo, Mainz or Cologne instead of Berlin and Hamburg, Bari or Modena instead of Rome and Venice, Auxerre instead of Paris, Madurai instead of Mumbai, and so on.

10. Don’t bring heavy and expensive guidebooks. Go to the main tourist information office in each city. Usually, they will have brochures and maps that will tell you much of what is in the guidebooks. Cities like Paris have plaques and signs that tell you what guidebooks tell you. Many cities offer free walking tours, often these are posted at the tourist info office.

11. Don’t take pictures or selfies. Use your eyes and brain. Keep a journal, take notes. Note your 1st impressions, then a day later, your 2nd impressions, then as you leave, ask whether your 1st impressions are still valid.

12. Think ahead: About the kinds of people who are likely to annoy you, and be aware of where they are likely to be, and when they are likely to be there. Five star hotels cater less and less to sophisticated travelers, and more and more to people who have money, period. If you don’t like noisy and badly behaved children, travel when school is in session, and avoid places that say “family friendly.”

13. Don’t wait in line for anything. Generally speaking there is virtually nothing waiting in line for. Bertillon ice cream in Paris is not that much better.

14. Find ways to get insights into local culture. If you don’t know any natives, you are not likely to be invited to someone’s home. But there are substitutes, albeit inadequate. We regularly visit train stations and observe the comings and goings of commuters, and of course other travelers. We go into churches during services, and if possible, even weddings. We stop at kindergarten school gates when parents are clustering to pick up their kids. We visit national, municipal, and university libraries wherever we find them.

Part of our approach involves sad acceptance of the loss of things we were spoiled by 30 and 40 years ago—seeing the Mona Lisa up close, flying on a plane where you have a choice of 3 empty seats in a row, counting on most of your fellow travelers to be polite and respectful of your space, and so on. And while there is nothing to be done about these losses, our contrarian guidelines give us at least the illusion that we are making our way in each new world in our own way.