I try my best to be a traveler rather than a tourist (if that distinction is important to you). I eat what the locals eat, I get away from the busy places as much as possible, and make sure to see the lesser-known galleries and museums. I enjoy asking about local politics or the issues on everyone’s mind. But sometimes, you have to take a moment to see the big sights. The blockbusters on the keychains. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the White House, the Hollywood walk of fame, Big Ben, and oh so many more. You have to see it just to say you saw it.
And sometimes, you just fail at being a conscientious, insightful traveler and you go full tourist. I’m not particularly proud of these moments, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Here are a few examples of the times I lapsed into full tourist-mode.
1) Oogling the crown jewels from the moving walkway
The crown jewels are one of the well-known sights in London. I saw them a few years ago, and really didn’t need to go the second time (but did anyway because I was with family). Yes, the giant gemstones are worth millions but the lines are very long to get there and you only see them briefly from the moving walkway. Also, I worked way too hard to sneak this prohibited photo.
Also, embarrassingly, especially for someone who enjoys history, I completely misunderstood the concept of how the crown acquired the jewels. I thought they purchased them somehow and asked the guy on duty how the crown could even afford to buy those. Where does the money come from? He seemed confused by the question until I realized how foolish I had been. CONQUEST. All of these jewels were taken at sword/knife/gun-point during the British Empire. I felt pretty dumb and also kind of gross for marveling at the plunder of many bloody wars and colonization.
Bad tourist moment.
2) Waited for the money shot
There are a few iconic places you want to get that perfect picture of. Unfortunately, so does everyone else so there are always people in the way. You can see many people posing in this picture and hint: none of them are me. The tragic part is, I probably stood around for quite a while to get this clear of a picture. It happened at the Trevi Fountain, it happened in front of the Eiffel tower, and it will definitely happen again in the future.
3) Just a face in a hoard of tourists
I felt like such a tourist going from one monument to the next when I visited Washington, D.C. (before I moved here). The crowds were unbearable, and set off a minor claustrophobia panic attack more than once. The crowds are so distracting, you barely get to enjoy the sight. But this is the thing you do in D.C., so I trudged on through the rest, just a face in the crowd. Nowadays, when people visit me, I wait patiently outside.
4) Made fun of art instead of trying to understand it
We all hit that point, after we’ve been walking through museum after museum, church after church, when our brain just turns off. Eventually, my brain just decides it can’t absorb or contemplate anymore. So maybe I get loopy or callous or even inappropriate. Like the above snapchat that is offensive but also pretty funny. When I was in Cordoba recently, I went into this small, art room off of the Mezquita (Mosque/Cathedral). It had some of the most dramatic, ludicrous art. At the end, was a (wax) severed head on a platter. The eyes were rolled, the tongue was lolled out, and the facial expression was the most cartoonish depiction of death you could imagine. I couldn’t control my laughter. I was in a mosque/church, everyone was solemnly quiet, and this was a depiction of a bible story. But I was shaking with stifled laughter. Oops.
5) Going into every shop
You know those stores- the knickknack shops that all have the same supplier and carry identical things. Sometimes, you decide, “Heck, I’m going to get a little souvenir for myself or loved ones.” And somehow, you go into every shop even though they’re all the same. And sometimes, you feel like just walking through and all you come away with are pictures. I went into every little store on Murano in Venice, known for its glass-blowing, and went home with one pair of five-euro earrings. But I did take some artsy pictures of all of the things I didn’t buy!
6) Going against advice and seeing the classic anyway
Before I went and saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa, my mother warned me it is underwhelming. “There is nothing in the town! You show up, take your picture, and then you’re done.” I went anyway, of course. It was only a short train from Siena, which I was already visiting. How long was I in Pisa? Less than an hour. Most of that hour was spent with a cappuccino and a nutella muffin. Do I regret going? Nope. I got my tacky picture pushing the tower over.
7) Taking pictures of all of my food
Man, could I go for a Belgian waffle right about now. I take a picture of all of my meals, or at least the new or delicious looking ones. Which ends up being a lot when I travel. Embrace the stereotype. I’ve been to Belgium twice and I’ve seen Brussels, Brugge, and Ghent pretty thoroughly. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be back again for those waffles.
8) Jumped through a million hoops to see something
The drama that goes into seeing the Ufizi Gallery, the Accademia, the Vatican, the Last Supper painting, and the Alhambra are exhausting. You may have to buy tickets in advance and may also have a time slot. Sometimes you have to pick them up beforehand, and sometimes that pickup even has a time window! Yet, some hoops just need to be jumped through if you want to see the big-ticket items. Such is being a tourist.
9) Visited a foreign country and absorbed zero culture
I’m looking at you Mexico. Cabo San Lucas and Cancun have made it so that millions of Americans can go to Mexico without encountering any Mexican art, culture, history, or even food. You don’t need to speak a word of Spanish. It’s unlikely someone would even try to speak Spanish to you. I have been to both aforementioned cities, but nowhere else in Mexico. I was once bunking in a hostel with a Mexican woman and two French women and we were talking about our past travels. The Mexican woman asked me, “Have you ever been to Mexico?” And I replied shamefully, “Kind of but not really.” The French girls were confused, “How can you ‘kind of’ visit Mexico?” When I said I had only visited Cabo San Lucas and Cancun, the Mexican woman rolled her eyes (in good humor) and agreed I hadn’t really visited Mexico. I had to explain it to the French girls.
I want to see the rest of Mexico, and will someday. But if I’m being truly honest with myself, I’ll probably go back to Cancun or Cabo as well. A cousin will get married there or I’ll have a reunion with my college roommates or something else will come up.
No lessons learned
There seems to be this constant debate about traveler vs. tourist. But do the two have to be mutually exclusive? I do my best to engage in every place I visit. I used to step on ants as I walked down the sidewalk but after visiting Costa Rica and learning about conservation up close, I do my best to avoid hurting any insect I come across. I carried a bee (with a gloved hand) from my house to set it free outside. Immersive travel experiences profoundly change who you are and how you see the world. But sometimes, you’re just going to skate across the surface. Big Ben has never taught me anything or impressed anything meaningful upon me, but do I have ten pictures of it? Yes, I do.
Tourism happens. What can you do?