Notes On Sightseeing vs. Experiencing When Traveling

Red Sea

Jumping in to the local offerings, aka the Red Sea in Jordan

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I always think it’s interesting when I book trips with friends or family and they immediately go out and purchase guidebooks and make a pre-planned itinerary of activities for us. Those who read my blog know I’m an avid supporter of solo travel as well as traveling without making plans, so it’s only logical I wouldn’t be the type of person to make a pre-planned itinerary. It’s not that I don’t do any research at all — I enjoy reading blog posts about my upcoming destinations to get an idea of what’s available, as well as learn about the culture and any extra safety precautions I should take; however, I think there’s a big difference between seeing the sites and experiencing a destination.

The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. St. Peter’s Basilica. These are some of the world’s most famous landmarks — and for good reason. All represent an important piece of history or provide cultural insight into the destination they’re located in. That being said, simply looking at a statue or stepping inside a church only allows you to skim the surface of a place.

When visiting a major attraction, I make sure to do some research beforehand so I visit with a nice overview of what I’m looking at. Staring up at Angkor Wat or hiking through Petra has little value — aside for being able to smugly say “Guess where I’ve been!” to your friends — if you don’t understand what you’re seeing. Additionally, for these types of sites I like to take a guided tour to really have the history of the site come alive, as well as hear interesting facts only an expert would know. Many times, it’s easier to retain information when it’s told to you in an engaging manner (because what’s the point of visiting an attraction if you’re just going to forget everything about it a month later?).

This all being said, I make visiting popular landmarks only a portion of my trip. For me, experiencing a destination means immersing myself in local culture. This is part of the reason I love going with the flow when traveling, because having a no-plans itinerary opens me up for unexpected adventures. Start by meeting some locals at a neighborhood bar or on CouchSurfing.org where you can post in a city-specific forum and plan a meetup. If taking a tour, you can also chat up your guide for local recommendations and see if they’d be interested in exploring together. Tour guides typically enjoy meeting tourists — why else would they be in their profession? — as well as showing them their unique local perspective of the city. This also goes for hostel staff, who often like taking guests around and helping them have memorable city experiences.

There are other ways to experience a city over just seeing it. Walking or cycling instead of using public transportation allows you feel the pulse of a place and view daily life up close. For example, seeing the way two people greet each other or stumbling into the open studio of a local artisan are great experiences you would probably miss if you were on a bus. Additionally, signing up for a class that introduces you to a local art like calligraphy in Japan, salsa in Argentina, or a Cape Malay cooking safari in Cape Town can be a great trip enhancer. Giving yourself a unique mission is another fun way to dive into culture, for instance, going out dancing with a local or trying to find your favorite local beer.

The best guideline I can give to those who want to switch from sightseeing to experiencing is when planning out your day, ask yourself a few crucial questions:

1) What will I take away from this experience?

2) Am I doing or viewing?

3) How is this experience enhancing my trip?

Going back to Henry Miller’s quote about travel providing a new way of seeing things, it’s about a changing of perspective and furthering of your understanding over simply adding a brag-worthy photo to your camera roll. You don’t want to just see things with your eyes, but with your nose, ears, mind, fingers, and heart. Because it shouldn’t be about checking another destination off your bucket list, but about letting the destination have an effect on you.

Do you have an opinion on sightseeing vs. experiencing when traveling? Do you have a favorite tip for experiencing a destination? Please share in the comments below!

6 Comments

    1. @Rachel: It just gives you a whole different perspective. The Rome Colosseum is just an old structure until you know what truly went on there ha.

  1. I love this! To me, truly experiencing is what travelling is all about! The best memories and stories come from when you really jump in, explore and roll with it, rather than just rushing around to tick items off your bucket list to be able to say you have been there.

  2. Yeah it’s a tough one – I definitely think a guide could have been helpful at Angkor. Still either way I know we would not have enjoyed multiple days at the temples!

    While some of my favourite places are super touristy, some of my favourite travel memories have just been doing simple things with locals (hosts and friends).

    1. @NZ Muse: Agreed. I definitely think there are some touristy things that you just have to do, but there needs to be a balance. I don’t want to go somewhere simply to snap pictures of popular sites. Also, if possible it’s also nice to experience the sites. For example, when visiting the Eiffel Tower instead of just seeing it my friends and I picnicked in front of it, listened to music and had a nice evening of wine, food and conversation while enjoying the light show. It’s a really nice memory for me.

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