Smart Sightseeing Strategies
Some people walk into major museums, churches, and ancient sites, gawk for a few minutes, and then walk out. But with a little preparation and know-how, your sightseeing will go much smoother — and take on more significance.
The world is a treasure chest of great art and history. For some, visiting the world’s greatest museums is the highlight of a trip. For others, “museum” spells “dull.” But you don’t need to know how a Ferrari works to enjoy the ride. Paintings are like that. You can just stroll through a gallery and bask in the color scheme. That said, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind the following.
Learn about art and history. Go to the great art galleries of because it would be a crime not to. Pre-trip studying makes art and artifacts more fun. When you understand the context in which things were made, who paid for it and why, what the challenges of the day were, and so on, paintings and statues become the closest thing to a time machine a place has to offer.
Don’t miss the masterpieces. A common misconception is that a great museum has only great art. But only a fraction of a museum’s pieces are masterpieces worthy of your time. You can’t possibly cover everything — so don’t try. With the help of a tour guide or guidebook, focus on just the museum’s top attractions. Most major museums provide brief pamphlets that recommend a greatest-hits plan. With this selective strategy, you’ll appreciate the highlights while you’re fresh. If you have any energy left afterward, you can explore other areas of specific interest to you. If you’re determined to cover a large museum thoroughly, try tackling it in separate visits over several days.
Don’t miss your favorites. On arrival, look through the museum’s collection handbook or the gift shop’s postcards to make sure you won’t miss anything of importance to you. Save yourself the disappointment of discovering too late that you missed it.
Eavesdrop. If you’re especially interested in a particular piece of art, spend some time studying it and listening to each passing tour guide tell his or her story about it. They each do their own research and come up with a different angle to share. Much of it is true. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of tour freeloading. Just don’t stand in the front and ask a lot of questions.
Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques
Houses of worship offer some amazing art and architecture — not to mention a welcome seat and a cool respite from the heat. You may be there just to see the Caravaggio over the side altar, but others are there as worshippers. Be a respectful visitor.
A modest dress code (no bare shoulders or shorts) is encouraged at most churches, but is enforced at some larger churches and most mosques. If you are caught by surprise, you can improvise, such as using maps to cover your shoulders and tying a jacket around your hips to cover your knees. At mosques, women must cover their heads and wear clothing that shields their legs and arms; everyone needs to remove their shoes.
At active places of worship, visitors may not be allowed inside for one or more time periods throughout the day. If you are already inside, you may be asked to leave so as not to disturb the congregation. Check your guidebook’s listing to avoid showing up at a church or mosque when it’s closed for worship. Some services are open to the public.
Some churches have coin-operated audio boxes that describe the art and history; just set the dial to English, insert your coins, and listen. Coin boxes near a piece of art illuminate the work (and present a better photo opportunity). I pop in a coin whenever I can. It improves my experience, is a favor to other visitors trying to appreciate a great piece of art in the dark, and is a little contribution to that church. Whenever possible, let there be light.
Ancient Sites and Ruins
Climbing the Acropolis, communing with the druids at Stonehenge, strolling the Croatian shore in the shadow of Emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split, tracing the intricate carvings on a Viking ship — the remnants of Europe’s distant past bring a special thrill.
But the oldest sites are also the most likely to be initially underwhelming, especially if it’s been a while since your last history class. On its own, the Roman Forum is just a cluster of crumbling columns and half-buried foundations. You’ve heard about it all your life, you’ve spent good money to get here, and your first thought upon entering is…”This is it?”
Ancient sites come to life with your imagination, aided by information. Bring a guidebook that’s heavy on historical background, and consider hiring a local guide. Random guides tend to cluster outside major ancient sites, but quality varies. I prefer to book a reputable guide in advance, but if you decide to choose a guide at a sight, first talk to him or her for a bit to make sure you connect.
For some well-known places you can get books that cleverly use overlays to visually mesh the present with the past. To fire up your imagination before your trip, watch a movie or read a book set in the time and place of any site you’re excited to see. Once you’re there, mentally reconstruct arches and repaint facades. Clad your fellow tourists in togas. Fill a ruined cathedral with the chants of monks while inhaling imaginary incense.
Many major ancient sites have both an archaeological site and a nearby museum full of artifacts unearthed there. You can choose between visiting the museum first (to mentally reconstruct the ruins before seeing them) or the site first (to get the lay of the ancient land before seeing the items found there). However, crowds and weather can also help determine your plan. If it’s a blistering hot afternoon, tour the air-conditioned museum first, then hit the ruins in the cool of the early evening. Or, if rain clouds are on the horizon, do the archaeological site first, then duck into the museum when the rain hits.
Always visit the local tourism office.
They know about everything going on in town. They can point you to free activities, special events happening during your stay, and everything in between. They even offer discounts on attractions and transportation. It is their job to help you experience the destination better. It’s amazing how many travelers skip this when they are visiting somewhere but, as a savvy traveler, you know to use this resource! This is probably one of the most underused travel tips in the world. Use the tourism board! Save money!
Ask hostel staff for information — even when you aren’t staying there.
Hostel staff deal with budget travelers all day, every day. They know exactly where to go for cheap meals and attractions. They also tend to be locals so they know the city very well. Ask them for all sorts of information. Even if you aren’t staying in one, just pop in and ask for help. They’ll usually give it.
Learn basic phrases in the native language of your destination
The locals will appreciate it and it will make your interactions easier. You don’t need to master the language but learning a few things like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you!”, “Where’s the bathroom?” will go a long way to endearing yourself with the locals. They’ll like that you tried.
Read a history book!
You can’t understand a place’s present if you don’t know anything about its past. Read up on the destinations you are visiting. It will give you a deeper understanding of this place you’ve wanted to see for so long!
Lunchtime is the best time to visit historical sites.
Be a contrarian. You’ll have fewer crowds getting in your way as big tour buses, groups, and most travelers head to lunch. It’s always best to visit an attraction super early, late, or when people eat. You’ll have even the most popular places to yourself!
Use Meetup, the sharing economy, and hospitality websites to meet locals
These websites will help you get an insider’s perspective on your destination by connecting you with locals in the places you visit. The sharing economy has changed the way people travel allowing you to meet locals, get off the tourist travel, and save mega money! It’s a triple win – and resources that I use all the time when I travel. Here’s an article on how to use the sharing economy (and what websites to use) when you travel.
Be open to strangers
Not everyone bites. Say hi to people on the road. Turn strangers into friends. Remember they are just like you! They want to live a happy, full life and have hopes and dreams too! You never know. You just might make some lifelong friends.
But keep your guard up.
Some people do bite, so keep a healthy level of suspicion. You don’t want to fall for any travel scams or get yourself into uncomfortable situations. Be open but cautious.
Take free walking tours.
Besides being free, these tours will give you a good orientation and background of the city you are visiting. I love, love, love taking walking tours when I travel. You pass the time, you get to pepper the guide with questions, and you get to learn so much about where you are! Take a walking tour when you travel!
Whenever you go to a new city, join a tour. Be it a hop on hop off bus to get our bearings or a walking tour to learn about the area. Most cities and metropolitan centers around the world have free walking tours you can join.
They are a great way to meet people and to get to know the history and culture of a city.
Get city attraction cards.
When visiting any city, we recommend getting a city pass.
If you are going to visit a lot of museums and other attractions in a short period of time, a city pass is going to save you money on admission (plus most provide free public transportation too!).
City passes are an excellent way to save money. For budget travel it gets you into museums and attractions at a discounted price.
It gives you access to public transit and it allows you to skip the lines at major tourists sites. If you are spending a few days in a city, we highly recommend getting a city pass of some kind.
Read up about local customs before you go
You don’t want to offend anyone while you travel, so make sure you’re aware of any offensive gestures or behavior before you arrive. As an example, in Thailand, women shouldn’t touch monks or hand them anything, you shouldn’t touch the local’s heads, say anything bad about the royal family, use your right hand for passing people things and paying, or point your feet at someone… Do your research!
Find photogenic spots with Instagram
Follow local instagrammers in the places you’ll be visiting to find the best spots for taking photos. Also search through hashtags relating to the place you are heading to check out the popular photos and see where they were taken.
Ask permission when taking photos
How would you feel if some random tourist turned up at your house or work and started taking photos of you? Ask for someone’s permission before you start taking photos of them — it’s the polite and respectful thing to do.
Hire a Local Guide
To do an epic adventure you need skill and experience. We aren’t qualified to do any of these independently, but with expert guides, we learned new skills and accomplished these challenges safely.