As the first exciting plane journey begins its descent to your destination, chances are you’ve skimmed a Lonely Planet. You probably know what the area is famous for and where to begin your urban exploration for shooting those iconic bucket list photos (Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower anyone?)
Bags stashed in the hotel and off you go! City tour. Check. Popular local cuisine for lunch. Check. Recommended museum. Check. All fun times, but now what!? It’s an undeniable trap that all of us have fallen into at some stage in our traveling careers. Especially if yours is a long vacation with many stops, cities can blend and travel fatigue can set in.
Oftentimes the real draw or attraction on an urban destination takes place on particular days. When I recently passed through the population centre of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Merida, I was underwhelmed. On a Wednesday, glum faced citizens formed lengthy queues outside banks. This lasting image sticks in my mind and labels Merida as a place best avoided. It wasn’t until later that I learned that on Friday, the public square (zocalo in Spanish) bursts out of its shell with live music, dancing, excitable locals and engaging festivities. Facepalm.
Even more important is the time of year. Montreal was deep in slumber when I visited during the offbeat month of November – early winter post-work Friday drinks is an alien concept in the charming Latin Quarter. And the number of times I tried to discourage clients from touring India in June/July – fielding emergency calls from distressed travelers as they are swept down the Ganges in a monsoon would make for an average day. Middle East during Ramadan? Epic planning fail. Though you can always put a positive spin on anything if you try hard enough.
So, after years of adventures and misadventures I’ve come to a solid realisation. Other than journeys through natural environments and off-the-beaten-path touring, festivals and events tourism is where it’s at! There’s no point reading about it on a plaque when nobody else is around. Engage and involve yourself! You’ll feel the true heartbeat of a place and return enriched and worldly by simply going at the right time.
Don’t like crowds? It’s very smart to avoid the super festivals that can be overblown – New Year’s Eve in New York (try Montreal instead), or Oktoberfest in Munich (try the Volkfest in Stuttgart instead). Just before the festival begins may even be a good chance to see the preparations. Seeing the sculptors produce street art prior to the Sapporo Snow Festival was a highlight for me. If those suggestions don’t allay your agoraphobic tendencies, perhaps you could train for the Kokoda Track instead (and party with rapturous relief at a Full Moon Party afterwards).
Over the course of the next couple of months, I will choose and explain five unique festivals for each calender month that you probably know little about, and list five must-sees that are more famous yet easy to forget when you start dreaming about a trip.
For any other suggestions or tailoring a trip that takes in more than low season city tours, I’m your guy!
Note: Cover photo is my amateur shot taken of the Yamayaki festival in Nara, Japan. Translating to “fried mountain,” city officials set a huge area of natural parkland on fire to promote new Spring growth.