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Why I Ditch Capital Cities for Small Towns When I Travel

by Eben Diskin Feb 21, 2018

For some travelers, a vacation is all about the bright lights and bustle of major cities. And so it used to be for me. There’s something to be said for the convenience of a capital city. The ease of being close to the airport, famous arches, towers palaces, museums, parks, etc. all make setting an itinerary easy. Then there’s the added bonus of being able to get around on foot without renting a car or worrying about the logistics of straying far and, of course, the abundance of nightlife that connects you with other travelers from around the world. While this may sound appealing, I tend to avoid capital cities when traveling. Here’s why.

1. Cathedral Fatigue is real.

I’ve never been seriously sick abroad, but I have come down with Cathedral Fatigue. It might not require a hospital visit, but it can only be cured with a change of scenery. Cathedral Fatigue is the term used to describe a very real feeling of repetition, weariness, and even boredom, by visiting similar architectural landmarks. If you’ve ever backpacked across Europe and hit several major capitals, you probably know what I’m talking about. Each cathedral, palace, castle, etc. is distinct and impressive in its own right, but — though you might not admit it to your more high-brow friends — when you see too many of them at once, they start blending together.

One week in spring I took a train from Prague to Vienna, and then to Budapest. The architecture was stunning in each city, but by the end, the photo album on my phone looked like my study sheet from Art History 101. I felt like I was looking at 30 pictures of the same church, and couldn’t remember where I had seen what. Unless you’re an art historian, this feeling is inevitable the more you travel. A good way to avoid Cathedral Fatigue is to avoid the cathedrals. The farther you stray from the city, the more the aesthetic shifts and becomes unique.

2. Sticking to capitals is limiting.

Call it a short attention span, but I find that if I spend any longer than two or three days in the same city, I get restless. Once I’ve done the free walking tour, a museum, a day of solo exploration, and a night or two out at the bar, I’m pretty much ready to move on. Of course, actually living in a foreign city for an extended period can be hugely rewarding; you can uncover all the little secrets they have to offer, especially in the older European or eastern cities. But if you’re only traveling to Denmark for a week, don’t limit yourself to Copenhagen. Helsingør, the site of Hamlet’s Castle, is only a short train ride north, or even head to Sweden for the day and check out Malmö or Lund. You’ll feel like you added a whole new layer to your trip.

3. Major cities are usually a bit less unique than provincial ones.

While anything can happen when you travel, especially when dealing with less-advanced countries, if you’re looking for a truly unpredictable, unique vacation, your best bet is straying farther afield. City tourism boards recognize the power of convenience and bright lights, and never fail to capitalize on it. As a result, historic buildings become “attractions”, quiet parks are featured on “things to see” lists, and as a result, everyone ends up with the same “things to see”. If you don’t mind having the exact same vacation as the dozens of people in front of you in the museum line — go for it. Lines generally form around cool stuff, and if something genuinely piques your interest, there’s no reason “predictability” should stand in your way. But if you’re looking for a unique experience, where you don’t necessarily know what to expect when you roll up to your lodging, an excursion to the countryside could be just what you need.

4. Cost is higher.

It goes without saying that cities are expensive. From restaurant fare to cab fare, you’re pretty much guaranteed to pay more for your daily essentials in a major city than anywhere else. If cost is no object, by all means, stay at that downtown hotel in London and pay $17 for cocktails; but if you’re on somewhat of a budget, like most travelers, you might want to think about staying even 30-40 minutes outside the city. You’ll have a more localized experience in a smaller environment, won’t be paying big city prices, yet can still reach the city relatively easily for day trips.

5. Cultural dilution in cities.

It can be tough to really get a sense for a country’s culture by visiting one of its major cities. This might sound illogical, but the fact is, cities attract so many tourists and expats that they all begin to resemble big melting pots. While this is great for the people living there, it can make cultural immersion difficult. Going out to bars in Edinburgh, it was more common to meet other Americans, or students from around the world, than Scots. When I went to Barcelona for a weekend, I think I met three Swedes, two Americans, four Brazilians, three Brits, and upwards of twenty Australians on a group holiday, but not a single Catalonian. Cultural fusion is never dull, but it did leave me feeling like I hadn’t really visited Barcelona, but rather a small sliver of beach that could have been anywhere.

Staying in more remote locales might take more effort and research, but you’ll get a better sense for how the country and its people work. There’s something to be said for leaving the city behind, and settling in in a small pub in the Highlands next to an unpolished Scottish farmer — with an accent so thick you can only pretend to understand his absurd stories — while a flutist plays a horribly out-of-tune folk song in the corner.

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