This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
Now and then, when traveling with friends, I’ll suggest something crazy: putting off touring our destination’s requisite attractions until the end of our trip.
It may seem like a straightforward suggestion, but more often than not it inspires nervous laughter, as if tourists are legally obligated to spend their first day or few in a new city checking off points of interest, lest they turn into pumpkins or some other locally grown gourd.
“But, what do you do when you get there?” they ask.
The answer varies, but it’s generally met with similar confusion. Ride the subway, I might suggest. Go to a grocery store. Walk from one end of the city to the other, mapping a route by parks, bookstores, water bodies, or anywhere else you enjoy spending time, irrespective of location. Duck into the first pub you pass for a pint of whatever’s on tap.
In short, treat your first day in a new place like any old Wednesday back home.
You only get one shot at a first impression
We’re never our best after travel days, yet too often, we spend our first-impression-forging moments battling exhaustion in line for top attractions, where we’ll make memories of other tourists with the same agenda vying to take the exact same photo.
Rather than spend your first day among patience-testing mobs, spend it observing, exploring, and getting the lay of the land. Hold off on touring museums, which, let’s be honest, probably won’t do your energy levels any favors, and instead hunt for the best vantage point in the city to see how all of its landmarks fit together. If a world-famous market is on your to-do list, spend your early days restaurant-hopping to better appreciate the ingredients you’ll see later on.
Keeping active without putting too much pressure on yourself to adhere to a strict schedule is a great way to adjust and ensure you’re ready to be wowed when you end up visiting the landmarks you have high expectations for. Plus, if you walk or take public transportation early on, you’ll learn how to navigate and relieve some of the stress of the big sightseeing days.
Putting together the best possible itinerary
It can be tempting to plan every detail of our vacations before we’re actually on them. Usually, that means frontloading our schedules with the things we know, or at least think, we have to see. But the longer we prioritize interactions with a place and its people outside of the tourism sector, the more insight we’ll get for planning the rest of our trip.
Depending on the length of your stay, you may not have much downtime. But even one day in a new city can teach us a lot about what to see and what to skip. Hear the same anecdote about a local landmark enough times, and you may realize a quick, self-guided tour will suffice. That may even free up space to do a nearby hike your server recommended or hit up that gelato shop three different people cited as their favorite.
The more time you give yourself for reconnaissance, the more insider information you’ll get on attractions, both famous and under-the-radar, as well as how the city itself operates.
Consider a trip to Rome. You might think it’s important to knock out seeing the Colosseum or tossing a coin into the Trevi fountain, but there’s a lot to discover in the Italian capital, and you may not see as much of it if you burn out on sightseeing early on.
Sightsee in reverse. Start with less popular attractions where there are shorter lines and smaller crowds. Swing by the Video Game Museum of Rome, perhaps, before darting off to the Galleria Borghese. You’ll be able to do more in a day, which, again, means more time navigating, more opportunity to be flexible, and more face time with people. Easing into sightseeing also means you’ll have the energy to tackle the cultural heavy-hitters when the time comes.
And while chances are slim you’d leave the Italian capital before getting a photo in a gladiator pose outside the Roman Forum, there’s a decent likelihood you’d consider passing up a niche attraction for a midday nap toward the end of a vacation if you’ve already hit the big sights.
Getting closure on your trip
So, your trip is coming to a close, and you have yet to see the sights that made your destination famous. By now, you should have some sense as to what you want to see, how long you want to spend at each place, and the best ways to get around. Tackling the major attractions should be a breeze. And you actually have a shot at enjoying them.
Destination-defining landmarks offer context about a place, but there’s something special about waiting to see them until you’ve gotten to know said place. Your perspective will shift, you’ll have a base knowledge to build on, and you may develop a deeper appreciation for the attraction. More than just educational, sightseeing can be an exercise in reflection. An opportunity to get closure on your travels and end the trip on a high note.
Seeing a city inside out, from its most banal details to its grandest monuments, may seem counterintuitive, but there’s no law against it. As important as it is to globetrot with an open mind, putting off major attractions until the end of a trip is one type of backward thinking that might just enrich your travels.