Travelers and tourists…tourists and travelers. Are those terms synonymous? Some say yes and others no.
I believe, and I’m not the only one, there are similarities and differences between travelers and tourists. Obviously both love to travel but tourists often have a cookie cutter experience in the places they visit; full of chain restaurants (they could dine in at home), guided bus tours, and tacky souvenir gift shops. Conversely, true travelers tend to make wandering off the tourism tract a priority. They want to spend time in the lesser known travel gems (think Burma and not Bermuda or Split, Croatia instead of Sydney, Australia). To make a long story short, in many ways, tourists see the places they visit through rose-colored glasses and travelers have a better chance at having an authentic experience.
Here’s an example: About 18 hours after arriving in Paris I walked down a regular neighborhood street. The kind of street locals do their everyday shopping. It’s full of small specialty shops; the charcuterie, the wine shop, the fruit and vegetable markets, etc. With the smells wafting onto the sidewalk from the fromage shop (cheese) and the crowds filing in and out of the bakery to get their daily baguette, walking a neighborhood like this can be quite fun and interesting on its own. Not something you see all the time when visiting a new city.
But I also shopped. I bought a small jar of expensive sardines at one, a baguette at the bakery (half for lunch and the rest for dinner), a salmon and tomato sandwich (delicious!) and a macaroon (equally delicious!) at another. Twenty minutes later I’d set up a fantastic picnic in the Champ de Mars (a big park) between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire which is a big military training area. For a moment, staring at the Eiffel Tower while surrounded by dogs chasing Frisbee’s and parents playing football (soccer for those of us across the pond) with their kids, I felt I was having the most authentic Parisian experience of any traveler in Paris. It was the BEST picnic ever…and sadly the only one happening in this park. During my hour-long lunch break there were at least 50 people who walked by and looked to see what I was doing, locals and tourists alike. The locals smiled and a few said bon appétit (that was cool) and the tourists thought I WAS a local (I think someone even took my picture). While the tourists stared at me, I stared at this:
Maybe this post should be titled ‘Be a Traveler AND a Tourist’ because I think to get the most out the places you visit you need a mix of both.
Don’t sacrifice seeing the important sites just so you can say you traveled off the beaten path. If you do you’ll miss out on some very cool stuff. I mean, (most of) those places are popular for good reason! To prove my point I’ll tell you what I did 45 minutes before walking down that street and buying my picnic lunch. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower! Like a typical tourist I stood in line to pay the 14.50 euro (I couldn’t find a place to get my ticket in advance) and took the elevator all the way to the top. It was a cool morning (especially that high up) and breezy and fantastic and crowded and cliché and absolutely the right thing to do. If I’d just looked at the Eiffel Tower from ground level through a camera lens and while eating sardines across the park it wouldn’t have been as memorable a day.
The opposite is true too. Don’t skip out on being more of a traveler just to stay in tourist mode for too long a time, or worse; for your whole trip. To keep the Eiffel tower analogy going a bit longer, being a tourist AND a traveler, literally in the same morning…at the same site made it a special day.
So try to have balance in your day or your week. That’s what I do. See the sights and stay in the tourist areas but also mix it up with the natives…locals who don’t work in the tourism economy. If you’re visiting Lisbon and Porto, stop for a couple of days in between at Coimbra, a less popular tourist area (and my favorite city in Portugal…so far). Or break up the trip from Barcelona to Madrid and spend the afternoon in Zaragoza. Take an hour bus ride from any big city and you’ll surely find a town without a tourism budget to attract flocks of people or a village without a popular attraction. These places make great day trips and will inevitably give a more realistic peek into the lives of the people in the area you’re visiting.
There are opportunities like this everywhere I go and everywhere you’ll travel also. We just need to seek them out and take advantage when they come along. It’s not always easier but many times its more fun and more memorable.
And as always I try to relate things back to the bottom line. It’s cheaper to eat, stay and BE in the local neighborhoods and not the tourist areas, in the smaller towns rather than the big cities. So be a traveler, not a tourist.