Why you should still go to touristy places

There is a certain type of traveler that displays a certain disdain for tourists and popular tourist destinations. A sense of ruin washes over him as he glazes over the mobs of fanny-pack wearing, Starbucks drinking, Canon sporting visitors that seems to have invaded this formerly exotic land. These mobs, with their overly cheerful local tour guides, will never truly be real travelers. With that observation, our jaded traveler dutifully heads back to his $5 a night hostel to plan his next adventure off the beaten path.

I’ll be the first to admit that tourist hot spots sometimes irk me. When Erica and I arrived in Ao Nang, Thailand, we were a little grossed out with the tacky souvenir shops and the overly expensive chic restaurants that could be found in any yuppie town in the US. It somehow didn’t feel “real.” The area seemed to have developed to cater to foreigners’ imagination of what Thailand really is. This thought enveloped my brain even as I was juxtaposing it against what I thought Thailand should really be like. Oh the irony.

It is fascinating to me how easily we fall into the trap of thinking that the richness of a place is inversely proportional to how many foreigners or visitors hang out there. The snobbish traveler might believe that the only meaningful travel experiences exist in remote, poverty inflicted areas where the modern world has not yet extended its reach.

Anyone who has ever lived in a tourist hot spot knows that its not true.

I recently left Cairo, a world renown hot spot, but the example I would like to use is far less exotic and ancient. I would like to talk about Washington, DC.

DC is a tourist hot spot. The Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian, the National Mall, Georgetown, the White House, Adams Morgan, Dupont, and Arlington cemetery are just some of the examples of place tourists may visit while in the nation’s capital.

I spent my four years of college in DC. I was not there as a tourist. However, I would never claim that my time spent there was wasted or unauthentic just because there was a large presence of tourists there. Japanese tour groups around the reflecting pool did not make my frequent runs around it less exhilarating. The presence of hotels filled with out of state visitors did not make my interactions with friends less genuine. And the museums…well ok, I generally don’t like museums so I’ll leave the Smithsonian out of this.

The fact is, even in the most touristy of places, there’s a world of rich, meaningful experiences to be had. They might not be the experiences that travelers may have envisioned, but they are meaningful nonetheless. The richness of life rarely has to do with location alone, rather, different locations provide new contexts for travelers to process meaningful experiences.

I would even argue that tourist hot spots offer even more opportunities for meaningful experiences than the more remote, untouched locations. Its true that one could be shuttled from landmark to museum and never have any experience that wasn’t created by a travel agency or a guide book. However, if you know what to be open to when you travel, you will find that travel can be rich even in the most trendy of vacation spots.

Lets take a hypothetical traveler and one of my TrekDek challenges and place him in a tourist hot spot, say, Rome. The challenge is to “Cook a local dish.” John Backpacker (our traveler) ate an excellent pesto linguini dish the other day and decides he will cook that. John is staying at a hostel that has a small kitchen with some basic cookware so no issues there. He starts by asking the hostel manager, Mario, where the best play to buy the ingredients for this dish. Mario, remembering his mother’s pesto linguini dish, regales him with stories about how his mother always used fresh basil leaves from the Campo dei Feiori market. Mario gives him some basic directions and John Backpacker starts his trek.

On the way to the market he gets lost and ends up wandering through a few neighborhoods with some beautiful architecture. He asks some locals for help getting to the market and one young Italian offers a ride on his moped. John accepts, and finds himself holding on for dear life. Thankfully, he makes it to the market.

He ends up talking to one woman who is selling basil leaves and she gives him advice on how to make the best pesto. She finds his ignorance of Italian cuisine amusing and invites him over to her family’s house to have a real Italian dinner. John graciously accepts and has a wonderful time speaking Englitalian with the family over a delicious meatball dinner.

John thanks his hosts profusely and rolls back to the hostel (meatballs aren’t exactly a diet dish). The next day, flush with ingredients given to him by his dinner hosts, begins to cook his pesto liguini. Some other backpackers at the hostel take an interest in his activities and offer to help. This leads to the classic scenario of “too many cooks in the kitchen” but no matter, it is all in good fun.

The travelers all share what what was supposed to be a pesto linguini dish over some cheap wine and regale each other with their travel stories.

I admit I exaggerated John’s hypothetical experience a little bit. It is quite possible that nothing overly interesting happens on John’s quest to make pesto linguini. However, having some travel experience, I find that this type of story is not completely off base either. The point is, this kind of story can definitely take place in a touristy location, and arguably, has a higher chance of happening in touristy places than more remote ones (I believe its because of the concentration of people).

Travel at its best facilitates these types of experiences, and as TrekDek comes closer and closer to launch, I invite you all to e-mail me your travel stories as well as what you think the catalyst for these experiences were at dale@trekdek.com .



The monkey and I share a meaningful experience

My pre-conceived (and accurate) image of Ton Sai beach


6 responses to this post.

  1. I like how you turned this idea into a post.

    I believe it’s important to accept touristy places. To continue using Rome as an example – there are so many wonderful restaurants in the city, and most of them are not in a major spot. If you want to eat in a specific square, ask yourself if it’s for the food or atmosphere. You can only get the atmosphere in a magical location, so you trade off having the best food Rome can offer for the view and a bigger bill. Yes, the perfectly located restaurant is a tourist trap, but where else can you experience such a thing?

    Yet if you can survive not eating in a magical plaza, walk a block away and odds are you could stumble over a fantastic restaurant with ease.

    That’s an important distinction for me. What do I want to experience? Then make that choice and hopefully do something memorable enough to tell my friends and family about.


    • Hey Jonathan,

      I absolutely agree. The context of your travels matter. As far as restaurants go, it might not even be the great food that matters. What I think makes for a wonderful restaurant experience is the location, the people you’re with, and the conversations you’re having. Any one of those factors can easily increase the value and “meaningfulness” of the experience. Someone who eats somewhere in a bad mood and is eating alone will have a completely different experience

      Thanks for commenting!



  2. Your prose in this post reminds me of the 4-Hour Workweek, in a good way. It makes me want to go on more adventures, even if they are little ones.


    • Thanks! Now if you could call Tim Ferriss and ask if he wants to invest in it I would definitely appreciate.

      Little adventures are definitely awesome and should be pursued consistantly.


  3. Posted by Matthieu Marchione on April 14, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I totally agree, touristy places should be part of any trip you take somewhere. A simple example, what kind of an idiot takes a trip to Paris and avoids even just seeing the eiffel tower because it’s too touristy?

    And from my personnal experience, if I had gotten a penny anytime someone had “pfff”‘d at me while telling that one of my favorite places in the world was Times Square I’d be a millionnaire. Of course, from the top of a tour bus, there isn’t much you can live out of times square and it must feel actually pretty bland.
    But when on what’s pretty much your real first trip abroad, your dad takes you there first thing off the plane, not to see times square (so not expecting to be taken to a hotspot) but to go to the tourism office to send emails to let everybody at home know you’re sound and safe, and you start walking down 7th avenue and you slowly fade in to this place where each building, each billboard, one after another hit you with an invigorating cocktail of insanity, gigangtism and modern exotic (at least to the non american folks) consumerism culture. It’s not just visiting times square.
    I also remember 3 years later when moving in to the city for a summer internship, randomly walking around the city, looking for shampoo and soap from whatever store I could find, hitting times square by accident, it started raining, I protected myself from the rain by standing under a building, lighting up a cigarette waiting for the rain to stop, looking up at the same-different billboards, thinking, “I made it, I’m going to be living here for a little while”.

    Of course it is not the kind of story that you show off at a dinner party, but these will remain burnt in my mind for the rest of my life while others won’t even remember what souvenir they got from the M&M’s store.

    PS: I don’t know if this is much of a travel story, but I’ve lived many things in times square, and I would love to share them for trekdek if it fits your editorial line. I think it’s interesting how the same touristy hotspot can be the location and a character of many different adventures, stories and feelings.


    • Yea dude! I definitely want to hear your times squares stories. Once the real TrekDek site is up, I want to figure out how to capture your story in a “challenge.” How can someone have a rich experience like you did at times square?


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