What to do?
This step goes back to why you went on your trip in the first place. If you’re in the mood for relaxing, you’ll have chosen a place with scenic beaches, a nice spa, and an open bar (not quite my style but I know plenty of people who just want to get away and lounge on a beach). If you’re up for more of an adventure, you’ll be in a place with great parks for hiking or plenty of museums, sites, and landmarks (more my speed). Since I’ve already covered deciding what to do in deciding where to go, I’ll focus on tips for how to do the things you’d like to do.
For the beach bums that have chosen a place where relaxation is the prime directive, you’ll likely be interested the most efficient ways to do nothing (or the bare minimum at least). If you haven’t booked an all-inclusive resort & spa getaway to some tropical paradise, you’ll need to be creative to construct the leisure you seek. To that end, I urge preparation. Just like anywhere else, waiting to buy supplies and drinks until you’re a block away from the beach is going to cost you an arm and a leg. Most places you’ll be visiting have supermarkets and convenience stores. Go further inland or away from the tourist area, and you can stock up on everything from towels and umbrellas to sunscreen at a fairer price. As for food and drinks, a lot of restaurants near the beach and tourist destinations get away with serving something sub-par for more simply because of their convenience factor. If you want standard quality food, prepare to spend a lot of money. Again, pack a lunch, buy a bottle, and stuff them in your backpack. You won’t regret it.
Also, keep in mind etiquette for things like clothing and behavior in these public places. Locals often don’t like blackout drunk beach-goers who forgot their swimsuits among the waves stumbling down their streets. In fact, that exact scenario makes for great criminal and law-enforcement bait. Do some research about where you’re going and what to expect. Are you going to a nudity-welcome beach? What are the laws on open-containers of alcohol? What is the reputation of local law enforcement and what about those beach salesmen selling beads, trinkets, and weed? Knowledge and awareness of your surroundings is a solid way to avoid an international incident.
Timing is also key to these places. Just like you, plenty of people want to come and relax at your destination, and thus these places will be susceptible to the seasonal surges of visitors. When you’re planning, consider how popular and accessible your destination is. Will the beaches be a sea of people by the time you get there in mid-summer? (Answer: always yes). To get around this, consider a less traveled secret spots that locals desperately guard for themselves or book your trip at the very beginning or just at the end of the travel season.
Admittedly, I am a little short on input for best navigating your lounging getaway. While my lack of desire for this kind of trip is partly to blame, there is something to be said about traveling like this. Doing nothing can be easy and shouldn’t require too much in the realm of planning and mitigating various challenges, and that’s OK. Nevertheless, I’d strongly encourage you pepper your trip with a little more…substance. Even a tropical island with the world’s sexiest beaches has more than sand and sunshine. Take an afternoon and trek up to the colonial fort or the local market. You won’t regret it.
Now, If you’re the adventurer type, you’ll be inundated with choices, an experience that sounds great at first but in reality can be confusing and overwhelming. Tour guides, discounted tickets, long lines, and shady vendors will be in your face, sometimes even from the moment you step off the plane. The biggest bit of advice I can give is that if it sounds too good to be true, then it likely is. It’s smart to approach each attraction with a plan of how to get there, what you’d like to do or see, and how to access those activities.
For me, “Getting there” in Italy typically means relying on regional and public transportation. Google Maps has a great option when you pull up directions that allows you to look at timetables for buses and trains and even links to the websites to buy tickets for those modes of transportation. Keep in mind, however, that if you’re planning a whole day at a site, public transportation might stop running once you’re ready to leave. Being able to negotiate with a cab driver the rate and communicate your destination will be important in these instances.
If you’re headed to one of the bigger sites or museums like Pompeii or the Vatican Museum, for example, you’ll inevitably face a long line. Individuals offering the opportunity to skip the line and get a guided tour for a “special price” will try to tempt you. Always be cautious of these offers. They provide some individuals a quick opportunity to scam you out of money or they might not be sanctioned by the local authorities and museum management. Instead, many attractions offer advanced ticketing online. If you know which day you’d like to go, head to their website about a week or so before and pay for your entry online. Believe it or not, tickets might even be discounted. They’ll usually have a timed entry, so make sure you’re punctual! There are also free days where visitors are encouraged to come to the attraction with a reduced or waived entry fee, Your attraction of choice will likely be crowded on that day, but the line might be moving a bit more because there’s not a wait to buy tickets.
Deciding what you’d like to see, or learning more about what you’re seeing is a task that varies depending on where you are. Museums typically have signage explaining the artifacts or displays you’re looking at. Archaeological sites like Paestum or Pompeii lack the descriptive signage that makes sense of your surroundings for you. Most places will host their own guided tours, or you could risk one of the outside guided tours to narrate your stroll through the attraction. I’m not a huge fan of tours because I find them kind of limiting. First, I’ve walked alongside tours or passed by them and heard the guides giving blatantly incorrect information. That’s not what you paid for! Second, tour guides use a script which moves at a pace that doesn’t always allow for you to stop, soak in your surroundings, and attribute your own meaning to what you’re experiencing. To me, that undermines the whole travel process tremendously.
Instead, I prefer doing a little research before I arrive (even on Wikipedia), or buying a guidebook from the gift shop before I dive in. These strategies allow me to decide what I’d like to see, gather some objective information about the different areas or objects, and then I can focus more on absorbing its presence once I’m standing in front of it. No bumping around by the rest of tour group, silly tour guides spouting incorrect information, or being rushed to move on to the next stop on the tour.
This approach comes from my Museum Studies professor in graduate school. She urged the visitor to curate their own experience and maximize their interpretation of what they’ve come to visit. Her philosophy aims to attribute relevance to all the energy and resources invested in preserving the heritage (whether it be cultural or environmental) that you’ve come to see.
There may be some, however, that don’t share my view and might be a little intimidated by the prospect of guiding themselves around a new place and taking in so many sites and attractions. A little hand-holding might be necessary for you and that’s OK. My first time in Italy, I was part of the American Institute for Roman Culture’s summer field-school program. The first week of our program was spent trudging around Rome led by one of the organization’s directors. In a blitz of a week, we saw most of the major sites and ruins in the city. Had I not had that tutorial, I wouldn’t be as knowledgeable and capable of navigating Rome as I am.
So, you need a guide. Three ideas for getting one: 1. Those friends you’ve made from being social? Get their input and see if they have some time to take you around. Who better to consult about the place you’re visiting than the people that live there? 2. Find a tour agency run by locals that doesn’t just run a regular schedule of tours. In other words, avoid the tour buses or the crazy ladies waving around silly pointers with flags at the end. Instead, look for groups that have been established by locals on a mission to showcase what makes them proud of where they’re from. Two agencies in Italy that do exactly that are Walks of Italy and NeapolisparITA. Both provide semi-custom tours that focus on experiencing your surroundings and not just sightseeing. 3. Go for the tours offered by the site or museum you’re visiting, rather than an outside vendor. These tours are sanctioned and scripted by the museum or the site and have a path that best compliments the layout of the attraction. Further, the information they are presenting will (hopefully) be as accurate to the current knowledge in circulation as possible.
Wrapping it up and heading home:
Hopefully what should be wildly obvious from my tips and shared experiences is that planning is everything and travel is about the experience. Traveling can be very intimidating, especially for a first-time adventurer, but everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve met only a handful of people who went on a trip and said they hated their experience, and I’d wager that they messed up one of the stages I listed here. Going on an adventure starts with getting there mentally and then making the arrangements to physically be there. Once you’ve arrived, you’ve got to make your time about soaking up everything around you. Taking pictures and buying souvenirs is nice but you didn’t travel to make a nice slideshow for your next holiday family get-together. Ultimately, you have 5 senses; make it a goal to use all five while you’re away. Taste the local food; listen to the sounds of the local language; see the colors of the lights at night; touch the face of the monument; smell the fresh air of a new place!
In terms of how to sort out those experiences, don’t be afraid to write a blog (like I do here) or even a journal. Take pictures with a real camera (not just your phone for Instagram) and when you come home, take some time to arrange those materials into what you want to share. You’ll find in making the decisions for sharing pictures on social media and adding captions about what to write, you’ll go through a decompression process that’ll help you add the meaning to your experience that you’ll carry with you forever.
Now go make a plan and visit somewhere new! Tell me all about it when you get back!