Tourist vs traveler: 25 ways to be a traveler even in touristy places

Tourist vs traveler: Generalife Garden

Peaceful gardens such as this one at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain may not seem so peaceful with hundreds of tourists pouring through them. But even here you can enjoy the place as a traveler…if you know how.

Tourist vs Traveler

The age-old discussion of tourist vs traveler still rages on in travel circles. So what’s the difference? My favorite quote explaining it comes from G.K. Chesterton:

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

A quick trip over to Brainy Quotes revealed a few more pithy statements:

From Daniel J. Boorstin:

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’”

 From Russel Baker:

“The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.”

From Agnes Repplier:

“The tourist may complain of other tourists, but he would be lost without them.”

Or, from a different source, I like this one (applied to more than just men) from The Englishman Abroad by Hugh and Pauline Massingham:

“The born traveller—the man who is without prejudices, who sets out wanting to learn rather than to criticise, who is stimulated by oddity, who recognises that every man is his brother, however strange and ludicrous he may be in dress and appearance—has always been comparatively rare.”

tourist v traveler - couple resting at Alcazar

Even people at rest still can choose to be a tourist or a traveler

Does the distinction matter?

Having just returned from Egypt (where there are virtually no tourists right now), Morocco (where there are some, but mostly in the larger cities) and Spain (where in some areas, I heard more American English spoken than Spanish), the notion of tourist vs traveler remains both fresh and relevant to me.

When I see huge hordes of people clearly on a group tour paying more attention to their phones than the surrounding sights, I think, “I don’t want to be like that.” But when I listen to travelers who have been on the road for months or years who condemn these so-called tourists, I think, “I don’t want to be like that either.”

I’ve come to believe that the distinction of tourist vs traveler is similar to that between artist and craftsperson: In most cases, it just doesn’t matter, at least to me as a traveler or a maker. Here are two other similar perspectives I think represent this same attitude:

The difference between being a traveler and being a tourist

Why it’s better to be a tourist than a traveler

To me, the distinction isn’t important because it involves comparison and judgment of others which rarely helps to make your own travel experience a worthwhile one. Your goal on a trip is to discover what matters to you, not how others are spending their time. So instead of looking at other foreigners in a country and classifying them as tourists or travelers, what the last few weeks in some very touristy locations in Spain (mostly Seville, Ronda, Granada and Madrid) has reminded me of is this: You can still operate as a traveler even if you’re visiting places frequented by tourists.

Tourist v traveler: people taking photos at Alcazar

Tourist v traveler: Everyone is taking similar photos. How will yours be different?

25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area

The real issue isn’t classification or comparison or even location. It’s attitude. It’s about how you engage and go about experiencing a place. So to help you get the most from any location, even ones where millions of others visit every year, here are 25 ways to be a traveler in a touristy area:

  1. Stay curious. Keep asking questions and wondering about all you see and experience.
  2. Learn. As the Chesterton quote notes, you get more from a new place  when you learn something from it. Learning doesn’t have to be formal history lessons about some monument. You can learn about the culture, the food and even about how you react under pressure. Just try and remain open to learning something.
  3. Appreciate what you see. Seeing the positive of every place not only ingratiates you with the locals, it helps them to see their own hometown in a better light.
  4. Learn the language. Even a few words. In Cairo, Egypt, for example, I knew about five words of Arabic. But just trying those few words made a huge difference versus expecting everyone there to speak English.
  5. Engage ordinary people. Knowing the language helps, but striking up a discussion with the people who are used to treating you as just another disinterested tourist — shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers or people you meet on the street — can make a huge difference even in touristy places where such locals are normally treated as expediters of some foreigner’s request.
  6. Pause and reflect. While tourists can be great at maximizing limited time, the downside is that you never make sense of what you’re experiencing unless you stop long enough to think about the experience. Sure, you can do so after your trip, but pausing during your journey allows course corrections and the ability to go back to places that cry out for a deeper examination or greater discovery.
  7. Get off the beaten path. Maps are helpful in showing you where the key sights are located. But you don’t have to take the most direct root. Just one block over from the main thoroughfare lies a very different experience.
  8. Live like a local. Airbnb has made this much easier, but in an urban setting, the next best thing in my book to being invited to stay in someone’s home is to rent an apartment. I’ve had great success with and for apartments. These are usually cheaper than hotels, they avoid the group-think and clustering of other travelers that you sometimes get at hostels (which can be both a good and a bad thing) and best of all, they are usually in neighborhoods away from the normal tourist areas. The hosts can point out local markets and restaurants you would likely never find in guidebooks or on your own.
  9. Use public transportation. Public buses, trains, subways, bikes and boats of all kinds provide a very different experience than being on a tour bus or even in your own car. It’s a great way to do both Number 5 and Number 7 above.
  10. Be present. This sounds a bit ethereal, but I simply mean to listen and apply all your senses to a place. Listen carefully to the people you meet — in touristy areas, they are used to being ignored or only half-heard. But also ask yourself — intentionally — what do you smell, taste, feel or hear around you, in addition to what do you see. It really expands your appreciation of the place when you engage all your senses in a conscious manner.

    Tourist v traveler - Ronda plaza

    Sometimes the crowded places are the best…if those crowds are locals.

  11. People watch. You’re in an area surrounded by tourists. You can bemoan the fact or behold their behaviors in a non-judgmental way. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from watching them?” Or just sit back and enjoy the show.
  12. Forget FOMO. Actually, this Fear Of Missing Out lies more in the realm of the traveler than the tourist. But since we’re not making distinctions, just relax. Remember this obvious point: You will never see everything. So enjoy what you do see and chalk up what you don’t as something for your next trip.
  13. Go beneath the surface. Get behind the scenes. Talk to the people others ignore. Janitors, market vendors, ticket takers and security guards at museums and other venues can often provide you with information and access you’d never get through “official” channels. Here’s where knowing the local language really helps. Asking them questions not only informs you, it makes them feel special. You may end up with a private tour…or even a new friend.
  14. Have a good sense of humor. Joking with locals can be tricky because humor doesn’t always translate. But even when I only know a few words of the local language, taking a self-deprecating approach, being genuinely interested and staying playful breaks through even to those people hardened by dealing with thousands of tourists each day.
  15. Pay attention to details. While everyone else is gawking at the big sights, look around. There are small wonders everywhere. Often the small moments on a trip end up being more meaningful than the big ones.
  16. Break things up. No one says you have to eat dinner all at once in the same place. In really touristy areas such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy or Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain, don’t buy an overpriced meal on the square. Eat elsewhere then just enjoy of coffee or drink on the square itself.
  17. Play with local kids. In really touristy areas, the kids may be used to asking for a handout or trying to sell you something. Instead of giving them money, play with them. I recently spent time with some kids in Morocco making up goofy handshakes with them. We all loved it. Kick a soccer ball, jump rope, play tag. Who cares if you look goofy. Everyone will have a better time and you’ll help them see tourists as more than opportunities to make money.
  18. Take a class. You’ll likely be with other tourists, but even in popular locations, you’ll learn about the culture and a particular area — cooking, shopping, local history or crafts — that you wouldn’t on a tour or even on your own.
  19. Get out during the bookend hours. Get up early or stay up late and see the sights without any other tourists (being aware of safety issues, obviously). Especially early in the morning, you get to see the same people who will likely be serving all of us tourists later in the day, walking to work, getting some shopping done or taking their kids to school. The very same place looks much different in the off hours.

    Tourist v traveler: Ronda at Night

    Even places like Ronda, Spain, can be very different after the busloads of day tourists leave.

  20. Change your focus. Move from “What can I get from this place?” to “Who can I be in this place and how can I enjoy my time here?” The former is a consumer perspective where it’s all about the place itself. The latter helps you enjoy you and your traveling companions where your focus is on your experience rather than just the location. For example, I’ve learned to love long dinners not because of the surroundings so much as from simply being away from the norm and taking time out for deeper relationship building.
  21. Sketch. Who cares if you’re good or not. Pausing to draw or paint or even photograph in a slower, more deliberate manner helps break you from the tourist frenzy and helps you see the place in a new way.
  22. Study up before you arrive. I have a hard time digesting historical facts and figures when on site. But when I do research about the context of the place before I get there, I always enjoy the experience more because I understand more. Plus, I don’t have to wait in crowded lines or huddled up with a ton of other people trying to listen to a guide.
  23. Try new things. Even in the most touristy of locations, you’ll likely find food, activities and sporting or cultural events you’ve never experienced before. Now is your time to give them a shot.
  24. Get lost. Get the card or address of the place you’re staying written in the local language so you can always hand it to a cab driver. Then just take off. Nothing moves you from tourist to traveler faster than figuring out your own way in a new place.
  25. Know what matters to you…then pursue it. This is probably the most important one of all. Even in touristy places, you can home in on areas of interest: shops, crafts, hobbies, food, etc. Discovering makers or chefs or farmers or athletes becomes a form a treasure hunt. Everyone else around you will be looking at the same old tourist sites while you’re off connecting with your passion.

Now its your turn

What else can you do to be more of a traveler even in touristy locations? Share your thoughts. Then go out and try some of these approaches and see if the distinction between tourist and traveler really matters to you.