Travel: San Gimignano sunset

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A photographer’s walking tour of Goerlitz, Germany

Goerlitz Untermarkt

Visiting Goerlitz, Germany

Many people consider Goerlitz to be the most beautiful city in Germany. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I might say it’s the most beautiful German city you’ve never seen. Except that too isn’t quite true. If you’ve watched movies such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Monuments Men, The Book Thief, Inglorious Basterds, or many others, you’ve seen Goerlitz. It’s become such an important place for shooting movies that it won the European Film Location of the Decade Award two years ago.

If you visit Goerlitz, you can obtain a map of all the “Goerliwood” filming locations from the tourist office located on the main Obermarkt square. Here’s a list of some sample locations.

Goerlitz StreetBut besides film sites, there are many other places to see and photograph if you make your way to this eastern-most city in Germany. I’ve organized the locations as an ordered walking tour with tips for photographers along the way. But you can visit these and many other beautiful locations in Goerlitz in any order that works for you.

The main square (Obermarkt)

The Obermarkt is more an oval than a square but serves as a central starting point for your walking tour. Visually, it’s a shame the center of this oval is used as a parking lot, but reality and 21st century logistics will often intrude into many a photographer’s desire for a pristine historic setting. You can still find some lovely sights, stores and restaurants around the square.

Goerlitz fountain

Note the yellowish corner building that houses the tourist office.

The primary starting point of this walking tour is the visitor’s information center near the above fountain at the north end of the Obermarkt. Find out about filming sites and other happenings, then proceed across the street past the fountain to the Dreifaltikeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church). On the way, you might want to pop into the Hotel Schwibbogen whose breakfast room is lined with a five-hundred-year-old mural.

Hotel Schwiboggen at night

The Hotel Schwiboggen, is on the left with the Holy Trinity Church to the right.

Stop 1: The Holy Trinity Church (Dreifaltikeitskirche)

Holy Trinity Church pews

These pews face west.

At the church, the interesting interior reflects the building’s development from a 13th century monastery church to a school in the 16th century then to a parochial church in 1712.

Holy Trinity Church from the Baroque altar

The same church looking south from the Baroque Altar

Thus, in one building, you’ll see elements of the original Romanesque style mingled with later Gothic developments such as the nave and choir combined with a Baroque high altar and other later touches.

From a photographer’s perspective, check out the colors, lighting and layout of this church. You’ll need a fast lens or tripod due to the low light. A wide-angle lens also helps. I tried to stitch together several shots for a panorama of the ceiling, but the angles made it difficult to align everything well without a tripod.
The church is unique (at least to me) in that you have most of the pews facing west but several facing north toward the high altar (whose ceiling is a blue-gray color unlike any other church ceiling I’ve seen). I’d love to see how they conduct services with this setup. But for your visit, be sure to look up at the all the ceiling construction and paintings.

When you’re done, return to the Obermarkt and turn to your right. You can do a bit of shopping along this street filled with stores and eateries as you head for Bruederstrasse 9, about a block up from the church.

The road

Look down at the cobblestones on which you’re walking. It’s easy to ignore these. But noticing them helps remind you that the street that you’re walking on was part of the Via Regia, the longest and oldest network of roads that connected the most eastern and western parts of Europe for 2,000 years.

Cobblestone replacements

A side street in Goerlitz was having new cobblestones put in. It gives you a better appreciation for how they make those roads you walk on but rarely notice.

This set of roads went from Kiev, Ukraine to Santiago de Compestella on the Atlantic coast in Spain. It served three seemingly disparate but historically common purposes. First was trade. Merchants in the West traded cloth and other goods for spices, furs and wood from the East. Second was military. In times of war, the route allowed a quicker movement of armies back and forth between countries or kingdoms. Finally, the Via Regia served as a pilgrimage route connecting the most Eastern areas of Europe with the famed Camino de Santiago in Spain. And central to all of this sat Goerlitz.

Corner of the Waidhaus

This colorful corner is part of the Waidhaus where woad was stored.

Goerlitz itself became wealthy by selling a blue dye derived from woad (a local plant). Woad served as the principle source of the color blue until the 18th century when cheaper indigo from India took over. But while the trade lasted, it resulted in vast wealth for Goerlitz merchants. They used this wealth to build what we now refer to as Goerlitz Hall Houses.

You’re going to explore one of those now.

Hall house exterior

From the Holy Trinity Church, walk up the street looking for that whitish building on the right, the Hall House. The Silesian Museum is the reddish orange and gray building next door.

Stop 2: Hall House

Hall house vacant roomWhen I visited Goerlitz in October 2019, one of the most fascinating sights of the city was one of these hall houses or merchant palaces that was in the early stages of renovation.

Hall house walls

This was one of my favorite places in Goerlitz, but I’m not sure how long you’ll be able to see it as the exhibit itself closed at the end of that month. They may still allow visits after that without the exhibit, but check at the location on Bruederstrasse 9 or with the local tourist office to be sure.

The exhibit was the architectural equivalent of examining tree rings. You can see over 600 years of life and change to the same building. These palaces are known as hall houses because they are narrow at the front of the building but have long hallways extending hundreds of feet from the street. This particular merchant palace reflects a diverse history of multiple uses over the centuries, the most recent being a residence for low-income citizens of Goerlitz in the 20th century.

Hall house ceiling

Remnants of once glorious ceilings with large photos of the house on the walls.

What makes this such a fascinating find for photographers is that you get to see the building in an untouched state. There’s a derelict feel to the place, exposed plumbing, layers of peeling paint, architectural details worn weary with time. Models of the house help to reveal its former glory, but it takes some imagination. Plus, natural lighting illuminates the empty rooms and corridors in a manner that makes you feel as if you’re witnessing something almost forbidden. It’s as if you’ve sneaked into an abandoned mansion but without fear of being caught.

Like so many hidden places, it will bore some for whom pre-renovated buildings just feel decrepit. For those, head next door to the more opulent Silesian Museum. But if you want to delve into the hidden past, both figurative and literal, you should try and see this place.

Stop 3: The library at Barockhaus

Baroque House kitchenA few doors down from the hall house and the Silesian Museum lies another museum, Barockhaus (the Baroque House) at Neissestrasse 30. Here, you get to see what one of the hall houses looks like furnished. The museum has interesting exhibits of daily life, art and even scientific instruments.

Scientific instrument roomWhy most photographers go here, however, is for the library.

Barockhaus libraryThey charge a few euros if you want to take photos (same with the Holy Trinity Church), but the library alone is worth it if you like the look of old books. Rated by some as one of Europe’s most beautiful, the library used to be even more extensive before much of the scientific works were moved during WWII to the other side of the river into what is now Poland. After the war, those books were never returned. You’ll want a wide-angle lens for the library since you’re limited, unless you’re on a tour, to viewing the the library only from the entrance (hence the shot above). But even with that restricted view, it’s an impressive sight. I used a wide-angle for this shot, but a mid-range telephoto lens would allow you to focus in on the inner arches and open tome in the center on the table.

Stop 4: Restaurants

Goerlitz restaurantsKeep moving down Neissestrasse toward the river and you’ll come across many of Goerlitz’s restaurants. While relatively few Americans visit this city, it’s become quite popular with German tourists and retirees.

Restaurant interior

Interior of the restaurant on the right in the previous photo.

So much so that on a Saturday night in October, we couldn’t get into any of the most popular restaurants until late in the evening since every one of them were reserved. In addition to those shown above on Neissestrasse, other restaurants recommended to us (that were also fully booked) included two on Peterstrasse: Fileto and St. Jonathan.

Gracja interior

Being a bit more casual than the other restaurants we couldn’t get into, we had a nice dinner of traditional Polish specialties here at Gracja next to St. Peter’s church. One beer will put you under here if it’s the size of the one on the right.

Stop 5: The border with Poland

The river NeisseIf you ever want to enter another country without knowing it, just cross the Altstadtbrueke (Old City Bridge) that spans the Neisse river. No sign or other indicator informs you that you are leaving the town of Goerlitz, Germany and entering Zgorzelec, Poland (which was all one city before WWII).

Crossing the bridge to Poland

Is the biker in Poland or Germany? Hard to tell.

So much for the passport stamp.

Goerlitz from Poland sideFrom a photography perspective, you’ll get some great shots of Peterskirche (St. Peters Church, the largest church in Goerlitz), and the neighboring gray Waidhaus (with the red-brown roof), one of the oldest buildings in town, originally used to store the valuable dye-making woad.

Goerlitz from the bridgeYou’ll also get views of both towns down the river banks. Cross over into Zgorzelec for cheap but good restaurants and to watch local German citizens loading up on relatively inexpensive alcohol and cigarettes.

View from the bridgeAfter spending time in Zgorzelec, cross back into Goerlitz and head up the rise to your right. You’ll arrive at the entrance to St. Peter’s Church.

Stop 6: St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche)

Entrance to St. Peter's churchYou can visit most weekdays (here’s a helpful article on the history of the church and what you’ll see inside ), but one of the best way to appreciate this church is to attend one of their evening concerts where they play the magnificent Sun Organ. Check with the church or the visitor’s center for days and times.

From St. Peter’s Church, you have a few choices. You can follow the map to the next stop, or make a detour and wander back down the river. If you do the latter, just catch up to the next location (Stop 7, Nicolaifriedhof) when you’re ready. And no matter which route you take, spend time just wandering the streets. This, to me, was the best part of Goerlitz.

Side streets of GoerlitzGo up and down almost any street and you’ll see all kinds of historic buildings. Much of the town has been renovated over the last decade due to the generosity of an anonymous donor who spent around 500,000 euros per year from the mid-1990’s until just a few years ago.

Flower boxesThe result are colorfully-painted buildings in place of the drab monotones of the city during the Communist era.

Goerlitz window

Not everything in Goerlitz is fully restored. You’ll find plenty of places that still need some refurbishing.

The old town is small enough that you’re not likely to get lost, so just wander and be sure to take in the many architectural details along the way.

Eventually, end up at the next stop, where, as the old joke goes, people are just dying to get in.

Stop 7: Nicolaifriedhof (St. Nicholas Cemetery)

St. Nicholas graveyard

No, this is not where Santa Claus is buried (who’d deliver all the toys if that were the case?). Instead, it has served as the graveyard for Goerlitz for over 800 years. It’s a quiet place to explore respectfully.

St. Nicholas tombstonesMany of the tombstones and other sculpture also make for interesting photo subjects. If it is open, you can also pop into the St. Nicholas church there.

Exterior of St. Nicholas ChurchNow head back into town to the Untermarkt (lower square) and the Hotel Boerse, the pink building that sits in the center of the square.

Stop 8: The Untermarkt and Hotel Boerse

Bourse Hotel and City Hall

The pink building to the left is the Hotel Boerse. The one to the right is part of the Town Hall.

There are many appealing hotels and guesthouses and apartments in Goerlitz. We chose to stay at the Hotel Boerse because of its history and location. OK, to be honest, we’d heard this was where Wes Anderson and the film crew for The Grand Budapest Hotel stayed. Plus, it looks like it should be in that movie. Actually, we stayed at the guesthouse that is part of the hotel but lies across the square from the main building.

Old Pharmacist's Building

Note how the three top windows watch you like eyes as you look at the astronomical charts on the building’s side

From a photographer’s perspective, this hotel and square provide numerous subjects. Pay attention to the details such as the astronomical notations on the old pharmacist’s building (which now houses the inviting Ratscafe where you can stop for a coffee of snack).

Whispering arch and guesthouse

Note the whispering arch over the doorway in the center of the image

Whispering arch detail

This is a detail of the left side of the whispering arch.

The entrance to our guesthouse across from Hotel Boerse was marked by the Fluesterbogen (Whispering Arch).

A person whispering something on one side can be heard by a listener on the other. It’s like an echo: You try it because others have, but find it’s more remarkable than you expect.

Also of note for shoppers, the little glassworks shop next to the Whispering Arch has some beautiful handmade items. We arrived after the store had closed, but the kind woman reopened and let us buy some quick gifts that were some of the best received items we purchased in Germany. And if you come during the Christmas season, I’m told there’s a Christmas Market that takes place in this same square.

Concluding thoughts

We arrived in Goerlitz on a rainy afternoon and left the following morning after a lovely breakfast at the Bourse Hotel. With the weather and logistics, we had far less time to make photos of this beautiful city than I would have liked. So if you visit Goerlitz, allow at least a full day to take in all that the city offers. And pay attention to all the details, both inside the buildings and outside. I wish we’d had sunnier weather for some of the bigger landscape shots. However, the clouds made it easier to photograph some of these details without glare or too much contrast. Thus, for photographers, any time or weather can result in good images if you take the time (I was a bit rushed) and venture into the side streets.

Arch details

If you look closely, you’ll find architectural details like these throughout Goerlitz. This one contains a hidden reference to Romans 4.

To me, those details are what made this such a fun and attractive city, both aesthetically and photographically.

Goerlitz building details

Some of the many figures on the Waage (the Scales) building in Goerlitz’s Untermarkt

I’ve linked above to various articles, but here are two sites that I found to be very useful for our time in Goerlitz:

Tessa Approves – The blog of an American who lives in Goerlitz.

Visit Goerlitz – Official visitor site for the city.

Finally, if you want to improve your own photography, particularly on a trip, check out my free Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.


How to get the most out of a travel journal

A travel journal: Your new best friend

A travel journal can be one of your most useful travel — make that life — tools. It can serve myriad purposes from recording your thoughts, emotions (an important aspect many overlook) and experiences to being a repository of creative ideas and even artwork. You can use it as a scrapbook, planning tool, contact book, organizer, reference book (for vital information such as passport numbers, hotel addresses, places to visit, etc.) and even a place to hide certain valuables.

It’s simple enough to put information into your travel journal. The hard part is being able to find or extract that information easily later on. But don’t worry. I’ll show you some techniques, hacks and tips for that and more based on decades trying a wide variety of travel journals and approaches. You’ll find these useful whether you’re an old pro at journaling or even if you’ve never used a travel journal before. And be sure to read all the way through this article since the Additional Resources section at the end is loaded with inspiring and helpful examples and ideas.

Getting started

The first and most important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to set up your travel journal. In fact, I’ve found that the best approach is to just start with something and learn as you go. My first travel journal was basically a daily diary: “Today I did this, etc.” Now, however, I use it in a very different matter. But it all comes down to this: What is the purpose of your travel journal?

First travel journal pages

Two typical entries from my first travel journal on my first trip to Europe in high school. I have upped my travel journal game a bit since then, or so I hope.

This is such an important question because it will guide what kind of notebook/journal/sketchbook you use, how you organize it and how you interact with it. If you’re just starting out, you may not even know your purpose other than to record your experiences. That’s fine. Start there. Then refine over time.

For me, I see my travel journal as a collection tool where I gather ideas, sketches, some to-do’s, trip details and anything else that interests me. But the main difference between this and most journals is that as a tool, I want to use my journal after I return. Not just for nostalgic reminisces on my trip, but to glean from it what I’ve learned, gained and become. I’ll explain this more momentarily.

Picking the right journal

Again, I’m not sure there is a universal “right” travel journal. Your goal is to find what works for you. You can start by determining if you want a blank notebook or a travel journal that comes with prompts, quotes, organizing categories, etc. Here’s a helpful list of 17 travel journals to give you an idea of the possibilities. Mostly, consider if you want to be drawing or even painting in your travel journal. If so, you’ll want thicker paper that won’t warp with the water or bleed through with ink. You likely will want blank pages, as opposed to lines, grids or dots.

Different page orientations

Just as there’s no right or wrong size (just what works for you), so too is the orientation up to you. As you can see here, I sketched holding the journal in a portrait orientation (left page) but wrote (right page, partial) using a landscape orientation. Both work.

If you want to use it as a form of a scrapbook, get one with pockets or that is expandable enough for when you’ve doubled the thickness with all those tickets, stamps, samples of currency, bottle labels and other elements you’ve glued to the pages.

Buying a nice looking or feeling notebook or journal can be motivating. But getting too nice of a notebook to use can be intimidating: You’ll be afraid to mess it up. Thus, I suggest starting somewhere in the middle. Find a journal or notebook that will hold up well (hard covers help in this regard), but isn’t so expensive you’ll only want to use it on special occasions.

Patterned paper pages

Even fancy patterns on your pages can be fun. I tend to prefer blank pages, but sometimes I’ll try different patterns just to mix things up.

Your travel journal is more of a workhorse than a show pony (though sometimes a bit of that too later on). You’ll get far more out of one you use all the time, where you write, scribble, doodle and sketch with the intent that only you will ever see it. If you choose to show it to others later, fine. But don’t make that your main goal, at least as a beginner, or you’ll never get the most out of your journal.

How will you use your travel journal?

Back to purpose, you can choose to have a general-use journal or one devoted only to your trips (or to a particular trip). I have done both, and there are pros and cons to each. A journal for all situations allows you to connect everything you do so that if a great work idea hits you on a trip, you can reference back to a meeting about that, etc. You can also find things easier in some ways since your whole life, trip or home/work, is laid out in a chronological fashion in one book.

Daily entry journal

Here’s a recent journal of mine that I use daily, as well as for trips. You can see the basic outline for this article here that I wrote on the plane on a business trip. How do I know it was on a trip? From the notation that the sketch was done from a photo in the airplane’s magazine somewhere between Baltimore (BWI) and Seattle (SEA)

A really popular approach these days to general journals is the Bullet Journal. Many people swear by this way of organizing their journal and their life. I love many of the ideas found in bullet journaling. But I choose not to follow that approach completely. Why? Bullet journaling is primarily intended as a productivity tool. I personally don’t find it helpful in that regard because, for example, tracking all my calendar events and moment-by-moment to-do’s in a journal slows me down.

Combine digital and analog

Instead, I use a combination of Outlook, Trello, Evernote and Scrivener (the latter two for organizing ideas and writing projects or content) on my phone and computer. The main reason for tracking tasks digitally is that they roll over automatically. I don’t have to constantly move them manually from one day, week or month to-do list to the next.

But the main reason I don’t use the bullet journal methodology for my travel journal is that when I travel, productivity is not my goal. Exploration and discovery are. I use my travel journal to capture what I learn as I explore the world around me and the world within me wherever I go.

Page from China travel journal

On a trip, I’m less interested in productivity than in explaining why this sketch was hard to do well.

In the last few years, I’ve taken up sketching and even watercolors, so for me, I now maintain a separate travel journal for each major trip. I use one that has thicker watercolor paper, so on a three-week trip, I can pretty much fill up the whole book. But for shorter trips, I do use my day-to-day journal. And I’ve even done both: Used my day-to-day journal to record words and a smaller sketchbook for drawings or watercolors. Again, no right or wrong way to do this. Just start with an approach and build from there.

Organizing your travel journal

What follows is how I organize my travel journal. It’s the same way I do my day-to-day but with some additional pages in the end for travel-specific information. My purpose, remember, is to capture ideas, information and experiences and then to be able to use these later. For that reason, the most helpful part of my journal is the index. I’ll explain that in a moment, but here’s what else goes into my journal.

Starting with a brand new empty journal

The first thing I do with a new journal is to put my name, cell phone number and email address on the inside cover.

Next, if the journal doesn’t have a rear pocket, I make one or glue/tape in a small envelope that fits on the inside of the rear cover.

If you glue in your own, consider hiding a few large denomination bills, both dollars and the local currency, behind the envelope or anything else you tape or glue inside the covers. It’s a great place for hiding back-up money. It works because once you start using your travel journal regularly, you’ll find it is one of your most precious possessions. You’ll learn to guard it like your wallet, passport or phone.

Stacks of travel journals

These are just some of the many travel journals I’ve filled up over the years.

In addition to the pocket or envelope in your journal, consider bringing a quart or gallon-sized zip lock bag to hold all the small items you pick up along the way. I used to shove them into pockets in my carry-on bag, but having a single location now keeps them from getting lost or mangled. And it keeps my travel journal from looking like George Costanza’s wallet on Seinfeld. This same bag can hold a glue stick, paper clips or anything else you want for adding items to your journal.

Start in the front and work back

I track everything chronologically noting the date at the top of each day’s entry. If it spans multiple pages, I’ll write “(cont.)” after the date on later spreads so I know to keep looking for the start of that day when I review the entry later.

I work in this chronological fashion for recording most of my entries because I find it flows better to write the item down right away and then figure out how to classify it later. I set up indexes in the back for classifying and locating the entry. But that comes as a review step, not a creative or collecting function.

What to write

Starting at the front section of the travel journal, I may use the very first page as a title page if the journal is devoted to a single trip. Otherwise, I skip over that page and then start with the date of the start of the trip and then just keep going from there. Here are the types of content I write/draw:

Sketching pages

Sometimes, I’ll devote a whole page or spread to nothing but sketches.

  • General thoughts. These make up the majority of my journal and are what you’d expect in any journal.
  • Sketches. I’m still just a beginner, but I’ve committed to one sketch per day, at home or on a trip. Sometimes they are involved. Others (most of the time), are just a quick gesture. But the discipline helps improve my skill.
  • A daily log. At the end of each day, I do a very quick list of summary activities, where I went, who I met, what I did. I actually note it like this: “(Log 11/27/19 – Wed.):” so that I can see at a glance what were log entries versus other ideas. For logs, the shorter the better. Here’s where bullet journal techniques can help: Record a few words as a bullet rather than full sentences. At the end of every daily log, I also record two specific items in addition log entries themselves, gratitude points and what I’ve read or watched.
  • Gratitude points: I jot down what I call a Goodness Journal (abbreviated as GJ) entry. This is the highlight of my day for which I am most grateful. On trips, this can often end up being multiple points.
  • Read/Watched: The second additional component is what I call Read/Watched (R/W) where I list any books I’ve read that day or any movies, programs, concerts, etc. that I watched. It can include podcasts and anything else you want to track. Before I started doing this, I’d get to the end of the year and couldn’t recall all the books I’d read. Now I can just by referring back to these entries.
  • Insights and Ideas. Most of my journal at home is filled with these. On trips, these happen more on plane, train or bus rides than every single day. But they could happen any time which is why I keep a pocket-sized travel journal with me or at least a note card or my phone so I can write the idea down immediately.
  • Quotes. These can be formal written ones I encounter or snippets of conversations I overhear. As a writer, I want to always be gathering dialog examples or clever turns of phrases.
  • To-dos. Yes, I said I record these digitally for the daily tasks. But sometimes on trips, you have opportunities for dreaming and planning. I mark all to-do’s with a checkbox I can fill in later. I like the bullet journal way they do this as well (a dot instead of a box).
  • Stamped page

    I had a gentleman in China demonstrate his woodblock stamps by stamping some examples in my journal. You can paste in stamps, tickets, receipts, postcards or any other artifacts from your trip onto your journal pages as you go (if you remember to bring some glue or paste).

    Emotions. Writing down how you felt in the moment it is happening or shortly thereafter will mean so much to you later on. Go beyond the facts to the feelings. Forcing yourself to put what you’re experiencing in words helps to clarify the experience better. And don’t worry if you can’t. Some big moments defy words, but even noting that — “It was an incredible experience I can’t even yet describe” says more later than, “Great dinner in Prague.”
  • Descriptions. These are either quick notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, tasting or tasting, or longer ways to capture the details of a place. See Look Closely for details on how to do this as a way to learn to see details better or to write better based on your travels. I also make sure to write down the names of places, people, food, local expressions and anything else I want to write about later. Don’t assume you’ll remember it or can look it up later. Write it down.
  • Miscellaneous. I’ve had artists draw in my journal, had people stamp it (see photo above), record different colors of beverages spilled or intentionally dripped on it and a wealth of other things added. Be open to how you can use your journal. Or for fun, try this exercise: Come up with as many ways as you can think of to use your travel journal on your next trip.

The back of the journal

The front of the journal is used for a chronological input of information each day (or whenever you choose). The goal there is to record the idea, insight, drawing or information just like in a diary. The back of the journal is where you’ll organize it all for later retrieval.

Working from the last page backwards, I set up a series of index or topic pages (see the list below) where I record anything related to that topic either verbatim (if I have the time and forethought to write it down there such as contact info or a quote I came across) or as a page number reference and summary line from the front of the journal (hence the reason these back-of-the-journal pages are called Index Pages).

For me, I find that most index sections only require one page (e.g. for Contacts or Travel Details) but I leave two pages for Ideas or Vocabulary since they tend to have more entries. I write small (some would say ridiculously small), so if you don’t, you may want to leave more room.

Review your entries and record them for easier retrieval

I don’t assign page numbers as I write in the front of the journal. Instead, I jot down a page number later, maybe daily, maybe weekly, as I review my journal. Writing down the page number during the review phase shows me which pages have been indexed. No page number indicates it still needs to be indexed. As I review each page, I also code the entries themselves on the journal pages by highlighting the topic or assigning a word or letter to let me know what it is. For example, if there’s a quote, I will write “Quote” and circle it right before the quote. For blog ideas, I’ll write “blog” and circle that, etc. If  an idea that has distinct merit, I’ll draw a star next to it. Particular project ideas get a corresponding code, e.g. if it’s about my book on Hidden Travel, I’ll write “HT” and circle that. The whole point is to make it easier to spot the entry when you’re reviewing the page later.

Quote example page

Here you can (hopefully) see how I’ve written and circled page numbers at the top and put a box around the word “Quote” on the left page and “Visual appeal article” on the right page. Then, on the Quotes index page, I’ll write “108” and circle it with a quick notation like, “E.B. White on saving/savoring the world.” On the Ideas index page, I’ll write “109” and circle it with the notation, “Visual Appeal article questions.”

In case you’re wondering why the index/topic pages go in the back and not in the front like a table of contents, it’s because I often add topics as I progress through the journal. Working from the back gives me room to add new pages whereas if I’d started from the front and I didn’t guess correctly, I’d be out of room before running into my journal entries.

Pre-Trip Items

Some of my index/topic pages get filled in (or at least started) before my trip either as planning or to load my travel journal with important information to have on my trip. Here are some of the key sections.

  • Shot list

    Here’s an example of a shot list from my China trip journal. I tend to write pretty small in the back section of a journal! The whited out area was my passport number in code. Writing key information on pages with other entries makes it even less obvious this is something valuable.

    Travel details. I use the app, TripIt, to record all my reservation information. I also print out a copy in case my phone is lost or not working. But in my travel journal, I’ll record some key addresses and phone numbers of hotels or reservations as yet another backup. Mostly, I write down the passport numbers of everyone in my party, the phone number of my bank (in case my credit card is lost) and even (sometimes) the credit card numbers themselves. However, for anything confidential, I always write these in code, mixing up the order of the numbers or adding in extra ones so that if I lose my journal, no one other than a cryptology expert could figure these out. I also have a back-up copy of all this in a password-protected file stored on the cloud.
  • Vocabulary. On trips to countries where I’m learning the language, I’ll add new vocabulary words here usually starting long before the trip. These are key words to practice, as well as new ones I pick up as I travel.
  • Shot list. When planning my trip, as a photographer, I make a list of specific places, scenes, techniques I want to try or even times of day I want to shoot. Check out my Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos for more on this and other travel photo techniques. In addition, as I review guidebooks or articles, I’ll add interesting places to this list. Even if you’re not a photographer, you can make a list of “must see” places or “must do” experiences or activities. Writing them down really helps because it makes it so easy to find all these in one place rather than hunting through a guidebook or other pages on your trip.
  • Themes and Moments. This is yet another pre-trip fill-in page. I try to come up with a theme or quest for each trip. Writing down ideas about that or defining it really adds to the anticipation of the trip. On this page, I’ll also jot down ideas for creating magic or defining moments for others on the trip. This includes ideas for the activities or contact info for places or people that will be part of the activity.

Add as you travel

Here are some typical index/topic pages in the back of my travel journal that get filled in as I go:

  • Contact information. I keep a separate page to record the names, email addresses, etc. of people I meet along the way. If, in a hurry, I just write down a name and email address in the front-of-the-book journaling section. I’ll later record the page number and contact name on the page here so all I can find all my contacts in one place later.
  • Ideas. This becomes a catchall for any creative ideas I’ve had. I normally start with the page number(s) followed by a brief summary such as “27 – 29: Dining room chair design” or “73: Article on architecture styles in Morocco.”
Ideas Index Page

Here’s the Ideas Index Page from my China trip journal. I had started the page on the left as a vocabulary list but made room from more ideas when I ran out of space on the page on the right.

  • Books and Movies. This too is a catchall for any form of entertainment I want to read. I constantly get book and movie (and even song or podcast) recommendations as I travel that I add here with an open check box. I also record books I’ve finished to this list noting those with a checked box.
  • Quotes. As noted above, these may be written quotes I come across or snippets of dialog I pick up. I either write the quote here directly or reference the journal page where I wrote the quote with a reminder such as “53-quote from Leipzig waitress on timing.”
  • Things I Notice page

    You can do a trip highlights page on the flight home, but sometimes it helps to record a summary of details in the midst of your trip of things that stand out to you.

    Projects. I have a few big creative projects going all the time like books I’m writing or courses I’m creating. I could just add the page number references to the Ideas page. But because I end up having so many ideas related to a specific project, it helps to give each project its own index page.
  • To-do’s. I said I like to keep my travel journal free from productivity and time management, but I always have big-picture to-do activities that arise on a trip. I’ll record these as I go in the journal section, but for longer-term ones I don’t want to lose track of, I sometimes add a to-do index as well in the back of the journal. This can also be a great place to record future planning ideas for things you want to accomplish after your trip.
  • Trip highlights. I’ll normally note the big moments in the journal section as they occur. But often on the flight home, I like to review these and capture them all in one place with the page reference and a brief notation. I may also add in additional ones at this point because sometimes, you don’t realize how powerful or meaningful a moment was at the time.

When your journal is full

Eventually, you’ll fill up your journal with entries. You’ll then review and have every page numbered with key entries noted in your index pages. Then what?

I use Scrivener (for writing projects) and Evernote (for others) as software/apps to track ideas over time. Thus, when I finish a journal, I go copy the content from my index pages into one of these digital programs.

There are several reasons for this. First, it helps to have all your ideas over time in one place so you can view them easier. Second, with the online tools, I can tag content by subject making retrieval later much easier. Most of us focus our efforts on having ideas and maybe writing them down. But those ideas won’t serve you well if you can’t find them later. Finally, putting everything into one place helps me see patterns and related ideas which, in turn, sparks new ideas.

It all relates to the concept of Collect, Connect and Share. If all you’re doing is collecting, you’re missing out on the main value of your journal.

Make a copy

This may be overkill to some, but my journals are precious repositories of life. I would hate to lose them. I could dictate the contents and transcribe that, but I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, Evernote comes to the rescue.

The Evernote app has a photo function. I open the app and take pictures of every spread or page of my journal. I save the results as an Evernote file and can even tag it by date, country or other criteria. It then resides on the cloud (and I also do a back-up on a drive at home). That way, if the original gets lost, I know that all those memories are secure.

Let’s review

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Know the purpose for your journal
  • Choose the type of journal based on your intended purpose.
  • Start with something that’s not too nice so that you’re not afraid to mark it up.
  • Keep daily entries in the front and a list of index pages in the back of the journal.
  • Periodically review your journal entries. As you do, number each page and record that page number and a brief reminder on the appropriate index page.
  • At the end of each journal, photograph each page and save to a secure location. Then enter the index information into whatever tool you use for tracking all of your ideas over time.

Additional resources

Here are other resources to both inspire and help you get the most out of your travel journal:

Travel sketch

Travel sketchTravel sketch

  • If you really enjoy the sketching aspect of a travel journal, you might want to connect with the whole Urban Sketchers movement. Here’s an example of a sketch by Stephanie Bower. I took some of her architectural sketching courses online at Bluprint and they were excellent.

Sketch of Croatia building

Parting thoughts

Finally, if you want even more information on travel journals, be sure to read Lavinia Spalding’s excellent book on the subject, Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler. Here’s one of many great quotes from the book:

“If we’re committed to honest investigation, the travel journal can be a cornerstone of growth and a catalyst for great work, providing a safe container for astonishing discoveries and the life lessons we take away from them. We write words in an empty book, and an inanimate object is transformed into a living, breathing memoir. In turn, as we write, the journal transforms us. It allows us to instantly process impressions, which leads to a more examined layer of consciousness in both the present and the future. It’s a relationship, and let me tell you, it’s no cheap one-night stand.”

You might want to consider writing that quote down in your travel journal. Either in the daily entries or on the quotes index page. Or however you want to do it. It’s your travel journal and the possibilities are endless.


Buchenwald: Why you should visit a former concentration camp

Buchenwald watch tower

The value of discomfort

It’s easy for me to use travel as a means of escape, pursuing fun places where I forget about work and the worries of home. Yet I’ve also come to appreciate how my times of greatest personal growth occur not during the easy moments, but when I step outside my comfort zone. New lands and unfamiliar cultures will do that for me. But so too will putting myself in situations that bring about discomfort in other ways.

This is why, in part, on a recent trip to Germany, my wife and I decided to visit the Buchenwald Memorial, site of the first and largest concentration camp in Germany during WWII.

Located just outside of Weimar, the cultural epicenter of the country, Buchenwald was also used after the war by the Soviet secret police for their prisoners. Today, little remains other than sections of the original fence, the entrance gate, the foundations of the barracks and the crematory where they burned the bodies of some of the 56,000 people who died there.

These scant reminders, combined with a visitor center filled with emotionally devastating artifacts and stories, are more than enough to give you a sense of the horrific tragedy that happened to over a quarter of a million inmates there.

I came knowing the place would affect me emotionally. But I wasn’t prepared for the surprising ways it did that.

Buchenwald fence

Buchenwald prisoners' clothing

Buchenwald statsWhat you don’t expect in places like Buchenwald

I expected to confront the evils of the past. But what I faced was more than history. The same forces that led to such horrors are still at play today, all around me. And here’s the scary part: Maybe within me.

For example, for all the atrocities described in the exhibit, it wasn’t just what the SS and Gestapo did that wrenched me. I anticipated reading about their appalling deeds. What I hadn’t foreseen was how hard it would hit me to learn of the “ordinary” people of Germany – people like me – who chose to look the other way in the case of the concentration camps.

An elderly German friend of mine who lived through WWII recently told me, regarding the concentration camps, “We had no idea.” She resided far from any of the main camps, so I wanted to believe her. But her response was the same as that stated by the local townspeople when the Allied forces liberated Buchenwald in April, 1945. “We just didn’t know,” they said. And yet, the evidence indicates otherwise.

Many of the prisoners from the camp were forced to work in local factories, side by side with the town citizens to build armaments and other products for the war effort. Upon liberation, the prisoners informed the British, American and Canadian forces that they had told the townspeople what the conditions were like. Plus, all you had to do was look at the emaciated bodies of the prisoners to know something about the desperate conditions in the camp. But still, these same locals repeated their excuse long after the war: “We just didn’t know.” They intentionally chose to look the other way and do nothing.

Entry gate to Buchenwald

This phrase, “Jedem das Seine” means basically, to each his own. It was twisted by the Nazis to imply that all the prisoners were there of their own doing.

Roma and Sinti people memorial

This monument was set up in memory of the Roma and Sinti people killed in all the concentration camps. Each stone pillar represents one of the many camps throughout Europe in WWII.


Feeding bowls of prisoners

If you lost your food bowl at the concentration camp, you starved.

Asking the hard questions from Buchenwald

Personal items from prisoners

Personal items taken from the prisoners at Buchenwald

I find it easy to condemn such apathy until I ask the question, “What would I have done?” Then, it isn’t so simple. Nor so comfortable. Self-preservation is a powerful force for all of us. And making the right choice would have been even more difficult if you lived in a culture of intentional, cultivated fear. The exhibits at Buchenwald document how the Nazis went to great lengths to determine with ruthless efficiency what would strike the most terror in both prisoners and the general population. They were fiendishly clever at devising ways to turn neighbor against neighbor. Under such circumstances, knowing – much less doing – the right thing would have become increasingly difficult.

But what about today? What about me?

Travel has a way of holding a mirror up to our lives. Particularly in difficult locations such as Buchenwald, you have to ask – and try to answer – questions that rarely come up amidst your daily routines. And the hardest one for me is that personal one, “What would I have done?”

I can’t really say.

Or maybe I can.

I just don’t want to.

Because when I confronted the horror of Buchenwald, I had to confront one even closer. And that’s the realization that if I were one of those locals living in Weimar during WWII, if I’m honest, I’d probably would have done the same thing and looked the other way. Like them, I would have asked, “What can I realistically do that will not get me or my loved ones killed?”

It’s an uncomfortable realization. But so are most of the deeper, lasting truths in our lives. They tend to be hard-earned and not always pleasant in the acquisition. But they stay with us and cause us to rethink some basic premises about our lives. Both on a trip and then for long afterwards.

Display of shoes
Medical examination table

Nazi doctors conducted unimaginable medical experiments on prisoners here

Buchenwald crematorium

The crematory where bodies were incinerated

Living with the truth 

The awareness that within me lies the capacity for great courage but also great cowardice, however, was only half of the surprising lessons from Buchenwald.

The other aha came from a recognition of just how interconnected we all are. I didn’t just read stories of Jews, Poles, Communists, Roma and others imprisoned there. I read of people like me thrust into horrific situations. How they suffered. How some overcame. How all were affected in ways beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I left Buchenwald with a poignant sense of shared humanity, of identification with people who are more like me than unlike me. That’s something that the Nazis could never see. They sought to demonize and dehumanize others. But a trip to Buchenwald made me appreciate on a visceral level just how wrong that is, both then and now.

I walked away with this odd combination of bone-deep sadness, unexpected connection and a moral outrage tempered in my judgments against others by the realization that I could easily have been one of those others – on either side of that barbed-wire fence.  

It’s hard to explain this complex reaction. Which is why I encourage everyone who plans to travel anywhere near the location of a former concentration camp to make the effort to visit one of these memorial sites. To see. To better understand. To not forget. And to not let anyone else forget either.

Traveling to places such as Buchenwald isn’t fun. But sometimes we need to go to the dark places, in our world and in ourselves, to remember how much light there is. And to bring that light ever forward.

Buchenwald concentration camp



This is a very different take on the topic of Looking the Other Way, but it shows just how many ways there are to see the world differently. And why even difficult places such as Buchenwald help us to grasp the world we live in, both the good and the bad, the world around us and the world inside us. You can read other entries in this series here:

Look the other way: Budir Black Church

Look the other way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Look the other way: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Find what you love

Find what you love - Puppet Maker's ShopUse your trip to find what you love

Trips provide intriguing opportunities to find what you love. And for me, the best moments on a trip — those powerful, defining, magic moments — are ones so filled with meaning and emotion that I wish to linger long and absorb them. And yet, I never quite can, for I must inevitably move on. That leaves me with a poignant sensation of both loss and gain. I find something that deeply moves me in a place (gain). Yet as a traveler, I cannot stay in that place (loss). Still, I can take something of great value with me from the experience of having been there (long-term gain). I lose the place but gain the moment and all that it entails.

These defining moments are ones I can create for myself or others (as I discovered in Italy and Slovenia). But they often arrive unannounced. I open a door, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally (as what happened to me on a recent visit to Erfurt, Germany) and I enter a different world. And in that world, in unexpected ways, I discover a great passion and even, sometimes, a greater sense of purpose.

Erfurt's Kramerbrucke (Merchant's Bridge)The puppet maker of Erfurt

In the heart of Erfurt sits the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge). Built of stone in 1325 over the Gera river, half-timbered homes and businesses sit atop the bridge making it the largest and oldest inhabited bridge in Europe (sorry, Ponte Vecchio in Florence: you’re number two). Over time, a number of craftspeople have moved in with studios and shops. One of them, Martin Gobsch, makes hand-carved wooden puppets there. Or so it seems. For what he really creates is magic.

Outside his shop is a miniature window theater.

Theatrum Mundi, ErfurtDrop in a euro, and a sinister-looking queen pulls back her cape-draped arm to reveal a fantastical scene of Snow White and industrious dwarfs moving about. It’s a mechanical marvel that would delight any child. And yet those who linger longest and whose expressions reflect the most childlike wonder are adults like me.

Step inside his shop, and the awe grows. Magnificently carved wooden figures and corresponding drawings make you feel as if you’re part of a fairy tale. Most people who enter Martin’s workshop leave enchanted. But for me, it was something more.

I had found what I love.

A different kind of connection

If you look at the factors that Dan and Chip Heath note in their book, The Power of Moments, as most contributing to a magic moment, one of them has curious dimensions beyond its obvious intent. The concept of “Connection” normally implies that you have moments where you feel a deep relational tie to others, a collective experience of joy, pain or deep sentiment as in a wedding or funeral. But Connection works as well on the emotional level where you connect to something within you, a past memory that triggers all sorts of associations and feelings.

Martin Gobsch at workMy favorite visual example of this is in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, when the food critic Anton Ego tastes the dish of the same name as the movie. Immediately, he’s transported to his mother’s kitchen as a boy eating the same food. So it was for me in Martin Gobsch’s shop. The lighting, architecture and decor took me back to Merlin’s Magic Shop at Disneyland where I worked as a magician through college. And his Theatrum Mundi (the name of the window theater) also reminded me of the elaborate window displays at Disneyland I used to marvel at as a child.

Tie all that into my adult experience working in my own wood shop at home (equally untidy yet remarkably well-suited to the work at hand) and you get a collective experience that is more than a trip down memory lane. Stepping into Martin’s studio provided a connection of deep emotional resonance to the subtle factors and ingredients of delight that made those past experiences so formative for me, in my youth and even today.

Martin Gobsch's shopFind what you love: The power of inspiration

In the video above, Martin Gobsch says that one of his goals is to inspire others, not just to experience wonder, but to create and make things by hand. It’s not a craft, he notes, that’s been passed down to him so much as one that has died out that he is now re-establishing. When I spent time with him in that shop, examining all the details of his work and asking him questions about it, I too was inspired to spend more time drawing, carving, woodworking and making more things by hand. All of these are things I love but rarely make time for.

A friend once noted that we value more something we’ve had, lost and have found again than gaining something new. I think that’s true, in part because of the emotional attachments we form even with inanimate objects that have become part of our lives. In a similar manner, I find that when I return to what I love but have left unheeded too long, it’s like a brand-new discovery only better. I get the same delight of connecting with something I enjoy, but along with that comes all the memories of past related experiences. I find what I love all over again.

Find what you love - Drawings of puppets

Find what you love – Drawings of puppets – copyright 2019 by Steve Brock

Find what you love: The takeaway for you

When you’re someplace new, whether on a vacation or just in a new situation, pay close attention to what triggers your attention. When I first read about the puppet maker, though I have only a passing interest in puppets, the fact that this artisan carved them from wood by hand intrigued me. I’m always interested in seeing artists, particularly sculptors and woodworkers, at work in their shops or studios. I wanted to make sure, if possible, that I found his place of work and I’m so glad I did.

For you, if something even hints at connecting to a deeper interest, pursue that. It may feel silly or unimportant at first, but you never know where it will lead. Make it a quest to find what brings you your greatest joy. Trips allow you the freedom to do this in ways you can’t — or won’t — at home. You won’t usually find what you care most about unless you go looking for it, even if you’re not entirely sure how it might manifest itself. And even though you may come across it in an unexpected place or manner, often it is the effort of the pursuit that gives you the eyes to see it – or clues of it – when you come across it.

Puppets and sketches - ErfurtWhen you do, you leave transfixed and transformed. In cases such as this one, where it connects to creative passions and interests, it leaves you inspired. Not just to keep discovering. But to eventually return home and make something yourself.

And when you do that, you find what you love all over again.



Look up: The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia


Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood exterior

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (also known as The Church of Spilled Blood, The Church of the Savior, The Church of the Resurrection, The Church on Spilled Blood and probably many other names in Russian I can’t even imagine), is one of the most popular tourist destinations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It is also one of the few places where people do something they rarely do elsewhere: They look up.

Look up to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling

Background on the church

They do so because the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is filled floor to ceiling (and ceiling to ceiling) with beautiful mosaics. While today it serves primarily as a museum or gallery of this mosaic work, it was originally constructed at the end of the 19th century to honor Czar Alexander II whom anarchists fatally wounded on the spot where the church now stands (so now you know who’s blood was spilled there).  Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side altar

The czar had survived an attempt by one anarchist to kill him with a grenade and as the czar wrestled with the culprit, a second conspirator detonated another bomb killing himself and fatally wounding the czar who died a few hours later. Two years later, Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, initiated construction of the church on the site to honor his fallen father.

It’s nice to know the background of the place, but once you step inside, you tend to forget the history lesson and instead, you just marvel at the mosaics. And you get the best view of these if you practice a key form of Looking the Other Way, looking up.

Why we don’t look up

Most of us rarely look up. We don’t do so for a few reasons.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling looking directly upFirst, you can’t walk and look directly above you at the same time without risk of bodily harm or odd stares from others. Second, so many of us are glued to our phones peering in the opposite direction of looking up that we rarely consider there might be something of value above us. Third, it’s not that easy. You have to crane your neck back to look directly up. That’s a hard posture to hold for long, unless you’re Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (and some surmise even he reclined on a cot-like contraption to do so).

Look up at an angle in the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The benefits of looking up

But if you do look up, you behold what few others ever witness. You see more nature (clouds and birds, maybe branches and leaves). You see more architecture (the most interesting parts of older buildings are usually near the top or around the entrance or above you as you go through the entrance). And you may find surprises — from interesting signs to ceiling details to hidden doors. You also gain a much greater appreciation of light or rather, lighting. We almost always focus on the object illuminated rather than the source of illumination. But looking up can help you do both.

Stop and go

Look straight up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood ceiling In the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, to get the most interesting photos and to appreciate the value of looking up, you need a combination of stillness and movement. Stillness to stop and to look up. Movement to make micro adjustments if you want to get images like some of these that require you to center yourself directly beneath the main element of the ceiling. You don’t have to do that if you’re not taking a photo, but it can still be a fun challenge to try, even without a camera.

See in a new way by looking up

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood columnsWhile looking up is the opposite of looking down, with both you cease to see things in terms of recognizable objects so much as design elements. You start discerning patterns, shadows and connections you don’t normally notice. For example, I have a greater appreciation for the church’s columns, as shown in the photo above, because I’m seeing them in a new way, foreshortened and part of an almost abstract design rather than as an architectural support.

You notice this shifting of how you perceive values and design elements most when you look directly up or down and not at an angle but even looking up at an angle has its rewards. Notice in the following images how the shot that shows the walls and columns from the ground up has a very different feel than the ones shot directly up. You’ll never experience that difference unless you look up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood side wall

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking upward

Look up with your camera

When taking photos in places like the Church of the Spilled Blood, it helps to have a wide-angle lens when you look up. Often such lenses distort the image in the corners but in this case, it actually adds to the effect, bringing the whole scene together. You can try making panoramas as well if you don’t have a wide-enough lens, but be aware that distortions in making the panorama can occur in surprising ways such as in the first image below. One thing this shot does show, however, is just how crowded this place can be. Which is another benefit of looking up: Even in a jam-packed location, you can usually get unobstructed images by simply pointing your camera up.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - panorama

Not all panoramas come out the way you want. This one distorts the curves but shows how crowded the place gets.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - vertical panorama

This is a vertical panorama made from five separate photos.

Enjoy the journey up

Finally, sometimes looking up not only reveals what is directly above you, but all that leads up to that as in this image below. In this case, you get the best of both, the mosaics that guide your eyes up to the ceiling and then the ceiling itself. It’s like getting a bonus prize, such as the free rutabaga peeler with your Ginzu steak knives. And all you have to do is look up.

Look up: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood column looking up


Look the Other Way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Seeing more at Iceland’s Kirkjufell

Kirkjufell, the “Arrow Mountain” on Iceland’s Snaefellsness Peninsula, is one of the most photographed sites on this North Atlantic island country. The quintessential view you see everywhere usually shows this conical mountain behind the nearby waterfalls of Kirkjufellfoss.

Here, for example, are the top results on Instagram for Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell on Instagram

The name, Kirkjufell, by the way, has nothing to do with Star Trek’s original captain. It means “Church Mountain” since its shape, from certain angles, resembles a typical box-and-steeple church. Throw in “foss” after it and you have “Church Mountain Falls,” as well as the entire extent of my knowledge of Icelandic.

There’s no question that Kirkjufell is beautiful, particularly when backed by a sunset or even better, a display of the Northern Lights.

But the mountain isn’t the whole story.

Look the other way from Kirkjufell

If you look the other way by turning around, away from the mountain of Kirkjufell, you’ll discover a world you never see on most travel sites or in photos of the iconic scene.

Look the other way from KirkjufellAs we explored before in Look the Other Way: Budir Black Church, sometimes you discover the best parts of your trip when you not only look the other way, but physically turn the other way.

Turning the other way requires movement. And even a small change of location can result in a very different perspective, of a scene or of your world.

Use your feet

There’s a saying among photographers that the best zoom function of a camera is your own two feet. Meaning, if you want to get a close-up shot, move. Get closer physically rather than relying on your lens to zoom in. Same thing with looking the other way. Sometimes you have to turn the other way and move your feet.

The irony with Kirkjufell is that you have to do that turning and moving just to see the mountain behind the falls.

If you drive toward Kirkjufell, you can see the mountain from the road. But — full confession here — I didn’t realize there was anything special about the mountain when driving by it. It’s a greenish yellow conical peak. Do you know how many of those there are in Iceland? Me neither, but I’m guessing their number exceeds that of cheap dining solutions on the island by a significant margin. Thus, unless you know what you’re looking for, you may arrive at the parking lot with a curious sense of, “What’s the big deal here?”

Kirkjufellsfoss from parking lot

View from parking lot toward the falls (Kirkjufellsfoss). Where’s that conical mountain I’ve come to photograph?

Seeing it from above—or not

I’d show you an overview of the area via a drone shot, but I wasn’t able to fly my drone there for two reasons. The first was this sign:

Kirkjufellsfoss sign

The second was the wind. Not just a breeze, but a blow so hard Mary Poppins and her umbrella would have hit Mach 1 speeds. On the flight to Iceland, the fun facts that Iceland Air displays on the in-flight screen include this gem: “Iceland is the third windiest place in the world. But what’s remarkable is that the first two are both uninhabitable.” How that little factoid entices travelers  to visit Iceland is beyond me.

Anyway, once you arrive at the parking lot for Killjufellfoss, you have to follow the trail up to the waterfalls, cross a bridge over the river above the falls, circle back on the other side and then, voila, there’s your famous shot. Or at least the place where you can take it.

That’s the usual process. You get your shot that looks like this.

Look the other way: Kirkjufell

Of if you proceed several more meters downstream, you’ll find the lower falls which, to me, are even more interesting in person, but you may have to look back and forth between the two photos to tell much of a difference.

Kirkjufellsfoss lower falls

Shooting during the day

Full disclosure on why my photos here of Kirkjufell are rather snapshotty compared to most of the sunset or Northern Lights images out there. We arrived at midday (which is a rather long stretch of time when the day in June lasts for 22.5 hours). That meant many other people scurrying around and most of all, very harsh overhead light. I think the advanced technical term in photographic circles for such a situation is, “Blech!”

Also, we’d been on the road since early morning, so I was rather tired and thought this would just be a quick stop because I could tell the light was too bright, even from the parking lot. I just grabbed my camera with no other lenses, tripod or filters and hurried up to the falls. My advice to you is if you have a wide angle lens, use it. Similarly, use a neutral density filter if you arrive on a bright day to darken the scene enough so you can take a longer exposure to blur the water of the falls. I tried to do that somewhat holding the camera by hand, but a filter, tripod and wider angle lens would have likely produced better images, even in that light.

If you want to learn more about how to take travel photos that look better than these, check out my free Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.

Go beyond what you came to see—and shoot

Which leads us to one of many reasons to look the other way: When the light isn’t what you’d like it to be for the subject you came to photograph, look around for something else to shoot. In my opinion, a less-than-iconic image shot in great light usually beats a famous landmark photographed under sub-optimal conditions. Such was the case here.

Because if you look the other way, constantly turning, moving and letting your curiosity hunt for what the scene can reveal rather than going only to see what you came to see, you will find these (to me) more interesting sights.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

I do love the images I’ve seen online of Kirkjufell. But as my images here hopefully reveal, there’s so much more here than just that mountain.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

If you could magically relocate those same waterfalls elsewhere with all the surrounding scenery minus Kirkjufell, it would still be a highly photo-worthy site.

And that’s the problem when you don’t look the other way, when you don’t consider a place based on its own merits instead of some preconceived idea of what you expect to be there. You don’t realize how stunning certain places actually are when they aren’t compared to what they’re “supposed” to be.

Look the other way: Kirkjufellsfoss

Next time you’re anywhere famous, take in the iconic sight. But then turn around. Move. Look the other way.

Then be prepared to be amazed by what you see. Not just because it can be visually rewarding, but because it is your own personal discovery, one you made, even in highly popular locations.