For those of you too busy to read this I’ll make it brief: You have to research before traveling to know what the hell you’re doing.
Woo, I already feel better. Now if you’re still with me, allow me unfold:
Why would you spend thousands of dollars on an overseas trip without preparing beforehand?
Far too often I see Americans traveling through Italy terrified and confused. That’s normal. What I can’t find normal no matter how hard I try is how many people come without knowing shit. They’ve saved money, requested time off work, booked the flight and now they’re in Italy touring around and they have no idea what it is they’re looking at. If you don’t know what it is, how can you appreciate it?
Don’t get me wrong, I know as well as anyone how overwhelming it can be, and how easy it is to miss important sights, facts and history the first time around. But I still don’t think that’s an excuse to not at least try. You want to see Florence but you have no idea about the artwork there, the sights, the historic significance and shape-shifting of the Ponte Vecchio. What kind of trip is that?
“But Gina,” you might say, “I want to be spontaneous. I want to soak in the atmosphere.” Well, I call bullshit.
Any traveler worth his salt knows that spontaneity is simply the serendipitous release from careful planning. And that you won’t soak in any kind of atmosphere that matters or is even somewhat different from that of your front-porch if you know nothing about the culture of your destination. I’m not saying that you have to spend months reading guidebooks, or even that you have to follow guidebooks word-for-word (I actually just recently started using them). I am saying that some kind of cultural background is well worth the effort to get the most out of your trip.
Perhaps you’re filthy rich and don’t mind spending thousands of dollars from a trip where you’re bound to be simply wasting your time. But if that’s not you, why would you not read ahead so you know what you’re seeing, so you can seek out specific sights and interesting cafés and restaurants and museums and monuments? What does that statue actually mean except for “wow, cool statue” if you don’t know that it is an exact replica of Michelangelo’s famous David and put in front of the Palazzo Vecchio because that’s where the David once originally stood, his eyes facing the entrance walkway to snap the government officials into order, to remind them that the citizens are watching?
Researching is hard and especially time consuming, but I’d argue that taking a 7 to 14 day trip with little plans and no clue is even more time-consuming. Make it fun. Watch a movie, a documentary or read a book. Listen to Rick Steves’ podcasts or at the very least Google the basics. I know that you’ll learn even more from the destination you’re in, but you’ll need a bit of foundation if you hope to appreciate it. When you’re in the destination don’t shy away from organized day-tours and audio guides. No one can do so much research that they won’t learn something more when presented with new information in the moment you’re experiencing it.
Even after this rant, I can only imagine that there will be comments, both internal and here on the blog, from people who could argue otherwise. You can play the devil’s advocate all you want and I’d say in a certain sense you’re right. Every traveler is free to travel how they damn well please. But I still believe that going on a far, extended trip without doing some research beforehand is simply ignorant. Planning a trip is half the fun of travel. If you are making the effort to fly across the ocean to visit Italy, you can plan other things in advance as well. You can stroll through the streets simply enjoying the atmosphere and architecture, but the marvel comes when you know just how old that building is, and just how much history it has witnessed.
Want some help planning your trip to Italy? I’ve got your back!
How to Plan Your Trip to Italy: A Step-By-Step Guide
How to Pack, Budget and Get Around Italy
How to Do Italy Right
11 Questions About Italy, Answered
My Favorite Travel Resources
And of course you can always comment, email or search the blog for questions or information!