Why you don’t need to be rich to be a cultural tourist, and why it’s probably better not to be (really!)

I remember the exact moment: after a morning of winding our way uphill through the medieval Albayzín neighborhood of Granada in Southern Spain, we reached the San Nicholas Viewpoint. We picnicked while taking in the enchanting view of the Alhambra and surrounding mountains and I mentioned to HOB that, according to our guide book, this view is Bill Clinton’s favorite sight in Europe. And somehow our idle chit-chat crystallized it for me–I have everything I want. I spent the entire day yesterday exploring the Alhambra. There’s nothing about this experience that would be better if I were rich, famous or a former American president. 

Ever since having this rather obvious, but nonetheless life-changing illumination, I’ve become convinced that not only are we not missing out by traveling on a modest budget, but we are far better off.  A great example is the last day from our trip this spring to Sicily:

Our 8 1/2 hour train ride from Siracuse to Naples cost €9 each.   We left our seaside hotel in Syracuse in a sleepy morning light with a few other passengers.   The dramatic landscape of sea and orange rocks and wildflowers out our window was spectacular and with each stop the train was becoming more and more full.  We had assigned seats at table and soon a young couple sat across from us.  It was a tight fit and we had to constantly maneuver to keep our knees from rubbing up against our companions.  The couple didn’t seem to mind, since they were occupied with making out, in my estimate,  for about seven hours straight.  (And by making out, I mean they were really going at it….further details omitted in the interest of discretion). The passing landscape grew even more fabulous until, OMG, there was Mt. Etna belching cold smoke on our left!   By the time we left Sicily through Straight of Messina, every seat was full (we counted 80 people in our car, plus a beagle and a surprisingly mellow calico cat.)  As if choreographed,  the passengers simultaneously pulled out foil-wrapped ham sandwiches and, after finishing them, went to sleep.  (As soon as the entire car was asleep, we realized our grave error of packing canned tuna fish for lunch–we couldn’t have eaten at our seats in that stuffy car without sinking up the place something fierce.  So, stealthily, we took turns devouring our tuna hidden at the end  of the car behind the bathroom. Picnic level: Ninja.)  We arrived in the ever-crazy Naples train station and walked a few blocks to our €50 a night b&b where we were greeted like old friends by the innkeeper Eugenio.  Eugenio teased HOB, made fun of my Italian, entertained us with hair-raising stories of commuting with his wife and three children all on one motorcycle, and earnestly consulted with us on where to go for pizza.  We ended the day devouring the most perfect pizza of our lives (€3 ) while reviewing all the marvelous art and architecture we’d visited in the past 11 days, the tasty street food we’d sampled and the interesting people we’d met.

We left Sicily and Naples not only with our eyeballs jammed full of UNESCO World Heritage sights, but a feeling of endearment for the friendliness and patience of the Sicilian people, and appreciation of the dichotomy that is Naples (wild outside, personable and winning inside).   An 8 1/2 train ride in cheap seats is not exactly comfortable, Eugenio’s bed was not the very best we’ve ever slept in, but we were safe, we were fine, we were right in the middle of things soaking up the culture, just where we wanted to be.   Rich tourists do everything to avoid being in the middle of things: they travel in a bubble called “luxury” that isolates them from local culture with it’s exclusive access, first class and five star everything and the inevitable, endless sycophancy that accompanies the “luxury” infrastructure.   To me, this is missing the point.  Why travel to isolate yourself from the culture of the place you’ve come so far to visit?

I am not here to romanticize poverty.  Poverty sucks.  And don’t worry, I’m not going to foist some Marxist travel theory on you.  My point is that there’s a sweet spot in between minimum wage-earning hell and gratuitous wealth, and if you’re in that sweet spot, revel in it. Don’t live beyond your means or be envious of rich travelers. Realize you are better off in a cheap b&b with the advice of a gregarious innkeeper than you are in a five star hotel. (We once spent the night in a five star hotel, courtesy of British Airways and our missed flight in London. The hotel had a stellar view, a huge staff we were probably supposed to tip, cool mini-toiletries, lots and lots of throw pillows. Otherwise, it was just a hotel. And I’ve always hated throw pillows anyway).

Strike up conversation with a stranger on public transportation.  Ask a museum security guard where he likes to buy cheese. Watch an opera in standing room. Be curious about how the locals live.  And of course, when you’re visiting a breathtaking sight, take your time looking, eat your picnic with a view, and feel grateful: not even Bill Clinton can do better.

pizzemenu

Best margherita pizza in Naples: 3

WOBchow

WOBview

Me and Bill Clinton dig this view.

88 comments

  1. How right you are!
    What’s the place if you don’t meet the people?
    And a hotel is a place to put your head down…so as long as it’s clean….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Helen. Agreed–clean is preferred, and I would add hot shower too.

      Like

  2. I love everything about this post.

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  3. Thanks for the follow 🙂 Very true about how budgeting can make for a much more authentic and enjoyable experience. Although I watched Jonathon Phang’s Train journeys last night on NZ TV (notoriously poor on a Monday eve) and he was travelling on the Orient Express, Venice to London. I did think that would be nice to do “properly” one day…

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  4. indeed! really enjoyed the post, thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading, eatprayjade!

      Like

  5. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    https://randomplethora.wordpress.com/

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  6. Bravo! Loved this!

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    1. Thank you, T. Greenfield!

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  7. I love to plan vacations and they’re always on a budget. Next fall the boyfriend and I will be camping and hiking around the southwest. With all the money saved camping for a week, we will splurge on some more luxurious accommodations when we finish up our trip in Santa Fe.

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    1. I hope you have a great trip to the Southwest, digthadelicious!

      Like

  8. Reblogged this on ihatejose's Blog.

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  9. Bravo. I totally agree. Even though I can afford to stay in hotels and rent a car, I still choose pensions or hostels (if there are private rooms) and take public transport. I’ve tried the other way and it’s boring.

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    1. Thanks LaVagabonde. We always meet fascinating people on public transportation (and a few annoying ones!)

      Like

  10. Lovely post! Brought up wonderful memories of a very cramped, surreal train journey from France to Rome. I remember waking up to see my sleeping husbands bare foot very close to the face of the sleeping priest sitting opposite me! Don’t get memories like that in first class!!!

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    1. Thank you phyllishusk–I hope you’re husband’s foot wasn’t too stinky 😉

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  11. Make it a cycling trip and Europe’s train system makes it easier.

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    1. Yes! I am so jealous of the European rail system and we often see cyclists riding the rails.

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  12. Just finished up a month road tripping in the south of Spain and I couldn’t agree more. There is definitely a sweet spot, not too expensive but not too cheap.

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    1. Oooh, Southern Spain is so lovely! You were lucky to have a whole month.

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  13. Completely agree! Being on a budget always leads to more interesting experiences and you usually meet more local people. happy travels 🙂

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    1. Happy travels back atcha rlishman84!

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  14. Yep, totally agree. We’ve had similar experiences in Italy thanks to being un-rich. Enjoyed reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “thanks to being un-rich” LOL!

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  15. Aw..now you have shown a different perspective altogether..loved the post.

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    1. Thanks so much Jaya!

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  16. You are so right about the rich traveling in a bubble and missing the very culture they came so far to see. I am preparing to travel to Spain and Italy myself in two months. Any pointers? Or maybe that question is too broad…. I will certainly be staying in the thick of things using Airbnb the whole way.

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    1. Thanks unwindingthoughts ! You’re so lucky to have two months to travel in Spain and Italy–great countries for art. I would advise wearing a moneybelt: while both of these countries are generally safe the more touristed places are full of pickpockets. Have a great trip!

      Like

      1. Good idea. I keep hearing about that. I am actually only there two weeks. I sure wish it was two months!

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  17. Reblogged this on Unwinding Thoughts and commented:
    Great post from a fellow blogger. Staying in the thick of it: Europe

    Like

  18. fgsbiz · · Reply

    No need to be rich but we still need a lot of money to survive…

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    1. I feel fortunate to have everything I need, plus a bit extra for traveling fun.

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  19. It’s always said it is not about the money in life but the things you do. Being happy comes from culture, I believe so anyway.

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  20. testaltom1234 · · Reply

    Nicely said

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  21. Being happy comes from the heart! comes from loving people, comes from our soul…
    come and have a visit my blog ..we can be good friends..
    http://www.asilentashout.wordpress.com

    Like

    1. Kind regards, phanuel1!

      Like

  22. Amazing article. I am studying travel and tourism and I have to say THANK YOU for encourage others to explore those beautiful areas around them without expending a fortune. I did a road trip to Europe for a whole month. It wasn’t something five start but I enjoyed, I learned how to appreciate the beauty of our beautiful world. I had to stay in one hostel after spending two night at the Double tree BY Hilton in Amsterdam. I was satisfy the way I faced it, I was safe, I had water, and a bed to rest after partying and exploring amazing city. I do encourage people out there to give it a try to those small field trip and vacation destination. Lets love and admire the beauty of our awesome planet.

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    1. Thanks mando19–you’re absolutely right: there’s so much to admire on the planet. My list keeps getting longer…..

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  23. Hit the nail on the head!

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    1. Thank you Andaliega!

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  24. Reblogged this on soulfultune and commented:
    Love this post!

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    1. Thanks soulfultune!

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      1. No problem! I love the post it made me see things in a viewpoint that I haven’t seen it before. Thanks so much for posting it!

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  25. My husband and I are traveling with our two little kids this summer. Right now in Vienna. We take a pass on a lot but enjoy walking the city, finding parks, and sharing pastries. We picnic or cook most days and when we eat out, usually share plates so we all get tastes of local dishes. Good post!

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    1. Thanks Sarah–we like to share pastries too. Aren’t they delicious in Vienna?

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      1. Very. We’re pairing parks with stops for strudel or cake…

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  26. My favorite travel memories often cost little or nothing. For example: attending evensong and sitting with the choir in West Minster Abbey or any major cathedral, enjoying á cup of coffee while people watching in a foreign city or admiring the view after a hike up a hill, just about anywhere.

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    1. People watching is my favorite sport!

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  27. I know it! You Don’t Need to be Rich to be a Cultural Tourist (Really) is mine http://wp.me/s4bTJr-fpbk 🙂

    Like

  28. Reblogged this on abc&k.

    Like

  29. This post is the perfect definition of traveling. Many people miss the point of it nowadays. Good luck on your future journeys, guys, and to many beautiful memories!

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    1. Thanks lifeinanoldredsuitcase–wishing you many happy travels as well!

      Like

  30. I love this post! I live in London and in my humble opinion, the activities on the lower end of the budget scale are so much better. While there isn’t anything wrong with staying in nice hotels and spending money on tickets for the ballet, if you do nothing but you’ll miss out on a charming underworld made up of black box theatres, free community events and all the other things that make life for the locals interesting.

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    1. Thank you Lana. You’re so right about London–so many things to do (plus all the free museums). When my husband and I were in London we found ourselves taking a train line to the last stop and watching a performance in a high school gym. What fun!

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  31. Wonderful advice! This makes me want to travel to Europe. I know that for my next trip, I want to be able to save money and still find amazing things to do.

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    1. Thank you Rebecca–I hope you have lots and lots of great trips to Europe in your immediate future!

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      1. Thank you so much! 🙂

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  32. totally agree with you! I also enjoy best the low-cost vacations because it’s at those times that you actually connect with people you meet while traveling.

    Like

  33. Reblogged this on Ankur's Campus and commented:
    Well said

    Like

  34. Reblogged this on Ikoikollo's Blog and commented:
    Pizza!

    Like

  35. This is a lovely post with fantastic advice! Travelling is one of my top loves (seconded only by literature), so I really appreciate and applaud this post.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I would say reading is my first love too. Thanks for your interest creativeconfessions!

      Like

  36. Siddharth Muzumdar · · Reply

    This is wonderful. I’m glad you had the time of your life. I’ve also had a minor experience like this and I can totally relate to it. It feels wonderful to be right in the midst of the local culture than be in the lavish lifestyle one would normally covet.

    Nice post and nice pictures. I’m hungry for the pizza now.. 😉

    Like

    1. Thank you Siddharth Muzumdar–I wish I eating that pizza right now too!

      Like

  37. In Italy, I’ve booked places with hosts instead of making reservations at local hotels. A great way to learn more about local culture and make friends!

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    1. Agreed, thanks Lena. Italy was the first place I ever travelled to on my own and I always want to go back for the great art and food and friendly people!

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      1. Me too!! I always love to escape there from intense lifestyle in United States, especially when living here, in NYC. I will definitely go back there for a few weeks when I have a chance. P.S. Italian wine festivals are incredible!

        Like

  38. Delightful!

    Like

  39. This is nice…feel like eating what ya fighting with.

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    1. Thanks Okrote4real!

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  40. I competely agree! besides so many of my good stories start with “so I was stranded in the middle of (enter travel destination) with an empty wallet”
    -Samuel Ridlocke

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  41. Thanks Samuel–those do sound like good stories!

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  42. Awesome blog, I can definitely agree with you on a lot of things. Most of the cultural tourism I have partaken in has been on a serious budget and I always try to speak the local language to get a better idea of how the locals live and the food they eat!

    Like

    1. Thanks degelitos–your blog is awesome too!

      Like

  43. Lovely post!! And yes, besides I´ve got a granadian heart, Alhambra & Sierra Nevada views from San Nicolás are definetely magic!!

    Like

    1. Thank you Manuel–we just left Santiago de Compostela and it’s magical just like Granada. Spain certainly is a beautiful country!

      Liked by 1 person

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