conversations with micaela, part 2: what do you do when you travel?
“What do you do when you travel?” my friend Micaela asked me a couple of weeks before leaving on her first extended solo trip.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I was in Edinburgh over Easter, I took a walking tour one morning. And when I got back to my hostel afterwards, all I really wanted to do was take a nap. But then I felt bad about it – did I really come all the way to Edinburgh just to take a nap? Does that make any sense?”
It more than made sense – I’d argue it’s one of the things that most stands in the way of someone taking their first solo trip, wondering, “But what will I do there by myself?”
If you travel alone, you’ve got no one else to bounce ideas off of, to debate having an early dinner versus a late one with, or to perhaps even tell you it’s okay to spend an afternoon getting some rest. Sometimes, you start to go a little crazy in your head.
What the rest of our conversation essentially entailed was – beyond the iconic sights, the many monuments and museums – how do you spend time in a place as a solo traveler? Here are some of the ideas I shared with Micaela (plus a few more!):
1. rent a bike
This is both a cheap and fun way to see more of a city than you might be able to on your own two feet. Especially in Europe, a few Euros is normally all it takes to get yourself out and about, moving at your own momentum.
2. have a really long breakfast
Linger over your coffee and pastries. Revel in not having anywhere to be or a clock to punch.
3. invent your own self-guided art tour
Spend a morning searching for what makes a city unique, the little things you sometimes have to look down a side street for; whether it’s street art in Manchester, England, or the beautiful tiled façades of Porto, Portugal.
4. sign up for adventure activities
Get your heart racing for a few hours. Find out what a particular country or region is known for. My year in New Zealand involved lots of weekend trips centered around a particular activity I could do there.
5. explore the region
Pick a city and make it your goal to explore the entire region. During a week in Zadar, Croatia, I spent a few days island-hopping around the Zadar archipelago; on a weekend break to Alghero, Sardinia, my friend Claire and I caught buses to the other villages and cities in the northwestern corner of the island.
Sometimes a city can be a springboard to the region beyond.
6. wander through markets
From England to Morocco to India, markets are everywhere – sample street food, soak up the vibrant scents and sounds, and watch locals haggle and go about their business.
7. read your heart out
I’m not ashamed to admit to spending huge amounts of time with my nose in a book while traveling. Cozy up in a café or that cute little bar you discovered down the street and get caught up on all those bestsellers you’ve been wanting to read.
8. take a hike
Similar to #1 and 4, get active. Maybe it’s to hike up a bell tower for a bird’s eye view of the city, or to explore that hill on the edge of town.
It doesn’t matter how long your trip is: you can spend a month, week or even a day volunteering. My friend Terri, who blogs at A Fresh Chapter, is a perfect example of this: On her recent six-month, round-the-world solo Adventure of Hope, she volunteered in eight countries on five continents.
Or look into an organization like WWOOF, where you work on an organic farm a few hours a day in exchange for room and accommodation. I “wwoofed” on a pearl farm in French Polynesia and have never felt more connected to people and a purpose while on the road.
Sketching is one of my new favorite travel pastimes. You don’t have to be the next Monet or Gauguin – it’s just about taking the time to observe and capture the new scenes around you.
11. don’t feel pressured
This is your trip, remember? So that means it’s up to you to decide how you want to fill your days.
Ultimately, what this comes down to for me is a discomfort with the word “do” when associated with travel. “So what did you do there?” people tend to ask when you return from a trip, which is a completely reasonable question, and yet I’m not exactly a fan of it.
I’d like to believe you don’t have to do anything when you’re in a new place.
I don’t mean that in an all-inclusive resort holiday kind of way, where you pass the week in a free-cocktail-induced blur, but to say that sometimes, maybe leave the checklists and GPS-enabled smartphones at home, and just be in a place.
For me, the allure of travel often comes down to simply breathing different air, seeing the world in a different light, and letting all that difference inspire you.
And if that inspiration leads to taking a nap, well, then so be it. Now I’m turning the question on you…