Tourism is an instinct: It’s law that once people reach a cultural hotspot, they feel the need to explore as many museums, libraries, monuments, statue gardens and theaters as humanly possible to feel like the trip wasn’t wasted. At least in my experience, every family vacation starts with the promise (bribery) of luxurious spas, shopping trips, delicious dinners and the chance to soak up the atmospheric vibes of a newly discovered city, and always ends with 12-hour days packed with museum exhibit after museum exhibit, a hasty dinner in an overlooked tavern and a quick taxi ride to spend the evening in an opera house.
I enjoy exhibits. I enjoy cultural excursions. I thoroughly love ballet, theater and opera. There’s no denying I love a day at the spa as well. But as with most things, my family goes all or nothing, and relaxation usually gets the ax when traveling. Rather than argue and complain, I’ve developed a set of strategies to cope with the never-ending onslaught of artistic diversion.
It starts with accepting that you’re not going to get to spend days lounging around a hotel. And there’s really no point in doing so, either. You traveled to a possibly exotic, foreign destination. You spent serious money on airfare. You over-packed, paid the $50 fine for overweight baggage and sat next to a crying child for eight hours so you could experience something outside of free Wi-Fi and lobby donuts. Immediate acceptance of your circumstances is imperative to a successful trip.
Next, you have to convince yourself that sightseeing doesn’t have to be horrible because travel-induced stress isn’t inevitable. For a long time, I dreaded the 9 a.m. wake-up calls, my grandmother interrupting my slumber to rouse me and shove me onto a subway. I’d grumble, shuffling my feet the whole way, ignoring my family by plugging my ears with headphones. Everything was so bleak — only it wasn’t. It was me. I was the Debbie Downer. Rather than expect the worst, take it for what it is: a day spent discovering the reasons a city is a cultural destination.
Upon arriving to your first museum exhibit, pause everything and consider this: Is it the Louvre? The Guggenheim? The Hermitage? The Met? Listen — if it is, cut it out. There is nothing more exciting than experiencing the ancient history, art and architecture of world-famous museums. There is a reason people stand hours in line to see the insides of these buildings. You’ll learn something. You’ll have new-found respect for Degas, Monet or Ruben. You’ll decide to buy a paint kit and try your hand at drawing sunflowers. You’ll fail, but you’ll be inspired to do something other than Gchat your best friend.
Lesser-known museums are equally as important to visit because they let you more closely experience art. Rather than trying to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, you’ll be able to spend quality time looking at Alexandre Kojève’s photos at The Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Don’t panic. Six hours in a museum seems like an eternity, but the best part is there is so much to explore. Six hours will feel more like three. And after a pleasant museum-café lunch, family bonding and listening to those headphone-guided museum tours, you’re going to feel good about spending the day learning something new.
The real problem starts when, after the first two museums, there’s another one. And then a trip to the local theater. And suddenly, it’s 1 a.m., you’re exhausted and your family is already discussing the pros and cons of starting the day earlier tomorrow.
No need to worry, because something glorious will happen. All of a sudden, you’ll get back to your hotel, pass out immediately from exhaustion and wake up at 10 a.m. — bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — because everyone always sleeps in the second day. You’ll go to a nice breakfast place, walk around a couple parks and go to a local gallery. Suddenly, all the grandiose plans will not seem as grandiose after you tackle your first day abroad.
I’ve been to eight countries outside the U.S., and most of those trips were taken with my family. I’ve experienced every kind of jet-lag and every kind of travel disaster, and I’m going to be honest: The best part of any trip is leaving the destination feeling different, feeling that the trip was worthwhile. You can shop anywhere. Seeing Anna Netrebko sing, on the other hand, isn’t an everyday occurrence.