Joy is bringing you some of our smartest, most financially savvy content for the past year. In the crazy-busy lead-up to the holidays, it’s important to remember that making time for your happiness can make your life richer — as well as your wallet.
The Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by architect Frank Gehry, is considered to be a modern masterpiece, housing some of the most brilliant contemporary works of the past century. When I went to Bilbao for a friend’s wedding, the hotel that the couple recommended for out of town guests was right across the street, the wavy metal walls of the museum, built to remind viewers of water, visible from my hotel window.
That was all I saw of the museum. For the five days that I was in Bilbao, I took pleasure walking past the scores of tourists lined up on the sidewalk for daily admission as I went about my day. I spent my time trying pintxos in local bars, exploring the coastline, and going to a local Basque festival. I also spent one entire exhausted afternoon under my hotel covers, watching old episodes of 30 Rock. In short, I spent my week doing exactly what I wanted — even if some things I could easily have done back in my Brooklyn apartment. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Here’s why I stopped seeing the top 10 sights in whatever place I was … and the benefits of traveling without a major plan.
You don’t need a vacation bucket list to see cool things
I used to want to travel the “right” way and make sure no major attraction was left unseen. When I went to Paris with friends for the first time at age 20, we went from the Musee d’Orsay to the Louvre to the Musee de l’Orangerie in one day, then spent the evening touring the Eiffel Tower. We went to an authentic French cafe for dinner, recommended by several blogs, where we shared a huge plate of mussels, which were called out as a “must order.”
I spent every hour of that night throwing up in the tiny bathroom of our shared hotel room. Turns out, the most valuable knowledge I’d gained on that trip wasn’t from the art I saw or the experiences I had: It was learning I am allergic to mussels.
The next day, I felt better. Still, I begged off the packed itinerary. Instead, I walked across the street to a small boulangerie for a croissant, then wandered up a cobblestone hill, catching my breath as I came across the Sacre Coeur, the sprawling cathedral overlooking Montmartre. I knew one was supposed to see the Sacre Coeur in Paris — it was on the itinerary my friend had mapped out for the next day — but I had stumbled across it. Kids were playing on the yard, couples were sitting on the steps, vendors were trying to sell balloons and bubble wands.
I felt like I should go into the cathedral. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to eavesdrop on conversations and practice my rudimentary French. Scratch that, I just wanted to sit in the dappling sunlight and eat my croissant. So that’s what I did. And it was perfect.
Slow, lazy days are pretty magical
But I felt guilty. I only had three days in Paris. There were things to see, photos to take, delicacies that were not mussels to try. I could sit anywhere. But being somewhere new and doing nothing felt like exactly what I wanted to do.
For the rest of the day, I tried to listen to my gut. What did I want to do? What did I want to see? The answer was: not much. Of course, I was recovering from illness, but I found that drinking cups of steamy cafe au lait while sitting at an outdoor cafe, writing in my journal, and watching people pass by was exactly what my soul needed.
The next day, I was back on the tourism train, taking the “official” Sacre Coeur audio tour with my friends. But I missed that “anything could happen” feeling I had during my plan-free day. I also realized that what I did on vacation was so different than what I did in my real life — and wasn’t necessarily making me happy.
Do your thing, just in another country
I barely go to museums when I’m at home, even though I live in a city with world-class options. No guilt, no shame, just the truth. At home, I love going to yoga classes. On vacation, I was lucky if I got 20 minutes on a gym treadmill. What if I brought more of my home self on trips?
And since that trip, over a decade ago, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve taken Bikram yoga classes in Amsterdam, Dublin, and Paris. I’ve spent days wandering around streets, unsure where I was going. I’ve sat on the steps of many, many museums, eating a sandwich while admiring the view. I’ve gone on online dates in Montenegro, worked on a writing project in a Belfast bar, and snuck into an art gallery opening in Croatia. In short, I shifted from doing stuff on vacation to being me on vacation.
See the “must sees” that sound fun for you
That’s not to say I never again did another touristy thing. But I decided to do only the things I like. For example, I’ve found myself seeking out food and beer tours and under-the-radar cocktail bars. I’ve loved chatting with locals at low-key cafes, rather than hitting up the trendiest restaurants. I’ve also realized that just like at home, I love routine when I’m away. There’s something so familiar and exotic about a barista half a world away knowing your coffee order. I’ve loved knowing in which aisle I could find milk in at a corner store. The sensation of sleeping late in an unfamiliar bed, watching the same-old Netflix as a new city bustles underneath me is magical. To me, it’s all about balance. It’s finding my old life in a new world.
And I can’t wait to discover what I won’t see on my next vacation.