Why to get out of the big cities and experience local culture
Your Europe trip will better if you leave the big cities.
I love large European cities. They’ve each got a unique vibe, they’re full of life, and for the most part, they’re safe and easy to navigate. Many of a country’s significant historical and cultural sights are there, and there’s nothing like finding yourself standing in front of a monument or piece of art you’ve waited your whole life to see. These cities are rich in design and architecture and are usually on the cutting edge of food, fashion, and design. Want to know what’s going to be in stores next year? Look at what Londoners or Parisians are wearing now; the same goes for Madrid and food, or Berlin and design. If you’re a traveler, you owe yourself to get to Europe’s major cities in your lifetime!
But my heart sinks a little when I hear of someone who’s just returned from a trip to Europe and has hopped from one capital city to the next. If you’ve spent a week in Paris or Rome, well, you’ve spent a week in Paris or Rome, not France or Italy. Delightful as the capitals are, a traveler could come away from any one of them and not have much idea what life is like for most people in that country.
Here are some reasons you should trade in big city time for smaller cities and towns:
Too much “tourist friendly” will sink your trip
I talk a lot about active versus passive travel in my travel consulting. Data shows that the more you participate in your travel experience, the greater your enjoyment and the “stickier” your memories will be. One reason we offer activity-based retreats is that getting out of your comfort zone will ALWAYS make your trip more successful. Europe’s popular cities have done a great job of making themselves accessible to tourists. It was a smart move, after all, tourism often comprises up to 30% of their economies. The downside of this, though, is that it has become increasingly challenging to have a non-tourist experience. It’s possible to spend a week in any of these cities and to have an entirely passive experience: to speak only English, eat only American versions of European food, or only hang out with your traveling companions or other Americans (and there will be many!). In some cities, Florence comes to mind, it’s become difficult to find non-tourist food, or a single person who speaks only Italian. Florence, for many tourists, has become far easier to navigate than Manhattan. This feels great for a day or two, but doesn’t deliver when you’re looking for a dose of authentic and local Italian culture.
Smaller towns let you participate in your experiences
Whatever is in the capital is often replicated in the rest of the country. Most small to mid-sized Italian cities, for example, have world-class art, shopping, and dining. Several of them even have colosseums with similar histories to the Roman Colosseum. One of my favorite travel experiences was visiting the Pompeii Colosseum when my children were young. We bought them nerf swords, and they charged into the amphitheater like gladiators. They spent an hour in the arena “fighting” while a tour guide gave us a vivid account of the history. We had the place entirely to ourselves. The tour was €10, and not to be cliche, but our memories of that afternoon are priceless. In countless restaurants across small-town Europe, I’ve been invited into the kitchen to see how a dish is made. When my children were little, they’d often be swept up in the arms of some loving nonna if they got fussy during a meal. This used to take me by surprise, but I soon learned to love the sight of one of my babies being carried around a festive local eatery by the owner. I can say with confidence, such nonnas don’t grace the bustling restaurants of Rome, Paris, or London!
You’ll meet locals and get to know history firsthand
I’ve yet to go to a small European city or town where the locals aren’t friendly and eager to strike up a conversation. I used to plan my days in these places like I would in a capital city, but I’ve come to realize that whether I seek it out or not, I will end up having a conversation with a local resident. These chats unfailingly involve a recommendation or an invitation; that is where the magic happens. A few years ago, my family and I were stuck in a small town in Germany. We were trying to get to Munich, but flight changes and transportation issues meant we couldn’t get there, and I was frustrated. We went to a beer garden that night and ended up sitting at the table with an elderly gentleman who was dining alone. We started a conversation, and he told us he was the third-generation town chemist. After a friendly dinner chat, he invited us to come to his apothecary for a tour. We arrived early the following morning, and he showed us around the entire shop, the adjoining skin-care laboratories, and his private home and gardens. It was like walking inside an Anthropologie catalog with Santa Claus and your favorite professor rolled into one. As we walked, he told us the fascinating history of his town, as well as what it was like to live in present-day small-town Germany. I remember more about Germany from that one hour with Herr Letenmayer than I can from any other day I’ve spent in that country. At the end of our time, he gifted us with a package of his shop’s private skin-care line and sent us on our way with a warm goodbye. I’ve had experiences like this in almost every country I’ve visited, and every single one has happened when I’ve left the tourist track.
The journey to smaller towns is a great experience
Traveling from large cities to smaller cities or towns is usually done by car or train. If you’re in a car, chances are you’ll be on well-paved, scenic roads. I love driving in Europe, drivers are fast but polite and considerate, and there are always great little local shops and restaurants along the way. Train travel is probably my favorite way to get out of the capital. You can sit back and enjoy the scenery while sipping a glass of wine. You’ll end up at a small train station in a pleasant town, most likely in a spectacular setting.
Traveling to small cities and towns is significantly less expensive. I personally plan on spending double for city days versus country days! When I’m helping people plan a budget friendly trip, my primary method of slashing the trip cost is to lessen their number of days in the cities.
In short, I love Europe’s capitals and would never tell a traveler to skip the main sights. But I’ve heard enough stories of full weeks spent in expensive, crowded cities and spoken with plenty of travelers who’ve returned home wishing they’d been slightly more adventurous. If you’re convinced, but want to know my formula for how to split your time and how to pick where to go once you leave the cities – stay tuned for my next post.