Slow travel is all about putting quality over quantity. Here are my slow travel tips for turning those dreams of a getaway into a reality.
Slow travel is an antidote to a packed itinerary.
It’s an alternative to the speeding tour bus that throws the weary tourist from one attraction to another. It’s an intentional way of travel that focuses on what you really want from your trip – and not on the must-see lists crafted by travel guides and influencers.
But what does slow travel mean in practical terms? And how do you turn your dreams of a slow travel getaway into reality?
Here are my most practical slow travel tips:
1) Do your research
The more you know about your destination, the easier you’ll adjust and blend into its everyday life once you arrive. You’ll experience less culture shock and you’ll lose less time getting your bearings. And you’ll be more intentional with your itinerary.
You’ll know what sights are top priorities during your visit, and what you can skip as overhyped or just not your style. Researching, and reading reviews and blogs will help you decide what neighborhood you want to stay in and what treasures lay off the beaten path.
A quick Google search will tell you the destination’s top attractions and its must-sees. But more thorough research will help you fine-tune your itinerary and bring it down to the essentials.
The more you know about a country’s history, culture and customs, the more meaningful your trip will be. Learn a few phrases of the language to communicate with locals, and read up on the sites and local life you’re likely to encounter. Preparing and doing research also dulls culture shock and lets you integrate easier into your surroundings.
2) Get inspired with books and movies set in your destination
Watch Zorba and brush up on your mythology before your trip to Greece. Read some Naguib Mahfouz or watch documentaries on the mysteries of the pyramids before coming to Cairo. This will not only enrich your knowledge, but it will make your experiences more meaningful. It will strengthen your connection with the country and its people, and give you a deeper appreciation of its culture.
If you’re travelling with little knowledge of the place you’re visiting, then you’ll be spending much of your time learning the basics. But if you get a head start on those basics then your travels will go deeper and you’ll make more significant observations.
3) Know thyself
But lengthly research won’t help if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
There’s plenty of content telling us about the top tourist attractions and the “most Instagrammable” spots to visit. But slow travel isn’t about ticking those must-sees off your packed itinerary. It’s about enjoying yourself, taking your time and being unapologetic about whatever makes you happy.
All of this means knowing yourself. Don’t pursue the big tourist attractions just for a photo opp. Be honest with yourself. What are you really excited about seeing, and what feels like an obligation? What are your hobbies and interests, and what would your trip look like if you followed your passions? If you’re a foodie, then sign up for a food tour or make a list of must-try restaurants and markets. If you’ve never had any interest in art, then don’t spend your days wandering museums.
Slow travel is about knowing yourself and being honest about what you love. If you’re a big Oscar Wilde fan and there’s an exhibit of his works in Paris, then head there and skip the Louvre if you’re not excited about it.
It’s not about missing out on anything because you’re going at a slower pace. Slow travel is about focusing on the things you’re excited about and skipping anything that feels like an obligation.
4) Pick a hotel with character
You’ll end up spending more than half your travel time at your lodgings, whether that’s a hotel, a budget hostel or an AirBnb. And when your lodgings have character, they’ll add to your overall experience.
They’ll make you feel like you’re a part of the city’s life. They’ll make you feel welcome. And they’ll make you feel like a local.
Opt for a boutique hotel or Airbnb over monotone chain hotels. Use Google Maps to pick a hotel that’s close to most of the attractions you’d like to see, and walk whenever possible to explore. Get advice from local expats (through Facebook groups or Instagram) about the character of various neighborhoods or find unique ecolodges that will immerse you in nature.
5) Travel in the off-season
Major tourist attractions and cities usually packed with tourists have an entirely different feel in the off-season. The crowds are thinner and the locals are calmer.
If you wander the Piazza San Marco on a summer afternoon, you’ll find it difficult to even push through the crowds and you’ll spend your time dodging selfie sticks and side-stepping vendors. On a rainy November morning, the piazza feels entirely different; you’ll understand the city’s timeless allure when the pigeons fly overhead and the morning fog clears.
Not to mention: there will be shorter lines at museums, less crowded cafes and less noise.
6) Revisit your favorite destinations
Slow travel isn’t about ticking countries off a bucket list or keeping count of how many you’ve visited. In a society that glorifies materialism and teaches us that happiness lies in acquiring more and more, the push in travel can also turn towards quantity. How many continents have you visited? Is your bucket list getting shorter?
Slow travel is about quality versus quantity. And if you know yourself, you’ll have the confidence to cater your trip around what you’d really love to see instead of giving in to social pressure.
7) Leave time for wandering
There will be slow travellers who’ll tell you to forget the itinerary and toss out the must-see lists. But I’m not one of them. If you can’t imagine visiting Paris without riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower, then why deny yourself that pleasure just because it’s touristy?
Slow travel is about being selective and making priorities based on your real passions and interests. Once those are planned, the time you’ve saved by cutting out inessentials can be used to explore. Travel should be about discovery and surprises. But those experiences will only come if you make time for wandering.
To really get to know a destination, give yourself time to wander and explore. Leave room for the spontaneous and keep your itinerary flexible. Get to know a city beyond its tourist attractions.
8) Walk everywhere
Pack your sneakers and walk whenever possible. A zooming subway or speeding bus won’t give you the same experience as a ramble down some sidestreets.
You’ll see waiters in the back of restaurants laughing during their smoke break, and you’ll run into a street festival full of dancing red dragons and thick incense smoke. You’ll notice the tiles on a building used to keep out rain, the way merchants tie bundles of garlic, the novels popular among the street book vendors.
Your overall image of the destination, and its beauty and ugliness, will be the combination of all these moments.
Walking is often the best way to discover a new place. The surprises along the way can turn vacations into adventures and meaningful journeys, while the slower pace allows you to be more mindful of your surroundings and notice things you’d miss from a speeding bus window.
9) Get involved in local events
If you love gardening, search for upcoming local nature walks or flower festivals you can attend. Get on Facebook to look up current events at your destination.
Are there any concerts, festivals, sports matches or local cinema you’d love to see? Have you always dreamed of learning to surf or trying your hand at pottery? Are there any local sports or handicrafts you’d love to learn?
Getting involved in local activities will not only connect you with the local community, but it will make your trip more unique and personal.
The best way to understand a new culture is to immerse yourself in local life. This can mean eating at a restaurant that doesn’t cater to tourists or taking a walk through a local park.
Asking locals for recommendations is a great way to discover authentic food and hidden gems that are off the beaten path.
Getting involved in the local communities you’re visiting can be a great way to quickly integrate yourself in a foreign city. Sign up for a cooking class, volunteer, take a walking tour or spend an evening at a local concert or theater.
10) Ask a local or an expat
Locals and expats are founts of knowledge on the best places to eat, the lesser-known walking tours of unexplored neighborhoods and insiders tips on those questions you just can’t find on Google. Find them on Facebook groups or on Instagram, befriend them and read their posts and blogs.
Cities are breathing, organic networks that are constantly changing, and some info you’ll find online could likely be out of date. Likewise, new events and attractions are always being launched. Locals will enlighten you better than any guidebook.
11) Buy fair trade
Traditional crafts are disappearing worldwide and fewer young people are training to be artisans. Cheaper, Made in China trinkets that are sold everywhere for pennies are pushing out the pricier souvenirs. These trinkets are often picked up on a whim, then brought home to gather dust on a shelf.
Slow travel means supporting the local communities and artisans that make travel worthwhile in the first place. Travel is about experiencing different cultures, and those can only survive if we put our money where our values are. Buying fewer, more meaningful souvenirs is better than loading up on trinkets that will soon be forgotten.
Slow travel is as an offshoot of the slow food movement that began in Italy in 1986 to resist the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The slow food movement emphasizes local food and traditional cooking over mass-produced, homogeneous fast food.
And in the same way, slow travel emphasizes a visitor’s connection to local communities over mass tourism and one-size-fits-all itineraries.
This means supporting local artisans and traditional handcrafts, as well as supporting local businesses whenever possible.
Stay at eco-friendly hotels, don’t litter, and buy fair trade whenever possible. Don’t take part in the exploitation of people, animals or the environment.
12) Stay flexible
Always have a Plan B. You’ll likely face hassles and complications during any trip. When that happens, it’s best to be spontaneous and open to a change of plans.
Think on your feet. If the museum you were hoping to visit is closed, then see what’s within walking distance and don’t give in to frustration.
13) Keep a travel journal
Travel allows you to be really present. There are none of the distractions and worries of your typical routine, and you’re usually more relaxed and aware of your environment while making constant observations on the road. A travel journal lets you capture all of these thoughts and gives them clarity.
When you write things down, you gain focus and direction.
A travel journal isn’t just a great way to record and remember your trip, but it can also be a powerful tool for reflection.
You’re away from your daily life while on the road – on your own and not defined by your social roles or responsibilities.
You’re merely an observer. And a journal will give you real insights about yourself.
14) Shop at the local markets
Grocery stores are my favorite places for souvenirs that I’ll actually use.
There are magazines to peruse, spices to discover, bowls and chop sticks, cute tins of candy, good bottles of wine, the daily newspaper. All these offer real insights into the local daily life.
And if you’re someplace with a great cuisine, then markets are a treasure trove of delicacies you won’t find anywhere else.
15) Take the bus or a train
If you’re taking a longer trip from point A to point B, opt for a bus or train ride versus a quick flight. You’ll see more of the country’s landscape and you’ll get in a few hours of reading time to relax without the hassles of checking in at the airport.
Slow travel is about the journey and what you’ll see along the way.
16) Sit at parks and cafes
Parks are brilliant to stretch out and unwind in-between sightseeing. Just looking at the color green has been shown to have a calming effect.
Cafes are also great for people-watching, journaling, sketching and observing the city’s daily life. They’re great rest stops where you can recharge or do some last-minute planning or research. The best cafes will have flyers with info on local gallery exhibits, workshops or lectures.
17) Do some sketching
Have you ever visited someplace and taken tons of photos, then flipped through them and noticed details that you didn’t spot at first? We’re often rushed to fit everything in and snapping photos as we go. But we don’t always take in the environment during that split second it takes to press the camera button.
Sketching is the antidote to quick insta-stories. Drawing forces you to slow down and notice details you wouldn’t pick up otherwise. And it puts you in the moment because you must observe the object you’re drawing.
Whether that’s historical architecture or a nature landscape, sketching the scene will let you remember the moment.
And who says you have to be artsy? Even quick, rudimentary sketches that are sloppily drawn will be meaningful years later, when you’re flipping through your journal. Remember that the creative process (and not the finished product) is the real reward. And if you’re still feeling nervous then try doodling first or practicing some sketches along with YouTube how-to videos.
18) Get up early
Beating the tourist crowds will let you explore a city’s streets in near solitude. If you’re an introvert, you know such moments are priceless to be alone with your own thoughts and free to notice the city’s architecture without the distractions of noise and traffic.
This is especially critical if you’re travelling to a city notorious for traffic jams and thick crowds. Taking a walking tour in the early morning, when most of the city is asleep, is an entirely different experience that lets you appreciate architectural details and historical points in finer detail.
19) Make friends with other travellers and locals
Make connections and exchange contact info with other travellers and locals. You never know when they’ll come in handy.
If your plans get cancelled, or if the unexpected happens, you might find yourself in sudden need of that taxi driver who handed you his card days ago. The WhatsApp exchange with some people you met at your hostel might prove great for tips on the neighborhood you happen to find yourself lost in.
20) Indulge your hobbies
Indulge in the hobbies and interests you wish you had more time for.
And if your work or your family take up all of your free time, then dig back further. What did you love doing when you were growing up? What do you enjoy doing whether you’re good at it or not?
21) Get off the beaten path
Visit the less obvious sites in the world-famous cities, or travel to smaller towns that aren’t normally popular with tourists. Stroll down a street where the locals aren’t used to foreigners, and where it’s not lined with souvenir shops. Take in some sights that aren’t already familiar to you from books and postcards.
Travel off the beaten path lets you experience the emotions that travel is meant to be about: discovering, exploring and navigating unknown territory. Shattering stereotypes and learning something new.
22) Keep your routines
Keeping some of your everyday habits will let you feel more grounded and comfortable when you’re visiting far-off exotic locales.
If you start your day with jogging, then find a park near your hotel and take a half hour for a brisk run. If you always unwind with a good book at night, then pick up a local author and head to a cafe and read over some tea.
23) Forget your smart phone
Instagraming, emailing and posting a constant stream of updates from your travels will distract and distance you from the moment that you’ve travelled so far to experience.
If a complete digital detox on your vacation sounds too drastic, then take an afternoon with your phone on airplane mode. You can always reply to emails and post your photos in bulk when you’re back online.
Isn’t boredom always the biggest enemy?
But an hour or two at a park, another tall latte or a lounge on your hotel balcony is the best rest you can get. Your best creative ideas will happen in this white space where your thoughts are allowed to roam.
24) Research further
If you found anything strange, new or interesting during your travels, do some follow-up research. This will give you a better understanding of the country you’ve visited, and it might clear up misunderstandings or confusion.
Look up that unfamiliar religious festival you came across in Taipei or that flat bread you tried in Beirut. If anything sparked your interest, then dive in deeper and read a book, download a documentary or see a movie on the subject. Your discoveries don’t have to end once you’re back home.