Walking and Overtourism
Slow Travel,  Travel

Walking In The Age Of Overtourism

In an age of overtourism and set itineraries, walking gives us the freedom to set our own pace and make our own discoveries. And if you’re a traveller, that’s what it’s all about.

It’s the thrill of sipping your first espresso with a tattered map of Venice, crumpled from last night’s rain, spread out before you on the sidewalk with no guidelines and nothing but the curves of the Canal Grande to steer your path.

Or taking your first steps towards Montmartre on a whim, after you’ve arrived at Palais Garnier only to find it closed.

It’s a walking tour through Cairo’s City of the Dead, and learning about Egypt’s historic heroes laying in dusty tombs attended only by a cleaning woman who asks visitors for tips.

And it’s waking up in a hotel room in Poznan, a city you’ve arrived to last night and have never seen in daylight.

Walking and Overtourism
Botanical Garden UMTS, Lublin, Poland

In a culture where ambitious tourists make maps to mark off the number of countries they’ve visited, and where cities are reduced to the highlight reel of Instagrammable spots, it’s a countercultural act to spend a day aimlessly wandering. It’s saying no to must-see lists and the historians’ ideas of what’s most significant.

And it’s a rebellion against materialism itself and the commodification of countries that exist for the tourist only as photo opps and backgrounds for selfies.

A history of slow travel

Has travel always been about ticking off a list of top attractions? Or are itineraries the invention of tour companies who package cities down into schedules to entice their clients?

Museums and historic monuments have been visited for centuries. But the pace of travel has picked up in the modern day, pushed onward by the steaming engines and airplanes that have made travel affordable for many.

Walking In The Age Of Overtourism

Though it wasn’t always that way. Or at least not in the classic novels I’ve read. And not because of anyone’s preference for slow travel, but simply because fast travel as we know it wasn’t possible.

In The Custom of the Country, an Edith Wharton novel published in 1913, a honeymoon meant a lazy few weeks in the Italian countryside, hiding out in shady orchards from the afternoon sun.

It was all a waste of time for Undine, the novel’s narcissistic heroine. But the scene was meant to create tension and offset her new-world, fast American ways with the old European traditions of her French fiancee.

Travel in the modern day

These days the whirlwhind European tours of Undine’s dreams are standard. Few ever spend entire weeks in the countryside walking along the orchards.

Walking In The Age Of Overtourism

But if you’re a traveller, there’s still nothing like walking through a foreign city to let it unfurl spontaneously at your feet. You’re free to set your own pace, to wander and peek behind every gateway or to rush past or hail a taxi and skip it altogether.

Because there will be failures and wasted time. Maybe you’ll find yourself in a business district and realize you’ve walked too far and the Starbucks and skyscrapers will only bore you. Or you’ll underestimate the distance on the map and the time it takes to walk to that green square of a park. Or you’ll find yourself deep in a residential suburb, and it will start to rain with not a single bus stop or taxi in sight.

But that’s all part of the experience because the wrong turns will remind you of the unpredictability of walking. You’ll appreciate the pleasant surprises all the more after you’ve stumbled. They’ll be your very own discoveries.

Slow travel challenges

Lublin, Poland

Though if you’re a woman, or travelling solo, walking won’t always be as easy as a stroll down the Champs Elysses for dinner. Because walking freely connotates freedom and ownership of the public space, there will always be those threatened by a woman who wanders where she pleases.

And there will always be neighborhoods where, because of race or class, you will attract suspicion. Most tourists, after all, want to see A, B and C. And if you wander outside that itinerary then you’re either lost or have ulterior motives.

It’s uncomfortable for the natives when a foreigner sees their country’s rougher and less polished bits. It’s embarrassing – because what are they looking at, and what do they want?

But very often, people are flattered that you’ve deemed their suburb or sidestreet cafe worthy of your curiosity. They’ll make an extra effort to make a good impression, knowing how our ideas of a new place often hinge on just a few days spent there, interacting with just a few people who’ll likely fuse into our memories of the place for years after.

How travel breaks routine

Lublin, Poland

When you’re walking through unfamiliar ground, your awareness of the place will be much sharper because it’s new.

Our brains are hardwired for survival and for sensing any kind of danger. So when we’re in our familiar routine, making coffee or driving to work, we’re often in a foggy daze. We arrive at the office without remembering much of our commute.

We forget entire years in dull cubicles. But we remember our vacations far more sharply because we’re constantly outside of our comfortable routines.

The Situationists knew this with their performances in 1960s Paris aimed to break apart the threads that make up the fabric of our ordinary days.

But you don’t need avant-garde theater in the subway to wake yourself up out of that stupor.

It can be as simple as taking a different turn while walking the dog or going down another street to work.

Lublin, Poland

Walking gives us the freedom to make our own discoveries, set our own pace and follow our instincts.

In a world of overtourism where cities are literally sinking under the weight of the masses, walking still gives us that sense of discovery.

And if you’re a traveller, that’s what it’s all about.

Read my 29 Practical Tips for Slow Travel for ideas and inspiration for simpler and more meaningful travels.

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Walking in the Age of Overtourism

28 Comments

  • maristravels

    How true that is. I’ve raged often enough about the selfie-obsessed who can literally destroy one’s enjoyment of a place (in my case Split and Dubrovnik two years ago, N. Ireland last year – both visits spoiled by Game of Thrones fans, and more recently Pompeii where cruise passengers moaned because the walking was too much for them). I’ve vowed never to visit another place where cruise ships call in – unless it’s winter. Thank you for that Post, I agree with every word.

    • Dee

      I’m not much of a Game of Thrones fan, so I feel lucky that way! The crowds can absolutely spoil a trip and if it’s high season and the cruise ships are coming in, then it can be impossible to even walk through a street or see anything.

  • wanderessence1025

    The more I travel, the more I am growing to love slow travel. I walked 800 km across northern Spain last year on the Camino de Santiago, and I’d love to do more leisurely walks. Walking and lingering encourage you to notice the world around you. Besides walking, the idea of moving to a place for a period of time and just lingering there, living like the locals, really appeals to me! Thanks for sharing, Dee. ~ Cathy

    • Dee

      Thank you, Cathy! I feel the same way about walking.. it’s the perfect pace to explore at leisure, not to mention the health benefits. I’d love to do a longer walk like your journey across northern Spain!

  • roninjax

    I think we rush in our travels many times – for varying reasons. There are so many things I want to see and miss many of them. This hinders our ability to walk around – taking it all in. ?

  • kagould17

    Just back from a 54 k back country hike in the Rockies, sleeping in tents and eating dehydrated food. There you have to work for your scenery, but it is so well worth it. Not a bucket list check off item, but a pilgrimage of sorts to slow life down to its basic components. You are so correct Dee. Destinations have become a tick list to say I completed this. No effort or experience to see what the actual people or places are like. Just a place you have been. Allan

    • Dee

      Yes it can get really awful in some of the biggest tourism hotspots – I’ve seen photos online of crowds lining up to take photos at world-famous sites and people jostling each other out of the way. It really makes you wonder if the mere sight of that attraction is really worthwhile.. and of course, many breathtaking views can be found in nature in those spots where you’ve got to earn it, and it’s easier there to have the place all to yourself 🙂

  • thewonderer86

    Great post. Walking is a way to discover. Like you say, it doesn’t always go according to plan – but there’s usually something that stands out – a plaque, a park, a local café. Tourist hotspots are highly overrated.

  • nottaholiday

    Completely agree, and the quiet reward to stumbling upon something remarkable are the true gems. Walking engages your consciousness, but alas (or possibly thankfully) the social media box tickers cannot grasp that the world is not about them.

  • Kirsten

    I love In The Custom of the Country and what you’ve shared here really resonates with me. Selfishly it’s the main reason I want to make enough money to travel for actual vacations and not only travel for work. I never get the chance to just wander during work trips and it’s broken a piece of me that fell in love with travel for all the reasons you describe. That being said, the last time I truly did wander all alone as a woman in a foreign city — I was assaulted. So, I hadn’t been in a hurry to get back out there. Now. It’s time.

    • Dee

      It’s now always easy for women, so I really appreciate the cities where it’s normal to explore on your own and where personal space is respected. Though these things are never exactly easy to predict, are they? I can feel perfectly safe in a city but then an assault can occur the next day.

  • Christina Bulley

    Absolutely love this, and your writing – Fabulous!! My husband and I always carry our running/ walking shoes, and try to explore any new place we visit early in the morning on foot – either walking or running, before the place wakes up and gets overrun by selfie toting tourists.

    • Dee

      That’s such a great tip, Christina! I love running but for some reason don’t do it too often when I’m travelling.

  • Giulia

    I love this piece, walking has always been my favourite way to discover a place and is often the only way I can truly understand how to get around in my own home town! Plus it leaves open opportunity for discovery as you said.

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