Did you miss an important national holiday? Did you book tickets to the Picasso exhibition in advance? No matter if you’re going to a European city or on a Mexican roadtrip, this list will help you in your travel planning and make sure you don’t miss out!
Right now I’m planning a 5th visit to Paris, a first time travel to Montenegro, and also a first time trip to Warsaw with my museum group. So I’m right in the middle of this, and I just realized how much planning I do beforehand. You don’t have to do all the steps that I do, just research on the areas that matter to you.
Before going through this cultural checklist, make sure you got the basics covered: 10 things to check before travelling!
When you have decided on a destination and are sure you have a visa, first do an overall search and then start going into details with the…
10 STEPS TO PLAN A CULTURAL TRIP
1 WORD OF MOUTH
Ask friends who have been at your destination. They will know what you like and even if you don’t agree with their preferences, you get a good idea of what it’s all about. And you know it’s been tested. If you don’t have any friend’s or don’t know anyone who’s been to places like Ulaanbataar, skip this one and go to step 2…
Watch youtube videos of the destination, if you don’t know it that well, to get an idea of the mood and the highlights. Lonely Planet has short videos of most destinations, but otherwise you’ll find plenty by googling it (too many).
You can also head to Instagram for an overall idea. Try #visitistanbul or #angkor. This not only give you an idea on what to see, but also gives you a local insight into for example #paris.
The unavoidable TripAdvisor is best for ranking museums and sights! TripAdvisor is one of the best to get more honest opinions, but take it with a pinch of salt. Some people complain about weird things and some attractions rate themselves.
The travel magazines are generally too concerned about how it looks and less with cultures, but Wanderlust Travel Magazine does have some interesting features. My favourite is CultureTrip (no surprise).
4 TRAVEL BLOGS
Of course I have to recommend this!
Read different travel blogs on sights in the area – this is especially great if you want to go more local. And also if you don’t have any travelling friends. Usually bloggers will only recommend something they’ve actually visited and actually liked. But make sure they have same travel goal as yours (I don’t take advice from people who want to get as drunk as possible as cheap as possible).
One of my favourites is the Danish Ontrip.dk for European holidays or the Norwegian Reiselykke. But blogs will turn op when you google a destination.
Check for any fantastic celebrations, festivals or temporary exhibitions in the area. I usually see TimeOut or the largest museum’s websites. This might give you the opportunity to see the erotic works by Picasso, that will never be exhibited back home (I saw it). We also planned our arrival in Mexico City according to the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Order concert or theatre tickets well in advance. We bought tickets to the Puccini Opera Festival in Tuscany first and then the trip later on. For the Salzburg Festspiele you have to be in really good time, for the New Year concert in Vienna you will put your name on a list in the beginning of the year and they draw lots, and for the Bayreuther Festspiele until recently you had to write a letter! At least 3 years in advance! The waiting list is still a couple of years I think. I think I will register now…
Even if you are not seeing a play, you need to consider buying entrance tickets in advance as well. This is very important, since you don’t want to stand in front of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Alhambra in Granada and not get in. (Yes, I know somebody who missed “The Last Supper” in Florence.) Even the Catacombs in Paris have a 5 hours waiting line right now!
Check if it’s cheaper to buy a city card. They often give free access to the major attractions and transport.
6 TRAVELLING WITH KIDS
If you’re bringing a kid, which I often am, it will destroy everything if you don’t plan accordingly. Make sure to have enough time to take a detour or a break.
If you’re in a big city, check to see if the museums have a children’s education pack like a treasure hunt or find the 10 details. Sometimes you can also find kids activities on the museum’s webpage. If you already know the place well, try letting them decide what to see. You’ll experience the art quite differently. This will make your life easier!
If that doesn’t work just let them sit with music, like we did with this one when seeing Casper David Friedrich in Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. By the way, they have an exhibition by him called “Wanderlust” right now…
If on the other hand, you are outside of a city somewhere you can climb is great. Or try to be an explorer like the time my son and I staged a gladiator fight in an arena in Turkey.
7 PLAN DISTANCES
Distance is of course very important, when travelling in a group. Whether it’s you entire family-in-laws or a professional museum group, you have to think this through. But also with kids and in general, make sure your now selected sights are actually reachable.
The activities in one day have to be in the same area. For instance Versailles, the new Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre are not next to each other. You can print a map and draw in the sights, but that’s only necessary if you are a group.
This is an even bigger issue, when it’s not a city trip but visiting something like Valley of the Kings in Egypt or Petra in Jordan. Remember that driving 100 km can be quite different when going on a straight freeway in Germany than taking a narrow, one-car-only serpentine road in the Chinese mountains. You always underestimate how much time it takes! Like I did in Mexico, and we had to take a plane…
When I’m Rome and want to visit the Vatican Museum or MoMA, I don’t go early in the morning as the guidebooks say. Because I’m asleep… It’s way better to arrive 1.5 hours before closing time. Plan the trip so you take the least visited attractions on Sundays for instance, and not do what me and my sister are going to and visiting Versailles midday Sunday.
But remember to double-check opening hours. There might be some weird holidays or a royal visit. As mentioned before, we went to Mexico City for Day of the Dead, but forgot that it means most of the attractions are closed for the holiday. But it can also be good thing: when in Athens on Independence Day March 25 – the Acropolis Museum gave us free entrance.
As we say in Denmark: without food or drink, the hero is no good (it rhymes in Danish).
Food is of course not just food. Food is edible cultural heritage! Hence, it does matter where you eat. You can look for the oldest restaurants, places serving local dishes like lambs head in Morocco or spiders in Cambodia. In the restaurant above we had local sparkling wine from New York.
Especially when planning a tight schedule or a group tour, you need to make sure that the last museum of the day is in a cool neighbourhood. Then you can just chill with a drink, before you have a great dinner. Like in Riga, when you wanna visit the Holocaust Museum or see the view from the Science Academy around lunch time, so you can eat in the interesting Central Market. Because there is no time to waste with so much to see and so little time to do it…
10 BE REALISTIC
You really wanna see the cultural palace, the castle, the Polin Musuem, the Uprising Museum, the Neon museum and also go to a Milk Bar, on a communist firetruck tour and then eat local food and learn about vodka – when in Warsaw. But unless you’re planning to move there, – you can’t! I’ve learned to prioritize the hard way from travelling with an unstoppable mother. I also keep reminding myself that sometimes just sitting in a park gives the best feel of the city.
This happened to me, when I was in New York and my back started hurting. I had to sit down on a bench in Washington Square reading the Beat poets all day and ended up in a art performance with a stranger. This cultural experience I couldn’t have planned!