The Art Historian’s Guide to Not Being A Perfect Traveler

If you’ve been reading my blog for a little while, you know that I easily get carried away with describing architecture, or with my enthusiasm for medieval manuscripts. I think of myself as an art historian with a desire to travel as a way to explore culture and history around the world. I claim to be a bookworm and museum-junkie. And if you had gone to school with me, you probably would have hated me for being way too competitive about grades. (During my undergrad I once even had a nervous breakdown and cried for half an hour in my professor’s office, because he gave me a C on a paper. Yes, I’m totally THAT person.)

To be honest, I’m a smart-ass and a know-it-all. And I really like people to consider me being well-educated, well-read and culturally interested.

But the truth is — I’m not. At least not all the time. Sometimes I’m just a girl who doesn’t care about all these things.

If I have to choose between a culturally relevant TV report and a stupid model casting show, I totally go for the latter. When I’m riding the train I prefer bringing trivial literature: Although I have a literary studies degree, I won’t touch that Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy on a train ride. I tried. I can’t help it, I prefer reading the latest issue of Glamour, because sometimes purses and soft cuticles are simply all I want to read about. If you have to study “old / important / academic” literature on a daily basis, you eventually just need a break from it all. And yes, I’m also an anonymous Chicklit lover.

Don’t get me wrong, most of my favorite books were written in the 18th and 19th century or at least take place in the Middle Ages. James Joyce has given me one of my most revolutionary epiphanies. But sometimes only reading things that makes you think, is exhausting.

As an almost art historian I naturally love museums. I adore the feeling of butterflies in my stomach when I walk towards a painting that I’ve been waiting to see my whole life. Sometimes I would start crying in Gothic church, because I can’t handle all this overwhelming architectural beauty. But there are also times I prefer to not be confronted with art or history. Visiting a museum is draining — usually the air is bad, there are no glimpses of daylight, and your feet start hurting within seconds.

So, would you call me “bad art historian” just because I’m sometimes not in the mood to spend a sunny afternoon at the museum? Would you say “Do you really watch this trashy TV show, although you’re a student of humanities and should know more culturally relevant kinds of entertainment”?

Who says art historians are not allowed to take pictures with a nice “view”?

I’ve learnt that this dilemma also applies to traveling. When I visited Paris for the first time, I wanted to see as much as possible in those three days. I ended up spending way more time in the metro than actually experiencing the city. It took me a while to realize that you can’t see everything — especially not in three days. I should have skipped a few must-sees. I should have spent more time actually seeing the little things that really define the city. Because what you can do while traveling, is embracing the local life: Sit in the sun, have coffee, watch people.

Sometimes other travelers can get quite judgmental: “What? You were in Paris and didn’t go the Louvre?!” You’d almost feel obliged to see something, because it’s a MUST-SEE, although you’re not even interested in it. But if you want to skip the Louvre, just do it. You don’t have to justify yourself. Buy a bottle of wine and sit in the sun on the Seine, or stay in your comfy hotel bed and watch old episodes of Seventh Heaven in French. In spite of what some people might think — there is NO right way to travel.

I went to London last year and did not visit one of the famous art galleries. Me. Of all people. I did feel a little bad about it at first. But how stupid would it be to spend four perfect days full of rare English April sunshine inside when I could sit outside eating scones?

And speaking of scones — the judging of other people’s travel style happens especially often when it comes to food. Of course, exploring the local cuisine is fun and a major part of getting to know a foreign country. I love indulging in local flavors, because food, language, and culture are always closely intertwined. And among most travelers an unspoken rule exists saying “Don’t you dare eating at one of those horrible globalized fast food chains!” Well, I do that from time to time.

A McDonald’s vanilla milkshake and the Charles Bridge in Prague?
A heavenly combination! 

Seriously, do you think French students eat at fancy-schmancy haute cuisine restaurants all the time? Nope. They go to McDonald’s like everyone else. And I actually like to eat at McDonald’s on the road every once in a while, because despite its reputation it’s different in every country. In Germany, they serve traditional German rolls for breakfast, in Portugal they offer the renowned traditional soup caldo verde. And in Paris I had a goat cheese wrap for dinner — and chèvre is indeed très française, non?

So what I’m saying is — there is no correct way to be an art historian as there is to be a perfect culturally interested traveler. After all, we’re just human. Sometimes we just don’t feel like reading that book “you really should have read”. Sometimes we just don’t feel like going into the museum “you simply can’t miss when you’re in town”. Sometimes we have a day that only Burger King French fries can turn around. And that’s completely okay. Don’t pressure yourself with seeing every must-see, with doing every must-do.

I’m fine with not pretending to be the smart art history girl all the time. And I’m fine with not being the perfect culturally interested traveler all the time. And you should be fine with that too.


This might have been my last post until mid April, until the horrifying day my Master’s Thesis is due. However, in the first week of April I will take part in an art historical field trip to the beautiful medieval city of Nuremberg in Bavaria — so be sure to follow @JulikaSarah on instagram and twitter for real time updates of half-timbered houses, Gothic churches, and other Bavarian treats.

  • I am not at all an art historian but I’d certainly consider myself a “culturally interested traveler”! And I completely agree with you. We’re people, too… beneath all that intellect 😉 high culture, low culture, it’s all a part of the experience.

    Best of luck with your thesis!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks so much Danielle! I love your phrase “high culture, low culture, it’s all a part of the experience” — couldn’t have said it any better!

  • Lizzie Davey

    I’m an art historian (kind of – more of the modern kind, though) and I feel exactly the same as you! I went to Paris and didn’t go to the Louvre (shock horror)! I actually preferred sitting in a cafe, outside, enjoying daily life going on around me than being herded around an art gallery where I probably wouldn’t be able to see most of the paintings through the crowds. Confession: I go to McDonalds too when I’m away! If you’re after a quick snack on the cheap it’s perfect and, like you say, it varies from country to country. As long as you don’t have McDonalds for every meal I don’t see anything wrong with it AT ALL! 🙂

    • JulikaSarah

      Please let’s meet in Paris someday and be perfectly content art historians sitting in the sun chatting about art rather than squeezing through crowds to see a fake version of the Mona Lisa, Lizzie 🙂

  • He, I think the need to justify yourself is especially urgent when you grew into the academic field of humanities in Germany, because man, the quota of pretentious douchebags is high in that department!! I’ve got an M.A. in literature and I haven’t read Goethe’s “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” or Schiller’s “Die Räuber”. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the shit people have been giving me about that. Well, have they read Sienkiewicz’s “Krzyzacy”? Or Ivo Andric’s “Na Drini Cuprija”? Or even just Sasa Stanisic’s “Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert”? No, Have they even heard about those books? Probably not. Am I judging them? No, dammit! Sorry, am I getting carried away? Anyway, love this post! 🙂 <3 good luck with finishing, I'll cross fingers non stop until April 9th! xx

    • JulikaSarah

      Aw, I knew you would get me Mariella! Though I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned here — shame on me! 🙂 And thank you!!

    • No, it’s not a shame!! I mean, unless you’d like to read them. Especially the Andric and the Stanisic are really really great 🙂 There will be a ton of books though that you have read and I haven’t. Let alone works of art you know that I don’t… – shame on *me*, really! 🙂

  • I absolutely love everything about this. Even though seeing and experiencing a cities artwork is incredibly awesome…its not like you really get to experience the city while inside.

    great piece!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you so much Ashley!

  • Great things to keep in mind! Here in Spain they don’t have milkshakes at McDonald’s 🙁

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks Christine! I remember being very disappointed when I once ordered a milkshake during a vacation at the Costa Blanca and was told they don’t have it in Spain!

  • dewtraveller

    Absolutely agree with you Julika! Sometimes you just can’t be “culturally interested” all the time – it’s tiring and it’s nice to do something “uncultured” every now and again.I don’t think people should judge you for that either! Good luck with the thesis!:)

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks Aggy! It feels good to know that you have “uncultured” moments while traveling too 🙂

  • Hey, totally get ya. Sometimes I feel like I have to see a certain piece, like the Mona Lisa, and find myself running into the Louvre solely for this purpose, only to be like ok, great…. and move on. It’s really dumb and I think it’s so much more important to grasp the vibe of the destination.

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks Alex! The Mona Lisa is probably the best example! Five years of studying art history couldn’t teach me why it is such a famous painting. And the one in the Louvre isn’t even the real one (the actual painting has been hid in the museum’s basement since the acid attack) — so why bother instead of doing something you are really excited about!?

  • I absolutely loved this! We would be fast friends in real life! I have a medieval studies degree, manuscripts, fine gothic architecture and a nice triptych, love it! But I totally agree, when that’s so much of your work and time, when you’re traveling, you just need to sit back and absorb your surroundings, and EXPERIENCE the moment, not spend it with your head in a book or something. Great post <3

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you so much Liz! I guess it all comes down to balancing both aspects — learning and simply enjoying — while traveling! 🙂

  • Love, love, love this post. As a history major I’ve gone through a similar journey that you have in coming to terms with doing what YOU want while traveling, and not the expectations of a guidebook or conventional wisdom. Although I loved every minute I spent in Paris hitting all the must-see sights, I did try macarons for the first time at (yes) a McDonald’s 🙂

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks for your support Trevor! I’m so glad you can relate! And — they have macarons at McDonald’s?? I didn’t know!

    • Yeah, it wasn’t my proudest moment, but at the McCafés in the glass fridge display case, they’ve got multi-colored macarons down there. I’ve seen them in Paris, and in Spain, too!

    • JulikaSarah

      I have a trip to Paris planned in the summer and I will definitely check this out! Who knows, maybe I’ll write a post about where to find the best macarons in Paris: At Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, or McCafé? 🙂

  • LOVE this post. I’m a history major and total foodie but sometimes I just want to sit in a McDonalds with a burger and use their WiFi to catch up on stupid news from home or Facebook and then skip a museum to sit in a park and read a chicklit book. You are completely right when you say so many others judge you for this. It’s stupid. Travel is supposed to make you happy and not be some sort of competition. I’m now firmly in the do what makes you happy when you travel camp and I’ve never been happier.

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you Amanda! “Travel is supposed to make you happy and not be some sort of competition” — this is the essence of what my point was here!

  • I’m absolutely the same when it comes to grades and school stuff. Always try to be the best and I cried when I got a B so I’m even worse than you I guess :):), however I don’t fancy visiting too many museums, I’m more into food, locals and the scenery 🙂

    • JulikaSarah

      Well, who needs museums when there’s good food and beautiful scenery? 🙂 Everybody should choose his or her own priorities while traveling!

  • I love this post! It’s no fun being cultured all the time. 🙂 I’m an expat in Spain, and I like having a good healthy mix of parties and museums. Doing what you like is the best way to travel.

    Like Agness, I cried over a B in school. I would have been absolutely hysterical over a C, so I’m with you on that one!

    P.S. Good luck with finishing your thesis!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you Jessica! Your life in Spain sounds like the perfect balance! 🙂

  • push that butt!

    • JulikaSarah

      Ha! I sure did 🙂

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  • Good stuff. I like McDonald’s abroad because they also have free wifi and toilets, and if you’re really rough, you know the food is generally safe and can cure a bout of homesickness too. No shame in that! Good luck on the thesis!!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks so much Edna! I always rely on the clean toilets at McDonald’s and Starbucks 🙂

  • Totally agree! I’ve actually been a bad traveler here in Myanmar recently. Today I’m staying inside, watching TV, and had a burger for lunch (sadly it was awful, but there is no McDonalds in Yangon 🙁 haha) And why? Because it’s too hot and I’m just totally ready for my flight out tomorrow Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing things or trying so hard all the time! Traveling can be exhausting, and taking some mental breaks every so often can really help 🙂

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks Jessica! I’m so glad you can relate! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your travels in Myanmar!

  • Andrea

    Hello!! LOVED your blog. Is it possible to visit ALL of this in 11 days? =/ If it isn’t which ones would you recommend?? My boyfriend and I are thinking about going there for our honeymoon (jan 27- febr7) Also, what about the weather around that time of the year? And, is it possible to visit all of this staying in Lisbon or you would recommend heading to another city for a few days?
    I Know you’re not a travel agency but I would really appreciate your help!!!
    Greetings from Costa Rica

  • Nadia

    LOVE This post!!! This is exactly how I feel about traveling 🙂

  • Kristen L.B

    Can’t tell you how much this just helped me! Lol I’m planning a trip to Japan, and I’m trying to fit in all the “must sees” and it’s been stressing me out because I’ve been wondering how I’m going to all these things AND have time to just relax, get lost, and experience how the locals actually live (which is my favorite part of travel). So after reading this I’m just like “what the hell!” Why and I trying to force myself to see all these things that don’t all matter that much to me?! XD I need to stop giving in to travel peer pressure.