How art and research boost the pleasure of a big trip

Court of Myrtles
The Court of Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

When I was a kid, anticipating Christmas brought almost as much pleasure as the day itself. List making, tree trimming, shaking and squeezing packages while guessing the contents rivaled opening the gifts on December 25.

As an adult, something similar happens when I book a big trip. Learning about my travel destination and understanding the culture of the people who live there is as rewarding as taking selfies at tourist attractions.

Well before I check a bag or board a plane, I take these steps to prepare for my adventure.

Berlin Cathedral
Berlin Cathedral in Germany.

I read guidebooks.

Rick Steves happens to be my favorite guidebook author. Last year, when I visited my daughter who was studying in Berlin, it was Rick Steves who explained that the two unassuming police officers standing outside an apartment building in Berlin were guarding Angela Merkel’s home.

While I like to buy and carry one guidebook with me during my vacation, I also check out additional travel guides before my trip from the library. This allows me to cross-reference advice from other authorities like Fodors, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet.


Fountains and Arches
Touring the grounds of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

I seek out the arts.

Watching movies in the language of my travel destination allows me to practice phrases and get acquainted with the sights and sounds of a location. Novels highlight significant events in the history of the people and the places that I might not have pondered.

For a primer on the fall of the Berlin Wall from an East German perspective, I watched “Goodbye Lenin!” and “Barbara.”

I travel to Spain frequently. I’ve read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway and watched “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Guillermo del Toro. For a glimpse into modern Spain, I enjoy watching movies from director Pedro Almodóvar. One of my favorite Almodóvar movies is “Talk to Her.” And for a trip to Granada, nothing beats Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra.”

For an upcoming trip to Paris, I’m reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” I’ve watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” as well as the anthology film with 22 directors, “Paris, Je T’aime.” And, of course, I’ll watch for the umpteenth time “Amélie,” a personal favorite.

Arches Cordoba
Arches in the oldest part of the mosque in Cordoba, Spain.

I research online.

TripAdvisor, Google reviews, Priceline, Yelp and other websites are helpful resources when it comes to choosing hotels and restaurants.

I typically test my research results across sites. A restaurant may have glowing reviews from tourists on TripAdvisor, but Google reviews from locals might tell a different story.

Cordoba patio
A glimpse into the inner patio of a residential building in Cordoba, Spain.

I value flexibility.

Instead of creating a rigid and frenetic schedule, I view my research and planning as a way to stay open to new experiences.

Each day, I often start with a list of things I’d like to do, places to see, and food to eat. However, I know that it isn’t likely I’ll do everything. I may choose to linger at one destination longer than I originally planned or stop in at a cafe that I stumbled upon by accident. Because of the research I’ve done, I know what is, for me, a must see or do, what is something I’d like to do if I have time, and what I can cut if something more appealing pops up unexpectedly.

How about you? Do you relish vacation planning? What are your favorite ways to prepare for a big vacation?

Tempelhof Airport
Wandering the grounds of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. Photo credit: Enrique Serrano Valle.

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