Choosing a country, then asking about what to see

Frequently someone will write on these boards "Next year I plan to go to (any country) . What are the main sites to see?" Often I've been tempted to respond asking why would you plan on going to any country if you didn't know what you were going there to see, but it sounds very judgmental and that is not my purpose. Still, I'm curious about the idea of picking a place first, then determining what is worth doing there. Maybe I travel too infrequently, but I've never gone anywhere without having a laundry list of things to see and do. It's always a question of what to cut, not what to do. So, in a sincerely curious frame of mind, I'm asking: Have you picked a country or a region first, on a whim, and only after determined what to see, and are there benefits of that method of choosing over being overly-informed? Examples? Cheers, Matt PS Sorry for the edits, but the computer doesn't like my punctuation choices

Posted by Karen
800 posts

We have often chosen a city and sometimes an entire region (Scandinavia) because of the availability of frequent flyer tickets. Of course, we readily admit to loving Europe so we know that really, anywhere we go, there will be something we'd want to see. As soon as the flight is booked I start doing my research to figure out what's there. Since we often travel by car, we sometimes come across a town that looks like a good stopping point, but it may be small enough so that it is not widely covered in a guidebook. In that case, I have posted something along the lines of "we are going to Regensberg - any special things to do" and gotten great responses. I do think that is different from posting "I'm going to London, what's there" - but maybe I'm wrong in assuming everyone would know at least a bit about London.

Posted by Warren
Castlegar, BC, Canada
260 posts

Interesting topic, and a bit of pet peeve of mine. I went to Europe 3 years ago, and hit all the major tourist sites, Eiffel Tower, Colesseum, Stonehenge, Louvre, Loch Ness etc. I knew exactly what I wanted to do based on seeing these places on TV, learning about them at school etc. They were on my "TO SEE" List. On this upcoming trip, I wanted to go places I haven't been before. Reading this site, hearing comments from other people such as Berlin is the place to be, Prague is beautiful, Salzburg is close to Munich, I developed my itinerary. Unfortunately, I know very little of these cities so I start doing research, which includes asking people what is there to see or do. Where better to ask than on a travel forum, or so I thought. When I posted questions months ago, I got the usual "you should do some research first, read some guide books". I thought I WAS doing research by asking. So, in answer to your question, yes, I do pick a region/city first and then go from there.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3581 posts

I don't think it's so bad for people to pick a destination and then figure out how to fill their time. I do it sometimes. And part of what we can do here is help with advice about things to see and do, especially off the beaten path that aren't as well know (say Musee L'Orangerie vs the Louvre). But I do get frustrated by the very generic quality of the questions - along the lines of "I'll be in London for 5 days, any advice on what I should do?" How the heck are any of us supposed to figure out what interests you? So I pretty much skip those questions. Those that ask about specific interests (What are the best Gothic Cathedrals to see around Paris?) will get better answers. It also peeves me when it is obvious that someone hasn't even done some basic research on activities for their destination. They want us to be their personal travel agent - so I ignore those too. I guess like anything in life, the more you invest, the greater your rewards.

Posted by Warren
Castlegar, BC, Canada
260 posts

And what is wrong with asking a generic question. I apologize for not being the experienced world traveller or not having a working knowledge of every place in Europe, so I ask questions. I ask my friends for reviews of movies, and how they like their new car. I ask if that restaurant is any good and I ask what they did on vacation. I am still waiting for one of them to tell me to go research that movie first, read the reviews and then come back and ask me. It's not laziness, it's a way to get some "generic" ideas so one can concentrate on what interests them. I am very familiar with how many times the same question gets posted, having been a follower of this site for years and how tiring it sometimes gets, but one has to remember that even though the veterans may have seen it before, it's a new question for the poster. It's not helpful to get that same response of "do your research first, we don't know your interests". To me, that is getting tiring. (As I said before, a pet peeve:)

Posted by Andrea
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
673 posts

This is exactly what we recently went through. We decided to go along with friends on their "dream" trip to Scotland (trip completed in June). As the planning progressed, it became clear that although this was their dream they in fact had absolutely no idea what was there! Other than choosing a few distilleries to visit, they were clueless and I ended up planning 90% of the trip. I wouldn't have even chosen to go back to Scotland at this time but it was their big dream. It just seemed odd to me that they would put all this money into the trip and know nothing about the destination and then barely participate in the planning. I was trying really hard not to take over the whole thing, but in the end had to. How does it become your "dream" if you don't know much about it? So, in a sincerely curious frame of mind, I'm asking: Have you picked a country or a region first, on a whim, and only after determined what to see, and are there benefits of that method of choosing over being overly-informed? Examples? ... sort of. We booked a tour to China without knowing much more than the basic highlights (Great Wall, Yangtze, Terracotta Army, Hong Kong). We weren't thinking of Asia at all but a deal came up we couldn't turn down.

Posted by Agnes
Alexandria, VA, USA
1483 posts

Sure, I can get interested in a region or country purely by happenstance - for example, a friend told me about Panama, which I hadn't thought much about before, but now I am intrigued. But before I would post a question on this board, I would pick up lots of books and other resources and get educated on my own first (this includes just reading some threads here to get ideas). My take is don't waste people's time with pedestrian questions that I can answer in 2 minutes with google, but use their expertise for very specific or niche advice once I have done most of the heavy lifting myself. I try to focus on the specific fill-in-the-gaps kind of questions vs. generic how-to questions since the latter are the easiest to figure out on my own.

Posted by Lo
1678 posts

I think George is right. One of our daughters gets all her information from friends. She doesn't bother to research things on her own, although she is an active Internet user. Very scary to this retired librarian. I also get frustrated with people who appear to have not done even the most basic of online Googling or library research on travel to Europe, but I know many people just don't know how or where to start. My own whim-pick required little logistical prep beyond starting in GB in September and heading south as it got colder. I deliberately did little content planning beyond identifying some must-sees and getting a copy of Let's go! Europe. Yeah, it was a long time ago, I was about half my current age and had a higher tolerance for ambiguity. Now we pick based on reasons not often related to what most people go to see, and build the trip around those reasons. Only after that part gets defined do I plan what else to do and where else to go. I always have more things to do than we can fit in due to our very slow style of traveling. Some of those things I have found out about from the Helpline and RS's books. Many are from other similar online resources or Googling the location. It's not exactly chicken and egg but more like lyrics and music. I think this year's trip might be an example. Our 25th anniversary was April 1st. We chose Holland because of my husband's Dutch heritage, his desire to see the Zandvoort Racing Circuit, and my desire to see the Flower Parade, Keukenhof and Amsterdam one more time. We chose Belgium because he wanted to visit the race track at Spa-Francorchamps, because I wanted to go back to Bruges and he was intrigued by the movie, In Bruges. And well, there are the frites, beer and chocolate. We built the trip around those things with lots of serendipity thrown in, both before leaving the US and after arriving there.

Posted by stan
Kansas City
1208 posts

Matt I don't think its unusual to decide you want to go to a country, and then figuring out what to see. But I think what you are really asking is why people ask such broad questions without appearing to have done any research prior. I participate in several forums like this on various non-travel subjects and it seems to be a common thing. I think it comes down to people having two different perspectives on using forums on the internet. Some people use a forum as a library, looking for specific and definitive information from someone who knows more than they do (e.g.,how to get from A to B). Other people use it as a place to have a conversation, much like a pub/club/tavern, where you ask the guy sitting next to you for his opinion (e.g., which place to go), which may or may not be worth anything. Clearly, some people would rather have a conversation than read a guidebook, and some people are not comfortable with this new way of communicating. My two cents

Posted by Swan
Napa, CA
3278 posts

I sat next to a young man on a flight to London once. He had just decided to go to England without any preparation. I gave him a couple of pointers about finding lodging, then shut up. I'd never just jump in like that with no plan, but it was his trip and I'm sure he had a good time. Now we have the internet and people can ask anything they want. I don't answer if I find the question annoying.

Posted by Karen
800 posts

I think Stan's got it right-I probably wouldn't be surprised if a friend asked me during a conversation about travel "where should I go in Rome?". I'm sure I've done the equivalent at one of our Atlanta Rick Steves meetings! It just seems more clueless seeing the question actually written here. Must admit I don't take the time to answer those posts that seem too broad.

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1994 posts

It can be a great way to discover things. I had zero interest in going to Italy (other priority trips I wanted to do), except that I love the art of Fra Angelico. I book flights for a 3 week trip to Italy, with 10 days in Florence (because of the Convent of San Marco), and then set about figuring out what else in Italy I might want to visit. Great trip. Florence is now one of my favorite cities, and I've been to Italy every year for a number of years.

Posted by Susan
Marin County/San Francisco
4031 posts

Wow Agnes, you channeled my thoughts.. I agree with everything you said.. "before I would post a question on this board, I would pick up lots of books and other resources and get educated on my own first".. I do not understand new travelers who don't do this. That's my pet peeve. Like others, I don't answer those questions. To me it's like taking a college class on a subject I know zero about... let's say mechanics.. I go to class but I don't read the book.. I expect the teacher to tell me everything that's in the book. For me, a teacher is there to supplement the book, not tell me what is written in the book. I recognize everyone's different and everyone does things differently.. my way isn't right and their way wrong.. just different. Doesn't mean I understand it though.. :) I would never spend money on anything.. car, movie, restaurant, book, whatever, without researching it myself. Friend's opinions wouldn't carry much weight. Fun to talk about, but generally wouldn't sway me one way or the other.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3553 posts

I will often go places that I don't know much about, then figure it out as I go along. However, I am clearly not one of the people who do a ton of research...I really don't want to know everything that I am going to find on my trip and I dislike running around checking off a list of sights to see. I am a photographer, so I am often looking for the more 'ordinary' scenes... I don't need more images of the Eiffel Tower. I prefer finding the surprises in Europe versus seeing things that I have already seen in an RS video. I won't watch most of his videos unless I have already been to the location... if I know too much about a location I feel like I am living someone else's trip...not discovering it for myself. That is why I like to hear someone else's impression of a location. I took my grandson to Nafplio based on a woman's emotional impression of the location...and it did live up to my expectations.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
7334 posts

Matt, I always know at least one thing I want to see in a city - something I studied, or a photograph I saw. I went to Sansepolcro in Italy because in an art history class I saw a slide of Piero della Francesca's Risen Christ. George, I went to Berlin specifically for the Pergamom Museum, but was delighted by the city once I got there. I went to Orange, France, because I wanted to go to a city whose name didn't rhyme with anything. So I agree with Terry Kathryn and Sherry on choosing places to visit. I use google images for inspiration, too. I also tend not to answer posts that are too general without including anything about the poster's interests, unless the destination is a place I know well.

Posted by Carroll
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
1606 posts

I've always found those questions odd too. But then it occurred to me - I love reading about places I might go and doing all the research. Hard as it is for me to imagine, some people don't enjoy that at all. I think people hear from friends that they should go to Paris or Italy or somewhere, so they decide to go. But they really don't know what they will do when they get there. Well, they are taking a step in the right direction by posting a question. What harm does it cause? No one is obligated to answer As I said, I love to research and plan vacations, and I've been reading about travel even before I had the time or money to go. So I have a long list of things I want to see and places I want to go. At least when it comes to Europe. But the rest of the world, not as much. I've been dying to go to New Zealand ever since I saw Lord of the Rings, but I don't know much about it. And I think Australia would be kind of cool too. So I guess I am capable of picking a place to go without knowing what I will do there. But once I decide to go (saving this one for retirement when I can take more than two weeks), I'll read a ton before I start posting questions on a forum. But that's just me.

Posted by Gemma
San Benedetto Del Tronto, Italy
10 posts

It can go either way with me. This time I choose Ireland because I want to hear Irish music on their own land!

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
5052 posts

Hi, I have done it both ways on the trips. With only a few exceptions, the towns/ and cities I chose to visit in Germany have all been "targeted" ie., those where I wanted to see specific sights or visit a certain museum. In France it was that too or deciding what to see once I got there. But not Paris, there it was specific places to visit. In Poland aside from the obvious, Krakow and Warsaw, the other cities visited were chosen due to location or for definite historical reasons.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
24146 posts

Matt, What an interesting topic and so many great replies so far! To answer the question, "No", I haven't picked a country or region on a whim. I have a seemingly never-ending list of places I want to see in Europe, a list which has been gleaned from a variety of sources - TV shows (including Rick Steves Europe), movies, books, historical locations (especially WW-II sites), conversations I've had with other travellers, etc. This provides a starting point for choosing places to go each year and sights to see in each place. I'm often surprised and sometimes a bit annoyed by the "where should I go, what should I see" questions that are posted here on a fairly regular basis. However, I try to cut them a bit of slack, as there could be a variety of reasons why they're asking the questions (very young, no travel experience, etc.). I'll sometimes answer them if I'm in the mood, and try to point them in the right direction to do their own research. Cheers!

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
5687 posts

I think it is more the type of question like, "We will be spending 6 days in Munich, is there anything to see there?" Those are the ones that make me wonder. Why would you book 6 days in a city and know nothing about what you want to see? As expensive as vacations can be, wouldn't you want to spend those 6 days in a city that attracts you because of what it offers? It often sounds so random, like maybe one of their friends said, "Oh, you must go there, we had loads of fun", but nothing else, so there they are, flight and hotel booked and no idea of how to spend their time. I get people wanting to go to Paris, or Berlin or Rome, as they are capital cities and full of sites to visit, but one still ought to do a bit of research on your own to know what attracts you to go there in the first place, not just because it is a major city.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
6521 posts

One miserably hot August day I simply decided I wanted to take a trip to Europe (hadn't been in about 10 years). I'd been to Paris, London and the Netherlands a couple of times. I asked friends who'd sampled many places on their dozens of cruises (to each his own) and they said "we really liked Italy." I'd never been interested though many of my friends raved about their visits. I went for that and partly because I remembered a movie with Katharine Hepburn in Venice and thinking what a romantic city it was. That was 5 years ago and I've been back twice. I found the Helpline (thanks to "Kent, Pacific Northwest" :-) when I was researching that trip. I wanted a European holiday in February this year and chose Andalusia mainly because it has the warmest, driest weather in Europe then but also because it had been a goal of mine to visit the Alhambra after seeing a traveling exhibit at the NY Met more than 20 years ago. My first question here was "going to Andalusia for 3 weeks, what should I do." Loved almost every minute (driving in traffic - not so much), thanks in great part to Brad who was so patient and chock-full of good advice. I went to Germany because I had a friend temporarily posted to Berlin and just enough airmiles for the flights. Then I went back a year later to see the Christmas markets because so many people on the Helpline had been raving about them the year before. So I understand people who ask those general questions. Over time on this and other travel forums, I've learned how to ask better questions, like including my interests, time of year, length of trip. People who are fairly new to traveling or to travel forums don't do that because they haven't learned how. I try to take that into account. I also try hard to just not respond when I think negative thoughts, unless I think I need to correct somthing misleading.

Posted by Nicole P
Truro, NS, Canada
1750 posts

I guess I've stayed a few overnights between here and there without knowing much about them...other then they were a good place to break up a trip. I do tend, tho, if I pick a spot to at least wiki it and see what's there for the half a day we may spend....Strasbourg - knew there was a gorgeous cathedral, otherwise we just wandered...Augsburg - really had no clue, but we had a great young lady we stayed with who showed us the sights...but for places that I plan on spending more then a day or two at - I love researching both on screen and paper (I have no shortage of city guide books)...but there are lots of people, I guess, who aren't interested or don't have the time to do it...and of course, watching Rick Steves videos is just the capper for me for deciding what to see (or what not to).

Posted by Agnes
Alexandria, VA, USA
1483 posts

@Stan - your post really made me see things in a different light. Thanks!!! I think you're right, there are a lot of people who like the back and forth conversation banter as much, if not more, than the trudgery of research. Technology is diverting people from hard copy (or even e-books) onto online peer review networks (no pre-existing knowledge required) and, hence, some folks come off as completely green. I don't think it's their intention to read a book or come prepared, they'd rather get input from strangers and just wing it - it sounds weird, but its no weirder than using tripadvisor. Maybe they want to minimize their info gathering costs to the bare minimum and they don't enjoy planning a trip in some "orthodox way" (whatever that is) as others do. And, as you said, some folks are uncomfortable with this approach because that's not how they do things (witness the many snaps on this board directed at newbies - ouch!). Anyhow, you made me realize that there's just a generational split going on here, nothing more. Or people are simply taking advantage of no barriers to entry to come online and ask any random, simplistic, out-there question they feel like - is that wrong? I guess not, although it creates a lot of electronic "noise" that's not very valuable to anyone (especially on this site where folks can't/don't search prior responses before shooting off yet another question about currency exchange). My favorite new resource for learning about different places is reading random blogs - some are so information-rich that they are like reading an on-the-ground report and as good as a guidebook. I don't even need to trust/know the blogger but their writing gives me a lot of ideas. Love google images and google earth too - great resources.

Posted by Becca
Provo, UT
169 posts

We've ed regions without knowing major sights...on our last trip, we visited Madrid because my husband speaks Spanish and it was the easiest Spanish city to work into our flight itinerary. I had no idea what there was in Madrid when we booked our flights, but we figured it out and had a great time. It was a wonderful part of our trip (however disjointed; we'd spent the first 9 days in France) and I probably never would have added it to an itinerary otherwise because I never would have researched Madrid independently. I think there are plenty of regions in Europe that I would pick to visit because I'm interested in the landscape or cityscape, or even the idea of the region, but don't know what to do there. Often, my motivation to add a place to my bucket list comes from seeing a beautiful photo of the place, not necessarily of major tourist sights. We're going to Austria and London in December, and we picked Austria for the Christmas markets and because my sister wants to go back, but I personally didn't know what there was to do in Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck) besides music and Christmas markets. It doesn't mean I don't want to go (and I've since learned what's studying guidebooks). I agree that general questions can be tiring and that people should pick up a guidebook or do a quick google search before posing a question to strangers. But, I wonder if most people's lack of precision with words makes it hard for them to ask what they are really wondering. "I'm going to X. What's your favorite thing about X? What's YOUR one must-see? Help me wade through the sales pitches online and tell me what you really liked." Now, probably not every (or even most) annoying question can be linked to language imprecision, but I bet a few can.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
11065 posts

I get the sense that it's not as if the poster doesn't know anything about the city or country. Even if you've never read a single travel guidebook, I would think most people have a general idea of what's in London, Paris or Rome through cultural osmosis alone. Their intention probably isn't "I know nothing about (fill-in-the-blank-country/city), please tell me what's there." It's probably more along the lines of "Help me prioritize or recommend things that aren't immediately obvious.". To answer Matt's original question: "Have you picked a country or a region first, on a whim, and only after determined what to see, and are there benefits of that method of choosing over being overly-informed? Examples?" Yes, all the time. But... based on where I live, that's considerably easier for me to do than for someone who has to fly across the Atlantic. Examples- I visited Marburg soley based on the recommendation of Fred from SF. All I knew of it beforehand was that it hosts a univeristy. But of course, it's only about an hour drive north from where I live. I drove to Trondheim from Sweden, and the only thing I knew about it in advanced was that it has a cathedral and Grieg's "Wedding Feast at Trondheim". I only had a vague idea of what to see in Copenhagen before my plane landed.

Posted by Mira
630 posts

I think it's just a different way of gathering info. It throws me off, too, because I don't learn that way - no offense to the people here, but I want to get my main information from books or articles, then supplement with opinions. I trust Rick's books or Lonely Planet a bit more than random people, most of whom mean well but may or may not have the same interests as I do. But other people feel that hearing directly from real people, not books, is the best way to get a feel for a place. Whatever makes for a good trip for you. I'm an obsessive planner, so if I saw on here that, say, Stockholm (a place I know nothing at all about) was exciting a lot of people, my first step would be to read a few articles or skim guidebooks about it. I'd do a lot of web research, as well, looking at webpages for places of interest. Then if I found that I was interested in it, I'd come here for details and opinions as I planned a trip. Of course, I always travel with a detailed itinerary including what sights to see each day, day trips mapped out in advance, a text file on my phone with hours of sights, maps, restaurants nearby, stores I want to visit, schedules of walking tours, and reservations for each and every night. Very little left to chance. It works for me, but I know others find the lack of spontaneity unpleasant. Different travel styles.

Posted by Sean
New York
148 posts

This is more like a rant disguised as a question. But I agree with you, anyway.

Posted by Tara
148 posts

I don't mind generic questions because if people share their likes/dislikes about a country or city then I'll learn some new things, too. Honestly, I've done both types of travel planning. I love to plan our trips, but my initial reason for traveling there may not have been because of a particular site I wanted to see. I once organized a trip for my family to Acadia National Park based on a t-shirt that a friend was wearing that said Acadia on it. It caught my attention, reminded me I hadn't been to Maine since I was little, and that it would be cool in June rather than hot Florida. On the other hand, I've always wanted to see France because of the top sites, and thus knew (for the most part) exactly what we wanted to see. But, I learned so much more reading the posts here, and as a consequence determined that there were even more places worth exploring in France that I had not previously considered.