"Authentic" Europe? What is it?

Just a discussion post (although hopefully will inspire some good travel tips), hope that's OK. There's a handful of topics that come up regularly that make me a bit curious as to how people view Europe/what they expect out of Europe. Like the dreaded "Neuschwanstein: Ahistorical hoaxy tourist trap?" fight, or the general "What is a real castle?" fight. I see it in an over-romantizication of European cultures as stuck in time and immune to the effects of the modern world, or when people wring their hands about real or perceived Americanization or globalization of European cultures - which is a real concern, obviously, as it certainly exists. But it also strikes me that sometimes it seems like a lot of travelers are trying to force Europe into what they expect or want it to be, and in the process, missing the actual living culture - or missing the fact that "history" did not end in the 18th century. I understand the desire for an "authentic" and "different" experience from back home in North America. Nobody pays this much money to experience the same old, same old, right? And yet at the same time, it seems that sometimes these expectations of a Europe untouched by the modern world, where everything is original with nothing rebuilt, no corporate chains, etc leads to disappointment and frustration on the part of travelers. What do you expect in terms of authenticity? What places in Europe do you feel you've really found it? What does the concept even mean to you?

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

As to my answer, I think it's complicated. I think it's very hard to go out searching for authenticity on a vacation, as there is an infinite amount of research, planning, and history one can learn about Europe, but most of the places mentioned in guidebooks are popular tourist traps and are both popular - for a reason! - yet often the tourist hordes, gift shops, etc will disappoint travelers who want to see "real Europe". Some of the most authentic experiences I've had I feel would be difficult - though not impossible - for someone on a vacation to experience, because it's be recommended to me by a local as a place locals go -in particular, I'm discovering Besenwirtshafts in the Stuttgart area - the patrons are always shocked to see us Americans in them and delighted to talk to us, and want to know how we found the place because they're really just a locals-only thing. And unfortunately, you're not going to read about one in a guidebook, so how do you create that for a visitor? I feel that some of my guests in the past have been disappointed at not having "authentic" experiences in Europe, but at the same time, they wanted to stick to major tourist destinations and attractions - which were all worthwhile. But it seems like a tradeoff. It's harder - though not impossible - to find authentic experiences untouched by tourists (aside from ourselves, obviously) in major tourist locales. That said, sometimes I think the concept of authenticity is overrated. The real workaday "Europe" is just a place where people live their normal lives and often isn't going to be of much interest to most tourists. What do you guys think?

Posted by Russ
Paradise
1759 posts

Actually, Fodor's Germany explains the Besenwirtschaft. I think lots of tips for authentic experiences can be found in guidebooks, but it's hard for an inexperienced reader to distinguish between the authentic and the for-tourists-only stuff. I don't think most normal travelers expect Europe to be something it's not. Many of us - myself included - enjoy visiting places that haven't changed much in 200 years because we can count the number of 200-year-old buildings we've seen in our country on one or two hands. But I certainly am not frustrated or disappointed by cities that ooze modernity. What exactly could American visitors expect of certain German cities so heavily targeted by US bombs in WW II?? Both old and new can be authentic and interesting. But old doesn't necessarily mean authentic, and new doesn't mean fake. My travel preferences run in this order. old + authentic new + authentic old + inauthentic
new + inauthentic So what's an authentic experience? For me, it probably involves visiting a place whose core function isn't solely or almost solely the courting of international tourists. The more Germans that live in, work in, and visit a given destination, the more Germans routinely speak German and interact with other Germans in a normal German way, the more authentically German a place it is, IMO. Mannheim is marvelously authentic. But so is St. Blasien. Neuschwanstein and Rothenburg are closer to the other end of the spectrum.

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
7828 posts

Well I am lucky, since I have family there ( France) and have spend months of summer with family as child and teen, I don't actually want or need some Disney version of a "authentic experience" i have taken the garbage out and picked up dog poo in the yard,, pretty authentic every day living stuff .
I do find it amusing to read constant posts by people who say they want to "live like a local" and think that renting an apartment for a week or two will accomplish that,, I have no illusions about what a local does everyday.. they work, clean up, take kids to dentist, pay phone bill, run to bank, tend sick mothers, they are not on HOLIDAY and I like being on holiday in Europe . I do not want reality, I want good food, wine, , see some historical sites, visit a few museums, I do not seek to live like a local at all. I do however try to eat like a local, which means avoiding tourist trap restaurants if I can,, exactly the same as we do here where I live( a tourist town itself) and I try to avoid spending like a tourist ( a taxi for a 5 block walk, or a quick ride on bus or metro, no way!) To each his own.. Europe is no Disneyland. It is filled with history, recent and ancient. It is filled with regular folks living regular lives too. Last thought, just because a site is busy or crowded with tourists does not make it a"tourist trap". The Coliseum is not a "tourist trap" so those who think their experiences are more "authentic" because they search out places where no one else goes, fine, but its not MORE authentic its just less well known or perhaps just less interesting, lol

Posted by Becca
Provo, UT
163 posts

I like Russ's definition, that something doesn't exist solely for the tourist trade. I would add that an inauthentic experience is when a resident is trying to sell you something (often at an inflated rate) that won't necessarily benefit you, and they are trying to sell it to you just because you are from out of town. For me, I always think back to Paris, specifically the Notre Dame. Yes, it's crowded with lots of tourists, but it's authentic. The side streets around it that hawk cheesy souvenirs are not. In many ways, you can't have one without the other because countries recognize the draw of these authentic sites and try to capitalize on the people who come to see them. Using the word capitalize sounds bad, but tourism is a part of their economy and they need that income to maintain those authentic sites. I'm sure most of the cities we live in count on some amount of tourism as well. I think for a good vacation, you have to accept (and not resent terribly) that there will be inauthentic moments (possibly a lot of them) because when you visit a foreign place, you have limited resources like Sarah mentioned regarding the eateries she's visiting in Germany. But I also think that having a good vacation means being open to recognizing the authentic moments and not expecting them to conform to an idealized Hollywood version of Europe. And, just to throw this out there, I do think that tourism can be authentic. People have been traveling and touring for centuries, though obviously not as regularly or as far. I'm reminded of Pride of Prejudice when Lizzie is looking forward to traveling through the Lake Country with her aunt and uncle, or EM Forster's Room With a View in which they travel to Italy. Sure, generally only the wealthy could travel, but traveling still occurred. Touring does not have to be inauthentic just because we aren't participating in everyday life.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1508 posts

Probably the easiest way to answer this (good) question is to turn it on it's head and ask ourselves what is authentically American, and then what do Europeans want to see in America. The first thing that comes to my head is that there is no one answer to the question of what is authentically American. It would depend on the region, just as it would in Europe. What is authentically Finnish is different than Irish is different than Italian. And what do Europeans want to see? Well, I'm no expert on that, but I've heard many people say that they want to see the West - the open spaces and grand examples of nature. Is that authentically American, or is it a caricature? Most of us don't give much thought to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but we don't begrudge those who do. One could argue that the most authentically American sight is a harried middle-aged mom in flip-flops trudging off to Sam's Club to buy discount goods in bulk. But we don't like to think of ourselves that way. Why should we be expected to think of anyone else's culture that way, even if there is a thread of truth to it? One of my favorite photos from trips to Europe is from Copenhagen - a juxtaposition of a modern Scandinavian-minimalist structure with the upper portion of a centuries-old church behind. I appreciate that there is a vibrant, ever-evloving modern Europe out there. But that is a vision whose differences from home are more subtle, and blurring more and more each passing day as things globalize. No one - be they American or European or Japanese travels thousands of miles to see what is instinctively familiar. But it is important to recognize that there is more to Europe than castles and cathedrals, just as there is more to America than giant redwood trees, Vegas and Disneyland.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1508 posts

Despite all that I said in my previous post, I should also mention that one of my favorite activities in Europe is strolling through residential neighborhoods of both cities and small towns. I do like to get a glimpse into the lives of regular people even if it's just someone trimming the hedges or children at play. Life isn't that much different from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and in some ways that small revelation, itself, is of great value.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
2391 posts

I like Randy's reply the best so far. The reality is that no tourist is going to immerse themselves in an authentic culture. We eat at restaurants 2-3 times a day. We visit places a local goes maybe once a year or two. We visit parts of town either no one lives in or only the 1% live in. I'm sure there are Americans (and others) that visit Europe with some romanticized vision of what it will be like and how people live there. And are dissappointed to find themselves wrong. And visa-versa for people coming here. But most travelers know they are seeing the highlights. I also chuckle at people that think they are seeing lots of old buildings in Europe. There are exceptions, but most cities were largely rebuilt in the late 19th century and then again in the Post-WWII era. There are things like Roman ruins, but even most Greek and Roman ruins are largely re-constructions of pieces lying on the ground.

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3313 posts

I agree with the notion that a place is authentic when it actively includes people who are not just in the tourist trade. For me, that's one of the appeals of a town like Inverness. This is a bustling center of the Highlands of Scotland and it draws in many tourists who want to visit Loch Ness, Culloden or on their way to the Whisky Trail. But it also is an economic core for the highlands for commerce and culture. A number of years ago there was a magazine on Scotland that didn't just offer articles on the castles, and the whisky, and the mountains. It had some of those, but it looked contemporary Scotland too. What were the latest fashions and designs? Who were the up and coming artists and authors? I went to a music festival right after 9/11 in Tarbert in Argyle. This was the most authentic festival I've ever gone to, but it was also the most contemporary. It had a band with a lime green electric violin and they played Cockles and Mussells Alive, Alive Oh! But oh my, it was not like the tune you sang in grade school. ; ) There were a few tourists, but most of the attendees were Scots with a sprinkling of English and Europeans. It was terrific. Pam

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1376 posts

Authentic Europe, or anywhere else, is what's there when I see it.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

The word is so overused, both by individuals and in advertising, that it essentially has lost it's meaning. I see the word used in many different contexts on this website. Some use it to refer to anything that doesn't usually attract a steady stream of international tourists. Some use if for any structure that was never extensively remodeled or rebuilt. Others use the word to describe what Sarah notes- a remnant of an idealized, folksy pre-industrial lifestyle. And finally, some use it when they want to see things that survive only for tourist consumption but they don't want to feel like tourists- I'm recalling a post from a few years ago in which a woman wanted to eat at a Parisian restaurant that had live singing, like Edith Piaf. And she wanted it to be "authentic". Or the woman who wanted to buy "authentic" German beer steins... in Berlin (that's like trying to buy "authentic" cowboy wear in New York). Personally, I never use the word. See the first sentence of the reason why. For the same reason, I don't use the word "local" as a noun and use it very sparingly as an adjective. It's been too overused and taken on too many subcontextual meanings. I think I counted Mr. Steves using it something like 17 times in one episode of his TV show. I like Monte's answer the best.

Posted by Debbie
Sunnyvale, CA, USA
290 posts

Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. To me it's interacting with locals and being immersed. I'm the one standing & chatting with folks at the counter of the bar, pub, hospoda, kneipe, locale, cantina or what ever you might call it. I spend part of my time each year with family and friends, plus also with mutual family/friend contacts in Europe. I stay at family run lodgings whenever venturing away on my own and they most times make me feel like family when staying with them. Yes, I do see many "old tourist", but also experience many "mostly local" places as well. The whole point for me is to dive in and have a good time.

Posted by Jeff
Taunusstein, Germany
234 posts

Monte's answer is on target. I was out along the Rhine this past weekend (glorious weather!!) and stopped at a Biker Imbiss for Wurst and Beer and later had afternoon coffee, riverside, in a nearly deserted resort town. That afternoon drive was authentic in every sense of the word and was a real boost to the spirit after a really crappy winter this year in Germany. Nothing special is required to have authenticity other than to trip across normal life proceeding at whatever pace is appropriate.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo
653 posts

One thing I like to do is go for long walks (as Randy said), or take a couple of local bus rides. Just riding an entire bus circuit gives you a sense of different neighborhoods and of how people do things day-to-day. Then I head for the museums and piazze with all the other tourists, and weave in and out of these two realities.

Posted by Chani
Tel Aviv
3509 posts

Great thread, Sarah. A few thoughts came to me as I read the posts. "Authentic ruins" is a concept that we struggled with here because we are excavating so many ancient sites. One side wants to make it look like it did "back then" so visitors will have a "real" experience, the other side (usually the winner here) doesn't want to add to what was found. For the most part, buildings, walls, streets, columns, etc. are reconstructed using the original pieces found on the site. Sometimes bits have to be put in to support the originals, and they are clearly marked. In a very few places, there is a completely rebuilt structure, notably the Roman theatre in Caesarea reconstituted to be used for concerts. Both sides have their merits. I loved seeing a rebuilt Dresden and I loved seeing only what remained in Pompeii. What did bother me were the German museums which display copies next to originals. I'm not talking about the Pergamon, where ancient edifices are rebuilt, giving you a feeling of what it was like to be there, while clearing marking what is original and what is not. Everywhere there are modern copies next to originals in the display cases. You have to read the little signs (and know the notations, often only in German) to discover if you are looking at something that is 2000 years old or 20 years old. In some (many?) museums, 40%-50% of the items on display are modern copies.

Posted by Brad
Charlotte, NC, USA
214 posts

I think some people expect Europe to be one large open-air museum stuck in a time warp. But it's a real place, inhabited by real people and not everything is intended for our entertainment. On another thread, people complained that restaurants have started offering to-go boxes. A sign of creeping Americanization? Or maybe it's just that to-go boxes make a heck of a lot of sense.

Posted by Larry
Pearland, Texas, USA
417 posts

To me, "authentic" is real, even reconstructed, like a castle, not like Juliet's bacony in Verano.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7211 posts

When I read authentic, I think more along the lines of traditional. While I don't think anywhere is going to be like stepping into a scene from a Heidi movie, I do think the further you get from big cities and major tourist attractions, the more you see the authentic lives of regular families. To appreciate it fully, you have to be ready to converse in the local language - and few of us are. Another factor is a good economy works at cross purposes with preserving "authentic" Europe. Rothenburg looks like it does because the trade route shifted and left the town isolated and economically depressed. If Rothenburg had stayed on the trade route, they would have rebuilt periodically rather than leave the old buildings and walls in place. A bad economy creates a kind of time capsule - because there's no money - but it's not really a good thing for the people who live there (until it's discovered by tourists). Many Americans want to see thatched cottages in Ireland. But as one Irish roofer told me thatched roofs are a pain in the butt, as soon as people can afford it, they switch to something else. The Celtic Tiger boom was also a time when thatched roofs disappeared in droves (except in dedicated tourist areas).

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

"I do think the further you get from big cities and major tourist attractions, the more you see the authentic lives of regular families." Do families who reside in cities, then, have inauthentic lifestyles?

Posted by Kathy
Germany, Germany
800 posts

Authentic Europe to me is.....
1. Having your neighbors stare not-so-discreetly out the window as you walk down the street, park your car, come in and out of your house, etc. 2. Sitting in a Stau 13 km long at anytime of the day or night for absolutely no reason (no accident, no construction, etc.)

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
2391 posts

"I do think the further you get from big cities and major tourist attractions, the more you see the authentic lives of regular families." Do families who reside in cities, then, have inauthentic lifestyles? I think the meaning here was that small towns and cities generally have fewer tourists or sites. Central Prague seems almost completely turned over to the tourist industry, whereas a city like Brno has few tourists relatively. The people I'd see walking through central Prague will likely be other tourists; the shops all selling trinkets. The people I'd see in central Brno will likely be locals doing living their normal, mundane life... Obviously real families live in Prague, just not so much in the central area. Few tourists roam out to the outskirts and suburbs. That's where you'll find the real cultural life of Europe, but that's not really why people travel.

Posted by Deb
Sioux Falls, SD
98 posts

My 2 cents is that if you look for "authentic" Europe, you will miss it. Sure, part of going to Europe is the sites, the castles, the history--things that don't look like home. But if you focus on what your experience SHOULD be, you miss out on the little things that ARE Europe--the woodcarver we came upon in Greece who showed us his little shop, the hotel hostess in Dephi who invited us out on her private balcony to see the stars and the bay at night, the local bar patrons who made us feel at home on a rainy Salzburg afternoon, etc. I find that in touring the US too. Some of the best things I've seen in the US were stumbled upon or the locals sent me. Some of the best meals I had were in little holes in the wall only the locals knew. "Authentic" to me encompasses the day to day "stuff" that is not new to the locals--but they love it nonetheless. It is that "stuff" that defines the character of an area.

Posted by Kathy
Seattle, WA, USA
125 posts

I like to try to find things to do and experience that someone living there would do and also see "the sights". Living in Seattle (and having hosted several European visitors), we like to take them hiking in the mountains, kayaking on the lake, to a baseball game (or even a high school sporting event), to a local restaurant that is a 50's diner, to the local markets that also have crafts vendors, and on tours of Microsoft and/or Boeing. We try to make sure that they see the things one expects, too, but also give them a taste of what we do when they're not here. So, when I go to Europe, we visit "the sights" but try to seek out at least one experience that perhaps you would only do if you live there plus we try to stay in apartments that are residential neighborhoods and go to the local stores and neighborhood eateries. That being said, if anyone has suggestions along those lines for Budapest, Prague and Berlin, I'm taking them!

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7211 posts

Tom, Of course real people live in cities. I mean both the influx of tourists as well as the influx of different cultures (both from different parts of the country and different countries) affect the "traditional" nature of life in cities. Diversity isn't a bad thing at all, but it can be the opposite of traditional. Berlin isn't more traditionally German because of the large influx of Turks, life in the city is different from the country - clothes worn, food consumed, even languages spoken - to, at least, some extent. My sister did her doctorate in Ivory Coast on how the tribal dialects come together to form the language of the city. The difference between traditional culture and city living may be much more pronounced in Africa than Europe but there's still a difference. IMO cities have most of the major sights and museums but small towns give you a better sense of traditional Europe, just as small town America gives you a better sense of traditional America.

Posted by Marilyn
Mentor on the Lake, OH, USA
251 posts

I agree with the posters above who stated what you see is authentic, people going about their everday lives.
I try to let go of preconceived ideas of the way things hsould be and just enjoy the trip as it unfolds, it is all authentic, unless of course I'm actually partipating in a holodeck event( Sorry for the Star Trek reference).

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

Now living in Europe, I think the average RS Helpine patron idealizes Europe a lot and treat this continent as a gigantic theme park where the "natives" are part of the "European experience" as much as Mickey and Minnie costume-wearing animators are part of the "Disney experience". I'm a modernist at my heart, in the sense of thinking things always point to the future, and understanding of past is only valid with that premise in mind. For that reason, I dislike Neuschwastein as a precursor of the impossible and hypocrite goal of "freezing things in time" when they belong to the past. Personally, I like museums or other places where displaying history is done for its sake, and I hate shell-cases of old buildings' façades kept just for appearances whilst their interior are completely modern stores, residences etc. I'd be happy if cities like Paris or Köln teared down 70% of their irrelevant "historical buildings", replacing them for modern glass-and-steel specimens, and preserved better the remaining 30% for instance. Also, people romanticize how Europeans live. Our lives are all too common for most of it. I find it borderline offensive when I read or, worse, hear somewhere a person complaining that other person is not a "truly European" because (s)he lives "like back in America" The Netherlands is particularly prone to attract quite a few Americans who are bitter towards the own American culture and mindset, then move here, only to get yet-more-bitter at locals "trying to be Americans when they should steer away of" (using cars/going to McDonalds/listening English-spoken music/approving law-and-order policies etc)

Posted by Debbie
Sunnyvale, CA, USA
290 posts

Andre, I agree that folks over here do idolize how Europeans live. From what I see by visiting my friends & family, they lead pretty normal lives. Some things are different but no real glamor in it all. I think that some of the folks in Europe feel the similar about Americans lifestyle from some of the conversations I've had over the years. Really we are all basically the same. We are born, live our lives, and die.

Posted by Shelly
Charlotte, NC, USA
51 posts

Like Debbie said earlier, I think "authentic" experiences can be found anywhere, and are in the heart, and mind, of the beholder. I've traveled all around the world, but France, Paris in particular, holds a very special place in my heart. One of my strongest memories, from 9 trips there, is something quite simple. "Saving Private Ryan" had just come out in Paris, and one day I struck up a conversation with a bouquiniste. He told me that people had lined up almost a day in advance to see it open at a theater on the Champs-Elysees. He then said that his dad had been in the Resistance, and how eternally grateful they were to the American soldiers ... and he started crying, he was so emotional (and then of course, I started tearing up). What's more authentic than that?

Posted by Mike
Clawson, MI, USA
190 posts

If I go to a castle that is reconstructed I'm not going to worry whether every stone was cut during the Middle Ages. I know some buildings are reconstructed but if it looks like it did before it was destroyed that's fine with me. If it can still operate on some level like it did back then that's even better. It doesn't detract from the experience or authenticity for me. Even buildings that suffered no damage from wars or floods will need a little nip and tuck eventually. Take Prague, yes the center is overrun with tourists but that doesn't change the age or the history that occurred in those buildings. Authenticity can also come in the form of an experience. It doesn't have to be a historical place or people dressed in costume. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For example this is what I consider one of my most authentic experiences in Europe. I'm sitting on the steps of the Duomo in Milan mid-morning. Suddenly I hear someone singing opera (from Verdi's Rigoletto) at the top of their lungs. I look up to see a guy with shoulder length hair and a beard skating around the piazza on roller blades. He was the singer. That was a cool mix of old and new and was authentic as it gets to me.

Posted by Ceidleh
Boston, MA, United States
1176 posts

Having family members scattered about the EU has enabled me to have a lot of extended stays over there starting at a young age, so my expectations about what's "authentic" are different compared to people who have only read books or seen a movie about a particular country then finally get a plane ticket for a vacation. A certain number of the people who demand "authentic" this or that really do seem to expect to be entertained non-stop with everything and everyone oozing Euro charm and history, kind of like Brad's description of an open-air museum made specifically to enhance their experience. I've experienced plenty of "authentic" chores and errands overseas that are part of my family's everyday life. I've gone along with them to grocery shop at Aldi and they've come here and shopped at Costco with me. The exterior of my apartment building in Boston is actually older than most of their homes out in the countryside. I have relatives that live in a small Irish village roughly the size of 6 city blocks yet they still have a petrol station with a convenience store, a coffee house with free WiFi, a pizza parlor and an Irish version of McDonald's. I've heard first hand accounts from some residents of the disappointed looks they get from tourists passing through who stop in the local pub for a pint and instead of finding some "authentic" old guy in a fisherman's sweater & tweed cap jonesing to take them out back to show them how to cut turf for the fire and regale them with tales of Leprechauns, they discover just a bunch of Irish dudes who are biomedical engineers or university professors texting their wives on their iPhone 4s to say they'll be home after one more drink - and none of them are wearing a tweed cap or fisherman's sweater.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

I wonder if the same question has been asked of European tourists on their own version of The Helpline. The staged gunslinger shootout in Deadwood, SD isn't authentic, but European tourists visit in droves. Colonial Williamsburg isn't authentic, but hundreds of thousands can't get enough every year. Oh, and that "Native American" in full chieftain regalia prancing around the town square in Rothenburg odT is definitely more offensive than authentic, but maybe Germans think that's what modern Native Americans look like. American authenticity also didn't end at the conclusion of the 18th or 19th centuries, but some European tourists want to capture a certain "real life" experience they've read about, studied, or have otherwise enjoyed only from afar. Of course it isn't authentic today, and some of it may even seem goofy to us. Still, this is what they wish to experience, and it's akin to what many Americans want out of their European visits. Is there really something wrong with wanting to experience a unique and defining remnant from a nation's/culture's past, even if it doesn't necessarily reflect reality in modern times? Strangely, a few of my most authentic memories of Europe have to do with drunks: drunk guy at political rally in Madrid getting pulled out of the crowd by police, another old drunk German guy wearing lederhosen sitting by himself back in the train car where you can park bikes nursing a big bottle of beer – weird, and two drunk "friends" who didn't really know each other and couldn't speak one another's language on Bastille Day down at the Champ de Mars (Scotsman overheard our English and tried to become our best friend, too). Drunks are authentic.

Posted by Debbie
Sunnyvale, CA, USA
290 posts

James, you are too funny! It would be pretty interesting to know where that place is in some time forgotten spot, since at least one of your listed items will most certainly pop up being used by a local. But if one exists it won't be there for long if it hits this or any other board.
It amazed me that my family on your side of the pond, who are not city dwellers, had Iphones years before I changed over a week ago(free used handme down) when my 7 yr old razor finally died. Actually in some areas over there KFC and Subway seems to be the local draw over McD's. Don't know what's so great about them, as I don't step foot in one here in the USA. Not too surprising, Phillip Morris is posting a huge profit on European operations.

Posted by Lo
Tucson
648 posts

I've read all these responses and have been puzzled as to how to respond. I worked for the US Army in Germany in the mid-80's. I lived in Nuernberg and worked in Erlangen, Herzogenaurach and Fuerth. People back in the US would say how wonderful that was and that I must travel a lot. Well, yeah, but I only had 2 weeks vacation a year and I still had to do all the normal things of living anywhere. It was "authentic" living on the 4th floor with no elevator and 99 steps (my mother counted them when she came to visit) to my apartment. A friend who came to visit said her favorite part of the trip was not the weekend in Paris, but just seeing how I lived day-to-day. So I guess to me an authentic European experience is living for even a brief time in places with architecture, sites and food I don't normally experience at home. We are definitely tourists and we do eat more meals out, but we also try to rent an apartment for the long visits (7 or more nights in one place). That way I can get up early and my husband can sleep late and we each can eat breakfast whenever we want. I like bringing food home from the market almost as much as eating out. I like being able to do my laundry at home, although using public laundry facilities is a gas for us, too. We like driving and wallking and taking the train or bus or metro. We like just being wherever we are and come with few expectations. Perhaps we are naive, but experiencing whatever is happening at the moment feels authentic to us.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Loving these responses, guys! Thoughtful and intelligent. I do agree with Andre that a lot of people on this board (not in this thread) and just North American travelers in general do seem to expect some sort of theme park experience. My SIL was disappointed that you have beautiful old buildings with a Game Stop or some other modern chain in them - which is actually something I love about Europe, the contrast between old and new which is so visible here compared to many places in the U.S. I think it's awesome that people not only preserve older buildings, but USE them in a modern way. I also think a lot of how people perceive differences in European culture vs. U.S. are not necessarily as pronounced as people think, or rather it depends WHERE in the U.S. you're talking about. A lot of major "cultural differences" that shock Americans here (I'm sponsoring a new family that arrived on Monday from Virginia, so I'm seeing more stuff through their eyes) are pretty standard for the part of the U.S. I come from: narrow streets, parallel parking, most buildings in my area being around 100 years old (my apartment in the U.S. and my apartment here were built in the same year - 1914), cafe culture, shopping at local produce markets and farmers' markets nearly every day as opposed to Costco runs, a distinct lack of small talk and superficial friendliness, a culture of trying to sit outside and drink beer all day as much as possible - these things all apply to Stuttgart as well as San Francisco, yet are fairly foreign to people who grew up in suburban/rural Virginia. Which makes me think that sometimes there is more of a cultural difference WITHIN the U.S. compared to other countries which a lot of travelers don't recognize.

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
4764 posts

Authentic is anything that is taking place in said country. Like others have said, it isn't a time warp over here. Expecting people to wear traditional clothing, listen to traditional music, and so on, is expecting too much. The days when this was so, are long gone. As to those buildings, castles, ruins, etc. of course many of them have been put back together. So what? Why should this lessen someones enjoyment is beyond me. If you want to go see something, go see it. It is sad on this forum sometimes when peoples trip plans are put down with such vehemence, from posters who are effectively throwning water on peoples dreams. The derision that comes out when a poster says I want to visit this castle or that town, etc. and they are told it is all fake, it isn't worth it, and to go someplace else. On to Neuschwanstein. It is a palace, not a defensive castle. There is a difference. It was never meant to be a fortress, as all those castles on the Rhine were meant to be, so stop comparing it with them. I laugh when people say they don't want to see something cause it was destroyed by the French, or in the war and has now been put back together. You might as well write off a good majority of the cities in Europe then. If it wasn't the French, it was the Swedes, or the Turks, or the Brits, or the Americans or the Germans themselves. They have painstakingly restored or recreated them. Just enjoy how they look today and appreciate what went into them. So what if they had to replace the roof or the windows, fix that hole in the wall, etc. etc. I don't see anyone complaining about the cathedral in Cologne being finished at the end of the 1800's as not being worth anything. No, everyone goes there in droves. Is it authentic? Of course it is. It was built according to plans drawn up much, much earlier. Accept that authentic Italy is everywhere in Italy, same is in Germany, Ireland, France, etc.

Posted by Laura
Virginia, USA
2900 posts

Ever been to Busch Gardens Williamsburg? There you can "visit" England, France, Germany, Italy, etc. where you can eat at restaurants that serve pretzels, brats, and sauerkraut, ride on the Alpengeist roller coaster or the Loch Ness monster, and go to Oktoberfest. I would say that Busch Gardens is NOT authentic Europe. All the stuff that is geographically in Europe ... I'd call that authentic.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Michael, your post got me thinking. If I were playing tour guide to folks visiting say, San Francisco, though, I do consider some tourist sites pretty terrible, both because they are "inauthentic" as in they exist ONLY for tourists and have no value except as tourist attractions in an of themselves and because they just plain suck (in my opinion). For example, Pier 39. It's a tacky tourist shopping mall on the waterfront, that's it. Fisherman's Wharf is also tacky and touristy but at least was once a real fishing harbor. If I'm taking guests to SF, the only time we spend in that area is to board a boat to Alcatraz - which is also touristy but has historical value, unlike Pier 39 as it exists right now. (OK, maybe we'd stop and see the Sea Lions too, if they're still there). But when I think about a place like Pier 39, it occurs to me that as critical as I am of the concept of "authenticity" in travel there is something to it, because that place exists, is by some accounts the #1 tourist attraction in the world, and is the opposite of "authentic" by any stretch. Locals do not spend a shred of time there, many people live in SF for years and NEVER go. I can't think of any off the top of my head right now, but there have to be similar sites in Europe that represent nothing meaningful historically or culturally that cater specifically and only to tourists. America at least is full of tourist sites like this. They're only great if you ironically like kitsch or have easily bored kids. I generally think they're best skipped otherwise. Cont.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

For example, I used to work as a brochure distributor in South Dakota, so I worked for all the tourist attractions, hotels, etc and distributed brochures at those places and restaurants, rest stops. There may be no area on earth more choked with inauthentic, useless tourist crap than the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills are also an area of natural beauty, fascinating history, rich and diverse cultures (Lakota, Western American, etc). But you have to find that underneath all the crap like the "Cosmos: Where Gravity Goes Crazy!" and 10 year old "Old West Towns" that are just gift shops and sketchy Helicopter tours and fakey Indian stuff. I got to take my husband to the Black Hills for the first time a couple of years ago and was able to showcase to him what was both beautiful and authentic about the region despite all the crap. (And yes, we missed the shootout at Deadwood, although we did hit the slots...) It's not quite comparable because it seems that - in general - there are less 'tourist sites for the sake of attracting tourists' in Europe than in the U.S. but I for one think it would be a damn shame if a person came to the Black Hills and wasted the majority of their time on that kind of crap. There's so much more of value to see and do. So I still think the concept of "authenticity" has some value in deciding when/how to travel, but I think we have to be careful to recognize that it means including the modern culture and how it coexists with the ancient cultures, particular when it comes to Europe.

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
7828 posts

hmm, there is another question ... which sites in Europe do we consider "inauthentic" or "tourist traps".. I will add first one,, Paris Disneyland. Not saying its not fun,, but it could be anywhere( and in fact is in several other countries/continents) and other then the fact they serve beer there and the signs are in French, there is nothing "french " or historical about it!

Posted by Michael Schneider
New Paltz, NY
6839 posts

The French Government subsidized the construction of the Disney complex, so I'd say it's quite French.

Posted by Becca
Provo, UT
163 posts

I haven't been to Disneyland Paris, but just had the opportunity to take my toddler to Disneyland for the first time, and I don't care what you call authentic, that was one of the best trips of my life. Sure, it's not real America (since we're talking authentic America as well), but it was a wonderful two days, and I can't wait to go back. So, maybe it doesn't matter what's authentic and what's not. Or, maybe it doesn't matter, as long as we have our eyes open going in. I sure don't think Main Street, USA in Disneyland represents small town America by any means, but I enjoy it for what it is. Maybe as long as we accept that Neuschwanstein is a palace and not a fortified castle, we can enjoy it for what it is. Maybe that's what this whole conversation is really about: our own awareness and education. And when it comes to that, we are the only ones responsible for it. If we care about authenticity and reality, then we need to go in with open eyes and minds instead of preconceived notions. I think that's what most of us here try to do.

Posted by Laura
Virginia, USA
2900 posts

Aren't the tourist traps really just the things we aren't interested in? I went to Fisherman's Wharf when I visited SF. To me, it was kind of a tourist trap (although I enjoyed seeing the sea lions) ... a place I don't think I'd visit if I lived there, but one I felt obliged to visit as a tourist. Everytime I walk by Madame Tussaud's or the London Dungeon, I think "why are all these people standing in line to see this stupid place" ... but obviously someone enjoys it. Every once in a while I do something while traveling that I know I wouldn't do if I had to do things over (e.g. the volcano and hot springs tour in Santorini). Usually, I just chalk it up to lessons learned ... part of the overall experience. Sometimes these things make good stories.

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

As mentioned in previous posts, getting out ouf the big cities allows us in some way to experierence the different cultures. That's why we like to say in B & B's out of the city. Travel on local transport. One of the biggest differences for us when staying in B & B's in Ireland, UK and Scotland was the type of housing which is typical to UK and in some respects, Europe. In the UK and Ireland, rows and rows of identical houses in every street butting up against each other. Two or three storeys. With an amazing array and variety of chimney pots. Pocket handkerchief size front gardens and not much more out the back. Love them. So very, very different from the 1/4 acre building blocks most Aussies enjoy.
As a country with a white history of a mere 224 years, we are constantly in awe of the historical sites and the mere 'history' of Europe.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

I like Becca's comment. Also I'm a fan of Disney parks, so I do plan on visiting Disneyland Paris. I wouldn't if I didn't live here though, and was only visiting Paris from the U.S. for a short time. And I wouldn't consider it "going to Paris" or doing anything particularly French, but rather just visiting Disneyland. It's an entertainment park but not remotely representative of anything other than the skill of people who work their hardest to create a false reality. Which I think is cool. (Which is maybe why I'm so interested in the "authentic" question in general - not to get too philosophical here!) I actually think that big cities - while often crowded with tourists - are just as "authentic" and have as much travel value as small towns, particularly if the small towns we're talking about exist primarily on tourist money. Cities may have a lot of tourist attractions, but they're also where real people (unconnected to the tourist industry) live their lives, and I like that aspect of cities. Obviously locals live their lives in towns that exist primarly on tourist dollars as well, but if the majority of people in town make their living catering to tourists, it's not going to be as interesting to me, personally. I love the North Coast of California but I avoid Mendocino when I visit. Mendocino is lovely, but it's kind of Disney-fied and everyone there is in competition for the tourist money. Nearby there are maybe not quite as picturesque small towns where the main industries are still fishing, and logging, and wine, and ranching, and yeah they get tourists do, but they also exist independently. I'd take funky Gualala anyday.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

Sarah: I agree with you on most counts. My top pick in the Black Hills is actually a tie between Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park. Places like Keystone and Deadwood are ridiculous to be sure, but just check out all of the tourist buses and listen for the German language. Heck, Al's Oasis way out in Chamberlain gets German tourists eating buffalo burgers by the busload literally every day in summer. Here's something extremely authentic and wonderful: The Badlands. But what about Wall Drug? OMG! Agree with you on SF, too. I like Russian Hill, Nob Hill, North Beach, Lincoln Park, and Golden Gate Park. These are real and authentic, but Haight-Ashbury sucks...nothing but a touristy place. The others you mentioned are also touristy and crappy. I thought Alcatraz would be that way, so I never went until 2 years ago...excellent tour, however...one of the best I've taken anywhere. In NYC, Times Square is ridiculous IMHO, but it's probably the most visited place in the city. Europe is full of tourist traps, too. What about all of those torture museums, the Hofbrauhaus, or even the gondolas in Venice? But I've done each of these things (sadly). Different strokes for different folks. Opinionated as I may be, there really is no right or wrong way, and Becca'c comments do make alot of sense. Fun topic.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Michael: You're speaking my language and bringing back some memories! Mt. Rushmore is only a tourist attraction and it was planned to be one from it's beginning, but it's not to be missed, I used to drive by it at least several times a week yet it never failed to impress with it's size. Custer State Park and the Badlands are not to be missed. And yet...I retain a soft spot in my heart for Wall Drug, because it's so kitschy and ridiculous that I can't help but love it (and Al's Oasis - been years since I thought about that place! Also formerly a weekly stop for me). Maybe Neuschwanstein is the Wall Drug of Germany. It's ridiculous and not "authentic" as it exists but a heckofalot of fun and worth seeing if you have the time/inclination. Haight-Ashbury remains a disappointment (unless I'm shopping for Halloween - the drag and second-hand stores there have some interesting finds) - many of the most famous parts of SF are a letdown from a tourist perspective and the real charm of the city lies in places most tourists haven't heard of. And yet Alcatraz is really so worth seeing but I know many people who have lived a decade in the Bay Area and not gone because it seems so touristy. I think maybe better than a "you should or shouldn't go here, it's touristy/inauthentic" is just a realistic description of a place. Don't say "Don't go to Neuschwanstein", instead "Go if you want, be aware it's "modern" as far as castles go as part of the Romantic movement and Ludwig barely lived there, but it is beautiful." That let's people make up their own minds about what they want to see.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7211 posts

IMO the most authentic Harry Potter experience is in Universal Orlando. I'm not sure why they all speak with British accents. Bush Gardens tries hard but doesn't quite give me that authentic European experience. Even Epcot doesn't deliver the level of authenticity I'm looking for. :)

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2608 posts

Haight Ashbury wasn't a disappointment in the 60s... it was as 'authentic' as you can get.... or maybe it was all an illusion...who can remember?