Hubby and I are off to Italy before too long. Our plans were mostly completed months ago. Right now we’re refreshing our memories, reviewing all the arrangements we made way last spring. Reconfirming accommodation reservations that probably don’t need re-confirming, but we’ll do it anyway just for peace of mind. I’m researching details of what we might do with our days in Venice and Florence and Rome. Hubby is re-acquainting himself with the driving routes we’ll take after we leave Florence, how we plan to get from one small place to another, what interesting roads we’ll attempt. I have a rough plan for how I’ll proceed with my jobs. Research. Shop. Pack. Go.
And bubbling underneath all our suppressed excitement. While we’re busying ourselves with everything that needs to be done, checking items off our list so all will be ready in a timely fashion, but not ready too early, which will only cause anxiety for both of us. Underneath all this and mostly unspoken is our desire to be on our way. To be tourists again.

Our chocolate-dipped-vanilla-ice-cream-face selfie.  Île d’Orleans, Quebec, 2014.

“Tourist” seems to be a pejorative term these days. Maybe it always was. Conjuring an image of hordes of noisy, clueless, middle-aged gawkers, with fanny-packs, selfie-sticks, three cameras slung round their necks, baggy khaki pants, and socks with sandals. Nobody likes tourists; nobody wants to be considered a “tourist,” or, most importantly, look like one. Apparently.

Seriously. I did an internet search with the search term “how not to look like a tourist in Italy” and got over a million hits.

I spent way too much time this morning on a chat forum on the Rick Steeves website reading what people had to say about the issue of NOT looking like a tourist. Such a lot of palaver. And the upshot is that no matter what we do, how much we try to “blend in,” we probably will be unsuccessful. And even if we do perchance blend in briefly, once we open our mouths we’ll have given the game away anyway.

Didn’t realize that I was “blending in” with the café decor. Paris, 2015.

So if the game is up as far as looking like a tourist, what does the traveller do to avoid looking like a clueless tourist? Well, obviously, do some research. Find out what local customs or habits you might be offending if you wear certain items of apparel. Mostly this has to do with not looking like you’re going to the beach, or off clubbing, unless you are. Wear clothing that is appropriate for the location you’re visiting and for the activity. That’s just common sense, I know. But when we hiked the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand a few years ago, a full-day hike, with temperatures only a few degrees above freezing at the top, we saw a couple of young hikers wearing flip-flops and shorts, and we heard one of them complain to the other, “You told me this was mostly a flat walk.” Ha. Not flat… not a walk. And quite dangerous, actually, to attempt the Tongariro without proper clothing and footwear.

But other than being safe, being comfortable, and being respectful of local customs, I think we shouldn’t worry about what we wear. Okay, okay, I can hear the guffaws. I didn’t say I wasn’t going to worry about what I wear. I always worry about what I should wear, and what I should pack. That’s a given. I just meant that I don’t worry if I’m spotted as a tourist, or not. That, my friends, is an exercise in futility. With my round face and colouring, only in Ireland could I have any chance of being mistaken for a local… and then, as I said, only until I opened my mouth.
And even with research, and all good intentions to appreciate and respect local customs, we get it wrong sometimes. Hubby and I looked like clueless tourists in Buenos Aires last year, when we naively headed out to the restaurant recommended as a great place for dinner by the lovely young man who worked in reception at our hotel. We were surprised to find the door open but the restaurant empty at almost eight o’clock. We entered, sat, and glanced around us for a few minutes. At the back was a clutch of waiters, chatting among themselves, ignoring us. But at the stroke of eight, a horde of locals converged on the place, every seat was soon taken, the waiters flew from table to table, were especially nice to us, and we had a fabulous meal.
Turns out that the restaurant doesn’t even start serving until eight. None of the restaurants serve until eight, said the lovely young man at reception when he apologized for not alerting us to the fact. “Never mind,” we said, “we thought it was hilarious.” Kind of reminded me of years ago when a friend and her husband tried to go for dinner in a small city in Arizona, popular with retirees. In fact my friend’s parents wintered there for years after they retired. At seven-thirty they found many of the restaurants already closing. Turned out that everyone else ate at five. Ha. When you “come from away,” as we say down east, you gotta go with the flow of wherever you are.
But going with the flow, doesn’t mean, in my books, being afraid of making a mistake, or ashamed of being a tourist, a traveller, or a visitor… however we describe ourselves when we’re not at home. Last year I was chided by a travelling companion for asking too many questions, for not “figuring things out for myself.” In truth I think they were embarrassed by my queries. But I think that as long as we’re not strident, demanding, or rude… there’s nothing wrong with seeking help or assistance from locals. Of course you have to choose carefully whom to ask. In my experience most people are only too happy to help. In Dublin when Hubby and I exited the Guinness Storehouse from the wrong door (NOT attributable to the sampling we did inside, I might add) and had to stand with our city map for a moment to take our bearings, we were approached by a young mother pushing a stroller who spent fifteen minutes chatting with us after she directed us to where we wanted to go. In fact, if I hadn’t become so sanguine about asking questions we might still be driving around County Kerry, looking for the Ballaghbeama Gap. And we might never have met a leprechaun. But I’ve told you that story already.
Captain Stan’s Smoke House in Georgia, 2014
So, yeah, we’re excited about becoming tourists again very soon. We’ve done our homework, researched as much as we can about where we’re going, what we’re going to wear, and what we want to do. Hubby and I are not much for group travel, we’d rather paddle our own canoe. Well actually, Hubby does most of the paddling, in or out of the canoe. Ha. I’m the navigator. We’ll no doubt do a couple of guided tours, half or full day. We’ve always found these to be wonderful, whether in Savannah, Georgia; Derry, Northern Ireland; or Machu Picchu, Peru. But we also love just wandering, exploring, and sometimes even getting a little lost. We know we won’t be mistaken for local Italians. But hopefully we won’t look too clueless.
And, you know, we’re okay with not looking like we’re from wherever we’ll be, but just once we’d love it if someone we met guessed that we were from Canada… instead of from that other big country to the south.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being from there. Just that we’re not.
Where do you stand, my friends, on looking like a tourist?


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From the archives


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44 thoughts on “On Being a Tourist”

  1. Sue,with all your wardrobe I know,you'll be dressed perfect,especially now, when sneakers and comfortable shoes are in (and they are a must for any serious walking around any city)
    Italian women are very well dressed and they look very nice, it is simply so integrated in our style ,too.When I was young, I always liked how they (especially dark hair ones) wear navy (in combination with tan leather accessoires). It is about "fare la bella figura"-to be the best version of yourself. You'll be fine
    Now,fashion is a global thing
    I like to be dressed nicely and feel comfortabe but my wish to live like I'm at home somewhere for a couple of days is more about exploring their way of life and local cafes,restaurants,parks etc than to copy the exact dress combination. And some things just happens when you get inspired,you'll see
    My only advice would be to buy tickets in advance (for Vatican Museums,Uffici or similar) if you were not taking a guided tour-the queues are horrible and one is wasting so many time standing in one
    Murano and Burrano are beautiful-it was a nice and unusual choice
    Looking forward new posts

    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. I'm kind of assuming that my classic jeans, loafers or sneakers and jackets will be fine for Italy. Not fashion forward, but tailored and presentable.
      You're right… the unplanned events are sometimes the best and we need to leave ourselves open for them.

  2. Now, this is an interesting question. I would say it depends entirely upon where I am. If, like you, it is obvious I am not a local – China, Japan, Korea – I am quite sanguine when it comes to being bemused and trying to work it out. On the other hand, there are places that I consider so local to me that I don't like to seem too touristy. Amsterdam and Paris, for instance. They feel like next door. And I feel I should know my way round. Travelling to the US, like you it is obvious when I open my mouth that I am not from there and am quite happy – because we share a language so it isn't hard to understand how things might work. Mostly though, I don't mind being seen as a tourist because that is, indeed, what I am. But I don't act like a fool (at least, I don't appear to) when abroad. Like you, I check local customs and no-nos (whistling in Sicily, when a woman, it seems)and observe them. I usually have a go at the language and am polite – more so than at home. Here is the thing that I do THAT MANY DO NOT. I walk at a proper pace in a city that is not native to me. Just because I am on holiday does not mean the rest of the inhabitants should dodge about me as I gaze in wonder and trail along. Plus I do a lot of sitting in bars and cafes just staring about me. It isn't a forced march, the holiday. Which is why I love Dubrovnik and get incensed when tourists return from this city and complain that there were too many tourists about. Perhaps they regard themselves as travellers, not gawkers. Bring on the gawking, the coffee, the cold beer and the ice cream say I. And the merry chat with strangers. I envy you your trip to Rome. Forza! (I shall now proceed in seemly fashion to make coffee).

    1. Our trips are definitely NOT a "forced march." Every once in a while we feel the need to cram more miles in to get where we want to be, but we're not in the habit of squeezing in one more museum just because it's there. I'll try to go with the traffic as best as I can. But in New York a couple of years ago, I found it hard not to get run over on the sidewalk.

  3. Buona vacanza! Agree with sentiments 're being a tourist. As populations becomes more diverse it's less easy to spot the "natives". As long as you're not loud, obnoxious or blocking the pavements I don't see a problem with being seen to be a tourist. Of course it's important to be aware of cultural differences when travelling. Have been somewhat bemused in the past by the obsession with French chic and the time and energy invested in online conversations on how to dress in Paris. Nonetheless I was delighted to be asked in Italian for directions to Juliet's house the last time I was in Verona and able to respond. I like to think that I looked like an italian! Enjoy. I'm sure Italy won't disappoint. Iris

    1. Plus we'll be in touristy places much of the time, so I assume most people will be tourists. I remember when I got all bent out of shape about what I'd wear in Paris in 2015. There was so much stuff on-line at the time. And I worried for nothing. Parisian women dressed very sensibly, and I loved the skirts and low-heeled shoes worn while riding their bikes. I know for sure that I will NOT look Italian… and sound even less so. Ha.

  4. In my own experiences traveling, trying to "not look like a tourist" is my code for dressing in a way that's appropriate and at a more elevated level than I do at home. The funny thing is, when I return home to New England, I try to remind myself to dress as nicely and thoughtfully as I do when traveling!

    The best tip about fashion in Italy came from our daughter who studied in Florence for a semester, and took some classes in fashion and marketing there: locals dress for the season according to the calendar, not necessarily the weather outside. Locals were horrified to see the students wearing shorts and flip flops on hot days in early Spring.

    1. I've started dressing exactly as I would to go downtown for lunch or shopping here in Ottawa. Except I don't travel with my best sweaters. I'm too afraid of ruining them.
      About the flip flops and shorts. When I was still teaching we were always horrified at how early in the season kids started wearing their short shorts and tight tanks. There's no "spring" for teenagers these days. They go straight from winter boots to flip flops. Ha.

  5. A timely piece for me as my husband and I just returned from a Baltic cruise and a week in Amsterdam. I relish being a tourist and am reminded of my little sister when we were children…instead of asking "Are we there yet?" she would always ask "Are we tourists yet?" I still have that wonderful sense of being in a new place and being recognized as a tourist…no, not the type with 3 cameras, maps and socks with sandals…but the type that appreciates learning about the new location, their customs, art, history and doesn't hesitate to ask questions if the need arises. We read and read before heading out to a new place but you can learn much from making the acquaintance of local people. While we have been to Amsterdam before we still did much research to update ourselves on the changes since last being there. Many of the Baltic countries visited were a first for the both of us and we enjoyed each tremendously. My travel wardrobe is kept simple…three colours with the basics in black and white….one additional colour for a pop of interest. Comfortable shoes are a must for the miles of walking….you will have many beautiful items to pack and wear while in Italy. How lucky we are to be able to travel as in previous centuries it was only a privilege reserved for the rich…go to Italy and enjoy being a tourist from Canada…fingers crossed that some savvy locals will be able to recognize you as such…eh?

    1. What a great post! I admire (and share) your sister's and your joyous attitudes when traveling to new places. Yes, we are so very fortunate these days, aren't we. 🙂

      Ann in Missouri

    2. You're right; we are very lucky to be able to travel, and visit so many interesting places. I still remember the canal tour we did in Amsterdam in 1988. The "captain" of the boat put on a taped audio guide and then steered the boat and pointed to the sights along with the tape. Reminded me of when flight attendants point at the exits. That was my first trip abroad and everything charmed me. My very first sight of cobble stones. Ha.

  6. There's a small museum in Florence that's relatively unknown, but one of my favorites in all of Europe. It's the Musee Marino Marini. My husband and I are both huge fans of his work, and the building is phenomenal architecturally. It's a nice break from all of the Renaissance art when you feel like you've seen enough. Have a great trip, and enjoy the food…the best!

  7. No one has ever guessed I'm Canadian, or North American. It is always, every time I've gone to Europe, German. I don't know why (I am just a smallish, fair complexioned middle aged woman of British descent. Dressed to do city activities.) but it makes me smile, I feel very incognito. Of course my cover would be blown if I spoke English to another English-speaker.

    I second the advice from Adele's daughter…despite possible warm/hot temperatures at the time of your trip, it will be fall, so time for fall clothes…anything you have that looks cozy but is deceptively light-weight will serve you well. And make you feel less like you have worn a sundress to a Christmas party :).

    1. Thanks, Georgia. I don't really have much that's cosy and light-weight. Well, except fleece, but I'm not going to wear fleece in Italy. But I'll take some of my darker spring stuff, jackets etc. Thanks for the heads up, though.

  8. Who cares? As long as we're comfortable and presentable. We're probably in a place where tourists keep the economy buoyant so they should be grateful we're there.

  9. Yes! I too have been baffled by the pejorative way people use the word "tourist". Especially people who travel somewhere and come home complaining about all the "tourists" they encountered there. It's an attitude that apparently excepts oneself from the label. Some of my best travel memories are from being honest about being a tourist unfamiliar with a new place – standing in a train station with a map during a strike in Dublin years ago led to a lifelong friendship with a family who "rescued" us. I also live in a town that has become popular with tourists, much maligned by most locals, and have had the most delightful conversations with people from foreign countries trying to read a menu, ask directions, etc. Bad manners -cutting in lines, talking loudly in inappropriate places, etc. – is one thing, but is not restricted to out-of-town travelers.

    1. I know what you mean Patricia. There's a kind of hubris in that comment, isn't there. As if the speaker is the only savvy traveller in the bunch. Ha. Bad behaviour happens at home and abroad:)

  10. Most of our travels have been in Asia where we have no hope of looking like locals, so we don't even try! It's important to be aware of local customs and dress codes (for example, shorts, short skirts, and tank tops are prohibited at Cambodia's Angkor Wat). Other than that, after taking climate and what we're planning to do into consideration, I dress the same as I would at home. Comfortable shoes are an essential as we love to see a place on foot as much as possible. Finally, I've found that a smile is absolutely the best accessory you can wear anywhere in the world and it doesn't take up any space in your luggage! The ability to laugh at yourself is a close second.

  11. Here's a recent observation about tourists who dress to blend in ….

    My last trip to Europe (Venice, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, and Greece) was this past July. At O'Hare where my transatlantic flight commenced, the departure gate was replete with American women of my own (certain) age wearing long-sleeved or 3/4-length sleeved marinieres in black/white, navy/white, beige/white. Apparently, they'd all received the same fashion intelligence about how to dress appropriately when traveling in Europe. In fact, the travel uniform was so obvious that I felt relieved I wasn't wearing my own mariniere, which was packed in my checked luggage. 😉

    And although a mariniere may not be the current version of plaid Bermuda shorts, it'll be a while before I assume a mariniere affords me cultural anonymity outside North America.

    Oh, well. Obviously, being cool isn't getting any easier. LOL!

    Ann in Missouri

    1. Ha. This made me laugh, Ann. And now I'm wondering if I should leave my long-sleeve striped tee at home. But I think that Ines de la Fressange still wears hers doesn't she?

    2. Yes, she does! Last weekend I was in Chicago for the Labor Day weekend and shopped at Uniqlo where I bought, among Ines's other autumn offerings, a woolen black/white striped sweater with single red stripe at the wrists and hips. This winter I will wear it proudly!

      Have a GREAT trip. I'll be (virtually) on your shoulder, enjoying all your travel adventures.

      Ann in Missouri

  12. With all the camera gear I carry I am sure I look like a tourist, but that is ok with me. I am focused on making sure I enjoy myself, that is what matters. I hope you guys have a wonderful trip, looking forward to reading about it. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  13. Wishing you a lovely holiday after your trying summer! Living as we do in a very heavily touristed city it is clearly hard not to sometimes feel irritated by those blocking the subway stairs, etc. As you say, the residents are going to work, while the visitors are on holiday. One of my sons was distraught to hear we would be tourists on a trip to Mexico when he was about 6; he finally explained that he knew tourists were "bad people" based on our casual complaints about driving, etc. Lesson learned, we were communicating a bias we didn't intend!


  14. Like you, the only place I've looked like a native was in Ireland – where, once I opened my mouth, they could tell I wasn't,but were still surprised. My goal when traveling is not to be too loud, since that seems to be a giveaway of Americans. Have a wonderful time!

  15. Sue, How I envy your upcoming trip to Italy! My first trip there was as an undergrad in the late 70s. In case you are not familiar with them, two of the best guides to read in advance of your trip are in the Companion Guide series. The one to Florence by Eve Borsook and the one to Rome by Georgina Masson. Both have been updated but they are not really books to use as maps or as inventories of "the best" or the "most important" things to see. Rather, the authors write chapters on the histories of the cities' neighborhoods. I'm an art historian and always recommend them. Have a wonderful time, and if you go to Rome, don't miss San Clemente. In Florence, San Marco.– Dianne

  16. Last year I wanted to be comfortable but dress well in Florence. One day I wore my only kimono… inspired by the Contessa… and silver sneakers and got some funny looks. The Contessa said it was the sneakers, not the kimono, but I haven't worn it again since. I'm excited for you… that your nasty "rash" is cleared up enough for you to make your trip. Have a wonderful time! Looking forward to reading all about it.

    1. I guess I'll be getting funny looks too… because I'll be wearing sneakers most days for walking in cities and towns and for driving in the car.
      P.S. It feels glorious to be feeling normal again. Okay… as normal as I ever get:)

  17. I guess I like to look like a stylish American when I travel to a city in another country;).

    I hope you guys have a WONDERFUL time, and I can feel the anticipation in every word of this post.

    1. Me too… except I aim to look like a comfortable, stylish Canadian. Still remember that shot of you in Scotland (when you travelled with your son) and you were wearing a dress and sneakers and looking so cool.

  18. Many years ago on my first visit to Malta where my husband grew up, it was very warm at the end of April and I suggested going swimming. My sister in law was horrified. "We don't swim until June, only tourists swim out of season". Things have relaxed in many ways since then, but being well dressed when leaving the house is still very much a way of life. You are sure to meet some one you know!
    When travelling in Europe, clothes don't mark me as a tourist so much as the fact that I'm gazing in awe at wonderful old buildings that have been in use for many hundreds of years. It's just not something we have here in Australia.
    We are also off to Italy next month, beginning in Naples, then down the Amalfi coast, across to Puglia, and finishing with a few days in Rome. Much glorious gazing in store and of course lovely local delicacies to eat.
    I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time and so will we.

    1. I grew up in an area of Canada where lots of people from south of the border summered. They usually drove much bigger and nicer cars that us locals, and owned many of the beautiful, historic, "cottages" in the small coastal communities. There was always an under current of resentment for these moneyed visitors. I didn't understand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of this resentment until I started travelling to places where it was assumed that I had lots of money because I could afford to travel. And of course I do have lots of money in comparison to so very many people in the world. It's an interesting topic, isn't it? How locals see tourists in various parts of the world.
      Have fun on your Italian trip! I'll wave at anyone with an Aussie accent on the Amalfi, and in Rome, just in case it's you:)

  19. I was raised in a small town and, for the most part, lived and worked in small cities. I was in my early forties when I made my first trip to NYC for a job interview. The company put me up at a hotel close enough to the office to walk, all in Mid-Town.

    Imagine my surprise when upon checking into the hotel, the restaurant staff was just clearing the lunch buffet at 4pm. Even bigger surprise when I went down for dinner around 5-5:30 and I was the only patron. I had four waiters…they were so sweet. LOL! I soon learned that was WAY too early for New Yorkers.

    1. I love this story, Donna. I grew up in rural New Brunswick… dinner at home was always on the table at 5:00. It takes some doing to adjust to a later dinner time… without starving to death. Ha.

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