How to Travel with a Theme

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I think I’ve become a “typical tourist.” Ya know, the kind that hits the major tourist sites and a few off-the-path attractions, Yelps a few local restaurants, and moves on. I get my basic overview, learn how to save some money, and continue to the next destination.

And that’s left me feeling that my travels have become too vanilla lately. There’s a spark missing. I mean, I don’t think I go to boring places, but there’s just a part of me that feels there’s been less adventure and pizzazz in my travels, that I haven’t done anything really cool, interesting, or off-beat for a long time.

So, I had an idea:

What if I traveled with a theme?

Instead of just trying to see the usual well-known sites, what if I went with a specific focus in mind?

What if I went to see only the jazz clubs of a city or the modern art museums? Or only hiked trails that begin with the letter M? Or went to learn about a destination’s wine industry? Or decided I’d only eat at Japanese restaurants with a local food expert?

Really, it could be anything, as long as it hyper-focused my travels around one idea that forced me to look at a destination in a different light.

(I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but it’s something I’ve never done before.)

For example, I’ve been to Paris countless times. I’ve hit all the big sites multiple times over. When I returned to Paris recently, I wanted something different and new. I wanted a purpose. So I decided to experience Jazz Age Paris. I wanted my own private Midnight in Paris. I wanted the spirit of the 1920s: jazz, cocktails, and literature.

As a result, I spent time in Montmartre, ate at Les Deux Magots, enjoyed jazz in the Latin Quarter, drank in speakeasies and wine caves, wandered the bookshelves of Shakespeare and Company, and got lost in the streets of the Left Bank. It might not have been the ’20s exactly, but I ate at restaurants I’d never been to, went to music venues I’d never heard of, and saw parts of Paris I didn’t know existed (including a wonderful cobblestone street filled with tiny cafés in a 1900s covered market).

It was the most fun I had had in the City of Lights in a long time…because it was different. Designing my travels around one theme forced me to plan differently.

And it’s something I plan to continue. After being consistently on the road for a decade, I need to spice things up a little bit.

You develop a routine after traveling for a long time. Like everything else, you fall into a certain complacency. Sure, you’re in cool destinations doing cool things — but it’s often the same type of things.

So from now on, instead of just going to places, I’m going with purpose.

(Besides traveling with a theme, I’ve also decided to use only the sharing economy for transportation (when I can), as well as to start looking for more tours on Vayable and meals on EatWith as a way to have more unique and interesting experiences and meet more locals.)

If you’re in a destination for the first time, of course by all means see all the main sites and attractions — but try to add a little theme to your trip that forces you off the beaten path toward some different or unusual attractions, sights, and events.

How to Travel with a Theme (in Five Easy Steps)

So how do you do this? It requires a bit more research than opening up a guidebook! Here’s how I planned my trip: 

Step 1 – Pick a Theme
This is an obvious first step. You can’t do any of the other steps without it. For me, I had 1920s Paris on my mind, so I decided I’d try to relive that era. But it could be anything: learning about cheese or wine production, the vegan food scene, jazz culture, the modern art scene — whatever suits your fancy! And, if you’re note sure what theme to pick, think of things that interest you the most and see that destination has stuff related to it or just Google “What is (x) famous for?” and see what comes out!

Step 2 – Research Online (use multiple keywords)
 After picking your theme, go more in depth on your search. Local blogs, general travel blogs, our forums, Lonely Planet, Time Out, Yelp — these are all websites I use in my research. Then I go to Google and type in a number of keywords to cover all my bases. For my ’20s trip, for example, I typed in “books on 1920s Paris,” “how to see 1920s Paris,” “1920s Paris sights,” “Paris speakeasies,” and “best jazz clubs in Paris” and found a number of references to consult and various places where I could experience that ’20s vibe. This allowed me to compile a list of potential places to visit.

Step 3 – Plan Your Itinerary
While I didn’t want to overplan any trip, I kind of wanted a plan of attack. There was a lot to see in Paris and I didn’t have much time, so I prioritized what appealed the most. First came the food, then the bars, then the sights. This allowed me to come up with a general framework for my trip. Tagging sites on a Google Map can help you see how far apart things are and then plan your optimal route!

Step 4 – Contact Locals and Experts
Couchsurfing groups and Meetup.com are incredible places to find locals who share your interest. They are going to know the ins and outs of the city and probably have lots of suggestions. Additionally, the group meetups are a fun way to meet locals who share a similar passion, making conversation easier and breaking down that awkward language barrier. Lastly, Vayable, a website that lets locals set up their own walking tours, is also a way to find local experts and unique walking tours.

Step 5 – Read a Book (or Three) 
To get context, read a book on the subject. While I already knew a lot about the ’20s Jazz Age, I ended up picking a few more books on the subject:

Books also might clue you in to some other attractions too!

****

When you do something for a long time, it can become sort of stale. It can lose its luster. When it comes to travel, sometimes that just means sitting down, relaxing, and watching Netflix until you gain your mojo back. Other times, it means brining back the spice and excitement of those first moments, trying to get that first high back.

I know travel so well that it’s become too easy. I’ll be traveling with a theme much more often, so more of my upcoming posts will be like this Paris post, trying to hunt down cool and unique things about destinations. I already have two new themes in mind for my return to NYC: the best swing dance clubs and the best Japanese izakaya bars. And, for my return to Portland this summer, I’m thinking food trucks only (there’s even a food truck tour!).

Because, as much as I love the popular things (they are popular for a reason), I want to add something a little different and unique into my trips that spices them up in a way I never would have thought about before.

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