Why the best travel experiences often involve seeing nothing

Jubilee Blackfriars Bridge

I was in London on Sunday as part of a family day out to experience the Jubilee celebrations. We didn’t see much of the pageant and may have got a brief glimpse of the Queen (it could have been Camilla, we were a long way away) but at the end of the day our troupe of seven all agreed that we had enjoyed our day and were glad we had made it into London despite the weather and the congestion.

Yet on the face of it our positive experience had little to do with all the hard work and considerable expense that had gone into setting up London’s big party. We didn’t see more than a quick glimpse of the boats on the Thames and only got to the riverside when the Queen had long passed. We didn’t dress up in Union Jack paraphernalia, our only concern being to have the right clothes for the weather.

What we did do is get caught up in the crowds that hung around Fleet Street and The Strand, that hovered around Piccadilly Circus and that shuffled towards London Bridge in the afternoon rain. The high spirits, the traffic-free streets, the painted faces of excited children and the good-natured banter of those caught up in the melee around the river made the trip worthwhile. I don’t hold any strong views for or against the UK having a monarchy and didn’t swell with pride or gratitude as those interviewed by the BBC appeared to do in perfect unison. I merely wanted to experience the atmosphere in London on one of its biggest ever public celebrations.

The events of the day got me thinking. We had a good time without experiencing any of the highlights that were promoted on TV and elsewhere in the previous weeks and months. Isn’t there a parallel here with our experiences as tourists? We often go somewhere with a main purpose of seeing a world famous statue, museum, cathedral or natural wonder. But how often, when we’re home and back in the swing of our normal lives, is it these pre-packaged travel experiences that stick in our mind? Or is it more likely that we remember best of all a chance encounter with a friendly passer-by, a sensational slice of cake at the cafe we stumbled into when our feet were crying out for a rest, or a hilarious overheard conversation between a fellow tourist and a local?

Those involved in tourism go to great lengths to create the perfect travel experiences for their potential visitors. How challenging it must be for them that many of the most memorable moments are spontaneous ones that can’t be artificially created or stuck in a TV ad. In fact, many of my best travel memories, those that instantly take me back to a place and put a smile on my face, happened in one location but could have occurred anywhere.

I’m glad I was part of that Jubilee crowd, even without seeing more than half a dozen or so entirely forgettable boats. It was witnessing the jostling and scrambling for vantage points, not to mention the retreat into a coffee shop for giant cups of hot chocolate that made the day; now how do you bottle that and make it look appealing to others?




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Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to “Why the best travel experiences often involve seeing nothing”

  1. Great post, Andy. I’ve long been a fan of experiencing places and people, soaking up the atmosphere of the streets, getting caught up with the crowds at events, and just kicking back and taking in the vibe of a destination. And I’ve definitely noticed a trend toward this sort of local travel in recent years and a shift away from sightseeing.

    Destination NSW in Australia has actually just embarked on a campaign to promote Sydney in Winter that we’ve been a part of over the last seven weeks (wearing our Grantourismo hats), and, called ‘Sydney, love every second’, it’s exactly about bottling those moments. It will be interesting to see how they use the content we’ve been creating over coming weeks/months, much of which has been made by travel bloggers, writers, filmmakers and photographers like us who’ve just been out and about experiencing the city.

    June 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm
  2. I completely agree with this! My best travel memories are also from just wandering around a scene and soaking up the moment.

    June 9, 2012 at 3:51 am
  3. A well thought out article and so true. We talk about enjoying the journey and not the destination and this article once again proves that.

    Large crowds and high expectations have sometimes made us wonder why we bothered in the first place.

    But if we take away the urge to tick off a ‘must see’ event or ‘must see’ building/town/country we can concentrate on enjoying those small intimate moments that happen on the way. These events often make the journey so memorable.

    Happy Travels


    November 21, 2012 at 4:38 am