Smarten Up! How to Perfect Your Travels By Becoming an Expert

When I first started traveling a lot, there were so many things I didn’t know about the world and how it was put together: what the heck a Gothic church was (I just knew goths wore black), how you should eat sashimi or, since I grew up in Australia, much at all about US presidents. Eventually, traveling taught me a lot about these things (and many more), but I know I could have got a lot more out of my trips if I’d given myself a few crash courses first.

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That’s why I’ve put together this guide on the most useful areas to learn about before your next trip. It depends where you’re headed, of course, but I don’t think learning something actually ever hurt anyone (yes, I’m a teacher in my other life), so I’m going to suggest that finding out more about all of these topics will make your travels even more worthwhile.

History and Why Knowing Your Wars Is Essential

It sounds obvious to say that a lot of the places you’ll visit when you’re traveling are historical. But this also means that you probably need to brush up your history knowledge to get the most out of your trip. You might have learned some useful stuff in school — my curriculum focused on Europe during the world wars, China during the last few centuries and well, a vague mention of Australian history. Useful-ish, but largely forgotten, and missing some very important chunks of world history, not to mention completely ignoring anything that happened in the Americas or Africa.

If you’re in any doubt about how to tackle things, simply learn about wars.

Try to read up on the history of the countries you’re visiting, but if you’re in any doubt about how to tackle things, simply learn about wars. Now, I hate wars passionately, but you can’t learn about the past without learning about wars, and they crop up everywhere on your travels: monuments and memorials, museums, cemeteries and even as national holidays. If you’re not a history fan and just want the bare bones of knowledge to go traveling with, learn a bit about the major wars, when and where they happened and why, and you’ll be streets ahead. Wikipedia can help you out here (and with pretty much everything else I’m going to talk about), and the History Channel website has a heap of interesting info too.

Interior, low-angle shot of The Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City
The Church of the Holy Innocents, NYC © mudpig

Architecture and How to Recognize a Gothic Church

Here in Australia, churches tend to be in modern brick buildings with slightly pointy roofs. When I went to Europe, I discovered that how a church looks can actually be very complicated. But unfortunately, at first I didn’t know much and just ending up wandering quickly in and out to say I’d been there, without appreciating all the differences.

It wasn’t until some years into my travels that I met a guy who was so obsessed with church architecture that he actually stayed a whole week at one church, going back every day and studying every nook and cranny. I thought that was a bit extreme, but the one thing I remember learning from him is that if I thought a church might be Gothic, I should check: does it have pointed arches, flying buttresses and stained glass windows? If so, then I was probably right.

Now whether it’s churches or other historical buildings, knowing a bit about the various periods of history and their architectural styles can really make a day out sightseeing a whole lot more interesting. Being able to throw around words like neoclassical, Tudor, Bauhaus and Byzantine and actually have some idea about what that means in terms of how a building looks is, I promise, a worthwhile skill to have on the road.

There are tons of ways to learn about architectural styles but a quick one is the Victoria and Albert Museum Microsite which covers a lot of the major styles with just a few words and lots of pictures.

Bird-Watching and All That Other Animal World Stuff

I’m a nature lover but more in the sense of enjoying a beautiful landscape than knowing which bird makes which sound. In fact, it was only when my Swiss relatives visited me here in Australia recently that I actually started to learn the names of the birds that frequent my backyard every day. But do as I say, not as I do, and make the effort to learn about the fauna and flora of your destination. Keeping your ears open for a bird call — even in cities — adds an extra dimension to your travels.

And of course I’m not just talking birds. Dangerous animals (everyone loves to learn about snakes when visiting Australia), local insects, cute and cuddly native species — whatever a country offers you, try to find out about the animal and its habits before you go. Then when you’re walking down the street and you’re confronted by a weird flying insect or a rabid mammal, you’ll know more about what’s happening.

In this instance I recommend National Geographic Animals which has an incredible A-Z list of animals which surely includes everything you’d ever want to learn about — I just found out about the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, for example.

Exterior shot of Tacoma Glass Museum, Seattle
Tacoma Glass Museum, Seattle © Wonderlane

Artists, Art and Knowing Which Way Up a Painting Goes

In my early traveling days I quickly got sick of art galleries. Not knowing too much about art other than what I subjectively liked or didn’t like, I was the kind of traveler who would hurtle through the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and then not see much else on the way out.

I’d already started to change over time — perhaps a symptom of slowing down and taking time to look around — but when I met the guy who’s now my husband, my art gallery days really started looking up. Because he’s a painter he started showing me what to look for in a painting, explaining the differences between impressionism and cubism, pointillism and realism, and telling me more about the lives of the artists who produced each picture. I finally got it. And now you can’t get me out of an art gallery in less than half a day.

I still don’t know if I can figure out which way an abstract painting should be hung — but then again, neither can the Tate Gallery which has been hanging famous abstract artist Mark Rothko’s works on their side for years — but I know enough to enjoy a gallery outing thoroughly.

To learn more, head to the website of your favorite large art gallery — the Louvre, for example, or MoMA – and browse their sites to learn more about art styles and find a few favorite artists.

Religion and Where You Can Go to Get Your Car Blessed

No matter what your own religion is, when you travel to other countries you’re going to stumble across a many new religious-based habits. Knowing what they’re about and why the people do the things they do is not only interesting, but probably helps the world to become a more tolerant place.

I learned more about the Islamic religion when my hotel room was right next to a mosque in Tunisia and the loudspeaker calling the locals to prayers was directed straight at my window; in Japan, I loved the way my students would go to the Shinto shrine to get their new car blessed, but were happy following Buddhist traditions when it suited them too.

Learning about local religions can also help you avoid offending people without meaning to when you’re traveling. Above all, it’s also fascinating.

The BBC Religions website is beautiful and comprehensive and definitely the place I recommend to explore religious rituals and customs before you travel.

What Other Knowledge Do You Need?

When you travel, especially long term, you inevitably learn a lot. But I’m sure that you can learn and understand a whole lot more if you know the basics before you set off. So what else do you wish you’d known when you went traveling? Let me know other useful areas to learn about — and any great resources you know of too — in the comments.

  1. Sometimes meeting people who have not (of some peculiar reason) done any homework in the history, geography, demographics, etc, of the destination can be a real source of frustration (and sometimes laughter). I remember meeting this one american girl in Salzburg who had no idea that Germany was a country – don’t ask me how that is possible, because I don’t have any reasonable explanation for her lack of basic knowledge.

  2. Great article, I really enjoyed it,and just spent an hour browsing some of the links. Personally, I like to check into the local food and drink before arriving. That way I not only avoid the “safe” choice– eating hamburgers made by people who have never eaten a hamburger–I avoid a lot of the type of dishes I used to eat upon arrival. At least I think they were dishes!

  3. I think learning about the food of a country, how they cook certain things, how a particular crop, herbs or spice is used is a great education. I’m learning that more and more in Thailand.

    It’s also good to learn the word for “tastes good” or “delicious” in the local language. Flattery goes a long way!

  4. @ Bischoff, wow, I’ve heard some bad knowledge gaps but not knowing Germany was a country is about as bad as it gets (esp if you’re sitting in Salzburg right next door!).

    @ Brian, I completely agree, and in fact my original outline for this article included a section on Cuisine, I just ran out of space and decided it wasn’t quite up there with history and art. But you make a good point, especially about knowing the local crops (and other elements of their economy would be good too). Oh, and knowing how to say delicious. Very important!

  5. I really like the Rick Steves’ travel books for advance brushing up on European art, architecture, history, music, and culture.

    I also highly recommend some great books for packing along while traveling (compact & light, soft covered, and extremely fascinating from many angles) – Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A world History, both by Mark Kurlansky. I learned all sorts of interesting things in these books that were missing from my formal history and social science education.

    I agree with the other commenters, food is a very important travel component, perhaps the most important. Even if one never steps foot in a historic building or museum and spends the entire time on a island beach (not my idea of travel, but different strokes), one needs to eat no matter what.

    Our family always travels on our stomachs, seeking out the local food, not the tourist food. We often plan our activities around the meals. I do the most research on finding good food, then the other sights and activities.

    I learned this the hard way. When I was 18 I participated in a short “exchange” program, staying with a family in Spain, spending time in Madrid, Leon, & near Malaga. I barely sampled the wide variety of foods, because I thought I detested olives, gazpacho, whole fish prepared without deboning, etc. I stuck to potato omelets, churros and chocolate for the most part. I was so unadventurous and missed a big opportunity to grow up!

    Now I love those foods I thought I hated and know a lot more about a) how limited and unhealthy many modern and typically processed American foods are compared to traditional cuisines from ancient cultures and b) one can learn a lot about a culture’s history from their old-fashioned “comfort” foods. I now go out of my way to try foods way outside of my comfort zone and have learned there is a lot I can “stomach”.

    There’s a practical aspect to this as well. It’s much easier and often cheaper to eat “local” while traveling, instead of searching for familiar “safe” foods, which may be easy to find, but sometimes are not. I actually find my system “tolerates” food differences better if I am more adventuresome, as I have exposed myself to more cultures (literally, a wide variety of bacteria cultures), and that makes for a healthier gut bacteria population than always eating sterile, dead American food. Probiotics smooth over any rough patches. Eating locally is also a great way to meet locals. Sticking to tourist food means more time hanging with the people from back home.

  6. I do love to know about food… but I want to know about the status of women in a country… etiquette do’s and don’ts… travel safety issues… the music – I tend to listen to it before I go… a few choice words in the language – lead me to your food, for example… the literature: I always try to read some fiction by national writers if I can find it… news: I always check online newspapers to understand the politics a bit better… may seem like a lot but I rarely spend less than 5-6 weeks in a country when I’m on the road, so it’s time well spent up front.

  7. Good stuff, Amanda. I know you were mainly discussing textbook knowledge for your travels, but one thing I’d add would be: body language and gestures (especially those you take for granted that could be deemed offensive in another culture). Naturally, this would take you fighting your instincts, but I found it useful to at least understand why someone might be gawking.

  8. Interesting article. Reading about the history (esp. wars), religion, and cultural practices of the places we’re about to visit can indeed allow for much smoother interactions with the locals.

  9. I’d thoroughly recommend the BBC radio series “A History of the Word in 100 Objects” too. Fifteen minute shows covering some aspect of history from around the world, each centered on a particular object from the British Museum. From stone axes to early writing tablets to renaissance naval navigation devices and into the modern day, it’s a captivating listen. Best of all, it’s free to download from iTunes and other suppliers. The link below is a great place to start.

    Happy listening!

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