I’m just back home and enjoying a little down time. Sitting in my garden, watching the tomatoes grow is one of my favorite small pleasures. It’s not exciting, but seeing the progress every day is very satisfying.

It got me thinking about travel and “bucket lists” and getting a “Wow Moment” out of every day. While climbing the Eiffel Tower or seeing the Crown Jewels may feel like the charge you expect from travel, I’d propose that a glass of rosé on a park bench might be a delight. The small moments are even better, because that’s where you’ll find connection.

I have a few little things that please me when I travel. Take these as ideas and try them, or come up with your own. It’s the little things that make the trip worth taking.

Coffee in Really Local Bar

Italians drink coffee. Lots of coffee. When I tell you that most of my friends drink 4-6 espresso per day, I’m not joking. It’s what punctuates the day, taking 5 minutes to belly up to the bar and take a breather. I like to seek out places wherever I go that are slightly dive-y, a little ragtag and where English is definitely not spoken. I’ll order a macchiato, which always takes the locals by surprise, and just listen to the clatter of the local scene. If I speak a bit of the local language, I’ll try to talk to someone, and I’ll usually embarrass myself somehow. A coffee at a really local place should cost about $1, and it’s the best money spent to have a real moment with the people around you.

Staying In

A surprisingly delightful small pleasure is going absolutely nowhere. I travel a ton and never get to go home for the night. If I’m in Budapest, I feel really pressured to go out and have a cool meal and explore. But down time is important, and if the hotel room is nice-ish, I really enjoy staying in and watching TV. Sure, I probably won’t understand what’s being said, but it’s kind of fun to see what other people like to watch. More than anything, it’s a guilty pleasure to do nothing and actually take a vacation from your vacation.

Shop at the Supermarket

This is possibly my favorite simple pleasure in any country I go to. Exploring a supermarket tells you so much about the culture. My favorite part of a visit to Asunción, Paraguay was wandering the store and trying to decipher what was on the shelves. They love Dulce di Leche! Huh. Grocery stores in London sell mostly pre-made food. French groceries all have enormous cheese counters that smell delicious and disgusting at the same time. I’ll take $5 and buy something weird to try. Even if I hate it, that’s cool. It’s an adventure!

Take a Taxi

I’ve been programmed to be a good budget traveler and stick to public transit in big cities. Most places have efficient and cheap systems. But occasionally I just don’t want to. I’m tired. I’m hot. I’m feeling lazy. Or maybe I just need to feel pampered. Spending $10 on a cab or an Uber to my next destination is just luxurious. An extra bonus, you’ll often get some inside information. London cabbies are famous for “The Knowledge” and know the city inside out. I recently took a cab in Naples and had such a fun conversation with the driver, the ride was more fun than the destination!

Eat Something Typical

I have my eating patterns in the places I go. There are dishes I just simply must eat in each place. It’s fun to do a little research before going to a new place to find out what the specialties are and give them a go. For me, it is soothing and also great entertainment to find the perfect steak with Béarnaise in Paris. Mango and sticky rice in Thailand is one of the most decadent things I look forward to. Anywhere in Italy I look for mozzarella di bufala because you really can’t find the same thing in the US. And don’t get me started on Swiss Rösti. I’d be devastated to miss eating that greasy bomb of hashed browns and cheese when I’m in Switzerland. Every place I go, I have found a certain thing that brings me pleasure and I make that my habit. It’s like being a local.

Indulge a Hobby

What is your hobby? Collecting postcards? Woodworking? Mounting insects in shadow boxes? Taking pics of your pet in costumes? Whatever your thing is, there are people in every country that are into your thing. I like to knit and sew, and I go looking for shops or exhibitions on those things. I once ran into a knitting expo in London and almost died of happiness. My people! I just bought some fabric at the queen of department stores in London, Liberty, and had almost more fun talking to the salesman than I did choosing a fabric to take home. It’s good fun to find locals that share your passion.

Find an Underrated Museum

The major museums of the world keep getting more crowded every day. The crush makes it less enjoyable for me. The secret is, though, that every city you could possibly visit has underrated, empty museums that are interesting and worth your time. In London, Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of my favorites for its eclectic weirdness. And I’m an architect, so I kind of get him. In Cambodia, I took my group to a landmine museum after seeing Angkor Wat. It was a tiny, thoughtfully made exhibit that was deeply moving, and we were the only ones there. When I have taken my kids to Pompeii, we’ve left that for the end of the day, instead enjoying the Villa Poppea excavations that are little known but incredibly preserved. The smaller museums can be hit and miss, but the experience is always personal.

Running

I’m no fitness nut, and a few years back I’d have only run if you’d chased me with a knife. But now that I’m getting a bit older, running seems to be the only way to counteract the pasta and cannolo. Running in foreign cities is just wonderful. Even in places I know like my own hometown, like Rome, I’ll find new corners as I trot along. Running along with locals can be fun as well, and many cities host runs that anyone can sign up for.

Early Morning Photo Safari

I’m also no morning person. Seriously. But I do like to take pictures. There is no better time to photograph any city as early in the morning. The streets are empty, usually being cleaned. They light is perfect. The sleepy dew of the night rolls off every surface. It’s magical. If I can get my running shoes on, an early morning run and photo shoot is a solo traveler’s delight.

These are some of my simple pleasures. I find them more memorable than the big stuff, and sitting in my garden, listening to the zucchini grow, I enjoy thinking of those small moments. What are your favorite small pleasures when you travel?

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

14 replies on “Small Pleasures in Travel”

  1. What a luscious, thoughtful, romantic post!
    You’ve made me long to go to London just to take a cab and shop at Liberty.
    I would add the experience of just sitting quietly in a church. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of museums and churches on some trips, but the times I’ve spent in the cool, quiet pews of a church while the hectic, hot world is just outside the doors have really been a reenergizing respite for me.
    Also, people watching is fabulously entertaining.

  2. Great post!
    For me (and my husband) going to a local supermarket is something we enjoy a lot.

    Also talking to our Uber o Taxi driver gives me “inside info” about certain place or restaurant, their recommendations so far have been on point (with a couple of exceptions, obviously).

  3. Sitting on the balcony of our hotel room in Sorrento after a busy day of touring (and before going out for dinner), looking out at the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius in the distance, and sipping some nice Chianti Classico.

  4. I do believe that small pleasures really do a lot. Maybe it’s something unnoticeable at one side but once you realize that these small things count it will define the legacy you had and will be with you in the long run.

  5. Every time I’m in London, I go to Liberty to get fabric scraps for me (for quilting) and needlepoint kits for my mom. I’ve been working on the same quilt for about a year (hand sewing 1″ hexies made with Liberty fabrics), and it always reminds me of my travels! For future trips, I’m planning on bringing a small box of quilting pieces with me so I can work on the train, at the airport, in a café, etc.

  6. I so agree with these small pleasures. I sew and quilt and often search for quilt shows or ‘expos’ to add to my schedule. Also a bird watcher, so finding local groups or hiring a guide (not cheap, but fulfilling) allow a connection with locals with similar interests…no awkward moments or embarrassments here.
    I tend to get short let apartments which I like as they allow the grocery store events. When I was still buying gifts and checking luggage, my kids wanted stuff from the grocery stores (the foodie gene skipped me and they get it in spades). Even when in hotels, I often venture to the local shops for a room picnic meal of something I don’t get at home.
    Paris is full of free museums – often never on the main tourist route.
    As a gardener, I also add gardens to my activities. It gives a different sense of beauty after 7 hours in the Prado, or days on end of history, stone buildings and shopping. If I see the odd bird there, well – that is just a bonus.

  7. Could not agree more! The more we travel the more we savor these pleasures, except running. (We do indulge in long meandering walks and easily put on ten miles a day, though ) Taking it slow, experiencing a non-touristed neighborhood or tiny town, practicing my language skills, cooking dinner, staying in after a busy day, a bottle of wine you cannot find at home, commuting with the kids in the morning: all contribute to my happy travels.

  8. Having the good fortune to have travelled to Italy many times, I am well past the “mandatory” sites and increasingly look for those every day experiences. I, too, am a sewer and home cook. Some of the best times have been at local farmer markets and fabric stores. Since I knew I would be returning ( as Rick says to assume), even on my early trips I would schedule off days and never partake in the tourist rat race. So, assume you will return and enjoy time doing every day things.

  9. Sarah, love your posts. Thank you for sharing your experiences of the world.
    What do you have around your plants?

  10. Thanks for sharing your great photos and wonderful travel memories, Sarah! I love checking out flea markets on the trips I make with my daughter. We totally adore getting to smile at the folks while we peruse and look through their stuff. It is absolutely revealing to see either the similarities we share with others in what we collect, hold on to and then ultimately part with and, with the intriguing differences in treasured items a populace seems to enjoy. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, no?

  11. Sara, do you travel with a camera besides your phone? If so which one do you carry. That is always my struggle how much or how little camera gear to take with me when I travel. I like to bring back images that can go on our walls, but don’t want to load myself down with too much extra luggage. Advice requested.

  12. I agree so much! One of my very favorite memories was in Florence. I sat by an elderly Italian woman in a church. She told me about being married in that church many years ago. To make connection with a local is truly as ememorable as seeing the great sights.

  13. A post! I’ve missed these, but know that you’ve been writing the Sicily guidebook. Every point is spot on and a wise use of time. Thanks for the timely article as I start to pencil in the day-to-day details!

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