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In our electronics-obsessed world, I’ve become more and more alarmed about how our devices are changing our experiences. Let me start by saying that I’m no better than anyone else. I’m writing you on my iPhone right now, and I plan to write more about how to use technology while you travel. Electronics have huge benefits for communication and sharing ideas, entertainment, and above all for me, making a complicated world of far-flung friends and family feel much more manageable.

The impact of technology in travel is a great gain in being able to record experiences. On the other hand, it seems to me that the need to record things often distracts from enjoying the moment or making any real observations at all. Recently, Italy changed a regulation that made photography allowed in places it never had been before- state museums. I’d been sneaking pics of David for years, but now that it’s legit I’m sort of alarmed by it. Rather than a gallery full of people admiring incredible art, it’s a gallery full of selfie sticks, a mad rush and jostle for the perfect shot, like someone is giving away free chicken wings or something. I don’t see nearly as many people simply soaking in the experience.

Tourism seems to be all about rushing these days, as if it’s the Great Race against oblivion and you must check all of the boxes on the mystical Bucket List before you expire. I really hate that phrase, Bucket List, because it adds such a strange competitiveness to something that used to be about experiences and changing perspective. I’d argue for something more old fashioned. More civilized, sort of like the Grand Tour. Slow and easy, with lots of witty reparté and wine. So let’s take it back a few years, back to when sitting and looking at something without all of the beeps and buzzes of our phones distracted us.

I’ve been playing with notebooks and sketchbooks lately. Carrying actual pens and paper like I did in my student travel days.  Travel sketching has been really gratifying. Turning off my phone and spending just a tiny bit of time actually observing my surroundings. Writing things I hear people say on paper. Sketching a building. Painting a watercolor while sitting in a cafe. I could have recorded all of those things more accurately and efficiently with my phone, but when you add the muscle movement of writing or drawing, something magical happens. Those moments are recorded far better in my memory. The pleasure of the moment also increases.

I had about an hour and a half before a train ride the other day. I decided to spend it by exploring a church near my hotel in Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore. I wandered around inside for a bit. I know the general history of the building, and idly looked at paintings and read their descriptions. But after being on tour for 6 weeks, I was sort of maxed-out as far as information goes. I just couldn’t look at another painting or read another historical description. So I went to sit down for a cappuccino.

I found myself a nice spot to sit and observe the piazza and church facade, doing some people watching. I keep a small sketchbook and paint set with me, which I don’t use often enough, so I broke it out and started drawing. It felt so good to draw. It isn’t an intellectual experience. It’s like being a baby again and feeling someone’s face to understand them better. Almost like a meditation, I sat for 40 minutes and just slowly drew. Listened to the people next to me chat about the news. Enjoyed the funny looks people gave me as they walked by and noticed I was drawing.

Drawing or painting elicits a hilarious response from passers by, they are fascinated, I felt like I was a magician conjuring a snake out of a hat. It doesn’t even need to be a particularly good drawing. The reality is that anyone can draw. Yes. You too. I don’t care if you stink. That’s not the point. Recording your surroundings with a pen and paper will enhance your visit and not nearly enough people do it. I don’t draw exactly what I see, I draw what interests me about a scene. If you try this experiment you will find something interesting. The time you spend doing it isn’t wasted. It will probably be the time you remember best. What I saw….What I drew.

Ok, so yeah, I am an architect and you may think it’s unfair to tell others that they can do this. But I say it is more about the process. I’ve been leading family tours these past few years and have experimented with having kids take the time to sit and draw. In the art galleries, I noticed a huge improvement in the level of engagement from the kids when they were asked to choose something to draw. It was inviting them not just to look, but to participate in the art. And you can too.

So that’s my challenge for you on your next trip, don’t just record, participate however you can. Bring a sketchbook or scrapbook along for the ride. You’ll be glad you did.

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


  • Berry says:

    Last October, ten months after I had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had my left lung removed, I decided to travel on a pilgrimage–not a religious one but a kind of celebration one. (And so far I am doing great. ). I left home with my husbands blessing and totally left behind my iPod iPhone kindle–no camera. Instead I took a notebook and small watercolor set and left for France. My goal was one drawing a day that would become the basis of my journal. A woman in Paris sat with me in the Luxembourg Garden and whipped out her drawing pad and sketched with me and then took me for lunch. In Amboise the cafe manager said having me drawing in his outdoor cafe was good for his business. So romantic! I had never travelled alone before. I did not access the net once nor make one phone call. Not one email. I realize that not everyone can do this, but for me at this time of my life it was heaven and left me with enormous confidence about my future.

    • I could not love this more. Thank you for sharing. It’s true that drawing is good for the soul (and business!). I do it as a sort of meditation and therapy. I wish you all the best, maybe we will bump into each other while sketching abroad sometime. ❤️

  • Barbara Sarkany-Gore says:

    I just returned from a 3-week train tour of Switzerland, where I discovered that I had brought the wrong SD chip for my Cannon. Not having all the latest tech gizmos, I was unable to take any pictures. It was very liberating! While everyone else was constantly trying to get a picture of that great view from the train window, I was actually enjoying the experience with all of my senses involved. The pictures are in my heart and head.

  • Janet Lockwood says:

    It’s not exactly the same, but every trip my husband and I take we usually purchase a piece of art. Now our home is filled with beautiful paintings from all over the world. We have 3 pictures from Europe… England, Italy and Germany. We also have paintings of our many travels all over the U.S. and Canada. I’m reminded of all the wonderful places we’ve visited every day. My mom is always telling me to start painting again. I might have to make a sketchbook one of my “luxury items” on my next trip.

  • Kary Daniels says:

    Great blog Sarah. I really feel folks need to slow down when traveling and enjoy the moment! Sketching, painting, and journal writing are good ways to do that. I have a question for you. You said that you have been doing some of the Family Tours for Rick Steves, and I am thinking of taking my grandkids on one of them. What do you feel is the best age to enjoy the tour?

    • I think younger is better. My favorite age is 10, but the sweet spot seems to be 8-12, depending on the kid. Young teens are more guarded and have a hard time throwing themselves into a new culture and older teens are…distracted. But as with any travel, the right time is NOW! 😉

  • Meghan says:

    I love this! I have taken a journal on every Europe trip I’ve taken, starting in high school. I also like to bring a tiny pair of scissors and a glue stick. As I journal about each day, I glue on maps, business cards of hotels and restaurants, and other interesting things I pick up along the way. It becomes a scrapbook of sorts. My only regret is running out of steam for journaling at the end of my last few trips. I love reading back through them and being reminded of details I would have otherwise forgotten. Next time I may need to try my hand at adding some drawings!

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