For many of us, one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting a new culture is the ability to witness its history. So many dream travel destinations are historical places, or landmarks. And, of course, it means so much more to see them in real life than on a postcard or travel poster. But sometimes, we wish that we knew more. Glimpsing only a small part of a country’s history is rarely enough; we want to know the whole story. It can seem a bit much, however, to read a pile of historical textbooks in preparation for a single vacation. How can you research a whole country’s history just for one trip? Here are my recommended tips and tricks to learning everything you’ll need to know for an historical holiday.
Know Where You’re Going
I’d like to make some kind of “know where you’re going, know where you’ve been” inspirational quote, but I mean it quite literally. Learning the entire history of the country you will be visiting will be a huge task, and there’s no guarantee that any of the “top ten facts” that you’ll end up remembering will intersect at all with your trip. A certain amount of background knowledge is useful, of course, but for specifics, use your itinerary. Learning about the places you will actually be visiting will make them all the more exciting when you get there.
Learn Stories, Not Dates
This is actually the (ex)history teacher in me talking. Dates can be important, of course, but darn it if they’re not hard to remember. Individual names of places and people also don’t tend to stick that well. Besides, without context, you’re less likely to care who stayed in which palace or what battle took place on which hill. It is far more engaging to learn that, say, a prince lived in this palace while he was in exile for rebelling against his father’s rule. For example. Or why the battle was being fought, and what was at stake for both sides. Give yourself something to care about, and the history will come alive around you.
Books and Movies – with Discretion!
Obviously, a non fiction book or documentary about the place you are visiting will give you the most facts. Fiction, however, I find to be better at helping you to truly picture the world as it was. Novels, tv shows and movies can help you to visualize details about the places you’ll visit. I do have a rule about this, however. Before you watch or read anything, just give it a quick search online. Type in the title and then “historical inaccuracies”. There will always be some, and it is important to know what you should be disregarding. (The fact that all the women in medieval times appeared to have access to waxing salons, for example… sigh.)
This might seem like something oddly specific. After all, there are many parts of history that form the whole picture of a certain time and culture. Here’s the thing, though: architecture lasts. Art fades, fabric rots away, furniture is updated. Architecture, on the other hand, might be painted over or hidden, but it’s your best bet to see history in its original state. Putting your hand to a carved stone wall and realizing that it would have felt the exact same way a thousand years ago is a rare and amazing experience.
Another little something to look up online: “common misconceptions about [place name]”. You will be amazed at just how misinformed you can be about a place. It can even be a little embarrassing. However, it is much better to find these things out before you arrive. No use making a fool of yourself by pretending to know something you don’t.
Learn From the Experts
Despite everything that you can learn in preparation for a trip, there will almost always be an expert around to help you. Historical sites will generally have a guide who will be trained to know the answers to your questions. They might even be able to tell you some things that you would never be able to find in books or movies!
As well as researching the history that is relevant to your trip I would recommend looking at the country’s recent history. Make sure you know which government is in power, how long they have been there, whether it was a peaceful transition, and so on. Of course, booking a vacation through a reputable agency is the best way to make sure that you are headed somewhere safe. But every country has their issues, and it’s best to be as informed as possible.