Dealing with the daily tourist grind
A traveler's guide to planning each day in Europe: itineraries, dealing with Mondays and Sundays, and scheduling around the local clock, calendar, and daily siesta
If you expect to see the best of Paris in just a few days, you’d better have a good game plan or the Eiffel Tower is going to slip through the cracks in your schedule, and you’ll leave town without the joy of climbing the world’s most famous TV antenna.
I've drawn up some killer itineraries for tackling major cities in 1-3 days (and countries in 1-2 weeks, all of Europe in 2-3 weeks), but you can just as easily plan your own time. After all, how do I know what you're interested in? However, before you plan your daily agenda, you need to be aware of the quirks of European hours and days of operation.
Making the Most of Mondays, Sundays, & Mornings
Monday is the day that over half the museums in Europe are closed (although Paris prefers Tuesday). Also expect meager happenings on Sunday, the traditional day of rest for many businesses, including sights—although many sights may be open Sunday morning.
How do you deal with Sundays and Mondays? First, make sure the Monday rule applies to the cities and towns you want to visit by checking your guidebook for open hours and closed days.
Next, when drawing up your trip itinerary, be sure Monday (or whatever day everything's closed) is not the only day (or one of your only two days) in a city or town filled with museums. Plan to do about half as much on Sundays as you would on a weekday.
Most importantly, find the sights and restaurants in town that are open on Mondays or on Sunday afternoons and save them for those times when everything else will be closed.
After you’ve planned out how to deal with the Sunday and Monday situation, remember that the first rule of getting the most out of your daily sightseeing is to get up early. Be at the most popular sights when the doors open, and you’ll beat the lines. I’m about as far as you can get from a morning person, but I routinely get up at 6:30am when traveling.
Besides, especially in summer and in southern Europe, the sun can be broiling by midday, and you’ll want to retreat to lunch and perhaps a nap to recharge your touring batteries. Speaking of a nap...
Ahhhhhh, the Midday Siesta
You know how you naturally get sleepy in the middle of the afternoon? Well, Mediterranean countries have always kept attuned to the biorhythms that American culture tries to ignore, and they’ve found a way to work around the body’s internal clock. It’s called the siesta (riposo in Italy).
Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece traditionally observe an early afternoon shutdown that begins at noon to 1:30pm and runs until 2:30 to 4pm. Museums, most churches, shops, businesses—just about everything except restaurants—lower the shutters and lock the doors so that proprietors can either go home (or head to a local trattoria) for a long lunch and perhaps a snooze during the day’s hottest hours.
At first this break can be very annoying, especially if you’re on a tight sightseeing schedule, but after a while you get used to it. Learn to take the siesta and revel in it. If your time is short, make sure you know which sights (often churches) will be open during siesta and save them to visit at that time.
Sadly, the United States’s economic influence is slowly forcing the rest of the world to live and work according to our hectic, stressful, non-stop schedule. Increasingly, businesses in larger cities are staying open through the middle of the day, and people are taking smaller, quicker lunches and bigger dinners (which any nutritionist will tell you is a trend in the wrong direction). It’s good news for shoppers, but bad news for the general pace and quality of life.
Drawing Up a Daily Itinerary
You’ve been so careful planning every other aspect of your trip; don’t leave the sightseeing to chance. I’ve seen too many people arrive at the doors of the museum or church that was to be the highlight of their trip only to find that it’s closed that day. And they’re leaving tomorrow.
You shouldn't micromanage your entire vacation, but it doesn’t hurt to do a little advance planning to make sure you manage to squeeze in at least what’s most important to you.
After being shut out of my share of sights by not reading the fine print ahead of time, I’ve come up with a fail-safe method for creating daily agendas. I happily ignore my schedules as often as I follow them, but at least the process of drawing them up alerts me to the odd hours of special sights.
The following steps may seem like a chore, but they take less than 30 minutes on the train on your way into town (or in your hotel room on the night before you arrive).
Some people prefer to go with the flow and see stuff as they come across it, and that’s perfectly fine. But if missing St. Peter's will ruin your trip, this bit of advance paperwork can be a godsend.
Although this section deals mainly with sights, don’t forget to look for, and mark, any restaurant or activity that you want to be sure you hit. Virtually all restaurants close at least one day of the week; if you’re in town for two days, make sure you’re not going to miss that great-sounding trattoria. Other “extras” to check the hours on include day trips as well as cultural events (for example, does the opera perform every night? When are the soccer matches?).
- Write all the sights you want to see down the left side of a piece of paper. Next to each, write the open hours, and then make a third column showing the day(s) each is closed. Underline any opening or closing hour that’s exceptional (say, if something closes at 6pm instead of the town’s usual 4 or 5pm; underline the “6pm” part). For outstanding exceptions (wow, it closes at 7:30pm), double-underline. Do the same for any unusual closed day. Mark places that stay open through siesta. If any sight has particularly restricted hours or days, put a box around it.
- Below the list of sights, make a list of day trips and other activities you want to fit in (leather shopping in Florence, a tour of the sewers in Paris, a pub crawl in London).
- Take a second piece of paper and make blank daily schedules for each day you’ll be in town, with each page marked with a day of the week. Put in headings for Morning (leave five to six lines), Lunch (one line), Afternoon (five to six lines), Dinner (a line), and Evening (two to three lines).
- Use the hours-at-a-glance sheet you made in step 1 to fill in your daily itinerary chart smartly. Stick the earliest-opening sights first thing in the morning, the late-closing ones at the end of the day, and open-nonstop sights into the siesta hours just after lunch (in Mediterranean Europe).
- Fill in the later morning and earlier afternoon with the sights that keep more standard hours. Write on the schedule a time to arrive at each sight and when you need to leave in order to get to the next one. Schedule things that aren’t as important to you in between things that are. That way, if you find yourself running short on time, you can cut sights out and still not miss the best stuff. Do this with a map in front of you, and budget time to get between sights. Don’t pack the schedule too tightly, and don’t forget to write in things like “gelato break.”
- Stuff the itinerary in your pocket when you go out for the day. Cross things off as you see them, and if you misjudged time and miss something, circle it so you can rearrange your afternoon or next day’s schedule to fit it in. Bonus: These itineraries always help me later when I'm two weeks behind in writing my journal.
- Don’t over-schedule yourself. Build in one day each week for relaxation and decompression, or for getting the laundry done, or to cushion your plans against impromptu day trips or festivals. Do the same for each day, leaving a bit of "free" time in there for waiting in the ticket line at the train station, heading to the post office to mail postcards, going shopping, or just sitting at an outdoor cafe table to sip a cappuccino.