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.
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.
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.
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.
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.