When we want to relax, we head to the beach and do nothing. When we want culture, we travel to a new country and dive into museums, neighborhoods and restaurants. The former is relaxing. The latter is enriching and memorable but the source of an unfortunate truism: Travel can leave us exhausted and needing a vacation from our vacation.
But before a recent trip to Belgium, my travel companion and I decided that our visit would be as refreshing as a week of poolside lounging. We were intent on new sights, people and food, but we would be deliberate enough to come home recharged.
Happily, it worked. After basking in the charms of three cities during 10 days, and despite a few inevitable bumps from not being familiar with those foreign winding streets with far too many letters, we came home ready to jump back into life.
Here are the rules for taking a vacation that is more stimulating than staring at the ocean but just as relaxing.
Make peace with the plan: Travel becomes exhausting due largely to the self-imposed strain of seeing and doing as much as possible. "When will we be in X-country again? Therefore, we must do everything!" Unless you want to return home a haggard mess, resist this temptation (and if you don't mind returning home a haggard mess, feel free to skip the rest of this column). Part of a relaxing cultural vacation requires accepting at the outset that you will not do everything you want. And that is OK. When back home, you'll remember what you did more than what you didn't do anyway.
Sleep: Yes! Sleep! Fundamental, I know, but also antithetical to wringing as much from travel as we can. But dearly needing a break from the stressors and routines of life, I gave myself permission to sleep as much as needed. That resulted in something I didn't even know was physically possible — two nights of sleeping 12 hours. Sure, at first I felt guilty; it seemed absurd to have flown 4,000 miles to sleep so much. But despite sacrificing the handful of hours that could have been spent exploring castles and churches, getting necessary sleep made the waking hours much more enjoyable.
Don't overplan: Sketching out every moment of a trip can lead to a stultifying grind; what seemed like a good idea at your home computer might not seem quite as enjoyable in the moment. Leaving flexibility in the schedule allows for the vacation you truly want. In Belgium, we planned out our first four nights, then made up the rest as we went. That approach allowed us to follow our whims.
But don't underplan: Showing up in a city without a hotel room would have added stress we didn't want or need. We didn't plan far in advance, but we always knew where we were sleeping a night ahead. Lessening the basic anxieties is essential.
Do what you like: Obvious, right? But limiting yourself to what you truly value rather than what you feel like you should do is just as liberating as it is relaxing. We spent far more time exploring neighborhoods, chatting with local shop owners and sipping beer in sidewalk cafes than shuffling through museums — and without regret.