The Stendhal Syndrome

Save yourself from sightseeing overkill

A tourist takes a catnap in the midst of visiting Milan's Castello Sforzesco.
A tourist takes a catnap in the midst of visiting Milan's Castello Sforzesco.

The French writer Stendhal collapsed one day while visiting Florence, overwhelmed by the aesthetic beauty of the Renaissance and exhausted by trying to see absolutely everything.

Stendhal's is an extreme case, perhaps, but he’s not been the only one to suffer a mini-breakdown from too much Italy. You may not faint in the piazza, but you might catch a cold, become irritable and tired, or simply cease to care whether there’s another Michelangelo in that museum. And t'would be a shame for it to come to that.

No matter how much personal satisfaction you get from communing with Old Masters and ancient ruins, no matter how grimly determined you are to see absolutely everything, after a few days or weeks of pell-mell sightseeing, you will start wearing down. When the prospect of visiting the Uffizi—the greatest gallery of Renaissance art in the world—elicits from you merely a groan and a desire to take a nap, it’s time to recharge your mental batteries.

Now, I realize much of the rest of this site—the itineraries especially—seems aimed at helping you cram as much as humanly possible into each and every day. That doesn't mean that this is always the best advice to take. Sometimes you just have to slam on the brakes and say "No!" to the sightseeing suggestions, otherwise you'll only be miserable—and who wants to be miserable in Italy?

So this is the one page where I tell you to ignore all that and try to convince you to play hookey. Trust me: some of my favorite and most lasting travel memories come from lazy afternoons of resolutely doing nothing even remotely touristy.

Here are some hints for working through the inevitable burnout on the daily tourist grind (you'll notice a few of them are repeats of tips for the overall itinerary).

11 tips for dealing with the daily grind

  1. Forget fame. Don't feel like you have to see something just because it's über-famous. Don't make your trip to Italy into a giant checklist. Visit what truly interests you, and feel free to skip what doesn’t float your boat. That's right, I said it: ignore the Colosseum; skip The Last Supper. None of this will be on the final exam, I promise. If you’re going to wear yourself out, at least do it on the stuff you truly enjoy.
  2. Pace yourself. Soak up the kaleidoscope of Italy’s cultural pleasures a little bit at a time. Schedule in rest periods. Don’t pack too much into either your trip itinerary or your daily sightseeing agenda. Leave room to breathe, space to picnic, and time to stop and smell the cappuccino. In other words, favor the sane itineraries, no the insane ones.
  3. Variety is the spice of your travel life. Vary your itinerary. Try not to hit one big museum after another. In between major museums, visit a park, ruin, church, or simply chill out in a cafe. Give other areas of your brain a workout for a while. This way the whole trip doesn’t blur into one large, colorful blob of old masters and Renaissance cathedrals from which your memory can’t distinguish where Siena left off and Sicily began.
  4. Delete duplicates. Every sight in Italy is unique and worth seeing in its own right. But let's get real. After you see a few archaeological museums, they all start looking the same. Unless you're an academic or have unlimited time, start getting selective. If you only have a day, see Pompeii or Herculaneum, but not both. Do you really need to visit both modern art collections in Venice: the Peggy Guggenheim and Ca' Pesaro? Pick one (hint: the Guggenheim), enjoy the heck out of it, and move on.
  5. Take a siesta. A nap in the middle of the afternoon can do you a world of good, both mentally and physically. In Italy, most everything is closed in the early afternoon anyway. Learn to take a riposo along with the Italians, and you’ll not only appreciate their country more, but also get up the energy to finish the Florence sightseeing that did in good old Stendhal.
  6. Take advantage of when sights are closed. When the museums and other popular sights shut down—as they frequently do—Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, take the hint and slow down your own sightseeing agenda. Sure, some top sights are always open (Italy's art-packed churches—though big on shutting down for riposo every day—usually close to tourists only on Sunday mornings for mass), but that doesn't mean you have to cram all of them in.
  7. Split up. Are you planning six days in Rome because everyone in the family wants to see different things? Don't tour Italy as Siamese triplets. You can spend another few hours in the Vatican Museums while your spouse tours the catacombs and your teenager heads to Villa Borghese park to rent a bike and tool around looking for Italian teens to hang out with. What would take the whole clan a day and a half to see and do—perhaps with one or more member bored or miserable for part of that time—has just been conveniently reduced to a single afternoon. Plus, it'll give you something to talk about over dinner (assuming the teen doesn't ditch you to grab a pizza with his new buddies—and please do let him).
  8. Take a break. When the sightseeing starts getting to you no matter what precautions you take, stop sightseeing. If all you do is tick off museums and churches and such, you're heavily on the "tourist" wide of that old tourist/traveler distinction. So forget the sights for a while. Throw away your checklist of must-sees. Go see a soccer match. Go shopping. Whatever it takes to bring your cultural appreciation back from the brink. Sit down at a café table and write all those postcards you promised to send. Chances are just describing to your friends back home the wonders you’ve seen and once-in-a-lifetime experiences you’ve had will make you psyched to get more of Italy under your belt. Next thing you know, you’ll bop out of the post office raring to get back in the saddle and get on with the sights. » more
  9. Sidetrip selectively. Day trips add variety, and I highly recommend them. But if you only have one day in Florence, don't try to fit in Pisa, too—you'll end up seeing neither. Pick your excursions wisely, and don't let them take away time from the main city you're visiting. Budget a full day to see any destination that's more than a city bus ride away.
  10. Take a vacation. Stop racking up sightseeing points. Take a whole day to go to the beach, to sleep late and have breakfast in lunchtime. Get off the beaten path. Do anything but see the sights or attempt to engage the culture. I once had a room in Venice's posh Hotel Danieli, and my windows overlooked the people-thronged Riva degli Schiavoni where the Grand Canal empties into the Bacino San Marco bay. I was nearing the end of a three-month research trip, and I was tired, so you know what I did all evening? I did a bit of people-watching from my window, sure, but largely I watched Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush on the TV in my room.
  11. You shall return. Assume you'll be coming back. No matter how much you pack in, there will still be a lot left to see. Italy will wait for you.

Remember: You are on vacation, after all.

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