Travel Opinion

On Museums and the Must-See Mentality of Travel

Must-see mentality

There’s not much I don’t like about travelling, to be honest. Sure, I get fed up of living out of a backpack sometimes and that overwhelming feeling of guilt that comes over you when you want to just lounge in bed and watch Netflix instead of wake up at the crack of dawn to hike a volcano isn’t so fun, but there’s something that annoys me more than all of that.

Must-sees. Must-dos. Must-anythings. (I think I really just hate being told what to do.)

But, what’s even worse than a must-see? A must-see museum, that’s what. Must see-museums with their overpriced entry fees and sinfully boring exhibitions that leave you feeling skint and ashamed if you do go and guilty and uncultured if you don’t. You can’t win with a must-visit museum, you see. Damn them.

I know what you’re thinking. I know. How can you hate museums?! What did they ever do to you?

Well, nothing. And that’s exactly why they piss me off. I always waste hours finding them, five minutes walking round them and then half an hour killing time so I feel like I got my money’s worth, before leaving no better informed than when I went in in the first place. (FYI, this is the reason you can totally trust me on the rare occasion I do recommend a museum.)

Me, wishing I was anywhere else but a must-see museum (Pixabay)

Come on, think about it. How many times have you been researching for a trip only to find that half of the recommendations are for stuffy museums that are ‘must-sees’ (when you know full well they’re more like ‘certainly nots’) and yet still felt obligated to go and visit them. OK, maybe you’ve got more backbone than me, but I’ve certainly been sucked in on more than one occasion.  

In fact, I remember on one trip to Mérida, Mexico, a few years back now, dedicating one whole day to hitting all the ‘key’ museums because I didn’t know anyone in the area and was too self-conscious and anal to just, you know, wander around and go get a coffee. I can’t even tell you what those museums were called and I most certainly can’t even tell you what I learnt. Basically, I wasted an entire day in Mérida to walk around some museums that I didn’t even care about. I mean, Mérida for fuck’s sake! (If you’ve ever been there you’ll know why I’m so mad at myself; it’s beautiful, cultural, and full of great food.)

And all because I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t fight that familiar gnawing, nagging feeling of museum guilt when I don’t want to walk around an exhibit that doesn’t even fall close to the Venn diagram boundaries of my collective interests, just because a guide book told me to.

must-see mentality

I swear to God, these chairs were a highlight of one of the many Mérida museums I visited

But there’s my real problem with must-see museums. It’s not that I’m averse to reading or learning, or even really museums per se, it’s just that all the must-see museums seem to lie totally outside of my interests. I’m not really a history fan, which probably explains why I’m overwhelmingly meh about Mexico City’s historic centre and totally of the opinion that Mexico City’s premiere museum attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropología, is really overrated. (Shoot me!) I’m sure for some of you, bookstores bore you to tears (you won’t want to read about my literary tours of Mexico City in that case) or you can’t think of anything worse than spending a day street art hunting in Puerto Vallarta while wearing a rucksack full of towels (yes, I actually did that). On the flip side, a ton of people probably love museum hopping while on holiday. (If that’s the case, check out my guide to all the free museums in Mexico City – that way, at least if you think they’re shit you haven’t wasted money on an entry fee.)

street art in puerto vallarta

Basically, I’ve been lulled into this must-see travel mentality, and ended up wasting time doing things I found boring as a result.

And, omg I can’t believe I have to say this, travel shouldn’t be boring. It shouldn’t be about is a regimented ticking off of the main sights and sounds of whichever city you’re in just to feel like you’ve ‘done’ a place well and can sleep at night upon your return home. (Even though we’re all guilty of that sometimes.) It should be about having fun and spending your time and money wisely on the things that interest you. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not a competition.

I mean, look at me. I live abroad and literally travel and write for a living, but I am still suuuper guilty of all this shit. I still go to stuff because I feel obliged to do it and I still throw the words ‘must-see’ around like they’re going out of fashion, tap-tap-tapping them out on, like, an hourly basis. Literally, never mind preaching to the converted, I’m not even the converted.

I am working on it though.

This August I’ll be going to Guatemala for the first time, but due to a super tight schedule and budget, I’m skipping Tikal. Yes, the Tikal. The Guatemala must-see ruin that was even in the Star Wars films and which is, FYI, really far away from everything else and super expensive. (Ugh, even just writing about it makes me sad I’m not going though.) But look, while I’d love to go to Tikal, if you can’t think of anything worse than climbing a pyramid then, and whisper this quietly now, just don’t. It won’t invalidate your whole trip. (Also, Chichén Itzá is a total snooze fest anyway.)

Must-see mentality


Cut yourself some slack! There’s no point getting sucked into a self-hating hell spiral when planning your trip because you read on some random blog that you must eat jellied eels in London or that you just haven’t experienced Mexico until you’ve tried cows head tacos. (That statement still stands even if that random travel blog is mine, despite the fact I am a self-professed all-knowing fountain of Mexico travel wisdom.) Oh, and, for the record: I’m British and I live in Mexico and I wouldn’t put either of those devil foods anywhere near my mouth. ALTHOUGH, if shitting anecdotes are what get you off, eat all the weird food you want on your travels. Don’t come crying to me though.

Really, I guess what I’m trying to say is, despite the fact I’m an active participant, I am sooo over the whole must-see mentality dominating mainstream travel at the moment. But hey, we’ve all got crosses to bear, right? I’m doing my best, after all.


  1. Perri 8 July, 2017 at 05:48 Reply

    We clearly were both on a very similar wave length with our latest posts.. I also used a picture from Chichen Itza.. lets just say it wasn’t my favorite place and I would never recommend. Totally agree with the whole must-see thing! Great read.

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 16:02 Reply

      I know! I’d actually just finished writing up my post and hopped to your blog to link something from Mérida, but then I found your latest post and stuck that in instead because it reflected so much of what I was saying! I wasn’t overwhelmed by Chichen Itza either.

  2. Miranda Menelaws 8 July, 2017 at 06:07 Reply

    This was great for me to hear!

    It’s so true that there’s pressure to hit up the touristy “must-sees” when going somewhere new. I’m totally guilty of writing those “must-see” posts as well though haha,

    I’m not much of a museum hopper when on vacation either, but I actually got suckered in on my latest trip to Wellington, New Zealand… There’s this big free museum there that EVERYBODY tells you to go to, and I felt pretty unexcited about it, but I figured it was free so, nothing to lose, right? I was actually pleasantly surprised, so go figure! I guess you just get lucky sometimes 🙂

    Thanks for your honesty, glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t get overly excited about museums haha 🙂

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 16:01 Reply

      That’s the thing – for every shite museum you might find a real good one that everyone recommends, so it’s hard to know for sure.

  3. Megan 8 July, 2017 at 06:19 Reply

    Love your brutal honesty and I can totally relate! On my first ever solo backpacking trip I started out in Malaysian Borneo and went to some museum in Kota Kinabalu just because Lonely Planet said I should. Ticket was extremely high and the exhibit not worth it. Over the years since I’ve learned that I get to travel how I want to, and not how other people tell me I should. It helps to shed that guilt and just enjoy your travels for what they are.

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 16:00 Reply

      It is fantastically put together…if that sort of thing is interesting to you. Buuuut it’s so massive that you just feel overwhelmed. If you like that kind of stuff it’s definitely a great spot to see though.

  4. Elose 8 July, 2017 at 06:38 Reply

    Hey Lauren! I think this actually extends further than museums on long term travel. You get to the next spot and have to tick off all the must-sees before you can even start to find off the beaten path options that might actually appeal to you. We’re all for those right? But have you actually properly visited a place if you haven’t seen the top few sites, temples, buildings or museums? I’ve done a few 3-6 month trips and I’ve felt myself feeling the same. I don’t feel like going across town to see that painted Temple, that museum or that market but WILL I REGRET IT IF I DONT?! It’s like travel FOMO. Drives me mad! Haha.

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:59 Reply

      Yes! I totally agree. My hatred of museums is just, like, a reflection of my guilt if I don’t see the main stuff or embarrassment if I just don’t want to, but it for sure extends into all sorts of other sights. In Mexico, the natural progression is pyramids. Once you’ve seen one, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve seen them all haha.

  5. Rhiannon 8 July, 2017 at 08:52 Reply

    Visiting the Anthropology Museum in CDMX was one of thr defining “wtf am I doing” moments of my 9 month trip last year. Seriously. I knew I’d hate it, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it, yet I went anyway and pretended to have an interest in random pots and maps. Because people told me I shouldn’t miss it.

    In hindsight boy do I wish I missed it!

    It wasn’t bad, but it was boring. And I could have done way more enjoyable stuff with those 2 hours or so.

    I used to be big on hitting up all the must-sees of a place, mostly out of embarrassment at the sheer thought of having to say to someone “oh actually no, I didn’t visit this really highly recommended place because I went to sit in the park eating ice cream instead”. But these days I’m slowly letting that go. Travelling, especially solo, is all about choice. You have the choice to decide exactly what you want to do, screw everyone else!

    (is jellied eels really a thing in London??)

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:57 Reply

      I felt the same about the Anthro Museum. I get the appeal, I REALLY do. But I just wasn’t interested in that stuff. I like the history but seeing pots and statues isn’t what gets me interested.
      I feel ya on the eating ice cream in the park stuff! And yes, jellied eels is a legit thing that absolutely baffles me. Very East End London I think.

  6. Rachel Heller 8 July, 2017 at 09:55 Reply

    I so get where you’re coming from, except for me it’s not so much about whether I ‘must-see’ it or not; it’s about my own limited attention span. So instead I tend to look for the little, quirky, unknown museums. I even started a series of posts on my blog a few years ago about the ones I visited in Amsterdam. I was surprised at some of them, i.e. that I actually liked museums I thought would be dull or tacky. For example, the prostitution museum in Amsterdam is balanced and intelligent. The eyeglasses museum is remarkably interesting. The handbag museum and the hash and marijuana museum were really dull. Anyway, resist the ‘must-see’ messages, unless the place actually interests you!

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:56 Reply

      I totally agree! I’m working on some ‘quirky’ museum posts at the moment, because I think niche interest is never a bad thing. I really enjoyed a stamp museum in Oaxaca haha

  7. Naomi 8 July, 2017 at 10:04 Reply

    I feel ya! In life and travel: never listen to people who tell you what you should do if they don’t know what you like to do to begin with. I feel all museums are a lot of fluff to justify their 20€ entrance fee when all they could say is: really 1 nice statue. Or: we have 3 Van Gogh’s come check us out. I do love certain museums though, they are truly worth your bucks if you like their stuff. But if it’s not your cup of tea then do NOT see

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:55 Reply

      OMG YES! There’s maybe like a couple of things that are interesting and then just a load of rubbish on the other four floors…

  8. Meg | MeanderWithMeg 8 July, 2017 at 10:11 Reply

    I totally get you on this one! I really struggle with the whole bucket list mentality and the feeling that I ‘should’ be doing something because it’s what other people expect you to do in a certain place. “Oh, you’ve been to XX but you didn’t visit XX?” Cue their raised eyebrows and your feeling that you’ve failed at this travel lark. If museums are not your bag then there are plenty of other ways to soak up the culture and history of a place through music, food, art, literature and even chatting to older locals about their experiences. There’s no right or wrong way to travel (unless it’s disrespectful of course!) and I champion finding the ways that make you the happiest.

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:54 Reply

      YES! It’s super hard to not do the main stuff, cos you feel like you didn’t properly ‘do’ the place, like you say. Sometimes you just need to step back and calm down though haha.

  9. Sarah 8 July, 2017 at 10:30 Reply

    There are some museums that I LOVE but it’s always the ones I end up at by accident or because *I* want to go, not some list telling me! I spent 24 hours in Madrid once, completely organized on how to go to EVERY museum during free hours, and I think my stress from architecting that schedule outweighed how much I actually enjoyed those “must see museums”!

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:53 Reply

      I have SO been there with the free museum organisation and planning stuff haha. I DO like museums, but I just hate the must-see pressure of most of them. I’d rather just go to the exhibits that interest me.

  10. Alex 8 July, 2017 at 13:32 Reply

    Ugh. I feel you so hard on this. Sometimes, the best part of traveling is really just experiencing the culture and taking a moment or two to be slow. I think it’s something we all fight when we head to a new place. None of us want to be “that person” who didn’t see the main sights!

    But you’re right. Travel is such a personal thing, and it’s YOUR experience. Not anyone else’s.

    Thanks for this great post!

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 15:52 Reply

      SO true! It’s really hard to NOT do the main things. Which is fine if you’re interested in them and just kind of frustrating if you’re not.

  11. Cristina 8 July, 2017 at 16:33 Reply

    Great post Lauren! I totally agree, traveling should be fun and you should do what YOU want to do.
    I do like museums cuz I’m really into art, history and anthropology (I even studied those things at uni) but if you’re not into that, please don’t go there cuz it will get so boring!
    Chichen Itza is a perfect example and you know I have the same opinion as you! Mexico has faaar more impressive ruins that Chichen.
    Tikal? I don’t know if it’s ever worth paying €20 to visit a ruin in Central America… Instead of going to Tikal, you should go to Tonina in Chiapas. So beautiful, nobody there and really impressive as well and dead cheap of course. I think, from San Cristobal de las casas, you can book a tour (never more than 15 people in the tour) for $100-150 everything incl. Do it, you won’t be disappointed and it’s not an official must see haha.

  12. Kavey Favelle 8 July, 2017 at 16:50 Reply

    I think one of the best things about the way my husband and I travel is that we feel absolutely no compunction about seeing all the “must-sees”, especially museums, or sights that we know from the outset we’re just not going to enjoy (such as beaches, views that you have to hike and climb to see, and a bunch of stuff). It’s not about avoiding the “must-sees” (I find those travellers that seem to feel they deserve a pat on the back for deliberately missing all the big sights and staying “off the beaten path” super smug and annoying, and usually a bit stupid because some sights are on the beaten path for bloody good reason). But at the same time, I think every traveller should decide which things they fancy and not feel guilty about missing those ones out that don’t speak to them. Sometimes we intend to go and see something and then our mood at the time leads us elsewhere and we figure, we will see it the next time!!! Back in March I shared a quote by Augustus Hare which I think you’d love. I won’t share it here as I hate link spamming but ping me if you want to see! <3

    • Lauren 8 July, 2017 at 22:18 Reply

      Totally agree. I have no issue with the museums or the must-sees in and of themselves, but more with the social pressure surrounding them! Everyone should make their own itinerary/ plan for a trip that suits them – that’s also why I never post ’24 hour guide to such and such city’ on my page, because it’s never going to suit everyone.

  13. carrie 8 July, 2017 at 19:44 Reply

    Hah, this post is great. I spent five months in Europe avoiding every single art museum because I just don’t care about the stuffy religious art, but everyone I met was horrified that I was skipping them. I’ve found that I really enjoy museums when they’re about something I’m interested in (or when I’m desperate for air conditioning), but I won’t drag myself through a miserable experience just to check a box.

  14. Stephanie 8 July, 2017 at 23:46 Reply

    I get it! I LOVE museums, but I get your rejection of the “must-see” attractions. I just came back from South Africa, and I refused to do a township tour. I hate being herded around with a group of gawking intruders staring and pointing at local people trying to mind their own business. So I just went shopping that day. 🙂

  15. Julie Cao 23 July, 2017 at 04:01 Reply

    I remember at the beginning of my travel writing program, my editor told us over and over not to use “must-see” in our writings, because what if we don’t do the must see? Are we going to die or what? Of course not.

    What I realize over the years of traveling is that the “must-see” places are oftentimes expensive and full of tourists. I am also not a fan of coming to a place, visit “must-see’ spots, and be done with it.

    I am now traveling in Colombia and everyone tell me I must visit Cartagena and Medelin. Although there are reasons for it, but I am not going to visit that two places anytime soon, esp Cartagena, a place that is very expensive to visit and super touristy, and I am not invalidate my trip to Colombia because I did not visit there. And look, the same as you, I skipped the Chicken Itza in Mexico, but I still love my trip.

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