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What is slow travel?

Slow travel is about relishing the moment and savoring immersive cultural experiences. No checklists to rush through. Instead, time is taken to explore and sustainably connect with unfamiliar surroundings for a richly rewarding vacation.

12 min.
Monty relaxing and reading a book enjoying the life of slow travel in Europe

Is slow travel a mindset or an ethos? Or is it a buzzword dreamt up by a marketing team on their annual retreat? Does it matter when talking about travel, which can be a joy no matter how fast you go?

On the surface, slow travel says I want an experience like no other. Unhurried and immersive, following paths less trodden and getting to know a place from the inside out.

Yet the enigmatic term ‘slow travel’ confounds dictionary definitions. Ask a dozen industry experts, and you’ll end up with 13 different definitions. 

Words like mindset and attitude are bandied about in the blogosphere, clutching for a meaning that nobody agrees on. Yet, some consistent themes float to the top. 

Most agree that the concept owes a debt to the ‘slow food’ movement that emerged in the ’80s. Much like Italian chefs frustrated with the emergence of fast food, the concept places travel in that rare group of human experiences that should be savored.

Slow travel dials back the clock to a time before social media algorithms fuelled wanderlust and budget airlines spurred mass tourism. But it also embraces the possibilities that technology provides.

It travels less ordinary, where time is taken to be in the moment, unhurried by tour guides or a busy checklist of must-visit destinations. Although slow travel weaves conflicting ideas, the resulting patchwork reveals a pattern recognized as a new kind of tourism.

Defining slow travel

The ideas behind slow travel don’t need a catchy title. It’s an idea that brings together ways of traveling that have been around since aristocrats embarked on Grand Tours of Europe. But the snappy term neatly crystallizes the concept.

The contemporary variant emerged from the aforementioned slow-food movement in Italy in the 1980s, a backlash against fast-food culture devouring Italy’s culinary legacy. It wasn’t just the Golden Arches in the firing line but the idea of convenience trumping quality.

The movement celebrated the intrinsic delights of good food. Leisurely savoring flavors and elevating quality above utility. Above all, it was about food as a pleasure, not a function.

These are the ideas absorbed by slow travel. There is no need to speed-run through the A-Z of a tourist brochure. The Colosseum isn’t going anywhere. It will wait for your next visit to Rome. 

Ultimately, it’s about moving at a pace that lets travelers absorb their surroundings. Like the Italian chefs who want you to relish every morsel, slow travel adopts the same approach to seeing a place.

Layered over this simple idea are constructive ideas about traveling sustainably. Minimizing environmental footprints, swerving overcrowded destinations, positively contributing to host communities, and learning more about unfamiliar cultures are values we can all get behind.

Slow travel is a '70s concept album vs. a Best of Taylor Swift playlist. A plate of freshly made ravioli instead of a Big Mac. 

Sustainable travel enriches travelers too. Not just by saving money and time, although that is a potential benefit. But seeing the world in a gentler and less impactful way can lead to adventures not found on more conventional vacations. 

A simple idea percolates through — slow travel is about relishing the moment and prioritizing immersive cultural experiences. A 70s concept album vs. a Best of Taylor Swift playlist. A plate of freshly made ravioli instead of a Big Mac. All are enjoyable and share similarities, but the experience is not the same.

Some slow travel myths

Wooly rhetoric and high-minded concepts frequently define the nebulous nature of slow travel. It helps to look at what it does not mean.

Slow travel is not a choice between weaving textiles in the Andean foothills or hiking the 2,190 miles (3,524 km) of the Appalachian Trail. It can also be a long weekend in Tallinn, Perpignan, or an extended break on the Dalmatian coast. 

Once, it might have been defined as spending longer in communities and not traveling far from your base. But the ill-defined meaning has morphed to fit modern demands. 

Couple sitting on a bench in Krakow overlooking the Vistula River
Slow travel is a state of mind that everyone can embrace.

Join a language workshop, forage delicacies in the local market, or kick back at a corner café and watch the world go by; if you’re enjoying yourself without worrying about missing out on something, you’re traveling slowly.

Because slow travel is for everyone. You don’t need to be retired or living a carefree lifestyle. It’s a conscious travel decision for anyone who wants to ditch convention and wrap themselves up in an experience that won’t blur into the next.

If you miss anything, you know it’ll be there the next time you visit. Although if you had a good time and made unforgettable memories, have you really missed anything?

Save time, money, and headaches

Let’s talk brass tacks. More likely than not, you’ll save money by not rushing from city to city in a Phileas Fogg inspired escapade.

Sure, you can also preserve your overdraft by staying home. Yet, slow travel is a happy middle ground between spending hard-earned money on a check-box vacation and a rearrange-the-garage staycation. 

It’s not just dollars and Euros that are liberated. You also recover precious vacation time that can be spent recharging batteries and relishing singular experiences.

Nobody plans a vacation to linger in identikit airport lounges, sharing frustrations and communicable illnesses with fellow bored travelers. Yet, it is an unavoidable consequence of cramming too many destinations into one trip.

The temptation to load vacation plans with as many dreamy locations as possible is understandable. Especially when visiting Europe, where magnetic cities are just 1-2 hours apart on budget flights.

The temptation to load vacation plans with as many dreamy locations as possible is understandable. But once early wake-ups, late arrivals, connecting flights and check-in time are added to the equation, lost hours quickly stack up.

But once early wake-ups, late arrivals, connecting flights and check-in time are added to the equation, lost hours quickly stack up. Time that could have opened doors to unforgettable adventures in hidden corners of those cities; instead of listening to passengers complaining about their delayed flights.  

Slow travel exchanges all those lost hours for an intimate appreciation of a place and culture. Swapping a long list of recognizable landmarks for a flexible plan that allows time to breathe and discover offbeat treasures. 

It’s not necessarily about confining yourself to one city either. Trains, car rentals, and buses can open up less-visited parts of a country, unspoiled landscapes, and towns untouched by mass tourism. Hidden gems you won’t find in the Time Out guide.

Whatever you do, skipping grueling multi-city tours will trade memories of gray airport terminals for more colorful recollections. Your bank balance and well-being may thank you.

Slow down and immerse yourself in a new culture

Two old men playing chess in Romania
Spend a Sunday morning in a Romanian park getting beaten in a game of chess. Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash.

Now, we’re getting to the heart of slow travel. If nothing else, it is about getting to know a culture intimately. Diving beneath Tripadvisor’s Top 10 and exploring the depths below.

Some say it is impossible to truly immerse yourself as a visitor. You don’t speak the language or understand the unwritten rules of a society you’re briefly visiting.

But immersive travel can take many forms. From cooking classes to craft workshops, an e-bike ride beyond city limits, or hiking up the mountain instead of taking the cable car.

Slow travelers still get to see world-famous landmarks, they just do so in second gear. If they have an itinerary, they’re ready to drop it and go in a different direction when compelling opportunities arise.

Without a ‘must-see’ list, you don’t need to bend time. Taking things as they come will stimulate surprising emotional connections.

Slow travelers still get to see world-famous landmarks; they just do it in second gear. 

The enigmatic Mona Lisa is a must when visiting the Louvre, but there are 38,000 other compelling exhibits. Decelerate, deliberate, and enjoy something different. Stripped to its barest meaning, slow travel means precisely that. Go slow.

Walk or bike to places. Head overland between nearby metro stations, which is far more rewarding than a dingy subterranean journey. Swap planes for trains to see worlds between cities. 

Pore over the map, pick a destination that resonates and make it your entire day out. Stay in family-run B&Bs and eat in off-grid neighborhoods along the way.

We have studiously avoided using the mot du jour, but there is a mindset to slow travel. Albeit one that doesn’t fit neatly into a box. 

The unsung benefits of slow travel

The big payoff for travelers taking the slow road is experiencing moments not found in tourist brochures or on some gushing blog (yes, we’re aware of the irony.) But some tangible advantages don’t require florid adjectives.

Stop racing to catch a canceled flight

If you’ve ever found yourself dashing through an airport, scowling at over-enthusiastic customs officers, you’ve probably asked yourself if taking things slower would have been better.  

It’s made even all the more exasperating when all the rush was for naught as your flight was canceled or significantly delayed. Slow travel discourages rushing around. It repels travel burnout, which we’ve all experienced after a supposed getaway. 

Lower stress = better health

Doctors have yet to prescribe slow travel as an antidote to illness. They are fond of advising patients to “take it easy.” We’ll ignore the conventions of science and assume this sentiment works for vacations too.

Take your time, lower your stress levels, avoid crowded places where germs fester, and return from vacation feeling refreshed. For once. 

More time to soak up the vibes

Time is money does not sound like a sustainable travel mantra. But few avoid time constraints, whether from work, family, or visas.

Spend several weeks in Europe jetting between capitals, and you could lose 6-9 precious hours per flight, depending on your destination. 

Spend several weeks in Europe jetting between capitals, and you could lose 6-9 precious hours per flight, depending on your destination. Most airports demand passengers arrive 2-3 hours before the flight, just enough time to get bored and spend money in the overpriced ‘retail village.’

Ditch the city-hopping and get to know one or two destinations really well. Your pocket and your health will thank you, even if your Instagram feed won’t.

Sustainability in tourism

The buzzwords are back. But sustainability in tourism is gaining traction globally and fits slow travel like a handmade hemp glove.

Figures underline how travelers are choosing to spend longer in a single destination. Collecting passport stamps is going out of fashion, and extended stays are in vogue. One report claims the average hotel stay had increased from 12.8 days to 15 days in 2021. Post-pandemic, Forbes reports even more striking figures confirming the trend toward longer stays.

Slow tourism can even help to sustain local communities. Outside dollars and euros spent directly with local small businesses over a longer period is a win for everyone.

But mass tourism has a darker side. Airbnb usage can drive property costs up, damaging local communities. Air travel pollutes the skies, even when offsetting CO2 emissions with a few pennies on the ticket price.

Only a couple of countries manage tourist numbers. For example, Bhutan restricts visas and insists you take a guide, making sustainable travel the only way to see the country. (North Korea does something similar for entirely different reasons.)

In an ideal world, sustainable tourism would give back more than it takes out of communities and the environment. It’s an impossible calculation to make. But applying sustainable principles whenever possible is a step in the right direction.

Slow travel practical decisions

What does slow travel mean when making practical arrangements like choosing your lodging or where to buy a cup of coffee?

Identikit hotel chains rarely fit the bill. Sure, they guarantee a snug mattress precisely engineered for utilitarian comfort. But stay in one, and you’ve stayed in them all.

Sit back with some wine and plot out your day the slow way.

Package vacations with sizable environmental footprints and numerous restrictions are out. Besides, you’re not getting value for money unless you maximize time in the pool and at the buffet.  

Instead, excursions are tailored around experiences and respecting local communities. Choosing local businesses over international chains. Starbucks has big mugs, but the coffee shop around the corner has been open for 50 years and is embedded in the community. It’s probably cheaper, too.

Stay in the unremarkable B&B, not the Hilton. You might discover the landlord is a treasure trove of local insights, and the breakfasts are out of this world. And you can sleep easier knowing they got your payment and not the Hilton’s offshore account. 

Boutique hotels straddle the line between slow and fast travel. Ideal for the slow traveler who still welcomes some creature comforts.

At the other end of the scale are hostels, arguably one of the progenitors of slow travel. Staying in no-frills hostels is not for everybody. However, you’re assured of getting to know people almost as well as their body odor. Plus, hostels are often staffed by people who know where the real party is happening.

What about Airbnb and other property rental platforms? The backlash against Airbnb et al is real. Accused of hiking property prices, driving away locals, and jacking up their own fees with questionable surcharges, property rental platforms are a fraught subject for slow travelers.

That said, rental platforms are still the place to hire isolated cabins, crumbling monasteries, and personal homes. You might still meet hosts, but hopefully not to assess your cleaning.

Slow travel transport

Slow travel advocates can get prickly when talking about transport. The proliferation of budget airlines is considered the antithesis of slow travel. It’s undoubtedly a boon for tourist economies but a net negative for the environment and residents in cities overrun with tourists.

For many roaming wayfarers, air travel is the key that unlocks hard-to-reach places. But unless you’re hopping from country to country in a mad bid to photograph every iconic landmark, there are some alternatives to consider.

If you can, go by train. Train travel emits far less CO2 than planes or cars. Don’t take our word for it; the BBC has the numbers to back us up.

With trains crisscrossing the Alps and open spaces of Europe, rail travel is often faster and more relaxed between neighboring countries.

Once you’ve checked in, skip taxis and hire a bike. Pedal power can take you places tour buses won’t, and you’ll instantly feel like a local in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Or use the local buses and two feet to navigate offbeat locations. Local buses are often just as diverting as an expensive hop-on, hop-off tour bus.

When available, enjoy the thrill of cheap local transport you won’t find back home. Tuk-tuks, underpowered rickshaws, hair-raising scooter rides, and converted open-air trucks all leave an impression. With maybe the occasional nightmare.

That said, unless you’re on the Orient Express or cruising around the fjords of Norway, transport is a means to an end. An alternative way to define slow travel is by what you do, not how you get there.

Slow travel experiences

A bike in a field in the Netherlands next to some sheep.
Cycle through the countryside in the Netherlands and make friends with some sheep. Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash.

Slow travelers embrace opportunities to explore lesser-seen locales. To dive deeper into local culture, often focusing on a theme like the culinary delights of Naples or tracing the footsteps of Mozart in Salzburg.

Learn how to make pierogi in Krakow or macarons in Paris. Or simply settle on a neighborhood with one or two unmissable attractions and spend the day soaking up its hidden charms.

Slow travel doesn’t have to mean staying in one place. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. 

Slow travel doesn’t have to mean staying in one place. Hire a boat or jump on a bike and head down routes less traveled to be rewarded with fresh perspectives on a country and its people.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Ultimately, we all have our own take on what makes travel ‘slow.’ But most would agree it is about stepping off everyday tourist paths to connect with your surroundings and the people around you.

Let’s look at some real-world slow travel examples. Ready-made escapades that exemplify the experience:

Cycle through the Scottish Highlands

Haggis for lunch, a nip of whisky before beds, and natural beauty as far as the eye can see as you cycle through the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. Read more →

A masterclass in Delft Blue painting

Paint your own pottery the Delft way as part of a visit to a captivating Dutch town ideal for a long weekend of slow travel. Return home with a new skill and your very own handmade Delftware. Read more →

Enotourism along the Douro Valley

 Reputedly the world’s oldest wine region, Alto Douro is a place to lose yourself in stunning landscapes, historical diversions, and great food. But most of all, fine wines from the region’s oft-overlooked vinícolas. Read more →

Hike the Camino de Santiago 

A world-famous pilgrimage, the 500 miles (805 km) of the Way of St James is an extraordinary hike through northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. A slow travel gem enticing travelers since the middle ages. Read more →

Cruise along the Shannon and Erne rivers in Ireland

Travel doesn’t get much slower than floating around rivers and canals across Europe. The waterways of Ireland cutting through the scenic landscapes hide ancient monasteries, crumbling castles, friendly villages, and the one or two pubs serving pints of the finest black stuff. Read more →

Bear-watching in Finland

See endangered big beasts in their natural environment and help sustain their habitat responsibly. A slow travel experience in a part of Europe blessed with some of the most unspoiled scenery on the continent. Read more →

Where will your slow travel adventures take you?

While exploring the nooks and crannies of slow travel we’ve tried to paint a nuanced picture of an enigmatic concept. Along the way, we’ve hopefully quashed a few myths and put some meat on the bones of an idea that bubbles beneath the surface of modern tourism.

We could have focused on buzzwords like sustainability, localization, and that overworked phrase, quality over quantity. They all fit into the jigsaw puzzle.

But once you cut through the frothy language, slow travel describes a basic premise: take time to immerse yourself in your surroundings and get to know a place from the inside out without worrying about what you might be missing; you might return home feeling renewed and inspired.

Next time you plan a vacation, why not put the ideas into practice and see where your slow travel adventures take you?