How to Travel Vicariously

Spark wanderlust from home, for just a bit longer.

Posted Mar 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 David Lezcano/Unsplash
Vicarious travel via books.
Source: David Lezcano/Unsplash

We’re not quite there yet, at the end of travel restrictions during this COVID lockdown year. But it’s coming and I can feel it and yearn to feed my wanderlust so badly. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal brought that sentiment home with its piece: “The Best of Berlin, Via Films, Food, Music and, Naturally, Beer."

Last year the river cruise I’d booked through one of Germany's waterways, which never happened, was supposed to disembark in Berlin and promised several days of history, culture, and scrumptious food.  

But mostly I looked forward to walking the streets of this remarkable city, reborn more than once over the ages. I’m still waiting for permission to resume those plans. But what can I, or anyone else who’s stranded at home, do in the meantime?

Travel through imagination has always been intriguing and one way to provide a time-out from everyday life—especially when actual travel is still out of reach. Since the invention of the printing press, we’ve found ways to learn about the world through vicarious experiences—and travel the world without leaving home. Sometimes it’s a choice, but in the past year a necessity brought about by the coronavirus. But some of us might just have an aversion to travel, a lack of funds, or pressing demands at home. 

Being creatures filled with curiosity about our surroundings and beyond, books in various forms like print, eBooks, audiobooks, and stories transmitted orally can offer a key to the unknown and exotic. It’s a way to nibble at the boundaries of a new place without having to fully immerse, a chance to try out a way of life or an alter-ego without commitment.

The Odyssey and The Iliad, ancient Greek tales widely read for centuries, excited our ancestors about travel but also warned of lurking danger. Much later, Gulliver’s Travels, written in the 1700s, was an immediate success and since then has never been out of print. Curiosity about what lies beyond our personal experiences is a driving force in human nature. 

Imagine being engrossed in a tale that seems so real that you can feel the thrill, or the pain, of the protagonist. Or maybe the story serves to whet your appetite for a similar real-life encounter. Books with compelling storylines keep us focused, entertained, and fully immersed. More than that, by trying on someone else’s adventure we can learn more about ourselves. 

Some of my favorite reads do just that. Here are some suggestions: The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity gives precise instructions for seeing the world creatively and actually helps you inhabit the artist’s life. As Inward Travelers, we benefit by discovering our creative self, long-buried or previously unknown in order to enhance and intensify travels in our own neighborhood or far-away places.

The bestseller Eat, Pray, Love takes you through the author’s transformational quest for self-understanding through Italy, India, and Bali. Searching for her place in the world, this book guides readers through an emotional process of finding oneself by immersion in unfamiliar cultures. The places provide background to the author’s internal struggles and eventual triumphs.

Award-winning Down to the Sea in Ships chronicles the author’s journeys as a passenger on giant ocean-going container vessels that bring consumer products to working ports in exotic places. It evokes life on board and the real challenges of sailors and the unpredictable seas. It’s hardly the day-to-day life you’ll find on a cruise ship, but you might encounter some of it on a freighter that carries just a few passengers and travels to small and mysterious places.

Whether you read non-fiction or fiction that takes place in a fascinating place, you can begin to fine-tune your own preferences for geography and culture long before you take your first step into a journey. Here’s one from my own experience.

I read Mary Queen of Scots and very much wanted to retrace some of her steps in Scotland. When I finally made it to Edinburgh, Scotland, I felt at home even though I’d never been there before. Because of my personal introduction through the book, I was well acquainted with the tumultuous history of Scotland during the 1500s. Its descriptions actually helped navigate my sight-seeing. More importantly, history came alive as I imagined the drama of that long-ago time and place in its true setting. Walking the cobblestone lanes next to stone buildings that still have soot marks from the past brought to mind the coal fires that warmed early inhabitants in this Northern climate. 

Here are ways to further intensify your own sensations while you remain cozy in your favorite chair. Channel the authors’ first-hand thoughts, feelings, observations, and experiences:

  • Start with an author you love. For travel-themed novels, James Michener is masterful. His extensive research on places makes destinations come alive. Consider Michener’s books about Hawaii, The Iberian Peninsula, ancient Rome, and Chesapeake Bay, in America’s Southeast. Of course, he always included maps and timelines to trace the journey more precisely.
  • Start with a place. Interested in India? Consider books written by Jhumpa Lahiri, who makes her birthplace seem intensely real and jump off the printed page. 
  • Start with a biography of a historical figure who transformed his/her nation. It can give you an in-depth look at a place you’d like to know more intimately. Consider Alexander Hamilton, the book by Ron Chernow, or the stage play his writing inspired. It provides a portrait of life in the British West Indies as well as the U.S. Eastern Seaboard in the late 1700s, as well as an in-depth picture of colonial and revolutionary New York City and Philadelphia. It also provides insight into the fledgling, often chaotic, United States government.

Armchair exploring avoids all of the hassles of the real thing, but more importantly, right now, it’s a way to satisfy your wanderlust safely. 

This post is based on a chapter in the author’s book: Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully, 2018.