Europe travel tips and rules in popular destinations: How to travel without annoying locals

You can't miss the graffiti as you climb the hill in the centre of San Sebastian. It's scrawled across a map at the base of Mont Urgull, on a path every climber has to use, at a spot everyone will see. And its message is simple: "TOURIST GO HOME".

I see that message a few times a week as I make my way past on sunny days, usually carrying my nine-month-old son on my back, as we get some exercise and fresh air, heading to one of the best vantage points in this lovely northern Spanish town I now call home. I ponder it too, think about its seriousness, whether it's just some kid trying to provoke a reaction, or if it's a sign of something deeper and real.

Tourist, go home. It's a sentiment that typically grows stronger across Europe this time of year, as peak season approaches, as these places we call our own become inundated with people who don't, as cities such as Barcelona and Venice, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik groan under the weight of the tourist hordes. Even here in San Sebastian you feel it, you see the Old Town streets teeming with people, you find you just can't get into your favourite bars anymore, you can't enjoy this place nearly as much when you're constantly having to fight for your spot in it.

Europe has a problem with overtourism, there's no doubt about it. The thing is, though, that if all of those tourists really did go home, this continent and these cities would be in trouble. Tourism is important here; it's a lifeline. It just has to be done properly and respectfully, something that's in the hands of local authorities, but also of those who choose to visit.

If you're planning to travel to Europe this northern summer, or at any time in the future, there are certain rules to follow if you hope to travel responsibly, to lessen your impact both physically and socially, and to ensure everyone here can coexist in peace. For future visitors, these are your 10 commandments.

THOU SHALT … CONSIDER THE OFF-SEASON

THE PROBLEM

Most visitors to Europe have the same idea: they want sunshine, they want heat, they want comfort. That means the bulk of the continent's visitors arrive in summer, from June to August, when the number of tourists in cities such as Venice and Amsterdam can far outweigh that of local citizens.

THE SOLUTION

Travellers should consider visiting in the off-season, not just for the sake of locals, but for their own: the continent's most popular destinations are far more enjoyable when you don't have to share them with millions of others. Rome is stunning in winter; Amsterdam is at its best in April; Barcelona is a joy in the cooler months. With the right clothes, you'll never miss summer.

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THOU SHALT… USE AIRBNB RESPONSIBLY

THE PROBLEM

Airbnb is not an inherently bad thing – but then again, it's not solely good, either. Yes, the ability for residents to rent their homes to tourists provides income and spreads visitors around the city, but it also serves to drive rents up in desirable areas, and alters the social fabric of the neighbourhoods that attract the most short-term visitors. This is especially true in popular European tourist destinations with limited space, including Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

THE SOLUTION

Plenty of local governments have done the hard work, enforcing new laws to protect citizens and keep rents down. For travellers, it's all about compliance with those laws, and considering your impact on communities. Try to share apartments rather than renting the entire thing, to ensure locals still live there. Split your accommodation between Airbnb and hotels. And act in local communities the way you hope visitors would behave in yours.

THOU SHALT… SLOW DOWN

THE PROBLEM

The ease of modern travel – budget airlines, comfortable cruise ships, affordable, well planned tours – encourages tourists to attempt to do it all, to flit from one destination to the next, to fit in multiple countries and cities in a short trip. That means more flights, more boats, more people moving from place to place with time to see only the same brief highlights before they're off again.

THE SOLUTION

Slow down. For the good of your own travel experience, as well as the comfort of the people you're visiting. Slow travel encourages a much deeper level of experience and understanding. It forces you to spend more time in a single destination, getting to know its lesser-visited areas, spreading yourself and your money around. It allows experiences to develop organically, rather than encouraging box-ticking. Plus it means fewer flights, and lower emissions.

THOU SHALT… IGNORE BREXIT

Britain's Conservative Party lawmaker Michael Fallon arrives passing a demonstrator, to attend the launch of Boris Johnson's leadership campaign, in London, Wednesday June 12, 2019. Boris Johnson solidified his front-runner status in the race to become Britain's next prime minister on Tuesday, gaining backing from leading pro-Brexit lawmakers.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Photo: AP

THE PROBLEM

Britain, clearly, is in a bit of a political shambles at the moment, with no one – from the very top down – quite sure how everything is going to turn out. The country is leaving the European Union. Or is it? It will be a clean break. Or will it? There will be a seamless transition to a new relationship. Or will there? For travellers it can be tempting to steer clear of the chaos.

THE SOLUTION

Now is not the time to give Britain a miss. Politically things may not be well, but Australian passport holders are not going to be affected regardless of Britain's eventual relationship with Europe. The falling value of the pound is also a reason to visit, and with tourist numbers to Britain dipping in 2018, particularly from mainland Europe, now could be a great time to see the country with fewer people to share it with.

THOU SHALT… GO EAST

THE PROBLEM

Visitors to Europe are obsessed with the west. In 2017, France received 89 million tourist arrivals. Italy had 58 million visitors. Even sunny Croatia received 15 million tourists. Those are frightening numbers. Things were very different in the east of Europe, meanwhile, where countries such as Montenegro (2 million visitors), Albania (4.6 million), Slovenia (3.5 million), Georgia (3.5 million) and Romania (2.7 million) are crying out for more arrivals.

THE SOLUTION

Go to the places few other people go. Rather than northern Italy, head to Slovenia next door, with its stunning mountain ranges and charming towns. Instead of Croatia, try Montenegro or Albania, with their equally impressive coastlines. Rather than France, try Romania, with its historical attractions, or even Georgia, which has incredible scenery and one of the oldest wine cultures in the world.

THOU SHALT… NOT CONGREGATE IN THE MAIN SQUARE

THE PROBLEM

It's maddening when you go to a place like Venice and realise the reason it feels so crowded is that everyone is just hanging out in the exact same places: they're all packed into Piazza San Marco; they're all forcing their way onto Ponte Rialto; they're all craning to see the Bridge of Sighs. Walk a few minutes in any direction and you're in tourist-free heaven.

THE SOLUTION

Ignore the popular sites and get off the beaten track. You don't even have to go far. Usually just a few blocks will do it. Stray that far from the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and you're in a normal, relatively quiet neighbourhood. Move that far from the Colosseum and you're in a beautiful, local part of Rome. In doing so you'll help spread the crowds out, plus spread your tourist dollar into shops and eateries that may not have been benefiting from it.

THOU SHALT… SPEND MONEY

THE PROBLEM

There are few things more annoying for local vendors than tourists who wander around markets all day taking photos of all the amazing produce and then don't buy anything. The same goes for owners of businesses of all kinds, particularly in cities where there are a lot of people on package holidays, those who've paid for their accommodation, activities, food and drink up front (often to a foreign-owned company), and so have no incentive to shell out any more.

THE SOLUTION

Try to avoid package holidays, as affordable as they may be. It's far more beneficial for the economy of the country you're visiting if you're spending your money there. For budding photographers, if you're going to wander a market and take photos, ensure you buy something, even if it's just something to nibble on at lunch. And if you spend more than a minute or so watching a busker, throw them a few coins.

THOU SHALT… RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT

THE PROBLEM

More people, more problems. That's true for cities, but it's equally true for the natural environment, particularly in places where outdoor activities are popular. With that popularity comes a host of issues: hiking trails around Cinque Terra in Italy, for example, have had to be closed due to overuse; Iceland has had trouble with litter and human waste in its parks and reserves; and there are record numbers of people now trampling the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

THE SOLUTION

When you're hiking, always stick to marked trails when they're there, and don't trample virgin bush. Walk in single file on narrow trails. Try to reduce your waste; carry as much out as you can, and eliminate single-use plastics. Recycle where possible, and pay attention to local rubbish separation rules. And always use proper toilets if they're available.

THOU SHALT… DO UNTO OTHERS

THE PROBLEM

Sometimes the problem with tourists isn't so much their number, as they way they conduct themselves. There's a tendency in foreign countries to assume local laws don't apply to you, that you can take the feeling of freedom that travel engenders and just run with it, often to the detriment of those just trying to get on with their lives in the local area. Large groups are especially susceptible.

THE SOLUTION

Stick to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means having respect for local laws and etiquette. It means not getting too drunk and rowdy. It means learning at least a few phrases in the language. It means dressing to the same standard locals do, not littering, and being polite. It means, essentially, being thoughtful and respectful.

THOU SHALT… STAY LOCAL, BUY LOCAL

THE PROBLEM

Tourism is at its most damaging, particularly in a continent as intimate and contained as Europe, when those participating in it are just bodies taking up space, when no money is flowing back into local economies, when multinational organisations are scooping up the lion's share of profits. When you do tours and cruises owned by foreign companies, when you stay at foreign-owned hotel chains or all-inclusive resorts, this is what happens.

THE SOLUTION

Europe needs tourists. This industry contributes a huge chunk to total GDP; many livelihoods depend upon it. So don't take this talk of overtourism as a sign that you're unwanted. You're not. Tourism just needs to be done right, which means supporting local economies. Stay in locally owned or managed accommodation. Try farm stays or B&Bs, boutique hotels or local chains. Buy souvenirs from local artisans and shops. Visit local cafes and restaurants. Engage local guides. Ensure your money stays where you are.

EUROPE'S OVERVISITED CITIES: HOW NOT TO UPSET THE LOCALS

THE CITY

VENICE, ITALY

DG3G79 Canal in Venice sunjune16cover
Traveller ALAMY

Photo: Alamy

WHAT THE LOCALS HATE

Sheer weight of numbers is a problem, with massive crowds pouring into Piazza San Marco and Ponte Rialto. Apartment-rental websites are also driving rents up and locals out. And litter is an issue.

WHAT THE LOCALS ADVISE

The community group Venezia Autentica encourages visitors to support local businesses, put rubbish in bins, dress respectfully, refrain from swimming in canals, and stop feeding the pigeons.

THE DETAILS

Venice is best in shoulder seasons, around April and October. See veneziaautentica.com

THE CITY

DUBROVNIK, CROATIA

CP83RR Dubrovnik, Croatia, Europe sunjune16cover
Traveller ALAMY

Photo: Alamy

WHAT THE LOCALS HATE

Game of Thrones, mostly. This old coastal city was a charming, lovely place to be until it was turned into Kings Landing, and suddenly huge crowds by the cruise-ship-full began turning up.

WHAT THE LOCALS ADVISE

Stay longer. The city will see far more of the benefits of tourism if visitors choose to spend at least a few nights in the city, and preferably visit some of the surrounding areas as well.

THE DETAILS

September and October are ideal: the weather is lovely but the bulk of tourists have gone. See tzdubrovnik.hr

THE CITY

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

HBFB5M Amsterdam city view with Amstel river at sunset sunjune16cover
Traveller ALAMY

Photo: Alamy

WHAT THE LOCALS HATE

Mostly, "nuisance tourists", the types who arrive in this famously liberal city hoping to have a good time, with little regard for locals' comfort or well-being. Weight of numbers is also a problem in this small city.

WHAT THE LOCALS ADVISE

Behave yourself. Respect the people who live in your party destination. Don't flout local laws. Don't treat sex workers as tourist attractions. Don't trample tulip fields. Don't crowd popular areas.

THE DETAILS

April is amazing: the skies are clear, tourist numbers are down, and locals are out for festivities like Kings Day. See iamsterdam.com

THE CITY

BARCELONA, SPAIN

La Ramblas, Barcelona

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHAT THE LOCALS HATE

The number of tourists in popular areas. Most residents of busy spots like the Gothic Quarter and Barceloneta would like to see fewer visitors. Though 83 per cent of the city's residents think tourism is good for Barcelona, 60 per cent, when surveyed in 2017, thought the city had reached capacity.

WHAT THE LOCALS ADVISE

Spread out to less popular areas of the city where residents are keen to welcome more tourists: the likes of Raval, Sant Marti and Sant Andreu. Only stay, however, in registered, legal accommodation.

THE DETAILS

Winter in Barcelona is relatively quiet, and the welcome friendlier. See barcelonaturisme.com

THE CITY

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHAT THE LOCALS HATE

Visitor numbers to the Icelandic capital are skyrocketing, with more than 2.3 million arrivals last year (compared with half a million in 2010). That has led to overcrowding, as well as problems with litter in national parks.

WHAT THE LOCALS ADVISE

Rather than stay in Reykjavik, explore less popular regions of Iceland where overtourism isn't an issue. Avoid peak season in July and August. And join an organised tour rather than travelling independently.

THE DETAILS

May and June are great for whale watching; winter is best for aurora borealis viewing. See inspiredbyiceland.com

FIVE EUROPEAN CITIES THAT STILL ABSORB VISITORS WELL

MUNICH, GERMANY

Munich is being held up as one of the shining lights of European tourism right now, a city that is coping admirably with the influx. Part of that is because of the manageable numbers: the city is the same size as Barcelona, and yet receives less than a third the number of visitors. See muenchen.de

LONDON, UK

London is an immensely popular destination, with almost 20 million visitors annually; however, it's also a big city with great infrastructure, and plenty of tourist hubs spread throughout. Urban planning has kept up with tourist demand, and you never feel overwhelmed by visitors here. See visitlondon.com

PARIS, FRANCE

C67DRH Paris skyline with Eiffel Tower. sunjune16cover
Traveller ALAMY

 Photo: Alamy 

Paris is another eternally popular city for visitors, and yet it's also big enough and well-enough equipped to cope with the influx. High tourism density here generates high income, meaning locals are well looked after. The local government has also cracked down on secondary apartments being used for short-term rentals. See en.parisinfo.com

VIENNA, AUSTRIA

The Austrian capital is another destination that's thriving thanks to its tourism industry. The city is taking a "quality over quantity" approach, attracting big-spending visitors rather than those who skip through quickly and avoid parting with too much cash. See antor.com

BERLIN, GERMANY

There are issues in Berlin, with long-time residents being forced out of popular areas. For the most part, however, the German capital is coping well thanks to a government strategy to decentralise tourism and encourage visitors into the city's fringes. Shared accommodation has also been regulated. See visitberlin.de

FIVE ALTERNATIVES TO OVERVISITED EUROPEAN CITIES

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS

If it's canals you're chasing, along with medieval streets, high-quality drinking and dining, cultural attractions both modern and historic, and a vibrant group of friendly locals, you could try Amsterdam – but you'd be better served in Utrecht, just a half-hour train ride away. See visit-utrecht.com

BURANO, ITALY

Burano is everything Venice is not, a charming island with plenty of canals and Venetian history, and a fraction of the visitors. To truly appreciate the beauty of the Burano experience, grab one of the few B&B beds and enjoy life like a local each evening once the last vaporetto has left. See turismovenezia.it

GIRONA, SPAIN

Just an hour and a half north of Barcelona lies the Catalan city of Girona, a stunning locale that boasts one of the best restaurants in the world in El Celler de Can Roca, as well as a string of great museums, galleries and churches – and a fraction of the crowds. See girona.cat

ZADAR, CROATIA

Plenty of people visit the beautiful Croatian seaside city of Zadar; however, compared with Dubrovnik it's a ghost town. Those who do arrive here find a charming place of Roman ruins and Venetian-era history, plus a modern dining scene and a beautiful coastal setting. See zadar.travel

HELSINKI, FINLAND

As an alternative to busy Reykjavik, try Helsinki, a city with plenty of potential, but few visitors. Take the chance and you'll discover a burgeoning food scene, some world-leading modern architecture, and access to Finland's stunning natural attractions. See visithelsinki.fi

See also: Twenty things that will shock first-time visitors to Europe

See also: Hidden gems: The 10 most spectacular secret beaches in Europe

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