Aquarium Effect of Sightseeing

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I call it the “Aquarium Effect”. It is the idea of going to an aquarium to look at fish. Big fish, small fish, red fish, blue fish.. fishes of all shapes, sizes and peculiar mating habits. But really how many fish can you look at before they just blend together? One fish just looks like the next. This seems to happen in sightseeing as well. Cathedrals are in every European city. And yeah they are different, but after a week long trip going to a different one each day, they all look alike. Castles too after a while. So how to do I deal?


Change it up. In Europe anyway, the biggest issue with this aquarium effect are the cathedrals and castles. Every town had a church with a spire and nearly every city a cathedral. So many of them were built in the same time period that they all have similar features. Yes, they are grand and soaring, but the forms can get repetitive in one country. Castles are similar. Most cities hat defenses at one point or another in their history. Castles and ruins exist all over. Again similar time periods and uses can mean similar forms.

There is much more to Europe than these two sites. Mix it up. Sit in a square and watch people. Stroll through residential areas. Take in a museum. Also try to limit the number of things you see on a day. With only a few weeks it is easy to try to see too much. Resist this, that way lies burnout.

Skip Some

Unless you are explicitly on a tour for cathedrals or doing a graduate project on the castles of Europe, you don’t need to see every single one. On your day trips of towns feel free to explore other things and don’t feel the need to see the cathedral in depth, just because it is there.

This bit of advice has a balance. Try to know which sights are important to you to see. Notre Dame in Paris is one of the city’s icons. It would be a shame to miss even just seeing it because of the aquarium effect. It would be like filling up on bread before your favorite steak. Pick the ones you want to see and be ready. That may mean if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a day off before going to see your highly anticipated site.


Examine the details that make a place different. I think the part that gets boring is that the mind keeps seeing a Cathedral in its entirety and sorts it into the bucket for “big church with tower”. After a while that mental bucket is full. So try to go look at other small details. Are the doors unique? Interesting gargoyles? What about the stones themselves?

Basically seek out what is interesting about this specific place.


This aquarium effect is a form of burnout. It is not the long term form that comes up at a job. It is more localized. You overwhelm the brain with too many similar things and it just can’t deal anymore. All fish look alike. Travel is supposed to be fun and education, not a marathon cram session.

Slow down, mix it up, feel free to skip a few and concentrate on other aspects of what you are seeing. Add to that the normal burnout remedies of sleep and you should be able to enjoy your travels more and actually see more by seeing less.

Have you ever felt like this? Not another church/castle? Share your story.

9 thoughts on “Aquarium Effect of Sightseeing

  1. Pingback: Travel Rinse Repeat Roundup 4/25/12

  2. I have to say I had the same thing as John in Kyoto… but it was my mistake and was trying to cram too many into one day. Although I can’t say I had the same experience in Tokyo, but then again I did live there for a year and took my temple and shrine seeing at a more leisurely pace – checked them all out, revisited favourites – I found that the best way to do it.

    • Travel seems to work the best when done slowly. Being able to see temples at your Tokyo paces sounds far better. It just means more logistics in its own way to be able to do it.

  3. I’ve hit that point before… when we did our roadtrip through Normandie I kind of hit a point of “another cathedral… oh well…”. They stop feeling special when you see too many and at a certain point you forget how difficult it must have been to build it and what an amazing building it is. It helped when we went to one that was completly different (a wooden one in Honfleur) and pointed out the differences of the more traditional ones to each other while visiting them.

    • Definitely, check out the details or try to figure out the differences between what you have seen before and what you looking at. It helps the brain concentrate on other things than just “another cathedral.” We are about there with our Turkey trip. The greco-roman ruins are neat, but all begin to look like jumbled stone and half fallen columns.

  4. Great post Andrew. For me, the aquarium effect was worst in Kyoto. I spent four days there and jammed them packed with Temples. But it was my daytrip to Osaka that was most memorable. I hardly recall what I felt about ANY of the temples I saw in Kyoto, but I can remember minute details from the place I ate dinner at in Osaka. My guess is because my brain got a chance to ‘reset’ in Osaka after temple overload and everything was fascinating again.

    • Sounds like exactly what happened. The brain can’t take anymore of the similar stuff, but thrives when you give it something different and new.

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