Writing a Travel Journal

To “sketch without a palette or brushes,” like the novelist Henry James aims in his pictoralism-style of writing, I need to  “write” pictures of people, places, objects and scenes when I travel. Part of writing in an evocative fashion relies on the poet’s toolbox—using metaphor, symbols and alliteration.

For example, in a letter to his father Henry James Sr. in 1869, the novelist observed:

“Everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”—Henry James

I can taste the Chianti in my mouth as it rolls over my tongue. I sniff the powdery perfume of the diminutive flower. I see the purple haze as the sun sets over the Duomo in Florence.

In just 14 words, James paints with such immediacy through his metaphors.

When I travel, every sense must be examined in a new place. What do I feel? See? Smell? Hear?

When in Venice, my overriding sensory preoccupation is touch because  the tourists jostle and push me into a rushing stream of humanity whenever I step into a medieval street or alleyway.

In Paris, I am a flaneur. My eyes stay raised to witness every talisman of the idiosyncratic city—the window “eyes” on Haussmann’s 19th-century townhomes, the ginger cat poised in the window at the Shakespeare book store, the “love locks“ on the Pont des Arts and the book sellers near the Notre Dame.

My nose leads me during my 24-hour whirlwind tour of Basel, Switzerland last October. On any corner, I might smell the fresh-baked croissants or pastries. On a crisp autumn day, the city and its admirers are all parked on bistro chairs to savor the sweet respite from obligations.

And so often in small towns in Italy, my first sense engaged is my ears—the tolling of the church bells (typically 6 am, noon and 6 pm)—calling worshippers to mass. In Prosecco Hills, I learn the bells bring the laborers out of the vineyards at lunch time.

Certainly, my sense of taste is activated whenever I travel. In Holbox, Mexico, I arranged for a private cooking lesson with a professional chef. In addition to teaching me how to prepare Shrimp Diabolo, he also educated my mind (and my palate) with giving me samples of wild herbs and native vegetation to taste.


Do you keep a sketchbook in your head to record what you experience when you travel? If you can mentally paint a picture of a place, the memory can’t vanish—like a photo on your iPhone that accidentally gets erased.

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a business colleague at my conference in Austin. She was thinking about starting a travel blog for her 4-year-old daughter. The articles would record travel impressions through her child’s eyes. I was intrigued. The concept had only one major problem— keeping her child’s identity protected.

But what if you interviewed your child and transcribed those responses to write in her leather-bound book? It is your gift to her as well as you. One day she will be able to write her own travelogue. I promise your child’s travel diary will be one of the most precious mementos of your family’s travel adventures.

Keeping a travel diary or journal allows you to instantly remember a place along with emotions associated with this time in your life.

I have also seen travelers who keep sketching journals. They pack their box of colored pencils or pens so they can quickly record visual memories by drawing a landscape or a building. You could do the same activity for your child when you travel.

“Everything is just how I imagined it, yet everything is new.”― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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