How to include Architecture in your next trip

Whether you are traveling for work or leisure, learn how to add interesting architecture destinations to your itinerary with this easy guide.

There is no shame in visiting Dubai to see the Burj Khalifa, New York to see the Chrysler Building, or Paris to see the Eiffel Tower—they are world class architectural landmarks for a good reason. In fact, visiting one of these high profile landmarks might be highlight of your trip. That said, there are dozens of other buildings in each of these cities worth adding to your itinerary.

The Chrysler Building (New York), Eiffel Tower (Paris), and The Burj Khalifa (Dubai) are global architectural landmarks for good reasons.

The Chrysler Building (New York), Eiffel Tower (Paris), and The Burj Khalifa (Dubai) are global architectural landmarks for good reasons.

Even if you are visiting a town or city with a less vibrant architectural tradition, you will find several hidden gems if you look for them. Doing some research in advance is helpful no matter where you are planning to go.

In this guide, we will discuss how to:

  1. Identify buildings worth visiting
  2. Prioritize potential destinations
  3. Organize each day
  4. Appreciate each building you visit
  5. Reflect on your trip when you return home.

Lastly, since this is a LEGO website, we will talk about how to find inspiration while traveling, and re-create your favorite buildings with LEGO when you return.

Before your Trip

This guide assumes that you already know where you want to go, and you want to add some Architecture destinations to your trip. (If you are trying to plan a dedicated Architecture trip, you probably already know where you want to go. Either way, these tips should still be useful in identifying lesser-known landmarks to visit.)

Step 1. Initial research

Before trying to add Architecture to your itinerary, I strongly suggest that you get a well-reviewed travel guide that includes lots of inspirational photos and current information. You will also want to have a map handy, since you need to learn where the “must see” destinations are located before adding Architectural landmarks to your trip.

A map and a well-reviewed guidebook are the best place to start when planning a trip to a new city.

A map and a well-reviewed guidebook are the best place to start when planning a trip to a new city.

Naturally, many of the top destinations are architectural in nature. If so, I strongly suggest that you look into architecturally-focused tours of a specific building or the city center. Tours provided by the building you want to visit are almost always excellent – be sure to make reservations in advance for busy times of year.

In order to achieve a deeper understanding of a city or region’s architecture, you will want to visit lesser-known buildings in the area to gain additional context. Finding these hidden gems requires additional research!

Step 2. Digging Deeper

I hope that you have identified a few main landmarks for you trip and are beginning to see where they are located on a map. Let’s find some less common architectural destinations to broaden your perspective.

There are a couple different ways to find less common architectural destinations:

  • See if there is an Architecture Foundation in the area. They might have a website, brochure, or offers tours.
  • Simply search for “[city name] best architecture” or similar search terms. You might find a list created by the tourism board, an architecture student, or blogger.
  • If the city is famous for a specific architect or architectural style, try searching “[city] + [style/architect]” as a search term.
You can’t fully appreciate Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie-style architecture by just visiting Robie House. You can only begin to understand the range of this architectural tradition after walking through Oak Park to see his Home and Studio, early “bootleg” homes, his more modest houses, and the Victorian houses that preceded the style.

As you discover interesting buildings, it’s a good idea to capture them in a list so you don’t forget to visit them. You might want to take some notes in advance containing a brief history of the building and it’s architectural style, some photos, as well as hours of operation, tour times, and contact information. You are welcome to write a list on paper or in an application like OneNote, but I prefer to go straight into “My Maps” which is a part of Google Maps.

If you are very lucky, someone may have already created a custom map showing architectural landmarks for the city you are planning to visit. You might be able to use that map instead of creating your own, or just use it as the starting point.

Custom Maps in Google

While there are a number of tools to make custom maps, I’ve found that Google Maps is easiest. It’s a little tricky to get started, so I’ve provided a brief tutorial showing how I use Google Maps to plan a trip.

Creating a new map in “My Maps” (Google Maps):

  1. Launch https://www.google.com/maps and sign-in with your Google Account.
  2. Press the “Menu” button in upper-left of screen, followed by “Your Places”.
  3. Press the “Maps” tab to see your existing maps.
  4. Press “Create map” to create a new map.
  5. You can click on the text “Untitled Map” to rename your map to the name of the city or your trip.
After creating a new map, you will see these options in the upper left.  You can find landmarks by name or address in the search box, then add them to your custom map.

After creating a new map, you will see these options in the upper left. You can find landmarks by name or address in the search box, then add them to your custom map.

Adding destinations to your Map (Google Maps):

  1. Click on the search box, and type the name of the landmark you want to add to the list. You can also copy/paste the location’s address if you prefer.
  2. This causes a list of results to appear below the search box. Click on the best match.
  3. The map will zoom in on the area where that building is located, and display a little rectangle on top of the map with details of the destination.
  4. Press “+ Add to Map” after confirming that this is the right landmark.
  5. Finally, you can make changes to each landmark by clicking the “edit” icon (the icon looks like a pencil) on the bottom of the rectangular window. Don’t forget to hit “Save” when you are done making edits.
    I typically include relevant details like a summary of the building’s history, hours that the building is open, telephone number, and a link to the website where I can find more information.
  6. To make the maps experience beautiful, you can also add a photo for each landmark by pressing the “Camera” icon along the bottom. The easiest way is to click the “Google Image Search” tab and type the name of the building, then pick the best image from the results. (You can also copy/paste the URL to a great photo of the building.)

Note: Google Maps works great on your phone in cities where you have reliable internet access, but it does not work offline. If you will be traveling without reliable internet, I suggest making an offline copy of your map.

I like to prioritize each landmark in advance of the trip so I know which ones I really want to see, and which ones I can skip if time or schedule doesn’t allow. I do this by using colors on my map indicating Must See, Want to see, Time Permitting, etc… This helps you make decisions on-the-go when you have a 30 minute break between sights.

Custom map of Prague, with color-coded tourism sites, architectural landmarks, and more.

Custom map of Prague, with color-coded tourism sites, architectural landmarks, and more.

In addition to prioritizing each landmark, I will copy/paste basic information about each building from sources like Wikipedia so I can find it easily later. This includes information like the Date constructed, architect, architectural style, and related buildings.

A few cities like Vienna have dedicated museums for Architecture. Even if the city doesn’t have an architecture museum, they may have architecturally focused exhibits at City Hall worth checking out. I recommend that you visit on your first day, even if you are still a little jet-lagged – You will probably discover a few more landmarks to add to your list for later in the trip.

During your trip

Whether you plan each day in advance, the night before, or as you go, you can make the most of your trip with a few simple tricks.

  1. Keep track of when each place is open. If something you want to see only offers tours on a certain day, build your itinerary around this.
  2. Arrive Early (or Late). Mid-day is usually the most crowded, and typically has the worst lighting for exterior photos. Getting up early to be the first one in the gate is almost always worth it. Alternately, visiting right before closing time can be less crowded, too.
  3. Consider multiple transit options and times. Avoid rush hour by walking one way, then take alternate transit back to your hotel. You will get a better sense of the city by walking and seeing each neighborhood.
  4. Consider time of day and angle of the sun for photos. Visit east-facing buildings in the morning, and west-facing buildings in the evening. In the northern hemisphere, south-facing buildings will have light all day, and north-facing buildings might look best on a cloud day. Night photography is great when buildings are well lit, and you might need a tripod.
  5. Use breaks to review and revise your itinerary. If you are really enjoying the current stop, remove a less interesting destination to spend more time. If you have extra time, take the longer route to visit a “Time Permitting” destination on your list. I like to revisit my map and guidebook during lunch every day.

It’s a good idea to re-familiarize yourself with buildings you are about to visit by re-reading the notes you captured in advance. This can remind you of important architectural details to look for. Before you approach the building, consider which angles will showcase the building’s most iconic features. If it’s all about Symmetry, approach from the front. If the architecture is about movement and unusual geometries, maybe you can exaggerate this by walking around the building to find unusual perspectives.

After initial impressions, it’s up to you to decide how to proceed. Many buildings are designed with an obvious path in mind, so listening to the architecture makes sense. As you enter the building and explore different rooms, keep looking for interesting details, the shape of the various rooms, and the natural paths between them.

Take lots of photos

Photography is great, because it allows you to revisit places after you have returned to your home. With high quality digital cameras available for amazing prices, and excellent cameras built in to our phones, anyone can take great photos. While I am planning to tackle architectural photography in a subsequent article, here are a few quick tips:

  • Consider time of day and angle of the sun for photos. In most cases, you want the sun behind you while taking photos of buildings; having it to your side creates more contrast.
  • Try to keep the horizon level. By keeping the horizon level, your photos will look better on screen.
  • Be Patient. Wait a few moments for a large group to walk out of your picture.
  • Look for geometric shapes or patterns. Images with symmetry, regular geometry like circles, squares or triangles are pleasing to the eye.
  • Seek out smaller details too… A building comes to life through details such as Light Fixtures, wall decorations, stairwells, or flooring. Take photos of these details to tell the whole story.

I find that thinking about which photo I want to take helps me better appreciate Architecture, but it’s important to take your eyes away from the camera to take in the entire environment. You will have plenty of time to review your photos, but might not get a chance to visit the building again.

Sketching is great, too…

I started sketching while visiting architecture because it’s a way to capture the building interiors when photography is prohibited. It’s easy to take a few quick pencil drawings as you tour the building. (Common concerns include that flash photography is annoying, and the artifacts could be damaged by flash photography. As you have probably noticed, most people don’t know how / remember to turn their flash off.)

Drawing helps you look at the architectural details from new perspectives, as you try to quickly capture the main proportions and forms. It also gives you something to look back at and remember much like a photograph.

Pencil Sketch of Willits House, 1901, in Highland Park, Illinois, by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pencil Sketch of Willits House, 1901, in Highland Park, Illinois, by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

I think sketching is a great tool even when you are allowed to take photos. By slowing down to do a drawing, you can appreciate the building in new ways. I sometimes focus on the fine details, and other times I ignore the details and focus on the building’s overall shape and proportions. When I have time to do exterior photos, I usually use a small drafting ruler to get more precise lines.

A high quality drafting pencil and dot-grid notebook is a great place to start! For greater precision, you might also want a small drafting ruler.

My favorite drafting pencil: Pentel GraphGear 1000

My favorite drafting pencil: Pentel GraphGear 1000

I prefer Dot-grid notebooks over graph paper, and the Leuchtturm1917 notebooks are the best I've found.

I prefer Dot-grid notebooks over graph paper, and the Leuchtturm1917 notebooks are the best I’ve found.

After your trip

It’s a good idea to go through your photos right after the trip, since you will remember the names of the places you visited. Even if you aren’t able to go through images quickly, see if your photos include GPS locations — this can help you identify the buildings more quickly. (Most phones captures this automatically.)

When you are ready, be sure to share your favorite trip photos with friends and family. This is a great opportunity to share a few details of each building by writing a caption about the year the building was built, the artist who built it, or the architectural style it is a part of. The more details you share, the more others will come to appreciate architecture as art.

Re-create your trip using LEGO

As this is also a LEGO website, I also encourage you to reflect on the architectural highlights from your trip using LEGO Bricks.

#21030 - US Capitol Building

#21030 – US Capitol Building

The obvious place to start is to see if there are any existing sets based on the buildings you visited. Many of the larger sets based on a single building are out of production, but you might still be able to find them. A few excellent models remain in production including the updated Guggenheim in New York, the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, the US Capitol Building in DC, and the Buckingham Palace in London.

#21039 - Shanghai Skyline

#21039 – Shanghai Skyline

With the 2016 introduction of the LEGO Skylines series, you might also be able to build a model based on the highlights from the city you visited. Each Skylines model includes microscale re-creations of at least 4 buildings, so these sets offer a lot of architectural diversity, a diverse selection of LEGO parts, and parts in multiple colors.

#21050 - LEGO Architecture Studio is the perfect start to re-creating buildings you see when traveling.

#21050 – LEGO Architecture Studio is the perfect start to re-creating buildings you see when traveling.

If you have a really large LEGO collection, jump right in and build a scale model of your favorite building, or a model containing a few buildings in the style of the LEGO Architecture Skylines. If you have a modest collection or are just getting started, the LEGO Architecture Studio contains a great selection of white and clear bricks.

When you are done, be sure to share photos of your LEGO creations with your favorite online LEGO communities, like Brick Architect.

Have you included Architecture in your travels, or planned a trip just to see architecture? I’d love to know where you went—leave a comment below!

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