Traveling is difficult! Everyone can relate to that. Hotel bookings, transportation planning, itinerary making, and *shudders* budgeting can easily add stress to even the dreamiest getaway.
But now think about all of that on top of this: spending days on end researching how a place might treat you based on the amount of melanin in your skin. Is there a high rate of hate crimes? How many Black travelers have reported being turned away from restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, or shopping malls? Yeah. Traveling while Black can be exhausting. And traveling as a young, Black woman? Buckle up.
Whether you relate to this struggle first-hand, or if you’re just curious and seeking some insight, look no further than right here for a few sometimes-funny, sometimes-scary first-hand accounts of what it’s like to travel while young, female, and Black.
A bit of background on the Black population in Europe: at least a million Sub-Saharan Africans have moved to Europe since 2010. And while numbers of migrants in France specifically do not point to a “crisis,” the issue has nonetheless been more highly politicized than anywhere else in Europe.
Walking through the city of Paris, you may pass camps of African migrants along the seine. Take a casual stroll past the Eiffel Tower and you will be sure to notice the sans-papiers— as the undocumented migrants are known in local parlance— vending touristy souvenirs. As a Black tourist, you may get suspicious stares from French officers, that is, until they realize you’re not African. Or, “better” yet, that you’re American.
When I first arrived in Paris, I wore my natural hair up in a high puff or afro, and I would get plenty of looks from random passersby. However, when I decided to get my hair done, the looks became less guarded and more…intrigued. Here’s what I mean: while buying from a crepe stand for breakfast— you know, as you do— the man making crepes demanded that I show him my two euros to pay for my food before he made it. But as soon as he heard my American accent through my broken French, his eyes lit up, he smiled, “You’re American!” My hair was natural at the time. A week later, after I’d gotten my hair done in box braids, I found myself moving through the city with much more ease. I was treated more openly, less guardedly. It wasn’t until I returned to that same crepe stand that I understood why that was. The same man from before greeted me, complimented my hair, and said he “liked this look better,” that I “look like an island girl now.” When I asked him what he meant, he responded, “Very boujee!” It’s okay. You can laugh.
TIP: Rule #1 for any Black traveler, especially female Black travelers: we’re gonna do our hair. Braids, twists, extensions, weaves, wigs— we put our hair up before we hop on that plane. No one wants to spend their vacation worrying about those precious coils and curls. But if you’re in need of services in Paris, look no further than Studio D, a small Black-owned salon off of Republique, and Daba Fashion. I had my braids done at Studio D and the women accounted for my hair texture, what products I liked, and even served hot tea. For cheaper options, hit up Little Africa in Montmartre and browse the braiding salons and shops that stretch for blocks. If you visit in October, you’ll catch the grape harvest festival by the Sacre Cour. Stuff your face with food from different regions of France and, of course, try many different wines.
Greece has that special something. Get lost in the winding seaside streets of Oia or Thera, look out at the expansive Aegean sea, explore the hidden alleyways — any keen adventurer will find something do while on this island. But like anywhere else, Santorini is not without its drawbacks.
While walking along a dusty road, weaving between small buildings, the smells of lamb and fish making my mouth water, I became aware that I was being followed. Strangely enough, I felt no immediate danger. There were a few locals along the road, and I assumed the man behind me was simply heading in the same direction. But when I crossed the street, the man called out to me, a smile on his face, and asked me for directions. Unassuming, I told him that I didn’t know the area, and his response was, “I’m Egyptian.” Um…okay? Good for you! I just smiled at him, said something like “oh…” and attempted to turn away. The man spoke up again: “Can I pay for sex?” Oh. Ohhhhhhh. It was then that I realized he had mistaken me for a prostitute.
Perhaps you have been privy to the harassment and catcalls from the occasional onlooker. We get it in our home countries too, right? But Black female travelers especially may encounter the stereotype of being mistaken specifically for a “streetwalker” while abroad. And this assumption usually didn’t change until someone realized I was American. It could get incredibly uncomfortable, especially when you’re staring longingly off into the middle distance only for some guy to come up and ask you for sex.
TIP: Stay at Luna Suites in Pyrgos. The views are stunning, and for a lesser cost than other boutique hotels in the area. Breakfast is included! Pyrgos itself is a beautiful location in Santorini; the maze-like structure hides many shops and restaurants that other tourists aren’t privy to! For an even cheaper stay, and if you don’t mind a bit of a walk to the nearest town, try Villa Manos in Karterados, Santorini. The couple who owns the hotel is lovely, and the entire staff will make the place feel like home. The out-of-the-way location also makes it feel like you’re on your own private island. Try a cooking class and wine tasting and book a moderately cheap sunset yacht tour to really feel sexy in Santorini.
Tenerife is a beautiful island off the coast of West Africa and is the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands. The tropical location is a hot spot for people looking to get off the mainland. The beaches of Tenerife have some of the clearest waters I’ve ever seen, and it’s easy to get lost in the shopping districts as you browse for souvenirs and antiques. And while many areas of Tenerife are ripe with tourists, there is a fair share of locals selling their wares. As a Black woman traveling on your own, you may get a few stares. Despite being off the coast of Africa, the locals of Tenerife still take notice of darker-skinned tourists, especially if said tourist comes off as “exotic.”
Here’s where it gets tricky. Many Black travelers will be able to relate to locals asking for a photo, requesting to touch their hair, asking where they’re from, and so on. But the truth is, depending on your skin tone, that attitude can vary from innocent curiosity to disdain. I can only speak from my perspective. As a lighter-skinned, mixed Black woman with European-like features, most of the “ogling” I received abroad was well-meaning, even if it was a romanticization of my ethnicity. But this treatment didn’t just come from white locals, it also came from African migrants. Migrant locals would approach me in wonder, complimenting my lighter skin tone, my features: “You don’t look African! Are you from the islands?” They were often surprised when I told them I was American.
These statements were meant to be compliments, but the romanticization of those features that are not “traditionally Black” and lighter skin tones are a prime example of colorism, a problem that exists even within the Black community. Would a Black traveler of a darker complexion have received the same special treatment as I did? Black travel is not a monolithic experience.
TIP: Tenerife is a Vacation destination. With a capital “V.” So if you’re not too keen on running into sunbathers and flower-shirt-wearing vacay dads, avoid staying in the busy capital of Santa Cruz. Rather, opt for smaller towns like Puerto de La Cruz or La Laguna for a more laid back, less aggressively tourist-populated experience. And take advantage of the bus that goes from North to South Tenerife Airport to really explore the island. You can either pay for each individual trip or buy a “bono-bus” for 15 or 25 euros. These passes can be used on every route, can be shared between several people, and save about 50 percent on the price of a ticket.
Amsterdam is one of the few destinations that I’ve visited with friends. The amazingly walkable city by the water was the perfect destination for a girl’s trip. As a Black traveler, I expected to stand out a bit— over 81.7% of the population in the Netherlands are Dutch. However, the stately city of Amsterdam is very culturally diverse, being home to more than 180 nationalities. Immigrants from the Middle East, Morocco, Turkey, and others have greatly influenced the city, especially its culinary scene. This rich cultural mashup is a huge plus for any travel nerd.
I experienced little to no trouble in Amsterdam when it came to my race. Maybe it was because I was traveling with a racially diverse group of friends, but I didn’t have that feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. But a group of four young women walking the Red Light District after dark? LOL. Our small female friend group stood out pretty clearly as we walked that popular tourist trap after dark. The red-lit street brings many gawkers and bucket-list tourists, and we were no different. However, we did receive a bit of unwanted attention.
We received the stares, winks, lewd questions, and remarks with disbelieving laughs and shared cringes. I would have felt very different about the attention had I been traveling solo. I guess it goes to show that sometimes, putting in that extra effort to group plan is worth it. I also saw my first (and last) peepshow. It was definitely strange. but now I can check it off my bucket list.
TIP: Don’t overlook the Amsterdam Museum or the Van Gogh Museum. Yes, they are popular tourist spots, but they’re popular for a reason. Plan your trip to coincide with one of the special interactive exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum for some particularly unique Insta inspiration. For foodies, it’s time to take advantage of Amsterdam’s rich cultural scene. Check out Ten Kate Market for a myriad of global vendors, from Asian to Spanish to French. For that storybook moment, have brunch at a canal-side restaurant like Bakers and Roasters. Or for a more colorful vibe, try Bulls and Dogs for a milkshake so photo-worthy you won’t want to drink it (but you will anyway)!
Home sweet home. Even moving around in our own countries, Black individuals will experience many of the same situations as described above in international waters. The suspicious glances, the questions about our hair, differing attitudes depending on skin tone— this isn’t new to us.
There will always be aspects to travel that we will have to consider that others won’t, but there are also so many more hidden gems to travel that can and will be discovered because of that. We search out places where we feel safe, joyful, and fulfilled. When we take these experiences with us, from country to country, we build for ourselves a larger understanding of the world.
Having the privilege and freedom to travel and move from one country to another is not something that should be taken for granted, for any traveler. For those of you who have an American passport, you may recognize that even that gives you certain privileges. However you identify —culturally, racially, sexually, or otherwise—your unique experiences will shape the way you travel and the stories you will tell.
TIP: There is racism and anti-Blackness everywhere. Internationally, and right next door. You will encounter situations that make you uncomfortable, angry. But you will also find places that bring you joy. You will find pieces of yourself all over the world, and when put together, it will be messy and beautiful. Be safe, be vigilant, and go wherever you want to! Forever chase adventure and freedom, by any means necessary.