Guest interview – Olivia Giovetti of High Culture on a Low Budget

I think that Olivia’s blog High Culture on a Low Budget is fantastic. The blog highlights that you don’t have to break the bank to soak up culture in Europe.  Of course, being Scottish, I like to get value for money.

1 What is the aim of your blog?

High Culture on a Low Budget was created in the spirit of art, wanderlust, and traveling on a tight budget. Its aim is to give tips from the insider’s perspective (culled from my own years of living in Europe and wanting to get into every theatre/concert hall/opera house/gallery/museum possible) on where to go for the best deals on opera tickets, how to get into a museum for free, and how to do a night at the theatre for under $10.00. I’d like to think of it as the sort of blog Anthony Bourdain would run if he were a culture vulture rather than a foodie.

And in that spirit, each post also includes extra background to answer that big question: Why? Why you should care about seeing an opera or ballet or spending a day in a museum. I try to cover this with a faker’s guide to who’s who and what’s what in the arts–par example, in my post on the Bolshoi Opera, I give a quick rundown of Russian opera, its composers, and some quick picks for the neophyte. The fine and performing arts are so linked to European culture that it’s almost a crime not to go to La Scala or the Tate Modern, but for those of us who haven’t grown up knowing that, you have to make it relevant and exciting.

2 What prompted you to start your blog?

My two great loves (besides my partner and a really good bottle of Beaujolais) have always been culture and travel. I grew up watching Joan Sutherland operas on laser-disc that made opera accessible and fun for families (granted, these were families in the 70s/80s, so it was a much less complicated time). I also had a thing for buying the outdated travel books in the markdown section of Borders; I spent hours poring over them along with my mother’s massive book The Kingdoms of Europe (Gene Gurney…fabulous book). The only traveling I did with my family as a kid was Disney World (while my classmates went to London, Paris, and Lisbon) and I always went to the World Showcase at EPCOT Center. So the minute I was able to, I got my own passport and hopped on a flight to Moscow. It was my first time out of North America and I was floored–especially as I had started to learn in New York how to get into the city’s high cultural attractions on a student’s budget.

Fast-forward a few years later and I’m working as a travel and arts and culture writer. High Culture on a Low Budget came about thanks in part to a guest blogging stint I had at and my own hopes to get going on a guide to Europe’s hidden (and not-so-hidden) cultural gems. The Anthony Bourdain in me was thinking a travel show, the Arthur Frommer in me was thinking a guide book, and the realist in me was thinking the Internet. I’d blogged before (running the chronicles of an expat living in Italy) and figured the best way to get rolling on this project idea would be to start it off along the same lines.

3 What has been the hardest aspect of having your own blog?

Writing! I’m such a terribly-disciplined writer.

Actually, the challenges I’ve encountered as a traveler have fueled High Culture on a Low Budget. Traveling with others almost guarantees you that you’ll be traveling at different budget points. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum there and hate dragging the team down because I don’t have an extra $10 to spend on a nicer dinner or a round or two of drinks, and I hate wanting to go do something but feeling restrained because my companions are pinching pennies.

4 What is the funniest thing that has happened to you running your own

I’m consistently amused by the search terms that people use to find my blog (a feature of WordPress and their Blog Stats section, tres useful). Last week, someone Googled “What mushrooms in NY State get you high?” and somehow got to High Culture on a Low Budget. The funniest part was that I HAD made reference to taking mushrooms in a post (a nod to the film Knocked Up and its Cirque du Soleil scene), but that wasn’t the post this poster would have landed upon with this search (a post on Riga included the terms “New York state,” “will get you” and “high”–as in high culture).

As a traveler, plenty has happened that I look back on and laugh. My post on Wroclaw’s Awangarda Gallery makes reference to one of them, in which I booked a RyanAir flight from Rome to Wroclaw thinking it was Warsaw (long story). Of course, out of that I got to experience a really cool city with a fun underground arts vibe. The folks at hidden europe magazine would be proud.

5 Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of

As a blogger, very little. I’m very fortunate to have a background in media and public relations that has helped me immensely in marketing myself in an overly-saturated market (point of difference is key, which is why I’m glad my interest happens to be a niche category–going to opera houses and museums and the like with very little pocket money). As a budget traveler, however, which I think was the start of my travel writing career/business, I wish I’d known earlier that it’s okay to pay a little bit more and it’s not okay to sacrifice certain personal things in order to travel for the lowest amount possible.

That last bit I learned the hard way while in London. I moved there for a month and decided to shack up in a hostel for the time I was there as I couldn’t navigate the housing market for such a short period of time. I went for the cheapest place I could find, which was on the border between Zones 2 and 3 in a very dodgy area. I was there for 12 hours, had all of my prescription medicine stolen along with some personal possessions, my roommate kept the oven on at all times for heat, the front lock was broken and strangers would walk in, and I was accosted in the phone booth trying to call and arrange another place to stay. The worst part was that I had to pay for the whole month in advance in cash, and they refused to refund me. It was a lesson I had to pay for, but something that I really stick to now when traveling (I also have two new favorite hostels in London/Greenwich). I think that also applies to less “essential” needs when traveling–sometimes it’s totally worth blowing the budget if it means seeing the next superstar singer/musician/artist/actor. That’s something that sticks with you.

My comments – Thanks for a very insightful interview, Olivia. I think that with some research and planning it is possible to experience a wide of array of culture on a low budget. In the UK it’s free to enter museums but most tickets to shows and concerts cost around £30 – £40 sterling, which is a lot for a couple of hours entertainment. I agree that you have to strike a balance as a budget traveller, not to be an obsessive penny pincher but decide on your priorities and minimum acceptable standards.