18 Ideas for Creative, Meaningful Theme Vacations

A theme-based vacation is a type of travel that goes beyond “just” enjoying a tropical beach holiday or going on a cultural tour in Italy. How do you plan a theme-based holiday, vacation or cruise that is both creative and fun?

Theme vacations are more creative, interesting and fun than spending a week or two at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica (though I’ve enjoyed my fair share of all-inclusive beach resort vacations :-) Read At the Beach! 10 Things You Need to Pack for a Resort Vacation). Theme-based vacations are different. Theme travel is inspired by subjects or places that are meaningful to you, which means they can change your life.

Here’s the question I asked in my “Travel in Faith” Facebook Group: “Have you ever taken a ‘theme’ vacation? Maybe a painting trip through Italy, a cooking journey through France, or a wine-tasting tour in California?” And here’s what one member said: “I’ve never taken a theme vacation but would love to! Ideas?”

Yes, I’ve got a ton of travel tips and tools for theme-based vacations. And yes, I’d love to share them with you. I’d also love to hear your ideas or thoughts on theme travel. Have you taken a theme cruise vacation, visited a theme park, or planned a holiday trip around a theme? Feel free to share your big and little thoughts in the comments section below.

First things first.

What is a theme? A theme is a concept or idea. You may have learned all about themes in English Literature class. “What is the theme of this poem, short story, essay or book?” asked your teacher. A theme is the main or controlling idea of something like a movie, a class, a career, a mission, a vacation, or even a life! Maybe you’re familiar with the idea of a “theme park” — which an amusement park with a unifying setting or idea.

What is a theme-based vacation? Theme vacations have a unifying setting or idea (that’s the formal definition). In other words, a theme-based vacation is inspired by a single thought, motif, concept, or point. A vacation theme can be as broad “a spiritual pilgrimage in Israel” or as specific as “how the best patisseries in France make chocolate croissants.”

3 Steps to Planning a Theme-Based Vacation

There are little baby steps in between these three big tips on how to plan a theme-based vacation. But we have to start somewhere, don’t we? Every journey starts with a single step or two or three…

How to Plan the Best Theme Vacation of Your Life
Planning a Theme-Based Vacation
  1. Make a list of topics you’re interested in. What are your passions, interests, hobbies? What could you do all day long without getting bored? What do you enjoy doing on vacation? What are you curious about? 
  2. Search for creative ideas for theme-based vacations, cruises and holidays. I have a quick list of ideas below, and then a longer list of more detailed thoughts on theme-inspired travel.
  3. Pick a theme that is meaningful to you. Narrow down all the possible ideas into a trip that excites and scares you! Maybe, for example, you’ve always dreamed of being a travel writer or blogger. Take a trip that revolves around the theme of writing, seeing through the eyes of a writer, taking photographs of subjects that inspire or captivate you. And read Do You Want to Be a Travel Writer? FAQ and Answers.

Mix and match the following ideas — and allow yourself to invent your own. Play with a combination of your own personal interests and packaged theme-based group or solo tours. For example, you might combine your own vacation theme birthday ideas with a package cruise through the Greek Islands or theme park vacation in the USA.

10 Theme-Based Vacation Ideas

  1. Wine, Beer, Scotch or other Alcohol-Themed Travel – Avoid countries like the UAE, which frowns on drinking. Although a wine tour in the UAE would be something to write home about! And so I did: How to Buy a Bottle of Wine in Dubai
  2. Foodie Theme Tours in Countries or Cities Famous for Cuisine – Sure, Paris and Rome top the list for food-themed vacations. But what about Thailand, Vietnam, or Argentina? 
  3. History Theme Vacations – Plan a tour of historical plantations in Louisiana or the top historical destinations in Europe. Especially exciting for history buffs. 
  4. Animal-Themed Trips and Tours – Going on safari in Kenya or whale watching off the coast of Maui or Hawaii may be at the top of your bucket list…but what about volunteering to help homeless dogs in Mexico? Helping with the turtles hatching in Guatemala? 
  5. Dude Ranch Vacations or Farmstay Programs – I’ve never ridden the horses at a dude ranch in Wyoming or toured a real hobby farm in Alberta. Have you? 
  6. Vacation Theme Birthday Ideas – I’m turning 50 this year, and spent a month in Nepal, Dubai, and Hong Kong. The theme? Walking into the second half of my life! Read Where is the Best Place to Celebrate Your 50th Birthday?
  7. Anniversary-Themed Family Vacations – How about spending your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Nepal. The theme might be family highlights, most embarrassing moments, or past trips.
  8. Theme Cruise Vacations – An Alaskan cruise is on my bucket list, or a river cruise through Eastern Europe. The specific theme? To be decided. Possibly “bucket list vacation destinations.”
  9. Bucket List Vacation Destinations – India is on my bucket list as a dream destination. So is St Petersburg, Russia and New Orleans, Louisiana. And El Camino in Spain, and the Kumano Kodō in Japan. Good think I’m a travel writer.
  10. Voluntourism – A combination of volunteering and travel/tourism. You can be a “voluntourist” internationally, such as a medical mission trip to Haiti. You can be a voluntourist in your own country or city.

Voluntourism or transformative travel is a “theme-based vacation” that has the power to transform your life. “I am a lousy vacationer, bored silly sitting on a beach or touring umpteen churches on cruise ship excursions,” writes Jeff Blumenfeld in Travel with Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism. “Being a regular tourist is not enough fo rme. I want a meaningful role when I travel.” 

Blumenfeld adds that voluntourists aren’t your average tourists. “Voluntourists not only describe where they’ve been but explain how the world became a better place s a result of their time and dedication on the road.” 

8 Tips for Planning Theme-Based Vacations, Holidays and Cruises

You don’t have to be a voluntourist to be permanently changed by travel — or to change the world. You need only be yourself, and stay focused on what you want out of your vacation. And your life.

1. Let your theme arise out of your past vacations

how to plan theme based holiday birthday vacations
How to Plan the Best Theme Vacation of Your Life

One of my favorite things to do while I travel is to visit thrift stores and second-hand shops. Jumble sales, charity rummage sales, flea markets. I’ve been to thrift stores in Dubrovnik (Croatia), Hong Kong, Jerusalem (Israel), Colorado, Hollywood (California), various burroughs in New York City, Montreal (Quebec), and Prague (Czech Republic). I try to buy at least one item from each store, but  it has to be something I genuinely like. 

Here’s my dream theme for travel: touring thrift stores all over the world. Salvation Army, Value Village, flea markets, hospital-based second-hand stores, thrift stores on military bases and on cruise ships (does such a thing exist? Do cruise ships have second hand store?? How exciting!). 

2. Learn about slow travel

“Because slow travel, defined as moving at the speed of humans — walking, hiking, cycling, riding — is on the rise and is good for you and for Mother Earth, too.” – from The World is Your Oyster: 20 Reasons to Travel This Year: Adventures, Discoveries, Getaway Ideas and More in Zoomer Magazine. Writer Vivian Vassos describes forest bathing on the West Coast of Canada, which involves taking a stroll through the trees, breathing deeply. Slow travel.

3. Tackle an old fear

What are you scared of? Is it affecting your relationships, life, health? When I was flying from Kathmandu to Pokhara in Nepal I was sitting next to to an older gent from Kentucky. He was traveling with his daughter and assorted family to celebrate his 90th birthday with a trek in Nepal. He’d been dreaming of it his whole life, it was a bucket list dream destination! But his wife had stayed home. She’s was scared to fly. She was sad to stay home — and her family missed her — but she just couldn’t do it. Maybe things would’ve been different if the theme of his birthday vacation was courage and facing old fears.

4. Take a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic trip back in time

If you loved Elvis Presley or the Beatles as a kid, go to Memphis or Britain. If you were a Sound of Music fan, go to Austria! Salzburg is beautiful, one of my favorite cities. If you love to read about the Holocaust, go to Germany or Poland. World War II isn’t exactly a “nostalgia” themed vacation but it may be meaningful to you. And that’s what theme-based or transformative travel is: excursions that are meaningful to you, that change how you see yourself and the world.

5. Explore your family history – a genealogy-themed vacation

Genealogy and family research is the theme of one of our Travel in Faith Facebook Group members. She takes trips to explore the roots of her personal history, to learn more about her family tree and herself. You don’t need to do actual historical research in libraries or government records to learn more about your family. My 70 year old biological father is Jewish, raised in Israel where he currently lives. I traveled to Jerusalem to meet him. I also wanted to see Israel because I love Jesus, but the theme of that vacation was family. My roots. Meeting my dad for the first time.

6. Consider a wellness sabbatical or physical health retreat

The theme of a vacation based on physical health and wellness might be getting in touch with your body. Listening to what your guts, stomach, lungs, feet, chest and head is saying to you. Accepting your size and shape for who you are. Different physical health theme-based vacations include physical cleanses, yoga retreats, wellness sabbaticals, massage or spa weekends. If your body needs TLC (tender loving care), plan a vacation on the theme of self-care and nurturing.

7. Take a trip into book, movie, or character-inspired theme travel

How about a train ride on the infamous Orient Express from Paris to Vienna and Budapest? If you love Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, your theme for that trip might be mystery and writing. The most recent version is Murder on the Orient Express – and your theme-based vacation might include dressing in period pieces or acting out parts of the story. Or you may love the old movie Casablanca…what would it be like to visit Morocco today? Go and find out!

8. Be surprised! Let adventure and the unknown be the theme of your vacation

What If You Get Homesick While Volunteering in India?

I wrote What to Do When They Refuse to Let You Board the Flight when I arrived at the Kathmandu airport, all packed and pleased to be flying to Varanasi, India. I never got there. I had to reroute, and ended up in Dubai and Hong Kong. “Surprise!” was the theme of my 50th birthday vacation trip to Nepal and India. I walked into the second half of my life with a travel experience that transformed my life. 

Could you go to the airport without a plane ticket, and fly to a destination that beckoned you? How do you feel about living with a sense of the unknown, of adventure and possibility, risk and vulnerability?

That may not be the theme of your next vacation, but it is the theme of your life.

Your thoughts, big and little, are welcome below. If you have any tips or tools for theme-based travel that transforms you, please do share those. We love tips and tools :-) 

Travel in faith, and be transformed.


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3 thoughts on “18 Ideas for Creative, Meaningful Theme Vacations”

  1. I would love to go on a rummage sale, flea market, thrift store themed vacation. Used items fascinate me. I don’t always buy but I do love to browse. I have visited many areas in the world and I always try to find a thrift store but it is not always easy finding one. If you are on an organized group tour, you pretty much have to stay with the group. Even when you are vacationing alone or with a friend, it can be hard to find thrift store because you don’t know where to look. Matters are made worse if you are in a country that does not speak English. Travel guide books should publish where to find flea markets and thrift stores. There are probably many people who would love to have a “look see” through a thrift store. You could also be helping a local business.

    1. I’m so glad I’m not alone, Edna – thank you for commenting! I thought I was a bit of an odd duck, wanting to visit thrift and second-hand stores when I go on vacation. You’re right: Finding them is often difficult. I had a really hard time finding thrift stores in Hong Kong because they’re small, in the middle of a million other shops, and sometimes on the second or third floor of a building. But I love searching for them because I see parts of cities and people that I’d never see if I stayed in the touristy areas.

      Your comment made me think of antique or vintage shops…that would be an amazing theme for a vacation, especially somewhere like Russia or Ireland. Imagine the things you’d find!

      When I go to New Orleans next month, I’ll make sure I visit at least five thrift stores. I bet I’ll find all sorts of interesting second-hand shops in New Orleans. I’ll share photos of the stores in our group :-)

      Love from your kindred spirit in Vancouver,

      1. Laurie:

        You are a gal after my own heart. Vintage items have character. Thanks for your comment and yes, please take photos of the shops you visit and the items they sell. Would be interesting for sure.

        Bye for now and Blessings from the prairies, Edna Xoxo