Plan a Trip to Find Your Roots in Europe

Plan a Trip to Find Your Roots in Europe
5 Steps for Success

In some ways, our modern society is now more connected than ever. We have online platforms to keep in touch with friends we no longer see, follow strangers we’ve never met, rent vacation apartments, start relationships and build communities with like-minded individuals. But in more real terms, in the tangible world we wake up and go to work in every day, many of us really just value an honest human connection. What better human story to search for than our own, and that of our ancestors?

One of the top trends in travel right now is ancestry travel, or heritage tourism. It seeks to satisfy unanswered questions like: Where did I come from? Who were my ancestors? Am I related to someone famous? Is my heritage defined by a historical event? Why did my ancestors immigrate? What were their lives like before they left? Do I have any living long-lost relatives in Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, etc?

Do you know the story of your family’s heritage? The internet and home ancestry DNA kits are powerful tools you can use to start your genealogical quest, but chances are you’re here because you like to travel. And that means you’ll want to go even farther and step foot where your ancestors came from. When digging to find your roots, you can’t be sure what you will (or won’t) find, but these five steps will help you get as close as possible to where your great-great-greats once stood:

1. Do some detective work at home, before you leave.

Some people may already know they have cousins in Calabria they’ve never met, or they may have family lore that tells of an ancestor who came over from Ireland on a boat, and others have only recently sent out a DNA swab to find out the mystery of their ethnic makeup. There are many ways to take that first step into finding your roots. You can use one of the online databases to put in what you know and connect to others, get your DNA tested, or simply talk to the elders in your family. Older relatives may have stories to pass down that can help you fill in the family tree with some names and occupations.

Once you have a hometown pinpointed, you can begin researching where to browse the civil and church records for that location. The Family History Library Catalog is a great resource for finding the location of church and civil records – when you’ve put in the town name, you may even be able to see the microfilms online! If the films are not available online or to order, then you’ll want to send an email to the church or town hall in your ancestral hometown. They might be able to help you if you give them a name to look up, or point you in the right direction.

2. Decide what kind of trip you want.

Do you want a trip that is more research-focused or more sightseeing-focused? When traveling with others, it’s a good idea to have a balance of time for researching local records, but also make sure you leave plenty of time for getting to know the culture and interacting with the locals.

For research-intensive trips, we can even help you find a local genealogist or translator to help you when going through old archives in other languages. Heritage tourism in Ireland and Scotland is big, and the luxurious Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh even has a “Tartan Butler” who can help guests trace their Scottish lineage and connect them to their clan and tartan design.

To allow time for getting lost and immersing yourself in the culture of your ancestors, you could spend a few days to soak up the atmosphere, visit local and regional heritage museums, such as Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, and have private tours or a cooking class in a local family home. In some places, there may not be as many hotel options, so smaller, family-run hotels and B&Bs can be a good way to have a more intimate connection to the area.

3. Pack your documents and plan ahead.

What if you meet a relative you never knew you had? You’ll definitely want to show them pictures of your ancestors who immigrated, so bring those along. You also want to make sure you have the necessary documents to make the most of your search through the archives. Bring family trees or ancestor charts, old family photographs, marriage and birth or death certificates, baptismal records, etc. Of course you should never bring the precious originals – have copies or scans on your laptop or mobile phone.

Also don’t forget that learning a few key words and phrases in the language of your ancestors can go a long way. You can bring a phrase book, and you also may want to create a list of genealogy-related terms. How do you say "my great grandparents" en français?

Another important detail is to plan in advance when you want to go to places like libraries, church archive offices and research centers. It may be necessary to make an appointment, and these places can often have limited hours, so check ahead. It’s also not uncommon to pay admission, and then you’ll need some small change to pay for any copies you make. And if driving yourself, make sure you know how to get there as it could be hard to find especially in a large city.

4. Be prepared to capture new memories.

Now you’ll surely be familiar with the importance of archives and records, so you want to be sure you properly record and preserve this trip for posterity. Of course you can’t forget the camera to capture plenty of images to take back home and share with family and future generations. You might even have some new names or old pictures to go on your family tree. 

It’s also a great idea to keep a travel journal, where you can take notes about what you see and do each day, and even your feelings about experiences. You don’t want to find later that you can’t remember the name of that great little pub you found in the town where great-great-great grandpa may once have been the barber.

5. Remember to go with the flow.

With genealogy research, you never know what surprises you might find. You may have seen “Finding Your Roots” or “Who Do You Think You Are?” (although the revelations on those TV shows are the result of hours of research by experts). If you’re looking for long-lost relatives or family treasures, you may have to adjust your expectations. It could be frustrating combing through archives and not finding the name you’re hoping to find, or maybe you discover a family secret. But just the act of being there, of retracing your fate over oceans and back through history, can be a powerful feeling. You might feel a companionship with the ancestor who left and wonder why they every left in the first place. You might feel that you have somehow located and pegged a missing piece of yourself.

Note: This article focuses on European ancestry, but of course you may come from anywhere around the globe. Especially if you do the ancestry DNA test, you could find results and percentages of your genetic makeup that really surprise you! And our favorite thing about this new trend is that it might open your eyes to places you never thought about going before, and we all get a chance to see just how beautifully mixed up and diverse we really are.

You can also read about Mary Bai’s ancestry travel experience in Sicily here.