How to dodge the tourist traps at the world's iconic attractions

I was 16 when I first saw the Mona Lisa. You could just walk into the Louvre in those days and admire the painting of the smirking Italian with scant effort. Now you have to join 7.4 million other annual museum gawkers, and are separated from the painting by bulletproof glass, a barrier and a forest of raised camera-phones. Acoustic devices in the gallery attempt to dampen the hubbub created by art lovers, conspiracy theorists and eager Chinese alike. Some days 65,000 people troop past.

There are solutions to the ever-growing number of tourists hordes who – quite rightly – would like to see the world's most famous painting. A moving walkway has been mooted: one already trundles you past the British crown jewels in the Tower of London. Timed tickets, already commonplace at many tourist attractions, might be introduced. You could show visitors a replica, already being done in Egypt at Tutankhamun's tomb. Or you could, of course, politely inform people that there are vast, scarcely visited Louvre galleries with paintings far better than this drab little portrait.

The reality is that we all want to see the world's great icons, and tourist numbers are booming. There were 122 million international Chinese tourists last year and 1.2 billion of us all together. Inevitably, that has to change the way we travel. If you want to see the big sights, you already need to book tickets well in advance, pay for privileged access (such as a tour or fast-track fee), or settle for "franchises", such as the Louvre outpost in Abu Dhabi.

For the moment, with sufficient aforethought, you can manage to dodge the worst of the queues at even the most popular destinations – and occasionally get a surprisingly tranquil and personal encounter. Here's how.

EIFFEL TOWER, PARIS, FRANCE

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Expect a two-hour queue for tickets, year round. Even timed online tickets are sold out at least two months in advance nowadays.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE It's not all about climbing it. For the most impressive approach, get out at Trocadero Metro station and walk towards the Seine River for a dramatic reveal and stunning tower views.

TACTICS There's never a queue for the 607 steps to level two, or if you've reserved a table in one of the restaurants. Otherwise, book online for a lift ticket, even if it means committing to a time and day (and its weather).

INSIDER TIP Of the Eiffel Tower's three levels, the second is best for photos, while the topmost platform is magnificent about an hour before sunset.

MORE toureiffel.paris

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TAJ MAHAL, AGRA, INDIA

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Arrive in mid-morning, queue to get in, queue to access the building's platform, queue again for its interior. Jostle in the scrum and have your pocket picked.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Be at security at 6.30am for the 7am opening. Hustle straight to the building itself (the gardens can wait) and you might get quiet contemplation at this most neck-tingling of buildings.

TACTICS Don't get caught out: the Taj closes on Fridays. Security is strict, so leave everything in your hotel. Camera tripods and food are among the often-changing, eccentric list of banned items.

INSIDER TIP For sunset photos avoid the Taj Mahal grounds and position yourself at Mehtab Bagh gardens across the river.

MORE tajmahal.gov.in

TOWER OF LONDON, ENGLAND

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Fascinating despite the throngs, particularly for the crown jewels, armoury and Chapel Royal. Free, informative and entertaining tours by Yeomen guards leave every half-hour.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE In winter there are fewer visitors and a splendid, wind-chilled atmosphere that seems suited to this grim former royal prison. Do the South Wall Walk and imagine you're Anne Boleyn.

TACTICS Visit the Jewel House first: queues get longer as the day progresses. Avoid Sundays. Book online for cheaper tickets and somewhat shorter waits.

INSIDER TIP A river boat from Westminster to Tower Millennium Pier is a great way to arrive, but not to leave – afternoon queues are enormous. Ride the Tube instead.

MORE hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london

UFFIZI GALLERY, FLORENCE, ITALY

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Elbow your way past endless sculptures and paintings in one big, forgettable blur at this Florence museum, one of the world's best art collections.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Take a private tour if you can afford it. You'll not only skip the queue but get an insight into the art, and be able to focus on what interests you.

TACTICS Book ahead, and on the official website. You can skip the line with a Firenze Museum Card, though it's pricey unless you're pounding all the city's museums.

INSIDER TIP There's scant information about artworks so, failing a guide, download an app or use the gallery's audio tour for a more satisfying experience.

MORE polomuseale.firenze.it

STATUE OF LIBERTY, NEW YORK, US

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE A ferry ride, a clamber inside the statue, a quick glance at the small museum and then on to adjacent Ellis Island for a look at immigration history.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Forget the crown clamber: it's a claustrophobic outlook. A picnic on the island with statue and Manhattan skyline views is far more relaxing and agreeable.

TACTICS Advance tickets are advisable, and the only way to visit Liberty's crown. Midweek, winter and first ferry provide somewhat shorter queues.

INSIDER TIP There isn't much interaction here for children, but a kids' audio guide and a Junior Ranger Program worksheet encourages them to learn about the statue's history.

MORE nps.gov/stli

JUNGFRAU RAILWAY, SWITZERLAND

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE The spectacular Swiss train journey from Interlaken to Europe's highest train station (3454 metres) via the bowels of the Eiger mountain is a five-hour return ride with plenty of noisy company.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Save considerable train time by staying overnight at Kleine Scheidegg halfway up the mountain, and surrounded by great hiking trails such as the Panoramaweg.

TACTICS While visitors are distracted on arrival by the Ice Palace, head straight to the Sphinx Tunnel and you'll have the observation decks almost to yourself, at least for a while.

INSIDER TIP Honestly, the cable-car ride to the summit of the nearby Schilthorn is just as scenic, much faster and considerably cheaper, if less hyped.

MORE jungfrau.ch

NIAGARA FALLS, CANADA AND THE US

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Quick tour-coach dash, a few photos form the edge, perhaps a ride on a Maid of the Mist boat. The old-fashioned can enjoy an entire honeymoon.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE It's all super-touristy, but leaven the madness with a drive. You'll find great wineries and colonial-era villages in the surrounding countryside, especially lovely in autumn.

TACTICS No advance planning for once: viewpoints are free, and boat rides can't be reserved. Try for a late afternoon visit, as nightfall brings splendid multi-coloured illuminations.

INSIDER TIP The dramatic wooden walkway at the lesser-visited Bridal Veil Falls on the American side will see you soaked in spray – but remember you'll need a US visa.

MORE niagarafallstourism.com

CHRIST THE REDEEMER, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Rio de Janeiro's Jesus statue, arms outspread atop Corcovado Mountain, provides astonishing views, but you're hoisted on high on a packed train as a samba band plays.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Get there yourself in peace – and for free – by hiking from the botanic garden's Parque Lage through monkey-chattering jungle. It's a challenging but rewarding two hours. For safety, don't tackle it alone.

TACTICS Early morning (before 9) and late afternoon sees fewer crowds, despite better visibility. The train alternative is a minivan, but both require long waits.

INSIDER TIP Morning provides the best statue-photographing opportunity, but afternoon has the sun behind the statue and shining on the urban coastline. You decide.

MORE rio.com

ALHAMBRA, GRANADA, SPAIN

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE If you don't buy tickets at least two months in advance, your experience is the outer gate, a bit of garden and a lot of disappointment at this Moorish-Spanish masterpiece in Granada.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Budget a whole day, take your time, and have lunch at the former 15th-century convent turned hotel Parador de Granada (parador.es) within the Alhambra complex.

TACTICS Even within the complex, the highlight Nasrid Palaces are time-restricted. Book the 8.30am slot; then visit the Generalife gardens and Alcazaba sections at your leisure.

INSIDER TIP Arrive well in advance, as it can take a while to pick up prepaid tickets and walk from entrance gate to Nasrid Palaces.

MORE alhambra-patronato.es

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, US

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE High summer, traffic jams and big crowds at designated viewpoints all competing to see the American park's dramatic geysers, gorges and abundant wildlife.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Consider winter, when snowmobile companies will take your trekking into the wilderness. Or just hike, since most visitors are car-dependent. It isn't actually difficult to get landscapes to yourself.

TACTICS Forget June-August. Old Faithful geyser is least busy early morning or late afternoon, avoiding day-trippers. Even the shortest walks (such as Observation Point Trail) get you away from crowds.

INSIDER TIP Lamar Valley is a good place for spotting bears, bison, elk, coyotes and eagles, and is beyond the most-visited areas. You might even spot a pack of wolves.

MORE nps.gov/yell

MACHU PICCHU, PERU

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Most take the train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes below the ruins for a very long, exhausting day trip: seven hours on the train, albeit highly scenic.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Only a fifth of all visitors trek to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail, a physical challenge rewarded with superb scenery and a sense of achievement.

TACTICS Consider overnighting in Aguas Calientes to be first inside. Then head straight uphill for great overviews of the ruins as other visitors bustle towards the main site.

INSIDER TIP Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu outlooks require tickets. However, a relatively easy two-hour return walk to Sun Gate provides fabulous, free, less-frequented views over the whole site.

MORE peru.travel

GREAT WALL OF CHINA

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE A visit to Badaling, the section of overrestored wall nearest to Beijing, reveals a hubbub of sightseers, hawkers, food vendors, camel rides and a cable car – though the Wall remains a compelling sight.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Head 110 kilometres from the city to Simatai and start hiking atop the crumbling masonry in the direction of Jinshanling (10 kilometres) for a more remote and beautiful Great Wall experience.

TACTICS The further you get from Beijing, the better. At all costs avoid summer weekends, Labour Day and the holidays around Chinese New Year and early October.

INSIDER TIP If you want a real challenge, the Jiankou section of wall is wild, challengingly steep and completely unrestored.

MORE visitbeijing.com.cn

ST PETER'S BASILICA, ROME, ITALY

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE A patient line snakes around St Peter's Square, swelling as the day progresses. It moves along fairly well, but you'll still be detained an hour or more.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Not an option, but the papal audience in the square at 10.30am on Wednesdays (when the pope is in Rome) provides an age-old ritual for the faithful, as well as tourists.

TACTICS Best be there at 7am. No shorts or bare shoulders. The interior is devoid of explanatory panels: bring a good guidebook or rent the audio guide.

INSIDER TIP You can avoid the line (and see the basilica's Sistine Chapel) by combining a visit with Vatican Museums – itself subject to marvellous queues, however.

MORE vaticanstate.va

PETRA, JORDAN

THE TOURIST EXPERIENCE Jordan's ancient city, hewn out of desert cliffs, is large enough to absorb considerable numbers, but most stick to the well-worn route from Siq to Treasury to Monastery and stay only a few hours.

THE UNTOURIST EXPERIENCE Overnight in Wadi Musa to ensure a full-day (or even two-day) encounter and the chance to explore beyond the chief monuments.

TACTICS An early start (Petra opens at 6am) avoids heat and tour groups, and can be surprisingly tranquil. Bring sunscreen, hat and lots of water.

INSIDER TIP Marked hiking trails take you away from most tourists and into rust-red rock formations dotted with tombs. Consider the half-day Madras Trail to see the fabled Treasury from above.

MORE visitpetra.jo

FIVE MORE CROWD-BEATING TIPS FOR TOP ATTRACTIONS

FORBIDDEN CITY, CHINA

Tour groups head south-north along the Beijing palace complex's main axis. Wander away into the courtyards to the east for an intimate, far less congested experience. See dpm.org.cn

SANTORINI, GREECE

You'll never escape crowds on this Greek island, but walk the cliff-hugging path from Oia to Fira and leave most behind, plus reap dramatic scenic rewards. See santorini.gr

EIFFEL TOWER, FRANCE

Do you really have to ascend it? Spread a picnic on green space Champs de Mars for fabulous Eiffel Tower views at your leisure, and sans queues. See parisinfo.com

THE PEAK, HONG KONG

Hordes throng the Hong Kong outlook, but few bother to walk around tranquil, leafy Harlech and Lugard roads for gobsmacking skyscraper and harbour views. See thepeak.com.hk

HERMITAGE MUSEUM, RUSSIA

Da Vinci and Rembrandt galleries at this St Petersburg palace are jammed, but fantastic Egyptian, Roman and Greek collections go virtually unvisited. See hermitagemuseum.org

HOW DISAPPOINTING: FIVE ATTRACTIONS THAT DON'T DELIVER

POMPEII, NAPLES

The famous, ash-excavated Roman site is hot, badly managed, poorly explained and has few significant structures. Many artefacts and frescoes are in museums elsewhere. Nearby Herculaneum has the edge and fewer tour groups. See pompeiisites.org

MOUNT FUJI, JAPAN

A splendid must-see from a distance, but certainly not a must-hike. The path to the summit is arduous, thronged, littered and uninteresting. Views are often obscured in cloud or haze. Stick to Hakone for lovely lakeshore hiking and Mount Fuji panoramas. See hakone.or.jp

LITTLE MERMAID, COPENHAGEN

Small, drab and looking chilly on her windswept harbour rock, this celebration of Hans Christian Andersen's tale underwhelms. The huge bronze statue of Viking-like figures blowing Bronze Age trumpets in City Hall Square is more fun. See visitcopenhagen.com

WALK OF FAME, HOLLYWOOD

This series of pink, pavement-embedded stars just names actors and musicians, many long forgotten (sorry Louise Fazenda and Willard Waterman). The dirty, rundown surrounds are disgraceful. Do a backstage tour at Paramount Pictures instead. See paramountstudiotour.com

STONEHENGE, AMESBURY

You can't walk between the rocks, a busy highway runs nearby, and a stone circle has only passing interest. Save the expensive entrance fee and head to nearby Salisbury cathedral, a magnificent stone monument well worth contemplating. See salisburycathedral.org.uk

FIVE HYPED TOURIST ATTRACTIONS OF THE WORLD THAT DELIVER

ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA

A great archaeological site in a jungle setting, with temples of varied design and atmosphere, and so sprawling you can still feel like Indiana Jones. See tourismcambodia.com

GRAND CANYON, US

No photo captures the reality of this plunging, multi-coloured canyon of spectacular buttes and mesas. A 500-metre stroll from popular viewpoints sees crowds dissolve. See nps.gov/grca

SISTINE CHAPEL, VATICAN

Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes are so luminously beautiful even tour groups fall silent. Worth a guide's insight – and his or her priority entrance tickets. See museivaticani.va

HALONG BAY, VIETNAM

Asia's most extraordinary coastal landscape, in which steep limestone peaks rise from emerald waters, still has bays to kayak or sail with scarcely a soul in sight. See vietnamtourism.com

BANFF NATIONAL PARK, CANADA

Jagged mountains, green glacier-fed lakes and pine forests create calendar-perfect landscapes. Start hiking and the road-trippers are left behind. See banffnationalpark.com

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