The predictability of tourists is perplexing. They nearly all follow the same online guidebooks to the same viewpoints and buildings, barrel down the same streets, crowd around the same museum canvasses and pursue the same activities, and all the while ignoring what lies nearby – and sometimes only a room away.
Crowds might surge through Venice but, with scant effort, you can veer off into side alleys with much of the same fine architecture, where you'll encounter scarcely another person. In the Forbidden City, tour groups invariably race along the central south-north axis of the complex, leaving a series of courtyards on the east side tranquil and atmospheric for the individual traveller. As for the Louvre, it may get over 10 million visitors a year, but has many empty rooms.
Even the greatest icons of travel have their little-known crannies and nearby sights that go almost unnoticed. Different ways of exploring are ignored by visitors in a rush. Take more time, get more active and consider alternatives, though, and you're amply rewarded with more nuanced, peaceful experiences even in the world's most-visited places.
THE ICON A sprawling hilltop complex of palaces, pavilions and gardens in Granada that forms one of the world's great ensembles of Islamic design.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES So many people troop through the Nasrid Palace's sumptuous courtyards that tour guides must move on or face fines. The Generalife summer palace is also deservedly popular.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES The Palace of Charles V is a Renaissance-era intrusion ignored by tour groups, yet displays surprisingly beautiful architecture and houses a museum containing Islamic artefacts from the Alhambra's glory days.
TELL ME MORE The oldest part of the Alhambra is the ninth-century Alcazaba fortress with its three towers. The Jardines del Partal also see few visitors, even though these gardens are rich in flowerbeds, fountains and fine views.
ESSENTIALS Open daily except December 25 and January 1. Entry €14 ($22), strictly timed. Book online well in advance. See alhambra.org
GREAT WALL, CHINA
THE ICON A system of many defensive walls stretching 6000 kilometres across northern China, constructed over multiple centuries.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES The Wall's most easily reached section is at Badaling, 80 kilometres northwest of Beijing, and Mutianyu a little further away. Watchtowers on hillsides provide magnificent outlooks, but crowds are dense.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Far more tranquil sections of the monument are still within reach of Beijing. An extra 30-kilometre journey to Simatai rewards you with rugged scenery and a spectacular rollercoaster segment of Wall. The Jiankou section is wild, crumbling and challengingly steep
TELL ME MORE For alternative boasting rights, head 2000 kilometres west of Beijing to the ancient, rammed-earth section of Great Wall at Jiayuguan, which has splendid views over desert and snowy mountains.
ESSENTIALS Open daily. At Simatai, entry is RMB40 ($9). See cnto.org.au
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
THE ICON The mountain-clinging, fifteenth-century ruined citadel of the Incas above the Sacred Valley, probably built as a royal estate.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES The hordes take the train from Cusco to see the main complex on a very long day trip. The sprightly also clamber up Huayna Picchu outcrop for views.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES The sunrise is eerily quiet and spectacular, but requires an overnight stay nearby. A relatively easy two-hour return walk to Sun Gate provides glorious, uncrowded views over the entire site. Mandor Valley below the ruins has lovely greenery and bird life.
TELL ME MORE A two-day hike is the only way into Choquequirao, a miniature version of Machu Picchu. You'll be almost alone – at least for now, as a cable car is mooted.
ESSENTIALS Open daily. Entry PEN152 ($66). See machupicchu.gob.pe
THE ICON A collection of artificial steel trees between 25 and 50 metres tall, draped in vines, ferns, bromeliads and orchids.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES Walk the elevated walkway that links several Supertrees and has city views. Otherwise, visit only in the evening for the sound and light show.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Though far from missed, fewer people visit the Flower Dome, the world's largest glass greenhouse, home to Mediterranean and semi-arid plants. Even better is the magnificent Cloud Forest Dome, which showcases high-mountain flora.
TELL ME MORE Sprawling gardens around the Supertrees are virtually visitor-free, and scattered with sculptures including a gigantic floating baby and traditional Chinese lions. You'll find a Japanese-inspired minimalist Serene Garden and lakes carpeted in waterlilies.
ESSENTIALS Open daily. Entry to the two domes SGD28 ($29), other gardens free. See gardensbythebay.com.sg
THE ICON Former Winter Palace of the Russian imperial family in St Petersburg, now housing one of the world's most comprehensive collections of western art.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES Brace yourself for the jostle in the galleries devoted to Rembrandt, Da Vinci and (now in the nearby General Staff Building) the Impressionists. Few stray beyond the first floor, devoted to painting and sculpture.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Fantastic Egyptian, Roman and Greek exhibits go unvisited, and few realise there are also collections of imperial court dresses, armour, antique glass and silverware, and Russian folk costumes and furniture.
TELL ME MORE Menshikov Palace houses a branch of the Hermitage. It was one of St Petersburg's first grand buildings, and provides a glimpse into life here during Peter the Great's reign.
ESSENTIALS Open daily except Mondays, January 1 and May 9. Entry RUB 700 ($17). See hermitagemuseum.org
GRAND CANYON, USA
THE ICON An impressive gash in the Arizona desert landscape 445 kilometres long and (in places) 29 kilometres wide. The Colorado River flows 1600 metres below the rim.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES Each year 6.4 million visitors cram the South Rim carparks and viewpoints around Grand Canyon Village and Desert View.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES It's astonishing how quickly crowds fall away on rim walks such as the rugged, 13-kilometre West Rim Trail. Hardly anybody camps overnight in the canyon floor, reached on an exceedingly challenging hike or mule ride.
TELL ME MORE North Rim is a 320-kilometre detour reached via stunning Painted Desert. You get the Canyon almost to yourself, whether hiking the North Kaibab Trail or cycling the Rainbow Rim Trail to remote viewpoints.
ESSENTIALS South Rim open year-round, North Rim closed in winter. Private vehicle entry $US35 ($51). See nps.gov/grca
THE ICON A ruined sixth-century desert city dotted with monumental buildings, temples and tombs, once the capital and trading hub of the Nabataean kingdom.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES The established route leads through the winding, narrow Siq canyon to the Treasury and further into Petra's monumental core. Many clamber onwards to the Monastery.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Although some tours visit Siq Al Barid – dubbed "Little Petra'' and a 10-minute drive from the main site – these ruins, tombs and caves retain a brooding, undisturbed atmosphere and are very impressive.
TELL ME MORE If you're fit, there are several good hiking trails around Petra. The four-hour Ad Deir back route to the Monastery leads through beautiful landscapes and agricultural fields. The steep three-hour hike to the High Place takes you to isolated ruins and fabulous panoramas.
ESSENTIALS Open daily. Entry JOD50 ($102). See visitpetra.jo
TABLE MOUNTAIN, SOUTH AFRICA
THE ICON A flat-topped outcrop looming over Cape Town, part of World Heritage-listed Cape Floristic Region, which has the world's richest flora.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES Millions annually ascend on the Cableway, and most walk the three easy hiking trails from Upper Cable Station to viewpoints. There are hourly free guided walks.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Only the fit tackle several short, spectacular but demanding routes to the summit. Locals in the know take longer hikes from Cape Town's southern suburbs, with trails up Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge starting at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
TELL ME MORE Table Mountain National Park stretches across Cape Peninsula. Its Silvermine region has terrific hiking and mountain-biking trails through fynbos heathland and Afromontane forest.
ESSENTIALS Cableway ZAR360 ($36) return. Varying national park fees apply to some areas, but not Table Mountain. See sanparks.org
THE ICON A vast palace 20 kilometres southwest of Paris, powerbase of the French monarchy from 1682 until the 1789 revolution.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES The main walk-through takes in the Grand Apartments, Queen's Apartments, King's Apartments, famous Hall of Mirrors and chapel.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES Though not off the beaten track, you can escape tour groups at Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon palaces in the grounds. The latter is associated with Marie Antoinette, and has an exquisite theatre and pavilions and a rustic model farm.
TELL ME MORE Versailles town is very attractive but entirely overlooked. Check out the Louis XV market stalls converted to boutique homes, the baroque-style cathedral, gracious architecture, covered food market and upmarket shops and antique stores.
ESSENTIALS Entry €20 ($32). Park open daily, palace open daily except Mondays, December 25 and January 1. See chateauversailles.fr
IGUAZU FALLS, ARGENTINA
THE ICON 300-odd waterfalls strung out over several kilometres at Iguazú (or Iguaçu in Portuguese), where two rivers plunge off a plateau on the Argentine-Brazilian border.
WHAT EVERYONE DOES The vast majority visit from Puerto Iguazú in Argentina, walking the Upper Circuit and Lower Circuit paths and taking a boat ride below the falls.
WHAT EVERYONE MISSES The falls sit within a subtropical national park, where you can spot monkeys, toucans, coatis and extraordinary butterflies. An easy hike along Macuca Trail takes you to Arrechea Waterfall.
TELL ME MORE Less-visited Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side is cheaper, livelier and has various tourist attractions such as a bird park. You don't get as close to the waterfalls, but you're rewarded with wider, more panoramic views.
BEYOND THE WILD SIDE
These top 10 national parks aren't just about landscapes and wildlife, but have abundant cultural and historical sights too.
RANTHAMBORE, INDIA Tigers are the top ticket, but this former royal hunting reserve has temples, pavilions and an impressive pink World Heritage fort dating to the tenth century, elaborate with pillars, domes and Mughal arches. See tourism.rajasthan.gov.in
KRUGER, SOUTH AFRICA Wildlife is abundant, but so too are archaeological sites. Three are open to the public, and showcase an early European settlement, BaPhalaborwa trading post and remnants of the Great Zimbabwe culture. See sanparks.org
LAKE DISTRICT, UK The region's picturesque landscapes inspired Romantic writers such as Ruskin and Wordsworth. You'll also find stone circles, Roman ruins, Tudor manors and industrial heritage such as an old bobbin mill. See lakedistrict.gov.uk
YELLOWSTONE, USA America's greatest national park has over 400 cultural sites, from prehistoric remains to the 1891 Fort Yellowstone. Many of its early tourist buildings and engineering projects are on the National Register of Historic Places. See nps.gov
SERENGETI, TANZANIA The world's most famous wildlife sanctuary is home to the Maasai, a formerly nomadic cattle-farming tribe. A visit to a circular boma (village) provides an encounter with daily Maasai life and cultural traditions. See tanzaniaparks.go.tz
GOREME, TURKEY The highly eroded valleys and rock chimneys of central Turkey provided shelter for early Christians. The region is riddled with rock-carved monasteries and chapels decorated in vivid religious frescoes. See goturkey.com
FUJI-HAKONE-IZU, JAPAN The Japanese have been admiring Fuji's volcanic cone for centuries. The area is scattered with ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and cut through by the historic Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Tokyo. See jnto.org.au
TRIGLAV, SLOVENIA The Julian Alps command attention and the Soca River lures white-water rafters, but you'll also find traditional life showcased at Pocar Farm, The Open House and Dairy Museum. There are also prehistoric and WWI relics. See tnp.si
TORRES DEL PAINE, CHILE This remote land of stunning, jagged mountains has probably been inhabited since 6000 BC. Milodon Cave National Monument provided shelter for prehistoric people, who left behind tools and skeletons. See parquetorresdelpaine.cl
BANFF, CANADA Mountains and lakes might be the drawcard, but you'll also find heritage refuge cabins, ski lodges and even a cosmic ray station. Nearby, Rocky Mountain House preserves an important fur-trading fort. See pc.gc.ca
GOOD RESTAURANTS NEAR TOP SIGHTS
BIG BEN Wander 300 metres from Big Ben and you'll find Roux at Parliament Square, which mingles period and contemporary décor with classic and modern French-influenced dishes. It's an elegant oasis of calm, bypassed by the tourist crowds. See rouxaps.co.uk
NIAGARA FALLS Ingredients straight from local farms provide the basis for contemporary Canadian dishes at hidden restaurant gem AG Inspired Cuisine. Three-course menus are good value, and you can pair the food with Ontario wines. See agcuisine.com
FORBIDDEN CITY The spectacular terrace of Café Zi at Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing has a rare view over the Forbidden City's yellow rooftops. Enjoy lunchtime dim sum created by a Michelin-starred Hong Kong chef, or evening Cantonese specialities. See mandarinoriental.com
EIFFEL TOWER Another terrace looks straight onto the world's most famous ironmongery at Monsieur Bleu inside the Museum of Modern Art. Contemporary bistro fare and a great mixologist keep the palate well satisfied. See monsieurbleu.com
TAJ MAHAL Beyond five-star hotels with Taj-gazing views, the most flavoursome North Indian food you'll find in Agra is at Pinch of Spice south of the monument. It's packed with locals, creating a lively, friendly ambiance. See pinchofspice.in
GRAND CANYON A settlement (population 200) called Supai deep in the canyon is reachable only on foot or by mule or helicopter. It's part of Havasupai Indian Reservation and has a lodge and camping accommodation. See theofficialhavasupaitribe.com
TAJ MAHAL Tour groups ignore the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed ''Baby Taj" and the precursor of the famous mausoleum. It has exquisite inlay work of semi-precious stones in elegant floral patterns. See uptourism.gov.in
PYRAMIDS OF GIZA Apart from pyramids and Sphinx, make sure to visit Khufu Boat Museum, which displays a superbly preserved pharaonic funeral boat with graceful upturned prow and rows of oars. See sca-egypt.org
ULURU What's more amazing than the rock? Australia's night sky without light interference. Among star-gazing opportunities at Uluru are astrophotography tours, astronomy weekends and the Sounds of Silence desert experience. See parksaustralia.gov.au
VATICAN The world's smallest state manages to squeeze in impressive Renaissance and Baroque gardens with box hedges, huge cedar trees, fountains and statuary, creating a tranquil retreat from the Vatican Museums' crowds. See museivaticani.va
You may want to spend longer than planned in these cities that have more than just the obvious big-name sights.
PISA Right beside the Leaning Tower are two other masterpieces of the Renaissance, a baptistery and cathedral. The large old town is testament to Pisa's golden age as a powerful maritime state, and has lovely squares and chapels. See turismo.pisa.it
MILAN A mistake if you think Milan is all about high-end shopping and a whopping cathedral. It's also big on opera and soccer, has some of Italy's best but least-crowded art museums, and provides a great slice of contemporary Italian life. See yesmilano.it
DOHA The Museum of Islamic Art and looming 2022 FIFA World Cup grab the attention, but the Gulf city has a fantastic 7-kilometre landscaped corniche, vibrant souks and several other excellent museums. See visitqatar.qa
ATHENS The Acropolis is only one of numerous ancient sites. Add good museums, eclectic neighbourhoods, national gardens, a hedonistic nightlife and creative Mediterranean cuisine and you'll wish you'd lingered longer. See visitgreece.gr
BILBAO Beyond the distinctive architecture of the Guggenheim Museum is a gritty but fast-changing city with a pleasant old town and Gothic cathedral, fabulous pintxos (tapas) restaurants and a buzzing arts scene. See bilbaoturismo.net