Europe summer holiday: How to avoid crowds at major tourist attractions

"Hell is other people."

So said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was probably inspired to pen this well-known quote after a day spent wandering around a museum in Paris. Because as any traveller well knows, Sartre could have been more specific: hell isn't other people – hell is other tourists. 

And they're everywhere. You only have to go somewhere like Paris in summer to realise it. Just a few hours of queuing to climb the Eiffel Tower and you'll know it. Just a couple of minutes battling the selfie-stick touting hordes at Sacre Coeur and you'll know it. Just the briefest second being jostled in front of the Mona Lisa and you'll know it.

Hell is other tourists. And it's a hell you can't avoid, a paradoxical nightmare in which you the tourist constantly complain about and try to get away from all the other tourists. You contribute to the problem while suffering from its very nature.

And there's nowhere more touristy than Europe in summer. The whole place is a like cultural Disneyland, where wave after wave of tour groups and river cruisers and backpackers and retirees and families flooding the cities and countryside, following along in confused bunches behind raised umbrellas or little flags, moving from church to church, museum to museum, restaurant to restaurant.

Europe already feels movie-set fake, with its postcard fairytale towns like Prague and Budapest and Amsterdam and Venice. Throw in the tourist hordes, however, with their brash accents and their bumbling bewilderment and you could easily believe that you're not in a real place at all. 

You might have travelled to experience local culture, but the only people you're mixing with are American, or English, or Australian. You might have come to eat at local restaurants, or drink at local bars, but all you're getting is a watered down version of the real thing, designed to be sold to people like you at twice the normal price. 

When you're in places like these, it can seem impossible to break out of the tourist mould. It's so obvious that you're one of the pack; so clear that you're just doing the same things everyone else is doing, having the same experiences everyone else is having, being charged the same prices as everyone else. It's disheartening. 

But there is hope. There's a saviour from the two-hour queue at the Vatican City. There's protection from the jostling crowds at the Louvre.

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Because I've found the secret to avoiding other tourists in the world's most popular cities, and the secret is this: walk two blocks. Wherever you are, however many tour passengers or wandering backpackers you're surrounded by, all you have to do is walk two blocks. 

Walk two blocks away from the Eiffel Tower and all of a sudden you're in the cobbled streets of the 16th arrondissement. Walk two blocks from the Colosseum and you're hanging out at a wine bar in trendy Monti. Walk two blocks from the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam and you're eating the world's best apple pie at the Noordermarkt. 

Tourists tread highly predictable paths. The vast bulk of us only hang out in certain areas of a city, the popular ones, the tried and tested ones, the guidebook-approved ones. Once you find those areas, all you have to do is walk about two blocks in any direction and you'll find yourself in the heart of the "real" city, no longer surrounded by other tourists, but surrounded by the people who actually live and work there.

That's all the effort it takes. That's when you find those really great little bars that you go home telling your friends about. That's when you stumble upon the amazing restaurant that serves the best food you've ever eaten. That's when you discover the weird little museum, or the boutique art gallery, or the shops that you've been craving all of this tourist-laden time.

Walk two blocks and people will look at you like you're a sheep who's accidentally wandered off from the herd. You'll be an oddity.  

But the truth is that the joy of discovery and the art of getting away from other people really doesn't take a lot of bravery, or even much exploration. There's no danger of getting lost. It just takes the simple act of walking two blocks away from a major tourist attraction. 

This tiny amount of effort will be rewarded hundreds of times over. And the further away you go, the more isolated you'll become, and the more local you'll feel. But you don't need to go far if you don't want to.

Hell is other tourists. But heaven is only two blocks away. 

b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

See also: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors to Europe
See also: Seeing Paris, the Assassin's Creed way

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