There's a sinking feeling that most travellers would be familiar with. It comes when you see the crowds, and the shops, and the touts, and the vendors, and somewhere, hidden among that mess of tourist-industry accoutrements, is the world-famous attraction you actually came to see. There's a realisation: it's a tourist trap.
We've all been to tourist traps. We've all dreamt our entire lives of seeing certain places and then had that sinking feeling upon realising that everyone else in the world has had that exact same dream and they appear to have all acted upon it at the exact same time as you did. And what's with all these people selling T-shirts, and hustling for rickshaw rides, and trying to talk you into upgrading your ticket to an all-day pass?
Tourist traps are a fact of travelling life. That doesn't, however, mean you should necessarily avoid them. After all, a lot of places become famous and popular because they're genuinely amazing, and it's worth battling through a few thousand people and the odd T-shirt shop to see them.
In fact, some of the world's finest attractions could be described as tourist traps, the sort of place where the industry can occasionally seem to overshadow the allure. But don't be discouraged. With a few tricks to avoid the bulk of the crowds, these attractions are well worth the hassle.
THE PLACE The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO You don't even have to be a lover of Roman history to appreciate the remarkable feat of engineering that is the Colosseum. Wander the crumbling aisles of this huge, ancient stadium and you're immediately transported back to the time of the gladiators – you can hear the baying crowds, you can see the battles to the death fought out in the arena below. It's an amazing experience.
TACTICS Best way to avoid the notorious crowds at the Colosseum – and the fake gladiators – is to book an "Underground Evening Tour", where you'll have access to parts of the structure that are usually off limits, plus have the place to yourself.
THE PLACE The Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Egypt
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO This is one of the wonders of the world for a reason. Though the modern sprawl of Cairo remains a stone's throw away, the chance to tread in the path of pharaohs around the Great Pyramid, past the Sphinx, alongside numerous treasures, each of which would be worth the price of admission alone – that's certainly worth putting up with a little hassle from touts to experience.
TACTICS The great thing about visiting the pyramids now is that the crowds aren't there. With political unrest in the region, Egypt's tourism industry has taken a big hit, meaning there really is no time like the present to see these treasures without the annoyances.
NEED TO KNOW Cairo is a year-round destination, though it's busier, of course, in summer. For tours of Egypt, go to bunniktours.com.au
See smartraveller.gov.au for latest security updates.
THE PLACE Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa, Italy
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO For one thing, you have to. This is one of those attractions that just has to be ticked off, an instantly recognisable sight that brings gratification purely for being seen in the flesh. But this is also a genuinely interesting quirk of engineering, an eight-story, 12th-century bell tower that has a lean of about four degrees. If you can avoid the markets and the overpriced gelato, the Piazza dei Miracoli in front of the tower is also a pleasant place to spend some time.
TACTICS Curiously, the best way to avoid the crowds in Pisa is to climb the tower itself. Visitor numbers are heavily regulated, and you'll have to book your ticket online in advance to gain entry. And the view from the top of the 296 steps is worth the effort.
NEED TO KNOW The Leaning Tower is open to visitors year-round. See towerofpisa.org for tickets, or italia.it
THE PLACE La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO Even those travellers with the worst case of cathedral fatigue will be blown away by the sheer beauty, originality and majesty of La Sagrada Familia. As impressive as Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece is from the outside, it's even more incredible inside, where tree-like columns reach towards a vaulted ceiling, and dappled light in a million colours splashes the floor.
TACTICS While you'll struggle to avoid the crowds inside La Sagrada Familia, you can duck the queue outside by booking your tickets online. Tickets are available up to two months in advance, and you can book a specific entry time. Crowds, cancelled.
THE PLACE Temple Bar, Dublin, Ireland
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO If you're in the right mood for Temple Bar, Dublin's central nightlife district, there are few more enjoyable places to have a few pints and a good time. Yes, those pints are a little overpriced and you're as likely to meet a bloke from California as you are from Kerry, but there's always an air of celebration in Temple Bar, and good craic to be had in traditional pubs like The Auld Dubliner and the Temple Bar Pub.
TACTICS The quietest time in Dublin is usually winter, when the tourists head home and the hardy locals come out to enjoy their city. There might be a chill in the air, but the inside of a Temple Bar pub is always warm and welcoming.
NEED TO KNOW Dublin is always fun, and though the weather is warmer in summer, there's usually a good chance it will be raining any time of year. See visitireland.com
THE PLACE Niagara Falls, Canada and the US
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO The town of Niagara, on the Canadian side of these famous falls, is perhaps the world's best example of a tourist trap, all tacky hotels and tourist shops. However, the falls themselves are truly spectacular, a phenomenal amount of water pouring over a cliff. Though it's the epitome of tourism tack, a boat trip at the base of the falls on the Maid of the Mist is a must to appreciate the cascade's true scale.
TACTICS Timing is everything: go in summer and you'll have to share this experience with a million others; go in winter and there will be icicles on the falls. Best time to visit is autumn and spring, when visitor numbers are low but the weather is reasonable.
NEED TO KNOW Though you can access Niagara Falls from both the US and Canada, the views are far better on the Canadian side. See niagarafalls.ca
THE PLACE Venice, Italy
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO Forget, for a second, the crowds, and concentrate on what makes Venice great: this is a city like no other, a ramshackle mix of canals and pedestrian streets, of paved alleyways and beautiful facades. Immaculately dressed locals drift by in expensive boats; traditional gondolas move with grace; cicchetti bars peddle snacks and glasses of wine to discerning diners. There's charm here for days.
TACTICS Though it may seem like Venice is packed to the rafters, all you have to do is stray slightly from the beaten path to avoid the crush. Wander away from St Mark's Square and into the Cannaregio area, or over to Murano island, and enjoy the relative peace.
NEED TO KNOW Venice heaves with tour and cruise passengers from June to October – visit in off-peak times to avoid the bulk of the crowds. See en.turismovenezia.it
THE PLACE Hollywood, Los Angeles
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO At first glance, Hollywood seems like the ultimate tourist trap: a place millions of people visit because they feel they should, despite the whole area looking pretty shabby and sad, with no discernible attractions save a few famous names on the pavement and a whole lot of touts advertising drive-bys of fancy Hollywood houses. However, get away from the tacky Walk of Fame and Madame Tussauds and head to Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where you can go for a drink at the Chateau Marmont, see a band at the Viper Room, or go shopping for things you can't afford.
TACTICS Do not set foot on Hollywood Boulevard. Go, instead, to the Sunset Strip, or take a ride into the Hollywood Hills, or head to Runyon Canyon Park to get some exercise with the locals.
THE PLACE Machu Picchu, Peru
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO There are a few well-known attractions around the world that, despite the fact you've seen them in photos hundreds of times before, will still surprise and impress you in real life. Machu Picchu is one of them. If you're lucky enough to have hiked the Inca Trail and seen dawn at the Sun Gate, you'll witness the sort of slow reveal of this ancient wonder that will remain with you for the rest of your days.
TACTICS You have to hike the Inca Trail. It takes three days, but this is the way to ensure you're first into Machu Picchu in the morning, hiking in as the sun cracks the horizon, getting a good couple of hours to explore before the buses arrive from Aguas Calientes.
NEED TO KNOW While entry to Machu Picchu is unlimited in terms of numbers, you'll need to book in advance to secure your place on the Inca Trail. See chimuadventures.com.au for packages. See peru.travel
THE PLACE Taj Mahal, Agra
WHY YOU REALLY SHOULD GO The Taj shouldn't be that impressive. Not on paper, anyway. It's a marble mausoleum, sure, but there are plenty of similarly large structures around the world. There's something about this one, though, that's special, something that will fascinate you, that will make you swoon in the same way its creator must have done for the person it's dedicated to, and that will very easily make the tourist crush worth your while.
TACTICS You'll need to rise before dawn to beat the rush at the Taj Mahal – the gates open at sunrise, and that's the best time to be wandering in. For the perfect sunset photo, head across the river to Mehtab Bagh park for an uninterrupted view of the Taj. That means doing what 70 per cent or so of visitors don't do – stay in Agra, where there's plenty to do besides the Taj, for a night or two.
NEED TO KNOW The weather is best in October, November and February. December and January are also good, but very busy. Note that the Taj Mahal remains closed each Friday. See tajmahal.gov.in
FATAL ATTRACTIONS: WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR IF YOU GO
Fake Gladiators out the front trying to trick you into a photo; huge queues to get in.
Incessant hassle from touts trying to talk you into camel rides, photos, Arabian scarves … pretty much anything you'll pay for, really.
THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA
Extensive markets selling all kinds of touristy tack surround – and occasionally block out – the famous leaning tower.
LA SAGRADA FAMILIA
Queues out the front make it seem like it will take you longer to get in than it has taken the Spanish to finish building this thing.
The myriad shops selling "Kiss me, I'm Irish" T-shirts, plus the profusion of drunk, stumbling American backpackers strewn across the pavement.
The hundreds of tourists dressed in identical plastic ponchos; the presence of a Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum.
The billion bum-bag-toting tourists you're constantly rubbing shoulders with; the outrageous €5coffees on St Mark's Square.
The buskers in Star Wars costumes; the fact there doesn't actually seem to be anything to do, despite the crowds.
The very existence of Aguas Calientes, a town that sprouted up purely to service the tourist trade attracted by Machu Picchu in the mountains above.
The sea of touts and rickshaw drivers hanging around out the front looking for a fare, and the tourist shops lining the streets.
SIGHTS FOR SORE EYES: FIVE TOURIST ATTRACTIONS YOU REALLY SHOULD AVOID
TIMES SQUARE, NEW YORK
Not to be too much of a pedant, but Times Square isn't even a square. Not in the geometric sense – it's sort of an odd quadrilateral – and not in the sense of it being a nice place for people to gather and spend time. It's a bunch of flashing lights, a whole lot of harried commuters, and a naked cowboy. Yee-ha.
Cancun is great if you love, say, the US. If you love Mexico, or you're hoping to enjoy a Mexican vibe, then look elsewhere. Cancun is prime spring break territory, the sort of place where you're more likely to find frat bros playing beer pong than anything vaguely Latino happening.
THE LONDON EYE, LONDON
On a good day, the view from the top of this Ferris-wheel-on-steroids is pretty spectacular. But how often do you get a good day in London? Chances are you're going to find yourself stuck in a giant glass egg staring at a sea of grey cloud. And it's not cheap either.
SPANISH STEPS, ROME
You know how the Kardashians are really famous, but no one can quite remember why? Well, strap yourself in for the Spanish Steps, one of Rome's most famous landmarks that takes you from nowhere very interesting to nowhere very interesting, doesn't have much history to it and doesn't even look very good. Weird.
LITTLE MERMAID, COPENHAGEN
Tourists flock from near and far to see this small – yes, the clue is in the name – statue of a mermaid in the Danish capital. Most come expecting to find that there's more to it than they expected, because after all, why would it be so popular if it was just a small statue of a mermaid? But … it is.
FIVE AMAZING ATTRACTIONS THAT ARE UNDER THE RADAR
Those seeking a quieter alternative to Machu Picchu would do well to check out Chachapoyas, a beautiful, mountainous region of northern Peru that is littered with hiking trails and ancient ruins, many more than three times older than the cities of the Incas. You'll barely see another soul as you this explore this spectacular region.
BRYCE CANYON, US
Everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon, which is why you'll find everyone there visiting at the same time as you are. About five hours up the road in Utah, however, lies Bryce Canyon, which is smaller but equally stunning, with its thousands of crimson "hoodoos", or rock spires that glow in the soft light of dawn and dusk.
Jerash is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world, with a colonnaded street of hundreds of intact columns, a huge 3000-seat theatre, an arch built to welcome Emperor Hadrian, the ruins of an ancient hippodrome, and a temple dedicated to Artemis, and yet few people even know of its existence.
The world's most famous waterfalls – Victoria Falls, Iguazu and Niagara – are all heavily touristed; however, few travellers have visited perhaps the most spectacular of them all, Gullfoss in Iceland. In the south-west of the island, these multistepped falls draw visitors more for the beauty of their surroundings, a canyon of the Olfusa River, than the sheer amount of glacial water plunging over them.
Though the rock-hewn city of Petra in Jordan gets all the attention, there is an equally impressive set of churches in the Ethiopian city of Lalibela that have been chiselled out of living rock. These huge monoliths and their interconnecting tunnels are still used by monks and other worshippers today.
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