The best tourist attractions in the world ... aren't

The place was dark, dingy, and perfect. I felt like I'd been there before, with the amount of grainy footage I'd seen shot in that dank, glorified warehouse.

Number 924 Gilman Street, West Berkeley, is unlikely to appear in any travel guidebook. There's a brief mention of it on the Wikitravel page, but I imagine most people would skip past it.

It's a concert venue, but there's no alcohol for sale. It costs $10 to get in, but you've never heard of any of the bands. It's a single grimy room full of mohawked punks and bratty students.

The walls are all graffitied, splashed with murals, while a cross beam over the stage still bears the name "Sweet Children" scrawled across it in white ink. It's an in-joke for a certain crowd. Don't get it? You shouldn't be here.

The club certainly doesn't look like somewhere a tourist would want to go, with its position in a light-industrial area of what's otherwise a beautiful city. There are no wooded hills or trendy stores here – just a bare doorway and a bunch of scruffy kids hanging around the front.

But this, to me, is a tourist attraction. One of the best I've ever been to.

If you've never heard of 924 Gilman, you're not alone. It's a punk rock club in Berkeley, California, a volunteer-run place that helped launch Green Day, plus a whole lot of acts like Rancid, NOFX, AFI and Pinhead Gunpowder that no one much cares about.

The night I was there was ska night, with a few up-and-coming bands and a few never-will-be bands on the concert bill. I'd never heard of any of them. Plus the Gilman is an all-ages club, meaning I was the oldest person there by about 15 years.

But that didn't stop me standing at the back all night, nodding my head and grinning like an idiot while the kids ran around and slammed into each other in front of me.


See, I grew up as a fan of East Bay punk, and the Gilman was and is the epicenter of the scene. As a venue it is to this crowd what Madison Square Garden is to... I dunno, everyone else I guess.

For me the Gilman is like a museum, where you go not just to see whoever's on the bill that night, but to soak up the history of the place, to know that most of the bands I love once set foot on the little stage at the back of that grimy room.

It's not a normal tourist attraction, but that doesn't matter. It fact, that's the whole point: the best tourist attractions in the world sometimes aren't tourist attractions at all.

Forget the cheesy mainstream stuff. I enjoyed the Gilman about a million times more than I enjoyed a visit to Fisherman's Wharf across the bay in San Francisco earlier that day, because the Gilman meant something to me.

That's the same with a lot of places I've loved visiting. Famous monuments and galleries and buildings have their place, but I'm happy to leave them to everyone else.

For me, music venues like the Gilman are a tourist attraction. Same with the Fillmore in San Fran. Or the Paramount in Seattle – seeing a show there beats watching fish being tossed around Pike Place any day.

Sports stadia, too, can be tourist attractions. My best experience in Buenos Aires wasn't a tango show or wandering Plaza de Mayo – it was seeing a Boca Juniors game at La Bombonera. Similarly, I don't remember Mumbai for the great food or for Bollywood, but for the Test cricket match I went to.

Even restaurants do it – Arzak, in San Sebastian, was a tourist attraction for me. The dodgy little street pho stands in Saigon were tourist attractions for me.

It's easy to follow the guidebook line when you travel, to get obsessed with ticking off the big-name attractions because you feel you should. But the secret is finding the sites that really appeal to you.

Like dingy warehouses full of teenage punks.

Have you had a great experience somewhere overseas that wouldn't usually be considered a tourist attraction? Or do you prefer the well-known sights?

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