The joy of travel for me is seeing and tasting what’s unique. In any new place, I try to slip into its native rhythms. If they eat at 10 pm in Seville, so will I. If Londoners take the tube, so will I. If they celebrate Christmas in Buenos Aires with family trips to ice cream parlors, I want to join in. But sometimes I love to plunge into tourist traps.
The Tower of London, a worthwhile tourist trap. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Do you avoid tourist traps, the most famous spots in each city? Tourist traps draw huge crowds and often long boring lines of sweaty impatient visitors. But I overcame my aversion to tourist traps once I gave a few a try. Now, I’m a fan. If you give them a chance, you might be a fan too.
Overseas Tourist Traps
The lengthy line waiting to see the Tower of London is daunting. But the prison cells of the Tower can come alive if you and your kids wander while listening to the audio guide’s dramatic stories of the queens, dukes and courtiers and the acts of betrayal that landed them in Tower cells. While viewing the Crown Jewels requires yet another long line, the dazzling display of wealth is gorgeous and drives home the economic distance between the royals and us (even if they do pose for People).
I resisted seeing a tango show in Buenos Aires as too touristy. But after several days of learning about the waves of immigration to Argentina from Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe, and beginning to appreciate how the sensuous movements of the dance evolved from bordellos to acceptance by Argentina’s respectable society, a like the path taken by American jazz, I was ready to see tango. The many tango venues in Buenos Aires include The Esquina Carlos Gardel. A performance of flamenco in Seville was similarly illuminating.
Venice is mobbed with tourists but remains a visual feast (Photo Philadelphia Traveling Mom Sarah Ricks)
Hordes of day-tripping tourists crowd the hilltown of Sintra, outside Lisbon, which first became the site of royal palaces during the Moorish occupation of Portugal in the 12th century. Tourists come to see the whimsically colored turrets of the Pena National Palace, the summer palace of the Portuguese royal family and to visit the gorgeously tiled interior of the Sintra National Palace. Despite the buses disgorging tourists, it’s exhilarating to explore the royal pleasure palaces and appreciate their vistas of green hills and distant water.
Venice sustains itself on tourism. Once a powerful trading empire, Venice’s 60,000 locals now are overwhelmed by nearly two million tourists a year. You are more likely to overhear snippets of English, German, or Japanese than Italian as you wind your way through Venice’s narrow twisty streets. But Venice remains a visual feast. Every corner or turn of the head reveals another perfectly composed juxtaposition of canal, bridge, boat, or piazza, illuminated by a saturated yellow light that softens the edges. Even if you have to peek over the shoulder of the tourist pressed up next to you. And unlike the U.S., there is no car noise. Instead, the background music of Venice is the light splashing of water against 15th, 16th and 17thcentury homes.
The Bean at Millennium Park is an iconic Chicago site–and a great spot for a family photo. (Credit Philadelphia Traveling Mom Sarah Ricks)
American Tourist Traps
Chicago was built mostly after an 1871 fire destroyed most of the city. Chicago built the world’s first steel skyscrapers and now has a tall, dense skyline of gleaming high rises. One of the few Chicago experiences that caters to tourists is the memorable river cruise tour of the city’s architecture, led by knowledgeable docents. While the weather limits boat tours to April through November, docents also lead architectural tours on foot and via the city’s mass transit system.
When I am in New York between October and March, braving the crowds in Rockefeller Center to squeeze up to the railing and catch a glimpse of skaters showing off on the tiny ice skating rink can be an exhilarating half-hour.
Sure the entire city is an illusion and a tourist trap, but Las Vegas can be fun for families (Photo Philadelphia Traveling Mom Sarah Ricks)
Authentic New York and Chicago are unimpressed by the millions of tourists they attract. By contrast, there never was an authentic Las Vegas. The entire city was designed to attract, entertain, and dazzle tourists, all to part visitors from their money.
Gambling has no allure for me. But there’s beauty in Vegas’s loud neon lights flashing against the black desert sky. Restaurants are pricey but good. Shows are even pricier but I marveled at the sleight-of-hand in Lance Burton’s magic show, at the contortions of the Cirque du Soleil acrobats, and the delighted faces of my children watching “medieval knights” jousting in the Tournament of Kings. For a day or two, it is fun to get lost in the glitzy casino renderings of “Paris,” “New York,” “Venice,” “a circus” or “a desert mirage.”
My love of travel remains immersing myself in the local experiences of the places I visit. But over the years I’ve relaxed my snobbish aversion to experiences that cater to tourists. I’m glad I did.
Have you ever reluctantly visited a hugely popular tourist trap? Were you glad you did?
Sarah loves discovering what’s unique about a place, its history, food, architecture and culture. She explores Philadelphia when she isn't traveling for fun or for work as a law professor. Both her college-age kids have been enthusiastic travelers since they were tiny. Follow her as Very Hungry Traveller on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter. Recent: Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, France, South Africa, Croatia, London, Korea, New York, California.