Some years back, travel writer Gregory Dicum (of Dicum.com) was visiting Bangkok with his wife. The two made their way to the legendary Khao San Road and were shocked at the truth of the supposedly must-see destination: The neighborhood consisted almost entirely of backpackers, hardly a native in sight. Rather than interesting local color, the street was lined with the standard assortment of souvenir shops, hair-braiding stands and cafes.
“Khao San Road came to exist just for the travelers. It’s so bad that locals actually go to gawk at them,” Dicum says.
He and his wife walked on, and just a couple minutes away they discovered a seemingly secluded Buddhist temple hosting a lively festival. The two were invited in, offered trays brimming with coconuts and bananas and treated to a wonderful meal with utter strangers. Not a fellow tourist was in sight.
“Ostensibly all those backpackers were looking for the authentic Thailand experience, but none was willing to walk 200 meters,” Dicum says. “That’s the thing about tourist traps. Instead of seeing the place itself, you see other tourists.”
Behold, then, your guide to avoiding the worst offenders. It’s not that an $11 bowl of official San Francisco clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf doesn’t hit the spot. And, granted, there’s no substitute for an authentic replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza. But not all overcrowded, merchandise-swollen travel hot spots are created equal, and some deserve to be flagged as full-fledged tourist traps.
Weighing crowds against breathing room, bulging postcard racks against actual scenic vistas, and most of all hype against reality, we’ve compiled a list of ostensibly beloved destinations that you might consider striking from your global to-see list—no matter how glossy and luscious those brochures make them seem.
Sometimes, a thin line separates the tourist trap from the packed-but-worthwhile destination. Travel writer Bruce Northam of AmericanDetour.com says you know a real tourist trap by the noise level and inflated price tags. Avoid places that sound “more or less like a car alarm going off” where “you’re paying incredibly exorbitant prices for goods and services that would be better enjoyed five miles away, for a fifth the cost.”
Case in point is New York City’s most famous intersection. Thanks in no small part to a certain New Year’s Eve party, Times Square pulls in an estimated 35 million visitors annually. If these snap-happy tourists are hoping for a taste of Gotham’s seedy underbelly—which once defined this neighborhood—they’ll be disappointed. Today’s Times Square is a family-friendly affair of big, bright eateries and daily TRL tapings at the MTV studios. And yet, just a few blocks in any direction, the “real” New York can be found in the city’s smaller restaurants and boutiques.
For Josh Schonwald, editor of TheContrarianTraveller.com, the true tourist traps are those that “drain you emotionally and financially, and leave you with an existential feeling: ‘Why did I do this?'”
For all its charms—because of all its charms—Europe has a particularly high density of tourist traps. Schonwald notes that the spots most overrun with camera-wielders in Europe tend to be on the bus routes.
Finding alternate attractions is paramount to avoiding the worst tourist traps. Just because the Pyramids at Giza are overrun with fanny-pack-wearing families of gawkers, Egypt shouldn’t be removed your must-see list. Instead, spend more time in the Valley of the Kings, where new tombs are still being discovered. While not tourist-free, this area is definitely less cluttered with day-trippers. Likewise, while it’s nearly impossible to resist a bit of “Roman Holiday” reminiscence at the Trevi Fountain, the mood at this tourist trap is more frantic than romantic. Save your euros for some of the world’s best espresso at one of the city’s countless other piazzas.
Some veteran travelers take the position that tourist traps are simply an inevitability to be accepted. Bill Bryson told The Guardian of London that “this the world we live in. There are a finite number of attractions and increasing numbers of people.”
True, but there’s a good chance you’ll have an equally special time at a randomly selected alternate stop just a mile down the road from the lines, internet cafes, tchotchke stands and row after row of idling buses. The real problem with tourist traps is they bombard you with what’s already familiar—food you know, products you expect.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I travel,” says Baker. “I go for the beauty of experiencing something totally new. I don’t want to take my home with me.”
Experts say, the trick isn’t always avoiding tourist traps, so much as zigging when others zag. “Going to India without going to the Taj Mahal is like going to the Grand Canyon without looking over the edge,” Northam says. “Certain places, you have to go. But you can do it when the crowds aren’t quite as insane.”
No discussion of tourist traps would be complete without acknowledging that some are simply worth the crowds.
“Everybody goes to the Acropolis when they’re in Athens—does that mean don’t go? Of course not. It’s one of the crowning achievements of human civilization!” says travel journalist Don George (Donsplace.adventurecollection.com). “Some places just shouldn’t be missed, so it’s more about the attitude with which you approach them. I tell myself to look at who’s gathered, and the sub-story of the place. It’s all part of the human mosaic.”
That said, George adds that these experiences are often best followed by a cleansing walk three blocks to the left or right. Pop into a local bakery, or explore some neighborhood where you can really mingle with the locals. “There’s a yin and yang to those popular spots, and I always try to balance them out with something more intimate.”
For his part, Dicum advises consulting a map—and then ditching it.
“Trace a line between attraction A and attraction B and walk it. Discovering what’s in between the more popular spots gives you a better sense of the fabric of the place, and you always find the most interesting stuff on a random walk,” he says.
“And when you inevitably get lost,” Dicum adds, “try to get directions back, in the local language. Now that’s fun.”