I’ve always maintained that certain tourist attractions are popular for a reason, they’re amazing. Some elitists may turn their nose to wanting a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower or taking a gondola in Venice, but for most people these are the experiences that define the travel adventure for them. That being said, the agony of waiting in long lines or wasting a lot of time may deter some from what are otherwise fantastic opportunities. But don’t let a long line get you down, instead with a little planning you can avoid the annoyance of battling a million other tourists. Even if you don’t take the time to plan ahead, these are some of my favorite experiences that are well worth any wait.
1. Eiffel Tower – Paris is the top tourist destination in the world and is personally my favorite city. There’s just something timeless about it that hasn’t just captured my heart, but the hearts of millions like me around the world over the centuries. Although a relatively recent addition to the City of Lights, the Eiffel Tower is now the most visited landmark and a symbol of Paris itself. Visiting, especially during peak tourist season, can be a hassle though. Thousands of people descend almost simultaneously on the monument, waiting their turn to take the elevator to the top level of the iron megastructure. Even though it’s corny, the Eiffel Tower is one of my favorite spots in the city and I make a point to visit, even briefly, whenever I’m in town. To beat the crowds you can try a few tricks. First, visit very early or late in the day. The schedule of a tourist is like a Bell curve, so if you plan your day around the least popular times you’ll have to deal with much less hassle. Also consider not taking the elevator all the way to the top, but instead take the stairs. Not only are the lines better, but it’s a cheaper option as well. If you’re not interested in seeing Paris from the top of the tower, walk across the river to the Trocadero for the best viewing point of the Eiffel Tower. This area can get busy too, but it’s not usually bad in the evenings and the Tower lit up at night is a spectacle everyone should see once.
2. Sistine Chapel – Rome is not known for its efficiency in crowd control, which unfortunately has spread to the Vatican as well. Millions of people visit the city-state every year and most of them come to see one thing, the Sistine Chapel. It’s easy to casually walk up to the entrance, see the line extend for blocks and walk away sad and dejected. But by giving up you are truly missing one of the greatest works of art on the planet. I’m not the biggest fan of art and the chapel is still something I think about regularly – it’s that good. I’m not going to try to convince you to wait in a two-hour line, because that’s insane. It’s actually doubly insane because once you get inside the museum itself, you have to navigate through a rabbit’s warren of Stuff That Isn’t The Sistine Chapel and thousands of tourists until finally, after at least thirty minutes of walking you reach the storied fresco. You have a couple of options here. The first is to book ahead, which is easily done on the Vatican web site. You can also use a third party tour company like Walks of Italy (not paid for, I just like them) to arrange a special, hassle free tour for you.
3. Smithsonian Institution – Ok, chances are I included this one because I live in the Washington, DC metro area, but I think it’s an appropriate addition to this list. Unlike many of the best museums in the world, the Smithsonian Institutions are free to all visitors. As curators of the American experience, it has always been important that all people, citizens or not, have equal opportunity to visit these remarkable museums. But they’re not just about all things American. The 19 museums included within the Smithsonian system cover everything from Middle Eastern art to paleontology and even a zoo. But, they take a long time to explore. Visitors could spend an entire day in each of the museums and still not see everything. Add to that huge crowds and if you go in the summer horrible heat, and the experience may not always be entirely pleasant. But there are few museums anywhere in the world that I enjoy as much as these and for that reason they are definitely worth the huge expense of time.
4. Whale Watching Anywhere – I’m not sure that I ever thought about the act of whale watching until I found myself on the deck of an icy boat in Iceland, bundled in multiple layers and peeking out from underneath my knit hat looking for something, anything that resembled a whale. Even if I had thought about the experience in advance, I probably would have had images of happy people on a boat, pointing in the direction of dozens of happy whales jumping out of the water like in an insurance commercial. Turns out the experience is a wee bit different. Lest you think I wasn’t happy whale watching, I was, but it’s not what those shiny tourist posters make it seem like. First of all it is a time commitment, at least a few hours and many times early in the morning. In Iceland and in South Africa the experience was also pretty chilly, a concern that doesn’t apply if you’re lucky enough to go whale watching in Hawaii. Also, whales are not easy to find. Sure, there may be hundreds of them in the surrounding waters, but finding one that will amuse a ship full of tourists isn’t an easy feat. Let’s say you are lucky though and your ship locates a whale, then what? What transpires next is watching the rolling ocean waiting for a small dark colored bit of whale to surface, breathe and then go back under. From the Iceland tour I have hundreds of photos of the exact same thing, the photo above to be exact. That is usually the most you will see on a tour. So why is it worth it? Because sometimes you get lucky and you see the photo below or even better. Even if you don’t get the insurance commercial photo, being out there on the water is a fun way to spend some time and to see a different side to the destination.
5. Temple Mount – Jerusalem is a city of stunning sights and breathtaking moments. As the heart of three major religions and a history that is impossible to truly comprehend, getting a great photo in the city is pretty easy. One of the most famous though is the golden Dome of the Rock located within the Temple Mount. Let me preface this by saying I’m not going to discuss anything about politics here and if I see a comment that takes that route, I’ll close comments to this post immediately. Ok, with that out of the way it’s a complicated situation, but Jerusalem is a divided city and control over the Temple Mount, arguably the most important religious site in the world, is governed by the Waqf, or Supreme Muslim Religious Council. Currently they do allow tourists, but only at certain times on certain days. What that means is that when they open the area to visitors, the lines are shockingly long. Add to that the probable heat and you have a very uncomfortable travel moment. But stay in that line, a visit to the Temple Mount is well worth it if you are able to go. First, the historical aspect is amazing. Home to the two Temples of Jerusalem and later the Al-Aqsa Mosque, oh and don’t forget the Dome of the Rock where the Foundation Stone is located – this is an amazing place. I don’t care if you hate history and are an atheist, go and be impressed that this site provides solace to millions of people around the world and has done so for millennia. Millennia. Second, in addition to the historic might of the Temple Mount, it’s also a very serene and beautiful spot. Trees provide shade to the faithful as they read the Koran and the impossibly colorful Dome of the Rock stands in stark contrast to the mostly monochromatic Jerusalem. So don’t waffle and make it a point to visit this all too important site in the Holy City.
Where have you visited that required a long wait but was absolutely worth it?