While many so-called travel experts may shy away from the term ‘tourist’ I whole-heartedly embrace it and always have. Without getting into this stale argument once again, anyone who does not live permanently in a place they visit are by definition a tourist. There is nothing wrong with that at all, tourists are eager to explore and see the world and they should embrace their touristness. Along with that comes the stereotypical travel activity, something else that frankly gets a bad reputation. It has been my experience though that places are very popular for a reason – they’re awesome. So with that in mind here are a few of my favorite tourist-infested travel destinations that everyone should visit at least once in their lives.
1. Eiffel Tower – Ah, my first travel love – Paris. And at the heart of any first-timer’s visit to the City of Lights is the Eiffel Tower. Curmudgeons will say that it is too pricey, too overrun with tourists and just too much. And they are probably right. But that doesn’t stop me from seeking out the beautiful, shimmering iron spectacle every time I visit this city I love so much. I’ve seen the Tower from just about every angle and of course have scaled to its summit for an amazing view of the city. My favorite way to admire the Eiffel Tower though is from across the river at the Trocadero, arguably the best place to get the ‘classic’ view of the Tower that graces postcards and scrapbooks around the world. No matter how you decide to visit the Tower, please don’t skip it. It may be corny, but is still popular for a reason – it is the visual clue many of us need to prove that we have arrived in Paris, one of the great capitals of the world.
2. Sydney Opera House – I was surprised to learn that the oddly-shaped but instantly recognizable opera house in Sydney isn’t just famous, it’s very famous. In a worldwide survey it ranks near the top for one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Not bad for a building that was only opened in 1973 on a continent far away from just about everything else on the planet. When you visit Sydney it will be easy to find, especially when you walk along Circular Quay and explore the historic Rocks part of town. But I urge you to go a step further and take one of the excellent tours of the opera house itself. These docent-led walks around the inside and outside of the opera house are well done, informative and entertaining and are a fantastic way to learn what really makes the Sydney Opera House special, apart from its funky design.
3. U.S. Capitol Building – Ok, there is a slight chance I am biased since I have called myself a proud Washingtonian for nearly 15 years. But I think I am being fairly objective when I say that the U.S. Capitol Building is one of the most beautiful, important yet under-appreciated structures on the planet. Sure, the newly built Visitor’s Center welcomes millions of people every year, but I seldom hear the Capitol Building mentioned in the same breath as the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, and it should. Not only is the rotunda a nice bit of architecture and design, but the history of the United States since its inception can be found in the nooks and crannies of this massive, white marble monument to democracy. Say what you will about my country, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the history of America has deeply influenced the history of the world for more than 200 years. I think that regardless of your political opinions it is important to visit and see the birthplace of modern democracy, a movement that swept across the planet changing it forever.
4. Dubrovnik – Long overlooked by the international travel community, that is certainly no longer the case for Croatia’s most-visited city – Dubrovnik. Thanks to its reputation as a jewel of the Adriatic and a very robust cruise ship industry; millions of people descend on this walled city every year. That isn’t hyperbole either, literally millions of people visit, clogging the narrow alleyways and city walls. And while the more independent traveler may at first pause before deciding to visit, I urge everyone to ignore those numbers and book a visit to this fairytale city. Why? Because it is just as amazing as every photo of it makes it seem. Walking through one of the Dubrovnik’s main gates, I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking onto a Game of Thrones set. The massive stone buildings, walls surrounding everything and the beautiful views of the deep blue waters make this a city right out of a storybook. If you really want to avoid the crush of tourists, visit during the off-season and plan on spending more time in the city in the early mornings and evenings, after the cruise ships have left port.
5. Santorini at Sunset – From one fairytale to another, the Greek island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea is one of the most photographed spots in the world and fuels the dreams of travelers around the world. It’s Oia and the famous blue-domed churches perched over the impossibly blue water that drives everyone crazy, and why Santorini has become a major tourist hotspot. Largely fueled by visiting cruise ships, millions of people make the trek to see for themselves what the island is all about. But believe it or not, once you get away from those truly amazing views you can discover a bit of the real island for yourself. Leave behind the tourist shops and instead just start walking down random streets and alleys, the further away from the sea you get the more of the island you will discover. But yes, to answer the rhetorical question, the views are worth it – they are honestly that amazing.
6. Vatican City – A tourist magnet tucked inside a larger tourist magnet, Vatican City and Rome are always on the top ten lists of places people want to visit the most. And visiting Vatican City in particular can be a pain; the throngs of people are all there largely to see one thing – the Sistine Chapel. Having visited in summer (big, big mistake) I can attest to just how many people spend a day or longer in the center of the Catholic world and it truly is daunting. But a visit there is also something special, so with a few precautions you can visit and maintain most of your sanity. The best way to enjoy Vatican City is by spending a few extra bucks and hiring a tour company like Walks of Italy to help get in to see what you want to see without dealing with the lines. They even have a special, after hours experience so there aren’t any other tourists around at all. But even the ability to jump a line can save you hours at the Vatican, so plan accordingly. Once you get in to the Vatican Museums, you still have at least another hour of wandering until you reach your goal, the Sistine Chapel itself. From personal experience I can say that all of the hassle is absolutely worth it, the beauty of the ceiling is honestly one of the world’s great treasures. But there’s a lot more to Vatican City than just the Chapel. If you plan far enough in advance you can join a Scavi tour that takes you below the city into the church’s secret catacombs. It’s a fascinating experience but requires advance tickets, this is not something you can just show up for and hope to do.
7. Petra – Made famous by Indiana Jones, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan is regularly listed as one of the great wonders of the world. Just about every aspect of my visit to Petra surprised me though, especially since all I knew of it came from that aforementioned Indiana Jones movie. As it turns out there is a lot more to Petra than just the iconic Treasury Building. The city was once an important trading post and its wealth resulted in a large complex built into the rocks, much of which still exists today. It’s like finding your own long lost city as you walk through the kilometer long cut in the rocks known as the Siq and there in front of you erupts ancient Petra. The entire experience takes at least a day, preferably two or three if you have the time but this is one tourist site no one should miss.
8. Stonehenge – Ah Stonehenge, another immediately recognizable tourist site and another one that at times is completely overrun with tourists. Located in England’s Salisbury Plain, this prehistoric monument has left experts guessing about its true function for centuries. Visitors aren’t as bothered with the details though; they are there for one of the most iconic travel photos in the world. Stonehenge is about a lot more than prehistoric selfies though and for an antiquities buff like myself, it was a fascinating visit. To avoid the worst of the crowds, look into small group tours at either sunrise or sunset and also be sure to visit nearby Avebury, an equally impressive standing stone site that is actually larger and much less well known than Stonehenge.
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