There is no shame in being a tourist. It's the best way to escape from your daily routine, see the world and soak up new experiences. There is, however, great shame in being a tourist who travels thousands of miles to another continent only to eat at the Pizza Hut next to the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, or follows up a visit to the majestic Niagara Falls with a 3-D/4-D movie of the majestic Niagara Falls, or books an all-inclusive stay at a tropical resort where the ratio of timeshare salesmen to guests is four to one.
Consult our list of the world's 10 most touristy cities to distinguish the best tourist attractions from the worst tourist traps. And for the love of Frommer's, leave your money belt at home.
New York deserves its reputation as one the greatest cities on the planet. In 2011, more than 50 million domestic and international tourists visited the Big Apple to experience world-class culture in its museums and Broadway shows, eat at some of the finest restaurants representing every imaginable type of cuisine, and wander through its historic ethnic neighborhoods and expansive green spaces like Central Park. Yet for some indefensible reason, a full 80 percent of all visitors to New York choose to converge on the gaudiest and least authentic intersection in the city: Times Square [source: Forbes.com].
Times Square's big attraction is its famous "lights," aka giant billboard ads for underwear and perfume, and Jumbotron TV screens streaming CNN. Then there's the whole New Year's Eve thing, which must be thrilling for people whose idea of a great time involves subzero temperatures, hordes of drunk tourists and the threat of imminent trampling. But other than that, Times Square is an out-of-towners-only wasteland of knickknack shops (don't forget to buy your pointy green Statue-of-Liberty crown!), bad street theater, chain restaurants, and shady vendors selling knock-off handbags and pirated DVDs.
A side effect of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's successful effort to rid Times Square of the peep shows, porn theaters and prostitutes who ran the place for much of the '60s, '70s and '80s is that Times Square is now entirely devoid of anything particularly "New York." It's more like America's most crowded mall, where parking is $20 an hour, exactly how long you'll wait for a table at a local Times Square restaurant like Applebee's.
The natural beauty of Niagara Falls is nothing short of breathtaking. Every minute, more than 6 million cubic feet (168,000 cubic meters) of water pour over the 188-foot (57-meter) falls with a rush and roar and spray that deserves to be experienced at least once in a lifetime [source: Niagara Parks]. And then never again.
The majesty of Niagara Falls has long since been eclipsed by the greed and abject tackiness of humankind. What was once a famed honeymoon destination is now only a minor "attraction" in a circus sideshow of second-rate wax museums, loud themed restaurants and grungy hotels along the armpit of commercialism called the Clifton Hill strip.
The Maid of the Mist boat ride under the falls is still worth it. Yes, tickets are U.S. $15.50 for adults and $9 for kids, but you can't come all this way and not feel that wet, slobbery waterfall kiss on your face. Plus, who doesn't look good in a yellow poncho? But after you've toweled off and thrown away your now-ruined digital camera, think twice about the rest of the attractions begging for your hard-earned Canadian dollars.
The No. 1 tourist trap has to be the Skylon Tower Observation Deck in the Niagara Falls Hotel. If you've already spent a few hours and serious money staring at the falls close-up, from below, and even from behind, why do you need to shell out another $14 per adult to see the whole wet mess from 775 feet (236 meters) in the air? Is it the lure of catching a blurry glimpse of the Buffalo skyline? Or is the chance to pay an additional $11 for the "The Falls 3D/4D Movie"? Spoiler alert: The fourth dimension is nausea.
Workers laid the original stone foundation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 1173 [source: PBS]. Their rookie mistake -- building an eight-story stone and marble tower topped with several tons of church bells on loose, sandy soil -- would become the most famous architectural blunder in the world. More than 800 years later, the tower remains a "can't miss" destination for more than a million gawking tourists every year.
And what an experience it is! First, there is the inconvenient fact of getting to Pisa, which is a three-hour-plus train ride from Rome and nearly an hour train ride from Florence. But then you're at the tower, right? No, that would be about a mile away from the train station. But don't worry, you'll have plenty of company alongside the hundreds of other sweaty tourists who are also speed-walking their way past pushy trinket vendors and stalls of knockoff handbags and watches [source: Lonely Planet].
The site of the actual tower is actually quite beautiful. The tower is one of three Romanesque structures on a vast green square called the Piazzi dei Miracoli [source: Lonely Planet]. Good thing you bought your entrance ticket online (€18 or $24) before you came, or else you might be waiting in that two-hour line to begin the arduous climb up the leaning tower. What, you didn't buy your ticket?! That's OK, while you wait in line, the rest of the group can each take the obligatory staged photo of pretending to hold up the tower. Don't be discouraged that every single other person who has ever visited Pisa has done the exact same thing. It doesn't mean you're not original. It just means you're in Pisa.
Tony Bennett isn't the only one who left his heart in San Francisco. The City by the Bay has charm and style to spare: the taco joints and trendy boutiques of the Mission District; the Victorian mansions with breathtaking views of the bay in Pacific Heights; and Golden Gate Park, miles of winding trails leading to the famously scenic stretch of Golden Gate Bridge. But if you fail to leap off the fabled cable cars before they makes their fateful plunge down Hyde Street, you will end up in San Francisco's version of Times Square: Fisherman's Wharf.
Fisherman's Wharf is like the obnoxious, drunken, embarrassing cousin that showed up at San Francisco's family reunion. Need proof that you've fallen into a bona fide tourist trap? Look no further than the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium, one of 30 outdated outposts of schlock that the good people at Ripley have erected in North America alone (would you be surprised to know there's also one in Niagara Falls?) Then there's Pier 39, the seaside strip mall where you can browse the wares at The Crystal Shop and The Crystal Shop II, or pick up a left-handed pair of scissors at Lefty's San Francisco, the Left Hand Store!
Before we bash Fisherman's Wharf completely, an acknowledgement. Many tourists travel to San Francisco assuming that the entire state of California is a sunny paradise, only to deplane at SFO in their shorts and T-shirts into a swirl of unpredictable fog and wind that would make Londoners shiver. For this reason and this reason alone, Fisherman's Wharf serves a purpose. There are nothing less than (this is only an estimate) 13,000 rinky-dink shops in Fisherman's Wharf selling San Francisco-themed sweatshirts, jackets, hats, scarves and full-body snowsuits. These shops save the lives of hundreds of pasty Midwesterners every year.
Calling Las Vegas "touristy" is like calling Krispy Kreme donuts "unhealthy." That's sort of the point. Nearly 40 million people from around the world visited Las Vegas in 2011, and we venture to guess that not a single one of them chose this desert outpost of depravity for its authentic culture, historical significance or natural beauty [source: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority]. The hordes come to Vegas for the spectacle, the cheap buffets and hotel deals, and the long-shot prospect of not losing their children's college savings at the craps table.
The 590,000 full-time residents of Las Vegas might disagree, but this is a city whose sole purpose and function is to suck the money out of the wallets of wide-eyed tourists. Exhibit A: gambling revenue in Clark County, Nevada -- home to greater Las Vegas -- was more than $9.2 billion in 2011 [source: LVCVA]. Exhibit B: Nosebleed seats to see Donny and Marie Osmond -- who haven't had a hit song together since the Carter Administration -- run more than $100. Exhibit C: Several travel articles about Las Vegas warn visitors to explicitly tell their airport cab driver not to take the I-15 connector tunnel to get to a hotel on the Strip in an effort to run up the fare [source: Benson]. What a town!
Be careful about trying to play Vegas on the cheap, though. How, you may wonder, can an all-you-can-eat buffet with more than 50 items cost only $11 per person? Do you really want to know?
More people visited Orlando, Fla. in 2011 -- 55.1 million -- than any other city in the United States [source: Visit Orlando]. We always assumed people flocked by the millions to central Florida for the indigenous rock formation exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center. But maybe these Disney folks play a small role. Entirely by coincidence, the number of estimated visitors to Disney's four Orlando mega-theme parks and two water parks was more than 51 million in 2011 [source: Visit Orlando].
Much like Vegas exists to drain the bank accounts of gullible amateur gamblers, Disney's Orlando empire exists to drain the bank accounts of parents with small children, who must shell out big to go through acres of product placement-themed attractions, only to see their offspring melt into pools of tears when a dude in a Goofy costume tries to slap them five during the two-hour wait for Magic Mountain. Anyone with small children instinctively knows that hot weather, tons of sugary food, long lines and insanely overblown expectations equals parenting hell. But try explaining that to your 6-year-old in the princess costume.
At $89 per ticket for anyone over age 10, a family of four will pay well over $1,000 just to enter the half-dozen Disney parks over three days. Add the cost of lodging, meals and souvenirs from said theme parks and you're looking at a very pricey vacation.
If Disney isn't your thing, don't worry. Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens are right across the street. But the prices are about the same. For a lower budget experience, try the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show at $13 a head.
Visiting Hollywood is a lot like meeting a famous movie star in person: It's smaller, older, much less attractive and far more obnoxious that you had imagined. The word "Hollywood" is synonymous with glamour, stardom and the celebrity-soaked movie industry, whereas the real Hollywood is just a seedy neighborhood in the middle of Los Angeles populated by celebrity impersonators, double-decker tour buses and wax museums. Oh, and a Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie museum.
As everyone trying to sell tickets to their walking tour will tell you, Hollywood used to be the epicenter of moviemaking in the first half of the 20th century, when most major studios built their lots and soundstages in the vicinity of the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine. Some landmarks still exist from that golden age, including the Roosevelt Hotel and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which both opened their doors in 1927 [source: Chinese Theatres]. But most tourists crowd the sidewalk along the 2-mile (3.2 kilometer) stretch of Hollywood Blvd. for one thing and one thing only: the Walk of Fame.
Is there a more underwhelming tourist attraction in the world than the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Why do people travel halfway around the world to stand on the name of a semi-famous person while a dude dressed like Lady Gaga hounds you to take his picture? There are more than 2,000 names etched into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and odds are you know 57 of them. If you're 18 or younger, you know about three. Now who's up for lunch at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.?
First, the dream. You are awoken at dawn in your Bedouin tent by a sonorous call to prayer. After a breakfast of strong Egyptian coffee, sticky dates and flatbread, you mount your trusty camel and follow your guide on a four-hour trek along the lush banks of the Nile into the heart of the desert. As you summit a massive sand dune, you catch the first glimpse of the Great Pyramid, flanked by two smaller pyramids and the infamous stone-faced sphinx.
Now, the reality. You are awoken in your Cairo Holiday Inn by the incessant honking of a billion taxi drivers. After a breakfast of watery instant coffee and instant scrambled eggs, you board an incessantly honking taxi for a traffic-clogged 35-minute ride across town to the Great Pyramid of Giza, flanked by two smaller pyramids, the sphinx and a combo Pizza Hut/KFC directly across the street.
Yes, the pyramids at Giza are easily the most impressive man-made structures you will ever see. Standing next to the colossal blocks of stone is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. Unfortunately, the experience is nearly made unbearable by the constant harassment of droves of men hawking camel rides. Our advice, if you can swing it: bring your own camel.
If you visit during the right time of year -- preferably months that don't rhyme with "dune," "reply" or "dog guest" -- Venice is one of the most enchanting, romantic and remarkable cities in the world. That's when the city's 60,000 full-time residents go about their daily routine of eating delicious regional cuisine, wandering through world-class museums and hanging out in the Piazza San Marco sipping cappuccino and eating gelato.
Or at least that's what we assume the locals do. We've never seen an actual local, because like the rest of the world's tourists, we visit Venice during the summer, when it's hot, smelly and teeming with loud Americans complaining about the price of a gondola ride.
Speaking of complaining about gondola rides, have you seen the price of a gondola ride? Eighty euros ($107) will buy you and five friends 40 minutes on the crowded Grand Canal. The price jumps to 100 euros after 7 p.m. And if you want the gondolier to sing a romantic tune while you dig through your fanny pack for more traveler's checks, that's going to cost you extra, of course [source: Concierge.com].
The moral of the story: If you don't want to be treated like a tourist, don't visit Venice in August, or take the water bus like a local, wherever they are.
Cancún is exactly what you think it is, a great place to lounge drunkenly on the beach all day, then head out at night to dance drunkenly on top of a table wearing a sombrero before passing out with a stranger and waking up (still pretty drunk) to your all-inclusive breakfast buffet. If you are looking for an authentic Mexican travel experience, look elsewhere. Cancún is about beaches, booze and reinforcing every ignorant stereotype you have about Mexico and its people. Body shots, anyone?
OK, fine, this is mostly true of the Spring Break version of Cancún, which is when the town and its underage tourists are on their worst behavior. But that doesn't mean that Cancún is exactly a cultural mecca the other 11 months of the year. The beaches are beautiful and the snorkeling and diving in nearby Isla de Mujeres is world-class, but prepare yourself for a hundred daily conversations with aggressive timeshare salesmen, snorkeling tour hawkers and insistent young ladies who really think you'd look great with a head full of braids.
You can try to escape the tourist bubble, but you'll have to go pretty far afield to find peace and tranquility. Don't expect it in nearby Playa del Carmen, which boasts a main drag lined with every tourist cliché short of a wax museum (too hot, probably). The much-advertised "eco parks" are like snorkeling in an aquarium -- pretty, but pretty weird. The ruins at Tulum are a better bet, and the two-hour bus ride to the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza is well worth the trip. That is, if you can go half a day without a body shot.
For lots more information about fascinating and forgettable travel destinations, check out the related HowStuffWorks links on the next page.
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Author's Note: 10 of the World's Most Touristy Cities
I did most of my traveling before I had kids and before I had money to spend on luxuries like hotel rooms with their own bathroom and food served by a waiter instead of a vending machine. This history of traveling unencumbered and on-the-cheap has probably fueled my overblown fear of looking like a tourist. As I said, there's no shame in being a tourist. We're all out-of-towners at some point. Why not embrace the cluelessness? Why not wait in line for the overpriced double-decker bus tour? Why not eat at the tacky jungle-themed restaurant where the waiters are dressed as toucans and lemurs? Why not turn down the self-consciousness dial for a few days, open up the guidebook and join the herd? Maybe I'll see you in Orlando.
- Benson, Sara. The Indie Traveler. "5 Big Las Vegas Mistakes You Can Avoid." July 2, 2012 (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travelblogs/278/161440/5
- Chinese Theatres. "History" (Jan. 13, 2013) http://www.tclchinesetheatres.com/history/
- Concierge.com. Venice. "Factsheet" (Jan. 13, 2013) http://www.concierge.com/travelguide/venice/factsheet
- Forbes.com. "America's Top Tourist Attractions" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/20/top-tourist-attractions-lifestyle-travel-magic-kingdom-disneyland-times-square_slide_2.html
- Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "2011 Las Vegas Year-to-Date Executive Summary" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.lvcva.com/includes/content/images/media/docs/Year-end-2011.pdf
- Lonely Planet. "Introducing Pisa" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/tuscany/pisa
- Niagara Parks. "Niagara Falls Geology Facts & Figures" (Jan. 24, 2013) http://www.niagaraparks.com/media/geology-facts-figures.html
- NYC & Company. "NYC Statistics" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.nycgo.com/articles/nyc-statistics-page
- PBS.org. "Fall of the Leaning Tower: History of Interventions." (Jan. 17, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pisa/interventions.html
- Visit Orlando. "Central Florida's Attraction Attendance" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://corporate.visitorlando.com/research-and-statistics/orlando-visitor-statistics/estimated-attraction-attendance/
- Visit Orlando. "Travel to Orlando" (Jan. 17, 2013) http://corporate.visitorlando.com/research-and-statistics/orlando-visitor-statistics/visitor-volumes/