Sure, they’re crowded, popular, and well known. It’s for a reason! But how do you know which tourist attractions are truly worth the wait? You don’t want to spend the time and feel . . . underwhelmed. Here, AFAR’s editors rounded up the spots we love, no matter how touristy they get.
North Shore, Oahu
I have such a love-hate relationship with Hawaii. I can’t stand Waikiki traffic, polyester aloha shirts, ABC Stores that saturate the South Shore, or the way everyone turns their backs to the ocean at sunset so they can take a selfie instead of actually looking at the sunset. Living in Hawaii for six years meant finding crowd-free pockets to maintain sanity, but there’s one place where I’ll gladly join the hordes to play tourist: the North Shore. One of my favorite things to do on Oahu is drive up to Pipeline and witness vicious waves crash against the shore. Most people go to this beach to watch seasoned surfers, but I’m fine whether or not there’s someone putting on a show in the water. The ocean here is a shade of blue that usually only exists in movies, and I can’t help but marvel at the sheer force of the waves.
Find the best snacks
A 15-minute drive away is Haleiwa, a small town with a set of shops that opened just a few years ago. Parking here is nearly impossible, but the quest to find a spot is worth it for wandering through the local grocery store for melt-in-your-mouth mochi, perusing vibrant Heather Brown paintings in one of the new galleries, and of course, eating at Matsumoto Shave Ice. There’s always a line out the door (seriously, the wait can easily be up to an hour) but the payoff is huge. A bowl of finely crushed ice that’s been slathered with sweet passionfruit syrup or an unnaturally blue coconut flavoring sounds like everything that’s wrong with Hawaii, but no—it’s so, so right. —Nicole Antonio, managing editor
Vatican City, an independent state in Rome and UNESCO World Heritage site, is not only home to the Pope; it’s also the location for St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, and the Vatican Museums, which display rich collections of art by Renaissance masters commissioned and collected over centuries by the Catholic Church—including the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I got to visit on a family trip to Rome and didn’t realize then how formative it was for me to see such works with my own eyes. To marvel at the emotion wrought from stone in Michelangelo’s Pietà and crane my 13-year-old neck and gaze at The Last Judgment in person rather than just in my school textbooks was magical (despite the constant shushing of the guards). The grandeur and scope of the decoration means every time I return to Rome, I try to take in different details. My favorite experience so far? The climb to the top of the basilica. The views of Rome are spectacular, and if you keep going the extra few hundred steps up a narrow corkscrew staircase, you’ll find an unparalleled vista of the Eternal City set before you—and far fewer crowds.
Beat the heat
If you find yourself in Rome during the high season, be sure to hydrate (the inside of the museums can get pretty toasty) or opt for an early bird guided tour. The one offered by AFAR’s trusted travel partner Context includes early-entry, skip-the-line tickets and is led by an expert art historian. —Sara Button, assistant editor
Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo
At various intervals throughout the day, up to 3,000 people walk Shibuya Crossing. It’s widely considered the busiest intersection in the world, and if you come on a weekend after sunset, it’s easy to see why. I love crossing Shibuya during these times, when it can feel like you’re in close concert with people simply by putting one foot in front of the other. But I also love walking across the intersection when it’s at its emptiest: after midnight, when the last trains of the evening have departed, and up until 6 a.m. Too early? Not if you’re jet-lagged or just taking the long way home after some craft beer at basement bar Ant ’n Bee in Roppongi.
Get the shot
Come July 2020, an estimated 600,000 people will descend on Tokyo and its surrounding areas for the Summer Olympics. Shibuya Crossing, no doubt, will only get more crowded. If you don’t want to descend into the masses—but do want to photograph it all the same—skip the perpetually crowded Starbucks in Tsutaya and set up in L’Occitane Cafe, Mag’s Park, or the passageway between Shibuya Station and Mark City. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor
The Giza Pyramids
Considering how close the pyramids are to Cairo—on a clear day you can see them from the top of the city’s tallest buildings—you’re really missing out if you go all the way to Egypt and skip them. Not only are they the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, but the pyramids are also so much bigger than I realized. At 449 feet, the Great Pyramid is more than half the height of the Eiffel Tower and roughly 40 stories tall. Standing at the base of this massive tomb, I was awestruck considering how humans could build something like this thousands of years ago without the technology and tools we have today.
If I were to do it again
Admittedly, I liked the cheesy camel ride photo opp way more than I thought I would. But I wish I had skipped paying extra to go inside the Great Pyramid since you have to climb one section completely hunched over in a tunnel and then there’s really nothing to see in the burial chamber itself. Add in the lack of ventilation and the humidity from everyone’s breath, and you’ll start wondering why you paid to hang out in a dark, muggy place that feels roughly 110 degrees. If you’re claustrophobic, consider this part 100 percent skippable. —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
Even at the height of summer, with tour buses pulling up and scores of visitors shifting and angling for a good spot, resist the urge to think you’ve made a mistake coming to the Old Faithful geyser. As the steam begins to take a more substantial weight, the plume begins to form. It grows, bounding up and then retreating to splash on the ground around the opening before jumping up again, higher this time in a whiter and stronger column. It is a marvelous thing to behold, to hear, and even to feel, as the cooled mist from the plume is carried over on the breeze.
Plan ahead and book a room at the Old Faithful Inn (a 1903 log structure with balconies and bridges around the open lobby and an 85-foot-high fireplace built of river stones) so you can linger on the lodge’s observation deck with a sundowner to watch eruption after eruption. And time your visit for a new moon so you can walk out at night to see the eruption with the Milky Way shimmering behind it. —Ann Shields, managing editor, guides
People love to complain about how crowded and overrun Venice is. Why wouldn’t it be? Venice is incredible. There is no city in the world like it, a centuries-old wonderland that is either floating or sinking depending on how you think of it, where walkways and roads have been replaced with canals and vaporetti. Sadly, the fact that it is constantly under threat of floods only adds to the fragility and wonder of a city that seems to defy the odds. It’s nothing less than a living, breathing outdoor museum.
How to avoid the crowds
While Venice can definitely get packed to the gills with tourists, there are less crowded times throughout the year when you can visit this marvel, such as winter. Most people remain along the city’s main thoroughfares, but there are plenty of side streets in Venice that are just as lovely as the Grand Canal. Go roaming in quieter ’hoods like Santa Croce and San Polo for a break from the masses. —Michelle Baran, travel news editor
Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House
When an entire nation’s identity seems bound up in a few key icons and images, it’s hard to escape the feeling when you see them IRL that they’re somehow . . . smaller. What, you mean there aren’t always fireworks going off behind Sydney Harbour Bridge? And the Opera House isn’t always set against a perfect, cloudless blue sky? But here’s the thing about these two Sydney treasures: They’re not just fodder for photos. They’re fairly incredible up close, inside, on top, beneath—whether you’re strapped into a climb suit and harness, gripping the top of the Bridge (OMG the views!), or enjoying a preshow glass of wine and ricotta gnocchi in the Opera Bar overlooking the harbor. I’ve been to the Opera House half a dozen times—I make a point to go every time I visit Sydney—and I’ve stopped taking pictures of the exterior. I just beeline for the bar and then get tickets to whatever show catches my eye when I’m in town. The calendar is so well curated: I’ve seen touring theater, edgy modern dance, and yes, even opera. Lizzo is there this week; I wish I was, too.
BridgeClimb Sydney has a new Pinnacle package that lets you pair a legitimately thrilling trip up and over the bridge with a (well-deserved, sigh-of-relief) multi-course meal at nearby restaurants Quay or Bennelong. Big-deal Aussie chef Peter Gilmore leads both kitchens, so you can’t go wrong. —Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director
Golden Gate Bridge
Growing up directly across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County, I’ve probably traveled back and forth across the famous landmark at least a few thousand times in my life. Still, the view never ceases to impress me. Everyone should walk across the 1.7-mile suspension bridge at least once to get a sense of its height, which looms approximately 220 feet above the San Francisco Bay. Obviously, you can also drive across the bridge, but passing through its southbound entrypoint requires paying an $8 toll.
See it like a local
When most of the bridge is clouded in San Francisco’s famous fog—which has long been nicknamed “Karl the Fog”—the classic landmark is less visible, sure. But as everyone who’s familiar with the city’s typical weather knows, it’s actually those times that best represent the San Francisco locals know and love. —Sarah Buder, assistant digital editor
Halong Bay is was what I always pictured when I dreamed about Vietnam; those limestone karsts shrouded in mist, rising out of the emerald-green water as junk boats hovered nearby. I knew it would probably be the most touristy thing I did on my entire trip to Vietnam, but I had to see it for myself. And I’m so glad I did. Sure, it was packed. Being herded through a cave with a million selfie stick–wielding tourists was kind of miserable, and the pearl farm was pretty lame. But cruising across the bay, taking in the scenery from the ship’s deck, was nothing short of magical—even in the rain. It’s one of those places you think can’t possibly live up to the pictures, but it’s even more beautiful in real life.
We splurged for an overnight trip on President Cruises, and I’d highly recommend it. Halong Bay is at its best once all the day-trippers head back to Hanoi and you’re left with the sunset and silence. Plus, we were picked up in Hanoi in a black car and got to board the ship the second we arrived in Halong Bay, rather than waiting in the lounge with everyone else. —Natalie Beauregard, travel guides editor
Tower of London
Of all of London’s tourist attractions, the Tower of London is the only one that I’d be mad at you for skipping. Don’t be put off by the hordes of school tour groups waiting outside the entrance. You’re about to enter a castle first built nearly 1,000 years ago, and even if you don’t think you’re a history nerd, you’re about to be. The Tower of London has served as a royal residence, a fortress, and a prison, and, even today, it’s where the Crown Jewels are guarded. To get the most out of your visit, go on a tour guided by one of the Yeomen Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters. That’s how I heard about the legend that says if the eerie, massive ravens that live on the grounds were to fly away, both the Tower and the kingdom would fall.
Before you go . . .
My only regret about visiting this tourist attraction is that I didn’t read more of its fascinating history before visiting. To truly appreciate it, I suggest devoting an entire pretrip afternoon diving into a Google wormhole, starting with the bizarre story of the mysterious deaths of Edward IV’s sons. —Ciera Velarde, newsletter engagement editor
The thing I love most about this centuries-old sanctuary in the Peruvian Andes is the journey to get there. You typically have to begin in Cusco, another Incan outpost situated at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. Here, you acclimate to the high altitude among the city’s beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, charming artisan culture, and delicious eateries. You then venture by car or train through the Sacred Valley, the amazing markets, colorful Andean culture and gorgeous scenery. And then, at long last, after one final (and very scenic) train ride and an advance reservation, you finally get to enter the pièce de résistance—Machu Picchu. Try to get there early or late in the day to avoid the crowds and explore in relative solitude.
Don’t forget to . . .
Of course, you will need your selfie with that iconic backdrop, but roam the grounds for equally picturesque but lesser-known views complete with llama photo bombings. —MB
I endured a lot of flak for this selection, but tough noogies, folks—I’m stickin’ to it. Do most New Yorkers despise this neon midtown nightmare? Yes. Is it an overzealous example of American capitalism at its worst/best? Totally. Will you get heckled by an adult dressed in a giant Elmo costume? Probably. But here’s the thing: That’s the point! It’s one of the most iconic places in one of the greatest cities in the world!
I’m not from New York, so I don’t have to deal with the annoyances that commuting through Times Square can bring. But it’s exactly the things that so many residents hate—the noise, the lights, the billboards, the slow-walking out-of-towners—that remind me I’m in a city that some people dream their whole lives of visiting. Perhaps this foolhardy feeling can be chalked up to my obsession for the musical Annie starting at a young age, but whenever I walk through Times Square, I resist a very strong urge to stop in the middle of Seventh Avenue, open up my arms, and burst into a rendition of “N.Y.C.”
How to do it right
I’m not saying you should hang out there all day. But as you’re exploring Manhattan on foot, I hope you take the time to walk through the main intersection where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue, maybe sit for a few minutes on the TKTS steps, do some people watching, and observe visitors from around the world being delighted by this place. And who knows—it might just be getting cool. —S. Button
Table Mountain, Cape Town
If you’re a hiker in Cape Town, you’re spoiled for choice—the South African city has a famously mountain-studded coastline—but one of the best views still comes from atop highly touristed Table Mountain. I don’t even feel like I earned the sunset I took in: wind blowing my hair, the westernmost Cape Point in the distance, the Atlantic Ocean all around us and the crescent of the city below. It was made that much better by the bottle of Stellenbosch wine in hand that we had packed on our backs on that arduous . . . five-minute cable car ride to the top. Could we have done a four-hour scramble up to the flat-top summit? Sure, and I might try it next time. (I really hope there’s a next time—Cape Town is the kind of place that begs multiple visits.)
If you like this . . .
Save time for a hike to the top of Lion’s Head, the little brother to Table Mountain, and a more manageable 90-minute climb with views of the Table itself. —LDR
This is one tourist attraction best visited with a crowd. The monument’s place at the end of the Mall’s Reflecting Pool, as well as its white marble columns and neoclassical style give it the air of a sacred place, a kind of temple to American democracy. Visitors slow down a bit and voices drop as they walk up the steps, like pilgrims approaching a shrine. Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of the seated and contemplative Lincoln is surprisingly large and unfailingly moving to see. The full text of Lincoln’s remarkable Gettysburg Address and part of his second inaugural speech are etched in the walls of the memorial and people actually stand still and read them, murmuring the words to their children, some weeping a little (full disclosure: me, every single time), before moving on a bit chastened and a bit inspired.
There is no wrong time to visit. Come during the day or at sunset or stop by late at night (as Nixon famously did in 1970); just don’t skip the chance to see the man who saved our union. —AS
Angkor Archeological Park, Siem Reap
More than 1 million people visit Angkor Archaeological Park every year, and it never feels more crowded than at sunrise in front of Angkor Wat, the showpiece temple of the whole shebang. But no matter how many photos I’d seen of that moment, my heart still swelled when the sun sparked on those sandcastle turrets—and it was partly because of all the strangers I was sharing it with. We’d all schlepped here, at 5:30 in the morning, in 100-plus heat, to witness the same mini miracle people watched when this complex was built 1,000 years ago. Sue me if I get a little choked up at humanity being suitably awed and filled with wonder.
How to avoid the crowds
Visit during the green season, late May through early September, for the best chance of avoiding crowds. It usually only rains in the afternoon, which means you’ll have all morning (the coolest part of the day anyway) to explore. Also, don’t overlook the other temples in the park: for instance, moss-covered crumbling Ta Nei, the unfinished sandstone Ta Keo, or Bayon with its smiling stone faces. With the right guide, you can clamber around many of them without another soul in sight. I recommend AboutAsia, a Siem Reap–based company founded by an Oxford-trained scientist who studies tourist routes through the park in order to avoid them with his own clients. My guide took me to Ta Prohm—the famous one with the giant tree roots straddling its crumbling walls—right when the park opened, and we entered via the little-used north gate. Most people will come through the east gate around midmorning, so we had the place to ourselves for quite a while. —Billie Cohen, freelance travel writer and editor
Little Italy, New York
New Yorkers often say that Little Italy in Manhattan is “touristy,” usually followed by, “Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is the real Little Italy.” I’ll take Little Italy in Manhattan any day. I lived in New York for 10 years, am a licensed NYC tour guide, and as a local, I loved visiting Little Italy. Yes, it’s an echo of what it used to be, but there are still wonderful places to eat, shop, and discover: Di Palo, a 109-year-old Italian deli, for the best mozzarella in the city, Puglia to take a big group for live music and dancing on the tables, the classic Angelo’s of Mulberry Street—perfect for a date night—which is open again after suffering a big fire, and Il Cortile (open since 1975) for red sauce in a beautiful indoor garden setting.
While you’re there . . .
To round out your day, there is so much to discover in nearby Chinatown, which extends all the way under the Manhattan Bridge. You might feel like you have phantom jet lag at grocery stores such as Hong Kong Supermarket and Deluxe Food Market because they feel so foreign, down to the candies at the cash registers (no M&Ms here). At Shanghai Dumpling, grab a seat at a big round table for soup dumplings. —Annie Fitzsimmons, AFAR Advisor editor
Grand Central Terminal
Unlike my colleague Sara, I can’t stand Times Square. But I loved it when my commute used to take me through Grand Central twice a day. Yes, you have to dodge selfie-takers, but it’s so photogenic you can’t blame them. Even if I’m in a rush, I try to take a moment and take in the exquisite turquoise ceiling with its golden constellations. I’m grateful that preservationists (including Jackie O.!) took the time to save this Beaux Arts building from being destroyed, as New York’s Penn Station was, so that we could still enjoy it today.
Find the best snacks
Sure, you could grab a burger at Shake Shack in the downstairs food court. But why not treat yourself and live like the Robber Barons who built Grand Central? Start with drinks at the Campbell, a cocktail lounge that used to be the private office of the Jazz Age financier John W. Campbell. After a few Manhattans, you’ll need some food. Grand Central Oyster Bar is full of tourists, but it’s a New York institution for a reason. —LM
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Call up a photo of Singapore, and greenhouses of epic proportions will no doubt be among the first things you see. Spread across 250 acres, Gardens by the Bay is a massive feat of natural flora and man-made art: It includes more than 1.5 million plants and has 18 “supertrees,” vertical gardens that reach up to 160 feet in height and generate electricity and collect rainwater. There are three distinct parts of the garden (Bay South Garden, Bay East Garden, and Bay Central Garden) and two conservatory complexes (the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest). Before I first visited Gardens by the Bay, I expected to be underwhelmed. Photos can make anything look pretty, I thought. Surely those supertrees will be meh. Except they weren’t. Instead, it was all almost too much to take in. It still is—but in the best possible sort of way.
How to do it right
Despite being one of Singapore’s top attractions, Gardens by the Bay can feel, at times, impossibly your own. Bring a picnic and sit under the supertrees as the sun sets and they begin to glow. But be sure to book your ticket ahead of time to any indoor attractions at Gardens by the Bay, lest you waste your time standing in line—those are moments you could spend tucking into a plate of char kuay teow, after all. —KLG
There are a few places I have been in the world where my mind could not actually comprehend what my eyes were seeing. The Grand Canyon is one of those places. The scale, the depth, and the sheer beauty of this massive expanse of canyon take my breath away every single time I step up to its edge—and I have already done so numerous times in my life. It never gets old. And there’s always another reason to return: The hike down to the Colorado River and back is still on my to-do list.
My favorite time to go
I particularly love the Grand Canyon during the late fall, when its ridges are even more colorful and dramatic under moody autumn skies and sunsets. —MB
Disney fanatics may tell you that Disneyland Paris isn’t worth the trip, but they are so, so wrong. I went in June—a busy time in the American Disney parks—so I was ready to be throwing elbows left and right to get to the rides first. But the crowds were moderate, which meant I could actually breathe and enjoy myself. Disneyland Paris also has the best version of three classic rides: Pirates of the Caribbean (it has a bigger drop than in California), Space Mountain (it goes upside down), and Big Thunder Mountain, which I rode no less than six times. The fact that it’s super easy to get to from Paris—a 45-minute train ride places you right at the park’s entrance—is a mere bonus.
If I were to do it again
Limit your time in Walt Disney Studios, the second park on the Disneyland Paris resort grounds, to half a day. There are a lot of can’t-miss rides in there (Tower of Terror, Crush’s Coaster, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure), but the majority of the park feels like it hasn’t been updated in 15 years. —CV
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