17 Tourist Attractions That Travel Editors Actually Love Visiting

AFAR is all about traveling deeper, but our editors also love these classic tourist attractions. Here’s why we think you should visit them, too. Yes, even Times Square.

A few camels and their handlers, with Egyptian pyramids in background

Egypt’s pyramids are one of the most iconic—and enduring—destinations in the world.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

Sure, they’re crowded, popular, and well known. But that’s for a reason! How do you know which tourist attractions are truly worth it? 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.

The Giza Pyramids, Egypt

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, senior commerce editor

Times Square at dusk with many brightly lit billboards and tourists

Times Square can be hectic, but if you find the right coffee shop or bookstore, you might even feel like a local.

Photo by James Ting on Unsplash

Times Square, New York City

As a New York City–based theater lover, I find myself in Times Square a lot. I’m not going to pretend that I always enjoy battling crowds, shuffling behind slow walkers, dodging counterfeit Mickey Mouses, and inhaling the neighborhood’s many, many smells, but it’s not a place where I can stay cynical for long. There are too many people having too much fun and falling in love with my city for the first time. How could you not get at least a little swept up in it all?

Times Square is also a neighborhood that rewards return visitation, filled with hidden spots that—despite being surrounded by Starbucks and Margaritaville and the Disney Store—will make you feel like a local. I’m thinking of the Drama Book Shop, where you might run into actors picking up a play script or a book on acting techniques; All’Antico Vinaio, the hole-in-the-wall NYC outpost of a Florentine sandwich shop, where La Paradiso (mortadella, pistachio cream, stracciatella) is probably my favorite bite in the city; and St. Kilda Coffee, a (literally) underground, Aussie-inspired café with killer merch. Ducking into a darkened doorway on some side street and discovering the places where New Yorkers go after work or after a show is the fastest way to feel like you belong here.

Grab a drink: The surrounding area has some beloved institutions for a pre- or post-show drink, including Sardi’s, which is lined with caricatures of stage greats. (The move: Head upstairs to the bar for spreadable cheese and crackers and a Manhattan.) But the place I always take out-of-towners is Jimmy’s Corner, a beloved dive bar formerly owned by Jimmy Glenn, a legendary boxing trainer who was friends with Muhammad Ali and sadly died during the pandemic at the age of 89. Order a beer and toast to his legacy. —Nicholas DeRenzo, contributing editor

Overhead view of people in terminal at Grand Central Station

Even cynical New Yorkers can’t help but admire the beauty of Grand Central.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

Grand Central Terminal, New York City

Unlike my colleague Nick, 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 this landmark is so photogenic you can’t blame them. Even if I’m in a rush, I try to take a moment and take in the main hall’s 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 19th-century industrialist 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 & Restaurantis full of tourists, but it’s a New York institution for a reason. —LM

AFAR editor Michelle Baran in selfie on Grand Canal in Venice

Venice is so scenic that AFAR’s Michelle Baran can’t help snapping selfies.

Photo by Michelle Baran

Venice, Italy

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 fragile beauty 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, 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, senior travel news editor

Brightly colored stained glass windows in a darkened cathedral

One of the most magical parts of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família is the way the stained glass brightens its interiors.

Photo by Billie Cohen

Sagrada Família, Barcelona

When I landed in Barcelona about a week after Spain reopened to international tourists in the wake of the pandemic, the first thing I did was head to the Sagrada Família. None of the hundreds of pictures of Gaudí’s famous unfinished church and its art-nouveau-meets-dripped-sand architecture prepared me for seeing it in person. The church is stunning. Stunning. I took video after video and photo after photo, trying and failing to capture some of the unusual beauty, especially the way the stained-glass windows paint the walls with vibrant colors of light, which I could not stop looking at.

I also attempted to capture how sparse the visitors were: There was no crush of cruise passengers and very few tourists inside, and the street in front of the building was so unbelievably empty that a market had sprung up! There would never have been room for such a thing in a typical year, and there may never be again. But regardless of how many people I have to share it with next time, I cannot wait to go back. I spent about two hours inside (and my guide was patient the entire time; thanks Made for Spain and Portugal!), and every second was worth it. Explore all the nooks and crannies of the buildings, and keep your eyes open for details in unexpected places (even the doors are masterpieces), and stay long enough to be able to see how the light shifts.

Need to know: Buy your tickets ahead of time online. If you wait to buy them on-site, you’ll be waiting in a queue (or worse, you could be shut out). Online tickets are available about two months ahead of time from the official website. So as soon as you know your trip dates, make a note in your calendar to reserve your tickets—they can sell out months in advance. If the visit hooks you on the madness of Antoni Gaudí, be sure to visit his other spots, such as Park Güell and the Gaudí House Museum. The tour company I traveled with can even arrange a private visit to La Pedrera, the last residence he designed. —Billie Cohen, executive editor

City street intersection at night, with bright neon signs on buildings

Some places in Japan, like Shibuya Crossing, are known for the crowds.

Courtesy of Jezael Melgoza/Unsplash

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

At various intervals throughout the day, up to 3,000 people walk Shibuya Crossing, which is located in Tokyo’s thrumming commercial and financial hub. 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: 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 Café, Mag’s Park, or the passageway between Shibuya Station and Mark City. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Brown and white wooden sign reading "Old Faithful Geyser" next to a path leading toward steam erupting from the ground with evergreen trees in background

Old Faithful’s reliably dramatic display has made it a perennial favorite among Yellowstone visitors.

Courtesy of Simeon Muller/Unsplash

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.

Insider tip: 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, AFAR contributor

The Sydney Opera House at the end of a curved walkway, filled with people

The Sydney Opera House sits at the end of a permanently buzzing waterfront promenade.

Photo by Nicholas DeRenzo

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, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023, 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. These icons are just one of the reasons Sydney made our Where to Go in 2024 list.

Go with an open mind: 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. —Laura Dannen Redman, editor at large

Aerial shot of Santa Monica Beach, with waves crashing on golden sand and beachgoers casting shadows

Santa Monica is home to one of the most popular—and famous—stretches of sand in the nation.

Photo by TierneyMJ/Shutterstock

Santa Monica, California

All my British friends end up at Santa Monica when they come to L.A., as I imagine most travelers do. It’s easy to see why: In a sprawling tangle of freeways where everything is spread out (try getting from LAX to Griffith Observatory in traffic), Santa Monica is a compact, walkable, highlight-packed treat. But once you’ve had your pierful of tourists, there are plenty of ways to explore the seaside city more deeply. Skip the big box retailers of Third Street Promenade for the more independent boutiques and restaurants of Main Street. Grab a coffee and a breakfast burrito at Dogtown. Hit up Annenburg Beach House for its restaurant, pool, and splash pad.

Insider tip: There are plenty of two-hour parking lots along the beach, which gives more than enough time for a swim, surf, or stroll. Or park for longer and take the 22-mile, paved Marvin Braude hike-and-bike trail north to Will Rogers State Beach or south via Venice Beach and Marina del Ray to the coastal towns of Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. There’s a Metro station here, too, which will take you all the way to Downtown L.A. for a couple of bucks. —Tim Chester, deputy editor

A towering white marble minaret in foreground with the Taj Mahal in background, with its rounded domes and arched entryways lined with intricate inlays and carvings

It’s impossible not to be wowed by the intricate details that line nearly every surface of the Taj Mahal.

Photo by Billie Cohen

Taj Mahal

I was the idiot who did not want to see the Taj Mahal. There was so much else that I wanted to see on my short trip to India, and I figured I’d seen a million pictures of the palatial white mausoleum online, so how much better could it really be in person? And then I walked through the gate and got my first glimpse. Did I mention that I was an idiot? The marble is shining white, the inlays and paintings are gorgeous, and there is intricate detail everywhere you look. That’s what intrigued me most, the artistry at eye level.

Need to know: Do not listen to the myth that you should go at sunrise. The Taj Mahal complex only opens 30 minutes before sunrise so you’re not likely to even get inside until the sun is already up, and you’ll spend a long time standing in line with all the busloads of tourists. Instead, go after the sunrise rush (e.g., 7:30–8 a.m.), when there’s likely to be less of a queue and less of a crush. Granted, it’ll always be crowded (it’s the Taj Mahal after all) but it won’t be as overwhelming. —BC

People swimming and floating in milky blue water with a backdrop of black lava rock and steam emerging from the ground

The Blue Lagoon offers many different ways to relax, from a swim-up bar to in-water massages.

Photo by Nicholas DeRenzo

Blue Lagoon

I’ve been to Iceland a few times, and on my earlier visits, I always resisted the temptation to take a dip in the Blue Lagoon, a sprawling geothermal spa that ranks as one of the island nation’s most-visited attractions. I don’t love crowds, and the idea of half-naked public exfoliation just didn’t sound appealing. On my most recent trip to Iceland this October, I finally took the proverbial plunge, and I have to admit: I get it now. There’s something so otherworldly about the landscape, all jagged black lava rock and milky-blue water that gets its magical hue from suspended silica and algae, and you really do emerge after your soak feeling slightly reborn.

It’s easy to get in the spirit, wading around, submerged up to your shoulders, applying face masks, and ordering frozen drinks from the swim-up bar. I even booked an in-water massage, which is delivered while you’re floating on a buoyant mat under a warm, wet blanket. The setting feels practically womblike. (The Lagoon is temporarily closed as the surrounding area deals with the risk of a volcanic eruption, but I’m hoping that everything gets resolved quickly.)

Arrive hungry: I had the pleasure of staying overnight at the gorgeous Retreat at Blue Lagoon, an ultra-luxurious hotel with its own private wing of the lagoon. It’s significantly more serene, and the resort’s darkened, hushed spa is known for its multi-part Ritual, which involves using silica, algae, and minerals to exfoliate, cleanse, and moisturize. But the highlight was the resort’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Moss.

There are plenty of luxurious ingredients on the tasting menu (langoustines, caviar, sea urchin, succulent lamb), but some of the biggest pleasures are the simplest: My table couldn’t stop raving about the cod-skin crisps or the butter, which is whipped with skyr (it’s kind of like thick Icelandic yogurt) and dusted with dulse (edible seaweed) from a nearby fishing village. If they sold “SKYR BUTTER” tote bags at the gift shop, I would have bought three. —ND

Two kids sit next to reflecting pool with Lincoln Memorial in background

Share the experience of the Lincoln Memorial with your family, as AFAR’s Ann Shields did with her two kids.

Photo by Ann Shields

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

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.

Insider tip: 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. —AS

A llama sitting on bright green grass with another llama and a few travelers in background

You might spend as much time taking llama portraits at Machu Picchu as admiring the views.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

Machu Picchu

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: 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

A temple complex under a gray sky, with a branch in the foreground

With the help of a guide, you too can snap pictures of the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park sans crowds.

Photo by Billie Cohen

Angkor Archaeological 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 AsiaDesk, a company founded by an Asia-based couple who have decades of experience organizing bespoke trips in the region. 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. —BC

The Grand Canyon with light snowfall on beige rocks in foreground and reddish cliffs in distance

The Grand Canyon is even prettier after it snows.

Photo by Michelle Baran

Grand Canyon

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

A flat-topped mountain covered in boulders and scrubby vegetation

There are more plant varieties found on Table Mountain (about 2,200) than in the entire United Kingdom.

Photo by Sarika Bansal

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.)

An easier alternative: 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

A night scene of towers covered in plants and lit with red lights

The “supertrees” at Gardens by the Bay look even more alien and futuristic after dark.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

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

This article originally appeared online in November 2019; it was updated on December 14, 2023, to include current information.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
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