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You’re a savvy traveler who knows how to plan every detail, how to avoid tourist traps, and how to be a tourist without being an asshole. Still, sometimes even the most shrewd travelers can’t resist the desire to check off the most popular tourist attractions—even if those attractions end up being overrated. When in Rome, you’re going to visit the Colosseum. When in Paris, you need to see the Eiffel Tower. This is the logic that drives hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and all the other Great Tourist Traps of the world.
After travel restrictions and safety concerns due to the pandemic, any long-awaited travel plans you have for this summer should be worth every moment. The last thing you want as a traveler is to discover that you’ve wasted time and money only to be thoroughly underwhelmed. The feeling of intense letdown even has a name: Paris Syndrome. Officially coined as a way to describe the physical sickness experienced by Japanese tourists in Paris in 1986, the term now can be thought of as a severe form of culture shock, homesickness, and ultimately, disappointment when a destination can’t live up to damagingly high expectations.
All too often, the hype is bigger than the attraction. This leads to overcrowding, scammers, and often miserable experiences that could have been better spent at more underrated tourist spots. Here are some popular destinations that are overrated—and some travel ideas that are worth your while.
The most overrated tourist destinations
About my reasoning here: I believe that a smart traveler can make any city worth it, so I’m not actually trying to diss an entire city or region as “overrated” (even though I love to poke fun at the French). You’ll hear people call a lot of popular attractions overrated due to “scammers” on-site, but personally, I believe in factoring in a “tourist tax” where you can expect to lose a few $20 bills here and there to people who somewhat take advantage of travelers.
And please don’t think I’m an arrogant American dissing cultural icons like the literal Taj Mahal. This is just my insight as to what tourist attractions will truly be worth all your time, money, and jet lag.
The Mona Lisa, Paris
The Louvre is the most-visited museum in the world, and it has plenty of fine art to offer. However, if your main draw is visiting Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, prepare to be let down. Not only is the painting much smaller in real life, but the crowds around it don’t exactly make for the best artistic appreciation. For less chaotic museums in Paris, try out the Musée d’Orsay and Musée Picasso.
Sacred Monkey Forest, Ubud
Wild monkeys can be found all over Bali, so there’s no reason to contribute to this overwhelming, zoo-like park. It’s overcrowded with tourists, and since the monkeys here have become used to humans, they’re known to be overly aggressive. In general, you want to research the ethics of any animal-centered attraction (like with elephant rides in Thailand). If you’re trying to see wild monkeys while in this region, consider Mount Batur or the Uluwatu Temple.
The Taj Mahal, Agra
Although this structure is undeniably magnificent, this is another one of those attractions where it’s so crowded that you won’t be able to appreciate where you are. From sunrise to sunset, there isn’t really a secret hour of the day where you won’t be overwhelmed. When I visited, I wished I had skipped this stop in Agra in favor of spending another day exploring beautiful Udaipur instead.
After getting your precious pic of you pretending to prop up the leaning tower, Pisa is generally seen as too touristy and out-of-the-way, when the rest of Italy has so much more to offer.
The Temple Bar, Dublin
Also the name of Dublin’s nightlife capital, this Temple Bar specifically refers to the frequently-photographed pub with iconic red walls. It’s worth strolling around the cobblestone neighborhood, but the bar itself is an overpriced and overcrowded tourist trap.
Jemaa el-Fna (the famous Marrakesh market)
Marrakesh, Morocco is worth a spot on your bucket list. The iconic market, however, is best to speed through before getting out of the main square and into the old city. Chances are you look like a tourist, in which case this market is going to be a suffocating slew of vendors yelling at you. Make sure to keep an eye on your belongings as you pass through, since this place is known for pickpockets.
I believe Stonehenge gets a reputation as “overrated” because it’s fairly difficult to visit. You’ll have to devote a whole day away from London, and once you arrive, you’ll find that tourists aren’t able to get all that close to the iconic rocks. And look: I don’t believe tourists should be allowed to climb on the rocks. But personally, I really want to be able to climb on the rocks. ME! (There, my American arrogance is showing.)
Hobbiton, New Zealand
New Zealand is worth a visit for many reasons, but these tourist trap hobbit houses are not one of them. The Lord of the Rings fans should do their research to visit more of the natural beauty that New Zealand provided as a major filming location of their favorite films. Unfortunately, Hobbiton-specific tours are pricey, fast-paced, and jam-packed.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
This bamboo garden is no doubt jaw-dropping, but once again, the sheer number of tourists around you might make it hard to take in your surroundings. Consider visiting one of Kyoto’s smaller, underrated bamboo-clad pathways like Kodaiji Temple.
Although Lake Geneva offers stunning views and fun water activities, this city is so expensive, it’s hard to budget more than a day here.
Alright, this one is a technicality. It’s not that Hawaii is overrated. You shouldn’t go because the people are begging you not to come.
Where to plan your next vacation instead
I could spend all day listing alternative ideas for your next big vacation. For now, here are some of my top picks to pique your interest.
Touristy spots that you can do right
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I’m biased, since I lived in Cambodia for a spell, but I believe this popular destination is worth your time if you do it right. These sprawling, ancient Buddhist temples are huge enough that you can easily stray from the beaten path and avoid the overwhelming crowds. Just make sure to get there at sunrise.
- Great Pyramids. Again, I’m biased since I visited Giza during the tourist off-season (late June). While a lot of people will call the pyramids overrated, I think those people are somehow spoiled or impossible to please. Book a private tour guide, who will have a wealth of knowledge and also have your back against aggressive vendors. Remember to tip your guide generously at the end of the day.
- Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam. It might not look quite like how it does in the James Bond movies, but this moody seascape is still a stunning cruise. I recommend booking a group tour that includes kayaking and caving.
- Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Don’t feel bad skipping the Red Light district in favor of the hip Jordaan district. Plus, the Van Gogh Museum is one of my favorite places in the world.
- Bangkok, Thailand: Skip the Great Palace and spend your time appreciating Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun. Make sure to try all sorts of amazing street food along the way.
Destinations to add to your bucket list
The following cities have yet to be totally overrun by tourists:
- Udaipur, India. A little more peaceful and spread out compared to other popular cities in India.
- Lima, Peru. A lively capital city that gets overlooked, but shouldn’t.
- Brussels, Belgium. Make sure to book a chocolate tour.
- Valparaiso, Chile. From street art to rainbow houses, this city is unbelievably colorful.
- Puglia, Italy. Wine, pasta, and beaches.
- Budapest, Hungary. The “Little Paris of Middle Europe.”
- Dubrovnik, Croatia. Bummed about Hobbiton? This is the main filming location for King’s Landing in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
- Denmark’s Faroe Islands. Sheep outnumber humans 70,000 to 50,000 here.
- Java, Indonesia. Less-visited than Bali, but just as beautiful.
- Petra, Jordan. Known as the “Rose City,” Petra is a series of caves, temples, tombs, and ruins carved from pink sandstone.
- Luang Prubang, Laos. The perfect spot for day trip to remarkable aqua waterfalls.
- Taipei, Taiwan. This capital city has a culinary scene to die for.
It all comes down to research
Like I mentioned at the top: You can make the most of any journey, so long as you do a little research first. I’m not saying you should map out every minute of your vacation. Just spend a little time online to find the best hours and seasons to plan your visit, and try to gather site-specific tips from all the travel blogs available for free online. Make sure you manage expectations and understand what you’re getting into, wherever you’re going.