It's just a fact of life that any tourist attraction has the potential to turn into a tourist trap. But some places are so unique, beautiful, educational, or awe-inspiring that they're still worth visiting, even if they've been commercialized to heck.
I've done a decent amount of traveling in my thirty-(mumbles) years of life, so below are two lists of places that could be considered tourist attractions or tourist "traps": 20 places I thought were definitely worth it, and 10 more that I think are skippable.
1. Notre-Dame cathedral — Paris, France
2. The Great Wall — Yangqing District, China
The Great Wall of Badaling is probably the most-visited section of the wall, as it's a relatively short train ride from Beijing. You'll probably hear a lot of people recommend that you travel to one of the less popular sections of the wall that are farther outside the city — and they'd be right that you'll encounter fewer crowds and get a more authentic experience of the wall, since the Badaling section is partially restored.
However, even if you just go where the crowds are, seeing the Great Wall is incredibly cool. The scale of it is so impressive, and the fact that you're actually able to walk on top of this ancient structure is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Sure, nobody likes crowds of tourists, but guess what — you're also a tourist! And here's a little story: After my wife and I visited the Great Wall, it started to thunderstorm. We were standing on the train platform waiting to board, and there was a lightning strike and loud thunder that sounded VERY nearby. My wife jumped. This older couple — Chinese tourists from elsewhere in the country — was standing next to us, and the lady took a towel that she had been covering herself with and draped it around my wife's shoulders, smiled, and said something to her (presumably reassuring — I only know roughly five words in Mandarin). I always remember that moment as so lovely and human, and it wouldn't have happened if we weren't in a crowd of tourists.
3. The Pyramids of Giza — Cairo, Egypt
The Great Pyramids are another one of those things where the sheer scale and age of them make any crowds or other hassles worth it. These suckers were as old to Cleopatra as Cleopatra is to us! That's how ancient they are!
Just don't fall prey to any scams, and don't pay separately to see the Sphinx — it should be included in your ticket.
4. The Forum — Rome, Italy
The Colosseum is neat, but IMO the Forum is really where it's at. It's so cool to walk through and imagine what this section of the city looked like thousands of years ago. Since there are two entrances, you can try the other if the one right across from the Colosseum has a long line.
Of course, you're most likely going to get a combined ticket that includes the Forum AND the Colosseum (within a 24-hour period), so go ahead and see 'em both.
5. The Grand Canyon — Arizona, United States
Listen up — this is very important: Don't do the Skywalk. That is most definitely a tourist trap, and you don't need to stand on a glass bridge to appreciate the incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon. If you're in Arizona, the South Rim will only cost you the price of admission into the park, and you can either stroll around the rim or take some hikes along the trails that go below the rim.
I visited while I was on a road trip, so I was really just passing through Arizona and decided to take an hour or two out of the schedule to see the Grand Canyon, since I never had. I figured it would just be one of those "Welp, cool, now I've seen that and can cross it off my list" things, but...wow. It was indescribably beautiful. For extra points, see if you can get there a little before sunset.
6. Venice, Italy
I only learned recently that people consider the entire city of Venice to be something of a tourist trap. That is insane to me. Sure, it's a little smelly because of the canals. Sure, it's an affront to nature and was built where no city should dare to exist. But that's part of the charm, y'all.
Yes, you will see a lot of touristy shops and restaurants, but you can also find all kinds of cool stuff too. I had one of the best Italian meals of my life in a restaurant that I'm pretty sure was just some lady's kitchen, and listened to a string quartet in a tiny church, which was magical. I thought the architecture of the Palazzo Ducale was pretty cool. I thought the bridges and canals were neat! I woke up in the morning and heard a gondolier singing outside the hotel window. I didn't actually RIDE a gondola (most people will advise that you avoid it), but I liked the vibe! Sue me.
7. The San Antonio Riverwalk, Texas, United States
It's pretty, OK? Especially at Christmas, when it's all lit up and decorated. It just has a nice vibe and is a great place for a stroll. I mean, yeah, it's not Amsterdam, but it's a nice little spot.
8. Kensington Palace — London, England
Depending on where you're staying, this can be a very convenient spot to pop in and check out some history. It might not be the grandest palace in the world, but it often has some cool exhibits if you're into the history of the Royal Family.
For example, they have an ongoing exhibit about Queen Victoria's reign and have a bunch of her and Albert's clothing on display. I can confirm that she was indeed very smol.
9. The National Mall — Washington, DC
There's so much to do and see! You can see the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, you can awe at the size of the Lincoln Memorial, you can flip off the Thomas Jefferson memorial...the possibilities are endless!
And if statues and memorials aren't your thing, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Asian Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and tons of other museums and galleries are right there, too.
10. Niagara Falls, Canada
Much like the Grand Canyon, this feels like one of those places you've heard all about and you're like, "How great can it be, really?" The answer is pretty great. The falls really are beautiful and awe-inspiring when you see them in person.
Many recommend the Canadian side as opposed to the New York side. I've never personally done a boat tour, but I hear they're pretty cool. If anything, you can pretend you're at Pam and Jim's wedding.
11. Tombstone, Arizona, United States
"I've been hearing a lot of people refer to Tombstone, Arizona, as a tourist trap, but hear me out.
I go at least 2–3 times a year. It's usually quite empty. Here's the thing, you guys: This is the Wild West. Take a second and realize how even in the winter how hot it is. Look at the actors wearing real period clothing. Now look at the modern desert surrounding you and imagine all of that being absolutely nothing but dunes and cactus. Take a ride on the stagecoach, listen to the history, and tip your driver. They are all locals, and most live just off of Allen St. Eat at the restaurants; they're local too. Join in the fun; go to a gun fight. Learn about the other not-so-known greats like China Mary and Sadie Jo.
They call it a ghost town, but it isn't, unless people stop showing up — then it will be."
"Can confirm, Tombstone is pretty awesome, especially if you’re a fan of history or the Wild West. Allen street is closed to vehicle traffic, and it looks like it could have come right out of the 1800s. Lots of really cool stuff to see and some fun (even if a bit gimmicky/cheesy) places to eat."
12. Pike Place Market — Seattle, Washington, United States
"Pike Place Market. Sure, there's all the tourist lures on the surface level, but dive down into the depths, and you can find some truly unique shops."
Did you know there are like, 500 different businesses that have shops and booths in Pike Place Market? If you don't find SOMEthing that you like while you're there, then I don't know what to tell you.
13. Pompeii, Italy
"It surpassed what I thought it would be to a degree I didn't think possible. Unlike countless Roman ruins in Italy and the region, this city had been preserved in ash. This means that visiting today you can walk down streets and head into houses, a gladiator school, and shops, etc. The quality of the preservation blew my mind, as did just being able to wander around and explore at will. Definitely worth a visit."
"I took an organized tour that included transport from the hotel. The guide shuffled the group through too fast. Not enough time to see everything. I missed half of what he said because the group was too big. If I ever go back, I’ll do it on my own next time."
14. Grauman's Chinese Theatre — Hollywood, California, United States
Other Angelenos are going to hate me for this one, but damnit, I'm gonna stand strong. I think the handprints are cool! If it's your first time in Los Angeles and you go to Hollywood, it's probably because you love movies and especially the old Hollywood movie stars. You get to see their signatures and prints, and marvel at how small (or big) their feet are/were. As long as you don't bother with a tour (which you shouldn't), it'll cost you nothing, and you can just spend 10–20 minutes looking at a little piece of Hollywood history.
For those who haven't been yet: Bear in mind that Grauman's is on Hollywood Blvd. but is a different thing from the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is bullshit; it's just squares on the sidewalk, and most stars have to lobby and pay to get one. Avoid literally everything else on Hollywood Blvd.
15. Summer Palace — Beijing, China
The grandeur of this place is truly stunning. I visited on a day in mid-summer when I would estimate the temperature outside was about 1,000 degrees and the humidity was at roughly 581%, but I still enjoyed walking through the gardens, admiring the architecture, and climbing up the stairs to get a view of the lake. That ought to tell you how cool it all was.
For what's it's worth, the Forbidden City was also really cool, but if you have to choose, I'd go with the Summer Palace.
16. Sleeping Bear Dunes — Traverse City, Michigan, United States
You might be all like, "Sand dunes, meh," when you hear about Sleeping Bear Dunes, but in person they're really beautiful. Visit on a sunny summer day and take in all the sights, sit by the water, and maybe take a panoramic photo or two. The size of some of the dunes is really impressive, and you'll be seriously fighting the urge to just go running (or tumbling) straight down them.
Plus, you'll probably be staying in Traverse City, which is a charming town.
17. The French Quarter — New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
You might hear a lot of the naysayers saying things like, "It's too crowded," or, "It smells like piss, and there are broken bottles and cockroaches everywhere." Here's the thing: They're not wrong! Bourbon Street in particular can get quite crowded, and there is indeed a chance you'll step in human urine. BUT, there's also no city in the US quite like New Orleans. The vibes are unmatched. There's amazing food, incredible music, historical buildings and hotels, cool art galleries and shops, and a whole square full of fortune tellers and tarot readers. Heck, you can even take a murder tour if that's your thing.
Remember, you don't have to be there during Mardi Gras! That's a very specific type of trip, and one that you probably won't want to experience once you're out of your 20s.
18. Louvre Museum — Paris, France
You might balk at the price of the ticket or the long line to get in, but the Louvre is so expansive that you can easily spend the entire day there and still not get to see everything. The "Mona Lisa" might underwhelm you (it's quite small, there's always a big crowd, and you have to view it from a bit of a distance), but there's so much more to see anyway.
19. Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
HEAR ME OUT, OK? The fun you can have in Vegas is more or less directly proportional to the money you can afford to set on fire. It is also not a classy place. But dang it, it can be a lot of fun if you go with a group of friends. There's so much entertaining kitsch to it, you know? Just learn how to play blackjack reasonably well, sit at a table with as much money as you're willing to lose, and have a few drinks. Or if that's not your thing, go see a show; they range in quality from, "Wow, I'm seeing John Legend one night and Adele the next (new dates pending)," to, "I'm pretty sure this production of Jersey Boys is straight from the local high school."
Or go drive some very expensive cars really fast, or use some heavy equipment to move dirt and debris around. Just make sure you're sober for those two.
Or just chill by a pool! A lot of them have a clubby, party atmosphere, but several of them don't.
My point is there's a ton of different stuff to do. You may now commence calling me trash.
20. One World Trade Center Observatory — New York City, United States
Even New York locals will tell you that getting a high-up view of one of the most impressive cities in the world is worth the time, especially if it's your first visit. You could do the Empire State Building if you're into the classics, and the Top of the Rock ain't bad either, but the view from the top of OWT is really incredible, and the video that plays on the elevator is admittedly pretty cool too.
NOT WORTH IT:
21. Stonehenge — Salisbury, United Kingdom
I actually think Stonehenge is pretty neat, and walking through it while listening to their little audio guide about the site is informative. The problem is it's a loooong bus ride from London, and generally if you've booked some kind of tour in order to get there, you're then stuck until your departure time. It ends up being a trip that takes most of the day, but actually exploring the site doesn't take much longer than 40 minutes or so unless you really want to walk around and take in the surrounding landscape.
There is, of course, a café and gift shop.
22. Leaning Tower of Pisa — Pisa, Italy
This is another site that takes a while to get to depending on where you're staying, and then once you're there, it's kinda like... "Well, there it is." You look at it, you take a picture, and you look at everyone doing the same posed photo where it looks like they're holding the building up. That's about it. In a country that's so full of art and history, it's just not worth your time.
23. The Eiffel Tower — Paris, France
A lot of people will disagree and say that going up inside the tower and seeing the view is well worth it. Maybe it is! I don't think so, though. The lines are usually incredibly long, and personally, I think the appeal of the Eiffel Tower is how beautiful it is to look at from the outside. Take a stroll in the area, walk along that bridge from Inception, and look at la Tour Eiffel from across the Seine. If you really want a high-up view of the city, maybe just go for the Arc de Triomphe, which will cost less and be less crowded. Or walk to Sacré-Coeur and sit on the steps, which is free.
24. Santa Monica Pier — Santa Monica, California, United States
Seriously, avoid it unless you really want to eat at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. There isn't very much in terms of good food here, and if you want to ride carnival rides or roller coasters, you should probably just go to Universal Studios.
Maybe if you're really into Ferris wheels, you might want to give that a go, but otherwise there are better things to do and better beaches to sit on.
25. Times Square — New York City, United States
Feel free to walk through it! You'll get some great people-watching, and you can marvel at the eerie effect of feeling like you're in broad daylight in the middle of the night thanks to the gigantic glowing screens. But for the love of all that is holy, do not eat here. Do not go to the M&Ms store, unless you're the world's biggest fan of M&Ms. Just move on through, and go see whatever show you're up there to see.
26. The Terracotta Army — Xi'an, China
OK, so this archeological site is actually really cool and totally worth seeing if you happen to already be in Xi'an and don't mind a bit of a bus ride. But otherwise, it's another one of those things where you just have to go a little too far out of the way and spend a little too much money to be stuck in one place for the day.
Also, if for some reason you ARE already in Xi'an, a stroll along the city wall is pretty cool, as are the performances they do near some of the gates.
27. Hollywood Boulevard — Hollywood, California, United States
As mentioned earlier, there's really no reason to go to Hollywood Blvd. unless you really want to see Grauman's. Of course, if you're a person who's really into stuff like Madame Tussaud's wax figures or Ripley's Believe It or Not museums, I won't fault you for that, and you can go right ahead. But I'm just warning you: The Boulevard will depress you.
28. The Willis (Sears) Tower — Chicago, Illinois, United States
Yes, it is very high up, and yes, I know I recommended One World Trade earlier, so we've established that high-up views are cool — but personally I think Chicago is better enjoyed from the Hancock Center, where you can just chill and have a drink.
Also, I do not trust that hydraulic window. No, thank you.
29. Romeo and Juliet's Balcony — Verona, Italy
Listen, I admire the hustle here. People were like, "We live in Verona; Shakespeare wrote that play; let's say that this is the balcony that inspired him or something." But y'all, it's just a balcony that was built after the play was written, it's NBD, and all you'll see are people packed into an alley taking photos. Skip!
30. The Palace of Versailles — Versailles, France
I will say that France's train system makes it super easy to hop over to Versailles and see the palace, so don't let that discourage you if you want to do it. But once you're there, you're likely to stand in a pretty long line no matter what time of year it is, and I'm just not sure it's worth it.
Sure, the palace is very ornate and shiny as palaces go — and it'll definitely give you an idea of why the revolution happened — but once you've gotten your photo in the Hall of Mirrors, there's not much else to do.