It happens to the best of us: you spend months researching holiday destinations and tourist attractions. You sit at your computer fawning over photos you see online of picture-perfect vistas and iconic sights devoid of crowds. You spend thousands of dollars on flights and hotels hoping for the perfect vacation.
And then you arrive.
That iconic sight you had your heart set on is teeming with droves of tourists all clambering for the perfect photo spot. Ticket lines seemingly stretch for miles. Hawkers and unlicensed tour guides are crawling all over you trying to offload everything from cheap trinkets to “the best tour in town”.
This I something I like to call “overrated tourist attractions” and it’s every traveler’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately, thanks to the ever-expanding low-cost airfare market, it’s a trend that is gripping an increasing number of destinations.
With this in mind, and based on an assumption that you don’t want to spend your two-week vacation fighting off other tourists for the best photo spots, what are your options? In this post I look at some of the worst-offending destinations and alternates that, whilst mirroring the charm or grandeur of their more famous counterparts, benefit from the absence of the tourist hordes.
The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The pyramids have long been known to be challenging when it comes to the sheer numbers of tourists that visit, keeping control of those tourists, and the borderline harassment exerted by hawkers and guides (on my last visit it felt as though I was being chased around the pyramids by a guy literally desperate for me to ride his camel). Online images inferring that the site is hundreds of miles from civilization also bely the fact that you can take pictures of them from inside a nearby KFC!
None of this is to say you should never visit the Pyramids – they truly are one of the most awe-inspiring sites a traveler can behold, and a carefully planned visit can help to avoid the potential pitfalls. But what if you’re looking to witness something akin to the Pyramids of Giza but without the nearby KFC? Look no further than the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe.
The Overrated Tourist Attractions Alternative: The Nubian Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan
I’ll admit, the alternative is a little off-the-beaten-path; Sudan isn’t on most traveler bucket-lists. However, believe it or not, Sudan is home to over 250 pyramids, which is significantly more than Egypt. Meroe, which was once the capital of the Kushite kingdom, represents the largest field of pyramids anywhere on earth and dates all the way back to 250 BC. Now is also definitely a great time to go. Most tourists haven’t yet cottoned on to what a phenomenal destination Meroe is – so much so that you can wild camp around the pyramids for the night. But that’s likely to change as an increasing number of tour companies offer the chance to visit. A perfect example is this tour offered by Lupine Travel, a UK based company.
The Greek island of Santorini is a shutterbugs dream! In fact, Santorini’s blue-domed churches, pastel houses and jaw-dropping sunsets mean that even those with only a faint interest in taking holiday snaps, and armed with the most basic of equipment, can capture postcard perfect pictures with minimal effort. Given the real danger that you’ll spend your entire visit seeing Santorini through a viewfinder it’s no surprise that the island, and in particular the town of Oia with its fantastic sunset views of the island’s volcanic caldera, is an Instagram hit. These days you can barely scroll down your Instagram feed for ten minutes without seeing a scantily clad influencer posing next to one of the town’s white washed walls or pastel-blue domed churches. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve heard rumors of scuffles breaking out over the amount of time some people have spent dominating the best photo spots.
So, what to do if fighting over photo spots in Santorini doesn’t sound like how you want to spend your hard-earned relaxing vacation? Step up, Paros!
The Overrated Tourist Attractions Alternative: Paros, Greece
The island of Paros, a few hours boat ride from Athens, is regularly described as Greece’s best kept secret. However, its historic sites (including the Delian Apollo and Artemis), pristine beaches, excellent nightlife and quaint fishing villages are luring ever-increasing numbers to the island at the heart of the Cyclades. If you’re looking to emulate the white-washed walls and blue-domed churches if Oia on Santorini, then look no further than the port village of Naousa. Paradise!
The Taj Mahal, India
The Taj Mahal sits in second place behind Angkor Wat on the list of best UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1983, and has therefore understandably earned its reputation amongst travelers and tourists. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the remains of his cherished wife, the Taj Mahal stands on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in Agra, India. Built over more than 20 years, the famed mausoleum complex is one of the most outstanding examples of Mughal architecture combining Indian, Persian and Islamic influences. At its center is the Taj Mahal itself – built of shimmering, white marble that seems to change color depending on the sunlight or moonlight hitting its surface. It remains one of the world’s most celebrated structures and is a stunning symbol of India’s rich history. There’s no doubt that it’s one of the most architecturally stunning sights I’ve ever visited.
But that’s only half the story.
What the guidebooks and google image searches won’t tell you is that the Taj Mahal can, at its worst (but not always), be a nightmare of queuing, dodging unlicensed tour guides, and being offered, at times forcibly, souvenirs for sale. Forget getting the perfect photo – that might well be the least of your worries!
So, where should you visit if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing and serene? Why not try Itmad-ud-Daula, also known as Baby Taj.
The Overrated Tourist Attractions Alternative: Itmad-ud-Daula, Agra, India
Whilst nothing can really compare to the Taj Mahal ,the mini-Taj as it’s affectionately known, is arguably more intricate in design (particularly the marble lattice work) although not on the same grandiose scale. Designed as the burial tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg it dates back as far as 1622 (when construction commenced). The added good news is that it’s located within easy reach of the Taj Mahal. I’d personally consider combining a trip to Itmad-ud-Daula with Mehtab Bagh, which are both on Agra’s east bank. Mehtab Bagh, which consists of ornate gardens, offers phenomenal views of the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river but without the same crowds!
The first time I visited Dubrovnik I remember being charmed by the quaint, narrow, cobbled streets and imposing fortresses overlooking the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean. It was a relaxed and, dare I say, quiet old town that you could explore in relative solitude.
That was some 15 years ago, and a lot has changed.
Game of Thrones fever has taken over Dubrovnik –Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow have a lot to answer for! The old town, which features several GoT filming locations, has witnessed a rapid rise in tourism. Largely gone are the quiet (ish) cobbled street scenes; replaced by feverish hordes of GoT enthusiasts and cruise-goers following umbrella-wielding guides in full medieval costume. Don’t get me wrong, you can still escape the crowds with some careful planning, but where’s the impromptu enjoyment in scheduling a vacation down to the second?
Wanting to avoid Game of Thrones fever altogether? Look no further than Mostar!
The Overrated Tourist Attractions Alternative: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Only 120km from Dubrovnik, across the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the town of Mostar is one of the rising stars on the Balkan backpacker circuit. Best known for its incredibly aesthetic bridge, Stari Most, which was originally built during the reign of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century, Mostar is also home to a multi-cultural old town that rivals Dubrovnik. So, if you find yourself in Dubrovnik and have had just about all you can take of the umbrella-wielding tour guides, consider a day trip and get two countries for the price of one.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
The turquoise geothermally heated 37-39°C (99–102 °F) swimming waters of Iceland’s man-made Blue Lagoon are a modern-day international phenomenon, and Iceland’s #1 tourist attraction. I remember first visiting the Blue Lagoon in the 90’s and other than some fairly basic shower facilities the site was ‘under-developed’ and ‘under-visited’. My untoned body, bereft of the beneficial effects of natural sunlight (the curse of the ginger), didn’t seem out of place. I could wallow in peace and solitude, enjoying the warm (and occasionally boiling) turquoise waters.
Today, without exception, not a day goes by without my Instagram feed showing scantily clad, perfectly preened individuals meditatively staring into the pool’s otherworldly blue waters as though unaware their picture is being taken (belying the fact that they’ve been setting up the photo for the last 20 minutes). On a recent visit back to Iceland the only time left at which we could book our tickets was the 9am slot. Put simply, it gets extremely busy and has lost some of the rustic, natural charm it once had.
If you’re looking for a more traditional Icelandic experience that doesn’t involve Instagram influencers wielding selfie-sticks and go-pros around, where should you head? Try Secret Lagoon or Myvatyn Nature Baths.
The Overrated Tourist Attractions Alternative: Secret Lagoon or Myvatyn Nature Baths
If you’ve read my guide to visiting the Blue Lagoon then you’ll have noticed that I mention the Secret Lagoon as a less daunting, and more traditional, alternative. Secret Lagoon is also handily placed within the Golden Circle, meaning that it’s an easy day trip from Reykjavik and no further away from the capital city that Blue Lagoon.
However, if you have a little more time and you’re planning a trip around Iceland’s entire ring road, then you might want to check out Myvatyn Nature Baths. The last time I was there I was the only one swimming (admittedly, I was there at a very late hour), and whilst it might not have quite the same level of facilities as Blue Lagoon, that solitude makes it entirely worthwhile.
What do you think are the most overrated tourist attractions? What are your favourite alternative tourist attractions? Make sure to comment below.