Why I Love Visiting Tourist Attractions

by Gray Cargill on February 21, 2012

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

There seem to be more and more travelers these days who are eager to turn their backs on the famous tourist attractions in any city or region in favor of discovering new and previously-unknown places. These are the travelers who want “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, they are explorers. Go them. Of course, it’s awfully hard to find those new places “where no man has gone before” in this day and age, but I applaud them for taking up the challenge.

I, however, gravitate to the well-known tourist attractions in every city I visit, even the ones often sneered upon as “tourist traps”. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally enjoy the lesser-known activities in a place. Or skip a really famous museum that doesn’t sound all that interesting to me. But I usually only have a week in any destination (sometimes less), so I have to prioritize my time, and often, those major tourist attractions are going to top my list. Why?

The USS Midway

The USS Midway, San Diego

With a limited amount of time in a place, I really have to find ways to get the highlights of the region’s history and culture. Oftentimes, that means visiting their most prominent tourist attractions, especially museums, or taking a comprehensive tour. If I had a few months to live there, I might be able to get that same historical and cultural background naturally by spending time with people who live there, but with a week or less? That’s not likely to happen.

Tourist attractions are famous for a reason. They are churches, museums, landmarks and natural landscapes that have drawn millions of other people before me, sometimes for centuries. Who am I to say they’re not important when I haven’t even visited them yet? If the city promotes them, it’s because they want to show them off to visitors.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid

How would you feel if a guest came to your home and you proudly showed her your extensive collection of Balinese art that took you 20 years to collect, and she shrugged it off and said she’d rather see your garage? Just like you, cities have things they’re proud of. They want to show off the highlights of their culture, their history, their region. I’m willing, at least to a certain extent, to be a good guest and let a destination help me prioritize my time. If I wind up not being impressed, well, at least I can say I tried it. It’s not like I have to stay at that tourist attraction all day if I don’t like it.

On my upcoming trip to Honolulu, for instance, I’ll be visiting a number of tourist attractions, such as Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, the Dole Plantation, the Polynesian Cultural Center and Iolani Palace. I’m also doing some other touristy things, such as climbing Diamond Head and taking a circle island tour of Oahu. I’ve selected these activities for a reason. Each one offers me a bit of Hawaii’s history or culture, or an opportunity to enjoy its great outdoors and natural beauty. Should I really avoid Pearl Harbor just because it’s a popular tourist attraction, when it also happens to be the site of one of the most significant events in US history?

The Louvre

The Louvre, Paris

But sampling the culture and history of a destination isn’t the only reason I love tourist attractions. Tourist attractions are a magnet for people from all walks of life. They represent an intersection of socio-economic classes, races, genders, and religious backgrounds. When I see a Japanese couple and a woman wearing a sari and some American teenagers all going in for the same photo opportunity at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, I can’t help but get a smile on my face. It’s possible that we have absolutely nothing else in common–from language to religion to politics—but in that moment, we have common ground. We are all visitors here.

At tourist attractions, you have the opportunity, in one condensed area, to meet people from all over the world that you might never have an opportunity to meet otherwise. You can meet people from China when you’re in France, or Australians in Spain. When I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I took the Bacardi Rum Factory tour one day—despite the fact that I’d read numerous reviews online slamming it as a “tourist trap”. I thought it would be interesting to learn about how rum is made and its history in Puerto Rico, and since it was free (with 2 free rum drinks to boot!), I could think of worse ways to spend my morning.

On the shuttle from the ferry landing to the “factory”, I met a nice couple from India, Naresh and Tejas, who were on the island to attend their son’s white coat ceremony (he was in medical school). We hit it off famously and wound up spending the majority of the day together. Back in San Juan, they showed me the lobby of the hotel where they were staying, and we had lunch together. Two years later, I still stay in touch with them via email. Having never been to India myself, there is no way I would have met this couple if we hadn’t all been drawn to this tourist attraction on the same day at the same time.

These are the reasons why I love visiting tourist attractions. But I’m open to debate. What do you think about tourist attractions? Do you avoid them in favor of offbeat experiences, or do you want to see what all the fuss is about?

Gray March 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Exactly, DJ.

D.J. - The World of Deej March 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Great post…I am the same way. The way I see it, the stuff became popular for a reason…

Gray February 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

That’s a really, really good point, Christine. It’s also good to do a variety of things in a travel destination. You don’t want to get the wrong impression about a culture because all you’re seeing is the sanitized tourist attractions. I remember when I went to Mexico, life inside the all-inclusive resorts was SO radically different from life outside, it was jarring and actually very uncomfortable for me. But if one weren’t paying attention, they might not be aware of the poverty in Mexico outside those resorts.

Gray February 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Hi, Tash – You sound like a person who knows what they like and isn’t going to let anyone dissuade them. Good for you!

Gray February 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm

And there’s nothing wrong with taking silly pictures at tourist attractions, either, Amanda (as long as it’s not a really serious attraction, but I know you know the difference). I figure whatever motivates people to travel, go for it. Better than not traveling at all.

Christine | Grrrl Traveler February 26, 2012 at 6:14 am

I do both, tourist attractions & off the grid experiences. Tourist attractions I like for grounding and gaining a perspective of the place…. and ok, to say I’ve been there bc I know people will ask. I do visit a LOT of them.

But, perhaps I’ve been to too many tourist attractions. After a while, it feels superficial, like I’ve sampled artifacts, but not necessarily accurate authenticity. Romanticism vs. a realism. Seeing the Taj Mahal- I’ve seen so many photos of it that when I got there it felt like a perfectly preserved tourist destination. The life on the outside its walls was drastically different lifestyle. It was very ugly-perfect, more interesting, gritty and telling of the daily life that surrounds the Taj. When I ‘discovered’ this, the experience became personal to me and India opened up further.

Hence, why I also need off the map places. Beautiful faces are easy to find & everyone notices them, but though unique faces are tougher to discover beauty in, when you do, they’re worth the effort.

Tash February 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I don’t understand at all the rubbish about dissing for visiting the sites – the very sites most people know about a place in the first place!

I too ensure I see the places and points of interest I want to, regardless of the “cool” thing to do….seems all too high school to me to bully someone cos they do want they want to do!

Amanda February 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I am totally with you on this one! “Tourist attractions are famous for a reason” may as well be one of my mantras when I travel. Like you, I often only have a week or two in each destination I visit, and I really don’t care what people think of the places I choose to visit! I figure, if millions of people go to see something, there must be a good reason for that!

Plus, I love taking silly photos at well-known attractions. ;)

Cathy Sweeney February 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm

As you and others have said, many places are tourist attractions because they’re awesome in one way or another. I don’t shy away from seeing the attractions themselves at all. But I do try to avoid the surrounding tourist traps. I like a nice mix of traveling — touristy things along with finding hidden gems.

Gray February 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I totally agree, JoAnna!

JoAnna February 24, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I’m all about visiting tourist destinations. There’s a reason why they’re popular!

Gray February 23, 2012 at 7:26 am

Exactly, Samuel.

Nomadic Samuel February 23, 2012 at 2:21 am

It’s often true that tourists/backpackers are made to feel guilty about visiting tourist attractions but after-all there is a reason why they were/are popular in the first place :)

Gray February 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm

That’s probably the best point of all, Kirstin. Everyone should be able to do whatever they want on their holiday. We work hard for it. Did you do the Extra Magic Hours at Disney?

Kirstin February 22, 2012 at 6:50 pm

It is amazing how some people feel they are superior because they don’t go to the touristy places and they don’t do organised tours…

I feel that it is my holiday and I can spend it how I want… If I want to go to Westminster Abbey I will… If I want to spend the day sitting in a park reading a book then I will.

and by the way…. I loved Walt Disney World in Orlando by night (shorter queues and less kids). 8o)

Felicia Gopaul February 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm

For me, especially if I’m new to a destination, I don’t wanna be a shrug. The tourist attraction of that place is definitely a must see for me. These attractions are witnesses to the growth of rich cultures , we should allow ourselves to let these attractions tell the story on their own. And I really agree when you said, “Tourist attractions are a magnet for people from all walks of life” Going to tourist attractions is also a great way to widen your network of friends and connections.

Gray February 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Thanks, Tracy. You hear some cool stories, too, from other travelers. People lead interesting lives, even when they think they don’t.

Tracy Antonioli February 21, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I love your last reason for loving tourist attractions–because you get to meet other people. That’s why I like touristy trips–like Disney World or cruising–because everyone there is a tourist. Which means everyone there is from somewhere else. On my last cruise, while eating dinner sailing across the Gulf of Mexico, I learned all about Seattle from my dining mates. It’s now moved to the top of my must-visit list (though to be fair, it was already pretty high up on the list).

Gray February 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Thanks, Suzanne. I don’t know if it would make my trip feel incomplete if I missed one or two things….but it certainly give me an excuse to go back. :-)

Suzanne February 21, 2012 at 6:15 pm

But of course, how could you not go to all the places you mentioned? I wouldnt feel I completed my trip.

Gray February 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Andi – I actually prefer not to distinguish between “tourists” and “travelers” because I think it’s a false distinction. I am a tourist, so therefore however I act is how a tourist acts. But that doesn’t mean I act like the person next to me who is also a tourist. Have you heard the expression “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”? We’re all unique. But yes, tourist attractions are usually the “jewels in the crown” of a city (pardon the cliche), and there’s no reason, in my mind, to avoid them.

Gray February 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Ooh, RenegadePilgrim, I bet that firefighter museum was cool. You’re right; it’s always nice to have a good mix of “tourist attraction” and “lesser known attractions” when you travel. That way, you get the best of both worlds. You see the major sites, but also find some little gems.

Gray February 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm

There’s definitely no need to feel guilty about visiting them, John. And you’re right, the most spectacular sites are bound to be the most heavily visited. Other people have good taste, too (sometimes). ;-)

Gray February 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

You got it, Jeremy! It IS the people who make a trip special. And you can meet them everywhere–even at tourist attractions.

Gray February 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Glad you liked it, Julie. Sounds like we’re on the same page. No one should feel guilty about the choices they make for their own time and money, and no one has the right to make you feel like less of a traveler for them.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Places are tourist attractions because they are amazing! I think you can visit a tourist attraction yet not act like a “tourist.” :)

RenegadePilgrim February 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I went to the Bacardi Rum Factory tour and had a blast! We were trying to find this local rum distillery and got lost so we ended up at Bacardi instead. I learned a lot about rum and we ended up having a great time too.

I think it’s important to learn the difference between tourist “traps” and places everyone should go when they are in a certain place. For instance, I was recently in Madrid and did not make it to the Prado or the Reina Sofia. I didn’t feel like I had the time to give to either of those museums, so I will be sure to make it a point to go next time I am in Madrid. I felt bad, but I also got to do some other things people don’t normally do, like go to the Firefighter Museum. It was amazing and very interesting to look at their extensive collection of firefighting equipment dating back to the mid-1800s.

When I was in Barcelona, I hit all the tourist attractions…Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, Las Ramblas…etc. It was fun. I had a good time. I am so glad I got to see some of the things I did.

I think when all you do is stay in the tourist areas and not expand your experience, that is where you run into problems. Every city has it’s big attractions, sometimes it’s fun to find the little ones…

Great article!

John February 21, 2012 at 2:15 pm

My motto while traveling is to always make the most of every travel opportunity, and many times this means not missing the most spectacular sites when I’m nearby them. Consequently, these spectacular sites are often the most heavily touristed. But I certainly don’t feel guilty about visiting them.

Jeremy Branham February 21, 2012 at 11:51 am

No one should feel guilty for visiting tourist attractions. They are attractions for a reason and most are worth a visit. I’ve seen most of the ones you mention above and don’t regret it at all. My only issue with tourist attractions is when they become the ONLY thing people want to see and miss out on so many other opportunities and experiences.

However, you close out this post with the most important thing of all in my opinion. Our best memories and experiences in travel are NOT the tourist attractions and places we can check off our list. Our best experiences are the people we meet and those unique stories and encounters that go far beyond a museum or attraction.

julie February 21, 2012 at 11:40 am

Thanks for this – I always feel like I’m not a “real” traveler because I spend a lot of time at tourist attractions. But I like tourist attractions and I like other tourists (they’re usually interesting people).

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