I can’t count how many times over the last several years I’ve heard or read a place described as being “too touristy.” I’ll admit I have, in the past, considered not going to some places for this very same reason.
What does “too touristy” mean? For me it means a place will be full of large crowds, inflated prices, fewer experiences of typical local culture and cuisine, and often a lackluster experience. Many popular locations start to become too cheesy, try too hard to entertain visitors, become too heavy with touts, and add in “big brands” that are familiar with tourists, i.e., Starbucks, McDonald’s, and so on. It really can take away from the experience.
However, what has been my experience is that:
- A place is usually touristy for a reason. Aside from a great marketing campaign. Paris and London are both very touristy, but they’re also wonderful places to visit.
- The focus of visits from tourists tends to be certain contained areas. Walk away from the immediate tourist zone, and you have a very different experience of a city.
- And just because a place is extremely touristy doesn’t necessarily mean it should be missed.
I was once again reminded of these things as I tried to decide whether or not I’d visit Bruges while we’re in Belgium. Like most people who are even vaguely familiar with this small city, I first was exposed to its charms in the movie In Bruges. It looked like such an amazing place.
Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve had friends visit the city and in seeing their photos and reading their comments, I became concerned it was now “disneyfied.” I had to decide if I was ready to get there and have my movie-induced fairy tale vision completely squashed.
In the end, I decided to go in with extremely low expectations and just hope for the best. I heard from recent visitors that afternoons seemed to be the best chance of having a diminished horde of tourists. I wanted to go on a weekday, too, but in Belgium rail fares are 50% off and I decided saving 30€ would be worth chancing it on a Sunday afternoon.
I ended up being very pleasantly surprised. There were definitely areas that were more crowded (annoyingly so), and it was a bit irritating having the intrusion of the voice of the boat guides on their loudspeakers while you were trying to enjoy the quaint view of the medieval buildings backed against the canal.
And, yes, there is a Starbucks, McDonald’s, H&M (a popular European department store), etc., and you can watch restaurant prices double (or more) the closer you get to the main square.
But for the most part, Bruges was still incredibly charming. Especially when you were in side streets. Even Tigger enjoyed it!
Since we like to look in corners and places that appear hidden, we also ended up at the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a 12th-century church that houses a crystal vial containing a cloth with, supposedly, Jesus’ blood on it. The inside of the church was absolutely stunning, and hardly anyone was in it.
Prague was another place that we had almost avoided because of the number of times I’ve heard that it’s “expensive” and “too touristy.” Still, it was a place I was intrigued by, so we went. We planned on a being there for a week and stayed for about 2-1/2 months.
I found it to be neither expensive nor overly touristy. Yes, there are some spots where you’ll run into a tourist throng, but many places were surprisingly free of visitors.
During our travels, we’ve learned some things about enjoying these touristy places despite their popularity. I figured I’d share some of them.
Tips for Visiting Touristy Places
This is another time when Airbnb, Wimdu, etc., can be your friend. Hotels are often located in and/or very close to heavily trafficked areas which makes it harder to find the more local-frequented sights and spots. If you get a rental, you will often have a place in a mostly locals neighborhood. You can usually get a room or flat that isn’t too far from the popular areas, so you can have the best of both worlds.
We typically avoid any restaurant that advertises a tourist menu. This usually means higher prices and lower quality food. Eating in a square filled with tourists is a guaranteed way to spend a lot more money. And you don’t have to walk far away usually. Near the “hotspots” in Bruges, we saw dishes at around 30€. When we walked only a few blocks away, similar dishes were as low as 7€.
We generally will also skip a place that is advertising in English (obviously, this doesn’t apply if that’s the primary language of the location). The places that aren’t specifically trying to attract tourists tend to be less expensive and far more tasty. You’ll also be more likely to find the cuisine that is more typical of a place instead of one altered to be “more appealing” to foreigners.
Occasionally, it isn’t always easy to escape the tourist area. For example, we were in Rouen during the summer, and at least half of the businesses were closed in July (the French take a month off for their annual holiday), except for the tourist zone. In this situation, we just moved farther away from the main square toward the edge of the zone, and we found places that were open, more reasonably priced, and surprisingly pleasant.
Think twice before getting those popular city tourism cards. Sometimes they definitely are worth it (we saved well over 20€ on transportation costs alone in Berlin), but in some cities they are way more expensive than what you get out of them. It pays to take a little extra time to research transportation costs, admission fees of the places you’re likely to visit, etc., and compare them to the cost of the card, especially if the card can only be used by 1 person.
The first time I went to Paris, I got the carte orange which gave me unlimited public transportation, free/discounted admission to museums, and I didn’t have to wait in the incredibly long queues at the more popular places. I used the heck out of the metro and trains and went to a lot of the memorials and museums (and the card got me into one museum when the cashier was closed because of a private event), so I had an excellent return on my investment. In subsequent visits, though, I found it was cheaper to just buy the 10-pack carnet of transportation tickets since I wasn’t keeping the same pace as my previous visit and had already seen the “big ticket” items.
If you can visit a site closer to their closing hours, you’ll generally have fewer crowds to deal with, and many places offer a discount during this time period as well. We did this at Versailles, and there was no one in line and only about 50 people inside, if that.
Adjust your expectations. I have found it much better to visit somewhere while having very low expectations, especially when it involves well-hyped destinations. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If not, like Bali for us, well, at least you won’t find yourself too disappointed.
It’s also very helpful to travel in the off season. Not only will prices be lower, but you will have far fewer crowds to deal with, and that make can make a huge difference. I’ve been to Paris multiple times and loved it, but this last time I went in summer (to celebrate my birthday). If that had been my first experience of Paris, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to recommend it as a destination, and I certainly wouldn’t have been so enamored. I also would’ve never seen as much of the city, and others nearby, because of the crowds and lines.
There are some places, like the Albanian and Bulgarian coast, that essentially completely close down for the low season, and some activities may not be available year round, but for the most part high season is not your friend.
Have you been to a very touristy location that ended up pleasantly surprising you? Do you have any extra tips to share?
April 18, 2016
Love this article and I agree just because is touristy doesn’t devalues a place. There’s always gems still to be discovered because cities are always constantly evolving.
April 18, 2016
April 12, 2016
100% agree about the avoiding restaurants that cater to tourists.
The only ones I specifically hunt out are Hard Rock Cafes. I know a lot of people aren’t a fan, but I love them (even if they are very over priced everywhere)!
April 12, 2016
Since we travel full time, we definitely do occasionally hit old favorites or places that are familiar.
April 8, 2016
I agree with most of your points Talon and interchangeably I myself go to touristy places and ones bereft of tourists. However I usually end up liking the ones with less tourists a lot more for many many reasons. I think when you say that Paris and London are over touristy but also for a reason. For me the reason is – people are lazy and become popular consumers,they don’t make up their own minds about places – they follow trends and crowds as they also want to be seen as popular and go to the popular places. They follow the popular crowd as everybody talks about Paris and London. People want to put a photo up of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook and see the hundreds of likes and wow comments coming in, but it’s too easy to visit places like that. If they backpacked to a city like Nukus and put a photo up on Facebook nobody would say Wow and nobody would like it. People would think that person was strange so the majority of people take the easy option, the simple way out and head to Paris or London. Indeed, I myself will be in both Paris and London this year but I am doing that because of friends and in one instance, an easier flight connection. I’m much more excited about my time in Seborga, Bishkek and Masar e Sharif. These places are unpopular for a reason – everybody got lazy and followed mass consumerism by backpacking to Paris and London, unaware that Bishkek is just as beautiful but just less cool and less popular for their mates on Facebook who all love Paris and hate Bishkek, because they became mass consumers to popularity too. “You can’t argue with popularity. Well you could, but you’d be wrong.” Anyway just my honest take on it, safe travels to touristic and non touristic spots! Jonny
April 8, 2016
I think that is fairly judgmental. I travel to Paris because I adore it. I love the vibe, the people, the food, the quirkiness of some of the neighborhoods, even some of its delightful cliches. But I also tend to seek out the places where I’m not going to find tourists. I don’t think the vast majority of people who are traveling are basing their choices on the potential social media response. And many of my friends would ooh and ahh over a photo of Nukus. They enjoy seeing places they’ve never heard of as well as the places they’ve also visited or dreamed of visiting.
I tend to enjoy less touristy places more as well, but that’s because of my travel style. Not everyone likes to travel like you or me, and that’s fine. There’s no wrong or right way to travel. I just hope people don’t discount a potentially wonderful place just because it is or isn’t touristy.
April 8, 2016
So true. To deal with it, we developed a strategy that we call “one block off.” Seriously, it never failed us. From Kuala Lumpur to Berlin, to Amsterdam, we just turn around a corner or walk to the next street. Seriously, sometimes the view is even better, or you get a chance to chat with locals and learn something that is missing from official travel guides.
Speaking of surprise, mine came while visiting Etna. Even with an endless sea of tourists swarming around, it was the truly majestic experience.
April 8, 2016
I love it, and it’s so true! Even one block can make a big difference. Good to know about Etna. I’m glad you had such a great experience there.
April 4, 2016
The other great thing about touristy places (especially in non-western countries) is the possibility to see tourists from other places and “local” (i.e. from that country) tourists.
For example I immensely enjoyed noticing the differences and similarities between Uzbek, Russian and the few European tourists in Uzbekistan. Watching people touring their own country and talking to them about what they want to see can be very interesting.
April 5, 2016
April 4, 2016
And sometimes we are just that, tourists! We felt the agony of “touristy” when we were walking the Camino and stopped for the night in Pamplona. We went to the main square for dinner – big mistake – to take in the atmosphere and ended up with one of the worst meals on our 6-week journey. If it wasn’t for the language barrier we would have argued the check, but we just took it as a lesson learned.
Completely agree on the subject of Prague. I would return in a heartbeat.
Completely agree about traveling off season. We spent 3 weeks in Paris in January and while it was definitely cold, it was all kinds of fabulous. One of our best trips, ever.
April 5, 2016
You were probably too tired from walking to be clear-headed enough to choose otherwise. 😉