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?