We all have been to tourist places, spots where imitation culture is peddled for inflated prices like a disappointing Disneyland. You’ve been trapped. In our industry we say there are Tourists and there are Travelers. The Tourist is usually headed for a weekend to a popular destination without much background information, and thus falls into the conventional destinations that were designed for them when traveling abroad. The Traveler on the other hand has a guide, has done their research or simply finds a way to push past the ‘tourist places’ and into the real culture of the area.
Now, this is not me talking any trash on the Tourist, in fact the biggest difference between them and the Traveler is simply knowledge. So, for those of you who are already Travelers and are looking to avoid the tourist places, or those of you who have played Tourist and are looking to take the jump to the next level… We compiled a list of some of the worst tourist traps and their best alternatives.
We’ll start our series in North America.
(One note, if you haven’t seen some of these tourist places, many of them are worth a visit—we just recommend you explore beyond them.)
Tourist Trap: Times Square, New York City
The center of the universe! Or at least a place with a lot of big screens and even bigger crowds. Times Square is irrefutably iconic, but if you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it enough. Unless you’re on your way to a Broadway play, there are much more interesting parts of the city we recommend.
Traveler’s Trip: Greenwich Village, New York CIty
Still in Manhattan on the lower west side, visit the historic home of New York’s 1960s counterculture movement. See Washington Square Park and the Arch, or walk along the famous Bleecker Street and enjoy the ‘Village vibe’ at various restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. Check out a film at the IFC Center, get some new clothes, and don’t forget to get a slice of pizza from Joe’s!
Tourist Trap: Hollywood, California
When someone pictures Hollywood in their mind they may see studio lots, film cameras and dining stars. When someone actually visits Hollywood Boulevard they’ll see dirty plaques, street performers and at least three fake spidermen. If you’ve never seen it we recommend a drive through, but don’t get your hopes set on seeing Brad Pitt.
Traveler’s Trip: Los Feliz, California
One of the creative hubs of Los Angeles, this is where many of the aspiring artists who may end up on the Hollywood Walk of Fame probably live now. Check out the flea market, see a concert at the Greek Theatre, a film at the American Cinematheque, or fulfill your Hollywood fantasies and visit the iconic Griffith Observatory.
(If you’re really looking for a taste of the ‘Hollywood’ experience, we recommend taking a studio tour!)
Tourist Trap: Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts
It’s a rock. Okay, yes, a rock of great historic significance… but that starts to fade away pretty quickly and leave, well, just a rock. And even the historic significance is in question! No one claimed this was the Plymouth Rock until the 1800s, two hundred years later.
Traveler’s Trip: Plimoth Patuxet, Massachusetts
For those of us who are interested in history but are looking for a more immersive experience, Plimoth Patuxet is that. This spot is built in the style of a 17th century village, with real time actors playing out the various roles in the village and dressed in historically accurate attire. They’ve even reconstructed the Mayflower!
Tourist Trap: The Four Corners, Colorado
The novelty of this location is admittedly neat, neat enough for a whole Google search. Heck, even check out a YouTube video of the location! But it’s pretty removed from everything else for a plaque on the ground.
Traveler’s Trip: Garden of the Gods, Colorado
Now this is something to behold. This gorgeous natural rock formation is about an hour out of Denver in Colorado Springs, and is absolutely worth the drive as you can hike around the formation. Stop by the Broadmoore in Colorado Springs as well and enjoy some old world class at the historic hotel.
Tourist Trap: Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii
The locals have spoken (on online forums) and said time and time again that Waikiki Beach is one of their least favorite beaches on the island. Apparently the most special thing about the beach are the hordes of tourists who will obstruct your view.
Traveler’s Trip: Hanauma Bay, Honolulu, Hawaii
Now, there are many great alternatives to Waikiki as far as beaches are concerned, with smaller waves to the south and pro surf spots to the north.That being said, Hanauma Bay is a great spot to snorkel, with a beautiful reef and lack of hotels / large buildings—this spot lets you appreciate the raw beauty of the island.
(Note: Tourists in Hawaii drown at nine times the rate of locals; watch your surroundings and be safe!)
Tourist Trap: Cancún, Mexico
Overpriced activities, aggressive vendors, polluted beaches and an inauthentic culture that is more focused on partying than anything else are all common and valid issues with Cancún. The most visited destination in all of Latin America may also be one of the most overrated.
Traveler’s Trip: Tulum, Mexico
In many ways the antithesis to Cancún, expect many eco-friendly locations, a laid-back attitude, and generally more facilities that are designed to be in harmony with nature. You can’t miss the ancient Mayan ruins or the more affordable cenote exploration.
Tourist Trap: Graceland, Tennessee
Okay, if you’re a true Elvis lover (more and more are these days with the recent biopic) then perhaps Graceland is worth it. For everyone else, this has become a pretty overpriced affair. Full of Elvis impersonators and mediocre food, the expensive admission doesn’t even get you access to most of the home.
Traveler’s Trip: Beale Street, Tennessee
Why not actually visit the place that inspired The King and so many more. Check out the Memphis Music Record Shop, eat some ribs at Blues City Cafe, see the Rock n’ Soul museum and soak in the history of one of music’s most formative locations. You might just catch the Beale Street Flippers performing on the street.
Tourist Trap: Niagara Falls, New York
Important immediate note, the waterfalls themselves are majestic and worth seeing. The problem lies in the unending tide of crappy restaurants, gift shops and tacky scenery that has swelled out around and under the falls.
Traveler’s Trip: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
In traditional Canadian fashion, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a bit less consumed by capitalism than their American neighbors. Or at the very least a bit more refined in their approach. A small heritage community known for its historic architecture, its Shaw Festival Theatre, and local wineries—this is our preferred spot for the Niagara experience.
Tourist Trap: Bourbon Street, New Orleans
Prepare for massive crowds, obnoxious drunk people and… the smell. While we recommend a walk down Bourbon Street (during the day) if you’ve never been to New Orleans, the truth is this is a part of the French Quarter that can probably be avoided.
Traveler’s Trip: Frenchmen Street, New Orleans
Frenchmen Street, on the other hand, might just be the most consistently musical spot in New Orleans. Expect to walk the street and hear live jazz, blues, reggae and even rock coming from the different venues. Smaller crowds, better bars, and a real taste of Nola music.