Tourist Traps: Come one, come all

Crowds at the Colosseum in Rome

People look down on the most popular spots in a destination, calling them “tourist traps”. They say these places are rip offs, scams, and attract throngs of crowds. All this can be true. But on the other hand, many of these places are of interest for various reasons, be it historical, architectural, religious or otherwise. Many of these places are iconic to the destinations. Does that mean you *should* avoid them?

Not necessarily. Some of them I do avoid, but many of them I visit anyway. It all comes down to personal choice and there are always ways to minimize the “trap”.

If the attraction has a very expensive entry fee, you have to decide how important it is to see it. If you can get the experience from viewing it from the outside, then it’s free. You don’t have to buy from the souvenirs or eat at the restaurants on site or near the site. If it’s that iconic, you can get souvenirs and postcards of it anywhere. Just compare the prices before you buy.

If it’s the crowds that put you off, go early in the day, or late in the day. If you can travel off season in the spring, fall or winter, even better. Chances are, there will still be lots of people but it won’t be claustrophobic.

I mention all this because I’ve just come back from Rome and believe me, there are quite a few iconic tourist destinations there that attract crowds. The good thing is that many of them are free or aren’t exorbitant in price.

So what did we see of these sites?

Vatican Museums = 15 euro for an adult entry.  Colosseum  = 12 euro for an adult entry. We paid a bit more because we booked a tour for both of them. In both cases, you see the highlights (Sistine Chapel!) but you can then stay on and wander around at your leisure. We were there in mid November, too, so though there were still lots of people, the crowds did not make us feel closed in.

The real “trap” feeling of the Colosseum is all the vendors in the area around it, both with booths set up or walking through the crowds attempting to sell you things they’re carrying. That can be really annoying. There’s also a few “gladiators” in costume and if you want your photo taken with them or want to take a photo of them, they expect cash payment. You can always take a photo from farther back with your camera’s zoom! The queues for tickets can certainly be very long. If you can pre-purchase them either online or from another agency, you will be able to use a much shorter line. We sailed through that one.

You see all the people in the photo with this post? This was taken on a November mid afternoon after we’d left the building. None of them are in queues to get in. They’re all just milling about looking at the structure from the outside. The day we were there, there seemed to be far more people outside than inside. Some are part of organized groups but most aren’t. Many, I’m sure were inside or were going to be.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are free and on Wednesday’s for the Pope’s “audience”, the square can fill up with thousands of people so keep that in mind.

Other famed tourist spots in Rome are the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon and piazza outside. The worst crowds we encountered here were at the fountain. There’s a tradition that you can toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a speedy return to Rome and it’s one that a lot of people take up. We did go, because the Baroque fountain covering the wall of a building really is lovely but we didn’t stay too long.Most of these are public squares or Piazzas so of course, they’re free to visit.

We visited all of these but my favourite is the Pantheon.  It was originally a temple and now a Christian church. The round domed structure is really beautiful inside. It, too, is free to enter and when we were there, not overly crowded though busy.

What seems to make an attraction a “tourist trap” is the sense that it’s not worth the price of admission or that it’s overpriced and far too crowded. The souvenir shops and restaurants tend to be overpriced. The food often of lesser quality (at least the ones by the Colosseum were, the other squares, maybe the quality doesn’t suffer but they ain’t cheap, even just for a cup of coffee.)

Some places you go are “visitor centres” and some of these really feel like rip offs. Some are very good with lots of information about the site but some are set up like a cheesy “experience” and you get little bang for your buck.

I wouldn’t avoid popular tourist attractions. If you’re going to Paris, why wouldn’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? You don’t have to pay the price to go up, you can see it from most places in the city. You can walk across Tower Bridge in London for free. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry in New York.

Some attractions have a free entry day once a month or are discounted if you enter late in the day or on the evening opening. Expect more crowds but it’s a way to see or do something you might not want to pay the full price for otherwise.

It all comes down to your own interests, priorities and budget.

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