(And the quiet spots to escape to afterward)
Not every crowded tourist attraction is worth the trouble – ever see the Mona Lisa in person? But some definitely earn their fame and attention. These are the most important sites not to skip, in spite of the pressing masses of people. And, because we care, a less-crowded alternative to see after you’re all peopled out.
La Sagrada Familia
Barcelona has risen to the top of the European tourism charts over the years, to the point where the city’s residents are beginning to wish they could put the genie back in the bottle. There are dozens of sites on the guides billed as must-sees. But as lively as La Boqueria is, nobody is catching a nine-hour flight for the fish market. La Sagrada Familia towers over all the rest, figuratively and literally. The intricate facades are worth a closer look, but the mesmerizing interior justifies the pricey tickets and pushy queues. Tree-like columns populate an otherworldly marble forest, illuminated by a vibrant rainbow of stained glass. It is by every measure the site to see in Spain, deluge be damned (or at least tolerated).
And after that: Montjuïc
Once-in-a-lifetime sensory overload achieved, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc step in as the perfect place to regroup and decompress. The area is the largest green space near the city. It is packed with popular attractions of its own, from Montjuīc Castle to the cable car, but even on the busiest days there is plenty of room to wander in peace. Even the grand 1992 Olympic Games complex is sprawling enough that no one part is too crowded. This hill is the highest point around; we found it easy to admire the city from above, happy to be apart from it.
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Cliffs of Moher
We have no idea how many tour buses drive clear across Ireland every day, ferrying tourists like us from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher. It’s a lot. But at the end of the day, every one of those countless seats hugs a smiling and satisfied soul; at least if nobody was careless enough to get too close to the edge. A big parking lot dumps tourists by the hundreds at a little lodge nestled into the hillside – but not in cool way like the Shire, more like the house from the Teletubbies. A short path snakes up a slight incline and past sheep- and cow-filled meadows toward the seemingly-distant Atlantic. Finally, at the end… the world falls away. 400 feet of rock cliff plunge straight down into the ocean. A seemingly endless ocean, uninterrupted from this very point to the east coast of Canada. Some sillier people inch out to the edge to peer into the abyss (despite the many signs warning that sudden guests can carry away hats, or humans). But even from the death-free zone, the view is breathtaking. It’s unlike any shore we’ve seen before or since – the true edge of a continent.
And after that: Broom Bridge
Probably the most nothing tourist site in all of Dublin, and guaranteed to end up on someone’s “most disappointing destination” list after they take our suggestion. But Broom Bridge has a certain charm just in the adventure of going so far out of the way for something so mundane. This bridge was where Sir William Rowan Hamilton first recorded the fundamental formula for quaternions, a cornerstone of three-dimensional math that powers everything from video games to rocket engines. The original carving isn’t even there anymore, just a modest plaque in an out-of-the-way part of an unremarkable stone bridge. Near our nerdy pilgrimage is the perfectly pleasant Tolka Valley Park. It has plenty of paths and green spaces, with a cute stream wending through. A bit further is Glasnevin Cemetery, burial place of Michael Collins, Daniel O’Connell, and acres of pretty headstones with similarly-Irish last names.
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Probably the most visited Wat in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, but definitely the most spectacular. We took a crowded songthaew up the mountain to visit; the open rear door and fast-passing asphalt laughed at our little handlebars and white-knuckle grips. For some, the ride may inspire more prayer than the temple. We were met at the top by a daunting staircase, teasing yet more to climb (watch out for pickpockets here, even adorable child ones). Inside the entrance is a massive golden stupa with at least a dozen other buildings scattered around – all also slathered with jade, gems and jewelery. There are crowds, no doubt. But the statues, murals, and incense tell a story of peace and contemplation. Off to one side, the real highlight becomes clear: stunning views of Chiang Mai spread out below, the instantly-recognizable square of the city walls and surrounding development putting into perspective the frankly enormous breadth of the very average-size airport.
And after that: Wat Suan Dok
Nestled much closer to that airfield is the spacious and serene campus of Wat Suan Dok. It was our first temple in Chiang Mai, and it set a high bar. The grounds are set back from the noisy street. Bright white stupas are actually mausoleums holding members of Chiang Mai’s royal family. The temple buildings are richly ornamented, but much humbler and more accessible than the mountaintop palace above. Each time we visited, there were few or no other tourists inside. Instead, several monks wandered about. Some even advertised informative talks and outreach programs. Mostly it was just us though, a welcome reprieve from the popular septs in the city core.
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Dubrovnik Old Town
The star attractions of Dubrovnik are the massive, towering walls and the stuck-in-time burg between them. Touring the well-worn battlements is a necessary part of any visit, though the tickets are not cheap and the path is chock-full of bodies fore and aft. But the views are incredible. On one side, the shimmering sea. On the other, a jungle of brick and stone. The stair-stepped alleys down in the thick of it are a blast to explore. Just a few streets off of the main thoroughfare, the mobs melt away and the city transforms from a cruise ship capital into a sleepy Mediterranean fishing village.
And after that: Babin Kuk
About an hour’s walk north of the Old Town, the quiet neighborhood of Babin Kuk offers a respite from the dense swarm in the city center. Bordered on one side by cruise ship terminals and on the other by ritzy resort hotels, its shores remain surprisingly sparsely populated. The waterfront is ringed by a shore path that is more likely to host fishermen and smiling neighbors than anxious cruise-saders. We often rounded the entire peninsula, starting or ending at the trendy little walking street Šetalište kralja Zvonimira. Though that stretch is the most crowded of the loop, the tree-lined stroll is still far less pushy than downtown.
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Red Bull Air Race – Budapest
Red Bull’s air races are held across a number of beauteous cities every year, but Budapest’s may be the most unique. The course begins with planes ducking below the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, then weaving along the length of the Danube river past the gorgeous Hungarian Parliament Building. Even with miles of river banks serving as front-row seats, the thousands upon thousands of spectators still have to jockey for a clear view of the action. The weather was bad enough when we attended that the under-the-bridge approach was off limits and the races had to be called early. But the rain and wind didn’t stop people from lining up for the spectacle. Seeing planes buzz past at more than 400 kilometers per hour seemingly at arm’s length was worth the thrown elbows.
And after that: Margaret Island
City Park is Budapest’s more famous and accessible park, home to museums, castles, and of course Széchenyi Baths. But Margaret Island bats well above its attendance rate in terms of charm. It splits the Danube into two forks for 2.5 km, and despite occupying so much real estate in the center of a European capital, the park feels remarkably remote. Most of the island is covered in trees and criss-crossed by walking trails, but there are also vast lawns and flower gardens. A few bars and restaurants cluster mostly at the southern end of the island, while the east side hosts a small zoo and the west bank even has a couple of bath houses of its own. Margaret Bridge is the best way to reach the park and a fine setting for a photo of the city’s riverfront.
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There’s no denying Chichen Itza is a bit of a hot mess. Huge crowds pour in from the coastal resorts all day, only to find themselves in a kitsch-filled midway of souvenir salesmen hawking identical “handmade” goods for “cheaper than Walmart.” But for a few glorious hours early in the morning, when the park is open but the buses are still en route, it’s possible to explore the captivating ruins in relative peace (and they truly are captivating).
And after that: Uxmal
Ask anyone who has been to both Maya sites which they prefer, and the answer will almost definitely come back Uxmal. It has all of the archaeological splendor of its bigger cousin, with none of the tchotchke peddlers to cheapen the experience. The crowds are minimal and generally very respectful of the site. Best of all, most structures are not “off-limits,” meaning visitors are permitted to climb on and appreciate them close-up. The only downside is that the ruins are a tad less recognizable; people fishing for maximum social media attention may be better served elsewhere. The forest still encroaches in many spots, leaving visitors with the feeling they’re personally rediscovering a lost civilization.
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Touring the most infamous concentration camp in the world is a somber journey, but not a lonely one. Excellent tour guides help visitors comprehend the incomprehensible. And of course there are many visitors. Make no mistake, Auschwitz is emotional homework. It’s difficult to articulate just how heartbreaking it is to see in person; at Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the sheer scale of the facility alone made us cry. The fact that crowds show up is not a point against it. They need to go, and so do you.
And after that: Kraków-Płaszów & Krakus Mound
Just south of Krakow are a couple points of interest very different in theme but united in a general lack of other people. The Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp was much smaller than Auschwitz, but for the ones imprisoned there, no less horrifying. For a time it housed many of the people that would be hired and saved by Oskar Schindler. And, sadly, many more that were not so lucky. The retreating Germans almost entirely demolished the place; just a few monuments and a sign mark what is otherwise an empty field. A short walk north though, past an abandoned quarry that was worked by the human labor of the camp, brings us to a much more uplifting site. Literally – Krakus Mound juts more than 50 feet upward from the surrounding park land, the oldest man-made “structure” in the area and one of the most peaceful and beautiful places to see Krakow from above.
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Palace of Parliament
Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament isn’t necessarily crowded in the same way as these other entries; tours are tightly controlled and limited to smallish groups. But it is a bit of a headache to take part. Reservations are made by requesting a date/time/language combination, which may or may not be available, and with no indication of which spots are already full up. Visiting also requires a security check with metal detectors and handing over your passport for the duration of the tour. And they charge a hefty 30 lei fee to take pictures or video. As the final dash of salt in the wound, there’s nobody to talk to about it afterward! Most people outside of Romania have never heard of the building, and locals considered it something of a white elephant when it was built and a minor national embarrassment today – not great conversation fodder. But despite all that, the second largest administrative building in the world (after the US Pentagon) is a sight to see. The staggering size of the thing is apparent when observed from outside, and free too. But pay for the tour and see magnificent room after endless magnificent room, so opulent it’s a wonder the construction didn’t bankrupt the whole country. Oh… oh no.
And after that: National Museum of Maps and Old Books
The National Museum of Maps and Old Books is exactly what it says on the cover. This lovely little assembly began with a couple’s private collection, scaled up just a bit to create one of the nerdiest, most-niche museums ever. When we arrived, the ticket vendor had to be called in from the backyard and seemed genuinely surprised foreigners had found the place. She went around flipping light switches in the initially-dark house. Just “turn the lights off when you’re done,” we were told. We cherished our time exploring the lovingly-crafted and presented exhibition. The passion behind it was palpable. Our favorite part was tracing the exploration of continents and the ebb and flow of borders over the centuries. There is something pretty neat about seeing a map of the known world with your home a void labeled “here be dragons.” Makes you feel special.
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