It’s Time To Skip The ‘Must-Sees’ And Do This Instead.

You have looked forward to this rare slice of time away from work for weeks.

You have spent hundreds of dollars to venture across state, national, or continental borders.

You have planned each day meticulously to make every minute count.

And now you are waiting in a line. “Surely it will be worth it,” you think to yourself as the minutes gather into hours, because this is a “MUST-SEE,” an “UNMISSABLE ATTRACTION” of epic proportions. Your guidebook was very clear that this was something you had to see before leaving.

It doesn’t matter how much the tickets cost when you finally get to the booth. $20 a person? $40? What is that in the grand scheme of this trip, when you have already coughed up far more for flights and accommodations? They can charge whatever they want because every tourist in the city has to check it off of their list.

This is the problem. Everyone has the same guidebook, the same ‘must-sees’. Rather than a lone traveler discovering a masterpiece for the first time, each Wonder of the World is swarmed by tourists. In droves, they vie to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or take a selfie with the Mona Lisa.

Must-sees have been reduced to social currency, and are overhyped to help us justify the cost to our time and our wallets. At social gatherings, we preen and peacock our experiences.Click To Tweet

“Oh did you go on a gondola ride in Venice?”

“You just HAVE to see the sunset at Oia!”

Enough. It’s time to skip the ‘must-sees’ and go rogue– whether that means going to the ‘second best’ attraction or better yet, going to spots that don’t show up on Yelp or Google.

Second best is sometimes better. Rather than following the beaten (and apparently trash-laden) trail to the base of Mount Everest, I chose the route to the lesser-known Annapurna instead. People who might widen their eyes in admiration if I were to mention the legendary Everest don’t even blink when I mention a mountain they have never heard of. Yet I think I made the better choice. Even the summit of Everest has been decried as a ‘zoo’ as people jostle for pictures after lining up to get to the top.

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A photo I took from the trail. I can’t imagine anything more majestic than the views on the Annapurna Circuit

This wasn’t a one-time deviation, since then Mr. Mechanic and I evaluate every ‘must-see’ with a critical eye. I haven’t been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, even though I have been to Paris twice. We skipped going to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, opting to go to the Glass Museum nearby instead. In Edinburgh, Scotland we didn’t join the line to explore the castle (we have seen so many castles). When we can use time and money for better adventures, we nix it from our to-do list.

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The lines are long, but I still thought the Duomo was worth the wait. This was my picture from the top.

‘Must-sees’ have become the default– but it’s time to stop and analyze the value you get out of your visit. I’m not saying there are no ‘must-sees’ that are worth the wait. I certainly would never stop anyone from taking a tour around La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or climbing the steps of the Duomo in Florence! However, there are often alternatives to the ‘must-sees’ that would save you time and money while serving up just as much value (if not more).

Locals tend to know the best tricks. They will know when museums are free, what elevator you can take for the best view of the city, and where to eat top-notch food. In Portland, we will tell you to skip the line at Voodoo Donuts and try Blue Star gourmet donuts instead. New Yorkers know ways to skip lines at the Empire State Building.

Don’t waste your money on a view if you can get a drink AND a view for half the price. There’s so many great rooftop bars in New York City, so don’t feel that you need to go to the top of the Empire State Building if you’re 21+. – Advice from WanderlustingK

Over time, Mr. Mechanic and I have realized that we prefer exploring smaller cities, so after making a day trip to skim over heavily-populated cities like Rome or Athens, we quickly move on to peripheral towns. We’re not the only ones who tend to shy away from the popular spots. My favorite travel advice came from my friend,

“You know Rick Steves? Make sure you get his book on the place you are going. Then use it to avoid any city that he loves.”

While I respect Rick Steves’s advice and have discovered some gems from his books (I’m thinking of Lucca, Italy, and Gimmelwald, Switzerland in particular) I had to laugh at the truth of my friend’s statement. Some cities are now so overrun with tourists that there are fewer locals on the streets than women posing for Instagram.

Many ‘must-see’ sights are pure mayhem; crowds of people jostling and elbowing. Behind every picturesque shot lies the potential for a black eye when someone swings their camera around to take a look at how their photo came out.

(Left) I captured both the hordes of people jockeying for a photo and (Right) Neuschwanstein Castle 

However, ‘must-sees’ are not all terrible. They are great for magnetizing tourists away from the true treasures: the hole-in-the-wall restaurant with mouthwatering dishes, the lesser-known beach just 20 minutes away, or the museum with masterpieces from obscure artists. Ditch the lines to get lost in the city. Better yet, leave the city altogether for a place you have never heard of. It might not strike envy into the hearts of your followers, but it will bring the satisfaction of discovering something new.

The next time you are planning a trip, don’t bother with the “Top 10 Best Things To Do In {Your City}” Google search. Forget the check-list and live the adventure. Get on a train to an unknown destination. Let your finger trail over the map with your eyes closed. Break away from the crowd and strike out as a pioneer.

What about you?

What adventure did you have off of the beaten path?

What ‘must-see’ was definitely worth it?

What ‘must-see’ do you wish you had skipped?

Leave a comment below!

21 Comments

  1. I so agree! And I have always done that, taken the more unusual path in alien parts: in Paris … I rode an elephant. In the Bahamas, I don’t even know what the guidebook says to do, but I went out on a fishing boat with a bunch of native fishermen. Both on a whim, and it was GREAT. Real adventures.

    1. I definitely think interacting with the people living there tends to lead to some of the most memorable experiences. Those do sound like amazing adventures!

  2. I love to travel, and I love going to new places, but I do wonder sometimes how many people are just flying across the world so they can add some pictures to their Instagram. I’m certainly not an experienced traveler but the few places I’ve been I can say I didn’t just go for the main attractions. One of the coolest parts of my honeymoon was just randomly driving around Oahu. There’s a road we drove up for a good 20 minutes that felt like a mountain but looked like a jungle. Wild chickens were running around… It was an interesting experience!

    1. Sometimes just driving or walking around getting lost or just exploring is the best part of the entire trip! That does sound like a great honeymoon.

  3. I agree! Great article! Personally, I don’t have the patience for the crowds at this point and it’s often worth reading on whether a big attraction is truly worth it or purely for bragging rights. A little research can go a long way in terms of having an amazing experience that you find for yourself–and saving lots of money (and time) better spent elsewhere. Visiting less touristic places (rather than staying in the heart of the city center) nearby will also be great for the wallet.

    On my first backpacking trip, I had an excel with all the things that I’d do planned out (with tickets) for most travel days, which was incredibly stressful as it was a longer trip. To play tourist every day often means pushing yourself to see what people say that you must see is tiring. I still like to do research ahead, but at this point, I only book transportation to/from a place and somewhere to stay. The rest is dependent on the weather and what I decide that day. Some days are for just relaxing.

    1. Sometimes I wonder how many people will endorse something as a ‘must-see’ simply because they already invested the time and money into it, so you should too! If I ever see an honest review online about something being skippable, I will generally believe it.

      I definitely agree that adding some flex time to do what you want, with relax days built-in or at least available, makes a big difference when backpacking and hitting a lot of major sites. Sometimes it all flies by way too fast if you don’t stop to breathe.

  4. This is a great topic. It is tricky to find a best kept secret. It is a little akin to trying to guess the next hot place to buy real estate (we guessed Idaho which didn’t work out so well). I digress. Anyway, to answer your questions, back in my twenties I saw a calendar picture (I think it was March) of some huge rock- hewn heads on a mountain and I was drawn to it. I researched and found that this place was in Turkey. I am unable to post a picture here but Google ‘Mount Nemrut’ and pull up images and you will see what I am talking about. We travelled by train across the Anatolian plain for what seemed like days to get there (there was a minor panic at one point when I found that there were 2 places with the same name and was not sure we were heading to the right one!). Finally, we arrived at the foot of the mountain then climbed to the summit at sunrise to behold those curious heads at the mountain top. It was a special moment; I felt like I had discovered the site myself.
    As far as skipping major MUST SEE places, to be honest I usually skip in an attempt to save money but then regret it later. I have rarely been disappointed by anything…Sydney harbor bridge, pyramids, London eye, Eiffel tower, rafting the Shotover river… I loved every one.
    But to your point, it would be disappointing to trek to your Shang Ri La only to find out that a parking lot had been put there instead.

    1. Wow that really does sound like an adventure! A long train ride to the special moment where you find the mountain.

      It’s good if you can recognize that you have regretted skipping in the past so that you know that they are really a must-see for you. I find that if I ever think, “Oh I’ll just see it next time,” there almost never will be a next time, so it’s good to do it while you are there.

  5. I like the advice here, friend. I’m probably a bad traveler in that I tend to like both the must-sees and the off the beaten stuff all alike. I’m like Homer Simpson as a food critic: everything gets seventeen thumbs up.

    We’re about to take Baby AF abroad for the first time and I bet we end up at fewer of the places with long lines and a bunch of people with their phones out. (This will be our second time to Paris this Sept and I bet we don’t make it to the top of the tower this time either.)

    1. Travelling with someone who gives everything a 17 thumbs up is the best way to travel. It sounds like you are always game for whatever adventure there is, must-see or not, and that is an amazing quality to have. Maybe I’ve just gotten too cynical from all of the crowds.

      Good luck with Baby AF!

  6. I probably could’ve skipped the Empire State Building, but my husband really wanted to go. It was nice but it was… a tall building with a nice view.

    I didn’t go up to the Space Needle until I’d lived in Seattle more than a decade (and I’ve never dined there) and again… Cool but… It’s a view and an impressive height and that’s about it.

    I probably wouldn’t bother with the Eiffel Tower either, but I might brave the Louvre.

    1. I think part of it has to do with the novelty of seeing the city above. Once you have done it a couple times… it’s less exciting to do in every city. I think there are tricks to getting into the Louvre without waiting too long, and that if you can stick to a wing or specific area you get more enjoyment rather than running all over. I have heard that although some are disappointed by Mona Lisa (she’s small!) they tend not to be disappointed overall with the Louvre!

  7. I’m hesitant to tell people how to travel, but I do think following your own values is always a win. And travel is the one area where I’m not willing to compromise my values (except when my husband is hungry and we have to stop for food ;))

    Researching Italy I kept coming across this Rick Steves guy and I didn’t know who he was or why he was an authority! I learned that I should take anyone’s travel recommendations with a grain of salt, because not everyone has the same values as me. So that does mean mostly ignoring those top 10 lists. I don’t need a generic to-do list. But I do like recommendations from people with a specific point of view, though. Maybe they’re design focused or foodies, etc.

    I didn’t ride an elephant in Asia, because I always felt like they got mistreated. And I don’t like massages, so no need to get them “just because” in Asia where they are cheap. We didn’t do the boat around Milford Sound in New Zealand, because we both can’t stand being on boats for a long period of time. Stuck with no exit with other loud travelers? Heck naw. And we always rent a car if we can, because we value doing things on our own schedule, even if it’s more complicated and less frugal.

    Also, I’ve looked back on my trips and the one thing that always stands out over any church or vista or must-do activity is always always the interactions with people. It’s harder to meet locals when you’re surrounded by other tourists. Knowing that helps me keep perspective for what I decide to do when I’m on trips.

    1. Your travel around Italy reminded me that I wanted to write this piece– specifically because I noticed that you had rented a car and went to visit small, lesser-known towns. The poppies on the road and little corners of gardens were a highlight!

      I definitely agree that the interactions tend to really cement the good times in my mind. It’s less about the things I saw, but more about who I met.

      I think your point about defining values is really what I’m trying to get to. If you really just want to hit all the major sites because that’s what you care about, go for it. But I think many people do the major sites because they haven’t stopped to think about what they value. It’s easier to do a search and do what everyone else is doing. I love your travel examples because it shows you putting your own values into action!

  8. I am *so* with you on all of this! I do like Rick Steve’s guidebooks though for giving a rich historical context on the cities and countries I visit. The background information is great. The sites.. are hit & miss. I’ve had the advantage of working in several different European countries so have not felt like I needed to go through a checklist (which is annoying). I’d much rather live in a single city for a while and explore it on my terms then do an exhausting 14 day 10 country itinerary. Great post!

    1. I think it helps if you have spent a lot of time traveling already, because you have seen a lot of big monuments already. Once you have seen views of big cities a few times, it tends to drop off of the must-do list. I agree that I prefer to stick around in one or two smaller spots than try to dash around to do everything!

  9. Great stuff! I couldn’t agree more that prioritizing value over cultural hype is the way to go.

    some must-sees are worth it, and others are not. Everyone should decide what is worth it for themselves and not listen to every friend or co-worker that says you “must see this!” (but fails to mention it cost $50 to do so).

    1. The cost is rarely factored in, even though if you think about it, the price gets very high for families and multiple people. With that $50 you could get a lot of value elsewhere!

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