6 Hidden Gems in (and Alternatives to) the World's Most Notorious Tourist Traps
Famous tourist attractions are typically deserving of their titles, but their prominence sometimes results in lazy traveling. There’s always more to each destination than a guidebook tells you, and lesser-known attractions can lead to your most memorable sightseeing experiences yet.
So, the next time you find yourself avoiding a popular tourist area for fear of, well, so many tourists, take a closer look to see what you might be missing. Here, 7 off-the-beaten path experiences located conveniently—and somewhat secretively—near super-famous destinations worldwide.
1. Teleport to the days of penny arcades in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is known among locals as the most touristy spot in the city, with chain restaurants and overpriced souvenir shops galore. Yet, there is one worthy reason for a visit: the Musée Mécanique, a fascinating collection of hand-cranked music boxes, coin-operated fortune tellers, retro pinball games, and an old photo booth—most of which still work. Founded by a lifelong collector back in the 1920s, the arcade/museum hybrid has seen a few incarnations since then—originally it was housed at Playland, the amusement park at Ocean Beach that closed in 1972, then in the basement of the historic Cliff House restaurant. In moving to Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf 15 years ago, not a bit of the Musée Mécanique’s nostalgic charm was lost. It’s still free to visit, too—but bring along plenty of coins if you want to truly experience the nostalgia at hand.
2. Travel under Times Square for architectural exploring.
It rightfully remains an iconic landmark of Big Apple tourism, but Times Square simply isn’t what it used to be: These days, it’s commercial trap with more chain restaurants and souvenir shops than authentic city relics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting; you’ve just got to look beyond the bright lights to find its tucked-away treasures.
Journey beneath the hustle and bustle—literally—to the architecturally stunning Old City Hall subway station in Manhattan, where vintage chandeliers and intricate tilework decorate striking curved ceilings and entryways. Despite being the first-ever station (and the first-ever subway ride) when it was built in 1904, years of being overlooked by commuters for the convenience of the Brooklyn Bridge stop resulted in its permanent closure in 1945. Now, though, the New York City Transit Museum has reopened the station for tours. Tickets tend to sell out fast, though. Become a museum member and sign up for the newsletter for the best bet at snagging your own.
3. Follow Canal Saint-Martin in Paris for a modern-historic mash-up.
The eternal symbol of Paris is a jaw-dropper, not only as an architectural feat but for all it represents, too. But the Eiffel Tower isn’t the city’s only picture-perfect attraction: For a fresh perspective that feels even more genuinely Parisian, head northeast—about 30 minutes by car, an hour by train—to Canal Saint-Martin.
Now dotted with innovative restaurants and bars, the 19th-century waterway, which connects Canal de l’Ourcq and the Seine, has become a hub for trendy locals. There’s still plenty of old Paris to see—the iron footbridges complete a postcard-ready backdrop—but many of the historic buildings have been put to new use. A former warehouse is now Point Ephémère, where you can dine waterside or take in some contemporary culture. It’s also an multidisciplinary artists’ residency that hosts arts events, from performances to exhibits to concerts and parties. Canal St. Martin is also home to Cent Quatre, a slightly spooky historic building that for 120 years was the city center for all things funeral related; today, it’s a stalwart cultural center open to the public. Traverse the Pont de Crimée, hydraulic lift bridge built in 1885, and you’ll enter Parc de la Villette, a sleek trove of postmodern design with a slew of themed gardens to explore.
4. Listen to jazz just 10 minutes from Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Right outside the French Quarter is the Faubourg Marigny district, and within it is a venerable New Orleans destination for live music often overlooked by tourists trapped by Bourbon Street tunnel vision. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Frenchmen Street became a bona fide nightlife spot, and it’s retained its locals-only vibe despite regularly hosting major music festivals and drawing celebrities. Take in New Orleans through its culture via local bands and musicians who on a nightly basis honor the city’s pioneering history as the birthplace of jazz. There are countless bars and venues along Frenchmen Street, so naturally there’s a vast array of styles to hear—but be sure to pop into d.b.a. to hear some of the city’s most beloved jazz players.
5. Get a taste of Italy while exploring London.
After Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Tower of London, and Big Ben, take a trip to Italy—without leaving England. North of Paddington where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals intersect, there’s Little Venice, dotted with cafes along a canal lined with houseboats and gondolas. A hidden city-within-a-city, it’s a surreal experience you’d be remiss to overlook.
6. Explore an ancient underground city in Istanbul.
The city’s historic Grand Bazaar is legendary for its gorgeous carpets and textiles, beautiful Turkish ceramics and, of course, its sheer size—more than 5,000 shops are located within its 60 streets. An exploration of all it has to offer should definitely be on your to-do list during any Istanbul visit, but there’s another must-see attraction—one that’s easy to miss, even if you’re looking for it.
Near the Hagia Sophia museum is an ancient subterranean wonder: The Basilica Cistern, which dates back to the Byzantine era. Nicknamed the Sunken Palace, the 100K-plus square footage feels entirely grandiose, yet distinctively eerie: Note the two Medusa heads, one sideways and another upside down, as you traverse wooden planks throughout the dimly lit underground. The vaulted ceilings above are supported by a remarkable network of 336 marble columns; below, you might spot wild koi fish in areas of standing water.
Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.