These notorious tourist attractions are meant to be on everyone’s to-do list. But we’re here to tell you that, rather than ticking them off, you can just put a big red X on them.
Reserve your precious vacation time for the best of European cities, not the overcrowded and overpriced tourist traps. Here are some of the most hyped sites on the continent – and their alternatives.
TO JUMP: Eiffel Tower, Paris
You might like the way it looks, but absolutely no one likes lineups. You’ll be surrounded by screaming and jostling children in the scorching sun or rain for an hour or more. And when you finally reach the start of the queue, you’ll be pushed into a crowded elevator that will take you to an equally crowded platform, where you’ll need sharp elbows to access the ramps for a view.
As you take your photos, you’ll realize that they’ll all be missing an essential element of any Paris skyline photo – the Eiffel Tower.
DO RATHER: Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Paris has so many superior vantage points, from the Sacré-Coeur terrace in the north to the Montparnasse tower bar in the south. But one of the best is on the right bank of the Seine, just opposite the Eiffel Tower.
The Arc de Triomphe, completed in 1836, offers panoramic views of the Champs-Élysées, the Louvre, the Seine, Notre-Dame, the Sacré-Coeur – and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. And unlike its Left Bank rival, the rooftop is rarely crowded and the average wait time is just five minutes.
TO JUMP: Spanish Steps, Rome
To quote Wikipedia, “The Spanish Steps are a set of steps in Rome, Italy.” And that sums them up precisely. These are steps. They don’t lead to anything in particular and don’t have great views either, but they do have a lot of pickpockets and hawkers selling fidget spinners.
There is an old fountain with a sunken boat at the bottom, which is one of the less impressive fountains in this fountain-rich city. You will be told that there are a lot of people to watch here, which is true – if by people watching you mean tourist watching, as that is pretty much all you will see in this crowded place.
DO RATHER: Trastevere, Rome
This bustling little area is where Romans come to relax over meals and drinks with friends, which makes people-watching that much more interesting. Lovely at lunchtime, it’s even better in the evening when the workers are letting their hair down over a few glasses of wine.
TO JUMP: Buda Castle, Budapest
The most important monument in the city is also the most disappointing. When you think “castle”, you expect grandeur – medieval thrones, armour, dazzling ballrooms. But after climbing the steep hill – or paying for the snail’s slow old funicular – in the sleepy “Buda” half of Budapest, you come to land the size of a football field.
There’s a dreary history museum, but other than that the best you can do is stroll along the walls and gaze down at the Danube from the Pest side of Budapest – which will just make you wish you didn’t. ever left to come here waste of an afternoon.
DO RATHER: Hungarian Parliament building, Budapest
Forget the antics of populist politicians inside and focus on the majesty of this neo-Gothic beauty, one of the world’s largest government buildings, completed in 1902. On the guided tour, you’ll see some of its 365 towers, 40 kg of 22 carat gold Decoration, 691 rooms and 29 staircases – plus the Holy Crown of Hungary. Don’t forget your passport – EU citizens get half-price entry.
TO JUMP: The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Competing for the title of Europe’s most lame statue, neck and neck with Brussels’ tiny Manneken Pis, sits this bland limpet on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbour. She’s sitting looking across a small strip of water to the opposite shore, where you’ll see dark working docks, warehouses, and cranes.
Sculpted in 1913, this sad creature is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a mermaid who abandons her fins to live on land. Based on the facial expression in this sculpture, it’s a decision The Little Mermaid 100% regrets – and you’ll regret taking an hour out of your journey to find her.
IN PLACE: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek
Watch The Sound waterway above the body of Henry Moore’s masterful Two Piece Reclining Figure No 5 and watch the wind move the iron arms of Alexander Calder’s Little Janey-Waney mobile across the lawn.
When you’re done exploring the vast sculpture garden, head inside to see Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider works and Alberto Giacometti’s skinny human sculptures, plus a changing list of paintings internationally renowned artists.
It can take 45 minutes to get from central Copenhagen to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, but unlike The Little Mermaid, this trip is well worth the effort.
TO JUMP: Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Have you ever seen a Portaloo? If this appealed to you, you’ll love Checkpoint Charlie. If that doesn’t sound like you, it’s best to avoid this cramped hangar – which isn’t even the real Checkpoint Charlie, but a modern replica – located on a median strip in a busy Berlin road. There are sandbags, loudspeakers and a sign that says “You are leaving the US sector”… – and that’s it.
DO RATHER: East Side Gallery, Berlin
A much more moving relic of Soviet-era Berlin, this 1.3 km stretch of the Berlin Wall has been a free outdoor art gallery since 1990, featuring murals by artists from around the world. They depict political and social themes, many of which still feel ominously relevant today.
TO JUMP: Park Guell, Barcelona
You’ll have seen photos of its curvaceous railings everywhere – on guidebook covers, travel articles and Instagram. But what you might not realize until you reach the northern gates of Barcelona is that, unlike most parks, you’ll have to queue and hand in a ten to enter the picturesque section.
It is also one of the smallest works of Antoni Gaudi in the city. And if you’re just looking for open green spaces to get some fresh air, you’ve also come to the wrong place. The back of the park is free, but there is little of interest, with trodden dirt roads and thirsty trees.
DO RATHER: Casa Vicens, Barcelona
Fans of Antoni Gaudi would do better to put their money in one of the twelve other Gaudi sites in the city, all more impressive – and closer to the city center. One of the lesser known – and therefore less frequented – is Gaudi’s first grand building in Barcelona – Casa Vicens, a charming house with an elegant terraced garden built in 1885 in the vibrant style of Catalan modernism.
TO JUMP: Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa
Unless you’re desperate for a corny photo of yourself “holding” this slightly wobbly tower, then save yourself the trip to Pisa. It looks much quirkier in the photos than it does in real life, and if you pay to ride it, you’ll be queuing for hours, not getting much change from €20 and only getting winded by the climb of 300 steps, not the views of low rise town and flat countryside.
DO RATHER: The Two Towers, Bologna
If it’s leaning you’re looking for, you’ll find a more leaning tower in Pisa itself – the neighbor Church of San Michele degli Scalzi. In fact, there are leaning towers all over Italy, from small villages to big cities. But the beautiful city of Bologna, two hours from Pisa, has not one, but two leaning towers, and they are also older than that of Pisa.
They are located right next to each other, and one of them, the Torre degli Asinelli, is the tallest leaning tower in the world at 97.2 meters. Entrance costs only around five cents and you’ll rarely find queues to climb the 498 steps to the top, where you’ll see the terracotta roofs and spiers of Bologna, and the lush Apennine mountains. just on the outskirts of town.
TO JUMP: Red light district, Amsterdam
Tacky, full of drunken tourists, depressed women in shop windows and dodgy drug dealers, there’s nothing remotely titillating about this handful of streets. A passion killer extraordinaire, this is one of Europe’s most depressing red light districts, a bar already set very low.
DO RATHER: Nine streets, Amsterdam
It’s hard to go anywhere in this beautiful canal-filled city and not be charmed by it – with the notable exception of the Red Light District. But if you’re short on time and want to see some gorgeous canal houses, shops, restaurants and bars, head straight to the Nine Streets area, near the Anne Frank House and a short walk from the central station.
Pick up some aged gouda from a cheese shop and vintage clothes from a boutique, then grab a beer and a snack at one of the cozy old brown bars overlooking a canal.
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