Everyone has a major tourist site they long to see, whether it’s the Pyramids or Machu Picchu. A fortunate few of us saw them before they became overrun by crowds. That said, most of us hesitate nowadays to include them in our itinerary fearing the long queues, fight for camera space and the pestering touts.
But hold on! A recent trip to the Vatican showed me that with the right research and a touch of insider knowledge a visit to heavily visited sites can in fact be a joy.
Here are 3 of the world’s top tourist sites we’ve recently road tested.
#1. Eiffel Tower, Paris
It is nearly 130 years since the famous Iron lady was inaugurated in time for the 1889 World Fair in Paris and it still draws enormous crowds. Last year over 6.2 million people climbed its stairs or took the lift making her the most visited paid monument in the world. And yet, thanks to her position in a big park it doesn’t feel crowded, that is unless you are in that long queue snaking around waiting to take the elevator to the top – when I was last there it was two hours long, and in the height of summer it can get to 3 hours easy.
I know, you want to see her up close – simple, reserve an entry day /time by prepaying your ticket. OK you risk rain and fog, but it does save on that queue. Alternatively climb the stairs to level 2. It takes some effort – we’re talking 670 steps – but you can wander at your own pace and away from the masses, and those views are truly spectacular.
Verdict: Yes there are many tourists, and even more pickpockets and hawkers selling tacky Chinese made Eiffel Towers – but once you are in the elevator you can wander at your own pace and away from the masses. If you want to avoid the tourists, then pay 200 euro per person and feast on Michelin starred cuisine at Le Jules Verne on the second level of the tower. It even has its own entrance and private lift!
Photo tip: The best views of the Eiffel Tower are from underneath where she can be ogled at all angles with her iron shining in the sunshine or evening sky. For a more classic view walk along the Champ de Mars and picnic at her base. Timeless.
#2. Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia
Only a couple of decades ago Angkor Archaeological Site was almost deserted, now it hosts 2.2 million visitors a year and rising, most of them crammed into a tiny segment of the park’s 400 square kilometres. They have come to see the stunning remains of the various capitals of the Khmer empire form the 9th to 15th century. Although to be honest, they have mostly come to have their photo taken at the famed Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider temple thanks to its appearance in that film– with its surreal trees that appear to be slowly consuming the ancient stones. Angkor Wat and the Bayon also attract a lot of attention, probably because they are the most spectacular.
That said, it is possible to get away from the crowds. For a start travelling by tuk tuk or with a private guide and car allows you to take in the ruins at your own pace. Extend your trip by a day or two also allows you to do separate morning and afternoon tours. Not only do you miss the hottest part of the day but you see the sites when they are less crowded.
Having a car also allows you to get to some of the more far flung (and equally fabulous) temples like Bantray Srei, Preah Khan and Ta Som, a small root temple with a truly magnificent entrance that will make your heart skip a beat. Better still head out of the park altogether to some of the other Khmer temples in the north west like Bantreay Chhmar, still slumbering, untouched in the forest and only just being restored for the world to see.
Verdict: It could easily be a trap but UNESCO and various donors countries have ensured the visit to Angkor is pleasant and safe – by and large. Expect to be pursued by hawkers, many of them children selling guidebooks and refreshments and telling stories of poverty. Ask your driver for some help to keep them away, and steel your heart – you can’t help them all.
Photo tip: Try grazing not just clicking. There are so many photo opportunities. One of the most popular locations is in front of the water lily dotted pond in front of Angkor Wat at dawn or dusk, but again this can be crowded so ensure your guide gets you there in time for a good spot
# 3. The Vatican
It might only cover half a square mile but the power centre of the Roman Catholic Church packs a punch in terms of priceless artworks and architecture. Nearly 6 million people visited the Vatican Museum last year and I swear all 6 million of them were there on the same day I was. We’ve all come to see the ultimate art work of the Italian Renaissance – the Sistine Chapel and along the way take in art treasures from the Egyptian Museum, tapestries from the Middle Ages and artworks by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio to name a few. The halls are jammed packed with visitors, making it difficult to dwell on any of the treasurers for any length of time. Only in the Sistine Chapel is there a measure of breathing space and believe me that was small.
There are a few tips to make your experience pleasurable, like buying your ticket ahead of time to save on some of the queuing. It can also help if you coincide your tour at the same time as a Papal Audience which draws away some of the tour groups. But really the only way to avoid the crowds is to pay an extraordinary amount of money for a private after hour tour. It is expensive but to soak up in the Sistine Chapel in peace is worth every cent. Whatever you do beware touts who offer to let you jump the line by joining their tour. You’ll still have to wait inside to get through security and then while they muster the group, and unauthorised guides may or may not know their stuff.
Verdict: The quality of your Vatican experience depends on your luck and largely the time of year that you are visiting. Off season (November to March) you can breeze in and wonder what all the fuss is about. Even if you have to queue for the museum it is worth every hour of wait, just make sure you have set aside enough time to take it all in and build in refreshment stops, otherwise it can be a very long day. While a tour is not essential at least take the audio guide. For a start it drowns some of the crowd noise and lets you wander informed at your own pace.
Photo Tip: At the end of your tour climb up to the cupola – the dome if St Peter’s Basilica. Between you and one of the most romantic panoramic views of Rome is a mere 577 winding steps. Halfway up stop and look down over the nave of the Basilica and inside at the main altar. Amazing!
To sum up, should we bin our all to popular bucket list of monuments? While they are creaking under the pressure of increasing crowds, but with a little know-how and a dose of patience they remain unmissable experiences. Think about the time you go, and the type of access that best fits your needs. Both these just take a bit of forward planning, and your trip will be a pleasant and less stressed event. If you need further planning advice contact us at www.travelyourway.com.au
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