Skip the Colosseum? Give Prague a Pass?

Speaker's Corner: Eva Holland sees an emerging trend in the world of travel advice, and she's not happy about it

09.02.09 | 10:24 AM ET

Photo by tinou bao via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Is it too soon to call it a trend? I’ve been reading an awful lot of advice lately about steering clear of “over-rated” tourist attractions, and now—just in time for you early, early Christmas shoppers—Dorling Kindersley has released the ultimate guide to tourist-trap avoidance.

The Road Less Travelled offers “1,000 fresh and fascinating alternatives to hundreds of well-known tourist destinations and sights; including alternatives to the Carnival in Rio and the beaches of Thailand, the most-visited national parks, over-rated restaurants and holiday cliches.” So, for instance, it recommends Avebury over Stonehenge, or offers a whole slew of urban alternatives to Prague.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for travelers knowing our options. It’s only been a couple of months since I was praising Budget Travel’s “Better Than…” series, after all. But what I liked about that approach was the lack of cheap negativity accompanying the suggestions. It wasn’t about tearing down the most famous spots and the unthinking hordes that visit them. This excerpt from “The Road Less Travelled” in the Times Online doesn’t manage the same civility.

Here’s what the book had to say about Rome’s Colosseum, for example:

Italy’s most-visited sight is often crowded and usually has long queues. The entire building is a traffic roundabout and the interior is too precious to host concerts. Your visit will be even more memorable if you fall victim to a pickpocket.

Huh? The Colosseum gets written off because it’s not a live music venue?

It’s the same in the other over-rated-attraction-avoidance stories I’ve come across, as writers seem to compete for the snappiest put-down. Over at Yahoo! Travel, one writer decrees that Petrified Forest National Park doesn’t do much besides bringing visitors “an hour closer to the grave.” Awhile back, another writer described the Grand Canyon as “The Not-Bad Canyon” and “The ‘If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it’ Canyon.” And you might recall the controversy Chuck Thompson stirred up when he questioned why anyone would go to Ground Zero just to “watch a bunch of guys in hard hats milling around.”

These sorts of articles fall back, inevitably, on complaints about excessive crowds. The point isn’t always that the Colosseum, say, isn’t worth seeing, but rather that the Colosseum isn’t worth seeing from within a sea of people—and to a certain extent, I can sympathize. We’d all like to enjoy these spots privately, on our own terms. But, as my mother used to say, “Life’s not fair.” Instead of taking our toys and going home (or, in this case, decamping to a less popular attraction), why not do our best under the circumstances? An alarm clock is a good first step—I’ve had St. Peter’s Basilica and the ruins at Ephesus entirely to myself thanks to an early morning effort. Traveling in the off-season can help, too.

But even in peak season, at the busiest time of day, you won’t see me giving up the chance to see some of the world’s finest natural and architectural treasures—even if I have to risk a “holiday cliche” or two en route.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

20 Comments for Skip the Colosseum? Give Prague a Pass?

Lola 09.02.09 | 2:21 PM ET


Amy 09.02.09 | 3:09 PM ET

I wholeheartedly agree! There’s usually a good reason these places became so popular in the first place.

Lindsay 09.02.09 | 3:31 PM ET


Mike 09.02.09 | 3:45 PM ET

When people ask me for travel advice, my first question is, “What do you want to get out of the trip?”  It’s different for everybody.

If the intention of the traveler is to look at the architecture in the Colosseum, then the crowds shouldn’t make a difference.  If the intention is to have some spiritual experience that connects them to the ancient, then maybe the crowds do make a difference. 

I always ask myself “What am I doing here?  What do I value about my experiences?” And I keep finding that my favorite travel experiences have little to do with sights (like the Colosseum) and a lot to do with my interaction with locals or being impressed by nature.  But that’s me.

You’re right about the troubling aspect of this trend - belittling other people’s excitement.

Chris 09.02.09 | 3:51 PM ET

It’s tough being an elitist, always having to up the ante on what you’re way too cool for.

Dan 09.02.09 | 5:37 PM ET

After recently reading how Venice has more tourists than it can handle, it occurred to me that going to Venice in tourist season wouldn’t be a great cultural experience—unless you’re looking for tourist culture rather than Venetian culture.

However, there are times to visit these iconic places when the crowds won’t be so great. Be willing to endure some cool weather and shorter days, and you can enjoy Venice without the hordes in winter. That’s probably a more authentic cultural experience, after all.

Tammy 09.02.09 | 11:40 PM ET

Agreed! I went to Rome to see the Colosseum. Once their I discovered many other wonderful things that I hadn’t known about before going. But that is the magic of travel what you don’t know leads to more exciting discoveries!

Carlo 09.03.09 | 8:13 AM ET

Pretty much bang on Eva. The negativity is more about the crowds and the whole experience than just the place itself. Many people don’t have the inclination to get up at 6 AM or travel in the off season to enjoy some of these spots in relative peace. Taking the first public ferry of the day around the Grand Canal in Venice and then having St. Mark’s square almost to ourselves (there were pigeons too) is still one of my favourite travel experiences.

Andy 09.03.09 | 9:35 AM ET

Traveling is different for everyone, as people have already mentioned.

But I think it is ludacrous to go to Rome for your first time and not see the Colosseum.
Even if it is packed, it will still be memorable your first time.

Maybe later on in your travels it could be avoided, but by that time you can make up your own opinions about Rome.

Stephanie 09.03.09 | 3:06 PM ET

I completely agree. One easy way to avoid the hordes is to go in the off season. I went to Rome in December and while it was chilly, the Colosseum and forum were nearly empty. And they were amazing.

Mike Goldstein 09.03.09 | 4:40 PM ET

... And while certain travel writers shouldn’t bash people for choosing to hit the traditional tourist spots, certain other travel writers & commenters shouldn’t bash people for skipping them.

Sandy Nielsen 09.03.09 | 5:22 PM ET

I also completely agree.  As commenters Mike and Andy said, It has to do with personal preference.  And no one should assume a blanket reason for why every person in a crowd is willing to tolerate the conditions. The negative jabs make it seem like one is a moron for doing so.  Why should visiting a spot of significance (historical, architectural, anthropological, geological, beautiful…) that is shared with the world be portrayed as ‘less-than’?

One can also try to imagine the endless scenarios bringing each person to a sight at a certain time.  Maybe they just arrived and only had a day…maybe maybe they were up late the night before enjoying another’s company and were unable to get up early…maybe they goofed and tried to squeeze in too many things to do…maybe they enjoy potentially meeting tourists from other places while standing in line…

Then again, I suppose snappy-jab writers do benefit travelers who like snappy jabs. Much like knowing if a certain movie reviewer disliked a movie you also disliked - you would probably pay attention to that reviewer’s future movie assessments. To each his own I guess!

Donna Hull 09.04.09 | 11:28 AM ET

Eva, you are right on. There are so many ways to travel. A first-timer to Rome should see all the so-called “tourist traps.” On my one and only visit to Rome, I visited the Colosseum, in May, I think. It wasn’t crowded and they were preparing for a concert. I remember thinking, “what a desecration of this place to hold a concert here, with all of the ensuing electrical wires, etc.” However, I would have loved to attend the concert, just for the experience.

The beauty of travel is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Hate crowds, love the outdoors - go backpacking. Enjoy luxury and the smell of the sea - take a luxury cruise. Looking for an authentic experience filled with culture - go on a volunteer vacation. I don’t think it matters how we travel as long as we’re out exploring the world, witnessing new places and observing how other people live.

Audrey 09.04.09 | 1:17 PM ET

I have to admit that I’m a big skeptic on “must-see sights” in guidebooks and have occasionally blown off big sights because I didn’t want to deal with the tourist machine. Also, we’ve been disappointed so many times - the description just didn’t live up to reality.

But, I completely agree that there is a good reason why some of these sights - like the Colloseum in Rome, Charles Bridge in Prague, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, burning ghats in Varanasi, etc - are worth going to and its worth battling the crowds and other tourists. These sights are an integral part of a place’s history and also its present.

David 09.04.09 | 1:23 PM ET

The lady is right: get up early and travel off-season.  The neatest trick is to hit the week before the season starts, when places are fully-staffed and they all want to practice on you.  I have hit this a couple of times by accident and it was a delight.
    In a few cases, the crowd is the point.  In a public Papal audience, the reaction of the people and their interaction with the Pope are the important part of the experience.  Likewise, with public demonstrations in totalitarian countries.  Or religious processions anywhere.  Tourists may not interest you, but the people who live there ought to.

Sophia Dembling 09.04.09 | 3:06 PM ET

Oh, I SO agree, Eva. It’s just traveler one-upsmanship. People who insist they’re “travelers not tourists” (a phrase that makes my eyes roll). Well said!

Tim Patterson 09.05.09 | 8:50 AM ET

Agreed - however, as someone who spends a lot of time in Cambodia, I’m tired of taking friends and students to Angkor Wat.  If you’re traveling with someone who lives in Rome, forgive them for suggesting an alternative to the Colosseum.

PKL 09.05.09 | 2:31 PM ET

Thereīs at least one solid reason for seeing the big sights:

If you donīt, youīll return to the guffaws and incredulity of your non-traveller colleagues who canīt comprehend how someone could go to Beijing and not see the Great Wall, go to Peru and not visit Machu Picchu, etc.
Itīs easier to take some time, see the damn thing, and tell everyone who asks that it was great.

Sophia Dembling 09.05.09 | 2:47 PM ET

Haha! PLK you are exactly right! Although in my experience, no matter what you see and do, when you get back, at least one person will say, “You went to ____ and you didn’t see ____?!”

To my mind, the more obscure sights are for return trips. On the first visit, you do the greatest hits.

Although I’ve been to Paris just once and didn’t go to the Louvre. Went to the Musee D’Orsay, instead. 09.11.09 | 12:24 PM ET

Totally agree.  Traveling in the off season is a great idea.  You avoid other tourists and can have places all to yourself.  You have two choices when you travel during the peak season:  1)  get up early (like you did) to see the sites or 2)  put up with other tourists.  Don’t allow other people to ruin your travels…go with the flow.

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