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How to Visit Famous Travel Destinations

(Without it Sucking)

Famous travel destinations and tourist attractions are usually famous for good reason. But with more people able to travel than ever before (for better or worse), those travel bucket list spots can be a nightmare to visit. 

What to do though, if you’re dying to stroll Barcelona or have your own Eiffel Tower moment? You could skip them in favor of lesser known cities or attractions. Jockeying for position amongst hordes of tourists hardly sounds like a good time. Add to that, some places have become commercialized shadows of their former charming selves.

Don’t listen to the travel snobs who scoff when you talk about wanting to experience famous travel destinations first-hand. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to visit a place that’s hardly undiscovered. Here’s how to visit famous travel destinations – the smarter not harder way.

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smart planning is how to visit famous travel destinations

Timing is Everything – When to Visit Famous Travel Destinations

If you go during peak season or hours, you’re probably going to regret it. There will be long lines, thick crowds, and possibly grumpy locals. Get strategic about when you’re choosing to visit a place. Whether it’s a city or tourist attraction, WHEN is probably the most important factor.

  1. Aim for shoulder or low season – avoiding high season or holidays will immediately reduce the number of fellow tourists. This is my number one travel tip in general, no matter where you’re going.
  2. Go EARLY to famous tourist attractions and photo spots. While you won’t likely have it all to yourself (everyone is an instagram star now!), dragging yourself out of bed pre-dawn will make you one of the dedicated few. By the time crowds start to swell, you’ll have done your thing and be on your way to exploring less touristy spots.
  3. Book ahead. When it comes to museums, monuments, and any ticketed tourist attraction with set hours, book in advance. Many famous tourist attractions have the option to purchase tickets in advance (it may even be required), so you won’t waste time waiting in line for tickets. Going right at opening or a couple hours before closing are commonly great times to visit.
  4. Consider booking private tours. Many may also have early or after hours access. If it’s in your budget and you’re visiting in the busy season, paying extra for these benefits can be worth its weight in gold.

Do Your Research & Plan Ahead

For carefree travelers who balk at the idea of planning ahead, breaking with tradition will be critical. Too often, Instagram and TikTok are lying to you when it comes to accurate travel planning info. They can be great for travel inspo but crap at realistic expectations.

An easy example of the perils of trusting social media: Bali’s famous Gates of Heaven – the reality is long lines and no reflecting pool. Which is all well and good if you still want your own pic but at least you’ll be able to make an informed decision with the whole story.

  1. If you have your heart set on something, dig deeper and do your due diligence. Is that amazing photo spot publicly accessible? Can you even get a photo without tons of people in the background without going at 5AM on a winter Tuesday? Is the photo you see even real?
  2. Talk to locals or travelers who have spent tons of time at your desired destination. They’ll be able to offer valuable insight and help you avoid newbie mistakes. Avoid taking advice from people who have never been to the destination, haven’t been in years, or don’t have a similar travel style to yours.
  3. If you’re a travel photography enthusiast, using photography apps to plan travel will have you in the right place at the right time when it comes to lighting.
  4. Check your travel dates for closures, special events, or holidays. You don’t want to arrive only to find out something is closed or will have insane crowds because EVERYONE goes on that particular day
  5. Depending on your travel destination, you may need to make restaurant reservations ahead of time. If you have your heart set on a place, make a reservation before you even arrive. This is becomes more important the close you are to high season.
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Have Realistic Expectations + A Good Attitude – Keep the Travel Dream Alive!

Again, this might not be footloose and fancy free, but understanding what you’re in for will keep you from having travel dreams dashed. This ties in with doing your travel destination research ahead of time. 

  1. It’s okay to not like something as much as you thought you would. It’s also okay to need a break, so don’t force yourself to do something if you’re feeling overwhelmed or uninterested.
  2. Ask locals if that restaurant/bar/shop you’ve seen all over social media is ACTUALLY worth it 
  3. Remember that you are visiting a place where people are residents just living their normal day to day lives. While many will be friendly to tourists, not everyone has the time or energy to help out. And no one is a prop in your travel content – stay respectful.
  4. Don’t assume the worst. Of course it’s important be a smart traveler, avoiding common local scams and listening to your gut when it comes to safety. But sometimes what can feel like a bad turn or attitude is a cultural or personality misunderstanding.
  5. There will be other tourists. Some will be cool, others might be insufferable. Be the best tourist you can be, and don’t let the bad apples spoil things. Aim to be a considerate and conscientious tourist. The problems of over-tourism are real, another reason to do research and avoid contributing to the problems as much as possible.

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Be Flexible – Travel Smarter not Harder

Another benefit of taking the time to do some basic travel planning and research is that you’ll have alternatives at hand. If you find you don’t like a place or it’s inaccessible (despite your smart travel research), you won’t waste time trying to find something else to do.

  1. Mistakes happen, things go wrong. Keep a short list of backup options so that if something is closed/too crowded/not what you expected you can pivot.
  2. If you’re on a longer trip and find yourself just not vibing with a destination, it’s okay to cut your time there short. With a backup destination, you can leave early and check out a different place.
  3. Allow extra time between activities or destinations. If your train/bus/flight is behind schedule, you won’t be stressed out because your travel itinerary is thrown out of whack. Or, if you’re really enjoying something you can linger instead of rushing to tick off the next thing.

Real-World Examples Using these Travel Strategies

I’m a travel planning nerd at heart. I genuinely love the research and planning part, even though I don’t stick to a strict schedule upon arriving. But having all that info tucked away makes being a flexible traveler much easier.

Off season is one of the best travel strategies out there. For example, Barcelona and Lisbon are two of western Europe’s most popular destinations. I’d wanted to go for probably 10 or 15 years (back when they weren’t quite so mobbed) before I finally had the chance. 

triptych of photos showing what it's like to visit Barcelona's park guell in low season - fewer crowds
Park Guell is one of Barcelona’s most famous attractions. In the final 2 hours of opening in early December it was possible to enjoy this incredible place without insane crowds.

I snagged a ridiculously cheap flight (another off-season travel benefit) for a late November – early December visit. Luckily the weather was lovely 95% of the two-week trip in both countries. Going in low season made all the difference! While both cities were still busy of course, it was nowhere near as crazy as it would have been even a few months earlier.

Rome is another easy example. I’ve spent tons of time there, and summertime is the worst time to visit Rome. Not only is it miserably hot, it’s peak tourist season. A lot of people don’t like Rome, and I’m convinced it’s often because they’ve visited during the wrong time. 

long exposure in piazza navona, water in the fountain in the foreground is blurred and the piazza behind nearly empty
Rome is never free of tourists, even in the morning. But it’s much more likely you’ll be able to enjoy a nearly-empty Piazza Navona at 7:30AM in October rather than in summer.

I hated it my first two visits – which were in June and July. Choosing high season in Rome is one of the most common mistakes people make on their first trip to Rome. And whether it’s Rome or any number of the most visited tourist destinations on earth, using a strategic travel planning approach is key. Planning, patience, and perspective are how to visit famous travel destinations WITHOUT losing your mind.

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  1. Laureen Lund

    Everything about this post rocks. Great tips. Traveling with lower expectations always makes the experience better…learning to go with the flow and be present has helped me a lot.

  2. Lina

    These are some really great tips! So many destinations are getting crowded nowadays so it’s definitely useful to use these tips 🙂

  3. Cosette

    Good tips. I’ve visited Rome in 2004 and Barcelona in 2003 (or vice versa), bot in the Summer time. Loved both cities, although Barcelona was my favorite. But nowadays I don’t think I would go for 10 days in the Summer to these cities.

    • Ella

      I would never visit these cities in summer unless I had no other option (and even then maybe not) – not just the crowds but the HEAT. Whew!

  4. Rachel-Jean Firchau

    This is so helpful and I don’t see enough people writing about this to be honest. There’s generally nothing wrong with famous travel destinations. It’s about your planning and the attitude you carry with you along the way!

    • Ella

      I’m so glad! Famous destinations can be amazing with conscientious planning – especially to make sure our visits benefits residents and small businesses as much as possible.

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