There’s nothing worse than arriving at a museum, monument or some other tourist attraction you’ve been dreaming of seeing for years and having to share it with sixty thousand other people and their cameras.
Unfortunately, many famous places attract a lot of people — that’s why they’re famous — so avoiding crowds completely is usually impossible. But there are a few strategies that can definitely help you minimize the time you spend in the tourist rush.
Check the Calendar: Planning Ahead Beats the Tourist Rush
There are plenty of good reasons why peak travel seasons are “peak” — the weather might be best then, it might be school vacation season or there could be a local festival or event that everyone wants to get to. Depending on your reasons for traveling and your own personal circumstances, you might end up traveling at a peak time — but if your travel plans are more flexible, then you can plan ahead to avoid it.
For example, whenever I plan a city break kind of trip, I check the local school vacation schedule to make sure I won’t land in the city when thousands of families are also in vacation mode. In a recent trip around Western Australia I was reminded just how good skipping the school vacation time is — we still had perfect early summer weather, didn’t have any crowds plus the accommodation rates were about half that of a week or two later when school was out.
It also pays to do your research about specific local events that could cause a destination to totally fill up with tourists. I’ve made a few blunders myself, like booking a trip to Seoul when South Korea was co-hosting the FIFA World Cup. The trip turned out okay because I got involved with the whole soccer fever, but there were definitely some things that just weren’t possible to do that week, and if I’d wanted fancier accommodation I would’ve been in trouble. Now I google my destination along with the month and year I plan to travel to turn up any stray festivities that might get in my way. Sometimes I opt to join in with them, but at least it’s better to know in advance that the place could be crowded.
If you’re traveling long-term, you can also try to time your arrival in larger cities to be mid-week rather than weekend. The same goes for slightly out-of-town destinations that might get filled up with local weekend break tourists. Taking a moment to consider which times will be busier in the destination you’re headed to can make a big difference to how much you enjoy your trip.
Check the Clock: Timing Your Sightseeing is Vital
The simplest trick to avoiding big waves of tourists from day to day is to either arrive early or late. Sometimes, the best experiences mean this will have to be very early or late. In the middle of an icy Prague winter I once got up well before six in the morning to be on Charles Bridge before the hoards of tourists arrive. That led to great pictures (and very cold hands) and a much nicer impression of a city which often seemed far too full of tourists. The bonus there is what every photographer tells you – early morning light is one of the best times to take good photos.
Being unconventional is key. Anticipate what other tourists would be doing at a certain time, and do the opposite.
At the other end of the day, check out museum opening times and you might be surprised to regularly find some that open until nine or ten at night. Head to these museums while other people are eating dinner, or be the last ones there at closing time, and you’ll get a much less crowded experience.
Being unconventional is key. Anticipate what other tourists would be doing at a certain time, and do the opposite. There can be other benefits apart from getting the place to yourself — recently I was in holidaying in Sydney during the peak summer season but because I wanted to have dinner at four in the afternoon, I found an empty restaurant with harbor views and a mid-afternoon special reducing the cost of a pizza from $20 to $5. And I didn’t have to fight with other people to get a table with a view.
If you’ve ever been part of a guided tour (or at least 90% of them) you will know very well that you usually don’t spend too long in any one place. That means that if you’re traveling independently, you have a big advantage — you can take your time. Basically, that means that if a place is particularly crowded when you arrive, you should just take a breather, linger over some aspect of it and wait until the crowds rush past.
Of course, there are some tourist attractions that will have an endless stream of visitors, with tour buses pulling up in the car park the whole day long. But in my experience even these places will have lags and quiet moments, and it’s up to you to float around a bit to find the parts that are particularly empty at that moment. I spent an afternoon in the Sydney Aquarium recently, with school holidays meaning the lines to enter twisted around Darling Harbour, but even with all these crowds, it was amazing just how often you could stand and wait a minute or two and find yourself alone with a tank full of tropical fish.
Or Get Off the Beaten Track
If you really hate crowds, then the only other way to avoid them is to really get off the tourist track. I don’t want to re-open the tourist versus traveler debate but leaning towards the “traveler” side of the equation — which might mean leaving out sights like the Eiffel Tower — will obviously help minimize crowd interference. If you head off the tourist trail and visit local libraries, universities, food markets and even cemeteries, you’ll still find out a lot about your destination and you won’t have to fight the tour guides.
But in reality, at some stage you’ll probably want to visit at least some of the “tourist highlights” — they didn’t become highlights for no reason. You’ll probably have to accept that compared to those spots off the beaten track, there’ll be more people getting in the way of your photos or generally annoying you. But you can still try to minimize this by following some of the suggestions above.
Do you have any other secrets for avoiding the tourist rushes? Please share them in the comments — I promise not to tell too many people your secret strategies!