Guidebooks, websites and travel agents sing their merits, dubbing them ‘must-see’ or ‘priority’ or ‘top rated’.
In reality, these four well-known travel sites are utterly disappointing and prove that you can’t always trust what you read.
1. The Mona Lisa in Paris
Topping the list, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa easily ranks as the most disappointing, over-hyped travel site in Europe.
Buried in the heart of the Louvre Museum in Paris, you can expect an hour of lines to get in and a €15 entry fee, followed by a walk past thousands of gorgeous paintings to reach a massive crowd of selfie sticks and pushy tourists, all trying to catch a glimpse and a pic with the famous lady.
And even if you are successful in your plight to the front of the mass of bodies past sharp elbows and outstretched cameras, you’ll be met by a crowd control stanchion holding you about seven feet back from the painting, which hangs dwarfed on a massive wall in all its meager 2’6″ by 1’9″ glory (in other words, it’s tiny).
On top of that, the painting rests behind protective glass to shield it from flash photography and Leonardo groupies who may try to jump the barrier in an attempt to touch her. So any photo you take will have a reflection of the Louvre’s lights and quite possibly the faces of everyone around you.
All in all, of everything there is to see in Paris (and in the other eight miles of the Louvre) the Mona Lisa is altogether disappointing and, honestly, not really worth your time.
If that sounds outrageous, think of it this way: do you even know why the painting is famous in the first place? If not, give it a passing glance or skip it entirely.
2. The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen
The author of The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen, was Danish by birth, so it’s no wonder this tribute to one of his most famous works rests in the capital city.
The maps and guidebooks for Copenhagen tout the statue’s glories and list it as a must-see cultural site.
Of all the sites that can be visited in Copenhagen, from the palace to Tivoli to the opera house to Christiania, The Little Mermaid statue doesn’t even scrape the top 20 things to see and do in my book.
To reach the statue, you walk through a lush, grassy park with views of the city on one side and the bay on the other. It’s peaceful, beautiful and a nice break from the city.
All of a sudden you turn a corner and run into a group of 50 tourists, cameras flashing, who have just offloaded from a massive tour bus. They’re standing in front of one another vying for the perfect angle.
On a small rock a few feet into the water sits a bronze statue of a girl looking longingly into the bay. She’s topless (which creates quite the laugh for the lads on the bus) and has two legs that appear to turn to fins near her feet.
She’s very small, covered in bird poo, and constantly has people trying to climb onto her boulder for a picture.
Tributes to Hans Christian Andersen abound in Denmark — skip this over-hyped one and visit his birthplace or buy a copy of the original fairytale instead.
3. Stonehenge in England
Talk to almost any English person and they’ll tell you Stonehenge isn’t worth your time.
It’s difficult to reach the ancient stone circle by public transit and you’ll encounter horrific traffic on the roads around it.
Once you do manage to reach the parking lot, you’ll find that you will be funneled to the monument by shuttles and tracks that make sure to take you through the tea and gift shop.
For preservation reasons, you can’t walk in amongst the stones and are kept 10 meters (11 yards) back. Your £18.20 ticket includes a timed entry slot, meaning you must be there within your 30 minutes allotment to gain entry.
Stonehenge is one of England’s most visited sites (1.38 million visitors per year!), so on top of all the restrictions on your visit, you’ll be dealing with heavy crowds.
On average, visitors spend 2 hours here, so you’ll also feel rushed as shuttle after shuttle of tourists are dropped off and picked up from the site. Several other writers and bloggers have noted that Stonehenge has become just another ‘thing to tick off a bucket list’ instead of an experience.
If you do decide to visit, you don’t have to do what the tourist office recommends! You can park and walk to the site without paying. While you won’t get as close, you won’t be contributing to the tourism mayhem that is a modern-day visit to Stonehenge.
4. Changing of the Guard in London
This ‘must-see’ ceremony at Buckingham Palace is anything but. You can read why I don’t think it’s worth the hype here.
Three actually must-see travel sites in Europe
While I’ve gone on and on about over-hyped sites you don’t need to see, here are three you actually shouldn’t miss.
1. Michelangelo’s David in Florence
The queue is long and you may feel touristy, but holy is David worth the wait. I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel, and I think Michelangelo’s David is better.
In fact, it’s the very best piece of art I have ever seen. While I’m no art aficionado, no other work has left me speechless and in awe of the artist like this one.
David towers above visitors in the center of a high-ceilinged room in the Galleria dell’Accademia. While other works adorn the walls of surrounding rooms, you won’t want to leave the main event. They’ve kindly set up benches so you can sit and marvel at the detail of this marble masterpiece.
12 out of 10 I’d recommend going through the effort to see this statue.
2. St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow
By the end of a trip to Europe, I’m always tired to death of being told to visit churches, cathedrals, basilicas and chapels. After awhile, they all look the same.
Except this one.
I visited it on a whim during my solo trip to Poland after a free walking tour guide suggested it. I was not disappointed.
Instead of bare stone arches and typical stained-glass windows, St. Mary’s is gaudy, gothic, bold, and altogether stunning.
Rich palettes of colors weave together in patterns on every arch, ceiling panel, and beam. Heady, dark wood pews (with detailed, carved edges) and a dim interior give it a magical glow and intricate windows add to the allure.
I sat down for quite awhile in an attempt to take in all the details. If you visit one church in Europe, make it this one.
3. The Alps of Switzerland
The majesty of the Swiss Alps is something everyone should try to see on a visit to Europe.
Waking up to the fresh, mountain air and looking out your window onto the peaks and valleys of the stunning range is an unmissable experience.
Whether you’re off to see the Matterhorn or choose to base yourself near the Schilthorn (pictured) in active Interlaken, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views.
Fill your visit to Europe with meaningful experiences, instead of shallow opportunities.
If you’re visiting something just to say you’ve been there or to tick it off a pre-made bucket list, reconsider or at least learn a bit of its history beforehand. There’s so much more to the continent than these tourist traps, if you’re patient enough to discover it.
What travel sites do you think are over-hyped and which are worth a traveler’s time? Let me know in a comment below.
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