25 International Tourist Traps to Avoid — and Where to Go Instead

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long line at a tourist spot
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WASTE OF TIME ZONES

You don't take enough international trips to waste them on tourist traps. Only about 42 percent of U.S. citizens hold passports, up from 27 percent in 2007 but still far less than the 66 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of English and Welsh who have them. And having one doesn't mean you're going abroad. Only 87.7 million of us, or 26 percent of the population, did so last year, and of that just 30 million left North America or the Caribbean. So those who travel should be judicious about what they see. We consulted with experts and found 25 tourist traps worth avoiding, and 25 places worth going instead.
Cancún, Mexico
Photo credit: Jonathan Ross/istockphoto

AVOID: CANCÚN, MEXICO

This isn't Spring Break '97. You're heading to one of the world's most overrated destinations built for boozed-up tourists who want nothing to do with the actual Mexico. While the State Department has issued numerous travel warnings for south of the border and recent violence in Cancún itself, Cancún remains the top destination for international travel from the United States.
Tulum, Mexico
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: TULUM

You can wallow in the New Age mindfulness of the yoga studios, shaded restaurants, and boutiques, but the natural beauty and relative calm of Tulum (compared with the rest of the touristy Yucatan Peninsula) are the best reasons to go. Get a sense of its history by visiting the walled Mayan port city of Tulum, go snorkeling in the Gran Cenote limestone sinkhole, stroll the national park, or just grab a spot on the sand at Paradise Beach.
large group of tourist having fun in Pisa
Photo credit: LeoPatrizi/istockphoto

AVOID: PISA, ITALY

Yes, forget it. If you've seen the tower in photos, you get the gist. You don't have to pay exorbitant fees to climb it, you don't have to wade through the tchotchke-peddling merchants to get to it, and you definitely don't need to be the billionth person who takes a picture "holding it up." You're heading into a one-horse town when you could be doing so much more.
Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: SIENA

If you really want pictures of memorable Italian architecture, go to the Piazza del Campo in the center of Tuscany. If you really want to climb something, going to the top of the Torre del Mangia is about a third of the price of climbing Pisa's ill-constructed tower. When you get back down, you'll be in a gorgeous medieval city filled with museums, churches, shops, restaurants, and wine and food from surrounding farms and vineyards.
pura ulun danu bratan temple in Bali, indonesia
Photo credit: Guitar photographer/shutterstock

AVOID: BALI, INDONESIA

At one point, Bali was a surfer's paradise and an untouched bit of coral-rich ocean just begging to be explored. Today, for U.S. tourists, it's a nearly daylong, four-figure trip to a spot where the merchants are aggressive, the drivers are paid by shops and restaurants to make costly detours, and the coral is largely dead.
Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: GILI TRAWANGAN

About an hour from Bali by boat, "Gili T" is what most people envision Bali to be. It doesn't allow cars, its beaches are still pristine, and its coral and other wildlife are thriving. There are more lodgings now, and modern conveniences such as ATMs have cropped up, but you can snorkel with turtles, have actual conversations with locals that don't involve a transaction, and finish the night with local barbecue.
Guinness Storehouse in Dublin
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AVOID: GUINNESS STOREHOUSE IN DUBLIN

The blocks-encompassing Guinness brewery at St. James's Gate in Dublin is impressive, but the Storehouse tourist area is more of a museum-disco — not touching many of the historic buildings, but delivering a multimedia barrage of information about how the beer is made, the history of the brewery and its advertising, and, at the end, a pint in an observation tower packed with fellow tourists looking down on largely empty brewing facilities. It's one of the most difficult ways to get your hands on a pint of Guinness in Dublin.
The Temple Bar in Dublin
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: THE PUBS OF DUBLIN

Pick one, you say? Impossible. Ireland's oldest pub, The Brazen Head, is within walking distance but can be as tourist-packed as the Storehouse (albeit with more beer and food options). You can read The Irish Times and summon the ghosts of Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien with a dram of whisky at The Palace Bar, channel your inner Brendan Behan at McDaids, raise the dead at the "Gravediggers Pub" feet from Michael Collins' final resting place, get a full dinner and some step dancing at O'Neill's near Trinity College or throw a dart at any Dublin pub guide and come up with a winner.
Disneyland Paris
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AVOID: DISNEYLAND PARIS

Disneyland Paris is a place for people who take trips abroad and immediately look for the first KFC they can find. It's for people who don't think they're being charged enough by the tourist restaurants with illustrated English menus and demand that cartoon characters take even more of their money. It's for people who see less-expensive flights to Orlando and Los Angeles and think to themselves "How can I make this even more costly while simultaneously bringing a passport and a line at customs into the equation?"
Parc Asterix in Paris
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: CANAL SAINT MARTIN

If you absolutely need to go to a theme park in Paris, at least make it Parc Asterix with its hordes of characters from René Goscinny's French comic of the same name. And Canal Saint Martin, in the 10th and 11th Arrondissements, isn't just the canal itself but the gorgeous former quarry that is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the covered market, shops, and bars in a diverse neighborhood reminding that, in Paris, it really is a small world after all.

Pompeii, Italy
Photo credit: Anja Perše/istockphoto

AVOID: POMPEII, ITALY

Great: So you confined yourself to a tour bus, blew through Naples, maybe stopped at a cameo factory along the way, and arrived with gobs of other tourists. You also paid $17.50 just to get into the place. We understand the appeal, but do you think this highly congested site was the only place preserved by Vesuvius' eruption in 79 A.D.? Besides, much of its artwork — like the frescoes that adorned the walls — is now elsewhere.
Herculaneum, Italy
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: HERCULANEUM

Not only was Herculaneum closer to Vesuvius when it erupted, but was also wealthier and had more interesting artifacts preserved under lava and ash. Statues, restaurants, temples, timber beams, and baths were all preserved, which led UNESCO to declare this a World Heritage Site in 1997. The site is so expansive it takes two days to explore, but it's accessible from Naples by train and costs $13, less than a trip to Pompeii.
Christ The Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janeiro
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AVOID: CHRIST THE REDEEMER STATUE, RIO DE JANEIRO

You're paying $16 to $26 (depending on season and tram stop) just to get there and you know what you don't get a great view of when you arrive? The Christ the Redeemer Statue. When you climb the 220 steps to the statue's feet, the view of Guanabara Bay is lovely, but you aren't getting much return on your ticket — nor are you going somewhere most people in Rio would go.
Lapa, Rio De Janeiro
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: LAPA

Assuming you're not visiting solely for religious purposes, experience Rio. The beaches and bars of Copacabana and Ipanema might be more sedate and English-speaking than you'd imagined. Lapa, however, is the heart of Rio's nightlife and the place you're most likely to get a taste of all the music, food, and rhythms Rio has to offer. It can get a bit raucous, so leave the valuables at home.
London Eye
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AVOID: LONDON EYE

There are a lot of places in London that could be considered tourist traps: Piccadilly Circus, Coventry Street, Leicester Square, The London Dungeon, Trafalgar Square, Carnaby Street. The most egregious is the London Eye. For $31, you ride a giant ferris wheel capsule to add more pictures of Big Ben, Parliament, and the Thames to your album. While this seemed novel when the Eye opened as the Millennium Wheel in 2000, the fact that you can take a ride in similar wheels in Las Vegas, Chicago,Orlando, Seattle, Atlanta, Louisville, D.C., Norfolk, Va., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., indicates the novelty is now well worn.
young woman walking in central Notting Hill, London
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: NOTTING HILL

We know: It isn't as good as it was 20 years ago. But that's a popular sentiment in modern London, which leads us back to Notting Hill's colorful storefronts, vibrant Portobello Road and Chamberlayne Road marketplaces, and quaint little neighborhood nestled amid Kensington Gardens and Holland Park. You won't want to return to the London Eye after your trip, but you'll definitely want to come back here.
Terra Cotta Army In Xi'an, China
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AVOID: TERRA COTTA ARMY IN XI'AN, CHINA

Xi'an is one of eight cities in China that is larger than any city in the United States. If Xi'an was a state, it would have the seventh-largest population here. But its biggest attraction is a half-excavated army of terra cotta warriors in a hangar, and while many see them and are enthralled, a healthy contingent of visitors leave unimpressed — sometimes because of suspicions that many of the statues are replicas like those seen when the exhibit traveled to America.
Xi'an Shulin Market, China
Photo credit: Courtesy of tripadvisor.com

WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: XI'AN SHULIN MARKET

Xi'an has less-publicized tourist sites such as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the Drum Tower, Huaqing Palace, and Mount Huashan. To get a glimpse of the Drum Tower and Bell Tower while getting the true sounds and flavors of the city, this is where to go. Also known as the Muslim Market, it offers a glimpse into everyday life in Xi'an, a peek at its sizable Muslim population, and a taste of mutton noodle soup, kebabs, and chili dishes that don't fit neatly into the U.S. concept of Chinese food.
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse in Ushuaia, Argentina
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AVOID: USHUAIA, ARGENTINA

This spot on Tierra del Fuego has exactly one gimmick: It is the end of the world. Sitting along the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is the southernmost point in the Americas before getting to Antarctica. As much as its hotels and restaurants would like to argue otherwise, it is not a destination. It is the last stop for folks headed to Antarctica, and a modest point of interest after hiking through Patagonia.
Puerto Madryn, Argentina
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: PUERTO MADRYN

We could send you to El Calafate or El Chaltén before you go hiking the glaciers, but you'll basically run into the same issues as in Ushuaia: They're tourist towns founded in the 20th century and built for hikers. Puerto Madryn, though, is a thriving city of more than 90,000 that dates back to the arrival of Welsh immigrants in 1865. Tourists can still come here and watch the whales and penguins, take cruises, or even hop flights further south, but the seafood restaurants, barbecue joints, festivals, and thriving community will make you linger longer than you would in some of Patagonia's glorified base camps.
Vang Vieng, Laos
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AVOID: VANG VIENG, LAOS

Vang Vieng's tourist economy grew largely around tubing along the Nam Song River, which sounds placid enough. But Westerners' prolific drinking and other intoxicating activities before and during tubing will make it insufferable for anyone who thinks they're just going down a lazy river, even after reforms resulting from dozens of tourist deaths.
Muang Ngoi, Laos
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: MUANG NGOI

There are parts of the Nam Song River that aren't polluted by tubers, and this little town a brief drive up from UNESCO World Heritage Site Luang Prabang lets you boat along the river, swim in caves, and trek through various farms and villages. It didn't have road access until 2013, so don't expect resort accommodations. But if you're backpacking and looking for a better experience of river life in Laos, this is the place to go.
Manneken Pis, Brussels
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AVOID: MANNEKEN PIS, BRUSSELS

It's a bronze sculpture of a urinating child flanked by overpriced souvenir, waffle, and chocolate shops. That is it. While the neighboring Grand Place is stunning to behold, even it is ringed with half-baked tourist "museums" and gouging restaurants. Going to Manneken Pis may take only a few minutes, but they're minutes of your life you'll never get back.
Parc Du Cinquantenaire, Brussels
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: PARC DU CINQUANTENAIRE

Sure, it's amid all the stodgy European Union buildings in arguably the blandest portion of the city. But Cinquantenaire is Brussels' massive central park in a city not hurting for them. Built in 1880 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence, it is where Brussels picnics, plays, walks its dogs and puts several of its museums. One of them, the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, is free.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
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AVOID: SAGRADA FAMILIA, BARCELONA, SPAIN

We are not speaking ill of artist Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece. We aren't even complaining about the $17.50 price to visit. Our qualm is with the hours spent in line just to get in and the $34 it costs to skip ahead. The cathedral is gorgeous, but seeing any part other than the main basilica also costs extra.
Park Guell, Barcelona, Spain
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: PARK GUELL

Another Gaudi gem, this park filled with Gaudi's signature organic curves and colorful mosaics charges only $9 for admission and seldom has a line for entry (though booking in advance is recommended). The former is the closest thing Barcelona has to an outright tourist trap (though the cathedral itself is no trap), while the latter has the price and access of a hidden gem.
Stonehenge, England
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AVOID: STONEHENGE, ENGLAND

Stonehenge is a $90 bus ride from London followed by a $23 admission fee. Even if you take a train to Salisbury and catch a bus from the station, the bus ride is $20. Once reaching Stonehenge, after all that, you go to a fenced-off site and walk around on a path that's 15 yards (at best) from the stones themselves, Then you're effectively stuck in the middle of nowhere until the bus returns.
Avebury, England
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: AVEBURY

A bit closer to London on the M4, Avebury is home to a henge and stone circles that date between 2200 and 2850 BC. Not only can you see the stones for free, but you can have fish and chips or a pint at the pub that sits amid the stone circles.
Den Lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), Denmark
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AVOID: DEN LILLE HAVFRUE (THE LITTLE MERMAID), DENMARK

There are people who will buy $27 hop-on, hop-off bus tickets just to see this 4-foot statue from 1913. Three miles from Copenhagen's city center set against an industrial waterfront backdrop, the Little Mermaid draws thousands of tourists a year and has become an oft-vandalized symbol of the city. While it's ostensibly free to visit, it isn't close to much and takes you away from better things you could be doing. Pay for a bus ride or rent a bike to get here and prepare to be underwhelmed.
Freetown Christiania, Denmark
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: FREETOWN CHRISTIANIA

There are a lot of free things to do in Copenhagen, but one of the best is still a visit to Freetown Christiania. Founded in 1971 by squatters who took over an abandoned military base, Christiania is a village trapped in time and replete with organic restaurants, galleries, artisan workshops, and music venues. There are hash dealers, but also a list of rules posted for how to deal with or avoid them — don't photograph them or have your smartphone out around them and you should be fine.
The Blue Lagoon in Iceland
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AVOID: THE BLUE LAGOON IN ICELAND

After the Icelandic economy collapsed in the late 2000s, Iceland and its airlines pressed travelers abroad to come to their remote island — if only for a layover. Now handling millions of visitors a year, Iceland is dealing with the repercussions of its new tourist economy. For visitors, a thriving tourist trade means your cabbie will spend the entire ride from Keflavik Airport asking if you plan to visit the Blue Lagoon. It's billed as one of the wonders of Iceland, but it's $62.50 to slowly boil in warm springs with a whole lot of fellow tourists.
Reykjavik Foot Bath
Photo credit: Courtesy of reykjavik.com

WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: REYKJAVIK FOOT BATH

There are a lot of hot springs around Iceland, but you'll need either a car or a $120 tour to get to them all. If you're like the overwhelming majority of visitors to this country, you're staying in Reykjavik and will be a 5- to 7-minute cab ride from this tiny geothermal wading pool with views of Mount Esja and, sometimes at sunset, the Northern Lights.

Gondola Rides in Venice, Italy
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AVOID: GONDOLA RIDES IN VENICE, ITALY

Venice itself can be considered a tourist trap. The economy is based almost solely around tourists and everything — from trips to glass-blowing factories to water taxis and buses to other sites like St. Mark's Church — comes at a cost. A 40-minute gondola ride costs $93, a rate set by the city. It's another $46 for an additional 20 minutes, and services such as singing are also extra. A ride at night is $116. You can cut costs by bringing more people onto the gondola (they seat six), but sharing a boat with strangers likely isn't the romantic trip you had in mind.
Lido Beach in Venice, Italy
Photo credit: Courtesy of tripadvisor.com

WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: LIDO BEACH

You don't need a gondola to find a romantic spot in Venice. For $11 to $17, you can take a water taxi to and from Lido, a barrier island between Venice and the Adriatic Sea. There are not only a number of cafes and restaurants, but a gorgeous stretch of beach and a film festival in late summer.
Santorini, Greece
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AVOID: SANTORINI, GREECE

The Greek islands sound and look lovely, but "Mamma Mia!" wasn't set on Santorini: It was likely just a tourist's reaction to its prices. From the restaurant playing off the "Mamma Mia" name to the scores of cruise ships that dock here each season, Santorini has become a movie set of a Greek island and has travelers complaining about being gouged for the experience.
Crete, Greece
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: CRETE

Despite being Greece's largest island, Crete pacifies tourists by keeping prices somewhat reasonable and providing beaches, ancient historic sites, caves, caverns, and museums. Granted, there are plenty of water parks among the attractions, and Crete still draws a whole lot of Europeans on holiday, but it isn't quite as greedy as its neighbor to the north.
Polynesian dancers at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii
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AVOID: POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER, LAIE, HAWAII

It's often billed as a must-do activity, but this $90 minimum dinner and floor show has a few quirks. It puts you on a tour bus out of Waikiki to a compound where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has set up mini "villages" and presentations based on native cultures. The center says it's preserving Polynesian culture, but isn't that culture kind of all around tourists who dare to venture away from Waikiki?
food at the Yama's Fish Market in Laie, Hawaii
Photo credit: Claire S./yelp.com

WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: YAMA'S FISH MARKET

If you don't just want to be shoved into a rolling can with a bunch of other tourists and taken to a place no Hawaiians seem to go, have a lunch plate with the locals at Yama's Fish Market in Honolulu. A plate of Kalua pig, macaroni salad and rice goes for just $8, and you can enjoy the meal in a place that Hawaiians actually shop and eat. If you really want to know more about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, stay in Honolulu and use some of the cash you saved to take either a $15 tour of Iolani Palace and/or a $25 tour of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Hawaiian and Polynesian history and culture.
Dubrovnik, Croatia
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AVOID: DUBROVNIK, CROATIA

Dubrovnik is one of the jewels of the Adriatic Sea, with a gorgeous coastline and a well-preserved walled city that withstood and recovered from the violence that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. It's also been flooded with tourists, thanks to cruise ships. There are lines to get into the Old City, merchants just waiting for easy money, and a sense that the novelty just isn't there anymore.
Zagreb, Croatia
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: ZAGREB

It's weird to think of Croatia's capital as a hidden gem. But the cruise ships stop at Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, and other coastal cities, leaving Zagreb largely untouched by tourists. That is unfortunate, as Ban Jelačić Square, St. Mark's Square, and the local cuisine — including mlinci (pasta), štrukli (cottage cheese strudel), kremšnite (pastry-coated custard slices), and orehnjača (traditional walnut roll), are well worth the time. We would be remiss if we left out the Museum of Broken Relationships, whose Los Angeles outpost just recently closed.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
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AVOID: DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Palm islands, golf in the desert, sporting events, Middle East locations of every retail and restaurant chain you can imagine (and plenty you can't), giant skyscrapers, art, cinema, live shows: Since the late 1990s, Dubai has been Las Vegas or Monaco without the gambling or New York and London without the booze, and built specifically to drain money from flush high-rollers in the energy industry as quickly as they made it. It's a four-figure, 12.5-hour flight from New York, and its average high temperature is 92 (closer to 106 in the summer).
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: SHARJAH

What would Dubai look like if it had a richer history, deeper cultural roots, and a less gaudy approach to the booming oil economy? Like Sharjah. With a history dating back more than 5,000 years and relations with the West as early as the 19th century — well before the big oil strikes — Sharjah was recognized as the cultural capital of the Arab world by UNESCO back in 1998 and is still home to seven colleges and an international book fair. With beaches, aquariums, parks, museums, markets, and malls, Sharjah may not be as flashy as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but provides a more rewarding experience for the money.
Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur
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AVOID: PETRONAS TWIN TOWERS, KUALA LUMPUR

These Malaysian Towers were the tallest in the world when built in 1998 and played a key role in the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta Jones film "Entrapment," but a lot has changed in 20 years. For one, people figured out that the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago actually had a higher occupied floor, which means going to the top of that building takes you higher than if you paid $20 to get to the Petronas Towers' observation deck. One World Trade Center in New York also now has a top floor well above that of the Petronas Towers.
KLCC Park, Kuala Lumpur
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: KLCC PARK

We say this about the Empire State Building and the Willis Tower in Chicago and we'll say it about the Petronas Towers: Know what you can't see from the Petronas Towers? The Petronas Towers. They may not be the tallest anymore, but they're definitely impressive when viewed from this 50-acre park. It's near a shopping district, but thousands of people come here to decompress, take in the cityscape, and watch the park fountains dance to musical accompaniment every hour on the hour.
Giza Pyramids, Egypt
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AVOID: GIZA PYRAMIDS, EGYPT

The problem with having one of the last wonders of the ancient world in the backyard is that the entire world wants to come see them. As a result, TripAdvisor's Viator warns that the pyramids' entrance is "often crowded with pushy souvenir vendors, touts, and taxi drivers looking for a fare." Once you've paid admission (around $20) it's another $5 to $15 to get into each pyramid. The view from the pyramids isn't quite what you see in photos: Modern Cairo looms large on the landscape.
Pyramid Fields of Dahshur, Egypt
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: PYRAMID FIELDS OF DAHSHUR

For a better pyramid experience without straying too far from Cairo, exploring the pyramid fields of Dahshur is far less of a hassle. Though you can get into only the Red Pyramid, the cost is $10 and there aren't any ancillary costs associated with it. Plus, you get to explore the pyramid fields largely undisturbed.
Patpong, Bangkok
Photo credit: PongMoji/istockphoto

AVOID: PATPONG, BANGKOK

A "red-light district" as a tourism center isn't all that foreign a concept (ask Amsterdam). But this district floods with tourists looking to get an eyeful of Thai go-go dancers and lady boys, really serving as more of a T-shirt shop and drink hustle than a red-light district. Get gouged for a drink or for your time at the stool of one of the remaining go-go bars and you have only yourself to blame.
Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok
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WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: CHATUCHAK WEEKEND MARKET

What, did you think we were going to send you to Soi Cowboy? If you want to get a Bangkok experience without leering, this market is a win. Of the 200,000 visitors the market sees each weekend, only about 30 percent are foreign. Chatuchak has hundreds of stands and shops for pets, antiques, plants, food, clothes, and books, as well as 400-plus restaurants. Spend or not spend as you like, and you won't get charged double for drinks or see the same T-shirt at 20 different stands.
Sydney Fish Market
Photo credit: funky-data/istockphoto

AVOID: SYDNEY FISH MARKET

CNN called this place far worse than a tourist trap: It basically called it a racket. The government swears there's a massive overhaul coming to this market along Blackwattle Bay, but not of the design that won an award. The place still looks cheap on a less-than-picturesque waterfront to which it provides little access. No one can blame tourists for neglecting the pricey offerings here.
Luna Park, Sydney
Photo credit: simonwoolley/istockphoto

WHERE TO GO INSTEAD: LUNA PARK

Built in 1935 as a project for out-of-work laborers during the Great Depression, Luna Park is meant to echo Coney Island and has the amusements to back it up. It's free to get in and it has a great view of the harbor. If that and a bite to eat are all you're looking for, a meal at The Deck, The Hungry Horse or the Helter Skelter Cafe will provide a better waterfront experience than certain markets offer.

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