As a tourist, it's tough to separate the must-see attractions from those that just leave your wallet a little emptier. Businesses in every state try to lure out-of-towners with promises of family fun and unusual sights, but only a select few of these unabashed tourist traps are enticing enough to stay popular with residents. Find out where the locals go.
Ferry rides to this former prison site in San Francisco Bay start at $38 for adults and sell out weeks in advance, but it's worth planning ahead to explore Alcatraz. Ticket prices include ranger-guided tours chronicling different facets of the penitentiary's notorious history, plus time to walk the island's gardens and observe its abundant wildlife.
One of the nation's oldest continuously operating farmers markets, this multi-level shopping district in downtown Seattle draws 10 million annual visitors for its vast collection of local grocers, craftsmen, eateries, and specialty shops. Even residents who don't work near Pike Place Market return for the fresh fish, fresh-baked pastries, and happy hour spots hidden within its labyrinthine levels.
Like the state in which it resides, Wisconsin's Mars Cheese Castle is most famous for its cheese, though the roadside landmark also sells tasty sausages, loaves of bread, and Danish "kringle" pastries. The stately building is a one-stop shop for dairy lovers, offering free samples of meats and cheeses alongside unique souvenirs like the state's iconic cheesehead hats.
This Los Angeles landmark is famous for its views and its appearance in several Hollywood classics, though not so much for its fascinating scientific exhibits, including a giant Tesla coil and regular planetarium shows. Residents know the observatory's parking lot also allows access to miles of scenic hiking trails through the hilly chaparral north of Hollywood in one of America's best urban parks.
Beyond its 44 platforms, Manhattan's historic rapid transit hub has 60 shops and 35 places to eat, all contained within an intricate architectural marvel even New Yorkers can't resist gawking at. Like many of the city's most popular attractions, Grand Central Terminal plan is a thrilling hub of activity with a rich history revealed through audio or docent-led tours.
This Orlando, Florida, theme park distinguishes itself from fierce competition with a limited daily attendance, allowing for a more intimate experience, plus a host of activities like its 30-minute dolphin swim that puts visitors face-to-face with friendly marine animals and exotic birds. All-inclusive stays cost less for Florida residents, and come with free equipment rentals and freshly prepared meals.
Branson's most popular attraction is an 1880s-set theme park in the Ozark wilderness showcasing the area's history and natural scenery alongside its roller coaster and other amusement rides. Visitors can have more time for rides and craftsmen's demonstrations by purchasing the three-day, two-park access ticket for $93 per adult, only $28 more than the one-day tickets.
Thrill-seekers from near and far come to Ohio's Cedar Point for its legendary roller coasters. This year, it is introducing Steel Vengeance, which it bills as the tallest, fastest and longest hybrid roller coaster in the world. Located on a peninsula jutting into Lake Erie, the area also includes the Cedar Point Shores water park and a mile-long stretch of white sand beach.
Though Bourbon Street offers little more than overpriced cocktails, the French Quarter's other hub of tourist activity is a beautiful square beside the Mississippi River, teeming with local artists selling their wares and brass bands enticing passersby to dance along. Don't leave without a stop at the landmark Café du Monde, famous for its coffee and powdered-sugar-covered beignets, which are among the many budget-friendly pleasures to enjoy in the Big Easy.
One of New Orleans' most-visited music venues, The Spotted Cat doesn't let the tourist crowds distract from its all-day showcases of the city's best musicians, most of them playing jazz but with endless variations on the genre. The bar also offers local craft beers and just enough space for anyone to try their hand at swing-dancing.
This honky-tonk in Music City's gaudy historic district features live country music from both big names and unknowns seven nights a week, without ever charging a fee for entry. Robert's draws crowds of residents and tourists for its boot-kicking lineups, bright neon signage, and famous fried bologna sandwiches for only $4.
This tea company on the outskirts of Boulder offers a factory tour far more interesting than most, especially considering it's free. Visitors sample hot and iced teas in the waiting area, then begin a 45-minute tour going through the entire tea-making process with a nasal-decongesting detour to "the peppermint room." The finished teas can be purchased at their onsite Celestial Café or at their gift shop.
On the outskirts of Woodstock, a Vermont village popular with tourists for its picturesque town square, lies this hillside farm offering the culinary bounties for which the state is famous -- namely, cheese, and maple syrup. Visitors are free to browse the gift shop or roam the grounds to visit with farm animals, enjoy seasonal vistas, and learn about making maple syrup via its self-guided sugarhouse tour.
Even Barack Obama can't deny the delicious appeals of this landmark D.C. restaurant, which was founded in 1958 and played an important part as a gathering place for police and protesters during the late-1960s race riots. Ben's Chili Bowl retains most of its original look as well as beloved specialties like its "half-smoke" sausages ($5.95).
Though previously used as a city hall and Sears-Roebuck regional office, this enormous Atlanta structure is now home to a sprawling market for food vendors and specialty shops in the tradition of Seattle's Pike Place. The Central Food Hall features freshly made local delicacies and international cuisines from famous purveyors, while "The Roof" has live entertainment, mini-golfing and boardwalk-style amusements.
There's more to this outdoor attraction than the iconic "Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture, including more than 40 permanent installations and several rotating ones scattered throughout its 11 acres. The Sculpture Garden draws locals for its free admission to seasonal botanical displays in the Cowles Conservatory and free first-Saturday garden parties.
It's easy to understand Portland's nickname "City of Roses" in this colorful section of Washington Park, where hundreds of varieties of roses bloom from April through October, many of them sent from all corners of the world. With views of Mount Hood on clear days, the garden is a relaxing area for a stroll, with the nearby gift shop offering all manner of garden accessories and rose-themed souvenirs.
Boston's North End is known for being the city's oldest residential community and for its concentration of authentic Italian-American eateries, perhaps none more distinguished than Giacomo's. Since they don't take reservations, there's usually a line to get in, but the prompt service makes it easy to enjoy their unparalleled seafood pastas without feeling rushed.
The Rhode Island town of Newport is famous among tourists for its collection of opulent mansions once belonging to 19th century elites. Touring their interiors will cost $24 per adult, but it's free to see them via the Cliff Walk, a public access walkway between the summer cottages and rocky shoreline that ends beside a beach and seafood-centric snack bar.
This Philadelphia landmark has been home to many of the city's best culinary offerings since it first opened in 1893. Today, diverse homemade specialties both Amish and international in origin can be found among the Reading Terminal Market's vendor stalls. Visit any Thursday for a surplus of free samples, or every other Wednesday for guided market tours.
The best way to reach the top of Mount Washington -- the tallest peak in New England -- is via this National Historic Engineering Landmark, the world's first-constructed and second-steepest rack-and-pinion railway. The ride is slow but scenic, with the magnificent views varying based on the season, and ends at a summit featuring a snack bar, gift shops and a weather museum.
Though strongly associated with the Mississippi River, celebrated author and humorist Mark Twain wrote his most well-known novels while living at his home in Connecticut, described by his biographer as "part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock." The 25-room structure hosts living history tours ($20 per adult) as well as educational programs and author appearances throughout the year.
Beginning in the 19th century, this St. Augustine attraction grew from a small exhibition of Floridian reptiles to a modernized zoo featuring lemurs, pythons and exotic birds in addition to all 24 currently recognized species of crocodilian. For the $26 admission price, visitors can also use the Crocodile Crossing zip line and observe wildlife shows like the feeding of 1,250-pound croc Maximo.
This popular attraction on Oahu's North Shore aims to show visitors what life used to be like for islanders in the South Pacific, with 42 acres of lush rainforest and cultural demonstrations based on differing island cultures taking place throughout the day. Each day ends with a luau feast and a fire-spinning, storytelling show called Ha: Breath of Life.
This landmark of the Texas Revolution is visited by more than 2.5 million people each year. Free to visit, the several remaining structures are fully supported by donations and proceeds from the gift shop. The historic site in downtown San Antonio is conveniently located near the River Walk and is widely hailed as a must-see attraction in TripAdvisor reviews.
Though the Kentucky Bourbon Trail became recognized as such only recently, the route still leads motorists through rich pockets of Southern history on its way between many of the nation's most celebrated bourbon distilleries. Visitors and locals can both enjoy limestone falls and other natural scenery in between guided tours and whiskey tastings from distillers such as Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Bulleit.
You'll spot many cars in California brandishing a bumper sticker from this Santa Cruz roadside attraction, where the regular rules of physics and gravity seem not to apply. Before exploring the site's disproportioned structures and tilted surfaces that make balls roll uphill, guests can enjoy a 30-minute hiking trail through coastal redwoods or purchase customized buttons to take as souvenirs.
The nation's oldest working carousel was uprooted from its original location at Coney Island, but continues to run today in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Just beside the ferry dock, adults can admire the 20 hand-carved horses featuring genuine horsehair for their manes and tails, while children can ride the antique carousel built in 1876 and try to grab the ride's lucky brass ring.
This ride on the Las Vegas Strip opened in 2014 as the world's tallest Ferris wheel, measuring 520-feet in diameter. Though built just to draw business to The Linq hotel and casino, the High Roller is worth at least one ride (starting at $22 per adult) to appreciate its unusual design and unparalleled views of Sin City.
This more remote extension of the San Diego Zoo is an 1,800-acre showcase of rare or endangered species from nearly every continent roaming free-range environments. Zip lines, jungle-ropes courses, and caravan tours help visitors get close-up views of the animals. Locals can purchase a $112 membership providing a full-year's access to both the Zoo and Safari Park.
Half the reason to visit the gravesite of Old West icon William F. Cody is the scenic view from its location on Lookout Mountain in the Rocky foothills west of Denver. Lined with antique artifacts and historic photos, the museum itself is still a worthwhile tribute to this colorful character that popularized Wild West vaudeville performances.
Dolly Parton's Tennessee theme park is as much about celebrating Smoky Mountain culture as it is about the standard thrill rides and waterslides. When the park is open from March to December, a day never goes by without several theatrical, musical or vaudevillian performances happening alongside craft activities such as glassblowing, candle making, and wood-carving.
Not far from the highway connecting Salt Lake City and Yellowstone, this tiny Idaho town attracts visitors from near and far for its chemical-free mineral hot springs heated perfectly between 102 and 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Admission to the year-round springs is $10 or less, and it costs only slightly more to include a visit to the Olympic swimming complex or indoor aquatic center.
This West Virginia town is most famous for its role in the Civil War, and the national historic site lets visitors see the remnants of that period and relive highlights via guided tours, historic trade workshops, and living history weekends. There is also a John Brown Wax Museum, which tells the story of the historic raid on Harpers Ferry. Plus, there are more than 20 miles of hiking trails and recreational waterways exploring pristine Appalachian wilderness and historic battlegrounds.
This museum is built within a 27,000-square-mile salt deposit in south-central Kansas, allowing anyone to explore salt deposits 650 feet underground and 275 million years old. It's the nation's only salt mine accessible to tourists, and includes exhibits on mining and geology as well as darkened tram rides and unique events like murder-mystery dinner theaters.
At the very least, this tourist trap on Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula (or U.P.) is both disarmingly honest and surprisingly charming. The grounds are scattered with amusing "innovation displays" of giant motorized tricycles and other innovations from U.P. natives. Inside, visitors can find a gift shop stocked with well-priced rare minerals, jewelry, and all other varieties of U.P.-made souvenirs.
Locals and out-of-towners congregate at this Wild West-themed bar in Jackson, a Wyoming hub for visitors to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Sit on a horse-saddle stool, sample the buffalo sliders ($14), or try square-dancing on the floor while perusing the restaurant's displays of pine architecture and taxidermy animal mounts.
A true tourist trap, this South Dakota drug store started attracting out-of-town motorists in 1936 with the simple promise of free ice water, plastered across multiple roadside billboards. Now the Wall Drug Store is an enormous kitschy complex known for its Western-themed souvenir shops and the Western Art Gallery Restaurant offering homemade donuts, buffalo burgers, and 5-cent coffee.
San Francisco's best restaurant with a view is perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and serves delicious bistro specialties like roasted salmon and seafood cioppino on weekly event nights featuring discount deals and live music. Beyond its cuisine, the Cliff House includes an antique camera obscura on its deck and a museum of old penny-arcade games in its basement.
Any visitor to the Hoover Dam should take one of the guided tours exploring and explaining this impressive feat of engineering and the attached power plant for $30. But it's worth paying the $10 parking fee just to enjoy the manmade view overlooking the Black Canyon of the Colorado River.
Navy Pier encompasses more than 50 acres of shops, eateries, and other attractions, all eagerly hoping to separate tourists from their hard-earned cash. But the lakeside market attracts locals as well for its array of shops and restaurants, indoor ice-skating rink, and free community events like summer concerts, firework displays, and a Labor Day weekend lobster festival.
Minnesota's top attraction, the Mall of America is essentially 1,000 tourist traps wrapped into one. The 96-acre mall includes a Hard Rock Café, the Sea Life Minnesota aquarium, the FlyOver America ride, and Nickelodeon Universe, the nation's largest indoor family theme park. Don't neglect the retail stores either, as the mall has no sales tax on clothing. It's also a great place to snap pictures.
The town of North Pole, Alaska, embraces its holiday-themed name at this candy cane-colored cabin near Fairbanks, marked by a 50-foot-tall Santa statue. The retail store features holiday-themed gifts and more general made-in-Alaska souvenirs, and community events recur throughout the year, the most famous being the "Christmas in Ice" contest whose sculptures that decorate the grounds beginning in November.
Cultural events, historic architecture, and fragrant fudge shops draw summer visitors to this car-free resort island between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas each year. Mackinac's main square is always crowded with souvenir shops and horse-drawn carriages, but the best way to see the area is with a bike ride around the island's 8-mile perimeter trail.
Located within a stately building that formerly held the Carson City Mint, the Nevada State Museum has an impressive diversity of exhibits, including a walk-through replica of a ghost town, the world's first-ever slot machine, and an award-winning "Under One Sky" exhibit devoted to the state's Native American heritage. Admission is only $8, or free for anyone under 18.
Fort Worth embraces its reputation as where the West begins at this national historic district devoted to Texas's livestock industry. Kitschy Old West souvenir shops, Tex-Mex restaurants, barbecue pits, and old-fashioned saloons abound, but the biggest draw is undoubtedly the world's only twice-daily cattle drive.
This collection of meticulously displayed miniature is all the more impressive for being the work of one man. Ross Ward turned his two-room home into a 22-room funhouse cluttered with hand-carved animated figurines acting out scenes within walls made from glass bottles and surrounded by wagon wheels, a 35-foot antique sailboat, exhibits from defunct roadside attractions, and other kitschy Americana artifacts you'd expect to find along Route 66.
The highest steam railroad in the nation winds through deep gorges and cross the 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass on its scenic route through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Though prices are a bit steep, starting at $99.75 per adult for a coach seat, the ride includes a buffet lunch and otherwise inaccessible vistas of the southern Rockies.
The only theme park built under the direction of Walt Disney himself, the flagship park of Anaheim's Disneyland Resort features an attention to detail in its rides and waiting areas that is rarely surpassed. Even locals can't resist famous rides like the Matterhorn and Space Mountain, though they can save money or time by purchasing discounted multi-day passes or annual passports.
The world's largest man-made outdoor climbing adventure lies less than an hour outside Washington, D.C., boasting 29 zip lines and 200 challenge bridges color-coded by difficulty level. The Adventure Park is most popular in summer, but residents are able to explore the treetop courses in any season, with three-hour climbing tickets beginning at $56 per adult.