Tourist traps are the junk food of traveling: get trapped by one and walk out with a lighter wallet and that sick, empty feeling that comes with high calories but no nutrition. If you want to be a smart budget traveler, learn to spot tourist traps and avoid them in favor of a more nutritious cultural experience.
The sneakiest tourist traps are fake museums, most egregiously torture museums and wax museums. Torture museums are not real museums: they don’t enrich culture or encourage scholarship. These “museums” draw you in, take your money, and deliver nothing but junior high school level gross-out gore. I actually use torture museums as a litmus test for whether a town is overly touristy. For example, for a recent trip to Germany I was considering adding Rothenburg ob der Tauber to our itenerary, but I was concerned that it could be overly touristed. I googled “Rothenburg ob der Tauber torture museums” and found that this small town contains at least two! Off of the literary and good riddance. (And really, if you want an authentic view on torture in Europe, why not visit a Nazi documentation center or a former concentration camp?) Wax museums are equally sneaky, prominently promoting their wax historical figures, as if you’d go to a wax museum to learn history. Fess up people: you’re not going to a wax museum to learn the history of English kings–you’re going to take a selfie with the wax Michael Jackson. Sure, this could fall under the category of “enjoy for kitsch value”. But seriously, do you realize how expensive wax museums are? An adult admission to Madame Tussaud’s in London is £30.00 (that’s at least $50!!) while entrance to the British Museum, home of the Eglin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, is FREE.
Seeking out live music in Europe is one of the most potentially rewarding travel experiences, but beware of the music tourist trap. Did you learn about the concert from a man dressed in a Mozart costume passing out flyers? Does the program consist of the Pachelbel Canon, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and/or The Four Seasons? Then chances are, your “concert” will be overpriced and performed by lackluster musicians on autopilot.
Certain European towns have legitimately interesting cultural attractions, but those attractions are surrounded by landmines of tourist traps. Prague is one of these cities: sure, Prague’s old town has gorgeous architecture, but just try to apprecitate it without tripping over a torture museum, drunk British bros or a Baroque-wigged hustler of crappy classical music concerts. Our disgust hit a peak when, while exploring Prague’s Castle, we paid an entry fee to visit Golden Lane, a street of cutesy houses nestled up against the castle. (We wanted to see Kafka’s house, which we’d read was inside.) Golden Lane turned out to be a row of souvenir shops. That’s right–we paid an entry fee to visit souvenir shops, including (appropriately Kafkaesque) a shop inside Kafka’s house. Bruges is a perfect example of a lovely, well-preserved town so completely overwhelmed by tourism that it’s entire infrastructure is largely dedicated to ripping people off. Paris, well, I’d better not say too much about Paris, which seems to hold an almost religiously romantic attraction to most visitors that my readers might come and egg my house if I talked smack about it. Let me just say this: if you think Parisians spend their Saturday nights eating at restaurants with a giant paper mache snail in the window followed by a rousing visit to the Moulin Rouge, you’re perhaps un peu mistaken.
Sometimes all you need to do is turn around. Sure, go ahead and pretend to prop up the leaning tower of Pisa, but don’t shell out €18 to climb it. Turn around, leave the tourists behind and explore the appropriately named Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), that splendid architectural complex on which the tower leans.
Prague’s Golden Lane of tourist traps.
Manneken Pis in Brussels: the only tourist trap I’d recommend visiting just for the fun of the surrounding souvenir shops. Because where else can you buy a cork screw of a peeing boy, with a metal screw in place of his penis?