After yesterday’s tragic fire at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, I need to say it again: go see the touristy stuff.
Here’s my confession
I never went to Notre Dame during my couple of trips to Paris. I never got to take pictures of its epic stained-glass windows. I never got to see the flying buttresses and the iconic two towers which existed before my surname, my country, and even the language I speak. I thought I’d get to see it “at some point”. My only memory will be a fleeting glimpse of the cathedral as I was in a taxi with some colleagues on our way to a business meeting. Although I know they will rebuild the cathedral I know I will never see the spire as it was originally constructed or the timber roof which stood for centuries.
So…go see the touristy stuff
I wrote a post almost five years ago saying the same thing. Why? Most touristy spots are touristy for a reason: they’re fantastic!
Without sounding too morbid, let’s face it: little in this world is guaranteed to last. You never know when an errant spark from someone trying to renovate a historic place could set it ablaze or when an earthquake could hit. As humans we just don’t have that much control. I had always been intrigued by Notre Dame but didn’t see it when I had the chance (numerous chances, honestly).
Touristyism vs. the myth of Living Like a Local
Can you “live like a local” the first time you visit a place like Paris? I sincerely doubt it. I’ve heard quite a few people in my various communities say stuff like “we’re going to Paris! I doubt we’ll go check out the Eiffel Tower though, I don’t want to be like all the other tourists”. What a shame, the Eiffel Tower is fantastic!
I get the sentiment of what those people are trying to say: they crave authentic experiences over something super-contrived, and that’s fair. While the environment around the super-touristy places can be exhausting (staying in Times Square for more than six minutes, for example), but the places and things themselves are usually worth seeing!
Here are some examples
Dubai itself is a bit contrived. To get a somewhat “authentic” experience means going into the older part of Dubai instead of going to places like the Burj al Arab, where I had a lovely tea. The Burj al Arab is absurdly and lavishly overdone (and surprisingly out of date, it’ll be 20 years old this December). It was touristy as heck, as was most of Dubai, but it was still incredible to see. Visiting Old Dubai felt just as touristy, as that’s what everyone tells you to do. Was it worth seeing? Absolutely, I loved my time there.
Singapore is a wonderful place (although a little sterile). It’s also unimaginably touristy. But it’s still epic in terms of architecture, food, and seemingly extreme versions of everything. I’ve been to Singapore countless times as a tourist and a few times for work, hanging out with coworkers in a more “local” type of trip. The touristy trips are just as fun. Going to the botanical gardens, walking around the Marina Bay promenade, walking through the various malls, and going to the iconic Marina Bay Sands (and the Gardens by the Bay just behind it) are just wonderful ways of spending an astonishingly humid evening in one of the world’s great cities.
Bali is full of temples. I could never really tell what was authentic and what wasn’t while we were at this one, but honestly I just loved walking around and peoplewatching. I’m sure there were elements of it which were contrived, but my experience felt authentic to me.
I had always wanted to visit the Cape of Good Hope and finally got to this January. It was completely overcrowded and, predictably, there was an enormous line to take the picture above. It didn’t make finally seeing the Cape any less exciting for me, I didn’t care that so many other people were there, I wanted to see it for me!
The Great Wall of China is epic and, well, great, but man it’s touristy! Holy crap is it worth it though. It’s a spectacle to behold and walk on ancient stones (and by ancient I really mean stones put there during renovation works in the 1800s but bear with me) and experience peace and quiet after a short 2-hour drive from the hustle and bustle of Beijing. It’s touristy as all get out but I will never forget the first step I took on the Great Wall of China, even though I had just ridden on a chair lift to get there!
Here’s what I think I really mean here
I know I’m rambling, which isn’t a shock if you’ve followed this blog for any significant amount of time, but, at the risk of really just showing a bunch of pictures of me traveling, here’s what I mean: don’t let someone else define authenticity for you. If you think something looks incredible and want to go visit it, go visit! For everyone who will tell you that places like the Leaning Tower of Pisa are over-touristed you will find someone who had a blast there and made a life-long memory.
Sometimes visiting a place you’ve always wanted to see will be everything you hoped for and more (Torres del Paine National Park was one of these places for me) and other times it’ll be a total dud. But the experience of going after it will be worth it regardless of what reality is like, I promise.
Don’t avoid a place just because someone tells you it’s touristy. Go see what inspires and intrigues you.
Postscript: the one big exception to anything I said above
The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen (I know I know I’m sure someone had a life-changing experience there)