10 over-rated tourist spots — and 10 much better alternatives

By Caitlin Kelly

Having visited 37 countries, and a fair bit of Canada and the U.S., I’ve had that moment when you think — Really?

Some spots get breathless copy, (hello, free trips!), from travel writers who might never have gone there if they’d had to pay, and secretly hated the joint.

Toronto Skyline
Toronto Skyline (Photo credit: Bobolink)

In June 2012, my husband and I visited the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, lured by the fawning copy we’d read everywhere about how amazing it was. Not so much. The famous rooftop pool was closed the four days we were there, the bathroom door was so poorly designed it didn’t even close fully and they’d forgotten to put a handle on the inside of it. Like that…

Here are 10 spots everyone tells you are so amazing but aren’t:

The Paris flea market. Merde! I’ve lived in Paris and been back many times. An avid flea market and antiques shopper, I’ve been to the markets there and most often have come away weary and annoyed: snotty, rude shopkeepers, overpriced merch, items so precious you’re not allowed to even touch them. I’ve scored a few things, but the emotional wear and tear is so not worth it.

Instead: Go to London’s flea markets and Alfie’s on Church Street. I love them all and have many great things I’ve brought home from there, from Victorian pottery jugs to silk scarves.

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...
English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Times Square, New York. Puhleeze. If you want to be shoved constantly by throngs of fellow tourists, their backpacks jamming into your face and their five-across-the-sidewalk amble slowing you down, go for it! It’s a noisy, crowded, billboard-filled temple of commerce, with deeply unoriginal offerings like Sephora or The Hard Rock Cafe. They have nothing to do with New York.

Instead: Washington Square. It’s at the very bottom of Fifth Avenue, and leads you onto the New York University Campus. You can sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by, then walk down MacDougal Street to Cafe Reggio, an 85-year-old institution, for a cappuccino.

MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New Yor...
MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, between Bleecket Street and West 3rd Street, facing North. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austin, Texas. I simply don’t get it. I was bored silly.

Instead: Fredericksburg. A small town in Texas hill country, it has antiques, great food, fun shopping and history.

Miami. Meh. Maybe if you’re crazy for dancing and the beach.

Instead: Key West. I’ve been there twice and would happily return many times more: small, quiet, great food and you can bike everywhere. But don’t go during spring break!

Vancouver. I was born there and have been many times. Its setting is spectacular, no question. But I’ve never found it a very interesting place.

Instead: L.A., baby! One of my favorite cities. Yes, you have to do a lot of driving. Deal with it. Great food, great shopping, beaches and Griffith Park, one of the best parks anywhere. I had one of the happiest afternoons of my entire life there — galloping through the park at sunset on a rented horse then dancing to live blues that night at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica. Abbott-Kinney rules.

Santa Fe, N.M. Heresy, since my husband grew up there. Cute, charming, gorgeous — for very rich people!

Instead: Taos or Truth or Consequences. Both are much smaller, funky as hell.

Quebec City: Beautiful to look at, some nice restaurants and an impressive setting on the St. Lawrence.

English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead: Montreal. You can get the same sense of history in the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Old Montreal, but still enjoy fantastic meals, great shopping and the legendary Atwater Market. Take a caleche up to the top of Mt. Royal then go for brunch at Beauty’s.

Las Vegas. I’ve been there twice, only for work. If you want to shop or gamble, you’ll love it. If you want to do anything else, forget it.

Instead: Stockholm. If you’re planning to blow a ton of cash  anyway, go somewhere truly amazing to do it. The city is beautiful, the light unforgettable, and the Vasa museum one of my favorites anywhere — a ship that sank in the harbor in 1628 on its (!) maiden voyage. I’ve been watching Wallander, a fantastic cop show shot in Ystad, and am now dying to return to this lovely (if spendy) country.

The South of France. I love it and have been several times, but $$$$$!

Instead: Corsica. I wept broken-hearted when I left, after only a week there. People were friendly, food was excellent, the landscape simply spectacular. One of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet; here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.


Sydney. Call me fussy, but after 20 freaking hours in an airplane that cost a mortgage payment, I expected Heaven On Earth from this Australian city. Yes, it’s attractive. Lots of beaches. The Opera House. But I found the people there bizarrely rough and rude, much more so than anyone I’ve ever faced in New York City. I made a friend on the flight over and we went out for dinner — and were (!?) told to leave the restaurant because we were disturbing the other patrons. This was the oddest and most unpleasant dining experience of my life, especially when all the other diners applauded our exit. I assure you, we were neither drunk nor disorderly.


Instead: Melbourne. Lovelovelovelove this city! The Yarra River. The ocean. Elegant neighborhoods. Flinders Street Station. All of it. I’ve rarely enjoyed a city as much as this one.

Here’s one list, by a travel writer.

Here’s a list of 31 others, including the Grand Canyon (!), from readers of the Los Angeles Times. (They, like me, think Austin, Texas and Santa Fe, N.M. are totally not worth it.)

Where have you been that left you disappointed?

Where have you been that — shockingly — knocked your socks off?

66 thoughts on “10 over-rated tourist spots — and 10 much better alternatives

  1. One of the most beautiful, peaceful, and friendly places I have ever been was Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, India. But everyone raves about Rajasthan, which is overrun with tourists and badly behaved young Rajasthani men. Bhimbetka, with its caves occupied and painted for centuries, was almost as lovely. (But you can’t stay there and nearby Bhopal, although it has its points–including a great modern art museum–is basically an industrial hole.)

    Thanks for letting us in on some your travel secrets.

  2. I was very disappointed by the Amalfi Coast of Italy. It’s beautiful, but the people were so rude to me when I was there last year. It ruined it for me to a large degree. I’m also not in love with Rome. Once you’ve seen the Coliseum and other ruins, you’re done. I much prefer Florence and Venice. (Boy, don’t we sound like perfectly spoiled first worlders.)

  3. Do you have opinions on Japan and Israel? I haven’t been to the former yet, but the latter is breathtaking, whether it be the mountain climes of the north and the Golan or walking the Holy City and seeing the ancient sights.
    Just bring sunscreen and lots of water, especially if you go south through the Negev and make a stop in Eilat!

    1. Thanks! I am DYING to see Japan but it is spendy and I am facing other $$$$ expenses this year (like a new website). I am simply mad for Japanese design in all forms so it is very much a wish of mine to get there; everyone I know who’s been to Tokyo raves about it as well.

      Israel is on my list as well.

      1. I like Japan too, though mostly because I’m such an otaku (if you have no idea what an otaku is, type it into Google and see what pops up).
        As for Israel, if you ever get a chance to go, let me know so I can recommend some places to go…and one place to stay away from.

  4. San Francisco is my favorite city to visit – great walking, public transportation, funky jazz bars at night, fantastic history. I love any place where it is easy to get by without a car. Paris and London were enjoyable, but for me too many people. Llangollen, Wales was a lovely surprise on a long trip – beautiful scenery. Loved Greece, but not Athens. Same with Holland, but not Amsterdam. I tend to be drawn toward natural spaces and less urban areas.

    Without a doubt, I love most places north of the US border. Montreal sounds like it might be getting a little dicey for English speakers- apparently I’ll need to learn the French word for “pasta”.

    Still so much more to see in the world!

    1. I enjoyed SF last spring when I was there for a few days. I love Paris and London, and enjoy a mix of big city and nature. We’ll be in DC for 2 days soon, then a week on the VA coast, then two weeks in Tucson. I love the landscape there.

  5. I agree with Ashana M, Rajasthan is very over-rated although I quite enjoyed Jaisalmer.

    I also think Vietnam is over rated. I spent a couple of months traveling there and I enjoyed it but it didn’t LOVE it. I also stayed and worked in Saigon for 1 year. It was so so.

      1. It think it’s like when movies get all hyped up and then when you go to see it you expect something incredible but then… it’s just a movie. I think I had heard so many amazing things about it that I was expecting too much. I thought Halong Bay was well over rated but then riding motor bikes through Central Vietnam was definitely a memorable experience. Living in Saigon was stressful and tiring and I kept getting sick. Enjoyable over all but over rated to me.

      2. Yeah, quite true. I think it was the pollution. I averaged 4 headaches a week very often turning into migraines and got severe tonsillitis I thought (and perhaps could have been misdiagnosed) was malaria. I moved to Singapore after that and stopped getting headaches and tonsillitis

      3. That’s really interesting (if horrible!) I still remember, in the early 80s, walking on Madison Avenue in NYC wearing something white and seeing soot on me….not any more.

        Did you like Singapore? Would you say it’s worth a visit?

      4. I’m still here. I married a Singaporean. I wouldn’t come all the way from America just to holiday in Singapore. It’s just not that kind of destination. But to use it as a stop over and stay 3 days or week then yeah, definitely worth a visit. I always say its a so so country but an amazing city.

      5. Heh. It is clean though I read that Tokyo has beaten it in the clean and tidy city stakes. Singapore is just one island. It takes probably 3/4 to drive from east to west. Maybe half hour north to south. I’m not working at the moment. I just spent 15 months in and out of hospital with cancer and some complications due to surgery. That is how I started blogging. It’s a pretty insane story. Not the usual cancer saga. But now I have a clean slate and I don’t want to go back to work. I was a teacher. I want to create some online retail businesses here in Singapore and maybe start making some money with writing or blogging or something. I have a few ideas. And I’m excited!

    1. I tend to agree with Becc. Vietnam is busier and less personal than its neighbouring countries and the people seem less friendly and more aggressive in their manner. I similarly enjoyed my time there but didn’t love it and wouldn’t necessarily be rushing back ahead of somewhere else

      1. This is really helpful. I was in Thailand in 1994 for 21 days and loved everything about it. I’d really like to go back but there are so many other spots I haven’t gotten to. Did you visit Indonesia or Singapore?

      2. Indonesia, yes, but Singapore, no. I spent just a little over 6 weeks in Indonesia but it’s such a huge country that I didn’t cover a massive amount of ground really. I climbed the most stunning volcano though, Gunang Rinjani on Lombok island in Nusa Tenggara. I met some great people which always makes a good trip better too!

  6. I agree about Rome; it’s just a big modern city with the occasional monument. Florence is nice, but for real provincial Italy, I’d chose Perugia. Make sure you take a phrase book! Similarly, adored Crete! Loire Valley in France is lovely. Galway in Ireland is beautiful, as are many of the small Welsh towns. I really did love Cambridge in England, and small towns like Rochester. New Zealand has many beautiful spots, but we are a very long plane ride away!

    1. I’ve yet to visit Greece and Crete is on my list, for sure. My Dad owned an early house just outside Galway for about a decade in the 1990s and I had a chance to visit there a few times. Loved it! I’ve also been to Cambridge (when a friend lived there) and found it lovely.

      I was in NZ (North island only) in 1998 and totally fell in love with it. I very much want to return. I only saw Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula, but won’t forget any of it.

  7. The mekong delta in Vietnam and more specifically, the floating market at Can Tho, was somewhere which left me disappointed. Hard to know exactly what I’d been expecting, a bigger more impressive market for one, but what I found wasn’t it. A calmer, more laid-back alternative is Don Det, one of the 4000 Islands further up the Mekong at the border with Laos and Cambodia. This was an incredibly slow-paced, relaxing place to spend a few days contemplating life while lounging in a hammock.

    Another place which thoroughly, and shockingly, knocked my socks off was Gunang Rinjani, an active volcano on the island of Lombok, in Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. The shear beauty of this volcano, and the views awarded from its summit, in my opinion are second to none!

    1. How amazing! Thanks for sharing this…I’ve yet to visit Indonesia but I know people who’ve lived there. I’ve never seen an active volcano up close; the closest I got was in Catania, Sicily in 1983, Etna. But that was seeing it in the distance on my way to the airport.

  8. Awesome post. Glad to see LA on your “see” list! I live around the corner from Griffith Park. Also love Montreal but haven’t been in too long. Need to get to the other places. I’ve been to Israel, Jordan, Greece (Mykonos), London, Italy (Rome and Florence), Mexico and Switzerland. One of my favorite foreign cities is Mexico City. It was crazy dirty in parts but I still loved it. Amazing energy and food!!

    1. Lucky you!!!! Go horseback riding there for me? 🙂

      I LOVE Mexico City and people think you’re nuts when you tell them that. We stay at the Reina Victoria and eat at Opera and go to the park and the museum. On our last visit (May 2005) I even took a watercolor class one afternoon in Coyacan. Love the DF. Sigh.

  9. I totally agree with you on Melbourne over Sydney. In my opinion Melbourne is one of my top five cities in the world! A few years ago the Fashion Mister and I did a trip to Egypt and Jordan. I can honestly say that as cool as Egypt was, Jordan was just as amazing with only a fraction of the tourists!

      1. It’s so spectacular.
        I found it peaceful compared with Egypt.
        Even in a big city like Amman it just felt nice.
        But if you go I recommend, Jerash, Hercules Temple, Petra and of course the Dead Sea! Lovely, lovely place.

  10. I would love to visit all the places you wrote about, Caitlin – always good to get the dirt. We are not world travelers but love to visit all the little places in the southwest. I lived in New Mexico for five years and am so glad I am away from there, including Taos although that was a better alternative to Santa Fe. I live in Tucson now and love it here – as Rachel Maddow said – we are a little blue dot in a big, red state.

      1. Would love to invite you up to the old hacienda, Caitlin, however we are heading up to Colorado for the summer on May 10. Keep me in mind if you head this way again in the cooler months. Enjoy your time here and please write good things about the Old Pueblo.

  11. Heather Hope

    For US travel, we were recently surprised how great Louisville, KY was to visit – of course, it helped we were staying with locals and we told them we had no itinerary, just show off their city to us. We went to some great restaurants and drives through Bourbon Country were fantastic.

    Abroad, I have a deep love of Florence (lived there for a year), Venice in the winter (no humidity and few tourists), and South India, especially Bangalore and Kerala state (which is where my husband is from, so it’s like my home-away-from-home).

  12. I have not been everywhere but here are a few of my favorites.
    -Lancaster, PA
    -Whissackon Valley, PA – particularly the inn @ valley green. Beautiful.
    -The Caribbean – bypass the other islands and head straight to St. John & virgin gorda ($$$ but you can save and camp if you are an adventurer)
    -Moab, UT. I am a UT girl, but this little town is snuggled between two rugged and stunning national parks (canyonlands and arches) you will not be disappointed with the shopping, darling main street and great food.
    -Southern france. Go to the villages that are quiet, quaint and serene. Beautiful.
    -Stanley, Idaho & the sawtooth mtn range. If you are rugged, like rivers/fishing/mountains without all the tourist feel you will be in love.
    -Bandon, Oregon – sweetest town! Beautiful state park at the point, and homegrown food and eclectic shopping.
    -Asheville, NC. Positively charming area. Stunning in June. The Vanderbilt’s loved it, you will too.

    1. Interesting list…

      I know the south of France pretty well and hope to retire there and explore. Moab is def. on my to-visit list, as well. I did visit Asheville and saw Biltmore about 18 years ago. I would very much like to visit Idaho. I love those sort of landscapes.

  13. Some years ago my wife and I were in Paris on what we had started to call the ‘ABC’ visit – ‘another bloody cathedral’. Of course we had to go to Notre Dame, which was very much ABC by this time. But then we checked out St Chappelle. Not so much ABC as OMG. I was absolutely blown away. Still slightly on the tourist drag but by no means ‘the usual’. Quite unexpected.

    Melbourne’s great & definitely up on Sydney, but I think Hobart beats them both, when it comes to Aussie cities.

  14. Porto, Portugal is one of my favorite places, granted I was visiting a close friend who was from there. They are SO friendly to tourists, the food is great (I didn’t really eat out, but I loved Portuguese food), it’s absolutely gorgeous, the Port wine is supposedly incredible (still waiting on a special occasion to open mine) and they have a modern art initiative (including the Serralves museum and gardens and their house of music) that is really great and offers some awesome souvenirs. The countryside and Douro valley are also supposed to be gorgeous.

    Here’s a write up I did after my trip with some pictures: http://botheyesonthesuen.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/porto-portugal/

  15. It’s funny, I found Vancouver beautiful but lacking any rugged city filth (unlike Toronto) where it’s grime is artistic and food are the main focus. I lived in Toronto for 3 years and as much as it’s concrete made me feel glum…there was always a new little area to discover.

    As for Melbourne…I lived there for 6 months and I actually became depressed! The rainy/cold weather and people did it.

    Melbourne does do coffee really well. I’ll give it that! All of the clothes are made in China, and are polyester and for that they are over priced. Many Australians have never been to WA, and they are definitely mission out!

    Western Australia however is the sunniest place on the damn planet! hahah, and I love how laid back they are here…

    My favourite place in Australia? Narooma, NSW. Coastline town, quiet, retired population and amazing flora and fauna…I loved the people as well. I’m hoping to one day show it to my love.

    1. Funny, because Vancouver has a much creepier vibe to me than Toronto — you know there are entire no-go zones in YVR where heroin addicts are given free needles. I grew up in TO, and left in 1986 but am usually back 2-4 times a year to visit friends and family and get a bit of Canadian nostalgia.

      Narooma sounds very cool indeed.

  16. Excellent travel post. Huckster travelogues push too many of those disappointment cities. Of course, if they started pushing gems like Montreal and Key West, they might lose their charm too. I too was underwhelmed by Austin. If you want Honky-tonks, go to Nashville. If you want BBQ, any Texas roadside place is just as good as Austin’s Stubbs. That leaves the monstrous Whole Foods in Austin, but who goes on vacation to go to a chain grocer? As for pleasant surprises, Cleveland, Ohio deserves more credit than it gets. An enormous indoor market house for farmers to sell their crops, excellent microbreweries, a completely free art museum with all of the great masters, one of the world’s best orchestras (not my opinion alone, even the New York Times and the Europeans admit it), and plenty of old immigrant neighborhoods cranking out pierogi, prosciutto and pitas well-below NY prices makes Cleveland not the worst place to be stuck over a weekend.

    1. Thanks!

      Cleveland? Wow. That’s interesting. I have been to Pittsburgh and liked it very much. I’ve been to the Cleveland bus station — on a rushed trip to Chicago at midnight. Def. would NOT recommend it to anyone, ever!

  17. Truth or Consequences has knocked my socks off EVERYTIME. Swung by and stayed 4 times in April alone and every single time discovered some epic character with epic stories who was only too glad to share/demonstrate. Have had some incredible experiences in T or C (including a visit to Spaceport America on my very first visit last year)I love it. And the veggie breakfast waffles at the Passionpie Cafe – yum!

    The friend I was road tripping with remarked one day, that T or C might possibly be the secret centre of the universe!

  18. Pingback: Tina & Farah’s Montreal Weekend Photo Essay | Broken Penguins

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