Each city has its beacon to tourists—be it the Empire State Building or the Acropolis, the Blue Lagoon or La Sagrada Familia—and it's hard to resist its pull. We've all had this moment, when we ask ourselves, Should I really wait in line for the experience? Will I have lifelong FOMO if I do? At Traveler, we debate these attractions all the time, and here, we offer the ones that left a lasting impression, even after a two-hour queue.
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On my recent (and first!) trip to Paris, I decided to bite the bullet and buy tickets to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Once in a lifetime, right? Two excruciating hours later—including multiple lines and stampedes of the most aggressive tourists I've ever seen—I had reached the top. I tried my best to take in the views in my frazzled state, but was too confounded by all of the selfie sticks and giant families swilling overpriced champagne. It's fascinating to see the city from so high up, but there are other spots in Paris with breathtaking views. Next time I'll preserve my sanity and opt for Parc de Belleville (Paris's highest park) or Printemps's panoramic rooftop café, Deli-Cieux. —Corrie Vierregger
I distinctly remember my visit to the Eiffel Tower. On my insistence, my boyfriend and I had booked a tour on Viator (which I highly recommend), so our tickets had been purchased ahead of time and were waiting for our group at will call. The wait to get the top wasn’t particularly memorable—I don’t think it took too long—but it was absolutely worth it. We had an excellent tour guide to distract us: an American art history major, who was funny and gently navigated us around other massive groups of Instagram-greedy tourists as she relayed Eiffel Tower anecdotes. When we finally made it to the top, my boyfriend and I each swigged a couple glasses of champagne, because #YOLO. I’d do it again, but not without the tour. —Betsy Blumenthal
Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first, or hundredth, time is always a thrill—although it’s chock-a-block full of tourists now, and at risk of decay. What surprises many is the beauty of the monument’s details. Up close, the pietra dura work—including lapis lazuli, cornelian, onyx, and topaz—is extraordinary. However, there’s lots of pushing and shoving and one too many selfie-sticks about. Once you’ve checked this wonder off your bucket list, take a trip to the other side of the Yamuna River and visit “Baby Taj”—the tomb of Itamad-ud-Daulah, built between 1622 and 1628. The inlay work here is even more remarkable, and its surrounding cruciform garden is a blissfully peaceful spot in otherwise chaotic Agra. —David Jefferys
Given that it's, you know, the greatest wall of all, there are plenty of entry points to experience China's 13,000-mile fortification turned attraction. The well-preserved section at Badaling gets the most visitors, and has almost as many hawkers trying to get you to go home with a lifetime supply of Mao souvenirs. But you don't need to endure all that—Beijing hotel Opposite House offers guided drives up to the less-trafficked sections at Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng, Simatai, and Jinshanling, where the views are no less astounding. Try to ignore the graffiti on the wall (there was a Harry Potter series spoiler scribbled there when I went in 2007) and take in the horizons. And don't forget about the toboggan ride down at the end. —Laura Dannen Redman
La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s totally bonkers cathedral under construction since 1882, rises out of the city skyline like something out of Dr. Seuss’s imagination. Recently, on a trip that included just a day and a half in Barcelona, I obviously had to go. So I went, and I saw it…from the outside. After the very first glimpse of its winding spires and surrealist sculptures, I was appropriately wowed. But then, after navigating my way through throngs of tourists, I learned that the wait time for a ticket to enter the cathedral was 2.5 hours. I did the math. I had about 36 hours in the city—would these two and a half precious hours be worth it, if it meant being shuttled through, along with a hundred trigger-happy tourists with their iPhones in the air, without any time to really take it in? The short answer: no. Instead, I put on my headphones and went for a long, meandering walk through the city that started with a feast at La Boqueria—a sprawling food market, where I ate my weight in oysters—and finally, as dusk set in, a cold beer picked up at a convenience store, sitting on the beach. Sometimes it’s okay to skip the landmarks if it means skipping the stress. —Sebastian Modak
I recently recommended that a co-worker who was planning a visit to Iceland skip the Blue Lagoon, and though it might be a controversial suggestion, I stand by it. The first time I went to Iceland—10 years ago—the Blue Lagoon was the highlight of a trip that was packed full of them. We were so enthralled by the famous mineral-rich, sky-hued water, plunked seemingly in the middle of nowhere (but in reality not too far from the airport) that we visited twice in four days. This time around, I knew things had changed when we were told at check-in—yes, a lagoon has a check-in—that our wristbands could be used to buy drinks at not one, but two swim-up bars. Everyone around us (and we were surrounded—the lagoon was filled to capacity) carried a cocktail in one hand and a water-protected cell phone or GoPro in the other. The vibe was less "uninhabited outer space swimming hole" and more "overpopulated Vegas hotel pool."
Luckily, Iceland is one of the great countries for swimmers. We drove to Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal spa about an hour outside of the city on a steaming lake. It was smaller than the Blue Lagoon, but the unobstructed views, black sand beach, baths and steam rooms, and the fact we were completely alone for much of our time there more than made up for it. —Jayna Maleri
Cape Town's Table Mountain is one of the city's most striking attractions, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. Take the cable car, hike it, or even sign up to rappel down (though in SA it's "abseiling"). But my favorite view of the city, Camp’s Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean is from Lion’s Head. I think it’s a more breathtaking view than Table Mountain and allows you to see the clouds roll over the top of the bigger landmark. The top of Lion’s Head isn’t accessible by cable car but the hike isn’t strenuous and takes about three hours round-trip. The trip is particularly popular on a full moon, but don’t forget to bring a layer or two and a head lamp! —Meredith Carey
The Acropolis is definitely worth a visit, but it can get clogged, and I think it dazzles most when viewed from afar anyway. Get to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the tallest point in Athens. It hast a 19th-century chapel, and at a height of 910 feet, a 360-degree panorama of the city and some of the best views of the Acropolis; in the distance, you can even see the Aegean Sea. In mythology, the goddess Athena dropped a limestone rock and formed Lycabettus on her way to creating the Acropolis, so it's kind of all related. For less of a trek, try Mouseion Hill, southwest of the Acropolis. —Katherine LaGrave
Why anyone would wait in a line for a museum is beyond me. Thanks to smart outfits like Context Travel and Museum Hack, you can now skip the line and actually get something meaningful out of your visit, all for just a few bucks more than the price of admission. A few years back, during an all-too-brief day trip to Florence, I spent a magical afternoon seeing the highlights of the Uffizi with a brilliant Context guide named Molly. There was even time to spare for an espresso at her favorite café before I hopped back on the train that evening. —Paul Brady