Like many of you, I’ve been caught in the occasional “tourist trap” over the years. I’ve found myself waking up in a cookie-cutter hotel room, with a generic print of a local landmark over the bed, or on a street full of gift shops selling puntastic T-shirts. Then I ask myself, “How did I get here? Aren’t I a better traveler than this?”
Tourist traps are everywhere tourists can be found, and they can ensnare us all. But what exactly is a tourist trap? And how should we think about them?
What constitutes a tourist trap?
A tourist trap is, by definition, a place that attracts and exploits tourists. But Merriam-Webster doesn’t leave much room for nuance. After all, one person’s trap is another person’s treasure.
A tourist trap is often cast as the opposite of an “authentic” experience. It’s somewhere we skip if we’re looking for the “soul” of a destination. But what makes, say, visiting a hidden supper club in Hackney more true to London than watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace? Who’s to say what is truly “authentic,” anyway?
There’s also a distinction between a tourist hot spot and a tourist trap. Many hot spots—for example, the Eiffel Tower—are marvels of engineering, nature, or culture that are kept standing, alive, or protected for visitors. The trinket stalls that surround them, however, err on the side of traps.
Instead of asking how to avoid tourist traps, perhaps a better question is: How can travelers more deeply immerse themselves in a new city—to experience both its beloved landmarks and the places less familiar to the average visitor?
Seek out local experts
“Avoiding ‘inauthentic’ experiences requires research and advance planning,” says Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based writer who offers small group tours of the city. “However, it can be as simple as scoping out who the local, trustworthy voices are.”
She recommends reading the work of writers who live in the city you’re visiting, as well as following chefs or restaurant owners on social media.
Tune in to the local frequencies
Mary Rickard, a semi-retired journalist who leads walking tours of New Orleans through Context Travel, suggests tuning in to the local radio station and reading the newspapers to get primed before your trip. You’ll also find out about concerts, art exhibitions, and other community events.
In New Orleans, for example, musicians are often guests on WWOZ radio shows leading up to performances. Attend a gig and you might strike up a conversation that teaches you something new about the city and the people who live there.
Step away from the tour bus
Coach tours can play a valuable role in facilitating travel if you’re unable or unwilling to make your own way in unfamiliar territory. But renting a car, Rickard says, can offer “a more leisurely experience of less-visited sites and roadside restaurants.”
The same is true for other, more independent, forms of transportation—like walking, cycling, and taking public transit. If I’d done that in Marrakech a few years back, I’d have spent less time in my taxi driver’s cousin’s perfume shop.
Seek out new neighborhoods
A city’s heart may be found among its lesser known arteries. Joan Roca, CEO and founder of Essentialist, a private members’ service for travelers, recommends doing a little research in advance—but also, when you feel safe to do so, letting yourself go with the flow in the present.
“Take that map out, and make note of where the big attractions are and what is familiar to you,” he says. “Then look to the other spaces on the map. Perhaps it’s a green space . . . perhaps it’s a maze of streets away from the well-known areas that’s caught your eye.”
Consider when you travel
Meaningful interactions can be had at quieter times of day and year, as a dawn visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City with an infant once taught me. “Traveling in the low season,” Roca says, “will help avoid both tourists and traps alike.”
Tim Chester Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.