10 U.S. Tourist Traps to Avoid At All Costs
10 U.S. Tourist Traps to Avoid At All Costs

Just because your travel guide says that Plymouth Rock is a “must-see” stop on your New England vacation — don’t believe it! There’s a great deal of hype surrounding “popular” tourist destinations all over the country and they may not (and usually don’t) live up to their reputation. So, what’s the alternative? Instead, check out nearby vacation spots and activities that are just as fabulous and much less crowded. Here are 10 U.S. tourist traps to avoid — and where to go instead.

Skip the French Quarter and Head to the Garden District

Oldest southern live oak in New Orleans Audubon park on sunny day with hanging spanish moss.
Credit: krblokhin/ iStock

First time visitors to the Big Easy understandably insist on going to the French Quarter — it is the city’s most famous neighborhood, welcoming over 10 million visitors annually. But its popularity means the streets can become overwhelmingly crowded, especially once the sun sets. After enjoying some beignets and live music on Bourbon Street, hit the road before the nighttime crowds pour in to avoid the shoulder to shoulder foot traffic and long lines at bars.

New Orleans’ quieter neighborhoods give visitors an authentic look at what this city is all about. Just hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, offering easy transportation for just $3 a day. The first stop is the Garden District where some of New Orleans’s best classic architecture is on display. The Southern charm, oak tree-lined streets, bookshops, cafés, and museums are well worth a visit. Head a few blocks south to Magazine Street for some authentic Cajun cuisine. Take the streetcar a little further west to the Audubon neighborhood, home of Audubon Park with trees draped in Spanish moss, lagoons, bike paths, and a zoo.

Ditch Mount Rushmore and Visit Devils Tower Instead

Devil's Tower National Monument under early morning cloudy sky with the forest in the foreground
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Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous monuments in the country, carved into the granite cliffside of the Black Hills of western South Dakota. It honors four former Presidents and was created to lure tourists into this quiet corner of the Great Plains. During its busy season, around 5,000 people trek to see these giant heads every day. The site is ideal for a short stop on a road trip, but don’t make it a highlight.

Instead, drive to the other side of the Black Hills, across the border into Wyoming to Devils Tower. This geologic feature is also maintained by the Natural Park Service, but has far less of a touristy feel and features hiking trails, viewpoints, scurrying prairie dogs, and outdoor activities like rock climbing. It’s one of the best traditional crack climbing areas in North America. This massive stone measures 867 feet from its base to its summit and was designated as America’s first national monument in 1906. It is a sacred place to over 20 indigenous tribes, many of whom call it “Bear Lodge.” With 500,000 annual visitors, you won’t have to fight the crowds here as you would at Mount Rushmore, which receives millions of annual tourists.

Avoid the Virginia Beach Boardwalk and Go to the Outer Banks

Wooden walkway from a viewpoint in the marsh leads to the Bodie Island lighthouse on the outer banks of North Carolina
Credit: Stephen B. Goodwin/ Shutterstock

Full of chain restaurants, crowded beaches, and tourist-trap souvenir shops, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk is better to avoid, especially during peak summer vacation season. For a quiet and more scenic adventure, head two hours south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These barrier islands boast state parks, shipwreck diving, coastal cuisine, and plenty of beach activities.

The islands and towns of the Outer Banks are diverse; there is truly something for everyone. The northern village of Corolla is unspoiled, home to wild horses and pristine coastlines, and the nearby town Duck is known for its boardwalk and family-friendly beaches — a much smaller and more relaxing version of other East Coast boardwalks. Kitty Hawk boasts the most hotel options, and for history buffs, it is also the home of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where the famous aviators took their first flight.

Steer Clear of Alcatraz and Visit Angel Island

Sign for Angel Island State Park in dock  with boats and trees.
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Alcatraz is undoubtedly San Francisco’s most famous island, known for its dark history and now-defunct prison. Getting a ferry to Alcatraz sets you back around $40 per person, and for such a small island, its one million annual visitors make the place a little too crowded. Your time is likely better spent at the island next door, Angel Island, which costs half as much to get to and boasts views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Angel Island State Park is the largest natural island in the bay and is home to rustic campsites, miles of hiking trails, and serene beaches with skyline views. Centuries ago, the island was a hunting ground and gathering place for the Coast Miwok tribe. From 1910 to 1940, its immigration station processed thousands of immigrants, and during the Cold War, Angel Island was home to a Nike missile base. The Immigration Museum, visitor center, and placards around the island share even more about its rich history.

Skip the Fountain of Youth and Visit a Natural Florida Spring

Stairs into natural spring surrounded by trees.
Credit: Joanne Dale/ Shutterstock

St. Augustine is the storied location of Juan Ponce de Leon’s 16th-century search for the Fountain of Youth. While this city is home to many worthy sights, its Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is not one of them. For $20 a person, the actual Fountain of Youth is nothing more than a trickle of water falling into a pipe.

If you’re looking for spring waters befitting of mystical powers, go further inland to one of central Florida’s many breathtaking natural springs, where you can swim, relax in the sun, and enjoy the local wildlife. Blue Spring State Park is an hour and a half south of St. Augustine on the St. Johns River. It has designated swimming areas, kayaking, paddleboarding, and hiking trails. One of the park's biggest draws is its most famous resident, the manatee. Catch a glimpse of these gentle giants during a guided river cruise or kayaking excursion.

Skip the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Take a Studio Tour Instead

The entrance to Warner Brothers Studio Tour with Bugs Bunny and Duffy Duck statues.
Credit: Natalia Macheda/ Shutterstock

If you're looking for the glamour of Hollywood or want to spot celebrities just waiting to sign your autograph book, don’t go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead of the glitz of Hollywood all you'll find are crowds of tourists, tacky gift shops, and the odd street performer. The truth is that the area is much more grime than glam. If you have to make the trek, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre may be the only reason to venture into this area.

If you want to truly see where Hollywood magic happens, head to one of the city's many film studios and take a tour. Studios are a great way to get a glimpse into film history and the secrets behind the camera. On the valley-side of Hollywood Hills, you'll find Warner Brothers Studios. A guided tram will zip you around the large studio grounds to show off all kinds of film sets. You'll feel like you're on location as you journey through old town squares and familiar cityscapes. See how films are made by visiting the interactive Stage 48: Script to Screen.

Skip Plymouth Rock and Go Whale Watching

A whale jumping out of the water near Cape Cod.
Credit: Danni Schmitz Martin/ Shutterstock

Do you want to see where the pilgrims first landed in the New World? Then don’t go to Plymouth Rock! The real landing site was more likely near Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. Unfortunately, the town of Plymouth will try to convince you otherwise and get you to visit their star attraction. In our opinion, there are much better things to do instead of gaze upon a rock.

If you're in the area, book a whale watching excursion. The season runs from April to October and the thrill of watching these giant mammals frolic on the open waters of the Atlantic is unforgettable. The tours are run by naturalists whose love of the whale will make your trip both fun and a learning experience. Grab some of the best seafood on the Eastern Seaboard at Town Wharf before you set sail from Plymouth to Cape Cod Bay, where you'll have the chance to get up close and personal with Finback, Humpback and Pilot Whales. If you are lucky, you may spot the mysterious and endangered Right Whale. Plus, you'll get the same view of land the pilgrims had hundreds of years ago.

Skip Times Square and Visit The Met

People in a long hallway gallery of Greek sculptures at The Met.
Credit: Studio Barcelona/ Shutterstock

You know what you won’t find in Times Square? Locals. The crowds are plentiful and most of the shopping involves tacky (but expensive) souvenirs and chain restaurants. Times Square is the epitome of a tourist trap. New York has so much more to offer.

Instead of ogling at the lights of Times Square advertising the latest movie or fashion label, go see some real art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met, as it’s affectionately called, is so big that you can’t see it all in a day. Go online and find the exhibits that interest you and hit all of those on your first trip — you will be back! You should also consider the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Skip Roswell, New Mexico and Visit the Walker Air Force Base

Close up of a propellor on an old plane.
Credit: Alex Veresovich/ Shutterstock

When you think Roswell, your mind immediately goes to aliens and flying saucers. UFO legends have turned the town into one big fat gimmick, where everything that could possibly be shaped like an alien or UFO is sold to tourists. The town prides itself on being the alleged site of a 1947 alien crash landing and has created a tourist trap that will remind you of one of those late-night, low-budget sci-fi movies — full of creepy aliens. The biggest tourist trap in town is the International UFO Museum and Research Center (sounds kind of scientific). The best thing — it will only cost you $5 to get in.

If you are in Roswell and are interested in things that fly, skip all the UFO and ET nonsense and visit the Walker Aviation Museum. Based at the Walker Air Force Base, the museum is dedicated to sharing historical information about this important military base and the men and women who served here. Walker was the base for the US Air Force’s strongest fighting force during WWII and home of the famous Enola Gay.

Skip Graceland and Visit Beale Street

View down Beale Street at dawn, with glowing neon signs for blues clubs.
Credit: Sean Pavone/ Shutterstock

Even Elvis would wince at Graceland's gaudiness and how his estate has chosen to memorialize him. Aside from the excess number of Elvis imitators, Graceland is way overpriced. Admission does not even get you access to much of the home and you basically have to guide yourself around with an iPad (John Stamos’ voice is there to talk you through the tour). The food is as bad as the tour, so, unless you are a die-hard fan of the King, avoid both at all cost.

If you want to feel the rhythm and blues of Memphis, head to Beale Street. It may not be less crowded but at least you'll have plenty of space to spread out and explore the bars and restaurants that feature live music performances each night. If you're lucky, you'll catch the Beale Street Flippers performing in the street.

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