Apr 29, 2012 7:21:36 AM
Top tourist hot spots worth the crowds
The hordes come to these places for a reason. Don’t hate them just because they’re popular or you’ll miss out! This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences gives you the places worth the queues.
1. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Tourists crawl over Angkor like ants over a picnic blanket. But it’s worth joining them to register your first glimpse of this shrine-city’s awesome main temple, the world’s biggest religious structure, Angkor Wat, with its lotus-shaped towers and extraordinary bas-reliefs. Angkor was sculpted from sandstone between the 9th and 13th centuries to satisfy the egos of a succession of Khmer devaraja (god-kings), providing the ancient empire with the grandest capital imaginable. The site contains hundreds of temples besides Angkor Wat, and is still being reclaimed from the jungle that overgrew it when it was abandoned in the 15th century. Capitol temple is a must-see during the early evening; escape the crowds by taking a mototaxi to the newly opened ruins at Banteay Srei, 25km from the main site.
2. Prague’s Old Town, Czech Republic
Prague’s Staré Město (Old Town) is wildly crowded day and night. Note that restaurants and bars around Old Town Square are notorious for criminally overcharging visitors. Wandering the district’s tight lanes on rainy days means constantly ducking to avoid being impaled on umbrella tips. And groups of drunken males stagger around at night ritually humiliating the groom in their midst. All of which is forgotten once you see Týn Church’s delirious baroque trimmings, the art-nouveau brilliance of Municipal House and the magnificent bulk of Prague Castle across the Vltava. Daily four-hour walking tours run all year 11am–2pm, revealing the secrets of Old Town. They end up at Prague Castle or the Old Town Square.
3. Eiffel Tower, France
Men love to build towers (perhaps it’s something about the shape) and Gustave Eiffel was no exception. Commissioned to build an eye-catching entryway for Paris’ upcoming Exposition Universelle, he finally unveiled his 300m-high iron icon in 1889. The structure was only meant to stand for 20 years but won global admiration for its beautiful architectural form and has stood its ground, despite attempts to demolish it by aliens (Mars Attacks) and Thunderbird puppets (Team America: World Police). Put it on your ‘must-visit’ list – after all, 6 million people a year can’t be wrong. Visiting hours from July to September are 9–12.30am; miss the rush by arriving first thing or catch the last entry at midnight.
4. Florence, Italy
The capital of bella Tuscany can test the endurance of the most hardened traveller. Its piazzas are filled with the whir of digital cameras, the leather and jewellery shops hem you in, and money belts can disappear faster than kisses. But Florence is also Italy’s Renaissance jewel and few cities can match its classic beauty. Swoon over Michelangelo’s David in the Academy of Design Gallery, the gorgeous headpiece of the Brunelleschi-built Duomo, and the stunning sculptural landscape of the Boboli Gardens, or just sit in a cafe and swoon over handsome passers-by. The city is virtually tourist free (and cheaper!) in winter; many restaurants and attractions are closed Sunday and Monday, so plan accordingly.
5. Grand Canyon, USA
Arizona’s desolate back-country is one of the last places you’d expect to get stuck in traffic, but this is typically what confronts visitors to the Grand Canyon. Once your vehicle is stowed away, however, you can check out one impressive hole in the ground: a 446km-long channel dug out of the surrounding rock by the Colorado River. The canyon measures 29km at its widest point and 1500m at its deepest. Stare into its magnificent depths from up on the South Rim or hike to the canyon floor and back; lazy types impose themselves upon a mule. The North Rim gets around 10% of the number of visitors that head to the South Rim; plan your trip at www.nps.gov/grca.
6. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe & Zambia
Victoria Falls is an astonishing sight, the result of a 1.7km-wide stretch of the Zambezi River falling into a crack in a basalt plateau and being crunched in a narrow gorge. In 1855 explorer David Livingstone presumed to name Victoria Falls after his homeland’s monarch, but its local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya (Smoke That Thunders). Try to catch these 108mhigh falls during the wet season. But regardless of when you go, plan your trip carefully, as the turbulence of this enormous cascade unfortunately reflects the current social climate of Zimbabwe and Zambia, the two countries that provide access to it. The Zimbabwean side is cheaper, safe and far less crowded; head to Victoria Falls Town. Remember to stock up on US currency.
7. Pyramids, Egypt
Judging by the scale of many of the pyramids anchored in the desert around Cairo, the word ‘modesty’ wasn’t in the vocabulary of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs. This is particularly true of Khufu, who around 2560 BC commissioned the Great Pyramid, which dwarfs two similar structures at Giza. Khufu’s gigantic burial monument is the only surviving member of the original Seven Wonders of the World, and that should be enough to tempt you to see it silhouetted against a North African sky. By the by, ‘pyramid’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘wheat cake’; apparently the pharaohs liked pointy desserts. The Mena House Oberoi is a short walk from the pyramids; a room with a view costs around US$240 per night.
8. Taj Mahal, India
The Taj Mahal was completed at Agra in 1653 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to glorify the beauty of his favourite (but dead) wife. So, is this minaret-ringed marvel with its domed mausoleum, white-marble calligraphy and bejewelled inner chambers a romantic dream come true, or is it a lavish folly to which the labours of 20,000 people over 22 years should not have been devoted? You be the judge. The story behind the Taj Mahal has already been dealt with on-screen by Bollywood director Akbar Khan; it’s only a matter of time before the Hugh Grant version appears. Dine at the Taj Khema hotel during a full moon for unmissable views of the Taj; the hotel is 200m from the Eastern Gate.
9. Machu Picchu, Peru
The fabulous stonework of the ruined Inca city of Machu Picchu is nestled high in the Peruvian Andes. It was built in the mid-15th century but abandoned only a century later, around the time some Spanish visitors arrived bearing malice and smallpox. Archaeologist Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site on behalf of the outside world in 1911 and Peru’s tourism bureaucrats are still thanking him. The ruins and the Inca Trail connecting them with Cuzco were becoming buried under tourist numbers and waste until several years ago, when toilets were installed and visitors limited to a mere 500 per day. Solo visitors are now banned. Organised treks must be booked 30 days in advance, plus a nonrefundable entrance fee of US$50.
10. Uluru, Australia
Massive, monolithic Uluru is embedded in the remote Australian outback and draws hundreds of visitors at dawn and dusk to watch the rock’s colours magically change with the rising and setting of the sun. Some people choose to scale this sandstone giant even though the rock’s custodians, the Anangu people, ask visitors to keep their feet on the ground out of respect for Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. A more respectful way of exploring enigmatic Uluru is to circumnavigate it via the Base Walk, a 9.5km trail that often allows you a little solitude. Rise above the masses with a 15-minute helicopter ride over Uluru. It costs AU$120 per person; details are at www.uluru.com.