Lonely Planet Writer

Travel icons: should you see or ignore them?

Lonely Planet is mad for an icon. Then again, Lonely Planet is also mad for out-of-the-way places. Actually, Lonely Planet is just mad for travel. But our staffers are more polarised in their travel opinions.

Is it better to see the highlights when you travel - or seek out the hidden adventures? Here's a bet each way.

In the corner for icons, sorry ICONS, we have community analyst Trent Paton:

Icons get a bad rap, and I’m the first to admit that it’s often deserved. Who hasn’t stood before, say, Manneken Pis in Brussels, Lorelei Rock on the Rhine, or a very large banana in Australia, and wondered what the heck everyone gets carried away about? Let’s face it, there are icons and then there are ICONS (not to mention icons, paintings of religious significance associated with the Eastern Christian faiths, but we won’t discuss them here unless they’re also ICONS).

By ICONS, I’m talking about your big hitters: Istanbul’s Aya Sofya, Sydney’s Opera House, the Grand Canyon and other magnificent attractions that, no matter how many times you’ve seen them depicted on TV or on souvenir tea towels, will still leave you whimpering in their awesome presence.

These ICONS are iconic for a reason. They’re either the pinnacle of human achievement for their age (Pyramids, Angkor Wat), Mother Nature’s most majestic works of art (Mt Fuji, Uluru) or combinations of both (Cappadocia, Cape Town). They’re iconic because they’re incredible and unforgettable and unique. Stuff the crowds and expense; these things demand to be seen.

You don’t need to actually visit some icons, simply seeing them is enough. The Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer and Statue of Liberty are all best viewed from a distance, lording it over their respective cities (which are also icons in themselves), and don’t need to be climbed. And if the queues are too much you are permitted to skip some icons; it leaves plenty of time for visiting others. Icons are visited to improve the human experience, not merely to be ticked off for bragging rights.

And if the crowds are the real reason why you don’t like icons, simply ensure you visit at a quieter time of the year.

In defence of the little guys, we have digital producer Amy Gray:

What’s the point in visiting travel icons? Sure, they’re pretty on a postcard or effective as a blithe jealousy-inducing photo update on your Facebook and Twitter but apart from that they serve little purpose. You see them everywhere else – in photos, films, documentaries and other forms of flâneurotica. They don’t suffer from bad PR – in fact they hog it all.

The more overhyped the icon, the more I just don’t damn well care. Travel icons are encrusted with tourists, all twitching into position with their cameras, posing for well-rehearsed photos, mentally composing their next blog post and dodging whatever the latest sales tat they are trying to sell (in Montmartre, they’ll try to sell you string).

Naturally these iconic landmarks are notable for a reason but will you get to experience their majesty close up with 200 or so other tourists? Just how uplifting will it feel standing high up at the Eiffel Tower, jostled by others? Watching the cresting sunrise over Machu Picchu as it bloats with backpackers? Suddenly those cherished travel dreams to see these manmade or natural wonders become spotted, besmirched with the often witless and selfish actions of other tourists. Think you’re the only 4 people to take a photo on Abbey Road?

The icons are popular for a reason but the icon-seekers travelling to some tourist treasure map hunt are short-changing their holidays. The brilliance of travel is in the experience, not the icon. What makes a travel memory are the stories you wend around your experience – the people you travel with, the strange things that happened and generally the places in between those icons.

It’s a precious notion but Derrida and Baudrillard agree – travel is about seeking the difference from our everyday existence and seeking out the well worn path towards icons is not different, it’s just entrenching the everyday. So don’t go and stage an 'ooopsies the leaning tower of Pisa is bustin’ outta my pants'. Go and get lost. It’s the most rewarding thing you can do while travelling.


Trent: Visiting icons does not preclude one from seeking the difference from the mundane. It’s how a traveller spends the time between icons that defines their travel experience. And anyway, I bought some very fine string in Montmartre. It’s now displayed on my mantelpiece, next to a wonderful Le Chat Noir lithograph I picked up five minutes later. Before I entered the Moulin Rouge.

Amy: Some places are iconic for a reason, unless it’s Alanis Morrisette’s home in which case it’s ironic. In the case of some of the big hitters, it’s actually better for them if we don’t visit. How much longer can Angkor Wat handle all the tourists wanting to see the icon? How much work will have to be done in China’s Forbidden City to prevent further damage?

So what do you think? Are icons overrated - or are they the best way to get to know a place?