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World's Best Tourist Attractions

China: Great Wall of China (Photo: iStockphoto/Xin Zhu)
by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 20, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Agra, arts and culture, Athens, Beijing, destination, Giza, history, Jiayuguan, Kate Sitarz, London, Machu Picchu, mountain, museum, New Orleans, Paris, Rome, Shanhaiguan, trekking.

The Acropolis. The Eiffel Tower. The Great Wall of China. Sometimes, following the well-worn path really is the best way to appreciate a destination. Sure, we roused your ire with our recent coverage of the World's Worst Tourist Traps, but we also know there are some sights you just can't miss. You may still end up waiting in long lines, but there's a reason why our best tourist attractions are worth the wait.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece

The view of Athens from atop the Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, makes a visit worthwhile; and seeing the Parthenon up close is a much different experience than seeing it in a photo. The €12 admission fee (about $15 U.S.; check XE.com for current exchange rates) grants you access to several attractions, including the Acropolis of Athens, the north and south slopes of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora of Athens, and more.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

As one of the most visited sites in Italy, it's no surprise your first encounter with the Colosseum (site in Italian) will involve greetings from trinket peddlers, followed by long lines and a hefty ticket price—€12, with a €3 surcharge during exhibitions (about $15 and $4 U.S., respectively). However, once you enter its walls, it's easy to imagine yourself back in 79AD, amongst crowds of up to 50,000 people cheering on gladiators—a feeling even a Russell Crowe movie can't recreate.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Tchotchke sellers, long waits in ticket lines, and flashy lights that go off on the hour are all major turnoffs, but the Eiffel Tower still manages to hold all the romantic charm you'd expect. When Gustave Eiffel began construction for the 1889 World's Fair, Parisians saw it as an eyesore. Now this iconic 300-meter iron structure is synonymous with the City of Light. Taking the 1,665 stairs is cheaper (€4.50, or about $5.50 U.S.), but if you expect to get to the top you'll have wasted a lot of energy. The views are spectacular from any part of the structure, but if you've traveled all the way to Paris, you'll likely want to wait a few extra minutes in line, and spend a bit more money (an elevator ride to the top costs €13, or $16 U.S.) to take in the expansive views from the very top.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Constructed in the 1400s, the Forbidden City is a literal tourist trap, surrounded by 10-meter high walls and a 52-meter wide moat. It lies in the center of Beijing, north of Tiananmen Square, and now houses the Palace Museum, which has around one million objects. Expect to pay between 40 and 60 yuan (about $6 to 9 U.S.), depending on the time of year. Around eight million tourists visit the halls, gardens, and pavilions that were once home to 24 Ming and Qing emperors. With that many visitors, the grounds are easily packed, and there's even a Starbucks, creating an unfortunate juxtaposition between the past and present. Nonetheless, the 72-hectare complex is worth a visit to see the largest ancient palatial structure in the world, and there are several different routes you can take, depending on what you want to see and how much time you have to spend.

Great Wall of China, Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan, China

It's impossible to appreciate the magnitude of the Great Wall of China without actually seeing it in person. Most tour groups head to the portion of the wall closest to Beijing, the Badaling section, as it is the most well-preserved, but there are numerous places along the approximately 5,500 mile wall where crowds are much thinner. Access to the wall varies, depending on where you visit, but you can expect to pay around 40 to 50 yuan (about $6 to 7 U.S.), or a bit more for extras such as cable car rides and crossing bridges. More suited for serious hikers, the Jiankou section has no admission fee, no one trying to pawn off goods, and is open 24 hours. Locals charge around 5 yuan for parking. Portions of the wall are in disrepair, but the Mutianyu section offers 22 watchtowers, and is the longest fully-restored portion of the wall open to tourists. It features easy walking conditions and fewer crowds. If you're up for more of a challenge, you can hike the seven-and-a-half-mile portion between Jinshanling and Simatai, or run a marathon.

Machu Picchu, near Aguas Calientes, Peru

There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu, and you don't necessarily have to get into shape to do it, but a four-day trek on the Inca Trail may be the most rewarding. If you don't want to exert yourself quite as much on vacation, a train runs from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes for about $98 round-trip. From there, buses make the remaining eight-kilometer hike up the mountain. The bus costs around $14 round-trip and takes about 30 minutes. The 20-minute walk from Aguas Calientes to Puente Ruinas is the alternative, followed by another hour march up the remaining two kilometers to Machu Picchu. The cost to visit the site is almost as steep as the climb (S/128, about $45 U.S.), but is worth it if you take the time to walk around and explore.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a stroll down famed Bourbon Street (and maybe a pint of beer or two). If you stick to people watching, you may escape with your wallet intact. However, chances are the bars and souvenir shops lining the street will be next to impossible to avoid, and you'll find yourself lured into one, or several, of these establishments, if only out of curiosity. Stick to bars that aren't frat houses, such as Preservation Hall just off Bourbon Street, which often has live jazz music; or Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar, which is said to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the country.

Pyramids of Giza, Giza, Egypt

There are more than 100 known pyramids in Egypt, but Giza is home to some of the largest, including the famous Great Pyramid of Giza, or Pyramid of Khufu. Unfortunately, modern developments (including fast-food chains), have crept up on the site, and tour buses unload thousands of visitors each year. Still, the fact that a formation completed around 2550BC with around 2.3 million blocks of stone is still standing is an impressive testament to the ingenuity of the Egyptians, and a feat to behold in person. The cost to enter the Great Pyramid is E£100 (about $18 U.S., extra fees may apply for photography), and tickets are limited to 300 visitors daily. At nearby Khafre's Pyramid, entrance costs E£35 (about $6 U.S.). Smaller pyramids lie to the east of the Great Pyramid and are free to visitors. If you throw in a visit to the Great Sphinx of Giza (E£20), the fees start to add up, but the price is worth a peek thousands of years into the past.

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Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Built out of love by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, the Taj Mahal is visited by millions each year. However, with an area covering several acres, there's more than enough room to avoid the crowds. Materials for the creation of the mausoleum were brought from all over India and central Asia, including rare, semi-precious, and precious stones used in the inlay work. The 500 rupee toll tax, plus 250 rupee entry fee (about $11 and $5.50 U.S., respectively) won't buy you any of these jewels, but will cover admission to Fatehpur Sikri, as well as several other monuments in and around Agra. There are special night viewing tours (750 rupees for half an hour admittance; must be purchased 24 hours in advance) five nights per month including the night of a full moon and the two days before and after, with the exception of Fridays and month of Ramadan. Viewing the Taj at night is a great way to escape the often unbearable daytime heat, and the way the moon lights up the white marble will have you wondering why you ever doubted visiting.

Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Since other major attractions in London are free (British Museum, National Gallery, Tate, etc.), it's worth spending the money on a visit to the Tower of London. You can spend hours roaming the grounds and buildings that make up the complex, so it's best to arrive early to avoid the crowds that are sure to arrive later in the day. Hit the crown jewels first, so when you want a second look across the moving walkway you can take one without having to wait in a long line. Be on the lookout for stone graffiti, carved in the walls by prisoners held in the tower. Booking tickets online results in a slight discount (£1, or about $1.50 U.S off admission), otherwise expect to pay £17 (about $25 U.S.). Take advantage of what your ticket includes, and make time for a Yeoman Warder guided tour and talk. Have questions? Ask a Yeoman Warder or the Jewel House or White Tower wardens. Visitors looking to see the four other historic royal palaces (Hampton Court, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, and Kew Palace) can purchase a ticket for unlimited entry to all for £41 (about $61 U.S.).

Your Turn

What great tourist attractions did we leave out? Did you find any of these spots worth the money? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below, and don't forget to share your best pictures of these or any of your favorite tourist sites by clicking on the gallery above!

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