Tourist Traps That Don’t Suck

Ah, the tourist trap. A danger well-known to the savvy traveler, and one best avoided. It’s usually a cesspool of gaudy, overpriced trinkets, loud fellow tourists and shopkeepers, and somewhere in there, a pretty pitiful excuse for a landmark. Whether it’s a pit stop on a cross-country tour or a planned part of the itinerary, a tourist trap is, to those of us saving pennies and looking for more than plastic souvenirs, a hellish place.

Except when it’s not.

Hear me out, dearest fellow travelers! I’m certainly not saying that I’m planning my next vacation around a day at Wall Drug or an afternoon in Times Square, but the fact is that this is a pretty fantastic world we live in, and in even the most commercialized of places, there’s usually something of real value. Most of the time, this is because the people working the place have some interesting facts to share about it or a friendly perspective on the local culture. As we know, it’s the people who make the difference in where we go and what we see when we get there.

But sometimes it’s the place itself that’s worth seeing, honestly. My best example is Navy Pier. This is a giant pier originally built in 1916 to dock cargo boats and the like, as well as some pleasure boats. It has since grown into Chicago’s #1 tourist attraction, with a giant Ferris wheel (modeled after the first one ever, which debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893), several theaters, restaurants, bars, and docking for many pleasure boats. It is generally considered by most Chicagoans to be a hideous place, only visited when clueless relatives are in town. It has an indoor arcade of shop after cheap shop, a nasty little fast food court, and low ceilings lit by glaring fluorescence. In the summer especially, the entire pier is overrun with screaming children careening all over, drunk parents yelling after them, and slouching teenagers forming impassable knots on the throughways. Everything costs three times what it does in the rest of the city, the lines go on for miles, and it’s not like it’s even a famous or historical site.

Navy Pier

Navy Pier: Not So Bad! (photo via

But! There’s a lot of good stuff going on at Navy Pier, underneath that hokey exterior. In the past few months alone, I’ve gone on a delightful brunch cruise, seen Taming of the Shrew at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and watched the acrobats of Cirque Shanghai tumble across the stage at sunset. Granted, these were all made considerably more enjoyable because they were free or nearly free (thank you, friends involved in theater). But the fact that they were there at all is impressive. Sure, the cruise had a cheesy DJ, but the brunch was tasty, and you can’t argue against a turn around the harbor on a bright summer day. The CST does some fantastic shows (even Shakespeare’s most blatantly misogynistic number was acted and costumed well), and the acrobatics of Cirque Shanghai are quite literally breathtaking. Each time I met up with friends to attend these events, I grumbled about getting all the way over there (it’s a two-bus destination) and dealing with the crowds, but once I got there, the crowds weren’t so bad, and the shows and rides were totally worth it.

There’s a lot of neat stuff packed onto that pier, and I’m now less likely to dismiss it as a whole. Some people might call that personal growth. I just call it application of advanced travel skills. You too can learn these skills of finding the fun and interesting wherever you go, and apply them to your own tourist traps.

So tell me, what tourist traps do you know of that don’t suck? Which ones have hidden gems and specific times to go? Which ones would you recommend (even with qualifications) to friends and visitors? Let everyone know in the comments!

17 thoughts on “Tourist Traps That Don’t Suck

  1. Lisa, I would add Leland, Michigan. We have been there probably 20 times and each time I look forward to it and enjoy the same places as well as seeing who’s new. The ticky-tacky stores in Fishtown are still fun for me and (as you well know) I like to talk with the owners and see their view, how the summer is going, a good /basd year, the weather, etc.

    Re: Navy Pier….my first memory of enjoying Navy Pier was…ChicagoFest

    ChicagoFest was a summer music festival in the city of Chicago, started in 1978 by Mayor Michael Bilandic. It was held annually at Navy Pier, and lasted for roughly two weeks. It featured sixteen separate stages, each sponsored by a national retail brand and a media sponsor compatible to the stage’s format, e.g. Rock WLUP and The Chicago Tribune, Jazz and Miller Brewing Company, Blues and WXRT, that broadcast live from the festival. The stages were: Rock, Classic Rock, Country, Blues, Comedy, Roller Disco, Pin Ball Arcade, Jazz, Children’s, Variety, Ethnic, and Main stage seating 30,000. There were approximately 600 performances produced each year.
    Some of the hundreds of superstars that appeared over the years were Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, Carole King, George Burns, Chicago, Willie Nelson with Waylon Jennings, The Lennon Sisters and Bobby Vinton, Journey, The Commodores, Kool and The Gang, The Chicago Symphony Muddy Waters was scheduled opening night but was unable to perform for emergency health reasons, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, the Blues Brothers (who performed opening night at the request of the mayor’s office since Muddy Waters cancelled) and a live TV broadcast of Bozo’s Circus.

    In addition to The Main Stage, for each day’s headliner, ChicagoFest featured 16 others, that presented four acts a day. Acts early each day drew from area bar bands, but the final act of each night on each stage was usually a nationally known recording artist. Spyro Gyra, Chick Corea and Gary Burton – Jazz, Joan Jett, .38 Special and Point Blank, The Joe Perry Project, The Scorpions, Krokus, and many more on the Rock on The Dock Stage, Asleep at the Wheel and Carl Perkins on the Country Stages. The Buckinghams and Jan & Dean were among oldies stage closers.

    Admission to the fest was $5 General admission per day.

      • I saw: Lonnie Brooks do “Sweet Home Chicago”…and it was a classic version that went about 8 min and got EVERYONE jumpin’, Son Seals do “Dont Throw Your Love On Me So Strong, Son Seals who I then went to see at Biddy Mulligans up on the north side….and where your mom and I found, “Le Choza”, an authentic Mexican restaurant that had the first (that I ever witnessed) BYOB policy…evidently they did not have a liquor license but either looked the other way or encouraged folks to BYOB and Mighty Joe Young do “Need A Friend”. I then saw MJY many times at Wise Fools Pub. It was the first time I ever “got into” the blues and have loved them (and really appreciated live versions) ever since.
        My memory of these early ChicagoFest years on Navy Pier were we went in the daytime and never stayed for headliners at night.

      • I love it when artists do “Sweet Home Chicago” at shows here. I don’t care if it’s pandering to the crowd — it’s such a great song and everyone loves it! ChicagoFest sounds pretty great; looks like it was the precursor to the Taste of Chicago concerts. Way to be on the cutting edge of music as usual, Dad. 😉

        Vee, I saw the end of a Cheap Trick show a year or two ago at the Taste, and they’re still rocking that double guitar. Fun times.

  2. So I thought back to tourist traps I have visited and my favorite ones do not involve food in any way. So Pikes Place? Tasty but a sensory overload! SF Embarcadero? You keep your minions and overpriced food away from me. Those Hard Rock Cafes and Planet Hollywoods rising like a venus fly trap for out-of-towners? Stay back! I prefer those places well known but lacking provisions and I think I know why: people don’t loiter. See it. Touch it. Take a picture and then get the hell out because we’re hungry, damn it.

    So that said, my favorite tourist trap is Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum. Because they sell t-shirts for it.

  3. I feel compelled to point out one other attraction of Navy Pier: Chicago Public Radio’s studios. (You know I had to do it.) I have many lovely memories of biking there to volunteer, and then afterwards spending some time on the quiet side of the pier (there is one, and sooooo much different than the other side) just watching the water & gulls and sometimes the sunset. You are also spot on about the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

    • Hey, as we know, I am in the minority here in not enjoying NPR. And I didn’t actually know that Chicago Public Radio has its studios at Navy Pier. The place gets fancier every time I look at it!

  4. Perhaps it was due to the beginning-of-the-road-trip excitement, the Paul Simon song, and the excellent company, but … I loved Graceland.

    Elvis’ taste in decor was something to behold, but it also felt like was also a more innocent, more modest, pre-MTV version of ostentatiousness. Three TVs in one room! Carpet on the ceiling! Such were some of the memorable extravagances.

    The true believers there added another element to the experience … which would be another interesting subject. When does appreciating something as kitsch, which other people appreciate in earnest, become too elitist or just uncomfortable to be okay?

    The example I’m thinking of from Graceland: a handwritten note saying, in effect, “Dear Elvis, the one thing that has brought me the most solace after the death of my son is the thought that you are singing with him in God’s choir.” I felt a little like I was in someone else’s church.

    • I don’t know about finding Graceland an innocent kind of ostentatiousness… that sounds too close to “ah, simpler times,” which I generally believe to be a falsehood.

      But! I know what you mean about the kitsch/earnest divide. I don’t remember how I behaved at Graceland, but I’m sure I was gauche in the face of people’s devotion. Oops.

      I’d say that as long as you aren’t being derisive at the place itself, you can appreciate it as kitschy once you’re back home or at your hotel room. If you aren’t snickering at someone as they approach the place with reverence, then they can have their experience and you can have yours. I think it would be wrong to fake any kind of emotion you don’t feel, eg, awe when all you feel is giggly. That is more offensive to the true believer’s faith.

  5. Hmm, I see what you’re saying about the “ah, simpler times” fallacy, so I’ll try to reword it more specifically …

    I know that the overall U.S. wealth disparity in Elvis’s time was much, much, less than it is now, in part because the tax rates for rich people were much, much, higher. And certain goods, like color TVs, were relatively much more expensive than they are now. Because the rich have gotten richer and most goods have gotten cheaper (and probably some other factors I’m not thinking of), I do think the bar has risen on what we consider extravagant in the past fifty years, and Graceland is one illustration of that.

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