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.
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!