For those of us old enough (and lucky enough) to remember what travel was like 20 years ago, the current state of affairs can be rather depressing. The world’s great sights drew tourists, of course, but less than a generation ago, the crowds were manageable, even in high season. Outside of peak months, many top attractions were all but empty. I remember an early April visit to Barcelona, for example, when I had the undulating roof of Gaudí’s Casa Milà apartment building entirely to myself. Now, lines snake around the block to visit this architectural marvel most months of the year.
One can only hope that the world’s most famous places figure out a way to manage their popularity before they become ruined beyond recognition.
I love Barcelona — and Venice, and Siem Reap, for that matter. It breaks my heart to know that, unless I visit in the depths of the off-season, I can expect to battle insufferable crowds in all those places. Crowds simply ruin the experience of a thing, as anyone who has tried to see the “Mona Lisa” in the last few years can attest.
Some blue-chip cities, like Vienna, manage high-season crowds well, dispersing them among a wide range of appealing attractions. Dubrovnik, on the other hand, disgorges the cruise ship masses into a compact old town, where people want to see its main street (the Stradun), the remarkable city walls, and that’s about it. Cruise ships have also long been a problem in Venice — perhaps the recent cruise ship collision there will finally lead to some action — but the rise of Airbnb has contributed to the city’s decline as well. Building owners prefer to rent to tourists, who are willing to pay more than locals.
I wish the list of places that have become no-go zones were limited to these cities, but the number of destinations plagued by overcrowding continues to grow. One can only hope that the world’s most famous places figure out a way to manage their popularity before they become ruined beyond recognition.
About 18 million people now visit the Netherlands annually, and the vast majority confine themselves to Amsterdam. But the city isn’t as large as one might think, and it has become increasingly unable to handle the crush. I avoid Amsterdam in tulip season and in summer. In winter, crowds thin out and the city can feel surprisingly cozy. The country’s tourism board recently decided to stop promoting Amsterdam altogether, in hopes of luring travelers to other parts of the country.
I think back on Prague in the 1990s, when beers were still a quarter and the castle had yet to acquire a queue out front. The restaurants have improved — it’s possible to dine on something other than pork and bread dumplings nowadays — but, like Venice, Prague has become something of a theme park. Budget airlines make it easy for European travelers to pop in for a long weekend, and, especially in the summer, travelers from all over the world flock to experience its glorious Baroque architecture (the still-inexpensive beer is also draw, especially for bachelor and bachelorette parties). I can’t imagine visiting now in the high season.
Where to go instead: No one seems to believe me when I describe how delightful Bratislava is. The capital of Slovakia is an hour from Vienna by train, and its mostly pedestrianized old center is fascinating to explore, offering inviting cafés, restaurants and beer pubs. The countryside around the city is full of picturesque castle ruins. And Slovak wine is not to be underestimated. Stay at the Arcadia Hotel.
The largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands may not be especially famous in the United States, but it’s an extraordinarily popular destination with northern Europeans in search of reliable sunshine. In season, Palma becomes terribly crowded, as do the main beaches and roadways around the island.
Where to go instead: The beautiful nearby islands of Minorca and Formentera are also popular, but they draw many fewer package tourists. Minorca makes one of my favorite gins, Xoriguer, and I won’t soon forget biking along the seaside lanes of Formentera, lined with fragrant wild fennel.
Greece’s most popular island is unquestionably a gorgeous place, as a quick glance at Instagram will confirm. Its steep, cubist villages tumbling down toward the sea are irresistible. But resist you should, at least during high and shoulder seasons. Passengers from large cruise ships clog its towns — some days see more than 15,000 visitors — and everyone with a selfie stick is trying to get that iconic sunset shot. Because the island’s famous donkeys have sustained injuries from carrying too many tourists up from the port, the Greek government made it illegal for the animals to bear loads in excess of 100 kilograms. Heftier tourists will have to find a different way to the top!
Where to go instead: Greece doesn’t rank among my favorite summer destinations, because it can get unpleasantly hot. Visit in May or October, when the cruise season isn’t at its height, and even Santorini can still be a pleasure. I also wouldn’t turn my nose up at a stay at Amanzoe on the Peloponnese Peninsula.
For most of leisure travel history, Iceland was a second-tier destination at best, perhaps visited as part of a stopover en route to more glamorous destinations in Europe. Now, thanks in large part to Instagram, the little island of about 340,000 people receives more than 2.3 million visitors a year, up from just 1.3 million as recently as 2015. A major lifestyle magazine recently named Iceland the “Most Instagrammable Place on Earth.” But certain popular spots with Instagrammers, such as the Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage, have been closed off (or made more difficult to access) because of the crush of visitors. I’d give a summer trip to Iceland a pass.
Where to go instead: The Azores, Portugal’s mid-Atlantic islands, are unspoiled and scenically spectacular. And there are now nonstop six-hour flights from New York. Otherwise, consider Iceland outside of the June-July-August high season. Its winter weather is no worse than New York City’s, and longer winter nights offer better Northern Lights viewing.
Summer in one of America’s most beautiful national parks has also become a problematic time to visit. Yosemite is justifiably popular, but those wishing to have a serene experience amid glorious natural scenery will be sorely disappointed during the high season. Trails and campgrounds become quite crowded when school is out, and roads lacing the park can feel as congested as the 405 in Los Angeles.
Where to go instead: The United States is blessed with some 60 national parks, including seven in California besides Yosemite. Outside California, the Sawtooth Mountains, in Idaho, are completely underrated, and North Cascades National Park, in Washington, with its alpine landscapes, jagged peaks and glacier lakes, is one of the least visited parks in America.
While it’s still potentially rewarding to visit Base Camp at certain times of year, I recommend avoiding the mountaineering season (March-May) entirely. The trails are badly overcrowded. And there is only one path from the airstrip at Lukla that trekkers must both ascend and descend.
Where to go instead: There is only one tallest mountain in the world, but Nepal has no shortage of extraordinarily scenic peaks. Treks in the foothills of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, are uncrowded, and there are distant views of Everest to the west.
China’s human rights abuses — most recently, the systematic repression of Uighur culture — give me reservations about traveling anywhere in that country at the moment. But Beijing in particular I find unappealing. For a substantial portion of the year, the air quality there ranges from unpleasant to downright unhealthy. Most of its old hutong neighborhoods have been destroyed, and those that remain have been turned into tourist attractions.
Where to go instead: The one city in China that I do recommend enthusiastically is Hangzhou, which is accessible by high-speed train from Shanghai. Leafy and unspoiled, it is set around the serene waters of West Lake. Undamaged during the Cultural Revolution — Mao had a villa there and the Red Guards were kept at bay — Hangzhou has some wonderful old pagodas, and the city gives its visitors are a real sense of China’s vast cultural history.