Who enjoys being rammed into queues like cattle, bumping against other tourists and struggling to hear yourself think over a cacophony of whines and whinges? Travel should let you explore new lands, new peoples and new possibilities. Not follow everyone else around. It’s no wonder we yearn for off the beaten track experiences, especially when so many ‘must-see’ places turn out to be as exciting as soggy confetti the morning after.
Yet…icons become icons because they are too good to miss. Scattered along the beaten track lie some of the greatest destinations the world has to offer. So, pack your bag and head ON the beaten track – with a sprinkling of suggestions to preserve your sanity.
1 – The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
Since France receives more visitors each year than anywhere else in the world, the path to the Eiffel Tower is about as beaten as you can get. Reaching 324 meter s into the Paris sky, when completed in 1889 this telecommunications tower was the tallest building in the world.
Yes, there are queues. Yes, souvenir stalls litter the approach, with glow-in-the-dark towers, snow globe towers, gilded towers and – my personal favourite – clockwork towers that perform somersaults in the air. But forget about the other six million annual visitors and let the curving iron girders sweep your eyes and imagination up towards the night canvas of the City of Lights.
Best seen at sunset or glittering after dark with flamboyant lighting, traditional viewpoints include the base itself, the swirling Place de la Concorde and aboard the steady Bateaux-Mouches that cruise along the Seine. Real Parisians, however, head to the uninspiring Montparnasse Tower in the 15th arrondissement. From the roof of its 59th floor, you can survey an uninterrupted panoramic view of Paris itself – including the Eiffel Tower – something the national emblem just can’t pull off.
2 – Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
If rooftops interest you, consider climbing 5895 meters to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. The sight of its snow-capped peak from the sweaty, equatorial safari parks inspired Hemingway, so why not you? Just because the locals have renamed the Marangu trail the “Coca-Cola route” thanks to the number of wazungu (foreigners) staggering up its sides, don’t despair. There is another way. Literally, in this case: The Machame route.
You can trek and scramble uninterrupted for most of the journey, enjoying the solitude, desolation and splendour of watching the plains of Kenya and Tanzania unfold beneath you. Machame packs in an extra day’s ascent and descent en route to help wazungu adjust to the lack of oxygen. Although physically tougher than Marangu, it boasts a greater summit success rate as a result.
If just the thought of altitude sickness makes you feel ill, then admire the scenery from ground level in Moshi, the quieter of the base towns. The YMCA outdoor pool provides the perfect – peaceful – way to recover from the clammy tropical heat, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro itself.
3 – Table Mountain in South Africa
For an easier climb, try the 3-hour ramble to the plateau of Table Mountain, South Africa. Since most people ride the cable car to the 1085-meter viewing platform, the hike will help you avoid crowds, queue rage and parting with even more cash.
Given the right weather, Table Mountain grants fantastic views, although again the best views are of it rather than from it. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, awash with chic bars, shopping boutiques and self-confident seals, gives the most popular postcard shot.
However, Robben Island offers a more isolated and rugged viewpoint. This prison – and former home of Nelson Mandela – is a tourist destination in itself, but an unguided stroll around the shoreline reveals Cape Town’s flat-topped guardian beyond sea-sprayed rocks.
4 – Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia
Forget wilderness and natural landscapes. For this beaten path, embrace the slick city highways and dazzling genius of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Hovering above the sails of the equally famous Opera House, no other image better symbolizes Australia. Except, perhaps, kangaroos wearing cork hats.
For New Year’s Eve, cruise boats host lobster and champagne parties, allowing guests to admire the steel arc dripping with lights and crowned by fireworks. Better yet, get close enough to smell the grease by donning a boiler suit and signing on for the Bridge Climb. Set off at dusk as the fiery sunset fades and the intense spotlights illuminate the clouds overhead.
Although two million visitors have clambered to the 134-meter peak, the spiderweb network of ladders only admits one person at a time. So when your head pops up between roaring lanes of highway traffic and speeding trains, it’s enough to make you forget about the rest of the world.
5 – Taj Mahal in Agra, India
When visiting the Taj Mahal, however, it is impossible to feel alone. A swaying, shoving crowd propels you right the way through the streets of Agra, to the stampede for the compulsory cloakroom and on to the covered arch at the entrance. But even the crowd pauses for a heartbeat as the ghostly monument appears. From a distance, its translucent lines smudge into a creamy haze and only close up do the etchings and engravings of the human spirit become clear.
Described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, the marble walls, inlaid with semi-precious stones, quieten the soul, while mayhem erupts all around. Stay until sunset, when the day-trippers return to Delhi, to snatch a moment’s peace and the uncluttered image of the reflection in the water.
Although less well-known, consider a detour to Agra Fort. Its earthy sandstone palette balances the shimmering beauty of the Taj Mahal – and, of course, it’s less crowded.
6 – Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Unlike many global landmarks, the smooth granite face of Cristo Redentor substitutes simplicity for intricacy. Cariocas – Rio’s inhabitants – see the passive, art-deco statue stretching his arms towards them from across the carnival city.
It takes a toy-town train, jabbering tourists and 220 steps to reach the base of this 38-meter watchman on top of Corcovado. While there’s something mesmerizing about the expression on his face, it is the view from here that sums up everything that’s special about Rio.
Neat concrete skyscrapers stand to attention like soldiers amid swirls of mist, sliced crescents of beaches and tropical green islands rising up toward the sky. When you’ve had your fill, leave the tourists, slip on a thong and head to Copacabana to sip coconut milk with the locals.
7 – Big Ben in London
The dress code outside Big Ben is rather more restrained. The locals wear suits in varying shades of grey – and the tourists wear cameras and clog up the underground exits. Yet the gothic Houses of Parliament, or Palace of Westminster, inspired Monet and the chimes from the 13-ton bell comforted a nation through its darkest wartime broadcasts. Today, most Britons recognize Big Ben’s sound as the marker for New Year’s Eve midnight celebrations.
Accessing the Clock Tower remains formidable, with even UK Citizens instructed to apply months in advance and to demonstrate an ‘interest in clocks, watches and bells.’
You can, however, relish the classic view for free from the opposite bank – and for a fee from the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel by the Thames.
Avoid the overpriced restaurants and venture instead into the neglected Salvador Dali exhibition – an eccentric tonic to the institutional reserve of Westminster.
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Table Mountain by ironmanixs on Flickr,Cristo Redendor by jasonpearce on Flickr, Eiffel Tower by hans905 on Flickr , Mt Kilimanjaro by gcraig3si on Flickr , Sydney Harbour Bridge by jimmyharris on Flickr , Taj Mahal by Friar’s Balsam on Flickr , Big Ben by Cristina Puscas and may not be used without permission