As we all know, Europe is jammed with famous attractions, and some of them are so compelling that actual Europeans have been known to travel from place to place to visit them. You could spend a lifetime seeing amazing sights all over the continent, including thousands of things you’ve not yet even heard of.
But not all of them live up to your expectations or the hype you can easily feel when heading out to see or experience some of the best known attractions. In some cases it’s our own fault that things disappoint us, but in other cases these things just don’t cut it compared to the hassle involved in getting there. Here are nine that can wreck at least part of one of your valuable travel days.
1 – Mona Lisa – Paris, France
Leonardo da Vinci painted a smiling woman during the 16th Century, and somehow the Mona Lisa has become the planet’s most famous piece of art, though very few can explain why. Still, the thing is housed in the magnificent Louvre, which is certainly one of the highlights of a city teeming with highlights, so it’s impossible not to include it on the itinerary of your first Paris trip, right? You’ll finally see what all the fuss is about when you witness this gorgeous canvas in person, because no copy or photograph could possibly do it proper justice.
Welcome to the Louvre, in all of its sprawling maze-like glory. “Okay, I know my guidebook tells me it would take at least 500 years to actually spend a minute with each work of art here, but at the very least I’ve got to see the Mona Lisa (and probably the Venus de Milo as well).” When you finally get close to the room she helps decorate, you’ll know it by the carnival-like crowds and atmosphere. Slink into the actual room, and with enough brute force and determination, you might be able to elbow your way through the mass of bodies to take your own snapshot of Lisa herself, along with the wrists and viewfinder screens of at least a dozen other people in front of you struggling for the same terrible photograph. Got the shot? Good, now get out of here before you faint.
2 – Gondola rides in Venice, Italy
Before anyone first sets foot in Italy, it seems impossible to imagine anything more romantic than a serene ride through Venice’s stunning canals in a beautiful gondola, with the silence only interrupted by the delightful stylings of your gondolier singing ‘O Sole Mio or possibly an Italian song you don’t even know. And then you get there and realize Venice is more jammed with tourists than Times Square on New Years Eve, even in so-called “off-season.”
Still, the gondola ride itself might be magical and worth a go, until you ask around and discover that a 40-minute ride starts at €80 (over US$100), and quite a bit more expensive after dark. You still may not yet realize that even if you give it a whirl, you’ll instantly be starring in hundreds of candid photos snapped by everyone who can get their camera out of its case in time. There’s also plenty of gondola traffic your driver will have to contend with, so it can be more jarring than amorous along the way. It’s not like you were hoping it would be, but at least you’ll be appearing in dozens or hundreds of photos by fellow tourists, so your disappointing gondola ride will be well documented, at the very least.
3 – Manneken Pis – Brussels, Belgium
Unless you happen to be a big fan of modern office complexes and Continental bureaucracy, Brussels is already a bit short on tourist attractions. Sure, you can actually get kick-ass waffles covered in chocolate and other delights on almost every corner, but the most famous “attraction” really has to be the Manneken Pis. What could be more cheeky and fun than a bronze statue of a little boy who is perpetually refilling the fountain below by wizzing into it?
You’ll probably start at the Grand Place, which is one of the most stunning city squares in the world, and walk a few long blocks southwest, until you come across a big crowd gathered around a small fountain. When you find the statue itself, it looks exactly like you thought it was going to, except smaller, and with way more annoying fellow tourists huddled around it than you ever imagined. Even if he’s dressed in one of his many whimsical little costumes, he’s still barely worth crossing the street for. Snap your own photo, and off you go, probably wondering why you came to Brussels in the first place, until you remember it’s all about the beer.
4 – The city of Saint-Tropez in France
This is another one where any blame for disappointment lies solely with the visitor rather than with the place itself. Many of us tourists think to ourselves, “If St. Tropez wasn’t the most awesome-est town on the French Riviera, then why would a huge cosmetics company name an aloe vera-based sunless tanning product after it?” And what about the much older Bain de Soleil lotion, whose sultry jingle always promised us that “Saint-Tropez tan”? I don’t know about you, but I’m heading there to see it all for myself!
And then you get to Saint-Tropez, and discover it’s actually just like about a dozen or more other nearby towns on the Côte d’Azur, except this one is insanely crowded with cars and other tourists, who’ve obviously bought into the same hype and flawed reasoning. No doubt that Saint-Tropez is nice, as long as you are rich and can find a place to park, but there’s really nothing mystical and especially sexy about it, and you’d have been better off going to Saint-Maxime or Cap d’agde or Camargue or Cassis or Sete or just about anywhere else in the area.
5 – The interior of the Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Spain
This is an unusual member of this unflattering list because the exterior of this famous under-construction cathedral is every bit as astonishingly beautiful as you can imagine. In case you aren’t familiar with it, this bizarre cathedral was designed by noted Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, and construction began in 1882. The building is supposedly being funded solely by donations, which helps explain why it’s still very incomplete over 125 years later, and isn’t due to be finished for 20 or so more years, if ever at all.
So you walk around it once or twice, and take note of the jaw-dropping shape and playful details all around, and you pay the €11 to get in to finally see the inside and take it all in. Walk through the doors, and you are suddenly reminded that they weren’t kidding about this ‘under construction’ thing, as you are now surveying an active building site, with workers and heavy equipment to match. Your admission fee also includes an informative museum in the basement, but it doesn’t include the €2.50 you’ll have to pay to ride the elevator to near the top, where you can get good views of Greater Barcelona and the unfinished roof. The elevator line is always very long, which was recently made worse now that they closed the claustrophobic spiral staircases previously available for impatient and athletic visitors.
6 – London Bridge – London, UK
This is one where there is no one to blame but us idiot tourists. We get that catchy song stuck in our heads as children, and until we learn otherwise at a much later age, the “London Bridge” is by far the most famous span in the world. Sure, we had reason to suspect that it might have fallen down at some point, but we can easily confirm that a bridge of that name continues to exist in the English capital.
So we arrive in London, and aside from Big Ben, there’s no higher priority than finally being able to see what all this fuss is about. Those who actually manage to make the trip, will find the plainest bridge over the Thames imaginable, and our souls are instantly crushed. It turns out that the amazing Tower Bridge not far away is pretty spectacular, as is the new Millennium Bridge, and even the old “London Bridge” that now lives in Lake Havasu, Arizona isn’t bad. If our childhood nursery rhymes can betray us like this, who can we ever trust in the future?
7 – Little Mermaid statue – Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen is another gorgeous city filled with beautiful people, which lacks a super-famous tourist attraction most people have heard of before arriving. The closest thing this wonderful city has is this statue dedicated to the famous fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. The Little Mermaid statue, as you’ll read in your guidebook, was unveiled in 1913 and is most famous among locals for all the times her head and arms have been sawed off by vandals.
Your expectations will naturally build as you take the surprisingly long and out-of-the-way walk along the harbor, and your only real clue that you are getting close is the crowd of bewildered tourists assembled who are taking their own photo and asking each other, “THIS is what we walked all the way out here for?” The Little Mermaid statue is about 4-feet tall and looks more like an ad for bad posture than a city’s proudest landmark. Take your own photo, and try to get as little of the industrial harbor-front across the water in the background. It wouldn’t be quite as bad if the delightful Carlsberg Brewery weren’t on the complete opposite side of town.
8 – Dublin Castle – Dublin, Ireland
Anyone who has toured Prague Castle or Edinburgh Castle is conditioned to expecting a lot when visiting a historic structure named after a European capital, so it’s natural to have high hopes when arriving at this one on the Emerald Isle. When you pass through the authentic main gate and see the chess-piece-looking Record Tower (see photo) across the parking lot, it’s easy to get carried away assuming you’re about to see a cool dungeon and the place where the knights used to pour hot oil on attackers. But hopes are quickly dashed when you discover that the tower is all that’s left of the ancient structure, and the entire rest of this ‘castle’ is really just a “government complex” as its Wikipedia page charitably calls it. Welcome to a reasonably modern conference center where quite a bit of exciting government meetings and receptions are held.
The tour itself is kind of interesting, and the end of the trek sees a mini-highlight as you get to go underground to see where some original walls were uncovered, on your way to the gift shop. Anyone interested in the history of Ireland and especially of its contentious relationship with Britain will be entertained, but those who hoped to see an actual castle will feel ripped off. Most kids love castles, but not this one.
9 – Live Sex Shows in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Quite a different “attraction” from all the others on this list, Amsterdam is known as a city where anything goes, and in many ways it actually lives up to that reputation. You can still buy and smoke weed at any one of about 150 ‘coffeeshops’ throughout this gorgeous city, and you can still gawk at the flirtatious working girls behind the red-lit windows in the Red Light District. And according to what your buddy told you, you can also pay to go into a theater to watch a real couple doing it right in front of your popped-out eyes.
Stroll on up to one of the three similar theaters in Amsterdam that feature this form of ‘erotic’ entertainment, and you’ll first have to deal with a multi-lingual doorman who’s spent years learning how to get every last euro out of every last passerby. You’ll pay at least €30 per person for the treat of being seated in a club or theater where you’ll watch a sideshow-style series of demonstrations, the most famous of which involves a banana.
You do eventually get to see a couple having actual sex on the stage, and people typically describe live sex shows as: mechanical, bizarre, overly choreographed, and/or boring. The one exception might be the many stag parties that come here, because that sort of alcohol-fueled mayhem can really turn into a great and hilarious bonding experience with enough wasted guys in the right frame of mind, and you won’t remember it anyway.
Additional photo credits:
Venice by P_D on Flickr. Little Mermaid by James Grimmelmann on Flickr, Mannekin Pis by jonk on Flickr, London Bridge by wallyg on Flickr, Mona Lisa by Ben Harris-Roxas on Flickr, St. Tropez by Mat Strange on Flickr, Sagrada Familia by jfeninygo on Flickr