Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

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Tourist traps are to travel as death and taxes are to life: irritating and inescapable. Unless you're making fresh tracks in Siberia, wherever you travel you're bound to find restaurants with cheesy themes or costumed wait staff, historical sites turned into theme parks, even entire cities whose charm and beauty are all but obliterated by camera-wielding tour groups. But not all tourist traps are created equal. Some "must-sees" on the well-trodden tourist circuit-such as our Ten Things Not to Do in New York City-should be written off altogether, while the 12 sites we've listed here turn out to be authentic, worthwhile experiences...once you scratch beneath the kitsch and push through the crowds. So, go on, you know you want to. Do the tourist thing. Just once.
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Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist traps are to travel as death and taxes are to life: irritating and inescapable. Unless you're making fresh tracks in Siberia, wherever you travel you're bound to find restaurants with cheesy themes or costumed wait staff, historical sites turned into theme parks, even entire cities whose charm and beauty are all but obliterated by camera-wielding tour groups. But not all tourist traps are created equal. Some "must-sees" on the well-trodden tourist circuit-such as our Ten Things Not to Do in New York City-should be written off altogether, while the 12 sites we've listed here turn out to be authentic, worthwhile experiences...once you scratch beneath the kitsch and push through the crowds. So, go on, you know you want to. Do the tourist thing. Just once.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: Graceland delivers with kitsch (note the green shag-carpet ceiling of the "jungle room"), crowds (nearly 600,000 visitors annually), costumes (feel free to bring your own), and, of course, commercialism. In addition to your $28 ticket ($69 for the VIP tour), you can pay homage to the King by purchasing anything from an Elvis Pez dispenser to an Elvis cross-stitch kit, and then gorging on a peanut butter–and-banana sandwich at Rockabilly's Diner.

Why it's worth it: Whether you're packing a sequined jumpsuit or coming armed with a so-bad-it's-good sense of humor, Graceland, which was designated a national historic landmark in 2006, is an integral part of Memphis's illustrious musical heritage. The recording that accompanies the 90-minute mansion tour includes a narration by Lisa Marie and sound bites from Elvis himself. If that doesn't satisfy your curiosity, dig deeper into the mystique by touring Elvis's too-cool car museum and his decked-out private jet, the Lisa Marie.

Insider tip: Paul McLeod's obsessive stash of Elvis memorabilia at nearby Graceland Too-second in size only to Graceland's own collection-is the pinnacle of American fandom, with posters, photos, and every TV Guide cover the King ever appeared on.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: An endless line of tour buses clogs the winding roads to Badaling, the section of the Great Wall of China closest to Beijing. Chinese tour groups in matching color-coded caps blanket the stone fortification, and touts hawk everything from panda hats to Great Wall key chains (the more tech-savvy among them will take your picture and produce a copy from a portable backpack printer). Getting tired of climbing the endless stone steps? Just hop on the roller coaster! The rainbow-colored ride winds past the Wall straight to a village of souvenir booths, all selling an identical selection of T-shirts.

Why it's worth it: Even when it's a total sea of humanity, you can't deny the majesty of the more than 5,500 miles that make up the Great Wall, whose stony precipices were created before the advent of power tools (or motor vehicles, for that matter). Badaling is the quickest and easiest way to see the Wall on an excursion from Beijing.

Insider tip: After taking in Badaling's tourist circus, head further afield to unrestored sections like Simatai and Jinshanling. On what's known as the Wild Wall, you can hike undisturbed for several miles along the lush mountain vegetation.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: A traditional Bavarian beer cellar/restaurant in the neo-Gothic Neues Rathaus-the bull's-eye of Munich's tourist zone, where you'll also find the tourism office and the city's oft-photographed glockenspiel-Ratskeller goes all out with costumed Fräuleins; beamed, vaulted, frescoed ceilings; and an English menu...with photos.

Why it's worth it: Sooner or later, you'll have to get those cravings for bratwurst, knackwurst, sauerbraten (pot roast), and Jägerlendchen (pork loin with mushroom sauce) out of your system, and the Ratskeller is just the place to do it. Since 1874, locals have been frequenting this atmospheric warren of rooms for regional fare that's more upscale than you'll find at many Munich beer gardens-chef Michael Schubaur trained with Michelin-starred Bavarian chef Otto Koch. Start with a bowl of the outstanding potato soup, followed by Grillwurst Schmankerl, a rib-sticking mixed grill that includes no fewer than four types of bratwurst, bacon, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes. The Ratskeller is also unusually child-friendly, with crayons and books to keep the kiddies occupied.

Insider tip: You'll want to wash your wurst down with a liter stein of Löwenbräu lager, but don't ignore the wine list, which includes a selection of German vintages from Würzburger Juliusspital, a wine estate whose proceeds sponsor a hospice.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: At the Tiki Village Theatre, a faux Polynesian settlement run by flamboyant French expat Olivier Briac, you can shop for flower garlands and pareos, get a tattoo, have a mediocre buffet dinner with Tahitian foods like fafa (chicken and spinach) and poe (fruit baked in coconut milk), and even renew your marriage vows with a Tahitian-style ceremony.

Why it's worth it: Nightlife on Moorea is hard to come by, but Tiki Village Theatre's open-air show of traditional Tahitian dances is an excellent way to spend an evening. An accomplished group of glistening, coconut-oiled, nubile nymphs and musicians perform the legend of a rain-soaked Tahitian village and its warriors, who undertake a canoe journey to find fire. By the time fire torches are spun around and horses come galloping into the stage area, you might be reminded that you've fallen into a pretty serious tourist trap-but at least it's an entertaining one where the wine flows freely.

Insider tip: Remember: There are thousands of miles between you and anyone you've ever met-no one has to know that you indulged in such a major kitschfest.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: It may be pushing it to damn an entire European city-nay, a major civilization-as a tourist trap, but let's be real: No place on earth is as utterly transformed as Venice is each summer-from a magnificent city of canals, churches, cafés, and art to a seething pit of humanity. Venice has 60,000 full-time residents and an estimated 20 million annual visitors. The Serenest Republic? Not by our standards.

Why it's worth it: Frankly, it's hard to justify a visit in July or August, when tourists jam the bridges, museums, and piazzas. Come in November, however, when fog creeps through the picturesque alleyways and late-afternoon light creates mysterious shadows, and you'll swoon at the romance. This is the time to get to know the real Venice and appreciate its many treasures: the Tintorettos in the Doge's Palace, the Picassos at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a glass of wine in a dusky bacaro near the Rialto Market.

Insider tip: The touristy restaurants that line the main streets have done a grave disservice to Venetian cuisine's reputation. For an authentic taste of the city's pasta and seafood dishes, head off the beaten path to eateries like Alle Testiere or Anice Stellato.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: From the checkered tablecloths and Chianti bottles hung from the ceiling to the tuxedoed waiters and unapologetically dated menu of Italian standbys (veal milanese, shrimp fra diavolo), you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that checks off more Italian clichés than Dan Tana's.

Why it's worth it: It may look like a Rat Pack–themed tourist trap, but this Old Hollywood landmark is a one-of-a-kind original that's been serving up martinis and red sauce since 1964. While other legendary restaurants (Peter Luger in New York, Joe's Stone Crab in Miami) are culinary pilgrimage sites, what keeps Dan Tana's on top isn't the (decent) food but rather its palpable, irreplaceable history. A baby Drew Barrymore had her diaper changed in one of the booths. The Eagles wrote the lyrics to "Best of My Love" here. Phil Spector left a $500 tip the night he committed murder. Of course, the storied who's-who list of patrons is no secret, and you might very well be seated next to saucer-eyed tourists craning their necks for a glimpse of a famous face. But it remains a hub for the industry's movers and shakers, and even the biggest stars, such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt, are known to drop in for a steak or the chicken parmigiana.

Insider tip: At the center of it all is Dan Tana himself-the real deal, and a great storyteller. If you're lucky and he stops by your table, the best way to engage him in conversation is to ask about his soccer career. While traveling in Belgium with the Red Star Belgrade football club in 1953, 17-year-old Tana, an up-and-coming striker, defected from Yugoslavia. He went on to help found the U.S. soccer league and is the current president of Red Star.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: At its very core, Colonial Williamsburg is a bizarre gimmick: a perfectly nice Virginia town transformed into a theme park of American history with Renaissance Faire–style role-playing and Disney-caliber price gouging. Scores of costumed townsfolk roam the streets, many industriously engaged in their crafts (merchants, milliners, blacksmiths, innkeepers, printers, bakers), always staying strictly in character, and all wanting to engage you in conversation. Visitors are expected to play along-ordering victuals such as "game pye" and barnyard chicken from mobcapped serving wenches in the taverns, and paying 21st-century prices for reproduction 18th-century jewelry, housewares, and toys.

Why it's worth it: If you haven't been and you're tempted to dismiss Colonial Williamsburg as hokey and inauthentic, think again. Extraordinary execution makes it one of the most entertaining and effective museums in America-and kids dig it, too. The town's 88 original 18th-century buildings are augmented by hundreds more reproduced so faithfully it's hard to tell which are which. Depending on which of the site's four years (1773–76) is being reenacted that day, there may be battles, witch trials, or fife and drum parades. Leave your cynicism in the parking lot, and you'll enjoy every minute of it.

Insider tip: While a full day of time travel will reinvigorate your patriotic spirit, it'll also exhaust your body. The best remedy? A Colonial Herbal Experience at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg-a two-hour, 18th century–inspired treatment that includes an aromatic footbath, a ginger-and-orange body scrub, an herbal wrap, and a massage.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: Pick any restaurant near a popular resort area like Jamaica's Montego Bay, and chances are it'll be a trap that caters to unwitting tourists-particularly if it has water views. The Houseboat Grill ups the ante by being on the water, housed in a double-decker paddleboat that looks as if it took a very wrong turn at the Mississippi Delta.

Why it's worth it: Venture aboard and you'll find yourself among a laid-back, mostly local crowd and in the capable hands of chef and owner Richard Nurse. If you weren't in the mood for seafood before, you will be once you feel the gentle rocking of this floating restaurant. While the snook and tarpon patrolling the waters of the surrounding marine sanctuary are off-limits, Nurse prepares fusion cuisine that ranges from greenlip New Zealand mussels in a spicy Thai coconut curry sauce to tiger prawns sautéed in garlic butter with Parmesan polenta, and diners can single out a live lobster from the pen to be steamed and served.

Insider tip: For the full effect, go for an alfresco table on the upper deck, and arrive between 5:30 and 7 pm to catch both the sunset and the daily two-for-one happy hour.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

Tourist trap cred: Nary a visitor comes to Bath without hearing the tale of Sally Lunn (a.k.a. Solange Luyon), a young Huguenot refugee who lived in this, the oldest house in Bath, sometime in the 17th century and baked rich brioche-style buns a foot in diameter that became all the rage in Georgian England. Capitalizing on this somewhat dubious legend, Sally Lunn's is now a "living museum" where you can learn all about Sally-except, of course, her top-secret bun recipe, which was rediscovered in a secret cupboard in the 1930s and is passed on only with the deed to the house.

Why it's worth it: Whether or not the story is true, the tearoom's busy scene, with grannies in their coats sipping tea, hasn't changed in decades, and half a toasted Sally Lunn with a sweet or savory topping (preferably Welsh rarebit) makes a fabulous lunch. For a more substantial meal, try one of the "trencher" entrées-a thick slice of bun topped with hearty beef bourguignon or duck leg in a sherry-ginger sauce. Half the fun here, though, is exploring Bath's history: While the house itself is plenty old (circa 1482), excavation of the basement has turned up tiles, pottery, and mosaics dating to Roman times as well as the remains of a medieval abbey.

Insider tip: The three dining rooms are very snug and often crowded (reservations are suggested), but the buns are also available for takeout.

Tourist Traps That Are Worth It

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