Don’t (Always) Believe the Hype

Why you shouldn't always feel obligated to visit iconic sights

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I have this dream. In it, I find myself back in Rio de Janeiro, snaking my way through narrow favela streets until a vista yawns wide open, revealing Cristo Redentor gloriously perched atop Corcovado Mountain.

But this is not a pleasant dream; it’s a nightmare. Dark clouds gather. Cristo Redentor’s arms aren’t stretched out as a symbol of salvation—no, the statue gestures to me as if to say “WHY, dude? WHY did you not visit me when you had the chance?”. I despair. Then I notice the thousands of tourists crowded all around, all looking up at me at once and shuffling towards me with their arms and selfie sticks pointing straight ahead, moaning “JOIN USSssss”. I wake up with cold sweats.

Okay, this is all a lie. I went to Rio without seeing Cristo Redentor and I’m fine. I had an amazing time in Rio, and I’ve had no regrets and no nightmares.

I did see the statue at a distance from an opposite mountain, which was pretty cool. I considered going to see it up-close, but then I heard about the hours-long queues and thongs of selfie-taking tourists and decided it would be a pointlessly tiresome excursion. Maybe I was stupid to skip it (I can’t know for sure) and maybe the queues weren’t as bad as people told me, but I just felt like I had other things to do.

There are countless places like Cristo Redentor all over the world. Places that have become so iconic that everyone labels them as “must see”, but I think they don’t need to be must-sees for everyone.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to such places at all—obviously, I understand the attraction in going to them, and many of them are genuinely amazing. But I do think it can be totally okay to skip some of the obvious sights, if that’s what you want to do. Despite what the whole world might tell you, it is entirely permissible to visit Paris without getting onto the Eiffel Tower, or to go to Thailand without visiting the island of Phi Phi.

Why do places become famous? Of course, they might simply be unique or awe-inspiring. But years of mythologizing and unrelenting branding often also play a role.

I recently saw this interesting video on Vox explaining how the Mona Lisa originally became famous. I had never heard this story before, and it reminded me of how tourist sights in general become renowned. It’s worth watching this video.

Is the Mona Lisa really one of the must-see paintings in the world? Maybe. But no one actually paid it much attention until the 19th century, when a critic named Walter Pater hyped it up using the most vividly sensational terms. “She is older than the rocks among which she sits like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”, he wrote. “She has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants.”

It goes on like this for many paragraphs. Talk about an active imagination!

That kind of prose isn’t all that far removed from the way travel writers describe many sights and experiences. (Okay, maybe they use just a little more restraint…)

Walter Pater laid the groundwork for the Mona Lisa’s rise to stardom. In 1911 the painting was stolen in a spectacular heist, gaining notoriety and worldwide media attention. Soon everyone was bending over backwards to praise its artistic genius, eventually it began showing up on t-shirts, and slowly a whole mythology developed—including the ludicrous idea that her eyes follow you as you walk past.

To think that it was once just a beautiful painting of a woman. Much of its meaning today has, in a sense, been painted over it.

This regularly happens in travel too, although I don’t want to suggest we should rob travel of all its romance. There is value in travel writers, guidebook editors, and yes, travel bloggers (hello there) describing places in poetic terms. But it’s good to be aware of the filters that travel writing passes through, much like how photos pass through filters on Instagram before they are shared.

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Over time, some places just become bigger than themselves, turning into symbols and icons. Destination marketers play a huge (and sometimes invisible) role in this, too. More and more people flock to these locations, until they burst at the seams. Eventually, maybe people go to places like Cristo Redentor not because it’s inherently so amazing, but just to be able to say, “look, I have been to Brazil.”

There is nothing wrong at all with going to touristy or iconic places, but it’s a shame if you’re doing so only out of a sense of obligation. It’s a trap you can easily fall into—particularly, it seems, if you’re travelling on a tight schedule and only have time for the ‘highlights’.

But all the bucket lists in the world aren’t as important as what you personally feel most like doing. If you want to make the effort to get your picture at a famous statue, then you should definitely do it! But if, deep down, you think you’ll have a better time drinking caipirinhas on the beach, then the choice should be equally clear.

Maybe the Mona Lisa is something you absolutely have to see (despite a hundred people jockeying for position to take a picture), or maybe there are other things worthier of your time.

After all, maybe that Walter Pater guy was just tripping balls.

Photo credit: 1, 2

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7 comments

  1. Andrew Scott Reply November 22, 2016 at 4:13 am

    Great article, Marek! Another place that’s overrated is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The town itself isn’t so bad, and the area near the Tower has a number of interesting buildings and museums, but most people only visit the Tower, which is, well, quite underwhelming. There are hordes of people taking the same photo of them holding up the Tower, and it’s rather expensive to head to the top. Unless you’re going to be spending a ton of time in Italy, I can think of upwards of 50 places that would be more enjoyable to the average tourist.

  2. vira Reply November 7, 2016 at 4:04 am

    Totally agree. There’s no such thing as a ‘must-see’ destination/attraction. Every one decides what they want to see or skip. I was so close to Ora Beach in Maluku last year, but I really felt just taking a nap at the nearby lodge by the sea and I felt totally fine. I just had to deal with questions from people afterwards as why I didn’t go to that famous place :))

  3. Gezi Rehberi Reply November 3, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    Such a great article. i remember Louvre from the last year. But i never get too crowd. we had online ticket and we went there like 8 am in the morning. some tour groups were just coming. After 9 am its definitely being so crowded but it worht too seeing mona lisa.

  4. Nat Reply October 30, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    Great article and very true, iv had these same thoughts recently! I was just in Jordan where the ‘must-see’ place to visit is Petra. Of course these must sees are popular for a reason and Petra was spectacular, however I found other places such as Wadi Rum which don’t get talked about to often to be even more impressive!
    I think what happens is that we go in with such high expectations of the place/site/painting that it can set us up for disappointment sometimes.

  5. Dan Reply October 21, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    I agree that some sites are overrated, BUT the three you mentioned really were unique highlights of places I have been. Instead of missing out, I find there is always a way to see the sites without the crowds. I went to the Louvre around 6pm on a Tuesday and there were about 10 people around the Mona Lisa. I went to the Eiffel Tower around 8pm on a Sunday and had to wait only about 20 minutes to go up. I have gone to Rio in the off season and never felt like it was crowded at Cristo Redentor. All were highlights of my travel.

  6. Ankit Suhane Reply October 21, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    There is one fact about Mona Lisa painting that ‘HER SMILE DOESN’T CHANGE, BUT YOUR MINDSET DOES’ That is-she-or-isn’t-she smile has long fascinated artists and historians :).
    But in 2000, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone applied a scientific method to why Mona Lisa’s smile seems to shift. It’s all about where your focus is, and how your brain responds.

  7. Nathalie Reply October 21, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Loved this article! I remember seeing the Mona Lisa about 5 years ago and couldn’t believe all the people pushing for a photo while one of the attendants was yelling “No photos!” She was also clapping her hands to get visitors to move on, like cattle! I was in Paris recently and skipped the Louvre 😉

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