Before we begin on the Eiffel Tower, it should be said from the outset — I’m not a seasoned traveller. Before this year, my passport was more of a novelty than utility. If you were to look at the ID you would see an eight-year-old girl with an ill-advised pixie cut and an awkward gap in her teeth. If you were to flip through, you would find two stamps: one from immigration upon departing my native New Zealand and the other, a faded 15-year-old piece of memorabilia from a family vacation to Fiji.
So when I tell you that I visited Paris this year and never went up the Eiffel Tower, please know it’s not because I’m a snob. It’s not some kind of “been-there-done-that”, “I was too busy shopping on the Champ-Elysees and frequenting my best friend’s country villa” cop out. I was generally just not interested.
So that was that.
In this two-month trip across Europe, my glorious induction into the world of adult travel, I noticed that this was far from being a popular viewpoint. I met backpackers with Lonely Planet guides strapped to their chests like bibles. I stayed at hostels with sightseeing brochures gleefully scattered around the foyer like confetti. I know it’s the done thing. Australians venture overseas with a checklist in mind; there are wonders of the world to be seen, Facebook profile pictures to be changed.
But once I got there I never felt it. I picnicked beneath the Eiffel Tower but never went up; I saw Anne Frank’s house from the other side of the canal while whizzing by on a bicycle; I walked past Buckingham Palace on my way to get a coffee.
Of course there’s the enormity and the history and the general excellence to keep in mind – these places are famous for a reason. But there’s also a bunch of reasons why you should go out of your way to avoid each of them. Here are a few things people dare not mention to excited would-be tour bus travellers — some reasons to skip the tourist stuff.
It’s summertime and the living is not easy. While I was in Paris there was a heat wave that saw the mercury hit over 35 degrees Celsius for four days straight. Tourists flock from their cold little corners of the world to bask in this sunlight — myself included — but there are a few undesirable side effects to contend with.
With everyone heading to the same spots, it’s easy to get sandwiched in a sweat-drenched line for upwards of three hours. It’s amazing how little you can care about how incredible the catacombs are when faced with the prospect of a four-hour wait among 200 oozing and impatient humans. Pass.
Where the people go, the money follows. So the once in a lifetime experience you’re seeking out will no doubt be commercialised (and incidentally, Westernised) within an inch of its life.
If the vibe of your romantic European getaway wasn’t already left wanting after everyone you meet in the day speaks English with an American accent, it will be after you get keychains, magnets and postcards thrust in your face for the 500th time.
In your mind, the experience has an exotic aura — a grandeur that will etch itself in your memory for the rest of your days. In reality, you’re being herded along on a curated tour that thousands before you have taken. Whatever meaning the monument or church or artwork once had is now just a pretty shameless excuse to sell tickets.
With this demand comes the cost. Ticket price is one thing, but there’s also the tour guide, the photos, and the $7 bottle of water you’re forced to buy. And all that’s assuming you don’t get pickpocketed. Tourists are not only big business for local government but local street crime too. It can be difficult to fully appreciate your surrounds and get lost in the moment when you’re clutching a handbag full of what seems at the time like all your worldly possessions.
There’s always a better option
If you’re only in a city for a matter of days, it seems a shame to waste what precious little time you have in tourist suckholes. Think of your home — was it the Melbourne Skydeck or Sydney Harbour Bridge that first made you fall in love with the city? No. It was the secret beating heart — the laneway bars and late night eats; the people in your local cafe and the street art that mysteriously pops up before the sun.
The best way to experience somewhere new is to get in with the locals, and the very first thing they’ll tell you is to steer clear of the tourist stuff. That’s not to say you won’t see it — you’ll still be within range of its seduction and charm, you’ll just experience it in another way.
For me, the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower at night was from the banks of the Seine. My new German friend introduced me to a French man who lived in the sixth arrondissements (Parisian districts) who took us to a small weeknight party on the river. It was a hot evening and bottles of rosé were scattered along the cobblestones.
When the sun came down, the lights of the Tower came on and offered a stark contrast to the characteristically barren Parisian skyline. Each hour as the national icon put on its legendary light show, I got slightly tipsier, I met new people who spoke French to me and offered to share charcuterie (delicious meaty smallgoods) like we were old friends, and I watched the magical monument sparkle.
The tourists may have clutched their $25 champagne and looked down from above, but for that night at least I was in the beating heart of Paris, and I had the best view in town.
This post was originally published on November 8th, 2014 and has since been updated.