How to skip the crowds at these 12 iconic travel sites
From Great Wall to Grand Canyon – skip the queues and leave flag-waving tour guides in your dust with these alternative approaches to the world’s most-visited sites
Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) Visitors per year: Around 2.1 million
Among the plains of central Burma lies ancient Bagan, the remains of a kingdom comprising some 2,000 Buddhist temples. Until recently, visitors were scarce but now the secret’s out… Front door: A fee is charged upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most visitors arrive via a short-hop flight at Bagan Nyaung U Airport. From there, the town of Nyaung U is a ten-minute taxi away, but the majority stay in the resorts scattered among the temples of Old Bagan. Back door: Stay in Nyaung U for more of a local feel; it’s also not far from the Irrawaddy River, so end your day with a quiet cruise. Rent an E-bike to explore the temples of Old Bagan away from the tours, while hot-air balloon flights are also a good way to skip the crowds. Be sure to book at least a month in advance; it’s also worth paying extra for the smallest (four-person) basket. Bear in mind also that access to the upper levels of temples is now banned in all but five pagodas.
Expert tips: Dustin Main blogs at dustinmain.com and is researching a book on photographing Bagan.
“For the most popular temples (Dhammayangyi, Shwesandaw, Ananda), arrive just after sunrise. The tours leave shortly after the sun comes up and the touts are too drowsy to bother you. After, rent an E-bike and head into the plains to discover smaller sites such as the Nandapyinnya, near Minanthu village, which has some of the best-preserved wall paintings in Bagan and is usually empty.
“Head down to the jetty in Nyaung U and hire a boat to take you up the river to a pair of temples (Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi) not easily accessed by land. Plan this as an afternoon excursion and you can spend the sunset on the Irrawaddy as well.
“Thisawadi (near New Bagan) is a quiet alternative to catch sunrise/sunset. There are several levels on the way up it, but the highest offers the best shots. This is also one of the few temples still open for visitors to ascend, but less popular than the likes of Shwesandaw.”
Wadi Musa, Jordan Visitors per year: Around 400,000
Part built, part carved into sandstone rock, the third-century BC city of Petra is one of the world’s great sites, all too often reduced to a quick camel ride and an even swifter departure. But there is so much more to the ancient capital of the Nabataeans… Front door: Most people visit on flying bus tours from Amman and beyond. Others stay overnight in nearby Wadi Musa, with trails leading from the edge of the town into Petra itself. Many approaching (à la Indiana Jones) via the 1.2km trail that weaves through the rocky gorge of the Siq, opening on to Petra’s famed Treasury. Back door: During winter (Dec & Jan particularly), you’ll see fewer crowds. The bus tours also don’t start arriving at the site until 9.30am, so go early and avoid them. Petra is crisscrossed with lots of Bedouin back roads that most visitors never bother with (see ‘The expert’). Alternatively, walk the Siq on a night tour – these are usually a bit crowded, but if you linger to the back it can feel a little bit special.
Petra, Jordan (Dreamstime)
Expert tips: Jessica Lee is the author of Footprint’s Jordan guidebook and numerous Lonely Planet Middle East guides.
“Away from the main tourist route, you’ll have Petra’s trails to yourself. Keen hikers can enter through the ‘backdoor route’, which traverses a barren wadi near ‘Little Petra’ (Siq al-Barid), then up a Nabataean stairway hewn into the side of the cliff to end at the Monastery. Along the way are panoramic views of craggy mountains, and if you see Petra back-to-front, you tend to avoid the crowds until much later in the visit.
“Another alternative route into Petra is the Wadi Muthlim trail, which follows the path of the wadi, to the right of the Siq entry, and ends with you entering the site on the ridge of the Royal Tombs. It’s a fun, crowd-free route with plenty of boulder scrambling along the way.
“Within the site there are empty trails aplenty. Many visitors hike up to the High Place of Sacrifice (Jebel al Madhbah), but only a tiny few continue along the Wadi Farasa back road, which has a clutch of interesting, lonely monuments on the trail, or climb the Nabataean staircases that wind up Jebel al-Khubtha (behind the Royal Tombs), which have great views of the Treasury from above.”
3. Taj Mahal
Agra, India Visitors per year: Around 7 million
Rising over the Yamuna River, the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal – a marble marvel better known as the Taj Mahal – is one of the grandest gestures of love in history. It was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the remains of his wife, took 20 years to build and is now one of the most-visited sites in the world. Front door: Tourist season peaks between October and mid-March, when the weather cools. But it never really drops off, and around 60,000 people visit every day, turning up in large flag-waving tours or individually, except on Fridays when it’s closed to all except worshippers at the on-site mosque. Back door: The best way to minimise the crowds is to start early – and the dawn rouge on the Taj Mahal’s white marble is beautiful. Most visitors arrive via train from Delhi (2.5hr), so staying in Agra helps. The budget-priced Shanti Lodge (Chowk Kagjiyan, south gate) has good views of the Taj Mahal from its rooftop, while the five-star Oberoi Amarvilas has plenty of pricier rooms that offer the same.
Expert tips: Dheeraj ‘Monty’ Bhatt is a Wanderlust World Guide Awards winner and runs tours with Intrepid Travel.
“The Taj Mahal gets visitors from dawn to dusk every day, but the best time to avoid the crowds is at sunrise. Enter through the east gate – it’s less busy. For a good viewing spot, walk to the mosque – the rising sun is spotted between the last two minarets – or head to the Yamuna River. Shooting the palace through the elephant grass offers a different perspective.
“Alternatively, escape the crowds entirely across the Yamuna River at Mehtab Bagh. This charbagh (garden) complex is the best spot to watch the sun rising over the Taj in peace.
“For dusk, head towards the Rest House in the east of the Taj Mahal grounds (the red sandstone building on the right, if you’re facing east); its arches offer the widest and most beautiful view of the sunset. Or if you’re outside the complex, walk from the east gate away from the crowds and down to the river, which offers good views.”
4. The Amazon
Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, etc… Visitors per year: Records not available
Stretching across nine countries, the Amazon River snakes 6,992km of dense jungle packed with wildlife, the ruins of ancient civilisations and over 30,000 species of plants. But where do you begin? The Front door: Brazil is the first port of call for trips along the Amazon, cruising the wide stretches around Manaus and on to the Colombian border on big riverboats. Nothing wrong with that, but these boats can be noisy. The Back door: You’ll want to escape the broadest sections of river. The thousands of narrow tributaries afford closer access to jungle wildlife and you can even kayak on its quieter channels. With two-thirds of the river found in Brazil, it will be most people’s first stop, so you can dodge the crowds by seeking an Amazon adventure elsewhere…
The Amazon River (Shutterstock) Expert tips: Luke Waterson is a novelist, travel writer and Lonely Planet guidebook author. His new book, Roebuck, is out now.
“Rainy season (Dec-May) brings better boat access to the many tributaries along the Amazon, meaning more wildlife to spot. The port of Iquitos in Peru is arguably the best place for exploring these side routes. There, Dawn on the Amazon run a fleet of traditional riverboats that ply the smaller rivers that larger vessels simply can’t access otherwise.
“Elsewhere in Peru, the remote Manú National Park (130km from Cusco) bridges the southwest Amazon rainforests and is one of the world’s most biodiverse locations, with native tapirs, jaguars and spectacled bears. Tours are the most realistic way to visit this vast park (try the locally-run bonanzatoursperu.com), but be sure to visit between August and October to see the macaws feeding on its clay licks.
“Ecuador has some exceptional birding spots in the high jungles on the western edge of the Amazon basin. Particularly good is The Wildsumaco Lodge, located on a private reserve off Ruta 20, between Jondachi and Coca. Booking in advance is advised, while crowd-less trails wind the forests below to the impressive Sumaco Volcano.
“For ruins, return to Peru. The site of Choquequirao is an impressive Inca city hidden in the Andes. It receives only the tiniest fraction of the footfall its neighbour Machu Picchu receives, and to get there entails a two-day trek from the trailhead town of Cachora (160km from Cusco). It’s more then worth the walk though.”
5. Masai Mara National Reserve
Narok County, Kenya Visitors per year: Around 290,000
The Great Migration of wildebeests and zebras (trailed by their predators) from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the grasslands of Kenya’s Masai Mara plains is one of nature’s great sights. But the reserve’s large visitor number can make sightings rather crowded. Front door: The bulk of visitors arrive between July and October for the migration. Many stay in the large lodges along the reserve’s eastern edge, making the convoys of sightseers in the morning almost as epic as the migration itself. Back door: There are an estimated 7,000 rooms within the reserve, with no strict rules regarding the amount of vehicles at a sighting. If you are in with the masses, don’t get hung up on spotting big game – there is plenty of other flora and fauna. But the only way to truly avoid crowds is to book at the conservancies. These are private tracts of land along the northern and eastern boundaries that have been independently rented from the Maasai, including Mara Naboisho, Ol Kinyei, Olare Motorogi and Mara North.
Masai Mara National Reserve (Dreamstime)
Expert Tips: Paul Goldstein is an award-winning wildlife photographer and co-owner of Kicheche Camps.
“When it comes to accommodation, don’t touch the big lodges. Stay in one of the conservancies, or at least on the reserve otherwise you’ll be lining up each morning with a pile of minibuses at 6.30am at one of the gates.
“The conservancies are properly controlled, with every local stakeholder benefitting. For me, they are the future of the Mara and I would rather be photographing there than anywhere else in the world. Some also limit one guest per 1.5 sq km, as well as the number of vehicles allowed at a sighting. The reserve has no such controls, sadly.
“Be prepared to stay out all day and pay for a sole-use vehicle – that way you have a little more control over what you see. The migration draws huge crowds, but I have been to the Masai Mara every month and it never short-changes, so go any time. Plus, it’s so close to the equator that the climate and daylight hours change little throughout the year – it’s actually even a little cooler during our summer.”
6. Grand Canyon
Arizona, USA Visitors per year: Around 5.5 million
Around 433km long and six million years in the making, the Grand Canyon is nature at its rawest. The National Park that surrounds it is one of the USA’s most timeless – and busiest – attractions, As such, getting a trail to yourself is an art form. Front door: Las Vegas day-trippers descend en masse on Skywalk in Canyon West, a glass bridge dangling over the canyon. For many, however, the South Rim is the real Grand Canyon with its epic river trips, wellmaintained trails (South Kaibab, Bright Angel) and some of the best views on Earth. Their first stop is usually the Rim’s Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Back door: Visit between September and October – it’s less windy than spring, and avoids the summer crush. Stay onsite at El Tovar Hotel (South Rim) or Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim) for early crowd-beating starts; far fewer people get to the North Rim but its views are arguably finer and its temperatures cooler thanks to its higher altitude (it’s also shut during winter).
Expert tips: Photographer and guide Gary Ladd has written many books on the Grand Canyon (available from grandcanyon.org).
“Off the maintained trails, the Grand Canyon is less busy, but hiking these can be very difficult so are not for inexperienced walkers. On the South Rim, Grandview Trail starts at Grandview Point and empties out towards Horseshoe Mesa (5km). More difficult is the Tanner Trail from Lipan Point, a 14.5km hike along Tanner Canyon ridge – one for fit walkers only.
“On the cooler North Rim, the North Kaibab is a maintained trail that’s well shaded along its upper section and not nearly as crowded as its South Rim counterparts. For a more extreme alternative, the Nankoweap Trail is a rugged, steep and waterless route that is only for very experienced hikers, hence used far less often.
“For great views, head west of the North Rim’s main park road to Toroweap. This stunning overlook has a near-sheer-sided 900m drop. You do have to drive 100km of tyre-shredding gravel road to get there, but even this can get crowded on weekends and holidays, so try to go mid-week.”
7. The Great Wall of China
Beijing section, China Visitors per year: Around 10.7 million (Badaling & Mutianyu sections)
It may not be visible from space (yes, it is a myth), but the Great Wall of China is no less enthralling. It stretches around 21,000km, from the Gobi Desert in the west through Beijing to where it plunges into the Yellow Sea at Qinhuangdao in the east. But finding a quiet spot can be tough… Front door: Most visitors base themselves in Beijing, hiring drivers for day trips out to the more popular sections of the wall, such as Badaling, which is one hour away, and a little further out to the 2.5km-long Mutianyu. Bear in mind, ‘close by’ also means crowded, with Badaling receiving up to 25,000 reported visitors a day during Chinese national holidays. Back door: The further from Beijing you get, the sparser the crowds. Away from the main sites, you will find unrestored stretches known as ‘wild wall’. Skip the newly reopened Simatai – it has been heavily gentrified – for wilder sections such as Jiankou (2.5hr from Beijing) and Gubeikou (2hr). These offer great hiking, but can be perilous in places so care is needed. Elsewhere, Panjiakou reservoir, where the wall slips beneath the cold waters, has become an unlikely dive site in recent years and is very quiet.
The Great Wall of China (Dreamstime)
Expert Tips: Conservationist and author William Lindesay OBE runs WildWall Weekend tours. His new book, The Great Wall in 50 Objects (Penguin), is out now. “Badaling is swamped with tourists from May to October, but can be empty and magical very early – around 6am – or late on. Mutianyu is relatively quiet by comparison but, again, go early or late.
“An equally close alternative is Huanghuacheng (1.5 hours), but if you have a whole day free, you should visit Jinshanling. It’s a good combination of awesome views, accessibility, and it is manageable without much Mandarin.
“Leave early, get out of Beijing quickly and enjoy both wild and rebuilt Wall at Jinshanling. You pay for a car to drive you there and back (4 hours). The famous walk to Simatai is blocked as the sites squabble over tickets, but a quiet alternative is the stretch of wall between Gubeikou and Jinshanling, a walk of six-to-seven kilometres (3 hours).
“Please do not camp on the Wall – it is a protected UNESCO site. You can stay nearby, though. Near Badaling, Commune by the Great Wall (commune.sohochina.com) at Shuiguan has award-winning villas set in a valley beneath the Wall itself, while Shambhala at the Great Wall (+86 10 8961 7100) at Shentangyu gives access to a unique wild section.”
8. The Colosseum
Rome, Italy Visitors per year: Around 5 million
Ancient Rome’s imposing arena has a bloody history. A marathon 100-day games greeted its completion some 2,000 years ago, during which animals and gladiators in their thousands fell within its limestone walls. But its scale is nonetheless astonishing – matched only by the queues to get inside. Front door: Along with Vatican City, the Colosseum is Rome’s hottest ticket, with peak season stretching from March to October. Visits are usually combined with a trip to the crumbling Forum (the Roman Empire’s former political arena) and up Palatine Hill, where the city was originally founded. The views from the latter are worth the slog, sweeping down to the Colosseum and the old Circus Maximus charioteer circuit. Back door: The Colosseum is very busy, and its ticket queues notorious. To avoid them: sign up for a skip-the-line tour, book online, or visit the Palatine or Forum ticket offices – its combi-tickets include Colosseum access and its queues are far shorter. Only 3,000 people are allowed in the Colosseum at any one time, though, so try to visit as soon as it opens or late in the day to avoid waiting.
The Colosseum, Italy (Dreamstime)
Expert tips: Journalist and Rome private travel consultant Amanda Ruggeri is the author of Revealed Rome Handbook.
“The Colosseum is markedly less busy in January and February. For a visit that feels a little bit more private, try the underground tours. These include a visit to the otherwise inaccessible tunnels beneath the ancient arena, where the gladiators once waited to fight, and up to its third tier. There are also sometimes night visits with tour companies that have arranged special access, such as Walks of Italy and Italy with Us.
“Combine a visit to the Colosseum with a trip to one of my favourite sights, the nearby 16th-century Palazzo Valentini. Under the square lie the ruins of two excavated Roman villas – tours need to be booked in advance. If you want to stay nearby, Torre Colonna is a family-owned medieval tower-turned-boutique hotel that has good rooftop views. From the Inn at the Roman Forum, you can sip wine overlooking the Forum and Colosseum. For food nearby, walk into the next-door neighbourhood of Monti for upmarket Roman cuisine at Urbana 47 and top-notch gelato at Fatamorgana.”
9. Machu Picchu
Cusco Region, Peru Visitors per year: Around 2 million
Even if every traveller in the world congregated on the terraces of Machu Picchu, it would still be worth seeing – the allure of this mountain-perched Inca citadel is such that few can resist. But it can be a battle for space. Front door: Most visitors arrive by train (from Poroy or Ollantaytambo) or by hiking the 42km Inca Trail – a classic route. The trail’s busy (even though numbers are supposedly limited to 500 people a day), but it’s also dotted with Inca ruins and excellent views en route. Back door: Machu Picchu opens at 6am. Staying overnight in nearby Aguas Calientes (buses from 5.30am) or at Machu Picchu’s upmarket Belmond Sanctuary Lodgecan give you a head start. The bulk of tours flood in from 9.30am, so time a hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that dominates the site, for around 10am. And for walkers, the 69km Salkantay Trail sees far fewer trekkers and offers a little-seen sidelong view of Machu Picchu from the ruins of Llactapata.
Machu Picchu, Peru (Dreamstime) Expert Tips: Efrain Valles is a Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2014 winner and gives tours with Amazonas Explorer.
“Machu Picchu is quieter to visit in the afternoon. Take a bus from Aguas Calientes at around 1.30pm to the main site of Machu Picchu (40 min) – no one arrives this late, so you shouldn’t have to queue. By 3pm, the main sites are almost empty. By 5pm, the park closes, but linger by the entrance as the visitors troop out and you can get great shots of an empty Machu Picchu while the light is still good.
“If you do go for sunrise, take the zig-zag trail (25 min) through the forest to the last terraces on top of the mountain, near the watchtower. From there, you can see the mountains and site change with the light in peace.
“Alternatively, there are plenty of great treks around Cusco. Hike its ruins down from Tambomachay to the Temple of the Moon, where an Inca trail leads from Cusco into the jungle – it takes a day. Or you can also head to the circular terraces of Moray (an Incan agricultural centre) where walks (4-5hr) down to the salt pans beneath can be pretty hot but are usually empty, except for local farmers and the odd bit of wildlife.”
Northern Territory, Australia Visitors per year: Around 270,000
A sacred place to the aboriginal Anangu; to the many visitors headed to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the sight of the red-rock behemoth of Uluru rising out of the dusty outback is inspiration enough to make the long drive from Alice Springs – even if they are far from alone… Front door: Most visitors self-drive the 690km Red Centre Way from Alice Springs to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Sunset and sunrise the busiest periods. During these times, the viewing areas fill up fast as people jostle to watch the rock change colour with the light. During the day, the 10km base walk is popular and is dotted with rest stops and viewing points along the way. Back door: Peak season is April to October (when it’s coolest). If driving, combine with a visit to the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon. Sunrise is the best time to visit Uluru, and while its viewing platforms are usually packed, the rest of the park is easy to roam, leaving you free to stroll or cycle the Base Walk. If all else fails, skydive!
Uluru, Australia (Dreamstime)
Expert tips: Claudianna Blanco works for Parks Australia, specialising in helping film crews find quiet locations to shoot in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
“Head to the sunset viewing areas at sunrise (and vice versa) – you’ll not only get them to yourself but also a shot of Uluru few others see. Another of my other favourite areas at sunset is Walpa Gorge in Kata Tjuta or Lungkata Walk, next to the rock itself – from there, you can see the colour change up-close in peace as the sun hits.
“Later in the day, try the Liru Walk, which stretches from the Cultural Centre right to the foot of Uluru – it’s a infinitely less crowded alternative to the circular Base Walk and has great views, especially at sunset.
“In the evening, champagne parties at the sunset viewing areas are popular and good fun. But if you park your car nearby these areas on any wide patch of dirt (with white, not yellow, lines) by the side of the road, you can picnic in solitude – non-alcoholically, of course, if driving.”
11. Angkor wat
Siem Reap, Cambodia Visitors per year: Around 2.1 million
A masterpiece of Khmer archaeology, the sprawling complex of Angkor takes up a 400 sq km swathe of Cambodian jungle, scattered with temples dating from the ninth to the 15th century. There is nowhere quite like it. Front door: Most visitors base themselves in Siem Reap. The majority enter via the west gate (open from 5am) and head to Angkor Wat for sunrise and Phnom Bakheng for sunset – beautiful viewpoints, but expect crowds. Back door: New rules affecting early visitors mean Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, Pre Rup and the lake of Srah Srang are the only sites now accessible at sunrise, with the rest of the park opening at 7:30am. This has cut down your options for early-morning alternatives, but attack these bigger sites just after sun-up, when the tour groups leave for breakfast, or during lunch and it will thin crowds out a little. However, there are plenty of impressive alternative temples to see…
Expert tips: Andrew Booth, founder of ABOUTAisa, is author of The Angkor Guidebook – all profits of the book support local children’s education.
“The season you visit is important for avoiding crowds. Throughout June, July and August, it usually rains two out of every three days, so the standard travel advice is to visit Angkor between November and March (peak time). But this is misguided. During the summer months, rainfall before noon is usually one day in seven, and the mornings are often sunny. If you visit then and arrive early, you’ll beat both the tour groups and the rain.
“Make sure you visit some of the lesser-known temples while you’re there too, such as Bakong, Beng Mealea (early in the day) or even Banteay Thom and Chau Srei Vibol. These latter ones are almost sure to be deserted and are equally beautiful. You may have to walk a while off the road or even cycle to reach them, but they reward your efforts with magical solitude. Within the main temple area, also visit Preah Khan, Ta Nei and walk on the walls of Angkor Thom, which have fewer tourists.”
“One of my personal favourite side trips is to walk away from the road between the wall and the inside of the moat. This is good especially on the north side where you can often find ripe mangoes in late spring.”
12. Djemaa el-Fna
Marrakech, Morocco Visitors per year: Around 1.5 million
Known as much for its atmosphere (and even recognised by UNESCO for it) as its design, Djemaa el-Fna square is the bustling heart of chaotic Marrakech. To reduce the crowds isn’t the point here – the crowds are part of the experience. But with so much fighting for your attention, it pays to know what is worth bothering with. Front door: Evening (post 6pm) is the main reason to visit the square, when a melee of touts, poets, pickpockets, oud (lute) players, storytellers, snake charmers, acrobats, gnaoua dancers, henna tattooists, food stalls and juice salesmen collide in an explosion of noise, colour, crowds and confusion. Back door: The entertainment follows the hordes, and vice versa. Lose one and you lose the other, and during the day the square just doesn’t have the same vibe. Be sure to skip the henna tattooists for the nearby Henna Art Café, which uses only safe products. The storytellers are great, if you speak Arabic. But the food is the real draw here, so long as you know what to order…
“There are lots of cafés overlooking the square. For a good view, choose Café Glacier on the corner edge, overlooking Kotoubia mosque. To the north-east, near the souks, you’ll also find Mechoui Alley. From noon, its stalls start slicing up its namesake dish of mechoui, lamb roasted whole in an underground clay oven. It’s sold by the half or quarter kilo – take away a bag with fresh bread and olives.
“The food stalls of Djemaa el-Fna set up from 4pm and open until well past midnight. Head there after 7pm and stick with grilled meats, such as merguez sausage and chicken skewers. Try baolo, which is cow offal stuffed into bread that has been dipped in dripping. It’s a local favourite and you’ll find it at any of the tangia (slow-roasted lamb) stalls. Snails are common too, and even if you can’t stomach them, try the broth they come in – it has a unique flavour.
“For fresh local spices, don’t buy them in the local ‘pharmacies’ or fancy shops – they just buy them themselves from the small hanuts (grocers) that litter the city. These also sell dried fruits and nuts, and if you walk towards the police station in the north of the square, you’ll see an alley that runs behind it filled with plenty of these shops to explore.”
Main Image: Traveller enjoying the sunset at Bagan (Shutterstock)