Avoid the Crowds at the World’s Most Popular Sights

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Jan 27, 2017

by STEVE MCKENNA, Writer

These wonders of the world are must-sees for good reason. Steve McKenna maps out how to visit 10 iconic places without the crowds. After all, life’s too short for queues.

Pyramids of Egypt 

Avoid: Touring on foot
Instead: Visit the site on a quad bike

Soaring above the desert beyond Cairo’s urban sprawl, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and the only one still standing. Yet it’s difficult to admire this 4500-year-old monument and the smaller pyramids surrounding it without being badgered by characters spruiking tours, souvenirs and camel rides. So take a step back. Or, more precisely, hop on a quad bike. The sprawling sand dunes that fringe the historic Giza complex provide four-wheeled fun with awe-inspiring panoramas. Blending adrenaline-fuelled bursts of speed with moments of quiet reflection, Memphis Tours’ Desert Safari by Quad Bike allows you to marvel at the ancient structures from myriad angles. Sunset trips are especially enchanting; the sky reddens and the triangular silhouettes appear to hover on the horizon. Post ride, enjoy a spa treatment fit for a pharaoh at The Ritz-Carlton Cairo (ritzcarlton.com). This new five-star hotel by the Nile River occupies the site of the former Nile Hilton, which was visited by stars such as Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Bespoke tours inside the pyramids with the hotel’s qualified Egyptologists can be arranged.

SEE ALSO: Your Passport to the World's Most Luxe Experiences

Eiffel Tower

Avoid: The viewing platforms
Instead: Book a table at one of the tower’s restaurants 

Few things can put a dampener on a romantic break in Paris than having to queue for eons to scale the Eiffel Tower. Avoid that by booking dinner at one of the Iron Lady’s esteemed eateries. Not only will you skip the line for the public viewing platforms, you’ll also enjoy a delicious and intimate meal while the City of Light sparkles below. The more wallet-friendly option is 58 Tour Eiffel, a first-floor brasserie 58 metres up that serves classic cuisine. Expect dishes such as cod steak and seasonal vegetables cooked in a shellfish bouillon. On the second floor, 125 metres up, Le Jules Verne is the splash-out choice – a chic Michelin-starred affair that’s part of Alain Ducasse’s empire. Its inventive wine-paired tasting menus boast the likes of preserved duck foie gras, pan-seared sea scallops, ox cheek and artisan desserts. The restaurant’s much-coveted window-view tables are awarded on a first-booked, first-served basis, with reservations opening three months in advance. To guarantee one, plump for the Dinner Gift Box, which includes chocolate, Champagne and other goodies.

Machu Picchu

Avoid: Hiking the Inca Trail
Instead: Take a boutique train trip 

It’s become fashionable to embark on arduous multi-day treks along Peru’s Inca Trail to the fabled lost city but it’s much faster and comfier to go by rail. Forget the standard tourist trains and take the Belmond Hiram Bingham, a high-end service named after the Indiana Jones-like explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911. Boarding the train’s dapper British Pullman-style carriages at Poroy, on the outskirts of Cusco, you’re spirited away on a bewitching three-hour journey featuring mountain and valley views, live Latin and Andean music and a delectable brunch of smoked trout or roast alpaca with fine Peruvian wines. Upon your arrival at Machu Picchu, the crowds should have thinned. After a guided walking tour of the mesmerising, jungle-shrouded ruins, there’s afternoon tea at the site’s Belmond Sanctuary Lodge before a return rail trip that includes pre-dinner cocktails (such as pisco sours), a four-course Andean-flavoured menu and a well-earned nap.

Great Wall Of China

Avoid: Badaling
Instead: Head to Jiankou 

Historians estimate that some 3.8 billion bricks were used to construct this colossal defensive landmark that zigzags for thousands of kilometres across China and is split into separate sections in varying states of repair. The best-preserved part – at Badaling, 80 kilometres north-west of the capital, Beijing – witnesses a daily invasion of tourists. Far less congested but much wilder and more dramatic is the section of the wall that crowns a vegetation-cloaked mountain ridge at Jiankou, about 100 kilometres north of Beijing. “Most of the bricks have decayed and collapsed and the wall has become part of the mountain,” says Gary Lee, founder of Great Wall Hiking. His company runs various wall treks, including one stretching 9.5 kilometres from Jiankou to Mutianyu – a restored section of the wall visited by Michelle Obama in 2014. Devilishly steep in parts, the rustic Jiankou-Mutianyu trail is punctuated with ancient watchtowers where you can catch your breath and glimpse the wall snaking perpetually into the distance through misty mountains and forests. It’s bitterly cold in winter and sizzling in summer so it’s best to hike the wall in April/May or September/October.

SEE ALSO: The Best Festivals, Parades and Parties in the World

Angkor Wat

Avoid: Going at the crack of dawn
Instead: Visit between 7am and 11am 

It’s not just the cicadas and roosters that make a racket as the sun rises over Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. It’s the droves clamouring for that Instagram-perfect image of the temple’s lotus-bud towers. But remain patient. Many tourists soon return for breakfast at their hotels in Siem Reap, the nearest town, providing the perfect opportunity to explore Angkor Archaeological Park. The site, which includes Angkor Wat and hundreds of other temples, sprawls through the muggy tropical jungles of northern Cambodia. “From 7am to 11am, temperatures are relatively low and the soft morning light is ideal for capturing the temples’ ornate carvings on camera,” says Kelly Willis, Cambodia general manager at Grasshopper Adventures, which offers a guided bike ride of the park’s forested back trails as part of its Angkor Sunrise Discovery. Pedalling through rice paddies and rustic hamlets, you’ll stop at iconic structures (including the tree-strangled Ta Prohm temple that starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and evocative ruins that few visitors know about. The tour ends with lunch by Srah Srang reservoir, where Angkor royals once bathed. “My favourite time of the year to cycle the temples is July/August,” says Willis. “During that time, it’s very green and beautiful in Angkor. It can be wet sometimes but [it’s usually only] short and sharp rain during the morning and daytime. There are far fewer people, which makes for a nicer experience at the temples without the crowds.”

The Serengeti

Avoid: The central plains
Instead: Try the western corridor 

An epic quest for food, drink and survival, the Great Migration unfurls throughout the year across the African savannas. Much of it plays out in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park yet while most tourist jeeps and tents trail wildlife in the park’s central plains, its more remote western corridor is a seductive alternative. “Even during June and July, when the Great Migration is in the area, the number of tourists in the western corridor is relatively low compared with other parts of the Serengeti,” says Nadhir Waziri, head ranger at the deluxe &Beyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp, one of a handful of permanent lodges in the western Serengeti. Game drives yield intimate encounters with resident and migratory wildebeest and zebras, plus year-round attractions such as lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants, cheetahs, colobus monkeys and crocodiles. After the migration rush, the khaki-clad crowds virtually disappear but nature thrives amid landscapes watered by seasonal rains (it usually rains for just a few hours each day and often only at night). “From October to March, the area is very green and the wildlife sightings are phenomenal, with a lot of action from the big lion prides, whose cubs are learning to hunt,” says Waziri.

Taj Mahal

Avoid: Daytripping to the site
Instead: Book a room at the hotel next door 

Dubbed a “monument to eternal love”, the Taj Mahal in Agra was built to honour the wife of a Mughal emperor who died in childbirth. But loving feelings can fast evaporate in the chaos of its tout-and-tourist scrum. To best appreciate this Indian jewel, stay at The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, a palatial Mughal-style hotel 600 metres from the site. Every room has views of the Taj Mahal but in the opulent Kohinoor Suite, you’ll gaze at the dreamy domes and pillars from your king-size bed, bathtub and terrace. Wake before dawn and, clutching your entry ticket purchased in advance from the concierge, take a complimentary golf cart to the Taj Mahal’s east gate (it opens at sunrise but most tour groups don’t arrive until 9am). As daylight arrives, wander by the site’s reflective pool and manicured lawns then watch as the mausoleum, in all its marbled majesty, changes colour from grey to gold to saffron to snow-white. Before the hordes get here, admire up close the intricate design of a building that demanded 22,000 workers for its construction. For more historical nuggets, hire one of the hotel’s erudite guides.

New York City 

Avoid: The major landmarks
Instead: Map a course through hipper districts 

Fancy having the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Times Square all to yourself? As a New Yorker might say, “Fuggedaboutit!” Don’t fret, though. The best way to get a real taste of the Big Apple is to delve beyond the usual sights. Our tip? Do a self-guided Manhattan walking tour from Lower Manhattan to Midtown. This covers some of the city’s most vivacious neighbourhoods, letting you soak up the electric New York vibe, with pit stops for food, drinks, shopping and culture. After an espresso and bagel breakfast at trendy SoHo café Ground Support, mosey along that quintessential New York drag, Broadway, until you reach the resurgent NoMad enclave (experiencenomad.com). Fanning out from Madison Square Park, its side streets are lined with design and fashion boutiques. Then backtrack a little, heading west to urban food court Chelsea Market, where temptations include sushi, oysters and lobster rolls at Cull & Pistol. Stroll through the neighbouring Meatpacking District and visit the Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art for works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko. Now hit the High Line, a former freight rail line redesigned as a grassy promenade with quirky sculptures, sweeping city views and fantastic people-watching. Follow it to its end at Hell’s Kitchen, a lively ’hood with a slew of dining options and party-fuelled bars. Or if you’re after a taste of New York beyond Manhattan, hop on the subway to Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue Station and join the Williamsburg Bites Brooklyn Food Tour, a snack-tastic trawl through one of the city’s hippest quarters.

Sistine Chapel

Avoid: Going during opening hours
Instead: Book an after-hours tour 

Even the most well-travelled souls find themselves overwhelmed by the Vatican Museums. It’s not just the staggering array of art on display, it’s also the shoulder-to-shoulder crush inside the labyrinthine galleries. Particularly exasperating is the Sistine Chapel, where you jostle to peruse Michelangelo’s masterful frescoes while stony-faced guards attempt to shush everyone. Beat the masses by booking a small-group or private after-hours Vatican tour through Italy With Us. Guided visits lasting two hours begin just after the museums close to the public so you’ll get the kind of exclusive access usually reserved for dignitaries and celebrities (and hear the echo of your own footsteps as you saunter through the eerily empty corridors). You’ll spend at least 30 minutes inside the Sistine Chapel, where your guide will explain Michelangelo’s motivations while you savour the flamboyant ceiling and wall paintings in peace. Though photography is usually banned inside the chapel, guards have been known to turn a blind eye during VIP visits. Just saying.

Great Barrier Reef

Avoid: Daytrips from Cairns
Instead: Sleep on the reef 

Snaking for 2300 kilometres along Queensland’s coast, the Great Barrier Reef is bigger than Tasmania and Victoria combined but most tourists “do it” in a day from Cairns or Port Douglas. To really immerse yourself in the reef’s dazzling, technicolour underwater world, book a four-day live-aboard cruise on Reef Encounter, which is permanently located by the outer reef about 70 kilometres from Cairns. This 21-room boutique catamaran “hotel” ventures between company-owned moorings that provide a springboard for guests to discover the treasures that lie beneath, from sunrise to night-time. Highlights include swimming with manta rays and moray eels at Saxon Reef and ogling schools of tropical fish, reef sharks and giant wrasse in the coral gardens of Hastings Reef. There’s a range of diving and snorkelling packages to choose from. By upgrading to the VIP Top Deck Club, you get a personal valet, who, among other things, serves you breakfast in bed and acts as your in-water guide. Most guests come by boat transfer from Cairns but Reef Encounter has its own helipad so splash out on a scenic helicopter ride and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef. 

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