If you’re visiting Florence, Italy, you’ve got to see the world-famous Uffizi Gallery. But why? Because that’s what one does in Florence? Because you feel compelled to post a selfie in front of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”?
Those are obviously terrible reasons. We shouldn’t go to places because they’re world-famous; we should go to fully appreciate the thing that made them world-famous. But that requires a thoughtful, well-planned visit.
I spoke with those in charge of some of the world’s great attractions to glean strategies for making the most of a visit, both substantive improvements and simple beat-the-crowds techniques. Because, no matter how great the view is from the crown of Lady Liberty, you can’t visit the crown at all without serious planning.
“On busy days you’re talking 25,000 people on a small island, and 500 a day get to the crown,” said Michael Amato, the lead park ranger for the Statue of Liberty National Monument. “Right now we’re sold out until late October, early November.”
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The ultimate way to avoid crowds is to visit during the offseason; in other words, not now. Remember American Thanksgiving and spring breaks (if they don’t fall over Easter week) don’t mirror other countries’ vacations.
Some American habits can play to your advantage.
“Americans love to eat early,” said Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Galleries. “Have an early lunch, and get to the Uffizi something like 1 p.m., when the vast majority of people head off to eat.”
Timed tickets can often be bought days in advance and are increasingly available at crowded attractions around the world. At the Uffizi, they cost 4 euros extra (boosting admission to 16.50 euros, about $18) and take care of waiting in line, if not the crowds.
You can buy them at the official Uffizi website, uffizi.it, if you can find it. Unofficial sites that look official are rampant. If you’re ever having trouble finding the official site of any attraction, search for it on a trusted travel site – say, LonelyPlanet.com – and follow the links.
Jade McKellar, the director of visitor experiences at the Sydney Opera House, said that too many visitors “stop at the selfie.”
Like many sites, a true visit means dedicating a full day, something a rushed traveler might be loath to do but should do. You may want to append to a tour of the Sydney Opera House a pre-theater dinner at locavore Australian restaurant Bennelong, and an evening performance.
Another reason to set aside more time: Visitors skip the less-famous but equally worthwhile, often beautifully complementary sites nearby.
Susan Greaney, the senior properties historian at English Heritage, which oversees Stonehenge, recommended a trip to the nearby Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum, local history museums with Stonehenge-relevant exhibitions, each less than a 30-minute drive away but apt to be missed by anyone on a day tour from London.
Mark Thomas, the western district director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, recommended the New York Power Authority’s Niagara Power Vista, a free attraction 10 minutes away from Niagara Falls State Park.
Schmidt noted that the copy of Michelangelo’s David on the Piazza della Signoria near the Uffizi was indistinguishable to nonexperts. Lines to see the real one at the Accademia Gallerycan run hours if you don’t buy tickets in advance.
“If someone has just three days in Florence, do you want to waste three hours in line when you can see a very faithful copy?” he said.
Sometimes, the skipped-over attraction is even part of the same complex. Damato noted that this year Liberty Island would attract 4.4 million visitors, while the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration will attract just 2.4 million. That’s preposterous, considering that the boat to Liberty Island also stops at Ellis Island, which costs nothing extra and (in my opinion, not his) is far more interesting.
Reading up on the attraction can make a vast difference in how much you appreciate it. I slogged through “The Conquest of the Incas” by John Hemming before visiting Machu Picchu for the first time, and it made for a rich experience.
Some final recommendations: Be an active visitor, engaging guides, rangers or docents and exploring lesser-known corners. For hard-to-reach monuments, consider a more adventurous alternative route to avoid crowds – walking the steep hill to the Peak viewpoint in Hong Kong or hiking up the rain forest path to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro instead of taking the crowded trams that lead to each.
Of course, you can also simply skip the world-famous attraction. If you’re sick of museums by the time you get to Florence, forgo the Uffizi and take advantage of other things Florence has to offer.
Don’t worry about what your friends will think: You can use PhotoShop to show them you “saw” “The Birth of Venus.”