7 Major U.S. Tourist Traps That Are Actually Awesome

It would be a shame to miss the unique experiences these spots offer.

It's no surprise that many travelers want to avoid "tourist traps." Popular tourist destinations often feature long lines, predatory vendors, and views obscured by masses of people's arms taking photos with smartphones. In fact, 68 percent of travelers, according to Get Your Guide, say that "they've decided against visiting attractions and excursions that are considered tourist traps." 

But not all so-called tourist traps are disappointing; some of them have earned their popularity in spades.

I used to be one of those people who turned my nose up at the Eiffel Tower and skipped the Grand Canyon under the mistaken impression that I'd somehow find experiences that felt more authentically connected to the local culture.

When COVID-19 closed almost every destination—including Disney World, which is even open on Christmas Day—I realized how sad it was to live in a world where we couldn't revel in Elmo photo ops in Times Square. I now choose to find wonder in the kinds of places that bring joy to many people—instead of missing out.

From the electric energy of the Vegas strip to endearing roadside attractions, these are some of the biggest tourist traps in the U.S. that are actually worth visiting. Because life is too short to be jaded.

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7. Niagara Falls, New York

Niagara Falls NY

Niagara Falls is the honeymoon capital of America and getting soaked in a flimsy poncho might not seem like fun. But don't let all the honeymooners deter you from a visit.

It's hard to understand just how majestic Niagara Falls is until you are face-to-face with the 325-foot cascade of blue water crashing down against the backdrop of a blue sky. It's awe-inspiring, and you're almost always guaranteed to catch a rainbow with the amount of mist the falls generate.

The site, which connects the U.S. and Canada, also has a lot of historic significance. I recommend scheduling a boat tour for early evening when the viewing areas will be less crowded, and you can catch the sunset for truly breathtaking photos.

6. Wall Drug, South Dakota

Two boys pose for a photo on the Jackalope at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota during the summer of 2017

Travel expert Olive Christine adores Wall Drug—the internationally-renowned, cowboy-themed shopping complex with an 80-foot brontosaurus sculpture. "It's kitschy and unexpected in the best way, with a mix of shopping, dining, and various quirky attractions like a giant dinosaur and the famed free ice water," she says. "There's a certain tongue-in-cheek humor to the entire establishment that I love."

She recommends taking time out of your road trip to explore the complex, "whether it's the Western Art Gallery or the Backyard. Have a meal at the cafe, take plenty of photos, and don't forget to get your free ice water as a souvenir of your visit."

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5. Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles

Hollywood Boulevard
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Los Angeles natives often have a love-hate relationship with the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's crowded, messy, and lined with cheesy souvenir shops. But Laura Lynch, founder of Go Travel California, sees the boulevard for what it is beyond the stars.

"If you land up on the Walk of Fame, don't just hustle past the stars. Take it slow," she explains to Best Life. "Strolling the Walk of Fame, each star unveiled a history of struggles and triumphs, dreams, and inspiration—it's a nostalgic journey."

4. The Strip, Las Vegas

neon museum
iStock / Page Light Studios

Casinos, same-day wedding chapels, and an overabundance of Elvis impersonators and bachelor and bachelorette parties are all reasons someone might want to avoid the Las Vegas Strip. And if you don't like to gamble, it might feel too overpriced for a regular vacation destination.

Mal Hellyer, travel blogger of Raw Mal Roams, begs to differ. "One of my most cherished memories is this early morning walk along the strip. The city, usually buzzing with life, was tranquil. The neon signs against the dawn sky—that was a sight to behold," she explains.

"Next time you find yourself in a tourist trap, I'd say, jump right in," she adds. "It could turn out to be the adventure you've been seeking."

3. Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

fisherman's wharf san francisco
travelview / iStock

In operation since the days of the Gold Rush, the Fisherman's Wharf of today, which offers access to Alcatraz Island, overflows with pricey shops, expensive eateries, and Golden Gate Bridge photo ops.

Ady Meschke, founder of Verbal Gold Blog, thinks Fisherman's Wharf is a must-stop for out-of-towners. "I used to live in San Francisco and every time someone would visit I would always take them to Fisherman's Wharf," she explains. "The bushman, who jumps out and scares you is an unforgettable local experience. The waterfront views, the fresh bread from Boudin that they make in little shapes of animals, the clam chowder in a bread bowl that you can't get anywhere else is like no other, and the sea lions at Pier 39."

The iconic Irish coffee at The Buena Vista Cafe holds a special place in her heart as well. "Make sure to sit at the bar, you won't regret it. Plus, it's supposedly the place where Irish coffee was first introduced to the US in 1952."

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2. Bourbon Street, New Orleans

bourbon street during mardi gras
Joel Carillet / iStock

Lined with bars, music clubs, and souvenir shops, Bourbon Street in New Orleans is where the partiers love to go. Its reputation is certainly wild, overrun with groups of birthday celebrators, spring breakers, and others looking to let loose. It's also a loud street, with drumlines, rock bands, and performers entertaining folks as they stumble from bar to bar carrying open containers (that's legal in New Orleans). We'll spare you the gory details of how messy this area can get as a result.

It's easy to write off Bourbon Street, but locals like Richard Campanella, associate dean for research with the Tulane School of Architecture and author of Cityscapes of New Orleans, understand that it is one of the best parts of New Orleans.

In his essay, "Hating Bourbon Street," he wrote, "There's something refreshing about a place that flips off coolness and measures success the old-fashioned way: by the millions. What you see when you peer past the neon is exactly what you get."

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1. Times Square, New York

Times Square
Luciano Mortula – LGM/Shutterstock

I'll close off this list with the tourist trap that makes New York City what it is: the greatest city on Earth. I practically grew up in Times Square, it was the first place my parents let me go on my own when I'd come into NYC with my friends as a teenager.

Times Square is the most unnecessary collection of shopping, entertainment, restaurants, and more, but it's almost a rite of passage for travelers hitting up the city. 

 It's overwhelming, but the crowds are thinner once the Broadway shows start. If anything else, you have to go and appreciate the hustle of the folks dressed as knock-offs—Iron Man, Cookie Monster, or the Statue of Liberty—who make a living getting their photo taken every day. There's no place like it on earth.

Tourist traps are sometimes cheesy and not always wallet-friendly, but they they can also be unique and unforgettable experiences. There are lots of wonderful things to experience in these places that you can't get anywhere else. 

Katka Lapelosova
Kat is a born and raised New Yorker exploring the world as she writes, eats, and everything in between. Read more
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