Visiting the world’s top landmarks can be tricky. Lines and crowds get worse every year. Important sections can be closed on the day you go. An advance reservation for a specific entry time might be a lifesaver—at the Eiffel Tower, for instance, it can get you past the hours-long elevator line—or it could lead to disappointment—say, if your Eiffel Tower entry time coincides with pouring rain and poor visibility. I’m lucky enough to have visited many of the iconic monuments that have just rated among the top 25 Travelers’ Choice Attractions, so I figure I ought to share some advice for navigating them:
Go at sunrise.
A lot of people assume the best time to visit a site such as the Taj Mahal (the landmark rated #3 in the world) or Angkor Wat (rated #1) is sunset but, actually, sunrise is almost always better: You get equally great light for photos and none of the crowds to spoil them. The best sunrise I’ve ever experienced was at Jordan’s ancient sandstone city of Petra (#3 in the Middle East). Here’s why. Of course, optimally, it’s best to experience a landmark both at sunrise and at sunset, since the entire scene is so different as to be fascinating.
Go at night when it’s lit up.
Not all landmarks are accessible at night, obviously, but those that are—say, the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. (#18)—are well worth seeing.
Suss out in advance how to avoid the lines.
Sometimes a reserved entry time allows you to skip the line. Sometimes you need a group tour or a private guide who can get you past the line. Sometimes you simply need to show up at one of the two extremes of the day: either an hour before it opens or an hour before it closes. You can use TripAdvisor’s forums to ask your fellow travelers for such insights.
If there are steps, climb them.
Whether it’s a rooftop—such as the one at Milan’s Cathedral (#7)—or a fortress look-out point—such as The Alhambra’s (#14)—I have climbed to the top of dozens of monuments and have never, ever felt the effort wasn’t worth it. Usually it’s not just the view from the top but the journey itself—such as the circuitous, increasingly narrow route into the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (#6)—that’s so memorable.
If it’s a bridge, walk across it.
Take the time to explore what’s at each end too. When walking across the Golden Gate Bridge (#10), for instance, make time for Fort Point at one end and the Marin Headlands at the other.
Look at postcards before you explore, not afterward.
Stop at the gift shop first and study the postcards because they often reveal interesting viewpoints and hidden rooms that that you might otherwise miss.
There’s often a portion of the site that costs extra to enter (and for which you might need advance tickets), and it’s almost always worth it. A good example: The Roman terrace houses at the Ancient City of Ephesus (#5 in Turkey).
Don’t rush it.
The Alhambra (#14) took my family a full day to get through, but that’s what made it so enjoyable. We took the time to climb to the top of the fort, smell the roses in the Moorish gardens, and relax over lunch in the courtyard of the parador inside the palace grounds.
Stay ahead of the cruise crowds.
They can destroy the majesty of a landmark (not to mention your snapshots) and are another reason to hit Ephesus or Petra in the early morning, as cruise groups tend not to arrive till 10:00 or 10:30 a.m.
Check TripAdvisor reviews for tips.
Next time I go to Gettysburg National Military Park (#10 in the U.S.), I will take the advice from several reviewers to opt for a private battlefield guide. “We chose to have a guide drive our car thru the park and narrate the historical battle,” writes French S. of Louisiana. “Best decision we made.”