Eric Stoen of Travel Babbo has traveled to many of the world’s great sites, and his Instagram photos from those spots make it look like no one else was around. We’ve partnered with Eric to get his tips for avoiding crowds, and getting tourist-free photos, when you travel.
My biggest annoyance when I’m traveling: crowds. If I fly halfway around the world to see an amazing site, I want to experience it with as few other people around as possible. This is especially true if I’m with my kids. Long lines and crowded attractions aren’t family-friendly.
Success has been mine, one UNESCO World Heritage Site at a time. Here are my secrets.
Wake up early! If you’re one of the first people at a site, then there’s no one in front of you. This makes it so much easier to have a real sense of place and to remember why you wanted to visit in the first place.
At the Taj Mahal, we arrived early and lined up before sunrise, but we also moved quickly as soon as the gates opened to get in front of everyone else. Once we took photos from the main vantage point we walked over to the Mosque well before anyone else arrived, save one caretaker. Beyond the people-free photos, it was special to have the site practically to ourselves as the sun came up.
Another place where it’s worth waking up early is Florence. While the city has a popular spot for photographing the sunset, Piazzale Michelangelo, there’s not an equivalent sunrise spot. As a result, and because of the late night culture, there’s virtually no one out when the sun comes up. I wander around the city at daybreak as often as I can. I’ve taken a few photos over the years, but I usually put the camera down and simply enjoy the Renaissance city – it’s much easier to appreciate the magnificence of the Duomo and the city’s squares without thousands of tourists around.
The same goes for Chichen Itza, Mexico. Like the Taj Mahal it’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and like the Taj Mahal, it gets very crowded by mid-day. So go early! We arrived when the gates opened and had the site practically to ourselves until the first tour buses arrived.
Of course, the opposite can also apply. Late afternoon is an excellent time to visit any sites with closing times, since the buses have come and gone. Stay as long as you can before they close or before it gets dark.
The Great Wall is my favorite place to visit in the afternoon. I’ve been to the Mutianyu section three times now, always in the afternoon, and had it virtually to myself each time.
Likewise, my daughter and I went to Indonesia’s Borobudur temple late in the afternoon and there were only a few others there – nice compared to the next morning when there were over 100 people waiting for sunrise.
Another site where it pays to stay until closing? The church of Saint George in Lalibela, Ethiopia. It’s an amazing, spiritual site, and far easier to appreciate without others around. We stayed until a few minutes after sunset when the guards finally kicked us out.
Travel When Others Aren’t
If you’re traveling to popular sites during peak dates, it’s going to be hard to get away from crowds. So go during shoulder seasons or even off-season. This is true for popular UNESCO sites like the Great Wall, where it gets very busy during Chinese holidays, but it also applies to theme parks. My daughter and I went to Hong Kong Disneyland in February a few years ago, two weeks after the Chinese New Year celebrations, and there was hardly anyone else there. Not only were we able to avoid lines, we could go on rides over and over again without being asked to get off. It’s the only time I’ve experienced that anywhere, and it was all because of the timing of our visit.
And if you want Venice to yourself, go in the spring. The weather is warm enough, the acqua alta (high water) has receded, and there aren’t many other visitors.
So let’s say that you can’t avoid the peak times to visit – that doesn’t mean that you have to be surrounded by crowds. Depending on the site, people may arrive in waves, in which case you can relax and wait for the crowd to pass by in order to have a less-touristy experience, or you can move around a little to find the quieter spots.
At some locations, timing is everything. I mentioned Borobudur above. Everyone arrives for the sunrise and then heads to breakfast. We found that 20 minutes after sunrise there was virtually no one there. And in Santorini, most people head for the famous sunset spot every night starting half an hour before sunset and they all crowd onto a small platform. That’s a great time to eat dinner! Get a table with a view, enjoy the sunset from there, and then walk to the sunset spot for a photo as soon as everyone leaves – it clears out quickly. That’s the best light anyway.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is another spot where it pays to be patient. There’s a steady stream of people walking through, but if you want photos with no one in them, all you have to do is wait a minute and chances are it will be clear for a little while. This is one time when my photos are deceptive. There were people around; we were simply patient.
The same was the case at the Fushimi Inari Taisha torii gates in Kyoto, Japan. It’s not hard to get a photo without anyone in them – you just need to wait a while.
Book a Tour
We frequently visit Europe’s most popular cities – Paris, London, Florence and Venice during the most popular season: summer. To get away from the crowds, we book a lot of private tours. If you book with the right companies, the guides will know when to arrive at sites, how to avoid lines, and how to navigate away from the crowds.
In Athens for a day off a cruise ship, we booked a walking tour to get us away from the 2,400 others on our ship. By the time we got to the Parthenon, it was deserted. Perfect!
And in London this summer, we booked a tour of the Tower of London through Context Travel that started as soon as the Tower opened. Not only was there no line to see the Crown Jewels, the crowds around the site were minimal. That’s definitely not the case later in the day.
The moral to all of this? Never be satisfied being in a crowd. No matter where you travel, you can almost always find a way to have an individualized experience, sometimes by timing it right and sometimes by being patient.
Eric Stoen is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity. For more information on the Travelocity Gnomads visit travelocitygnomads.com.
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