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How to survive the tourist horde at major European sites

Published June 25, 2013 1:02 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Edinburgh • The smell of decay filled the air. A flock of dark birds, vultures perhaps, circled overhead. In the distance, the sound of shuffling feet ricocheted off the stone walls.

And then I saw them: a horde of lurching bodies, their eyes glazed, their gait irregular, even undead. But this wasn't a herd of zombies: It was a tour group coming like a wave through the cobbled lanes of Edinburgh Castle.

Anyone who has visited a major European historical site has probably had a similar experience. In this case, I showed up to the castle with high expectations, only to discover that it was as packed with tourists as Disneyland during Christmas break. Ugh.

Tourists complaining about tourists is nothing new, but it's also not unreasonable for travelers to think about ways to maximize their time and money in major European historic sites. All of them — from the Tower of London to the Vatican Museum — are packed to the gills, but that doesn't mean they can't provide rewarding experiences. Here are some of the things I tried and learned at Edinburgh Castle.

Marching to a different drum • I got caught up in the tourist horde as I moved though the gates of Edinburgh Castle, a fortress that sits like a crown on volcanic cliffs high above the city. The castle dates back at least to the 12th century and is one of the most archetypical, castle-looking places that many visitors see in the UK. It has crenelated stone walls, canons and suits of armor. The entrance passes through heavy gates and a massive portcullis, making it easy to imagine medieval life among sword-wielding warriors.

As I moved through the group at the entrance, the most important thing I noticed — and which I've also discovered at other big sites as well — was that the tourist horde and I moved at a different speeds. Simply going faster or slower left me in the gaps between groups. Before long, I was free to crouch down with the castle's cannons, looking out from the battlements at the city below.

If changing speeds doesn't work, changing routes probably will. An overlook with a view of the city and the castle's dog cemetery happened to be fairly empty during my visit. It wasn't the most interesting spot in the castle, but it was good enough.

Many tourist sites are organized to loosely guide visitors along a single logical path. In Edinburgh Castle, that meant walking through the gates, up the hill and into the larger squares above. It was a loose flow pattern, but stepping aside — in my case to take a long and leisurely look at the city from the edge of the castle — meant considerably more breathing room.

Read the books, find the nooks • Edinburgh Castle houses the Scottish Crown Jewels, which are actually older than their English counterparts. The jewels were hidden for more than 100 years but, in a bizarre and surprising twist, Walter Scott — yes, the writer — discovered them in 1818.

Edinburgh's crown jewels can be accessed two ways, through the busy front door or through the considerably quieter back door. I found the back door because I had stepped off the busiest pathway and because I had a guide book with me that pointed it out. I often use Rick Steves' books — and I've been consistently disappointed by ubiquitous-among-my-generation Lonely Planet series — but any good guide book will include enough tips to make it worth the expense.

Jump on the bandwagon • Edinburgh Castle's steep admission price, 16 GBP for adults, actually includes a guided tour. I had neither the time nor the patience to do this tour, but I've heard from others that it's actually quite enjoyable.

In the end, we're all tourists at these sites and, as the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Other tips

• Take breaks. Visiting tourist sites shouldn't be a death march. It should be pleasurable. The minute it isn't snag the nearest bench and relax or people watch.

• Don't try to see everything. Either figure out beforehand what you want to see or wander until something seems interesting. I found an exhibition on Scotland's modern war history particularly fascinating during my visit, so I spent more time there than in the more crowded sections of the castle.

• Assume you'll come back. A sentiment I learned from Rick Steves' books, this idea works if you assume that any site worth visiting is probably worth coming back to again.

If all of this fails, the surest and most effective way to beat the crowds is to simply skip the crowded sites. Doing that is harder than it sounds; if I had visited Edinburgh without going to the castle I might have felt like I was missing something, even if in retrospect that wouldn't have been the case. But reflecting back on my travels in recent weeks, every single other castle I visited was more rewarding and impressive. In the long run, skipping the last, most crowded and most expensive site wouldn't have mattered at all.