The Most Notorious Tourist Traps
What is a tourist trap, really? Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as "a place that attracts and exploits tourists." According to Dictionary.com, the exploitation in question usually involves spending money. And Urban Dictionary takes it one insulting step further, saying that getting tourists to spend money is "like taking candy from a baby, that's how easily they fork it over." Ouch.
Those definitions don't leave any gray area. Sure, a city or an attraction might've lined its pockets at your expense, but you also might've had a little fun and created a good memory. We all have different -- sometimes tacky -- tastes. So instead of giving you a best or worst list of tourist traps across the globe, here's our list of the most notorious. Weigh their cost vs. their kitsch, and you might even deem some of these so-called "traps" worthwhile. We promise that we won't judge.
[See a photo recap of The Most Notorious Tourist Traps]
South of the Border, USA
Once a simple beer stand on the state line between North and South Carolina, South of the Border is now a large Mexican-themed rest stop with several restaurants, gift shops, a tiny amusement park and a reptile lagoon. It's hard to miss this site: one because of the onslaught of billboards that promote it up and down the East Coast's Interstate 95 or U.S. Highway 301/501. And two because of the 165-foot Sombrero Tower that becomes visible as you near the state line between the Carolinas. Your unofficial host at this campy fest is "Pedro," a stereotypical Mexican man/mascot that is prominently displayed on both the highway billboards and throughout the attraction.
Kitsch Quotient: South of the Border is renowned for its colorful advertisements (like a now-defunct billboard that once read, "Pedro's Weather Report. Chili Today --Hot Tamale!"). And once you arrive, you'll meet site workers that encourage you to call them Pedro while they try to sell you South of the Border toilet seats, ash trays, pencil sharpeners and back scratchers.
Cost: It's free to stop and walk around, but there are plenty of shopping and food options as mentioned. Staying overnight on the on-site RV campgrounds could cost about $24 with tax, and room rates at the on-site Motor Inn range from about $55 to $125 a night.
Wall Drug Store, USA
In 1931, Ted and Dorothy Hustead were searching for a way to coax shoppers to their store, Wall Drug, located in South Dakota's Badlands. Dorothy had a plan: What if they advertised ice cold water on roadside billboards to travelers bound for nearby Mount Rushmore? Their plan worked, so much so that the Husteads expanded the site to include gift emporiums, several restaurants and even a wedding chapel. Now, Wall Drug billboards are so famous that you just might spot one anywhere. Case in point: there's a sign in London that explains that you're 5,160 miles away, and one at the South Pole that estimates a distance of 9,333 miles.
Kitsch Quotient: Wall Drug doesn't have Pedro, but it does love its jackalopes. The store sells images of this mythical rabbit with antlers on everything from wall mounts to piggy banks to shot glasses -- there are even jackalope bobble heads. You can also snap a photo while riding the giant plaster jackalope that sits outside the store.
Cost: This road-side attraction is free (as is the ice water, even to this day). But you could spend money on one of those jackalope souvenirs (tempting, we know) or dining in one of the eateries.
Niagara Falls, USA & Canada
Supposedly, Niagara Falls reputation as a romantic getaway began in the 19th century, when Theodosia Burr, daughter of the dueling Founding Father, took her honeymoon here. But time hasn't been kind to Niagara, and an abundance of low-rent hotels (on the New York state side) and garish museums (on the Ontario side) have partially killed the mood and overshadowed the majesty.
Kitsch Quotient: Just-married couples can still find accommodations with heart-shaped Jacuzzis and vibrating beds. But why wait for the honeymoon? Take a cue from Jim and Pam and tie the knot in Niagara. You'll find several chapels that overlook the falls in both New York and Ontario; many ceremony packages include a silk flower bouquet for the bride, a silk flower boutonniere for the groom and complimentary use of a CD player so you can play your own preferred processional music.
Cost: It varies. Wedding packages start as low as $199 at New York's Chapel of Niagara. The extremely popular Maid of the Mist tours cost between about $10 and $17 CAD (or about $8 to $14 USD), dependent on age. If you're staying in town, keep in mind that nice hotels could cost more than $200 a night in the peak summer season.
The Poconos, USA
This mountainous region of northeastern Pennsylvania has a split personality. On the one hand, there are beautiful lakes and woods for hunting and fishing, not to mention those mountains for skiing. But interspersed among the natural beauty is a gimmicky array of accommodations catering to vacationing lovebirds.
Kitsch Quotient: The Poconos is home to the in-room champagne glass whirlpool. They're available in 176 suites (featuring names like the Roman Tower and the Champagne Tower by Cleopatra) at the popular Cove Haven Entertainment Resorts. Couples take their meals at the Spooner's Café or at TanLines Bar & Grille.
Cost: It varies by the season you travel and the hotel you choose. Nightly stays at one of the Cove Haven Resorts could cost around $300 a night, or you could splurge for a several day all-inclusive vacation for between $450 and $900.
Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
Architects first noticed the doomed Torre di Pisa was leaning in 1185. Too bad that was already 13 years after construction had started and after the surrounding foundation had settled. Steps were taken to straighten it (which explains why it's now curved like a banana), but present-day Pisans have embraced the blunder. This is probably thanks to all the euro that tourists pour into the city. The only problem is that there's not much else to do at Pisa but visit its lazy tower.
Kitsch Quotient: The tower's surrounding piazza, Campo dei Miracoli, has stall after stall of tower plates, tower key rings, tower ash trays -- you name it. And it's all the rage to snap a forced perspective photo where you're "supporting" Pisa's leaning tower.
Cost: It's free to visit Campo dei Miracoli, but you'll have to pay for a guided tour through the tower. You can purchase advance tickets online for about €17 EUR, or $25 USD. Tickets are also available for purchase on-site, and they're cheaper because they're limited in number (about €15 EUR or $22 USD). There's also a fee to enter the piazza's museums, cathedral and baptistery.
The Liberty Bell, USA
This historic bell withstood a trip across the Atlantic from the London firm where it was cast, only to crack the very first time it was rung in Philadelphia in 1752. A new bell was cast out of the old one's metal; years later, it too suffered a fatal crack during a birthday celebration for George Washington. The now-silent bell was fortunate to find a new, more-successful career as a beacon of civil liberty. That's all well and good, but at its home in the Liberty Bell Center you'll find a suffocating number of people standing around just to behold what in reality is a broken hunk of metal.
Kitsch Quotient: The center offers a respectful account of the bell's history and significance. But the surrounding neighborhood is crawling with cutesy, tiny bell replicas for sale.
Cost: You'll lose more time than money waiting to see the Liberty Bell, since it's a free site. You can also visit nearby Independence Hall for free; just go get the available passes at the Visitor Center.
Times Square, USA
It's fitting that Times Square would share real estate with Broadway because this neighborhood is all for show. Here you'll find all-out glitz and glamour, never-ending activity, and intoxicating sights. But you'll also have to weather some stifling crowds, generic (and overpriced) shopping and so-so food.
Kitsch Quotient: One of Times Square's most enduring "sights" is the Naked Cowboy, a Skivvies-loving busker often found singing and posing for pictures at the corner of 45th Street and Seventh Avenue. He's also licensed to perform marriage ceremonies; you can e-mail him in advance if you want to get hitched.
Cost: It's hard to describe anything in Manhattan as "free," but technically, visiting Times Square is. But as mentioned above, there are many of touristy ways to part with your money.
Piccadilly Circus, United Kingdom
Piccadilly wasn't named a "circus" for its crushing crowds and flashing billboards but because five of London's major roads jut out from its center. It's also the entrée into the West End's theatres, a maze of shops and restaurants and a dizzying number of bars and clubs.
Kitsch Quotient: It should come as no surprise that Piccadilly Circus has a Planet Hollywood, given the number of area tourists. And there, you'll find an exhibit devoted to the very British James Bond. Its collection includes Ursula Andress' bikini from Dr. No and Pierce Brosnan's poker chips from GoldenEye.
Cost: It is free to walk around. But similar to Times Square, Piccadilly is an easy spot to spend too much.
Gondola Rides on the Grand Canal, Italy
Riding a gondola along Venice's Grand Canal is many a traveler's idea of true romance. And it doesn't disappoint as long as you anticipate the over-arching Rialto Bridge's staggering crowds at daytime; the limited visibility along the water at nighttime; and the chance for acqua alta -- or mild flooding -- at any time.
Kitsch Quotient: The only Venetian you'll meet this way is the gondolier. And unless you're visiting in the late winter or early spring, you don't need to buy that marked up Carnevale mask that you see at the vendor stalls along the canal.
Cost: Rates are negotiable, but a 50-minute gondola ride could cost as much as €100 EUR, or $146 USD.
Gondola Rides at the Venetian, USA
Only in Las Vegas can you spend the morning in New York and the afternoon in Paris. And nowhere else can you find such a blatant knock-off of a city as here -- the best example being the Venetian Casino. There's a scaled-down version of the Grand Canal, complete with a Rialto Bridge and singing gondoliers. Though popular, the Venetian's boat rides are generally thought to be less romantic than the real thing. Perhaps it's due to all the stares you'll receive from gamblers and shoppers as you pass by them on a fake gondola.
Kitsch Quotient: The canal water is a chlorine-tinted blue, the gondoliers' outfits are starched and pressed, and the songs that they're serenading you with are perfectly pitched. In other words, this ain't Venice.
Cost: The Venetian's gondola rides last for 12 minutes on the outdoor lagoon and for 14 minutes around the indoor Grand Canal Shoppes. They generally cost $16 per person. Private, two-person gondola rides are available for $64.