With its rich history, diverse artistry and awe-inspiring architecture, Europe boasts some of the most famous must-visit tourist attractions in the world.
Unfortunately, from Paris to Rome, the most popular cities to visit also contain some of the continent’s most frustrating tourist traps. If, like us, you’d prefer to venture away from the crowds, here’s how you can time your trip to discover the more authentic atmosphere of your destination.
That’s not to say the UK doesn’t have its own share of duff monuments. Beautiful Greenwich has a wealth of fascinating museums, picturesque park walks and stunning views of Canary Wharf, yet its most famous draw, the Meridian Line, really is a rather costly line in the concrete.
Stonehenge is another historic site often cited as a surprisingly underwhelming trip, and while we’d recommend anyone venture to see the famous stone circle once, there’s no denying that the UNESCO World Heritage site is smaller – and less accessible – than expected given its cultural dominance.
Europe’s most underwhelming destinations – and what to see instead
These underwhelming destinations aren’t the remit of Britain alone. Venture to Europe and what may have been a must-visit monument in years gone by can be a very different experience today. From endless queues and kitschy tourist traps, to unexpectedly small statues, there are many reasons a top 10 destination can fail to impress.
Instead, Volopa has found the alternatives that can make your visit to these iconic European cities truly stand out.
Paris – The Mona Lisa
Housed at the Louvre art museum, Leonardo DaVinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa, is visited by more than six million tourists every year. The painting is considered DaVinci’s most seminal work, taking 4 years to complete and employing a number of unique techniques, such as a ‘sfumato’ painting style and the optical illusions responsible for her mysterious smile.
So it’s safe to say that it’s not the remarkable painting itself that makes this visit overrated.
To view the Mona Lisa, it’s important to book in advance – a 90 minute tour will whisk you through some of the Louvre’s highlights and is well worth a trip – but you’ll still need to fight through the crowds to elbow your way to the surprisingly small painting.
Safely tucked behind bullet-proof glass, it’s impossible to get too close, and it can be difficult to really appreciate the work behind the reflective glare of camera flashes. In fact, art enthusiasts will spend an average of just 15 seconds viewing the painting.
If you have limited time in Paris, the city’s art and architecture can instead be enjoyed from a little more distance.
The Georges Pompidou Centre offers some of the best views of the Eiffel Tower while offering an abundance of modern artwork, from Picasso, Kandinsky and Braques. And although the recent tragic Notre Dame fire means tourists will not be able to experience the iconic cathedral’s remarkable Gothic grandeur for some time, the nearby Museum of Medieval Art is a true hidden gem.
Brussels – The Mannekin Pis
Designed by sculptor Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder in the early 1600s, the Mannekin Pis is one of Brussels’ best known monuments.
Translating to ‘Little Pisser’ in Dutch, the Mannekin Pis is a statue of a cherubic boy relieving himself in an elegant fountain, located just a five minute walk from the inner-city’s Grand-Place. However, at just 24 inches tall, the Mannekin Pis is a notably diminutive statue and, if you visit at peak hours, difficult to see over the craning heads of the tourist crowds and the iron railings that protect it.
Instead, save your peak tourist hours to visit the artisanal shops and stalls in the winding side streets around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Grand-Place, rightly considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
It is surrounded by the opulent guildhalls, Town Hall and the famous Breadhouse (or King’s House), which is now home to the brilliant Museum of the City of Brussels. It is easy, and very satisfying, to lose track of time in this historic area of the city and sample local delicacies like Belgian chocolates, waffles and Flemish stews and moule frites.
Later, quench your thirst with some of the many craft, Abbey-brewed and Gueze beers Belgium is famed for the Delirium Bar, with its 2000 selection of beers, or Moeder Lambic, which boasts craft and vintage ales.
Copenhagen – The Little Mermaid
A celebration of the beloved Danish children’s author Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue) statue in Copenhagen is the perfect choice to represent the stories he created.
From the Ugly Duckling to the Emperor’s New Clothes, the author created some unforgettable fairytales, as well as plays and novels, that captured the imaginations of children around the world.
Unfortunately, the statue itself suffers from being far less accessible – at just 1.25m tall, the tiny statue is located in the Langelinie promenade, looking out across the water towards the harbour’s industrial area.
If you do decide to make the trek, the Opera House with it’s huge cantilevered roof and the star-shaped Kastellat fortress are nearby and worth a visit, but if you’re short of time the bustling areas of Nyhavn – with its iconic colourful buildings, talented street musicians and great restaurants – or Christianshavn, where tourists can visit the uniquely Bohemian ‘freetown’ community/commune of Christiania.
In the early evening, visit the amusements of Tivoli Gardens to experience the city’s modern fairytale atmosphere.
Rome – The Spanish Steps
Italy’s capital city is like no place on earth, and first-time tourist can lose days exploring the mix of historical eras thrown together in its bustling side streets. But with between 7-10million tourists visiting every year, getting the most of Rome is really all about timing, and it can pay to plan your day in Italy around the busiest times and avoid losing hours of time to queues during peak hours.
Made famous by Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday, many tourists insist on making time to climb the 174 steps that lead to the Piazza di Spagna, but the crowded Spanish Steps today are predominantly used as a meeting place.
Instead, spend your time more wisely by visiting The Trevi Fountain – first light is best to avoid the crowds and throw a coin into the fountain for good luck.
Walk to the Pantheon, and step inside to experience the incredible architecture of the building’s open dome.
Spend an afternoon exploring the Roman Forum and Colosseum and, of course, the Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel are both well worth an early morning tour to complete your dip into the city’s history, despite the crowds that will inevitably gather in both.
Prague – Astronomical Clock
This may seem like a controversial entry to our list, and in fact it’s not the clock itself that we find overrated. Built in 1410, this medieval clock is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world, and the oldest one still operating.
Built into the wall of the Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square, the clock shows the sun and moon and depicts several Catholic saints. According to local legend, the safety of the city of Prague depends on the clock remaining in good working order.
So why has this piece of city history made our list? The performance.
Every hour, the clock shows ‘The Walk of the Apostles’, displaying figures and moving sculptures nodding their heads at a skeleton Death strikes the time.
Crowds of tourists gather in the square to watch this display but, ultimately, it really is just a series of small statues shaking their heads.
Instead, visit between shows to see the clock up close, and spend the rest of your time exploring the Old Town’s gothic spires.
Prague is at the heart of the Gothic movement of the 1300s, known for its ornate towering spires. Compare the Old New Synagogue to the Stone Bell House, thought to have been built for the Bohemian royal family, before exploring the sprawling Prague Castle. Inside, you’ll find architectural gems such as the innovative Vladislav Hall and the extravagant St Vitus Cathedral, which was completed in only 1929.