See The World's Wonders Without The Crowds

Posted on: 21 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Peter Greenberg gives you the scoop on how to enjoy the globe’s most majestic attractions without being surrounded by crowds.

They’re called the wonders of the world for a reason: They are, in a word, wonderful. Consider the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, the history of the Roman Colosseum and the otherworldly mystique of Chichen Itza.

A visit to one of these spectacles is a time to be filled with awe. It’s not a time to be filled with loathing for the throngs of tourists hemming you in from all sides.

Peter Greenberg gives you the scoop on how to enjoy the globe’s most majestic attractions without being surrounded by crowds. His biggest across-the-board tip: Go as early in the morning as possible. Besides helping you beat your fellow tourists to the punch, early-morning visits can help you stay out of the afternoon heat, and many sites — notably Machu Picchu and the pyramids at Giza — are never more stunning than at sunrise.

Why would you want to visit the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or the Colosseum only to wait in long lines and battle hundreds of other tourists for a glimpse of these famous sites? Instead, follow the tips below to have these world wonders practically to yourself.

When it comes to the wonders of the world, just about everyone has their own list: the wonders of the ancient world; the wonders of the natural world; the wonders that didn't make the original list of seven. And then, there's my list. In my book, nothing qualifies as a wonder if you don't see it in the right way. Your breath won’t get taken away if you visit at noon on a tour bus. Do that and you might just wonder why you took the trip at all.

However, if you can finesse a way to see these remarkable places at the right time of day, and without the crowds, their wonders will never cease to amaze.

Great Wall Of China

Most visitors to the Great Wall head straight to Badaling, the closest point from Beijing. If that’s your itinerary, do what I always do: Hire a driver and see the wall early in the morning. And I mean really early, like 4:30 a.m. Not only will you avoid the crowds, but you’ll also have the incredible experience of watching the sun rise at the Great Wall. The only other people there at 5:15 a.m. will be some very gracious, elderly Chinese men and women practicing tai chi.

Another way to see the wall is to skip the touristy section altogether. Remember, the Great Wall is very long, so there are plenty of less-crowded spots to visit. Mutianyu is also relatively close to Beijing, about 40 miles away in Huairou County. Here, the wall straddles the highest point of the mountains, which means you can experience dramatic, sweeping views. Visitors can opt to climb more than 1,100 steps, or ride up in a cable car.

Another tip: Visit the Great Wall in October, when high season is subsiding and the temperature is cool and comfortable in the low 60s.

Taj Mahal

Like the Great Wall, the best way to avoid the crowds is to visit as early in the morning as possible. Many of the organised tours from New Delhi to Agra try to cram everything into one day, starting the sightseeing at 7 a.m. and arriving at the Taj Mahal in early afternoon. And that’s exactly when you don’t want to be there.

Instead, plan to arrive in Agra the day before, and spend the night in a hotel near the site. It may be pricey, but it’s worth it to experience the grandeur of this icon without having to navigate crushing — and usually disorganized and pushy — crowds. The Oberoi Hotel is less than 2,000 feet from the Taj; each room allows you to view the white marble structure at the break of dawn, as well as under the moonlight. Room rates start at around $600/night, but trust me, it’s worth the experience if you can afford it.

Traveling to India in the off-season isn’t really an option, as you’ll mostly be stuck indoors to avoid the heat or unpredictable monsoons. But try planning your travels just before or after monsoon season, in early May or early October — it’ll still be hot then, but there will be fewer tourists.

Pyramids Of Giza

Once again, my best advice is to hire a driver and visit the Egyptian pyramids very early in the morning. You’ll get to watch the sun rise at the pyramids, which is truly a wondrous experience, without all the crowds and before the weather gets oppressively hot.

Another tip is to stay in a hotel close to the pyramids, such as Oberoi’s Mena House or Le Meridien Pyramids. That way you can go on a walking tour of the pyramids early in the morning, take a midday break when it gets hot and then go back in the late afternoon, when the crowds have dissipated, to explore on your own.

Chichen Itza

For many, the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, located in the Mexican Riviera, are synonymous with the step pyramid known as Temple of Kukulkan, or El Castillo. That portion was recently named one of the seven new wonders of the world, so it tends to get the most crowded. But there are also numerous other parts of Chichen Itza that the public can see, including the Temple of the Warriors, a series of intricately designed columns and statues; the Nunnery, a large structure that features the carved walls of what were once living quarters in ancient times; and the Observatory, consisting of two towers used to study astronomy.

Of all the hotels inside the park, the Lodge at Chichen Itza is one that claims not to allow any tour buses or large groups, in order to maintain a boutique feel. The hotel sits on 100 acres of land and has its own entrance into the temples; guided tours are available.

In general, smart travelers visit the Riviera Maya in early December; in the weeks just after Thanksgiving and New Year’s; or in April, to beat the crowds and the heat. Hurricane season runs all the way from June through November, so if you choose to travel during this low period, you might consider buying travel insurance.

Roman Colosseum

My friend Tony Poe, of the Little Rock, Ark.-based Poe Travel, has some surprising advice about traveling to Italy: Go in January. It will be cold, he says, but the Christmas crowds will be long gone.

Italy is one of the world’s most popular destinations, and the Colosseum is definitely a highlight, so in high season, expect to see hordes of visitors. It pays to plan ahead so that at the very least, you can skip the long lines. A combination ticket for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum allows you to bypass waiting at all three sites, while the Roma Archaeological Pass offers the same privilege for nine archaeological sites in the Eternal City.

Machu Picchu

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu in Peru — hiking and by train. For many, hiking is a much more rewarding experience, as you get to travel to Machu Picchu as the Incas did, culminating with a majestic view of the ancient ruins. The full guided hike is four days long, but if that sounds too strenuous, it’s possible to take a train from Cusco to mile marker 104 and walk for about five hours to the ruins.

Although there are government restrictions on how many people can visit Machu Picchu in a day, the well-trodden hiking paths can still feel very crowded during the high-season summer months. Try traveling in mid-April through May, or mid-September through October, to avoid the crowds and the rainy season.

Most visitors stay in the village of Aguas Calientes, which is about an hour away from the ruins. If you’re in the mood to splurge (rooms cost about $800/night), spend at least one night at the Sanctuary Lodge, which is just outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. You’ll be able to wander around the ruins long before the crowds come in on the trains, and well after they leave.

Or, why not skip Machu Picchu altogether? The ancient city of Choquequirao is known as Machu Picchu’s sister site, offers a similar experience and is far less touristed. It also requires at least a two-day hike from Cusco. The Peruvian government is considering installing a cable car or train service similar to Machu Picchu’s — which is why I recommend you go now before the rest of the world finds out about it.

Petra

Although the early-morning rule also applies to Petra, it’s definitely worth visiting at night when this archaeological site in Jordan is illuminated by candles.

Fortunately, one of the most impressive sights here is the Monastery (Al-Deir), which is at least an hour’s climb (or a shorter donkey ride) from the main portion of the site, so chances are there will be fewer crowds overall.

While traveling in the off-season is a guaranteed way to avoid crowds, the winters here are surprisingly cold; stick with shoulder-season periods such as early April and late September, and dress in layers. Also, remember that during the month of Ramadan (Aug. 21-Sept. 20, 2009; Aug. 10-Sept. 9, 2010), visitors should not eat, drink or smoke in public between sunrise and sunset, so plan accordingly.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

You know what? Don’t bother. It’s a tall building that leans. Avoid the crowds and instead take an unforgettable day trip from Florence through Tuscany or Chianti.

A Parting Thought

There’s another foolproof way to experience the wonders of the world without dealing with the tour buses: Spend lots of money. Luxury provider Abercrombie and Kent figured that if visiting the wonders of the world is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then travelers might want to experience them in one fell swoop.

In 2010, travelers can embark on a 26-day Nine World Wonders journey aboard a private Boeing 757, visiting Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Sydney Opera House, Angkor Wat, Shwedagon Pagoda, the Taj Mahal, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Petra and the Pyramids of Giza.

Not only will you travel in style, but you’ll also get to see these many of these wonders from above, before taking a private tour with expert guides, often to areas that are otherwise closed off to visitors. Overnight stays in luxury hotels near each site and gourmet meals round out the experience.

Prices and dates for 2010 haven’t been set yet, but if previous trips are any indication, expect to shell out about $90,000 per person. If that’s too steep but you still want the luxury experience, opt for a package that covers just one world wonder at a time.

By Peter Greenberg

About The Author

Greenberg is the author of The New York Times best-seller “Don’t Go There!” and “Tough Times, Great Travels,” and host of the nationally syndicated Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio show.

He is also travel editor at large for AARP, contributing editor for Men’s Health, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a guest on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The View.”

Visit him at http://www.petergreenberg.com.

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