The secrets to skipping queues at 15 of the world's most crowded attractions
Travel Tips & Advice
You may have waited months, or even years, to tick that attraction off your bucket list, so the last thing you want when you arrive is yet more waiting – and hordes of fellow tourists.
The world's most popular attractions are popular for good reason, but that needn't put you off going. Follow these simple tips for the best chance of avoiding the queues and the crowds.
1. Eiffel Tower, Paris
You can book tickets for a timed entry to the Eiffel Tower online (€17; toureiffel.paris), but there may still be a significant wait to get past security checks in peak season. This is most effectively avoided by booking an early-morning entry. Better still, join the queue at the south pillar 15-30 minutes before opening time. The wait is usually shorter if you climb the stairs to the second level, where you can then buy a further ticket to the summit levels.
If you can’t reserve ahead, or simply want more freedom to choose the day and time when you want to come, then be prepared to queue — the tower gets as many as 32,000 visitors a day in high summer. That said, there is more chance of shorter queues at meal times (that famous french lunch break), on foggy days, in winter, or late at night (around 9 or 10pm) when the coach tours have gone.
2. Tower of London
Arrive around 30 minutes before opening if you're buying tickets on the day - this will also give you a better chance of getting on one of the (free) Beefeater tours as soon as possible. Buy fast-track tickets online (hrp.org.uk) or at some tube stations to avoid queues and walk straight in on arrival. You can also skip queues with the London Pass, but will still have to wait as you go through security.
Keep an eye on the Jewel House queue and its quirky dynamics: pounce as soon as it shortens. Leave enough time: it shuts half an hour after closing time.
3. Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The best-known - and arguably the most beautiful - building in the world attracts around seven million visitors each year, so even on quiet days an element of queuing is to be expected. Minimise your wait with good timing, and being sensibly prepared for the understandably strict security.
Arriving soon after dawn is the only sure way to avoid the crowds. From 10am until sunset Indian tourists arrive in vast numbers and in large tour groups. There are three entrances, the West, South and East Gates; the East Gate being the most easily accessible from most hotels. On reaching the East Gate, four lanes lead to security: foreign women, foreign men, local women and local men. To see the Taj Mahal with the fewest people, it is best to arrive at the West or East Gates at 6.30am in winter - half-hour before it opens (the South Gate doesn’t open until 8am). Joining the queue at 7am can mean a wait of 30 minutes to reach security as a foreigner. If you don’t want to get up that early - or it is a really foggy morning - the queue is often shorter around 8.30am after the first rush to get in.
To avoid the afternoon crowds - and get beautiful sunset photographs of the Taj Mahal - take a car or rickshaw across the Yamuna River to the restored Mehtab Bagh gardens on the opposite bank. On the way visit the ‘Baby Taj’, the marble tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula, father of Mumtaz Mahal.
4. Empire State Building, New York
The best way to get your bearings, and an idea of the sheer size of the city that never sleeps, is from the 86th- or 102nd-floor observatory decks of the most recognisable building in the United States. If you buy tickets online (esbnyc.com) you can miss the queues and go straight up - and it's definitely worth paying the extra to see the 102nd floor Top Deck.
While the views are stunning during the day, it’s even more fun to come at night, with the city lights glittering in darkness or shrouded in mist. The viewing deck is open until 2am, so consider a night visit for an alternative view of the city’s famous skyline - crowds disperse by 10pm. For an added bonus, visit between Thursday and Saturday evening and you may be lucky enough to have your visit soundtracked by a live saxophonist.
5. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Most people are familiar with the molten wax-like spires of Gaudí's this film-set cathedral, but huge queues put many people off paying the extra for a ticket to visit the interior. It is most dramatically advanced, a forest of pillars reaching up to the roof, creating a dream-like effect. Take the lift up one of the spires for an aerial view, but be warned that the walk back down the steep stone steps is not for vertigo sufferers. You can avoid queues for tickets by pre-booking a slot online at sagradafamilia.org beforehand - but make sure you turn up on time for your allotted entry.
6. Sistine Chapel & Vatican museums
For €20 per person, you can buy an advance, queue-free ticket up to 60 days in advance. You have to book a specific time and date for your visit, and it is €4 more expensive than buying on the day, but this will seem like a small price to pay for avoiding queuing under the relelntless sun for hours.
Guided tours, booked online (museivaticani.va), also allow you to skip straight to the front of the queue.
7. Disneyland Paris
The secret to Disneyland Paris is that you need a plan. Decide which rides you’d like to try in advance, arrive very early and avoid bottlenecks by strategically timing your route; there is a science to navigating the parks (for time-saving tips, see here).
Arrive before the official opening time and work out the best order in which to do rides - based on the availability at rides which we could view on the Disney app - even if that includes often counter-intuitively criss-crossing the park several times. Book popular rides in advance using the FastPass system (where you pick up a timed ticket - and visit the ride during an allotted time slot), and it doesn’t hurt to memorise your plan inside-out.
8. Grand Canyon, Arizona
Embrace long-range planning: decide on a trip well over a year in advance and make reservations at least a year ahead. The Canyon runs in an east-west direction for 27 miles, and is an average of 10 miles wide. Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1.2 million acres. Your experience there will be determined by which rim you visit (the edges are only 24 miles apart as the crow flies; a distance that takes 200 miles to drive by car).
The South Rim is easier to reach from Phoenix or Las Vegas, and consequently much more crowded. Visit between mid-May and mid-October and head to the North Rim - it is a much longer drive, but a sure-fire way to avoid the hordes.
9. Westminster Abbey
If visiting in the popular summer months, arrive 20 minutes before opening time to avoid hour-long queues. The Abbey becomes overcrowded very quickly during peak times - particularly around lunchtime, after tourists have spotted the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
Time your visit to take advantage of the Abbey's extended opening hours on Wednesdays, when it stays open until 7pm for individual visitors (no groups or tours). Arrive by 5pm (last admission is 6pm) to allow yourself plenty of time to explore.
10. Statue of Liberty
The iconic 150ft high Lady Liberty stands tall in New York Harbor. After being closed for many years after 9/11 and again after Hurricane Sandy, she is open to the public again, and tourists can climb the 354 steps to the crown. Booking your tickets online means you avoid the queues at the Statue Cruises ticket booth - be sure to bring printed tickets and ID. Access to the crown is by advanced reservation only, from Statue Cruises.
11. Great Wall of China
No trip to Beijing is complete without seeing the Great Wall. Getting there is hardly easy, though. Mutianyu is probably the best and most accessible part, and there is a public bus from Dongzhimen bus station at 7am and 8.30am. It takes two-and-a-half hours, but only costs 16 yuan (€2.15) each way. Get off at Hongluo and haggle for a cab. If you have the cash, however, hire a private driver, who will whisk you up and back for around 600-700 yuan (€80-€93). Once you get to Mutianyu you can walk a few miles along the wall and climb the steps. On your way back, try the toboggan, 55 yuan.
12. Chichen Itza, Mexico
Don't be convinced by the countless hawkers selling organised tours to visit the imposing archeological site and Wonder of the World. A bit of forward planning and the willingness to delve into Mexican public transport will reward you with a much more enjoyable (and inexpensive) experience.
Be confident, be prepared for an early start, and hail a collectivo to be at the main site in just 45 minutes from Valladolid. Arrive before 7.30am and you'll walk straight in, have the site largely to yourself, and breeze out again before the influx of coach trips and guided tours come to clutter your Instagram shots.
Venice is no secret, but it is full of quiet corners and unsung attractions if you know where to look. Anne Hanley, our Venice expert, suggests avoiding the crowds by visiting Torcello, once the most populous island on the lagoon, now a sleepy retreat with two handsome churches, and the Museo Querini Stampalia, home to several pieces of fascinating art – including Giovanni Bellini’s mysterious Presentation in the Temple.
14. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Of course, Angkor Wat itself, with its vast friezes of soldiers and devils and dancing girls, is always full of hordes. But with clever timetabling – namely those couple of hours when most people stop for lunch, and the very beginning and very end of the day (the complex opens at 5am and shuts at 6pm) – the other main sights can be shared with comparatively few.
When visiting the main temple itself, approach from the East Gate and explore the temple from the far side, and you'll occupy the eerie corridors largely alone. Arrive before sunrise and leave through the West Gate as the tour throngs are just pulling in.
15. Notre Dame, Paris
Entrance to the nave of Notre Dame is free - there can be and long queue to get in and there is no way around this, but it moves very fast. If you want to climb the towers, you can’t book in advance, and there will always be a wait because a limited number of people can go up at one time, so your best bet is to get there little before the 10am opening time.
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