Getting Bogged Down by the “Things You Have to See”

Though I did make time for some delightful shopping and neighborhood scouting on my trip to London, I have to admit- my itinerary was definitely bogged down by the dreaded, “Things You Have to See.”London24

In travels past, “The Things You Have to See” have left me sweltering side by side with Japanese tourists at the Louvre, griping about mediocre, over-priced pasta in Florence and hiking the ridiculously touristy fishing villages in the Cinque Terre. (Sorry, Italy-enthusiasts- the Cinque Terre was definitely not for me.)

You know what I’m talking about. You have to see the Tower of Pisa. You have to walk the Great Wall of China. You have to pose with the Statue of Liberty in New York. You have to do all of this even if you aren’t actually interested.

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After years of being guilt-tripped by fellow travelers, my Lonely Planet guide, and myself, I have begun to appreciate extraordinarily random tourist destinations, like Finland or Uruguay, with very few pre-conceived “Things You Have to See.”

Unfortunately, London is not one of those places.

But, I tried to make the best of it- taking my time, breaking to collapse into large arm chairs with coffee and skipping the sites that were over-priced or not interesting to me.

The Tower of London

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The Tower of London- a pricey but totally worth-it London attraction that boasts almost a millennium of history. Since 1066, the stronghold has hosted executions, held New World explorers prisoner and guarded the Crown Jewels. At various periods it has also served as a menagerie, treasury, armory and the home of the Royal Mint.

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We decided to wait for the free Beefeater tour, and I’m so glad we did. Our very charming Beefeater was a total jokester, and began the tour by teasing the various Anglophone tourists. To the Americans, he said, “you could have had all this but you threw it away for tea taxes.” Touché, Mr. Beefeater. He then cheekily welcomed all of the Australians back home and told the Canadians he couldn’t wait to “Drink Canada Dry.”

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Verdict: Worth it. As a history lover I enjoyed learning about everything from the Norman conquest to Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Also, make sure to check out the glittery and opulent Crown Jewels while you’re there- it’s best to get your £21’s worth.

Tower Bridge

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While we didn’t walk across Tower Bridge, we did take a few quick pictures and marvel at it from afar. Can you imagine taking your mid-corporate workday jog in front of such a beautiful and recognizable bridge?

Note- the nearby London Bridge was so lame that I didn’t take a picture, and has now been filed in my well-known things that don’t remotely deserve to be famous cabinent, along with French coffee, Cats and Charles Dickens’ entire body of work.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral

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Something will always offend me about having to pay to enter a church- shouldn’t all of God’s children be welcome in the house of God?

Instead of paying admission like a real adult I snapped some pictures of the stark-white exterior, briefly entered, pretended to want a ticket and mosied on out.

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Verdict: As far as European cathedrals go this is not the most impressive. Plus, it was built in 1702 over the remains of the former St. Paul’s Cathedral which burned in the Great London Fire of 1666. Relatively speaking, it’s very young.

But if you’re interested in seeing the cathedral head in for a church service, which a more meaningful way to experience the church as well as a free one. For more info, check out my friend Julika from Sateless Suitcase’s tips.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

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The Victoria and Albert Museum, built in 1851, is according to Wikipedia, “the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects.”

We spent a grand total of about 20 minutes in the museum because we were late for lunch. Although not my favorite museum, I did love the impressive Arabic art collection.

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Verdict: No, not for me. I don’t really museums with such vast collections because they’re too broad in subject matter- I prefer more focused museums that feature one artist or time period.

Buckingham Palace

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Upon spotting Buckingham Palace for the first time, my mind first went to the famous guards. Why are they in grey? And why can’t I pose next to them?

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Mary-Kate and Ashley blatantly lied to me on this one- contrary to Hollywood belief, you are not permitted to steal their hats and pose goofily with them.

Verdict: Lame. I found Buckingham Palace to be completely under-whelming- but if you are a Royal Family enthusiast then you would probably warm up to it a little more than me. Luckily the beautiful and sprawling Hyde Park was only a stone’s throw away, so I occupied myself there instead.

 

Big Ben

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Big Ben- the classic symbol of London. And I have to say, upon seeing it in real life I realized it is a rather striking clocktower, especially when it’s dappled in golden afternoon light.

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Verdict: Yes, very cool. Plus, it’s an easy site to cross of the list- all you have to do is have a look at it.

Westminster Abbey

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Again, I refuse to pay to enter a religious building, but they can’t stop you from having a photo shoot outside its gorgeous exterior, now can they?

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Verdict: I probably should have gone in considering the exterior is so impressive and the Abbey has so much history. Next time I will.

The London Eye

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I’m starting to realize this is a failed tourist post, considering I was too cheap to do more than look at most of the sites. Due to a steep entrance price (£17!) I gave a pass to The London Eye, which has been revolving since 1999.

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Verdict: No. I’m sure it affords nice views of the city but the London Eye is way, way too expensive. And in my book, a Ferris wheel will always be just a Ferris wheel.

 

National Portrait Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery was an incredible gallery, and incidentally, free! The first floor held a series of extraordinary contemporary portraits- I truly cannot recommend them highly enough.

If you go to the top floor you can find all of the famous portraits of King Henry VIII and his ill-fated wives.  (Or as I taught Zoe: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.)

Verdict: Art lovers, beware- you’re never going to want to leave.

 

The final verdict on “The Things You Have to See”? Well, you should probably check out the really big ones when you’re in a tourist attraction heavy city like Paris, London or Rome. But mainly, just tailor your travel itinerary to your interests, whether they be war history or house music festivals, oyster cultivation or Impressionist art. While I enjoyed the Tower of London, I have several non-history buff friends who would have been bored to death visiting it.

And as far as London goes, there’s so much more I want to see on my next visit to London. (Tate Modern, I’m looking at you.) But for now, I think I’ve done alright.

Do you also get annoyed when your itinerary is filled with “Things You Have to See”? Do you think you really have to see them?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

30 thoughts on “Getting Bogged Down by the “Things You Have to See””

  1. I love your writing and stories! So fun, so fun! Anyhoo, I totally agree about all of this regarding London…. great city, but there are some underwhelming spots for sure! Since I crossed those off the list last time, the next time I’m just going to go for some high tea and laugh at the tourists surrounded under the Big Ben! ;)

  2. I have to say I think you totally missed out by not going in the Eye. I’ve done it twice and it was worth every cent each time. The views are fantastic and it’s great to see the layout of the city from above.

    Westminster Abbey is really beautiful inside, but you can’t take photos in there, which is a total bummer.

    Regarding the rest, I’m right there with you. I often try to get all of the touristy crap out of the way my first day or so (even if it’s exhausting) so that I can spend the rest of my trip enjoying everything else the city has to offer.

  3. I definitely agree with you! It’s so important for a great travel experience to do the things you really want to do and not the things youthink you should do. Personally, I’m very interested in history and culture, so the things I like to do while traveling are usually the ‘things you have to do’, but I can definitely see how they wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In the end, it’s just about being true to yourself! :)

    xx
    Melanie

  4. I thought your comments were extraordinary, and your photos outstanding.
    Yes, I often got tired of things I was supposed to see–some I didn’t see, but went my own way like you did.
    Love,
    Gamma

  5. I’m glad I keep reading articles like this one that emphasize seeing and doing things YOU want to see and do when traveling instead of fulfilling some idealized city trip. Great!!

    But although I agree with you that having to pay to enter churches is dumb, you really should have gone inside St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey!!! If you hike up St Paul’s dome, you get a GREAT view of central London, and inside W.A. you can walk across the graves of hundreds of important historical figures, from Darwin and Newton, Chaucer and Dickens, Purcell and Vaughn Williams, and a large number of English and British monarchs. I got chills strolling around Elizabeth I’s tomb!

  6. I really loved the Abbey but totally skipped St. Paul’s as we had a “once you’ve seen one cathedral you’ve seen ’em all” thing going after hitting our 10th country of the trip. I think I liked the Abbey solely due to the Princess Diana history. I skipped the London Eye, too. Those tourist attractions in London add up quick!!

    Also, I think the guards were just cold as they wore red while I was there during the summer, but we couldn’t take pictures with them then, either ;)

    • Oh, so the red is a summer thing! That makes sense. And while I felt bad about missing so many attractions when I added up how many pounds I saved by missing them I was kind of happy!

  7. I agree, I will never pay to enter a church!

    And yes, I also hate the feeling of “I’ve gotta do this”. I recently went to Washington DC and while sight seeing a security guard pulled me aside. I thought I was in trouble but really he just wanted to tell me to walk slower and enjoy my time in DC, lol.

  8. I know how difficult is to travel on a budget in London, especially when you don’t have any friends there to host you. I also always skipped the over-priced places but in London is a challenging place. Awesome day! Nice to see the Big Ben again :) but this time in black and white.

    • It’s definitely an expensive city but after living in Paris I realize they’re pretty comparable… plus cabs are SO much cheaper in London! Glad you liked Big Ben in this shot :)

  9. Agreed! As a cruise ship worker I only have 6-10 hours in each port usually so I always feel like I “have” to do the big attraction as I might “never get back here!” But some of my favorite ports have been the ones where we just get to go and explore the culture and find really yummy random food spots!

    Love the photos, I can’t wait to get to London!

  10. Looks like you had some nice weather during your stay! I agree with you about having to pay admission to religious buildings – I understand it takes a lot for the upkeep of those places, especially if there are so many people constantly moving through, but at the very least the admission price should be minimal.

    Also, LOVE the National Portrait Gallery. When I was living there I made the rounds to many of the museums (especially since most of them were free!) and the Portrait Gallery and Tate Modern were my favorites.

  11. I’m definitely with you on the ‘things you have to see’ bogging ya down. I always want to see the most obscure things in a country, but on my first visit feel like I can’t leave without seeing the major tourist attractions. I think I’m just going to stop doing that. Beautiful photos though! You had a nice day in London-rare!

  12. Dude, Westminster Abbey is ridiculous. My mom wanted to go inside but I didn’t (especially since you can’t take photos?!), but then I later felt bad because who knows the next time she’ll be in London? But otherwise I didn’t regret it at all because, I mean, expensive. But maybe Tower of London at some point, if you think it’s really worth all that food money…

    • I’m just too cheap for my own good at times… hence why I have stood outside of the Coliseum and other amazing attractions because I was too cheap to go in, haha. You would love the Tower of London though, it was actually really cool!

  13. It took me a really long time to stop following “must-see” lists on autopilot. Now, when I’m planning an itinerary, I tend to research each tourist sight more critically, and decide which places actually interest me. It makes the big tourists destinations more fun and less exhausting. PS I totally paid to go inside Westminster Abbey – it’s definitely overpriced, but I was too much of a history nerd to pass on seeing the inside. It’s still one of my favourite buildings in Europe.

  14. I love your honesty in this post! I’m not into visiting every must-see, but sometimes you just have to go and see for yourself if a certain attraction is worth it or not… Next time I’m in London I will definitely check out the Tower of London from the inside — sounds like you had a great time there!
    And the photos you took during golden hour are so gorgeous! Also, thanks so much for the mention :)

    • No problem! Your post had some fantastic ideas. And yes, you definitely don’t know if you will like an attraction or not until you check it out… but sometimes you can certainly guess it won’t be your favorite :)

  15. I know what you mean! Ugh. And the thing is, like you said above, sometimes you should see these attractions. I always try to limit the “things I have to see” to three and then wander through the rest. That’s how you stumble upon “hidden treasures” even in such well-traveled places like London, Rome, and Paris :)

    • That’s a great strategy! Three seems like the perfect amount. I guess I just feel guilty when I’m in Rome for four days and I don’t see the Sistine Chapel but I eat my weight in lasagna, oops!

  16. Great post I lived in London for 2years and never walked into St Pauls, Westminster or the Palace.
    I did go on the London eye but thats because I worked on it and got to spend a week serving bubbly to fancy guests while taking in the sites.
    Such an amazing city, best memories are just walking and getting lost down all the streets and alleys!!

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