I’ll admit it: when it comes to travel, I’m a snob. No, I don’t expect 4-star hotels, exquisite cuisine, or everyone to speak English in the foreign country I’m visiting. I do, however, scoff at the glorified reality that is the “tourist attraction.” One mention of the term, and I immediately picture myself squished between people with visors and fanny packs, waiting in a five hour line to hand over piles of money just so I can glimpse the world’s largest beer can. Although sights like the Great Wall and Machu Picchu are admittedly breathtaking, they only represent one aspect of cultures that are immensely complex. Are they important? Yes. But where’s the travel? When you’re visiting a place that most of the world could recognize and hundreds of thousands of people have seen before, where’s the excitement?
So of course it makes little sense how on a recent trip to New York City, my friends and I wound up at the Empire State Building. It gets worse. I was the one who suggested it. Yes, at 11:00 at night, we found ourselves still awake in the City that Never Sleeps, wondering what to do. Suddenly, I was struck by an idea too strong too ignore. And as much as I resist becoming a “tourist,” I am a sucker for a great view. You know New York too well for this, the Travel Girl part of me whispered. Real New Yorkers don’t go to the Empire State Building. But myself didn’t listen to me, and before I knew it, there I was at 11:30 pm striding into that famous lobby.
As we walked to get our tickets, part of me was groaning at the prospect of standing in line for hours on end so late at night. But to my surprise, there were no such lines to be found. We breezed through the ticket booths, practically galloped down the hallway past the maze of velvet ropes, and sauntered right up to the elevators. In less than five minutes, we arrived at the 86th floor.
The view was more than incredible (and well worth my $18). It was as if someone had shifted the night sky and placed it below us, thousands of lights stretching out across the distance. The dark had made all seem quiet; everyone spoke in whispers and huddled close to fight the nighttime chill. As I marveled at my surroundings, it suddenly made sense. Although we were all aware that millions of people had stood in our places before, on that night, it felt as though we were sharing something secret only to us. Was I suddenly alert to all the mysteries of New York City? No. Not even close. But looking out over the expanse of the city, I felt as though I had glimpsed its essence.
Plenty of people travel to a place, snap some photos to show their friends, and return home without ever appreciating what they have actually seen. I now realize that my aversion to the notion of tourist attractions arose from this fact alone. I didn’t want to seem ignorant. But for a lot of travelers, this just isn’t true. There’s a reason why people walk the Great Wall, why they climb the steps of Machu Picchu, why these destinations are even famous at all. They’re magical. They speak to the history of a place and its people, aging signs of the power of human accomplishment, inspiration, and influence. Nothing but experience will allow you to understand a culture, but for those who appreciate them, tourist attractions can offer a sneak-peak. I didn’t see the magic before. Now I do. To Americans, the Empire State Building may not seem as wondrous as the Parthenon. But it’s New York’s Parthenon, and I can proudly say I’ve been to the top.