"Tourist traps" that are definitely worth a visit
Usually, we're all about following the locals' lead--but sometimes locals are wrong. Here are our eight favorite tourist traps across the land:
Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles
Hooray for Hollywood! Not the glamorous Hollywood of yore (the final nail hit that coffin decades ago) or the buzzed-about rejuvenated Hollywood, but the Hollywood that straddles both eras--conveniently located on and around Hollywood Boulevard. It's still sort of fabulous, if you squint: the Walk of Fame (send a SASE to the Chamber of Commerce for a free map: 7018 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028); the Kodak Theatre home-of-Oscar tour (323/308-6363, kodaktheatre.com, $15, kids $10); the elephant-flanked courtyard view of the 81-year-old Hollywood sign; Grauman's Chinese Theatre (323/461-3331, manntheatres.com/chinese). And then there's the tacky stuff that's just plain fun: Ponder a tattoo (California Tattoo, 6700 Hollywood Blvd., 323/462-0084); sip a cocktail while having your nails done (Beauty Bar, 1638 N. Cahuenga Blvd., 323/464-7676) or your shoes shined (Star Shoes, 6364 Hollywood Blvd., 323/462-7827). Finally, if you really want to see where glamour overlaps with sleaze, be sure to ogle Frederick's of Hollywood (6608 Hollywood Blvd., 323/466-5151).
Tonga Room, San Francisco
Deep inside the Fairmont hotel, in a room that can only be described as "The Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii and Gets Attacked by the Pirates of the Caribbean," bartenders in aloha shirts cheerfully sling hangover guarantees like the Bora Bora Horror and the Lava Bowl (the latter serves two). The buffet line, in a lone authentic touch, trails over the remains of the S.S. Forester, which sailed between San Francisco Bay and the South Seas before running aground in the early 1940s. Why is the Tonga Room better than most tiki bars? Every half hour a genuine fake tropical storm--with lightning, thunder, and rain-blows across what was once the hotel's swimming pool. The Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason St., 415/772-5278, fairmont.com/sanfrancisco, weekday happy hour drinks start at $5.50.
Sunset Celebration, Key West
Ironically, it took a passel of hippies to make Key West sunsets a business proposition. In the '60s, when the Florida Keys mostly attracted dropouts and artists, free spirits gathered every night on a crumbling wharf at Mallory Square to toast the dusk, try to spot the god Atlantis in the clouds, and maybe take a pill. Fire-eaters, psychics, tightrope walkers, and other buskers soon brought a little vaudeville to the ritual. Today, the old pier has been converted into a cruise ship dock, performers are vetted by a committee, and the new Hilton hotel next door has put together its own version of the event (going so far as to woo away Dominique the Catman, who trains his felines to jump through flaming hoops). Conchs, as locals call themselves, assiduously avoid Mallory. What they're missing out on is a long, free look at the sun going down on the last vestiges of a decidedly groovier era.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop began its life as a museum, founded in 1899 by curio collector Joseph Standley. Today it's a novelty store pushing the likes of potato guns and whoopee cushions to tourists admiring the waterfront--and let's face it, only tourists ever step inside "ye olde" anything. On the back walls, however, is a bizarre collection of exhibits that's undeniably fascinating. What you'll find there: a dozen shrunken heads from Ecuador, a two-headed calf, fleas wearing dresses, three mummified humans (named Sylvester, Sylvia, and Gloria), and the remains of one butch "mermaid." The shop is owned by Standley's great-grandson, Andy James, who reports that Robert Ripley was a "big customer" back in the day. Believe it∨ not. 1001 Alaskan Way, Pier 54, 206/682-5844, yeoldecuriosityshop.com.
The Hope Diamond , Washington, D.C.
Next time you're in D.C., go straight to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Save time and bypass the entrance on the Mall; the lines are much shorter at the one on Constitution Avenue. Then make your way past the exhibits with actual educational value to the second floor, for a breath of fresh bling. The National Gem Collection--you didn't know we had one?--has the best array of over-the-top jewelry outside of Europe. The exhibit traces many of the pieces through the time-honored trajectory of all epic ice: from colonial mine to pampered royal head to obscenely rich celebutante to esteemed museum. In particular, note the immense diamond-and-platinum earrings of Marie Antoinette, a gift from husband Louis XVI. Legend has it she was carrying them when she was apprehended fleeing the revolution, shortly before her head would no longer be much improved by such finery. The pièce de résistance, however, is the storied Hope Diamond. An entire room chronicles its long journey and hints at the reputed curse. We should all be so unlucky as to own a 45.52-carat blue diamond. Constitution Ave. at 10th St. NW, 202/633-1000, mnh.si.edu, free.
Boston is tourist trap central. There'' the Union Oyster House, where John Kerry lunched on Election Day. (He was the first local to step inside in 50 years.) And the Swan Boats in the Public Garden, such an embarrassment for anyone over 6 that fraternities haze pledges by making them take a ride. But Durgin-Park is a trap with credibility. The restaurant has been operating in Faneuil Hall since 1855--well before the area became a stop on the tourist circuit. Tell Rocco, the greeter, you want to sit at a communal table, where you might have a chat with strangers. Then order all the old-fashioned New England favorites (chowder, Yankee pot roast, prime rib), which gruff servers deliver across creaky floors to tables covered in red-and-white-checkered fabric. 340 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, 617/227-2038.
Café du Monde, New Orleans
There's always a line, the menu lists one item of food, and street parking is nonexistent--just three reasons locals are weary of the 143-year-old Café du Monde. Packed with tiny tables and coursing with waiters, the French Quarter institution is no respite from the pandemonium outside. In fact, the majority of the café is outside: With no walls to speak of, there are dozens of front-row seats for viewing the performers, freaks, and horse-drawn carriages of Jackson Square while you sip a coffee with chicory and nibble on a beignet. Oh, those beignets! The deep-fried dough squares, three to an order, come under a snowdrift of powdered sugar. If you so much as sigh dramatically, you'll coat your companions with the stuff. And don't wear black. The slightest tremor while lifting a beignet will leave your clothes gray and sticky. 800 Decatur St., 504/525-4544, always open, except from 6 p.m. on December 24 to 6 a.m. on December 26.
Circle Line, New York City
Nothing gives New Yorkers the hives like a boat tour, for the sole reason that there's no escape. But New Yorkers' neuroses aren't your problem, so check out the Circle Line. As the name suggests, the three-hour cruise circumnavigates Manhattan. It's a relatively hassle-free way to get a look at the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations, New Jersey's Palisades, the Little Red Lighthouse at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the heartbreaking post-9/11 gap in the skyline. The guides are known for their corny jokes--bring an iPod if you want to drown them out--but they're also full of great trivia (20 bridges and tunnels "keep Manhattan from floating away"). On weekends, get there at least a half hour early to score one of the best seats--on the port (left) side of the upper deck, near the stern. Pier 83, W. 42nd St., 212/563-3200, circleline42.com, year-round, except some winter weekdays, adults $26, kids $13.