I just returned from an exhilarating visit to “The Big Three” of great European cities: London, Paris, and Rome. And one inescapable trend these days is the spike in tourist crowds. Simply put, these great cities — and their major sights — are jammed. It’s more important than ever to be smart and strategic to avoid long lines. A major purpose of my trip was to confirm the crowd-beating tips in our Rick Steves guidebooks. Sure enough, that advice worked like a charm — and saved me hours in line. No matter where you travel, a few overarching strategies can help you avoid lines and minimize crowds. These five favorite road-tested tips allowed me to spend this spring sightseeing at Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Versailles, the Orsay, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and many other world-class sights…without wasting precious vacation time.
Why so crowded? For one thing, more Americans than ever are traveling to Europe. And now, in recent years, they’ve been joined by even more travelers from China, India, and Russia — three populous countries with emerging middle-class families who want to see Europe, too. But the Sistine Chapel, Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, and Westminster Abbey are the same size as ever — and are now trying to squeeze that many more visitors into the same space.
The one overarching tip for beating crowds is simply this: Do your homework. All of those sad, wretched people you see standing in long, long lines at major sights? Those are the tourists who didn’t bother to prepare one iota before they woke up, had a lazy breakfast, and then — around 10:00, just as lines all over the city were summiting — said, “You know what? Let’s go to the Louvre!” If you plan ahead, you can avoid those lines almost entirely. But if you try to wing it, you can count on spending much of your precious European trip standing around, getting sore feet. The choice is yours.
1. Reserve or prebuy tickets online.
This has been essential advice for years at many of Europe’s top sights. If you don’t reserve ahead for Rome’s Sistine Chapel, Granada’s Alhambra, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House, Milan’s Last Supper, or Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial in Poland, and you try to just show up, you will not get in…period.
Find out which sights require (or effectively require) reservations. (You’ll find a complete list on the right side of this page). Then, once you’re confident of your dates, book your visit as far ahead as possible. The procedure varies from sight to sight, but in every case, you can book online, with English instructions, using an American credit card. Typically, you’ll reserve a slot for a specific time window. Just show up at that time, and you’re golden.
The one big sight in Paris I did not get to visit on this trip — even though I wanted to — was the Eiffel Tower. Why? Because I waited until I arrived in Paris to try to reserve a slot online. And by that time, even several days out, the only time slot available was to enter at 11 p.m. I consoled myself by taking lots and lots of photos of that Parisian icon…from the ground.
In other places, booking ahead is more “optional,” depending on the crowds from day to day. When it’s quiet, reserving is not necessary. But given the unpredictability of crowds, prebooking can still be very smart…just in case.
For example, a big trend in London is that major sights — including Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Churchill War Rooms, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, London Eye, and Windsor Castle — are encouraging visitors to prebuy tickets online. This usually saves a couple of pounds off your admission cost, and it also lets you skip the ticket line when you arrive at the sight.
One afternoon, I tried to swing by the Churchill War Rooms — the underground warren of offices where the UK engineered its victory in the Battle of Britain. But even late in the day, a couple of hours before closing time, there was a one-hour line to buy tickets. I missed out on that particular sight — and as I stood there, watching people breeze right past the long line because they’d prebooked tickets (at a discount, no less), I wished I’d done the same.
Won’t this cramp your style? Look — I respect spontaneity in travel. But the stakes are very high these days. If you enjoy being spontaneous on vacation, then you can be as spontaneous as you want to be — except when it comes to avoiding exhausting lines at major sights. Think of it this way: If you save an hour in line, that’s an entire hour of priceless serendipity that you can spend however you like.
2. Some combo-tickets and sightseeing passes let you skip the line.
My all-time favorite line-beating tip remains the same: At Rome’s Colosseum, you can join the excruciatingly long ticket line. Or you can walk five minutes up the street, to the ticket office for Palatine Hill (which is included in your Colosseum combo-ticket — regardless of whether you wind up visiting that sight). You can walk right in, buy your ticket, then head back down to the Colosseum and stroll past the long line and into the world’s greatest ancient amphitheater. Other sights all over Europe have similar combo-tickets.
Another “oldie-but-goodie” tip — which has gotten even better with the increase in crowds — is to buy a Paris Museum Pass. Not only will this save busy sightseers money; it also lets you skip right past the long ticket-buying line at major sights all over the city. I visited most of Paris’ top sights — Versailles, the Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe, Sainte-Chappelle, Rodin Museum, the Orangerie, and more — and rarely waited more than a few minutes at any of them (at the security checkpoint). For example, at the Arc de Triomphe, my Paris Museum Pass let me walk right past the long ticket line in the underpass below the arch. By the time the folks at the end of that underground ticket line had even cleared security, I’d already climbed the 284 steps to the top and back.
However, before buying a sightseeing pass, be aware of which sights let you skip the line — and which ones don’t. For example, in London, Westminster Abbey has some of the longest lines in town. I saw would-be visitors walk up to the security guard, show their London Pass, and be sent back to the end of the line with an apologetic shrug. The London Pass does include “fast track entry” at some sights — but mostly ones with shorter lines to begin with (and not Westminster Abbey).
Also, be aware that even if you can skip the ticket-buying line, you may still have to wait in a security line. For example, at Windsor Castle, I was told that when it’s very busy, even people who prebook may have to wait an hour (or more) to get through security.
That’s why — even if you prebook tickets — it’s always a good idea to…
3. Know exactly when sights are the most (and least) crowded.
At most major sights, crowds peak from just after opening time until around lunchtime, and then crowds gradually taper off until late afternoon. Early risers show up shortly before the sight opens, so they can be in the first wave of visitors. People like me, who prefer to sleep in, find it’s best to go late in the day.
On principle, I never, ever show up at a major sight mid-morning. Instead, I use that time to visit lesser-known sights, explore lively neighborhoods and parks, or seek out crowd-free experiences.
For example, on this trip, my Rome hotel was a couple of blocks from my favorite sight in town, the Pantheon — the best-preserved temple from the ancient world. I was sorely tempted to visit when I left the hotel in the morning. But I resisted that instinct, knowing I’d be sentencing myself to an unpleasantly crowded experience. Instead, I circled back in the late afternoon — around 3:45 — and was able to walk right in.
Later, I stopped by Rome’s Colosseum at 5 p.m. Even though I could have gotten a ticket with no wait just up the street (see that tip earlier), as an experiment, I joined the quickly shrinking ticket-buying line. In about 25 minutes, I was inside, snapping photos of the place where gladiators fought for gore and glory. When I was done there, I walked across the street and slipped in the gate for the Roman Forum just before they closed it, at 6:15. In the 45 minutes before they kicked me out, I had the Forum almost to myself — strolling amid the ancient ruins, feeling the breeze, and listening to the birdsong.
On the other hand, be careful not to cut it too close. The next evening, I was feeling overconfident at the Vatican. After snapping some photos around St. Peter’s Square, I joined the security line to enter the greatest church in Christendom at about 6:20 p.m. (hoping to squeeze in for a peek before the 7 p.m. closing time). The line moved quickly, but after about five minutes — when I was maybe 10 people away — the security guard slammed the gate shut with a decisive clang! The people ahead of me in line gestured frantically, begging the guard to let them slip in. He simply pointed to his walkie-talkie and shrugged. He’d been told it was time to close the gate — and when you work at the Vatican, you don’t mess with authority. (I imagine he didn’t want to have to answer to his boss’s boss’s boss.)
Sometimes it’s not just the time of day that matters, but the day of the week. Visitors to Paris who do their homework know that the Orsay — with Europe’s greatest collection of Impressionist artwork — is open late on Thursdays. After walking past that museum at other times, and seeing lines out the door, I waited until the time was right to visit. Then I showed up around 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday — and breezed right in.
At Windsor Castle outside of London, the ticket-sellers warned me that on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays — when there’s a Changing of the Guard at 11:00 — everybody shows up around 10:30 in the hopes of entering the castle grounds to watch the ceremony. But many of those people are still stuck in the security line when the ceremony begins. If you’re determined to see the Changing of the Guard from inside the castle, arrive plenty early. But also be aware that the guards march up the main drag on their way to the castle. As an alternative, you could arrive outside the castle just before 11:00, watch that parade, then chill out, visit the rest of the town, and have a relaxed lunch. Then enter the palace in the early afternoon — when the lines are almost nonexistent.
4. Take breaks from the crowds — and find alternatives to major sights.
Trying to sprint through three or four big-name sights in one day, back to back to back, is a recipe for exhaustion and frustration. As travelers, all too often our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, sightseeing-wise. Don’t over-program your time in Europe’s big, intense cities. I’d aim for just one or two major, crowded sights per day. Then take a break — check out a bustling local market hall, nurse a coffee at a sidewalk café, go for a walk in a park or along a scenic riverbank, or explore an up-and-coming neighborhood. Or visit a lesser-known sight that’s almost as good, but much less crowded than the biggies.
In Paris, it’s understandable that people want to see the Orsay — the planet’s greatest collection of Impressionist works (and much more). But the Orsay can be jammed. If you’re a fan of Claude Monet, consider heading across the river to the Orangerie, displaying massive canvases of his transcendent Water Lilies, and — in the basement — a concise collection of works by many of the same artists you’ll find in the Orsay. But the Orangerie, too, can be quite busy. Parisians I talked to said that if it’s Monet you want to see, you can skip both the Orsay and the Orangerie and instead visit either the Marmottan Museum or the Musée Maillol — both of which are never crowded.
In Rome, instead of braving the lines to enter the Colosseum, satisfy yourself with snapping photos from the outside. Then walk 15 minutes to the Baths of Caracalla, which — like the Colosseum — beautifully illustrate the majesty of ancient Roman engineering…but are always completely empty. For aficionados of ancient Rome, the baths are arguably even more interesting than the Colosseum. (Rick recently visited the Baths of Caracalla with our Roman friend, tour guide Francesca Caruso.)
In London, I waited in moderate lines to tour both the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. And both were well worth the wait. But I also ventured out to a lesser-known royal residence, Hampton Court Palace — and I found it captivating. The onetime home of King Henry VIII (and his many wives), Hampton Court Palace is perhaps even more impressive, architecturally, than the Tower and Windsor. And, thanks to the excellent, included audioguide, it comes with fascinating historical insights and vivid stories of larger-than-life monarchs. Best of all, I had the place virtually to myself.
It’s hard to convince travelers to not visit those world-famous sights. And if the only way you can be satisfied with your visit to Rome is by standing in the Sistine Chapel, then by all means, do it. But don’t do it just because it’s on someone else’s list of what you’re “supposed” to see. If you know a sight is going to be jam-packed, ask yourself — honestly — how important it is for the success of your trip. Maybe you can settle for some “also-rans.” You may well discover that — when taking the misery of crowds and long lines into the equation — you’ll enjoy those “lesser” sights even more than the biggies.
5. Expect challenging crowds…and be zen about it.
The hard reality is that, these days, even “A+” travelers who do everything just right must simply accept the fact that Europe is at capacity, and some lines are unavoidable. You don’t have to like it, but you will need to pack a little extra patience.
Every savvy traveler in Paris knows to avoid Versailles on a Tuesday — because the palace’s Monday closure, combined with the Tuesday closure of the Louvre, create a perfect storm of demand. Unfortunately, the week I visited, I had to go to Versailles on Tuesday — since Wednesday was a holiday. Visiting one of Europe’s busiest sights on the one day out of three that it’s open is a recipe for frustration.
I did my best to beat the crowds — arriving at the château later in the day, about an hour and fifteen minutes before closing time. My Paris Museum Pass let me skip the ticket-buying line. However, the (obligatory) security line filled the entire grand courtyard — twisting back on itself four times, in a serpentine zigzag, with hundreds of fellow latecomers. I had finally been beat by Europe’s crowds. I hung my head in shame, found the end of the line, and joined the masses.
And do you know something? It was just fine. Although the line looked comically long, it moved fast, and I was inside within about a half-hour. That left me just enough time to follow Rick’s Versailles Audio Tour through the château’s highlights — set to double-time, with Rick chattering like a chipmunk in my ear as I walked briskly through the sumptuous halls.
Inside, the crowds were intense. There was no choice but to go with the flow. To pass from room to room, everybody had to be extruded through the same narrow doorways. Competition was fierce for the best vantage point for selfies. I witnessed a few photographers virtually come to blows, jockeying for a clear shot of Louis XIV’s toilet. I was worried someone would get jostled over the flimsy guard rope and go careening into a priceless vase or piece of furniture. It was unpleasant.
But I decided not to let the crowds ruin my enjoyment of Europe’s grandest palace. I just went numb and went with the flow, making a point to ignore the crowds and focus instead on the lavish details. By the time I reached the Hall of Mirrors, the crowds were clearing out, and I was able to linger amid the ghosts of 18th-century courtly life.
I always get a kick out of being one of the last people at a great sight. By the end of my visit, they were flushing out us final stragglers by closing the big shutters — plunging each successive room into darkness, in a not-so-subtle hint that closing time was nigh. After being essentially kicked out of the château, I headed to the gardens — which stay open later than the palace itself — and had a relaxing early evening stroll there before heading back to Paris.
I could have decided to be miserable in that line, and once inside those mosh-pit hallways. But instead, I told myself that’s the price I had to pay to visit the greatest palace on earth. I decided to enjoy it…and I did. (And the people-watching was marvelous.)
The Final Word (tl;dr)
So, in short: Accept that it’s going to be crowded…but do your best to beat the crowds by doing your homework. Know which sights let you reserve tickets ahead, and consider combo-tickets or museum passes that let you skip the line. Be aware when big sights are going to be more and less crowded, and plan your day accordingly (hitting less popular sights at the most crowded times, and vice versa). Take breaks to recover from the mob scenes at Europe’s great sights, and consider replacing some of the “must-sees” on your list with less crowded, more intimate, more purely enjoyable alternatives.
And…don’t forget to have fun and take it all in. I don’t care how crowded it is — if you’re standing in front of a painting that gives you chills, savor it. Take a deep breath and settle in. Stand like a stone in a rushing river of humanity, and commune with the majesty of Monet or Michelangelo. Just check out those brushstrokes.
If you’re heading to any of “The Big Three” — London, Paris, Rome — stay tuned to my blog this summer. I’ll be posting frequently about these three classic European destinations. (Or follow me on Facebook.)