On my first business trip to London, which was also my first trip to London ever, I had the good fortune to have a decent amount of free time. I had a few hours most days to explore the city at my leisure.
Upon my return I was talking to a friend who hadn't previously known I was going about the trip. She had been there multiple times. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to London?" she asked. "I could have told you all of the cool places to go where the tourists don't go."
I think I surprised her with my response. "But I wanted to go where all of the tourists go."
I spent my free time in London at The National Gallery and The Tate. I strolled through the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. I walked the perimeter of Buckingham Palace and through Piccadilly Circus. I even rode the London Eye (I had been walking for a while that day and i thought it was a creative way to both rest and enjoy a view). I was, with no apologies, a very typical tourist.
If you read any of the hipper types of travel guides or travel websites, you will always see advice to avoid areas that are "touristy". Your experience in a new city will be so much less authentic if you stay on the beaten path and visit the sites that are familiar. You will apparently never truly enjoy your vacation if you visit those places, or stay in those neighborhoods, or eat in those restaurants that are well known. It is almost implied that you are hopelessly square, even gauche, should you choose to take the tourist route. You are certainly a fool about to part with his money since touristy areas are more expensive.
In the middle of all of these suggestions lies the question of why tourists go to these sites in the first place. Tourist sites are not tourist sites simply because a gaggle of clueless out-of-towners suddenly decided to flock to them. They hold significant cultural, historic, or aesthetic value. They are iconic to much of the world. They certainly aren't going to be the only things worth seeing in a given city, but they should be a priority to most visitors. During my London trip I was much more interested in seeing The British Museum than I was in going to some obscure pub known for its intense darts tournaments.
Kevin and I were very typical tourists in Paris as well. We spent the week running all over the city stopping at as many major sites as possible. We stayed in a hotel in the middle of it all just to enjoy the convenience and the pleasure of waking up and seeing Notre Dame out our window every morning. We ate dinner some nights in random Latin Quarter bistros where the owners would entice us in. Our first night we had dinner at Le Sergeant Recreuter - a place packed to the gills with Americans. The food was delicious there despite what the snobs say. We did not spend much time trying to live like Parisians live. We rarely shopped in businesses where they didn't speak English. We used the Batobus for transportation rather than the Metro most of the time. We never talked to a French person we weren't doing business with. You know what? We had a blast. I loved that trip. Did I miss out on living the experience of a true Parisian? Yes I did. No offense meant to actual Parisians.
So we spent a lot of money, possibly missed eating at better restaurants, and didn't make any local friends. Is there anything really wrong with that? We were never rude. We acted and dressed respectfully. We attempted to speak the language (well he did anyway). We did nothing wrong other than observe the city as outsiders and not totally immerse ourselves in the culture. It wasn't the hippest way to travel, but we still had a great time and didn't cause any international incidents.
New Yorkers are often annoyed by tourists, but I think it's refreshing to see people walking around the city actually enjoying themselves. I find Time Square to be one of the biggest wastes of fossil fuels on earth, but there are millions of tourists coming to New York all of the time who think it's a wonder of the world. Who am I to say they are better off exploring some small artsy neighborhood in Brooklyn instead? So they're eating at Junior's, Carmine's and the Stage Deli. Not everyone can afford to eat at, or can get a reservation at, a Mario Batali or other high-end restaurant. Are those place so bad? At least it's not Applebee's or the Olive Garden.
It's not ordinary tourists who write travel guides. City natives, adventurous types, travel writers, and seasoned travelers write them. How many Americans are seasoned travelers? I have known people who never traveled outside of their own states let alone left the country. Traveling across the U.S., or outside of it, can be a scary thing. Sometimes people need to do what it takes to feel safe and comfortable while traveling. If you live in a strip-mall-and-cul-de-sac type of middle American suburb and all of your transporation is via car, you might not feel too comfortable navigating the public transportation systems of a major metropolitan area. It could be worth it to you to book a more expensive hotel that's in the middle of it all.
If you have been to a city multiple times and have seen the major sites and are comfortable moving around, it makes sense to want to explore the more obscure neighborhoods. Someone visiting a city the first time is likely to want to see the major sites first. I have been to London enough times now that I'm quite comfortable with The Underground and hope to see some less well-visited sites if I ever go back. That wasn't how I felt the first time around.
I had so many suggestions for places to visit and things to do when I was in Paris. While I took them all into consideration, in the end, I saw really what I most wanted to see. It was my trip and my experience. I had to choose my own priorities. They might have been been the hippest, but I came home very satisfied with everything I saw.
This weekend I leave for San Francisco for the first time. Kevin and I have a list of places we want to see, and none of them are off the beaten path. We'll be mostly in the city proper, and when we're leaving the city it's for (*gasp*) guided van tours. I will willingly admit that I can't wait to see the sea lions in Fisherman's Wharf and take a photo of myself under the Chinatown arch. I want to see the places San Francisco is most famous for. Aren't those places that I, and the millions other tourists who visit there, the main reason people vacation there?
Being a tourist still carries responsibilities. Be reasonable. Be cautious. Hold tightly to your belongings. Don't stand and gawk in places where foot traffic needs to keep moving (a pet peeve of New Yorkers encountering tourists). Don't be angry with people who can't speak English in a foreign country (do you speak their language?) Smile and say hello and please and thank you. Those kinds of rules apply no matter where in the world you go. Observe customs. Learn as much about local etiquette as possible before you go. Speak softly. Don't wear shorts in public outside of the US. Don't wear a fanny pack no matter where you go (I guess amusement parks are excepted).
Most of all, just enjoy your vacation. Explore however and wherever you feel comfortable. See the places you always wanted to see. Eat where you can afford to eat and can get a table. Stay where you feel it would be most advantageously for you to stay. Set your own priorities.