U.S. Tourist Traps Worth the Price of Admission
You know the feeling. You’re midway through a long road trip. Your eyes are tired and you wouldn’t mind a chance to stretch your legs. Suddenly you see a sign along the side of the road, beckoning you to the “World’s Only Corn Palace” or “Largest Ball of Twine” or a museum inexplicably dedicated to a single, mundane product – like mustard.
These roadside attractions are often referred to as tourist traps because they tend to charge exorbitant entrance fees for ho-hum attractions that only an out-of-towner would be suckered into checking out.
Except that sometimes the fees are reasonable (or non-existent), and the attractions genuinely interesting. And you pull away with a renewed sense of energy and an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of mustard.
So why not embrace the idea of the tourist trap, and set aside some time to visit at least one on your next road trip? Any of the 15 U.S.-based attractions included here are particularly worth pulling over for.
At the largest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee, the hairstyles (and cowboy hats) here are nearly as tall as the rides. Though a theme park has risen above the sleepy treeline of the town of Pigeon Forge since 1961, attendance numbers soared in 1986, when the park was rebranded with a little help from country music icon Dolly Parton. Now it pulls in more than two million visitors a year.
Most of the rides don’t obviously relate to Parton or her career, but she makes regular appearances, and she’d probably approve of the visitors who bedazzle their jean jackets and cowboy boots in a delightfully Dolly manner.
The park closes in the winter, so plan to visit in the warmer months.
Hearst Castle, California
In his own lifetime, media mogul William Randolph Hearst typically referred to his California homestead as a ranch, but castle is an apt descriptor.
Construction began in 1919 and continued until 1947, a few years before Hearst’s death. In between, he regularly hosted celebrities and politicians – from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill – at the estate. Guests could roam the grounds during the day, taking a dip in one of the estate’s two gigantic pools or wandering through its private zoo, then the world’s largest. At night, they’d dine with Hearst in an ornately decorated dining hall, where he’d ply them with wine (even during the Prohibition) that he typically kept locked tight inside a subterranean vault.
Today’s revelers can explore the beautifully preserved grounds, pools and dining room as well – though, alas, the animals have left the zoo and wine is no longer part of the experience.
International UFO Museum and Research Center, New Mexico
Even if you’re not inclined to believe that tiny green men make frequent visits to Earth, you could still enjoy this out-of-this-world museum.
In 1947, an unidentified flying object crash-landed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Government officials say that it was a surveillance balloon, but ufologists had other ideas. In the years since, Roswell has become a hotbed for extraterrestrial enthusiasts, many of whom make regular pilgrimages to this museum, which occupies a historic theater near the town’s center.
Some of the exhibits on display (like a jumbled timeline of what supposedly happened in Roswell in the 1940s) are more likely to inspire confusion, or boredom, than wonder. But all in all the museum is a fun place to while away an afternoon, and worth its modest $5 entrance fee.
Robert’s Western World, Tennessee
If Nashville is the queen of American honky-tonk culture, this historic establishment is the jewel in her oversized belt buckle. Some of the best country-western singers of our time have passed beneath the neon guitar that hangs above its doorway, and even the lesser-known musicians that play here are often stellar.
Visitors can hear live music at Robert’s seven nights a week, all while snacking on fried bologna sandwiches or moon pies. And the establishment never charges a cover.
The House on the Rock, Wisconsin
Though it’s only a few miles away from Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Wisconsin homestead, the House on the Rock bears more resemblance to a nightmarish theme park than an iconic work of Mid-century architecture.
The interior of the vast house, perched atop a 60-foot-tall column of rock, is filled with architectural oddities, dubious antiques and strange exhibits. A 200-foot sculpture of a sea monster is suspended from the ceiling of one of its rooms. An animatronic symphony dominates another. And, deep within the bowels of its basement, the world’s largest carousel features 269 animals but not a single horse.
If you go, plan to spend several hours wandering through the wonderfully weird space.
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
It’s a national memorial now, but at one point Mount Rushmore was just a great marketing gimmick. South Dakota resident Doane Robinson figured that the state might entice more people to visit if it created an intriguing tourist attraction, like famous faces carved into the side of a mountain. And Robinson was right.
Some 2.5 million people now visit the attraction – which depicts the likenesses of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – each year. And, in spite of its lackluster origin story, it’s become a symbol of American ingenuity and progress.
Madonna Inn, California
Travelers have been rolling into this California inn for decades, some of them enticed by its proximity to Route 101, others by its outlandish decorations. Each of its 110 rooms boasts a different name – Love Nest, Rock Bottom, Caveman Room – and theme. Rooms start around $100, but cash-strapped travelers can get most of the Madonna experience simply by booking a reservation at the steak house – just don’t forget to visit the facilities before leaving.
The steak house is festooned with thousands of yards of pink fabric, making it look a bit like a real-life version of Barbie’s Malibu Dream Home. And in the men’s restroom adjoining the restaurant, guests can relieve themselves at an oversized urinal designed to look like a naturalistic waterfall, rocky outcroppings and all.
The City Museum, Missouri
Don’t let its name fool you. The City Museum, which spans 600,000 square feet of space on the site of a former warehouse in St. Louis, isn’t just some sad old repository for civic memorabilia. It’s more like a gigantic playground that appeals as much to adults as children, built largely from architectural remnants and discarded industrial objects.
On the first floor alone, there’s a life-sized replica of a Bowhead Whale, a slinky big enough to crawl through and a labyrinthine series of tunnels that can be reached via a 10-story slide. Elsewhere, there’s an on-site bar (yes, the alcoholic kind), a Ferris wheel and a massive rope swing dangling from the center of the building’s domed roof.
Tickets start around $12, making a trip to the museum about as affordable as a visit to a movie theater.
The Vegas Strip, Nevada
Where can you see Roman temples, Parisian landmarks and New York City skyscrapers stationed along the same street? The Vegas Strip, baby. The roughly four-mile stretch of asphalt in the Nevada desert is the site of some of the largest and best-known hotels in the world.
And, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need to gamble to have fun at the Sin City attraction. Window-shopping and people-watching are both free, and if you work up an appetite, you could easily work through several plates of greasy goodness at one of its all-you-can-eat buffets.
Winchester Mystery House, California
This sprawling San Jose mansion was once owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of millionaire firearm magnate William Wirt Winchester. According to local lore, Sarah moved to California in 1884 to build a home large enough to house the ghosts of all those gunned down by Winchester rifles, and she kept construction crews working around the clock on the property until her death in 1922.
Whether or not that’s true, her house – which has been open for tours since 2017 – is well worth its $20 admission fee. Inside there are roughly 161 rooms, many of them full of stairways that lead to nowhere, windows that open into interior walls and other architectural oddities.
Pineapple Garden Maze, Hawaii
No, it’s not in Versailles – the world’s largest maze can actually be found in Hawaii, on the grounds of the Dole Plantation. Fittingly, the maze, which stretches across three acres and was crafted from 14,000 species of indigenous plants, takes the shape of a gigantic pineapple.
Tickets costs $8 for adults, a bargain when you consider that a drink in a hip Honolulu coffee shop could set you back about as much, and that you could easily spend at least an hour navigating the maze’s nearly two and a half miles of paths.
Bearing that in mind, you might want to buy your Dole Whip frozen dessert before stepping inside.
Pike Place Market, Washington
Seattle’s most popular tourist destination is a gigantic farmer’s market full of food. What’s not to like?
Spend an hour or two noshing on free samples while admiring the public art (including a 550-pound sculpture of a pig named Rachel that many visitors rub for good luck) on display. Or settle in for a full meal at a sit-down restaurant like Lowell’s, a seafood spot that’s been a mainstay of the market since 1957.
Before you leave, be sure to visit the fishmonger’s stall, where employees toss fresh fish to one another to cut down on the handling time. Impressive when you consider that the salmon they sell can grow to be three feet long.
Disney World, Florida
Yes, it’s overpriced and overcrowded – more than 55 million people visited it in 2017 – but if the smiles on visitors faces are any indication, Disney World may actually be the happiest place on earth. You could easily spend a full day in any one of its four parks, or zip back and forth between them by bus or monorail.
Highlights include the classic rides at Magic Kingdom (Splash Mountain is still a must), the history of animation offered up at Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom safari experience. And of course you can’t leave without at least one visit to Epcot’s “It’s A Small World,” where dozens of doe-eyed dolls will belt out the chorus of the ride’s title song until it’s the only thing you can think about.
Don’t forget: there’s a second Mickey Mouse mecca in the U.S. Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, isn’t quite as bright and shiny and new as its Floridian sibling. But it’s equally charming.
Coney Island, New York
For the better part of a century, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the United States, a place where travelers could sunbathe, ride roller coasters or even visit a brothel built inside a seven-story wooden elephant. A fire tore through the park in the 1940s, and the real estate developer Fred Trump (father of You Know Who) had one of the boardwalk’s three original amusement parks, Steeplechase Park, demolished in the 1960s to make way for planned Miami-style apartments. (He threw a demolition party in honor of the razing.)
Still, you can still see touches of Coney’s former glory here and there. Three of the rides – the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone and Parachute Jump – have been open for the better part of a century. And in 2018, New York City officials announced that they’d be expanding the park’s offerings, adding a zip line and ropes course in 2019, with more attractions planned for the coming years.
Wall Drug, South Dakota
In 1931, Ted Hustead opened a drug store in the tiny town of Wall, South Dakota. But business didn’t really pick up until his wife suggested putting up a few signs along the highway, advertising free ice water for travelers en route to nearby Mount Rushmore. The signs brought in so many thirsty tourists that the Husteads began expanding on the ad campaign and the store itself – eventually erecting hundreds of signs and constructing additional attractions, like a cowboy-themed department store, a western art museum and an 80-foot-tall sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
There’s something strangely endearing about the earnestness of the exhibits, though. As famed travel writer Bill Bryson once wrote: “It’s an awful place, one of the world’s tackiest tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”
Bourbon Street, Louisiana
This street in the Big Easy was named for a French royal family. But it’s fitting that the word bourbon doubles as a type of booze, because the crowded thoroughfare is lined with dozens of bars and restaurants.
Many straddle the line between classy and tacky (like the Channing Tatum-owned club Saints and Sinners, which attracts hordes of tourists nightly in spite of the fact that it looks like a seedy antebellum brothel). But there are authentic gems to be found along the glittering, bead-strewn avenue too.
One of them, Pat O’Brien’s Bar, has been open since 1933 and is believed to be the first business to hire dueling pianists to serenade its clientele. It was also the first to serve the now-classic hurricane cocktail.
Cloud Gate, Illinois
On paper, the idea of plopping a gigantic, blob-shaped sculpture in the middle of one of the country’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares is a terrible idea. In reality, “The Bean” is actually pretty great.
It lies in the middle of Millennium Park, directly between one of the most picturesque stretches of the Chicago skyline to the west and the glittering, green-blue expanse of Lake Michigan to the east. As visitors approach the 42-feet-tall artwork, they’re treated to distorted views of themselves and the surrounding scenery. And anyone who walks all the way underneath the seamless, stainless-steel plated sculpture will find multiple images of themselves stretching funhouse-style across its concave surface.
In other words, if you’re going to snap a selfie, you might as well do it in front of an internationally renowned work of public art that makes your legs look impossibly long.
Niagara Falls, New York
In recent years, Niagara Falls has become synonymous with the phrase tourist trap. And it’s easy to see why. There are several slightly sleazy casinos within the surrounding city, plus the expected hodgepodge of wax museums, indoor waterparks and all-you-can-eat buffets.
But the falls themselves – the most powerful in North America – are still one of the world’s most majestic natural landmarks. And if you drive around to the Canadian side of the river, you can enjoy unobstructed views of the water, and its staggering 160-foot drop, while walking through stately Queen Victoria Park.
Or you can take an elevator to the observation deck of the Skylon Tower, which offers the best views of the area.
Cadillac Ranch, Texas
Most people consider rusted-out cars abandoned along the side of the road an eyesore. But not Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez or Doug Michels. The three men – members of an art collective called Ant Farm – convinced an eccentric millionaire named Stanley Marsh to help them partially bury 10 cadillacs, nose first, in a field in Amarillo in the 1970s.
Today, the cars, which are visible from the nearby highway, are a popular target for aspiring graffiti artists. And that’s just fine with the members of Ant Farm. “We wanted it to be an interactive monument,” Doug Michels once said, “so people could express themselves.”
Fittingly, all 10 cars were painted a flat black when Michels died in 2003. The first taggers arrived less than 24 hours later.
Dinosaur Kingdom, Virginia
Some people believe that dinosaurs coexisted with humans for thousands of years. But Mark Cline of Glasgow, Virginia, might be the first to suggest that dinosaurs A) were still alive during the Civil War and B) fought for the Confederacy.
In 2005, Cline opened a theme park that asks its visitors to imagine that paleontologists discovered dinosaurs in the South in 1863, and that when the Union Army tried to weaponize them, they turned on the troops. The park is full of alarmingly detailed dioramas depicting animatronic dinos attacking or eating Union soldiers. It’s weird as hell, and well worth its modest admission fee.
Dinosaur Kingdom isn’t the only off-the-wall tourist attraction that Cline has created. He’s also responsible for the nearby Foamhenge, a full-scale styrofoam replica of the ancient English monument Stonehenge.
Times Square, New York
New Yorkers love to hate it. But that’s only because the novelty of the bright lights and bustling street traffic that make Times Square the most-visited destination in the world fades over time.
If you’re visiting the Big Apple for the first time, or even the fifth, you should absolutely add it to your must-see list. Some of the best theaters in the country are within spitting distance of the square, and there’s a non-zero chance that you may see a famous actor if you hang around long enough.
Just be sure to avoid it during the New Year’s Eve ball drop, unless you’re into the idea of standing in close quarters with more than a million other people, without any way to relieve yourself, for hours on end.
Mall of America, Minnesota
The heyday of the American mall has come and gone. But in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the 1990s mallrat ethos still seems alive and well. Here, in the nation’s largest retail mecca, you can find more than 500 stores, from Auntie Anne’s to Zara. You can also find some decidedly less traditional attractions, like an indoor theme park that features a full-sized roller coaster and a 1.3-million-gallon aquarium.
All told, the mall encompasses nearly three million square feet, allowing visitors to spend hours strolling through a climate-controlled shopping oasis even while in the midst of one of America’s most notoriously chilly cities.
The best thing about the mall, though? You’re never more than a few hundred feet from your next meal.
Salvation Mountain, California
About 100 miles south of Joshua Tree National Park, in one of California’s inland deserts, a strange mountain of sorts rises above an otherwise flat landscape. In the 1980s, outsider artist Leonard Knight began hauling large quantities of straw and adobe over to the site, mixing them together to create an artificial mountain range. He then painted his creation, covering it with inspirational – often biblical – quotes and imagery.
Knight passed away in 2014. But a public charity was established to maintain the site, which has become a popular pilgrimage for folk-art aficionados and adventurers alike. Former California Senator Barbara Boxer has described it as “a national treasure ... profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
Biosphere 2, Arizona
Someday, humankind may begin to terraform other planets in our solar system. Until then, we’ve got Biosphere 2, the largest closed ecological system ever created.
In the early 1990s, a group of scientists volunteered to spend two years living inside the sprawling artificial ecosystem, intent on proving to the world that they could create all the food, water and air they’d need to live. When the experiment ended, their oxygen levels were low and their morale even lower. But they managed to (more or less) achieve what they set out to do.
Now visitors can sign up for tours of the space, to see where the scientists lived and how they maintained the seven distinct biomes – among them a rainforest and miniature ocean complete with its own coral reef – located within the biosphere.
Reading Terminal Market, Pennsylvania
Newer isn’t always better. Philadelphia’s most famous public market opened in 1893 and quickly became famous for its state-of-the-art refrigerated storage spaces, which allowed merchants to keep seasonal products in stock year-round.
These days it’s better known for its contemporary, home-cooked fare – DiNic’s roasted pork sandwich was voted the “Best Sandwich in America” by the Travel Channel. But you can still find traces of its early history in its ornamental exterior and in the names of the businesses that occupy its older stalls (two of the current vendors are direct descendants of original tenants).
Strangely, like another destination included in this list (Seattle’s Pike Place Market), it also features a sizable sculpture of a pig. His name is Philbert, and he’s the market’s unofficial mascot.
Enchanted Highway, North Dakota
Midwesterners are acutely aware that their coastal neighbors often complain about how boring it can be to drive through the vast plains and prairies of Middle America. With that idea in mind, the artist Gary Greff began constructing enormous scrap-metal sculptures along a sleepy, 32-mile stretch of road in North Dakota. Since he began working on the project in 1989, he’s completed seven sculptures – most of which depict enormous animals, like pheasants, geese and grasshoppers – and is currently working on an eighth.
In 2012, Greff also opened the Enchanted Castle, an eccentrically decorated inn (completely with its own drawbridge) near the highway, in the town of Regent. Greff hopes to drive more tourism to small towns in rural America that have suffered since many of the country’s scenic two-lane highways were abandoned in favor of much larger, and less picturesque, freeways.
The Willis Tower, Illinois
As a rule of thumb, tourist attractions of the observation-deck-at-the-top-of-a-tall-tower variety tend to disappoint. After all, if you’ve ridden an elevator to the top of New York City’s Empire State Building you probably have a pretty good idea of the sort of view that’s waiting for you atop Seattle’s Space Needle.
That being said, the Willis Tower (still commonly called the Sears Tower in Chicago) is worth a trip for two reasons. One, it’s still one of the tallest buildings around. And two, it’s 103rd-story Skydeck features a glass bottom that extends four feet beyond the edge of the skyscraper, allowing visitors to imagine (maybe a little too vividly, for some) what it would be like to walk among the clouds.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Ohio
The Louvre it isn’t. But since opening in 1995, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has outgrown its reputation as a glorified Hard Rock Cafe and become a legitimate bastion of music history. In 1997, the museum began showcasing special exhibitions (the first being “I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era, 1965 – 1969”). And to date it’s inducted hundreds of musicians into its Hall of Fame.
It’s worth noting that the museum receives its fair share of criticism from music insiders, many of whom believe that the Hall of Fame nomination process is opaque and unfair. But that sense of controversy doesn’t make the museum any less worthy of a visit – just bear in mind that the selection process is more subjective than scientific.
Hole N’ The Rock, Utah
Its name couldn’t be more accurate. About a century ago, Albert Christensen began carving a small hole into the side of a sandstone cliff in Moab, intent on providing his boys with a fun place to camp out at night. His ambitions grew along with the hole, though. And over the course of about 12 years, he chiseled out 50,000 cubic feet of sandstone, transforming the space into a 14-room home for him and his wife, Gladys.
When Albert died in the 1950s, Gladys converted the home into a gift shop of sorts and began inviting travelers inside to tour the unique homestead. Gladys is no longer around either, but the tours are still available, for an exceedingly reasonable $6.50.
Golden Gate Park, California
You’d be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hours in San Francisco without setting foot inside Golden Gate Park. The 1,017-square-foot green space stretches east to west nearly the length of the city and is significantly larger than New York City’s Central Park.
It’s not nearly as well known as its northeastern neighbor, though. And that’s a shame, because some of the city’s best tourist attractions – the De Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences – can be found nestled within its borders. It’s also home to both the oldest Japanese garden and the oldest wooden conservatory in the United States. Both make great destination choices for travelers who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for an afternoon.