Famous for Being Famous - The Paris Hiltons of Travel (Editorial)

SOMETIMES, WHEN BEMOANING the crowds at certain major tourist attractions, people will counter 'Yes, but those crowds are not there for nothing. There's a reason these places are famous.'

Really? Not always.

Sights are like celebrities: some are famous because of their talents, their unique abilities, their good looks. Others are simply famous... for being famous. 

Somehow, at some point in time, they were, almost accidentally, thrust into the limelight. And fame became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think about Paris Hilton. Most people have forgotten the tipping point that made her widely known (it was, ahem, a leaked sex tape in 2003). These days, the media talk about her, well, mostly because she's in the media a lot. And if anybody has detected any clearly identifiable artistic talent in her, do let me know. (Apart from milking her own fame of course.)

The same is true for tourist sights. 

Some of them are famous simply because they're famous. They attract massive crowds because everybody goes to see them, which is the main reason others want to visit them, too. They're in every guidebook- and as a result they are on the most 'must-see' list of first-time visitors. Don't bother asking these people why the sight is famous. It's a famous sight. That's enough reason to visit. These are truly the Paris Hiltons of Travel.

What's interesting is that, like Paris Hilton, many of these sights had a tipping point, something that, almost through sheer luck, made them stand out from other, equally interesting sights, in spite of the lack of obvious talent. 

And once they emerged from the crowd, they never lost their competitive edge. Sometimes these tipping points were more than a century ago- long forgotten by most people.

So let's look at some of the more egregious Paris Hiltons of Travel, shall we?

Paris Hilton #1: The Mona Lisa

It's not that Mona Lisa is a bad painting. It's not. But it's also not a great painting. It's also puny, obscured by the permanent rugby scrum that surrounds it. It's not hard to point at a dozen works in the Louvre that are more impressive.
It's supposed to be somewhere here, this famous painting...
Mona didn't have a leaked sex tape, but she did have a tipping point. Two, actually. Mona Lisa's first tipping point was that she spent a brief time in Napoleon Bonaparte's bedroom. It then moved to the Louvre and people were curious about the woman that Napoleon used to sleep with.

But Mona's real tipping point was when she was stolen. In 1911, somebody simply walked out with Mona hidden under his coat (n.b.: do not try this at home or in the Louvre). In spite of her fling with Napoleon, Mona was still so unfamous that it took 28 hours before anybody even noticed!

Overnight, Mona became a newspaper sensation. Headlines around the world spoke of the brazen heist. And when she returned a few years later, crowds flocked to see her and she quickly became the most famous of the Louvre's 38.000 pieces. Her ubiquity on mugs, tea towels, and beer coasters around the world will ensure it remains that way.

Read more: NPR: The theft that made the Mona Lisa a masterpiece

Paris Hilton #2: Bocca della Verita in Rome 

Yes, the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) is ancient. But that's not why people come to see it. Because, let's face it, Rome is littered with old stuff. Experts can't even agree on what it was or represents. A manhole cover? A god? An oversized frisbee? Who knows.

These days, people line up for half an hour, not to admire a first-century undetermined artifact, but to partake in a distinct tourist ritual: stick your hand in it, and take a photo. Baffled much?

The Bocca's tipping point was the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. 1950s heartthrobs Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck playing 'truth or dare' in front of the Mouth became the 1950's equivalent of an internet sensation and led to American and other tourists repeating the scene. A tourist tradition was born. 
Look at me and my unique photo opportunity! (Photos: Google images)
Nowadays, people come and stick their hand it it because... well, that's what you do on your first (or second, or third) trip to Rome.

Watch more: Bocca della Verita in Roman Holiday on Youtube

Paris Hilton #3: The city of Nice 

The city of Nice is not particularly nice. But somehow it shows up on many first-time itineraries of Western Europe, like this one or this one.

Why? It's not like there are no other places in France to visit. And most people would struggle to name a well-known sight in the city without checking a guidebook first. So what is it that attracts many people to Nice?

Back in the second half of the 18th century, Nice became popular with wealthy foreigners, in particular Brits seeking to escape the dreadful English winters. The city's main promenade, the Promenade des Anglais, was named for these early (wealthy) backpackers. When Thomas Cook and others started the first package tours, their customers, assuming that the 1% had impeccable taste,  wanted to go 'where the rich people went'.
The Promenade des Anglais. Can you spot les Rosbif are on the beach? (Photo: Videoturysta)
A similar thing happened in Russia. In 1856, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna decided to escape the even more dreadful Russian winter and set up shop in Nice. Many Russians followed the trendsetting Empress, especially after 1917, and so Nice became a place 'where foreigners went', and this tradition remains, even if the city is still relatively short on sights. 

Old habits die hard: there is still a direct train from Moscow to Nice.

Paris Hilton #4: Leopold Cafe in Bombay

This Bombay cafe serves mediocre food and lots of beer to bemused out-of-towners. Why do they flock here? That's one question. The other question is who the 'Australian (!?!) King' was that, according to the Cafe's website, the place is named after.

Although Leopold's boasts to have been founded in 1871, it only became a Cafe in 1987. This, the dark ages before the internet, was when India was still in its pre-capitalist state, and the few Western backpackers who drifted into Bombay had few places to hang out as going to the pub was (and to a large extent is) not a part of Indian culture.

Cafe Leopold became a backpackers hangout and quickly made its way into the Backpackers' Bible, Lonely Planet, becoming a fixture on the Indian branch of the Banana Pancake Trail. Minor Sights visited back in 1999, and it was a typical backpackers hangout serving the winning combination of mediocre food and cold beer, where you could find kindred souls to swap stories of 3-day bus journeys and epic diarrhoea attacks.

Since then, a lot has happened in India. As the economy developed, middle class Indians started travelling and, in search of 'must-visits', started dropping in at Leopold's, because 'that's where tourists go'.

These days, you're equally likely to run into dreadlocked Westerners as well as honeymooning couples from Lucknow or vacationing families with slightly-too-chubby kids from Bangalore.
Look at me! I did 6 must-sees today! (photo: Tripadvisor)
Never mind that these days, you can get beer anywhere and the food is still decidedly average.  But a must-visit is a must-visit.

What about your Paris Hiltons? Have you come across any? Do share them below- we'd love to hear about them. 


  1. Cinqueterre and Civita di Bagnoregio in central Italy--famous since mentioned on guidebooks. ...

    1. HI Mary Jane, thanks for the comment. Not so sure about those two- yes, guidebook (Rick Steves in particular) played a key role in putting both places on the map. But I think people still go see them for the unique things they offer- there are few other places like Civita Bagnoregio, set in a crumbling canyon.

      Now, San Gimignano on the other hand...

  2. Great post - very enjoyable read!

    The first time I visited the Louvre I was struck first by the incredible length of the queues, second by how empty it seemed inside (when considering the queue) and third by the fact that 80% of the aforementioned queue had indeed visited purely to see the Mona Lisa (as evidenced by the swollen mass gathered around the poor gal!).

    As for the Bocca della Veritas - well I think the phrase "when in Rome do as Romans do.." has a more literal meaning here. So no sticking your fingers in the grumpy manhole cover's mouth! :)

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for your comment. Yes, the Louvre is massive, and many parts of the museum are practically empty because so many visitors just want to see 2 or 3 works of art... One day I'll write a post on Munor Sights of the Louvre- the works that few people pay attention to that would be the highlight of most other museums.

      What were your favourite works in the Louvre?

    2. Oh that would be a lengthy list - but off the top of my head I'd have to say the Tombeau de Philippe Pot and of course the very popular Winged Victory of Samothrace - which is awe-inspiring to say the least. Cimabue's The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels is also worth a mention as is Girodet's Sleep of Endymion (the Romanticism collection at the Louvre is impressive in general).

      Though of course simply wondering around the louvre and the medieval foundations below is an absolute pleasure - and a wonderful way to escape the Mona Lisa hunters. ;)

      I'll keep an eye out for the Minor Sights of the Louvre post!

    3. Thanks for those suggestions Nick. I will check them out!

    4. Hi Nick, just to let you know that the 'Minor Sights of the Louvre' post is now live- thank for providing the inspiration!


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