Far from the madding crowd
May 24, 2014 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I pretty much only have time off when everybody else has time off, but I don't enjoy spending my time off with everybody else! What are your general tricks and specific suggestions for enjoying tourist destinations without crowds? I'm especially interested in California (I live in the SF Bay Area), but general ideas and other places are fine too.

Here are some examples:
- The Asian Art Museum in SF is usually deserted when it's rainy (this was counter-intuitive to me!)
- Yosemite (and the Grand Canyon) = awesome in the winter, with few visitors and happy wildlife
- Some places are awesome but overshadowed by the big names. Fort Bragg and the northern coast are usually easy to book great (cheap) rooms in and not busy even when Santa Cruz is a wall of people. Mount Lassen is a frigging volcanic wonderland of a national park, but even in August, it's not busy. I have never seen the Computer History Museum in Mountain View when it was really crowded, even during special events (but I haven't been there in a few years).

This question was brought to mind by the fact that I have visitors for a lot of the summer, starting this Memorial Day weekend and continuing into July. We tried going to the Academy of Sciences during the summer once, and also near Thanksgiving once, and what a disaster!

So, to recap:
- Cool places in popular destinations that are generally sparsely attended?
- Popular places that are not crowded under specific circumstances?
- General guidelines on avoiding Other People

SF Bay Area = great, California = good, anywhere = interesting! Parks, museums, events, restaurants, beaches, whatever.
posted by wintersweet to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I am in San Diego county. The weather here is not much cooler in winter than in summer yet the beaches are relatively deserted in the winter. It is usually between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit on any day of the year. I have seen warm temps in January and had to wear a jacket in June. So whether it is warmer or cooler is kind of slightly correlated to season, but it is possible to hit the beach here in January and have lovely weather or hit the beach in June and freeze.

General guidelines on avoiding Other People:

Eat at "off" times. Have lunch at 2:00pm or start dinner at 4:00pm. Do your driving at lunch hour instead of your eating.

Similarly, consider going places early. If you get up early enough, you can have a lot of places largely to yourself. Folks who have your stereotypical M-F work week tend to sleep in on weekends. Be there the minute something opens at 6:00am, have the place essentially to yourself for an hour or so, then watch other trickle in. By 8:00am, when it is starting to get crowded, you got to see what you wanted to see.

I went to San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center. I was there before their office opened. I walked up to the roof. I read all the cool things to read that were on public display. I am an environmental studies major and, at one time, wanted to be an urban planner. This building is LEEDS Platinum certified. It is way cool. There was no one else there when I was there. I didn't bother to walk the nature trail. I just wanted to see the awesome building. I had it essentially to myself.

If you are traveling alone, you can sometimes slip into a seat at the bar at a place like Outback's instead of waiting for a table during crowded times. It isn't quite the same as avoiding the crowd but it at least avoids the wait. For me, that is close enough for my purposes (my main thing is germ control, so it limits how long I have to be exposed to all these people).

You can also find the phone number and order take out and take it to a nearby bench, park, eat in your car, whatever. Getting food to go can be a great way to avoid Other People.

If you are in great shape and can take some additional walking, you can just go where all the tourists are too lazy/out of shape to walk. Sometimes just walking a littler farther gets you to a relatively uncrowded spot at a beach, park, whatever. For example, from what I have seen, the beaches at Torrey Pines State Park near where you can park your car are crowded. But if you are willing to hike a bit, there are also beaches that are part of Torrey Pines State Park that seem to have relatively few people much of the time. So if a 45 minute hike through the trails to get to a beach sounds good to you, you can find the relatively deserted areas.
posted by Michele in California at 11:35 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

You already touched on my favorite place in the world, which is the coast in Sonoma County.

A while ago someone here mentioned the town (barely a town) of Sea Ranch, and I decided to stop there on a road trip. It's really amazingly beautiful and peaceful.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:48 AM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I usually just pick things where it's the shoulder season (or even off season) at the time I'm traveling.

I often choose to travel at times that aren't big obvious tourism weekends. Not that many people go on vacation for Easter, and yet it's a holiday I don't meaningfully celebrate. So perfect for vacationing. Likewise I never travel anywhere for Thanksgiving, period, end of story. (Though maybe international travel would be OK?)

Picking the second or third thing on a list is also great. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, we have a really famous Mexican restaurant that has been featured on the Food Network, written up all over the local press, and is one of the most famous places to get a burrito in LA. Across the street is an equally good Mexican restaurant that is very well regarded, but slightly less famous (it's still in Top Ten Mexican Restaurants, but ranks more like 4-5 rather than 1). Guess which place always has a wait for a table, and which place never has a wait? And yet by going to the less famous restaurant, you lose nothing.

This works for everything, not just restaurants. When I was in India, I wanted to spend some time at the beach in Goa, during the high season. I picked like a second-tier beach town, rather than the most famous beach town. Dead quiet. This is why Sonoma is easier than Napa, too. And why San Luis Obispo or Solvang is even easier.

Just get out of the headspace of The Thing Everyone Wants, and you very quickly find lots of peace and quiet.
posted by Sara C. at 12:26 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sara C.'s trick of picking the second or third on the list. In New Haven, CT, the pizza joint is Pepe's. But Sally's, across the street, is just as fantastic (related, too), as is Modern Pizza and several others that typically make it on the best-of lists.

Getting there early--at opening time--can be a good trick for museums, amusement parks and the like. Family groups and school trips seem to trickle in later morning/early afternoon.

Libraries are particularly slow in the summer and when the weather is gorgeous. They also often have interesting events (everything from storytellers to acrobats, puppets to live animal shows) going on at that time in conjunction with Summer Reading.
posted by carrioncomfort at 1:09 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Costa Rica during their green season. You practically have the country to yourself from a tourist's point of view.

Hard-to-get reservation restaurants in NYC free up dramatically on Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur)
posted by Kruger5 at 1:43 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

The week of Burning Man is the best time to go to Dolores Park or eat at any hot-ticket place in the Mission.

Kings Canyon National Park has a lot of the same granite majesty as Yosemite but much sparser crowds. In general, state parks and national forests are waaaaaay less crowded than national parks. If you want to camp, look for BLM sites; they tend to have fewer amenities and more baroque reservation systems (the telephone!) and, like, no people.

Go to Disneyland the week after Thanksgiving (it's never uncrowded, but that's a pretty quiet time.)

For Hawaii: The Big Island is so big, and there are so few people. September is the least crowded month to travel to Hawaii, according to the tourism bureau.

If you want to go to the beach, go early (June rather than July or August) or September (the most glorious month for California beaches anyway). The busiest beach travel time is Fourth of July through the second week of August.

Seconding others that just getting to places as they open can really help beat crowds (Muir Woods!), as can getting there at 5 pm when everyone else is having dinner. Likewise, I'm a huge fan of the 5:30 pm dinner reservation.
posted by purpleclover at 2:42 PM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Go to Disneyland the week after Thanksgiving (it's never uncrowded, but that's a pretty quiet time.)

The last time I went to Disneyland, the lines were crazy short. My sister took me and she had been many times and she said she had never seen the lines so short. I don't recall what the date was. I believe it was the day after some big holiday ended (possibly right after the Fourth of July). I think it was like a Monday or Tuesday following a holiday weekend.

I also went to Yellowstone in the dead of winter. And it was dead. We practically had the place to ourselves (plus our hotel was half the usual price). So Nthing "Go in the off season", whatever the off season is for that particular attraction.
posted by Michele in California at 2:54 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sara C.'s trick of picking the second or third on the list

This is not a trick - the trick is on you. Going to the 2nd or 3rd option is losing out on top choice. Instead, figure out how to get ahead of the madness so that you get to enjoy the 1st choice.

Six Flags - go in May or September/October. The lines are significantly shorter.

Paris in Jan-April and you've got the city to yourselves. Most everyone stays away because of bad weather hearsay.

Rockefeller Center instead of the Empire State Building - significantly less crowds and mayhem, and great views Inc those of the Empire State Building .
posted by Kruger5 at 3:33 PM on May 24, 2014

Here are a couple more I thought of, in case anyone else is in the same boat:
- Per what Michele in California said, I read that if you walk more than 5-10 minutes away from the sidewalk/entrance/parking at national parks, the presence of other people drops off dramatically. It seems to be true--starting at 10 minutes, everyone else really thins out!

- Forest of Nisene Marks near Santa Cruz. While everyone else is at the beach, this serene and cool forest is usually not too crowded. I <3 less famous cool things that happen to be near more famous cool things...

- Going as early as possible to anything that happens on a Sunday, when a lot of people are asleep or in church

As for going to #2 or #3 instead of #1, since whatever's #1 right now is often fairly arbitrary, I don't see how that necessarily means losing out. (Not to mention that locals and other experts often don't think the #1 is all that.) Sometimes, yeah, you have to see The Thing because nothing else is The Thing, but hey, a lot of people would say that about the Empire State Building.
posted by wintersweet at 4:19 PM on May 24, 2014

Disneyland in January is very, very empty.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:29 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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