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From city to city, tourism cliches can be good and bad

| Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There's a popcorn shop in downtown Chicago that generates long tourist lines, and most locals, like me, don't get it. I don't think the popcorn is better than at any other place that puts a little effort into its popcorn, and if your time in Chicago is limited, waiting for this popcorn seems like a waste.

But, that said, checking out the views from atop the Willis Tower or John Hancock Center? Absolutely. Visiting Millennium Park? A must. The architecture boat tour on the Chicago River? Essential. Wrigley Field? There's no better place on a warm afternoon. Even deep-dish pizza is worth your time if you've never had it (I suggest Art of Pizza or Lou Malnati's).

Every great city has its tourism cliches, and some are worth doing while others are not. But which is which?

I reached out to experts, friends and social-media contacts across the country to weigh in on some of the busiest tourism cities. Answers were edited for space and clarity.

Las Vegas

Do: 1. The Bellagio fountains still take my breath away. 2. A quick — and free — visit to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on the south Strip is worth doing for the people-watching alone.

Don't: 1. Clubbing. Unless you have arranged for table service, it really is just miserable. 2. I can't figure out the long line of people waiting to get inside the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop from “Pawn Stars.”

Los Angeles

Do: 1. The Griffith Observatory. 2. The Getty art museum (it's free, but you have to pay to park). 3. For great people-watching, the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Don't: 1. The Hollywood “Walk of Fame” is dirty and crowded. You'll be bored after 15 minutes. 2. Don't waste money on a “See the Stars' Homes” bus tour. All you see are giant fences and foliage.

New Orleans

Do: 1. Mardi Gras day on the Zulu route. 2. The Algiers ferry across the Mississippi River for the heck of it. 3. Commander's Palace. 4. Frenchmen Street is more interesting than Bourbon Street.

Don't: 1. Preservation Hall. I realize that some jazz fans can't resist, but, for me, it's too often worn-out standards played indifferently in a city where there's livelier music every 10 feet. 2. I feel bad when I see people standing outside in the heat waiting at Mother's Restaurant. The food just isn't that good.

New York City

Do: 1. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and up to Chinatown for dim sum. 2. Grand Central Station. 3. Stuff on the water (Governors Island, Roosevelt Island, Red Hook, bridges, boat rides). It's an island city. Appreciate that. 4. Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. The atmosphere is tops, and the food is still amazing.

Don't: 1. Magnolia Bakery, made famous by “Sex and the City” — mediocre and overpriced. 2. Stand in line for everything; the city has too many options to waste your day on one thing. 3. Shop at the same chain stores on Fifth Avenue that you find in any midsize American city.

Philadelphia

Do: 1. Tour Independence Hall and see the Liberty Bell. 2. Cheesesteak at Dalessandro's, in the Roxborough neighborhood. 3. Run up the art museum steps just like Rocky. Everybody else in town has done it.

Don't: 1. Go to Pat's or Geno's for cheesesteak. Long lines, not great and too expensive.

San Francisco

Do: 1. Ride a cable car (preferably the Powell line, preferably hanging off the side). It's one of the best thrills $6 can buy.

Don't: 1. Fisherman's Wharf is all tourist shops.

Seattle

Do: 1. The Pike Place Market. Go early to beat the crowds. Watch the flower sellers arranging their bundles. Have breakfast at Lowell's and enjoy the views of the passing ferries.

Don't: 1. The Space Needle. It's not that tall, and you can't see a thing if it's cloudy (remember, this is Seattle). You can appreciate the architecture better from the ground.

Washington, D.C.

Do: 1. The Smithsonian, the Holocaust Museum, Lincoln Memorial (especially at night) and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery are all great and free. 2. The National Mall is a treasure, filled with tourists from across the world.

Don't: 1. Museums where you have to pay — the International Spy Museum, the Newseum — are a waste in a town with far better free museums.

Josh Noel is a staff writer for Chicago Tribune.

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