You’ve dreamed of this moment: the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Buckingham Palace… The excitement builds—until you turn the corner and see the gigantic line and the fed up faces.
Welcome to European travel at its most popular—and most frustrating. And these most popular attractions only seem to get busier with each passing year, filling up with tourists even during the slower seasons.
But before you head back to your hotel to sip a bottle of wine in misery, take a deep breath and relax. Despite millions of other tourists descending upon the same museum, church or ruin every year, there are still ways to beat the crowds and save time in Europe.
Here are 10 insider tips to let you spend more time experiencing these sights—and less time experiencing the line.
10 tips to help you save time in Europe
1. Eiffel Tower: Book in advance, and head up around dinner time
The Eiffel Tower sure is pretty to look at from a distance. During peak summer season, save time waiting in a ticket line by booking your Tower tickets in advance through the official Eiffel Tower website. (Careful — lots of ticket agencies would like to sell you more expensive versions of the same ticket. Buy yours directly from the Eiffel Tower website.)
To avoid the biggest crowds in high season, plan on an early or late dinner and schedule your Tower visit for 8 or 9 pm. Not only will you catch the sunset, but you’ll miss most of the other Paris lovers who will be out to dinner.
Related: Our favorite budget hotels near the Eiffel Tower
2. Louvre: Stay up late on Wednesdays & Fridays
On Wednesday and Friday the Louvre is open until 9:45 pm. We know it’s tempting to visit Mona early in the day when everyone’s fresh, but coming after dark means that you’ll miss the herds of school groups, extended families and tour groups that arrive around 10 a.m.
And no matter what time you come, enter through the Carrousel du Louvre entrance. Waiting to pass through security under the main pyramid is an unnecessary time waster.
Related: Read more Louvre tips | Favorite budget hotels near the Louvre
3. Notre Dame: Get thee to the church on time
Many of the tour groups that roam around Paris don’t arrive at their first spot until about 10 am, so get to Notre Dame at around 9 am, and you’ll time to leisurely visit the cathedral before they even show up. Then you’ll have the rest of the day to explore whatever else is on your list.
If you want to get up to the Bell Tower in the summer, you’d better be in line by 8 am, or expect a lengthy wait.
Related: More tips for visiting Notre Dame | Suggested budget hotels in the Latin Quarter
4. Anne Frank House: Get your tickets way in advance
There’s no way around it. If you just show up on a Saturday afternoon in summer expecting to saunter right into the Anne Frank House, you’re going to be disappointed. So many tourists in Amsterdam are shocked by the line that they find here, in fact, that they just skip it (which is a shame, as this miss one of Europe’s most powerful experiences).
Just plan ahead and get your tickets in advance. Check out our full guide to beating the epic lines at the Anne Frank House for all of the details.
Related: 32 recommended budget hotels in Amsterdam
5. St. Mark’s Basilica: Skip ahead with online booking
There’s almost always a line to get into this stunning church—no matter what time of year you visit. Entry can easily take 45 minutes or longer during high season. And since this ancient basilica is still used for services, avoid Sunday mornings during mass and major Christian holidays, unless you’re planning to attend the service.
You can book entry tickets directly online to save time during the busier months. Total cost: only €2! This service is available from 1st of April to 2nd November and is a small price to pay for saving so much time.
Related: More tips for visiting Venice’s attractions. | Our 23 best budget hotels in Venice
6. Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s basilica: Visit Tuesdays through Fridays
St. Peter’s basilica has been a destination for pilgrims for centuries, and Pope Francis’ new-found popularity is bringing in even bigger crowds. With so many attractions to see in one place, from the stunning basilica to the fascinating museums that draws up to 25,000 people a day, visiting the Vatican area can be a little overwhelming.
You can book museum tickets online, but the key here is coming mid-week. The weekends (especially Sundays of course!) and Mondays are the busiest, so try to plan your schedule around them. Then go first thing in the morning or after lunch around 3 pm. Late morning usually sees the biggest number of visitors.
Check out 9 other tips on beating the crowds at the Vatican (including our tip for the secret entry between the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s).
Related: More ways to save in Rome | 37 recommended budget hotels in Rome
7. Colosseum: Get up very early
The Colosseum can only hold 3,000 people at a time, so you can imagine the backups that can ensue on the busiest days. If you can actually pull yourself out of bed and be in line by 8:15 a.m., you will be in good shape to be one of the first to get through the doors when they open at 8:30 a.m. You can also book online, if you prefer to sleep in
Bonus Tip: Another way to save a couple of euros (and some time, too) is to avoid all of the costumed Roman soldiers and gladiators looking to separate you from a few of your euros for a cheesy photo op. (Unless, of course, you want an epic holiday card to send to Uncle Jack this year.)
8. British Museum: Research and come prepared
The Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone, Lewis Chessmen, Parthenon Sculptures… it’s like Humanity’s Greatest Hits, and it’s free to visit! Just know that it’s on every other tourist’s list, too. While you can choose to zip through the biggies in under 60 minutes (there really is a guide for that!), we prefer to take our time and soak it all in.
However, do a little prep work or you’ll be wandering around all day. To get a head start, spend some time in the museum’s online collection or listen to a great series of BBC podcasts “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” Figure out what sounds good, and make a plan. Research has never been so fun!
Related: Read all of our tips for the British Museum | Best budget hotels in London
9. Buckingham Palace: Book ahead in summer, guard yourself otherwise
There are royal palaces. And then there’s Buckingham Palace, which boasts 775 rooms that stretch over a football (that’s American football) field long. Not to mention the posh royal ceremonies or the official Throne Room. This is the real deal.
Buckingham Palace opens its doors to tourists every summer from late July through the end of September. You should book those tickets online well in advance.
Visiting around the holidays? Travelers can splurge for one of the palace’s exclusive private tours, available to small groups from December 11, 2015 – January 31, 2016. Ticket prices are a hefty £75 per person.
Looking for a touch of the Prince but the price of a pauper? Swing by to experience the changing of the Guard for free. It takes place at 11:30 a.m. — daily during the summer and alternating days off-season. (Check out this schedule for more info.)
10. La Sagrada Familia: Arrive early or go to mass
Barcelona is a feast for fans of architecture and Gaudí, with Park Güell, several residences like Casa Batlló and La Sagrada Familia, all easily accessible within the city’s boundaries. But if you only have time to see one of his master creations, La Sagrad Familia is probably the best bet—as long as you hit the sack early the night before.
The church opens at 9 a.m. every day of the year (including Christmas and New Year’s), so early arrivals can get a jump on the crowds no matter what season they come. Admission will cost you more than a handful of euros, but even on our cheapo budget, we think it’s well worth it. You should also consider attending mass at the Sagrada Familia — it’s not just free, it’s a moving experience.
Related: Read all of our tips for La Sagrada Familia | Recommended budget hotels in Barcelona
Have some additional ways to save time and money at any of these tops attractions? Did we overlook something big? Share with us in the comments section below!