Every day, 10,000 people enter New York’s Grand Central Terminal—with no intention of catching a train. They come to slurp bivalves at the Oyster Bar or cocktails at the Campbell Apartment.They gawk at the ceiling embellished with gold constellations, browse shops, and take tours. It’s enough to make the landmark one of America’s top five most-visited attractions.
Location, of course, plays a role, and many of the most popular attractions are found in major cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Size, too, matters. While the National September 11 Memorial had an impressive 4.5 million visitors during its first year (it opened on Sept. 12, 2011), it was dwarfed by Central Park with 100 times the area.
Yet for every traveller drawn to the big city, there are others who embrace the great outdoors. With its accessibility and size, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a natural choice for millions—more than 9 million to be precise, making it the No. 16 most-visited attraction in the nation.
Like it or not, the white-tailed deer, black bears, and brilliant foliage of the Great Smokies can’t quite compete with the popularity of Disney among Americans and international visitors; five theme parks made it into the top 20.
To determine these rankings, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets.
Read on to find out which tourist attraction claimed the No. 1 spot with more than 41.9 million visitors in 2011. Were you one of them?
The Methodology: Our definition of tourist attractions included natural, cultural, and historic sites as well as recognised areas of limited geographic scope like the Las Vegas Strip. (We eliminated national parkways as they spread over extensive distances).
Accurate numbers weren’t available for some popular attractions such as Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey.
In the case of transportation hubs like Grand Central Terminal or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge that bring in both travellers and locals, we focused as much as possible on visitor data that excluded the strictly commuting set.
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Annual Visitors: 41,900,000
Neon signs, megastores, street performers, and historic theatres lure tourists to this five-block intersection that has become increasingly family-friendly.
The addition of pedestrian-only areas with café tables, for instance, has made it more appealing to hang out here.
At the small museum within the visitors' centre, the 2007 New Year's Eve Centennial Ball drops four times an hour.
Write a wish on a piece of confetti, and it--and two tons of other pieces of confetti--will flutter down on Times Square at midnight New Year's Eve.
Annual Visitors: 40,000,000
Locals and visitors alike find respite among these 843 acres of paths, lawns, lakes, and gardens in the centre of Manhattan.
Walk, skip, skate, ride a bike, row a boat or ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
You can admire the views from 19th-century Belvedere Castle; check out the modest-size zoo; or join the fans who gather to pay quiet tribute to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields.
Annual Visitors: 36,500,000
Designed during the age of railroads and opened in 1907, this grand train station was built to be a monumental gateway--symbolized by its many arches--to America's capital.
The Beaux-Arts gem is also a gateway to commerce, with more than 120 shops and eateries.
The 36 statues of Roman legionnaires lining the balcony were originally nude, but concerns that the public would be shocked led to the addition of strategically placed shields.
Annual Visitors: 29,500,000
Take a faux round-the-world tour along this five-mile strip that counts a pyramid, a sphinx, an Eiffel Tower, an Arc de Triomphe, a Venetian canal, a New York skyline, and a colourful medieval fairy-tale castle.
This is also where the Bellagio fountains put on the famous nightly light-and-music show.
The Strip has evolved beyond bargain-priced buffets to become a fine-dining destination, with Michelin-rated restaurants like three-star Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand and two-star Picasso at Bellagio and Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace.
Annual Visitors: 21,600,000
Every day 10,000 people come to Grand Central not to catch a train but to have lunch. And why not?
The stunning Beaux-Arts building's teal ceiling is embellished with gold constellations and twinkling lights, its regal staircases mimic those at the Paris Opera House, while the historic Oyster Bar and Campbell Apartment afford discreet people-watching views of visitors bustling across the terminal floor.
Annual Visitors: 15,000,000
Gaze toward this luminous orange suspension bridge from the hills to the north just after sunset when bay and sky turn indigo and the skyline beyond glows like alabaster--then you'll understand its popularity with bikers, joyriders, pedestrians, and, yes, drivers.
The span celebrated its 75th anniversary in May 2012 and launched guided tours and an expanded visitors' centre with a green-screen photo op that makes it look as if you're climbing the bridge's lofty cables.
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