What 50 top tourist destinations looked like 50 years ago

Written by:
July 2, 2019
Updated on July 1, 2019
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What 50 top tourist destinations looked like 50 years ago

Tourism and traveling have transformed over the last half-century. In 1969, the Boeing 747 made its maiden flight and revolutionized air travel. Additionally, technological advances like travel websites home sharing services have made traveling significantly cheaper, simpler, and more comfortable.

Another dramatic change in modern tourism and traveling is how little people travel today compared to 50 years ago. A 2018 trend report from Skift Research found that 57% of Americans hadn't taken an extended leisure trip (one that lasted over three days and was at least 100 miles away from home) in the last 12 months. A 2019 U.S. Travel Association report revealed that in 2017 Americans left 705 million vacation days on the table, meaning that only 52% of Americans took the vacation time allotted to them.

However, change is coming. Nearly 100 million Americans, or four out of every 10 adults, will go on a family vacation this year, and 68% of those families will vacation in the summer, according to a recent AAA Travel survey. So, with the summer travel season here, Stacker looks at the top 50 tourist destinations and what they looked like in 1969.

For this list, Stacker chose some of the most popular tourist destinations over the last five decades. From Mount Rushmore to Amsterdam, these destinations have consistently attracted a significant number of visitors. Some destinations on the list have been preserved and restored over the last half-century—thanks to the foresight of organizations like UNESCO and the National Parks Department. Others have faced natural disasters, tremendous population growth, or didn't exist in 1969.

Click through Stacker's gallery to see how much these destinations have changed, or, in some cases, how much they've stayed the same.

You may also like: Famous tourist destinations being impacted by climate change

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, USA

Constructed from 1927 to 1941, Mount Rushmore was originally a simple, nondescript roadside pullout. The tourist destination went under significant redesign in the 1990s, partially to accommodate the growing number of visitors. A massive new visitor's center and sit-down cafe will now greet the 3 million people annually who make the pilgrimage.

Lake Calhoun, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Take a trip to Lake Calhoun today, and it will look mostly the same as it did 50 years ago (albeit a little more developed). What's really changed over time is the politics surrounding the lake. Over the last several years there have been a half a dozen court cases regarding the name of the lake—whether to restore the original Dakotan name of the lake, Bde Maka Ska or keep the Calhoun name. Former Vice President John C. Calhoun, the person the lake was named after, is widely acknowledged as being a racist and a slave owner.

Stockholm, Sweden

Gamla Stan, or the Old Town, is where Stockholm was founded in 1252 and is one of the largest and best preserved medieval cities in Europe. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century Gamla Stan was considered a slum, and just after World War II, a large section of it was demolished to enlarge parliament. However, it became a major tourist attraction in the 1980s, and today the district is protected by the government and much effort is put into preserving things as perfectly as possible.

St. Moritz, Switzerland

Ever since hosting its first Winter Olympics in 1928, St. Moritz has been a popular destination for many sports events: skiing, polo championships, cricket, sailing, and windsurfing. In 1987, the Swiss Alps resort town branded itself “the top of the world” and became an over-the-top vacation destination for the super-rich. In the last 20 years, iconic hotels like Badrutt's Palace Hotel and The Hotel Soldanella have gone under massive renovations making them more luxurious than ever before.

Piccadilly Circus, London, U.K.

In the 1980s, Piccadilly Circus underwent significant renovations. The road junction, which connects four major thoroughfares, has become more pedestrianized, making it easier for tourists to explore the area and get the perfect picture. Additionally, the billboards, which were at one point scattered all around the square, are now relegated to a single building, often called "Monico" after Cafe Monico which used to be inside.

Acropolis Parthenon, Athens, Greece

One of the oldest buildings on this list, the Acropolis Parthenon in Athens has been undergoing major renovations since 1975. Today there is scaffolding around large sections of the ancient temple as preservationists work to save what remains of the building. The surrounding neighborhood has changed significantly as well—both major roads that lead up to the Parthenon are now pedestrian only, and the once-vibrant neighborhood on the ancient agora was knocked down in the 1950s to expand the archeological site.

Washington D.C., USA

Over the last 50 years, Washington D.C. has become whiter, wealthier, and younger—thanks to an influx of new residents. While the gentrification has happened in pockets, it's dramatically changed the look and feel of the nation's capital.

Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Salt Lake City has come a long way from its origins as a sleepy Mormon city and developed into a booming Western hub and winter-vacation destination. The development of the ZCMI Center, a downtown shopping mall, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and several city beautification projects have turned the city into a thriving metropolis with a bustling city center. New developments are set to begin shortly, adding a handful of skyscrapers to the city's skyline, and are sure to add to that “big city” feel.

Central Park, New York City, USA

The nation's first landscaped public park, Central Park in New York City owes much of its change and development to the Central Park Conservatory which started in 1980. Over half of the park's funding comes from this nonprofit group which has done everything from reseeding the laws to removing graffiti and restoring some iconic buildings like Belvedere Castle. Before the development of the group, the park was massively under-funded, which meant it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Today, it's become the urban oasis it was always meant to be.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Amboseli National Park, Kenya

One of the most visited safari parks in Kenya, Amboseli National Park wasn't designated as a national park until 1974. Before that year, tourists wouldn't have had to pay a fee to access Mt. Kilimanjaro. However, they also wouldn't have had such easy access to safari lodges and tours and would have had to make all of their arrangements independently.

Niagara Falls, Canada

The side of Niagara Falls that lies in Canada has long been a favorite vacation and honeymoon destination. In 1963, the city merged with the neighboring Stamford Township and saw tremendous growth. In 1998, plans were unveiled for a permanent casino, Fallsview Casino Resort, that turned the falls from an outdoor-vacation destination to a party-centric destination.

Montreal-Vancouver Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada

The Canadian Pacific Railway was built between 1881 and 1885, and was, for a century, a primary and practical means of long-distance passenger transport in most regions of Canada. The railway also played a significant role in developing the western half of the country. In 1986, after being acquired by Via Rail Canada, the railway eliminated all passenger services, forcing hundreds of Canadians to find new ways to reach their vacation destinations.

Chuo-dori Street, Tokyo, Japan

Located in the posh Ginza district, Chuo Dori Street is often called a “can't-miss” street for tourists in Tokyo. Since the end of World War II, the district and street have grown up as some of the most expensive in the city. Now a major shopping street, Chuo Dori is dotted with luxury retailers and high-end restaurants. On Saturdays and Sundays, the street is closed to motor traffic for a pedestrian-only period.

Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, USA

Waikiki Beach on Oahu is the island state's most-popular beach, drawing in over 4 million visitors each year. Over the last 50 years, the area has gone from being a local gem to a tourist's heaven—the stunning scenery now dotted with high-rise hotels, expensive shopping streets, and dozens of cheap gift shops. A more significant change could be in store for the island over the next 50 years as reports indicate that the beach may be underwater within the next 15 to 20 years because of climate change.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Over-tourism has become a major problem for Amsterdam over the last 50 years. As tourist numbers rise, private apartments are converted into holiday lets and hotel rooms, bicycle lanes are filled with those who haven't ridden since their elementary school years, and the eclectic, neighborhood charm of the city has become significantly more homogenous and ordinary. Within the last year, the local government has begun taking steps to ensure that tourism won't erode the heart of the city.


Half a century ago, Iceland was hardly a popular tourist destination. Until 1980 the number of international tourists never really exceeded 80,000 a year, but in 2018, 2.3 million tourists vacationed in the northern country. The boom in tourism is primarily because of the opening of the Blue Lagoon and its facilities in 1999, and subsequent revelations that the lagoon's waters could heal many an affliction.

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Two main things have affected the tourist's experience at the Taj Mahal in India: overcrowding and pollution. With over 8 million visitors each year, the monument is often overcrowded and stifling, a fact that led the government to set a cap for the number of domestic visitors each day. Additionally, pollution has grown so significantly in the city that the white marble is now stained a yellowish green.

Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, USA

In 1988, Yellowstone National Park endured a summer of fires that decimated 1.2 million acres and forever changed the makeup and landscape of the national park. At the time, the public worried that the park would never recover, fears that were laid to rest a year later when seedlings began to pop up around the damaged area. Today, visitors can tour just as much of the park as before the blazes.

Hong Kong

In 1997 the British Empire handed over control of Hong Kong to China after 150 years, with the agreement that the British-implemented government would remain in place for 50 more years. Today, Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse and home to some of the world's wealthiest people. In the 1960s rickshaws were still in use, ramshackle squatter homes were the most popular dwelling, and the island felt more like a colonial harbor than the thriving mecca it is today.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Today, the Sydney Opera House is the city's #1 tourist destination, with over 8.2 million visitors each year. But if you had been on a trip to the country's most populous city 50 years ago, you wouldn't have been able to make a stop here. The Sydney Opera House wasn't completed until 1973. In the years since it's hosted more than 2,000 shows, 363 days a year, for 1.5 million patrons, cementing Sydney as a top cultural destination.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

For centuries Nyhavn was a working port in Copenhagen, Denmark, and up until the mid-1960s was the city's red light district. It became a “museum harbor” in the 1970s, was pedestrianized in the 1980s, and is filled with bars, restaurants, and charming old houses today.

New York City, USA

It would be nearly impossible to list all the ways that New York City has changed over the last 50 years. But perhaps the most notable change is how much the city has gentrified. New York City has gone from a genuine melting pot of races, cultures, and financial backgrounds to a wealthy, primarily white town, albeit one with larger, taller buildings and shinier landmarks.

Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, USA

Much like New York City, Los Angeles's Sunset Boulevard has changed thanks to a massive influx of money and several new and planned developments. Once a nightclub hub and the heart of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard now hosts upscale shopping, hotels, and office buildings.

Disneyland, Anaheim, California, USA

Since 1969, over 50 rides and attractions have opened at Disneyland—nearly double the amount that existed up until that point. Disneyland's sister park, California Adventure, opened directly across the way in 2001, giving visitors more to see and do during their trips. Additionally, downtown Disney has grown and flourished in the intervening years, providing guests with dozens of shopping and dining options.

San Francisco, California, USA

San Francisco has transformed from a hippie, multicultural, everything-goes city into one of the most gentrified and expensive cities in the world. With the development of the tech industry and Silicon Valley, the old bohemian lifestyle has been pushed outside the city limits. While some major tourist attractions like Fisherman's Wharf and the Painted Ladies remain, the feel of the old city has long since disappeared.

San Francisco cable cars, San Francisco, California, USA

By 1969, San Francisco's cable cars had long ceased to be a mode of public transportation, and many of the original routes had been shut down or demolished. In 1964, the cable cars were deemed a “moving” National Historic Landmark. Over the next 20 years, the system was restored and the original cars refurbished, and in 1984 festivities were held to celebrate the official return of cable cars to the city.

Central Waterfront, Seattle, Washington, USA

Up until the 1970s, the Central Waterfront of Seattle was pier sheds and cargo docks. Towards the end of the decade, these sheds began transforming into restaurants and shops, and the city of Seattle invested a good chunk of funding into rehabilitating Pioneer Park and Pike's Place Market. With the construction of the aquarium, the Bell Street Pier complex (which services Alaska cruise ships), and dozens of apartment buildings, the waterfront has now become the city's primary tourist destination.

Venice, Italy

Venice has been making headlines for the last several years as over-tourism and massive flooding have made a major, and lasting, impact on the canal city. Nearly 30 million people visit the city each year—a number so high the city has begun imposing a city entry fee, employing pinch points to control traffic, and is even pushing for Venice to be added to UNESCO's Endangered Heritage Site list. The increased amount of tourism has also made it harder for natives to live, as the prices of everything from housing to groceries have surged.

The Louvre, Paris, France

In 1989, I. M. Pei unveiled his glass pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum, and the country rioted. Today, the pyramid is one of the most instantly recognizable aspects of the museum, but three decades ago, Mr. Pei was accused of trying to turn the famed museum into Disneyland. In 1993, the carousel (i.e., the shopping mall on the Louvre's basement level) was opened, boasting 33 stores and a food court and facing criticism for further commercializing the tourist destination.

Versailles Gardens, Versailles, France

Two storms, in 1990 and 1999, decimated several parts of the gardens at Versailles. While the losses were devastating initially, they ultimately allowed workers to replant sections of the garden, restoring them to the way they would have looked with King Louis XIV originally planted them. Several of the water features in the garden have also been restored over the last 50 years.

Lisbon, Portugal

Up until the 2010s, Lisbon was a seedy, decrepit town with a declining population. In 2011, a $92 billion bailout helped the city rebuild and restore, turning it into the tourist hub it is today. Gone are the prostitutes, drug dealers, and the debt crisis—in their place stands refurbished historic buildings, high-rise condominiums, and beautiful city parks.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Beginning in 2014 the Trevi Fountain in Rome went under a massive $2.4 million renovation. Traditionally, the coins thrown into the fountain are given to the Catholic church to provide charity to the poor, but there have been recent disputes about whether that tradition will continue. Rome's Mayor, Virginia Raggi, has contemplated using the money to fund cultural sites and welfare projects instead.

Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Outside of religious work, tourism is the primary industry in Vatican City. However, recent reports show that the independent state might soon be considering limiting the number of visitors each year. From 1980 to 1994, the Vatican Museums underwent a massive restoration project that was intended to help protect the precious artwork and artifacts inside. However, there remains the worry that the sheer number of travelers may damage things beyond repair if drastic steps aren't taken.


While many destinations on our list are suffering from over-tourism, Egypt is facing the opposite problem. Tourism numbers have been steadily dropping, thanks to terrorist concerns and general unrest. The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is slated to open in 2020, is one of the country's most notable attempts at trying to bring some life back into the industry.

Temple of Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Modern-day visitors to the Temple of Wat Arun might be surprised at what they find. After undergoing a major renovation that ended in 2017, there was a significant amount of backlash over the result as many claimed the temple had been "whitewashed." The restoration committee stood by their work, saying that they had simply removed years of moss returning the building to its original glory. Regardless, pictures of the temple today and those from 50 years ago will look significantly different.

Varanasi, India

Varanasi is the holiest city in India, one that is hyper-focused on the act, and art, of passing on. For centuries it remained the same, untouched by the modernism that swept over much of India. But recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun knocking down hundreds of properties over a 25,000-square-meter area to modernize the city and make it more tourist-friendly.

Crete, Greece

After Greece joined the European Union in 1981, life and tourism on Crete, the country's largest island, changed dramatically. Direct flights to the island doubled tourism numbers, as did packaged vacation deals. While debt and a financial crisis have majorly impacted Greece over the last few years, tourism shows no signs of slowing with an estimated 32 million tourists visiting in 2018.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has had a long and complicated history. Formerly a Christian cathedral, it became a mosque centuries later, and a museum in 1935. It seems, however, that the landmark is on the path of once again being a religious building. In 2018, a state-sanctioned prayer service was held within the Hagia Sophia's walls, and the public is placing increasing amounts of pressure on the government to once again restore it to a mosque.

Côte d'Azur, France

Côte d'Azur refers to the French Riviera or the Mediterranean coast of France, where glamorous destinations like Cannes, St. Tropez, and Monaco are. The region first became popular after the launch of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 and the release of the movie “And God Created Woman” in 1956. Once a luxurious and quiet destination, today the region is overcrowded, overdeveloped, and overpriced.

La Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, La Grand-Place (The Grand-Place) in Brussels has been voted one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Tourism numbers have increased since its designation, with events like the flower carpet, which first took place in 1971, helping to boost the location's popularity.

Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, tourists in West Germany could perch on overlooks, peeking into East Germany but not crossing over. Today, visitors can pass freely between the two sides of the country. The wall, a once imposing structure, is now almost totally gone, with the remaining sections, like the East Side Gallery, decorated with murals and tourist destinations in their own right.

Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

The Museo del Prado, an art museum in central Madrid, has been consistently expanding over the last 50 years. In 2007 a new wing, which was initially pitched in 1993, was finally completed, and in 2018, the Spanish government promised $35 million to the museum for a new expansion project.

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Before 1970, Copacabana Beach looked very different than it does today. The road that runs alongside it, Avenida Atlantica, touched the sea in places leaving little or no sandy beach. After a landfill was created that expanded the beach tourism began to spring up in the area. Today restaurants, hotels, and beach kiosks dot the region, including the legendary Belmond Copacabana Palace.

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, tourism in the Big Easy dropped off sharply. Vast sections of the city were decimated or underwater, and dozens of historical landmarks and buildings were ruined beyond repair. It wasn't until a decade later, in 2015, that tourism began to hit pre-hurricane levels again. And while visitor numbers are back to normal, the city still looks wildly different from 50 years ago.

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Fifty years ago, Las Vegas was beginning to edge out from under the thumb of the mob. Today, visitors would be hard pressed to find very much of that "old Vegas" left, as nearly everything from the city's earlier years has been razed and rebuilt. Las Vegas now welcomes millions of visitors each year, and the strip, in particular, has developed a reputation as the party capital of the world.

Arizona Route 66, USA

Originally, Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The stretch through Arizona was an extremely popular route to the Grand Canyon, a tourist destination that has remained almost exactly the same over the last 50 years. Today, the highway has been decommissioned in favor of freeways and faster routes of travel, although a few stretches still exist along the way.

Los Angeles, California, USA

Between 1970 and 2016, the population of Los Angeles grew by over 1.2 million people, from 2.8 million people in 1970 to over 4 million people in 2016. This huge amount of growth means that the city has sprawled out and shot up, expanding to well beyond its limits 50 years ago.

Lake Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Just before its bicentennial in 1976, Navy Pier, which juts out into Chicago's Lake Michigan, had ostensibly fallen into disuse. With the decline of commercial shipping and the relocation of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the pier was semi-abandoned. It was only after it was made a city landmark, funds were poured into restoring it. After it began hosting ChicagoFest it became the hot tourist destination we know it to be today.

Miami, Florida, USA

While tourism in Miami was thriving in the 1950s and early 1960s, it had nearly died out by the 1970s and 1980s. South Beach, in particular, became a retirees heaven. In the 1990s, tourism had spiked again, and today it remains one of the most popular beach vacation destinations in the continental U.S.

Orlando, Florida, USA

In 1965, Walt and Roy Disney announced their newest theme park: Walt Disney World in Orlando. Opened in 1971, the theme park (and it's later additions) changed Orlando forever. The central-Florida city went from being a quiet, suburban town to one of the most visited places in the United States.

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