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TripAdvisor's most unexpected popular destinations

Everyone has heard of Central Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Vegas Strip.

All three are among the most popular attractions in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas, according to TripAdvisor's Popularity Index.

But as travelers increasingly rely on each other for advice on where to go and what to do, some unusual attractions are popping up near the top of the list.

Central Park ranks as No. 1 on TripAdvisor's Popularity Index for New York City. Not far down the list, coming in at 17, is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which tells the story of immigrants arriving in Manhattan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Art Institute is Chicago's most popular attraction. But the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, a palatial home built during the Gilded Age, has broken into the top 10, ranking as No. 8 on the index.

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is rated the top place to visit in and around Las Vegas. But visitors like the Pinball Hall of Fame so much that it stands as the eighth most popular attraction there.

The popularity of these attractions is a testament to the power of review and crowdsourcing sites such as TripAdvisor and Gogobot.

TripAdvisor now receives 375 million monthly visitors and gets more than 160 contributions per minute.

"Fifteen years ago people were looking at guidebooks. You'd hear about the tried and true attractions to visit," says Brooke Ferencsik, director of communications at TripAdvisor. "Those are wonderful but now with the wisdom of the crowds and billions of reviews from all over the world, you get to surface these hidden gems."

USA TODAY visited three of these TripAdvisor gems to find out why they catapulted near the top of the rankings.

 

Tenement Museum, New York

No. 17 out of 1,673 attractions

TripAdvisor Comment: "So interesting. This is one of those places where history comes to life and for us; it was a look back in time to our grandparents' experience soon after coming to America from Italy, Ireland and Russia."

The five-story brick tenement building at 97 Orchard Street was home to about 7,000 people from more than 20 countries between 1863 and 1935.

"The Lower East Side was the gateway to America," Judy Levin, our guide on the "Hard Times" tour, says. "America is a nation of immigrants and a lot of them lived here."

In 1863, she tells us, the building had no lights, no toilets, no water.

We walk upstairs to a tiny three-room apartment where Natalie and Julius Gumpertz, East Prussian immigrants, lived with their four children. Julius disappeared in 1873, leaving Natalie to raise the children alone while working as a seamstress.

It was a common scenario, Levin says. More than one-third of the apartments had female heads of household by 1880.

The next apartment we tour was inhabited by the Italian Baldizzi family through the Great Depression.

We hear a recording of daughter Josephine describing what it was like to live there. "The sink is where we washed dishes, where we washed our bodies," she says.

The museum offers several different tours. Some include actors and role playing. Walking tours of the Lower East Side are also available.

"The stories that we share are stories that often tap into our visitor's own family history or personal lives," says museum spokesman Jon Pace. "As a result, taking one of our tours can often be an emotional and deeply moving experience for our visitors no matter what their background is."

The Victoria Confino tour tells the story of a 14 year-old Sephardic Jewish immigrant who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1916.

Guide Rebecca Manski takes us to a room where she describes the arduous journey many immigrants took to the USA.

"You leave behind all your elders alone and you're never going to see them again," she says .

She then leads us to a room where an actress plays Confino. We pretend to be recent immigrants and ask Confino about her adjustment process.

Gina Woods, who is visiting from West Palm Beach with her parents, found out about the Tenement Museum while doing research on New York City online.

"I didn't expect this," she says. "They weren't just telling you the story. They were showing you."

The museum is doing so well that a new exhibition telling the story of the contemporary Lower East Side will open at 103 Orchard Street in 2017.

 

Driehaus Museum, Chicago

No. 8 of 985 attractions

TripAdvisor Comment: "This mansion is a beautiful surprise, just a few blocks from shopping on Michigan Ave. It is lavishly built and reflected the tastes of the owners and their time in history. If you like Downton Abbey, you will like this house."

Steps away from the Magnificent Mile is an opulent home built in 1883 for Samuel Nickerson, a wealthy banker. At the time, it was the most expensive private home in Chicago, having cost $450,000 to build.

The house changed ownership over the years and even served as office space for the American College of Surgeons until 1965. The College leased it out to various tenants until 2003, when businessman and philanthropist Richard Driehaus bought it. After an extensive restoration, the museum opened to the public in 2008.

An audio guide includes comments from Driehaus, whose collection of fine and decorative arts adorn each room.

"The Driehaus Museum was conceived as a holistic experience where house and collection come together as a work of art in totality," Driehaus says in his commentary.

Andy Dorsey, a tour guide, walks us through the reception room, smoking room, front parlor, library and dining room on the first floor.

The décor is eclectic. The smoking room has a Middle East motif. The front parlor has Renaissance Revival furniture and lamps designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The library has an English Renaissance theme.

Other rooms incorporate all types of aesthetics, including Greek, Roman, Japanese and Middle Eastern designs. Rooms have marble, stained glass and elaborate woodwork.

The second floor housed the bedrooms. Each family member had his or her own room even if married.

"If you're very rich, you want to have as much space as possible," Dorsey explains. "It's a sign of status."

None of the original bedroom furniture remained in the house, so the second floor serves as space for rotating exhibits.

Next year, the museum will host an exhibition of Downton Abbey costumes.

"It's absolutely gorgeous," says Stacy Bugaren, who is visiting from Orange County, Calif. "Everyone is shopping on the Miracle Mile, and they don't know this is here."

 

Pinball Hall of Fame, Las Vegas

No. 8 of 693 attractions

TripAdvisor Comment:"The best thing in Vegas! Outstanding attraction for those of us who don't gamble much … Sure beats the casino arcades. I appreciated getting to play and learn about these classic machines. You can tell a lot of love has gone into restoring and maintaining them."

In a city known for lavish promotion, the Pinball Hall of Fame is the epitome of unassuming. While there's a bright yellow sign with massive wording out front, the attraction is in a discreet warehouse building among flat rows of strip malls about 2 1/2 miles from the Strip.

The dark room is an abrupt shift from the blazing sun outside, but the rhythm of rings and pings from the machines instantly delivers nostalgia.

Men and women of all ages are scattered throughout the rows of more than 200 games completely transfixed. Some peruse with bags of popcorn, some watch others play. Everyone is virtually in a daze, and no one is on a cell phone. There's an air of amusement throughout and no one seems to be in a rush.

The attraction ranks above Stratosphere Tower, the Neon Museum and Grand Canal Shoppes. The place is so fun that most employees are volunteers.

"I feel like everybody should experience this," says Josh Miller, 24, a Sydney resident who has been to the hall of fame at least three times. He found out about it on TripAdvisor.

Stephanie Skidmore, 41, of East Brunswick, N.J., learned of the hall of fame on Pinterest.

 

"It's fun," she says. "It brings you back to simple games instead of the high-tech stuff."