People & Places
10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Alternatives to Popular Travel Destinations
November 21, 2022
When you look at a list of the most popular travel destinations worldwide, regardless of the year or season, you find the usual suspects. Naturally, London and Paris vie for a spot in the top three – they’re picturesque European megacities with significant airport hubs. Cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur nearly always make an appearance – they’re warm destinations to visit in close proximity to several beach destinations (plus they’re fantastic cities in their own right). And cultural juggernauts like Prague, Shanghai, Rome and Mexico City draw visitors in droves to their monuments.
There's nothing wrong with these cities. They're fantastic places to visit, and every traveller should get around to at least a few of them in their lifetime.
But travelling to popular destinations like the ones above has its share of annoyances and challenges. There's nearly always someone with a selfie stick bumping into you as you walk down the street. Restaurant prices routinely levy a “tourist tax” on dishes, regardless of quality or authenticity. And you’re never quite sure if you’re seeing the real culture – or the culture they present to tourists.
If you’re tired of the beaten path but still looking for destinations that satisfy your criteria (beachside relaxation, high culture, old ruins, etc.), this article’s for you. Below, we’re listing our top picks for off-the-beaten-path alternatives to popular travel destinations. No one filming an epic vlog, no restaurant sandwich boards announcing "authentic Italian food – English spoken!"; just the everyday beauty of the routinely overlooked.
Where applicable, we’ll also offer packing tips that highlight Unbound Merino’s versatile travel clothing.
Instead of Prague, Consider Ljubljana
Prague has a lot going for it. Its sprawling Gothic and Baroque architecture hides little enclaves of raucous nightclubs and Bohemian (in both senses of the word) culture. Twenty years ago, you could probably say that Prague was off the beaten path, as it'd just gained its footing after the dissolution of the USSR. But the intervening decades have been kind to Prague, which now welcomes scores of tourists every year.
But consider moving south of Czechia just a hair to another former socialist country – Slovenia, which broke away from Yugoslavia at roughly the same time. Slovenia has much of what we love about Czechia: its old architecture, arts, culture, nightlife and scenery. But it receives far fewer tourists. If you find yourself in Slovenia (and we think you should), make your way to the capital, Ljubljana. The food’s fantastic, the sights are majestic and, pound for pound, the city probably has the nicest people in all of Europe.
Instead of Shanghai, Head Southwest to Kunming
Shanghai routinely makes top 10 lists of the most visited cities in part because of its sheer size. The metropolitan area boasts around 26.3 million residents. And while undoubtedly, Shanghai’s visitor numbers are padded by visiting businesspeople and foreign diplomats, the city’s still chock full of leisure tourists.
But there are literally hundreds of other cities in China that surpass the million-people mark – hundreds of underappreciated big cities with swagger and culture to rival Shanghai. Here, we’ve chosen Kunming, a city in the southwestern Yunnan province.
Kunming’s proximity to Southeast Asia means that its temperature is tropical, its food is fiery, and its ethnic makeup is anything but homogenous. It’s also a gorgeous city with ample green space, impressive pagodas and several nearby cultural sites.
The weather here is humid and wet in the summer, so we recommend packing light women's t-shirts or men’s tees made from merino wool, which can ably wick moisture and keep you cool.
Swap Paris for Quebec City
Paris is Paris. It’s the perennial “dream location” for many foreigners who romanticize the charming cafés, high-minded gastronomy and effortlessly cool Parisians. Its romantic status has even given rise to the term “Paris Syndrome,” coined by a Japanese psychiatrist to refer to “a sense of extreme disappointment” that Paris wasn’t what visitors expected.
If you're looking to avoid a potential case of Paris Syndrome but still want the chic Francophone experience, consider Canada's Quebec City. A small slice of Europe in North America, Quebec City’s evocative cobbled streets and warm cafés are a magnificent substitute for Paris.
Granted, it gets a lot colder in Quebec than in Paris, but that’s nothing a pair of comfortable leggings can’t address. If you’re heading to Quebec in winter, browse Unbound Merino’s line of warm men’s and women’s clothing. With the money you save missing a transcontinental flight, you can stock up on several high-quality merino garments!
Try Puebla Instead of Mexico City
This one's tricky because we love Mexico City. We love its brash attitude, its wildly delicious street food, its museums, parks, mezcalerias and more. But it is a beaten path. Several tourists, mainly American, flock to Mexico each year. And while they tend to concentrate on beach destinations like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, they get their “big city fix” in Mexico City.
But Mexico has cities beyond Mexico City (wrap your head around that sentence!). For our money, one of the best has to be Puebla, nestled between the Sierra Madre and Sierra Nevada Mountain Ranges. The city is famous among Mexicans for its rich arts culture, colonial architecture, boisterous festivals and unique cuisine (like mole poblano). Yet, for all its Mexican tourists, the city doesn’t get nearly enough love from foreign travellers.
If you want to visit Puebla, but don’t want to give up Mexico City, you’re in luck. Most international flights into Puebla are routed through Mexico City, meaning you can take a lengthy layover, having your tacos and eating them too.
For more off-the-beaten-path destinations in North America, check out the roundup we wrote at the link.
Credit: freepik Via Freepik
Between Cairo and Cape Town, You’ll Find Kigali
Travellers to Africa tend to focus their appreciation on historically rich northern countries like Egypt, or whiter countries like South Africa. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of great places to visit in either country. Cairo is a “bucket list” trip for history buffs and food lovers alike. And Cape Town’s museums, parks and nightlife spots are top-notch.
But Africa has so much to offer between its northern and southern tips. We could list several off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of a trip – Accra, Windhoek, Gaborone, Lamu, etc. Here, we're choosing Kigali, Rwanda's capital and largest city. Sometimes called "the Singapore of Africa" due to its small stature but fierce economic drive, Kigali is vibrant, gorgeous and incredibly lush, stocked with rolling hillsides and bustling streets. And if you’re visiting Africa for a glimpse of wildlife, Kigali is a short distance from several national parks and game reserves.
Instead of the Greek Islands, Try the Croatian Islands
The Greek Islands are like a window into the distant past: sun-bleached and slow-paced, with ancient ruins around every conceivable corner. They’re also teeming with tourists – influencers snapping shots next to white-painted villas, European party-goers searching for a Greek Ibiza, and yachters on a hobby trip around the Peloponnese. And unless you find the odd youth hostel or campground to lay your head, accommodation prices can be quite high (especially in summer).
Then, there are the Croatian islands. Still Mediterranean, (albeit part of the Adriatic arm), still chock full of character – with white and brown seaside villages, emerald blue waters and picturesque church spires – and still serving a similar rustic cuisine based mainly around seafood. But the Croatian Islands are a fraction of the cost. And although the islands have ascended in popularity over the last decade, they’re still relatively light on tourists.
Pick an island at random (Iz, Rab, Cres, etc.), pack your stylish travel polos, and enjoy the relaxed pace of life before everyone finds out about it.
Leave the Crowds at Koh Samui and Head to the Andaman Islands
At this point, you might start sensing a pattern. Essentially, we’re arguing that you can find gorgeous beaches all over the world. Wherever there’s coastline and temperate weather, you’re likely to find good swimming/lounging opportunities. Yet, most tourism boards and travel companies focus their attention on a few specific spots, neglecting lesser-known destinations that could benefit from tourist dollars.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Koh Samui. It’s a stunning destination with wild nightlife and fantastic food. It's just that the whole subcontinental area of south and southeast Asia is spoiled with great beaches, many of which go overlooked.
Take the Andaman Islands, for example – an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, not that far from Koh Samui. Most travel lovers haven’t heard of it, yet it’s a mesmerizing combination of sandy beaches, dense palm forests and coral reefs. If you're into scuba diving, it should be high on your bucket list. We recommend starting your trip in Port Blair (where you’ll fly in), then renting a moped to explore the main island.
Take the Pristine Waters of Dominica over Popular Caribbean Islands
Several Caribbean countries top the “million visitors per year” mark: The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, Cuba, etc. Some of them even top five million.
But then there's Dominica. Despite its central location in the Lesser Antilles, mind-blowing Champagne Reef (an unreal spot for snorkelling), unspoilt beaches, and charming colonial architecture, Dominica receives a scant 63,000 tourists a year. Looking at it, it's hard to say why. Maybe their tourism board didn't push hard enough or spend enough money on overseas advertising. Or maybe it's because Dominica doesn't have quite as many white sand beaches as its neighbours.
If you’re looking at a Caribbean trip this winter, consider Dominica. Before you go, check out our blog post on packing for beach vacations, which contains helpful tips and hacks.
Credit: TravelScape Via Freepik
Leaving the Winding Roads of Amalfi for Castelmezzano
The Amalfi Coast welcomes roughly five million visitors each year – impressive for a spot with a single road leading in and out. Tourists from around the world flock there to behold old villages chiselled into dramatic coastal hillsides, paying top dollar for accommodation and dining in the process.
Italy is no slouch in the “picturesque towns” department. And for our money, we see no reason to visit the overburdened Amalfi Coast when so many other destinations are just as worthy. Here, we’re spotlighting Castelmezzano in the Basilicata region. Despite being a member of “The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy” association (it’s a real thing), and despite Frommer’s calling it one of the “best places you’ve never heard of,” Castelmezzano sees relatively few tourists. At least compared to places like Amalfi.
Castelmezzano might not boast waterfront views (it’s inland), but it makes up for it with awe-inspiring views of the Lucanian Dolomites. Because it’s nestled within a mountain range, the town gets cold during the fall and winter as snow caps blanket the surrounding peaks. If you’re visiting in winter, when accommodation is affordable (about $100 a night), and the mountains are in fine form, pack a merino sweater, light jacket and premium merino wool pants.
Get Your English City Fix in Newcastle Upon Tyne
London has held a spot in the top three cities for international visitor volume since these things started being counted. It’s been popular for a long time. And nowadays, London welcomes roughly 19 million visitors each year. A fraction of those visitors venture beyond the London city limits.
It’s too bad. While London is undoubtedly special – and by far the biggest city in the UK – there are several small cities that deliver urban energy without the tourist throngs.
Our recommendation is Newcastle Upon Tyne (just “Newcastle” will do), which only attracts around 100,000 tourists a year. It’s a beautiful northern city energized by a couple of popular universities. It has all the trademark cobblestone streets and impressive cathedrals that you expect from Britain. Accommodation is far more reasonable than in London (around $100 in the off-season). And a pint at one of Newcastle’s cozy pubs will only set you back around 3.5 pounds (as opposed to five or six in London).
Next time you’re dreaming up a trip, dream outside the box. Consider the hidden gems, uncovered wonders and overlooked treasures the world has to offer. If you have any leads on off-the-beaten-path places we didn't cover here, drop them in the comments section below.