20 Secret Alternatives to Famous Tourist Spots

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Thanks to Lonely Planet, Instagram, and thousands of travel websites, “off the beaten path” is increasingly as elusive as Shangri-la. The path, mostly, has been beaten. Famous destinations and attractions — Mona Lisa, we see you — are increasingly overwhelmed with crowds all eager to see the place, snap that perfect picture. While the pandemic has pumped the brakes on overtourism for now, it remains to be seen exactly how long before the crowds return. Does this mean you should never idle under the Eiffel Tower or ramble around Italy? Of course not! Paris is at the top of many travelers’ lists, and all roads lead to Rome, for a reason. But when it’s finally your turn to pick up your passport again, there are places to go, and things to see, that are every bit as delightful as their more well-known neighbors. These 20 destinations are a great place to start.

Herculaneum, Italy

Panoramic view of Herculaneum ancient roman ruins in Italy
Credit: Sebastian Condrea/ Getty Images

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, Pompeii wasn’t the only city that was buried beneath the fiery ash. Pompeii is certainly the largest and most excavated of the Vesuvian sites. Just ten miles away, though, is the hamlet of Herculaneum. Whereas Pompeii was covered in softer, shallower ash, this village took the full brunt of heavy debris. That rock preserved wooden elements — stairways, balconies, even a baby’s cradle — allowing visitors a glimpse of household life on the “Roman Riviera.” There are marvelous mosaics, meticulously reconstructed walls — and best of all, room to contemplate them all to yourself. For an even less-visited view, don’t miss the extravagant villa of Opolontis, with stunning 3D trompe l’oeil paintings and its own Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Choquequirao, Peru

Looking down on ancient mountaintop ruins of Choquequirao
Credit: rchphoto/ iStock

Machu who? When it comes to ancient Incan cities, Choquequirao is Chicago, and Machu Picchu is a suburb barely one-third its size. Similar in construction to its more famous sister, Choquequirao also sits in a stunning Andean valley. So why is Machu Picchu a mecca for tourists departing from Cusco, and this gem unknown? One word: access. While literally anyone can get to Machu Picchu via train or van — it’s even wheelchair-accessible — the trek to Choquequirao currently requires a grueling multi-day hike. (Plans for a road and cable car are in the works.) When you arrive, however, you’ll find yourself in a wonderland of meticulously constructed terraces, with rock llamas embedded in the thick stone walls. What you won’t find? Almost anyone else. Slip off your boots and soak it all in — you’ve earned it.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Overview of cityscape of Ljubljana with river, red-roofed buildings, and church spire
Credit: Matej Kastelic/ Shutterstock

Although there are tulips, bikes, and even canals in this European capital, blink again — you are not in Amsterdam. Slovenia’s Ljubljana has all the charm — gargoyle-guarded stone bridges, marvelous markets, a lively cafe scene — but with blissfully uncrowded cobblestone streets. And you’ll probably breathe a little easier here: Ljubljana was named the European Green Capital in 2016. The city lives up to that title with an impressive array of public parks and even restricts car traffic in its historic center, making it a joy to explore on foot or bike.

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

Homes on sand dunes in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
Credit: Paz Arando/ Unsplash

There’s chill, and then there’s Cabo Polonio. While Uruguay itself is often overlooked in favor of neighboring Argentina and Brazil, it boasts many interesting attractions deserving of the spotlight. Cabo Polonio is a tiny off-the-grid enclave on the Atlantic coast, where the sea lions outnumber the residents and the tourists — who get there via horseback, their own two feet, or one of the approved 4x4 vehicles allowed in. There are no roads or running water, and the lighthouse uses the only electricity not generated by the sun. What hardy hippies and other explorers will find are deserted dunes, surf-worthy waves, and a relaxed, nap-in-the-hammock vibe that more than makes up for the rather rustic (and limited) accommodations and amenities.

Ladakh, India

Wild yaks in Ladakh, India
Credit: Nabarun Bhattacharya/ Getty Images

This former kingdom in the highly contested Kashmir region of the Himalayas is breathtaking even for tourists who’ve been to Bhutan and taken in Tibet. “The Land of the High Passes” is a relatively untouched site, crossed by four mountain ranges and rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage. Behind the whitewashed walls of gompas (monasteries) are treasure troves of mystical art celebrating the region’s Buddhist history. Idyllic peaks glow beneath star-strewn night skies. Born on clear breezes, prayer flags flutter their messages to the heavens. You’ll encounter more monks than tourists in this hidden kingdom, and come away wanting to keep Ladakh’s secrets to yourself.

Sète, France

360-degree view of the city of Sete, France at sunrise
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Seeking canals, stone towers, and fabulous food and wine? Avoid Venice, pass on Pisa, and come to the south of France. Here you’ll find the seaside city of Sète, the “little Venice of the Languedoc.” Just 20 miles from Montpellier, this beautiful port has a sparkling food scene, an abundance of lovely local wine, and one of the world’s largest water-jousting tournaments. Climb to the top of the lighthouse tower for 360-degree views — no leaning required.

Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique

Aerial view of pastel-colored sandbanks in Bazaruto Archipelago
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Enchanting, exotic — and empty. Sand dune-strewn and surrounded by coral reefs, this sublime string of six islands off the coast of Mozambique is known — when it’s known at all — as one of the world’s best spots for paragliding. It’s also a paradise for birdwatchers (there are 140 species), snorkelers and divers (who might encounter a dugong), and anyone seeking shells, solitude, and serenity.

Dahshour and Saqqara, Egypt

View of Bent Pyramid amid empty desert landscape
Credit: Gurgen Bakhshetyan/ Shutterstock

Don’t get us wrong: Giza is great. The Great Pyramid of Giza! The Sphinx! Modern-day Cairo rubs shoulders right next to ancient Egypt, and while that’s just fine, travelers seeking all the splendor with far fewer people can find more untrammeled treasures of the Old Kingdom within an hour or two of the capital. There are more than 80 pyramids in Egypt. Along with Giza, the sites at Dahshour and Saqqara make up the Memphis Necropolis. The 4,600-year-old Bent Pyramid in Dahshour recently opened to the public for the first time in more than 50 years, allowing the non-claustrophobic to follow a narrow tunnel all the way into the burial chamber. It’s only 45 minutes away from the plateau at Giza, but a world’s away in terms of tourist throngs. Thirty minutes away from Giza is King Djoser's Step Pyramid, the oldest stone structure on the planet. Both sites are glorious — with nary a Pizza Hut in sight.

Great Keppel Island, Australia

Beach on Keppel Island, Queensland, Australia
Credit: Jason Benz Bennee/ Shutterstock

If you prefer possums to people, Great Keppel is the island for you. Once a happening party spot on par with Ibiza, the island saw tourism plunge when its main resort shuttered. Although it’s still accessible by ferry — and only 30 minutes from the mainland — Great Keppel Island is now a refuge for camping, swimming, and sunbathing on some of Queensland’s best unspoiled beaches. Here, it’s always a g’day!

Faroe Islands, Denmark

Waterfall flows over lush, green cliff into the ocean on Faroe Islands
Credit: Nick Fox/ Shutterstock

These eight islands in the storm-tossed North Atlantic may be Europe’s best-kept secret — for now. Roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands were once home to marauding Vikings. The descendants of those wild people are now the polite and friendly Faroese, but the wildness remains in the rugged beauty of the landscape. Adventures (fishing, horseback riding, hiking) are abundant, but accommodations are limited — the Faroese keep a tight cap on the number of tourists. Book early and enjoy.

Girona, Spain

Colorful buildings line river in Girona
Credit: lena_serditova/ iStock

Barcelona is grand, full of Gaudí wonders ... and usually jammed with tourists. But just north of Barcelona, stretching up to the French border, is the Costa Brava, a wild and beautiful region with the city of Girona as the jewel in its crown. Dazzling Moorish architecture (don’t miss the Arabic baths), colorful houses lining the River Onyar, and one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in the world make this Catalan city a delightful (and much less crowded) taste of Spain.

Baffin Island, Canada

Baffin Island from 40,000 feet
Credit: PietroPazzi/ iStock

Iceland is incredible, no doubt, but struggling with the effects of a rapid influx of tourism as of late. But Baffin, the fifth-largest island in the world, offers many of the otherworldly landscapes, without the crowds. Here, high in the North Atlantic, visitors can witness the Northern Lights, explore the Arctic circle, and encounter wildlife —  narwhals, polar bears, tundra wolves, and more than 100 species of birds. The entrance of the Northwest Passage, Baffin Island is a rugged land of fjords and glaciers, and home to the descendants of Inuit tribes that have lived in this majestic region for more than 3,000 years.

Palau, Micronesia

Aerial view of lush island in Palau surrounded by turquoise sea
Credit: BlueOrange Studio/ Shutterstock

It’s not easy to get to this Polynesian paradise, but the multiple flights you’ll have to take to do also ensures that — even in high season — this alluring archipelago in the South Pacific remains comfortably less crowded than Tahiti or Bora Bora. Palau is beloved by scuba divers (and for good reason), but there’s even more enchantment above the waves, including flocks of wild cockatoos, lush waterfall-dotted rainforests, and some of the most hospitable people on the planet. Perhaps most magical of all is Jellyfish Lake, where lucky visitors can snorkel with millions (yes, millions) of these stingless aquatic miracles.

Bulgaria

Elevated city view from Nebet Tepe hill in Bulgaria
Credit: Walter Bibikow/ Getty Images

Yes, all of it. This affordable Balkan nation boasts golden beaches fringing the Black Sea, the lively capital of Sofia, remote mountains, and a cultural melting pot that blends Ottoman, Greek, Slavic and Persian flavors. As an added bonus, Bulgaria produces a variety of excellent and inexpensive wines — perfect after a day of exploring or during a night of dancing at sophisticated nightclubs. Souvenir-hunters will find a bounty of exquisite handicrafts, from delicate lace to intricate inlaid jewelry.

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

Baby gorilla hanging from branch inside Virunga National Park
Credit: leonardospencer/ iStock

While Brazzaville, “the Paris of Africa” is vibrant, it may be unsuited for the unseasoned. But tourist areas have historically seen little of the country’s political instability, and intrepid travelers who venture to Virunga (and beyond) will find the oldest and most diverse national park in Africa. Better yet, they won’t be sharing it with every other safari-seeker on the continent. The Congo Basin is home to one-quarter of the world’s rainforest, second only to the Amazon. Hike to the top of Nyiragongo Volcano to see the world’s largest lava lake, commune with mountain gorillas, admire the elephants, and hide your lunch from the chimpanzees. Because they do want your lunch.

Tottori Sand Dunes, Japan

Ripples across sand dunes next to ocean in Tottori
Credit: pheeby/ Shutterstock

When you think “Japan,” the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t camels, deserts, or sand dunes towering 160 feet above the sea. But that’s Tottori, a remote and surreal outpost stretching along the Sea of Japan in San’in Kaigan National Park, a UNESCO Global Geopark. With a total of only two million visitors annually, the park provides an unusual alternative to crowding in Kyoto or the 15.2 million foreign tourists trekking around Tokyo each year.

Aeolian Islands, Italy

Volcanic island of Stromboli from a distance
Credit: APeriamPhotography/ iStock

Seven jewels shine in the Tyrrhenian Sea, an hour’s ride off the coast of Sicily. If you read Homer’s The Odyssey, you’ll recognize them as “the islands of the wind.” Windswept as the nickname suggests, and enchanting, each island offers herb-scented breezes, cobalt blue waters, and sugar cube-shaped houses similar to those found in the Greek Isles. Unlike Mykonos and Santorini, the Aeolians are primarily a playground for Italians — and are blessedly free of giant mega-ships. Don’t miss Stromboli, which rises from the Tyrrhenian Sea like a child’s drawing of a volcano. The volcano erupts almost daily, tossing plumes of fiery red into the night sky. Island cuisine is a delicious melange of Southern Italian and Greek influences, with impossibly fresh seafood and mineral-kissed local wines. Soak in the sulphur-laden thermal mud baths on Vulcano, and make time for a cocktail at the beachfront cave bar on Lipari.

San Felipe, Mexico

Fortress next to palm trees and ocean in San Felipe
Credit: Guajillo studio/ Shutterstock

Remember when Puerto Vallarta was a rustic little fishing village? Neither do we. But in Baja’s San Felipe, a bit of that coastal Mexico magic remains. Just four hours south of San Diego, San Felipe has long been a beloved destination for snowbirds in the know, arriving in RVs or reopening rustic cottages. There’s a golf course now, and an international airport. But if you avoid holidays or spring break, you’ll find expansive beaches on the Sea of Cortez, watersports galore, and the world’s largest cacti in the “Valley of the Giants.” Stroll along the waterfront on the romantic Malecon, soak in hot springs at nearby Puertecitos, or catch a boat out to Konsag Island for fishing, snorkeling, and admiring the many sea lions, seals, and seabirds that call the rock home.

Fife Pilgrim Way, Scotland

Overview of colorful buildings in seaside village of Culross
Credit: Szymon Mucha/ Shutterstock

The popularity of pilgrimages to Spain’s Camino de Santiago has left the historic route overwhelmed, with accommodations in short supply. Trekkers in search of more peace (and fewer partiers) should look north to bonny Scotland, home to multiple pilgrim trails that will soon be part of the “Caledonian Camino,” a coast-to-coast trail. Visitors to the Fife Pilgrim Way can start trekking at Culross (don’t miss the ancient abbey and palace) or North Queensferry (with three elegant bridges and a lighthouse). Either route will get you to the 12th-century cathedral at St. Andrews after a multi-day walk of about 55 miles. This easy pilgrimage takes you through picturesque villages and peaceful vales — and you’ll be glad to see the few faces of fellow travelers along the way.

Sao Tome and Principe

Mountain peak of Cao Grande through mist
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Just off the coast of West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, two petite islands offer a lush and low-key adventure, far from the crowds. Formerly colonized by the Portuguese, Sao Tome and Principe are lively yet serene, with beautiful landscapes and proud residents delighted to show their home to visitors. An eco-traveler’s haven, you can explore misty waterfall-filled rainforests, laze on deserted beaches, or snorkel and dive in clear, balmy seas. And the chocolate? These were also known as the “Cocoa Islands,” and the single-bean product is said to be the best in the world.

Koh Lanta, Thailand

Fishing boats on beach in Koh Lanta
Credit: Aleksandr Ozerov/ Shutterstock

This small island off the Andaman coast offers the usual Thai vacation pleasures — massages on the beach, banana pancakes, temples, elephants — but its remote Southern location ensures long stretches of solitary sands and a relaxed vibe. That holds true whether you’re in a bungalow for $10 per night or a 5-star resort, and you’ll feel a million miles away from the nonstop revelry at places like Koh Phangan or Phi Phi. It’s a Malay melange of Buddhist monasteries and Muslim mosques, spiced with the unique culture of the local “people of the sea” who still live a nomadic life that finds them more at home on the water than on the lush land. Divers will not want to miss a trip to the nearby Mu Koh Lanta Marine National Park, especially the world-renowned dive sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.

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