There is certainly no shortage of “Hot Travel Destinations” or “Best Places to Visit in 2020” lists circulating these days. But, we find that most of these lists include many of the usual or well-known travel destinations. As we field questions about our own favorite destinations, most memorable experiences and where we recommend people to travel, we thought we’d add a twist to the traditional travel destination lists and share some offbeat, unusual, lesser-known or unconventional destinations that might not be on your travel radar — but maybe should be.
In travel marketing speak, one might call these emerging, recovery or even under-discovered destinations. But in our experience, they are simply fascinating places that travelers are either unaware of completely or sometimes actively avoid from a travel perspective because of certain stereotypes or fears.
They are the sort of destinations that push you emotionally, sometimes physically, and always challenge you mentally — all with the result of returning you from your trip with a different view of the world, and quite often with a different view of yourself.
Here’s the caveat. These places are not for everyone; they are not a universal fit for travel goals and style. They are the sorts of destinations in which things may not always go as planned; hotels and transport can even be a bit rough. Much time is spent outside the proverbial comfort zone in attempts to immerse yourself in a new culture, comprehend challenging socio-economic circumstances and process the stimuli swirling about you. Some days can even feel difficult.
But there is a payoff. If you were to sit down with us over a beer and ask: “I want to go somewhere different from what I’m accustomed to. I’d like a place that will make me think, feel and question some of my assumptions about the world and myself. Someplace not very well touristed, with a bit adventure and the unknown. Where would you suggest I go?“
Here’s where we might suggest you go.
Note: This article was originally published on January 7, 2015, but was updated in January 2020 with even more offbeat destinations, travel recommendations and sustainable tourism advice.
Kyrgyzstan is filled with stunning mountain views like this one of Peak Lenin.
First snow of the season at a shepherd’s village near Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan.
Why: To experience a country that is over 90% mountainous and littered with stunning landscapes. Add to that a taste of traditional nomadic culture with a bit of a Soviet hangover, and you have the makings of a unique yet approachable destination. This makes Kyrgyzstan a great fit for trekkers and outdoor types, as well as those interested in culture and off-beat experiences.
Additionally, there is a terrific community-based tourism (CBT) network throughout the country and Destination Management Organizations (DMO) in Karakol, South Shore of Issyk-Kul, Osh, and Jyrgalan that offer local experiences, guides and homestays that make it easy to connect and interact with locals. They can also organize and provide support for trekking and horseback riding in the mountains, including gear rental, yurt stays, and local mountain guides.
Even after visiting Kyrgyzstan seven times over a decade, both as regular travelers and as consultants on a regional tourism development project, it remains one of our favorite countries that we look forward to exploring even further.
More Kyrgyzstan travel recommendations and reading:
Eye-bending Persian design at Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Esfahan.
Adopted in a village in northwestern Iran.
Why: To travel to a country where the on-the-ground travel experience couldn’t be more different than impressions left by the news. Iran also features some of the most impressive historical sites we’ve ever seen (including 19 UNESCO sites). Visiting 2500-year-old Persepolis, once the capital of ancient Persia, is a lesson not only in the strength of the Persian Empire, but a perspective regarding how civilizations and power come and go. Eyeball-bending Persian design and architecture that holds the gaze can’t be missed either.
In addition to Iran’s Big Three (Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd), expand your sense of the country with a visit to the northwestern part of Iran for even more surprises like fairy chimney villages, Armenian monasteries and the world’s largest covered market in Tabriz. Then, close out your adventure by taking the train from Iran to Istanbul.
And again, it comes down to people. That’s what may surprise you most about Iran.
Note: Obtaining a tourist visa for citizens from the United States, Canada and United Kingdom can be tricky, but it’s not impossible if you know what you need and how to do it. Be sure to check out this article on how to get an Iranian visa (including the vast comment thread) for all you need to know.
RECOMMENDED TOUR TO IRAN: Discover Persia Tour
More Iran travel recommendations and reading:
- Read what it’s like flying into Tehran and entering Iran as an American citizen in: A Flight to Tehran: The Full Story
- Lesser known western Iran is filled with cities like Hamadan, Kermanshan, and Ahvaz and nearby ancient sites like Bishapur rock, Tchogha Zabnil Ziggurat (UNESCO), Taq-e Bostan Reliefs. Learn more about this area in our Western Iran Snapshots
- Taking the 60+ hour train from Tabriz, Iran to Istanbul, Turkey was more than just mere transportation from one country to the next. It was one of the highlights of our trip. Here’s why: Midnight Express: Iran to Turkey by Train
- We certainly ate and drank (non-alcoholic, of course) well during out travels in Iran. Here all you need to know about Iranian food.
- Become visually inspired: Iran Photo Essays
Republic of Georgia
A ride into the high Caucasus mountains (Svaneti) turns into an adventure.
Tbilisi reveals itself in layers, both architecturally and culturally. One of our favorite cities.
Why: Despite all the history and remarkable mountain landscapes, the Republic of Georgia, at its very best, comes back to the Georgian people. Cross hospitality-obsessed with crazy gregarious and you’ve got a sense of the Georgian people. Add to this beautiful mountain ranges, a culturally and architecturally eclectic capital city, some of the most spiritual churches we’ve experienced, and incredible food.
Then you’ll understand why Georgia is one of our favorite places in the world. We joke that in Georgia, one doesn’t need to make plans as the people you meet seem to create the adventures for you.
More Georgia travel recommendations and reading:
Hot springs en route to the Salar de Uyuni.
A young Bolivian mother at a gathering in Tupiza.
Why: Stunning and often surreal landscapes blended with a strong indigenous culture. For various reasons, travelers often skip Bolivia in favor of its neighbors — Peru, Argentina, Chile — when making their way through South America. For Americans, some say it’s because of the visa fees and paperwork, but Bolivia is more than worth the extra spend and brief bit of bureaucracy. The Salar de Uyuni and in particular the journey from Tupiza features some of the world’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes with green lakes, Dali-esque rock formations and the mind-bending salt flats. And although you’ll see tourists around the Salar, you see much less throughout the rest of the country.
We recommend stopping by Lake Titicaca and taking a hike around Isla del Sol, Tarija in the south for a taste of the Bolivian wine scene, Potosi to understand the realities of mining on people and communities, Sucre for a beautiful colonial city and La Paz for the capital with the most dramatic mountain backdrop. Personally, I’d love to return to Bolivia to take on some of these treks.
More Bolivia travel recommendations and reading:
Hiking down from cave churches tucked in Gheralta Mountains of northern Ethiopia. An incredible experience.
Church of St. George in Lalibela. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.
Ethiopia surprised us in so many ways, especially with its depth of history and culture dating back over 2,000 years to the Aksumite civilization and the adoption of Christianity in 330 A.D. (the 2nd Christian nation in the world). One could feel a direct connection between Ethiopia’s past and present through its adherence to ritual. We also weren’t expecting to be awed by its mountains and trekking options available in the Simien and Gheralta Mountains.
RECOMMENDED TOUR TO ETHIOPIA: Discover Ethiopia Tour
More Ethiopia travel recommendations and reading:
Market day in Bandarban, Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracts).
Asking kids to imitate a tiger (name of the Bangladeshi cricket team) on the streets of Old Dhaka.
Why: To truly get off the tourist path and immerse yourself in a sea of humanity. We’re certain there are more tourists now, but during our five-week visit there a couple of years ago, we saw a total of five tourists. Yes, five.
Bangladesh is funky. It’s intense. It’s Bangladesh. And the country actually offers more diversity in sights and experiences that you might first expect, from UNESCO pre-Moghul mosques and cycling through tea estates to tracking tigers in mangrove forests and visiting ethnic minority areas.
But it’s the human interactions — and boy, are there a lot of them — that make visiting Bangladesh such a unique and fun experience.
More Bangladesh travel recommendations and reading:
Pamir Highway and Mountains (Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan)
On their way home to Langhar in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley. On the other side of the river is Afghanistan and in the distance, Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.
Ruins of the 12th-century Silk Road Yamchun Fort against the backdrop of the Pamir Mountains.
Why: To enjoy a road trip adventure in a mountainous region that not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but also shines for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there. The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking, begins in southern Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan, passing by and through some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen on our around the world journey thus far. If you have time, stop off in the Alay Region and Alay Mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan for a few days of spectacular trekking on your way to the Tajik border.
Once you get into Tajikistan tourism infrastructure in this area ranges from little to none so you’ll likely stay and eat with Pamiri families most of the time, one of the great joys of this journey.
Note: You can see even more about this region in our Pamir Highway slideshow for BBC Travel.
More Pamir Highway travel recommendations and reading:
Mountains and coastline of southern Haiti.
Shy sisters who live near the sugar cane plantations of northern Haiti.
Why: Because Haiti is surprising, complicated and fascinating. Sure, the country has some beautiful white-sand beaches, but it’s the artists, musicians, waterfalls, hilltop fortresses, cave networks and the mysteries of Vodou that will likely leave the most lasting impressions on you.
Although Haiti is only 1.5 hours away from Miami by air and shares the same island landmass as popular vacation destination Dominican Republic, it only sees a relative handful of travelers each year. At least for now.
RECOMMENDED TOUR TO HAITI: Highlights of Haiti
More Haiti travel recommendations and reading:
Taking in the dramatic peaks of the Karanfil Mountains, Albania.
A bit of relaxation along Vlora Beach.
Why: Whether you are a beach buff or want to immerse yourself in dramatic mountains, Albania has some incredible landscapes and experiences for both types of travelers. Or, you can combine both into one trip as we did.
For decades this southern European country was closed off to the rest of the world, but no longer. If you enjoy trekking and the outdoors, Albania offers some challenging climbs and stunning views through the Accursed Mountains (also known as the Albanian Alps) through the villages of Theth and Valbona. Mt Talijanka and the granite peaks of the Karanfil Mountains on the border with Montenegro offer even more incredible panoramas. Our modified Peaks of the Balkan Trek took us through these mountains while staying with local families and shepherds along the way.
When you’ve had your fill of the mountains then head south on Albania’s Adriatic Coast for blue waters and relatively empty beaches at Sarandë, Vlora or nearby. The impressive UNESCO site of Butrint with Greek and Roman ruins reminds us of the layers of civilizations in this region over millennia.
More Albania travel recommendations and reading::
Walking amongst the giant wax palms and fog of the Cocora Valley.
Wandering the streets of old town Cartagena.
Why: To enjoy three branches of the Andean Mountain Range and the Sierra Nevadas, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, with rain forests, indigenous ruins, coffee plantations and colonial cities along the way.
Not too long ago Colombia was known for drugs, FARC rebels, Pablo Escobar, and violence. But, the country has been experiencing stability these last years and more areas have opened up to travelers to explore. The size and diversity of experiences in Colombia are far beyond what you may have ever imagined (or, at least what we had known about).
And then there are the Colombian people – friendly, fun and open – are also remarkably diverse from one corner of the country to the other. We visited for a month and left with an even longer wish list of places we’d like to visit.
More Colombia travel recommendations and reading:
Getting up close with a ring-tail lemur in Madagascar.
Why: To get up close to playful lemurs and colorful chameleons while trying to get your head around the incredible diversity and uniqueness of Madagascar’s nature, history and peoples. Often travelers think of traveling in Africa as going on safari to see the “Big 5” animals in the southern and eastern part of the content.
And although Madagascar doesn’t have any of these “Big 5” safari animals, it does have something even more unique and fascinating: an estimated 80-90% of Madagascar’s wildlife and fauna considered endemic to the island, meaning that it can be found nowhere else in the world.
Yes, the 110 species of lemurs are only the beginning. And, by deliberately choosing tours and activities engaged in conservation travelers can help support protecting Madagascar’s endangered lemurs and other wildlife.
Lush, terraced rice fields en route to our village homestay.
In addition, Madagascar’s layers of history and blend of cultures are also surprisingly diverse. The first inhabitants arrived about 2,000 years ago from Austronesia (near Malaysia-Indonesia). This influenced not only the Malagasy language spoken today, but also the development of terraced rice fields across the country that are still used in present day. Layers of migration from Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and Europe since then have all blended into what you see in Madagascar’s people, cultures and cuisines today.
Then, you also have beautiful beaches to relax and process all that you’ve experienced.
RECOMMENDED TOUR TO MADAGASCAR: Highlights of Madagascar
More Madagascar travel recommendations and reading:
Impressive 11th century St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.
Why: Although Ukraine sometimes makes the news headlines (as it was during our visit), don’t let that detour you from this surprisingly rich and diverse country. Kyiv, the country’s capital, had its heyday in the 10th-12th century as the center of the Kievan Rus empire and the city still has several impressive 11th – 12th century cathedrals like Saint Sophia and Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves) that remain (through several renovations) to this day. But the city also has an impressive street art and design scene with a young feel to its streets. Add to this the country’s Soviet past and brutalist architecture. It’s this contrast that makes the city so interesting.
Odessa’s Opera House is even more impressive on the inside than on the outside. Shows are still very reasonably priced, too.
Then there is Odessa on the Black Sea, once a vibrant cultural and literary hub in the 19th century, and streets lined with a mix of Art Nouveau and Renaissance styles with both an old Russia and Mediterranean feel. Still considered a hub for Russian culture it’s likely you’ll hear more Russian here than Ukrainian. But not so when in Lviv near the western border with Poland, known for its Ukrainian nationalism and culture. Dating back to the 13th century its colorful old town squares and cobblestoned streets have more a Polish and Austro-Hungarian feel.
Of course, these three cities are just the tip of the Ukrainian iceberg. But, they will give you a taste of the diversity and rich history throughout the country.
View down Pelourinho square towards Carmo church.
Why: To immerse yourself in Afro-Brazilian culture, music, cuisine and diversity. Although Brazil is not an off-the-beaten path destination, the Bahia region is much less known than the country’s popular southern coastal areas between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. From the moment we arrived in Salvador de Bahia, the region’s colorful and vibrant capital city, we knew this place was special. You could just feel it.
Musicians take over the streets of Salvador de Bahia before Carnival.
Wander the bright streets of Salvador’s old town (Pelourinho), one of the oldest colonial cities in South America going back to the 16th century, and seek out city’s vibrant Afro-Brazilian music and cuisine. During our visit just before Carnival the city was literally filled with music as “blocks” (groups of musicians and performers) practiced throughout the city.
Chilling at at Stella Maris beach near big city Salvador.
Then, when you’ve had a bit of sensory overload head out to one of Bahia’s famous white-sand beaches for a bit of quiet.
Responsible Travel and Sustainable Tourism Tips
We always advocate for and encourage travelers to try and travel in a way that benefits the local communities — through their decisions on where to go, which activities or tours to choose, and how to spend their tourism money. This is even more important to many of the countries listed above as they are still developing their tourism infrastructure. A sustainable tourism development approach can yield positive social and economic impacts to communities around the country, as well as support environmental and conservation efforts.
And here are a few ways you can help and support this through your travels:
- When you break down the jargon around sustainable tourism it really is all about respect — for the local environment, culture/people and economy. Here are 20 tips on how to travel more sustainably, responsibly and with respect.
- Although many of the destinations above are far from experiencing overtourism, they may still feel the pressure of many visitors at certain times all wanting to see the same things. Read more on how your travel decisions can help combat overtourism while providing better travel experiences. And, how you can use social media to help be part of the overtourism solution.
- Seek out travel related social enterprises that provide quality tourism services (e.g., food, lodging, tours, handicrafts, etc.), but invest their profits back into community projects and social impact projects. You can also choose tours that incorporate a social enterprise experience like Planeterra Foundation and their partnership with G Adventures.
- Try to spread your money around and keep it local through deliberate spending. This means choosing to stay in locally owned accommodation, eating at local restaurants, buying from different local shops, and working with local guides.
- Poverty is a reality in several of the countries above where you might encounter children begging or selling souvenirs during the daytime. Read up and become aware of the issues around child welfare in travel situations to ensure that your actions benefit local children rather than doing unintended harm. The same goes for evaluating and questioning voluntourism experiences.