My favorite places are the places that are less talked about. They’re the towns and cities — or sometimes entire countries — that people don’t automatically think of when they’re planning a trip. In my more than five years of traveling full-time, I found that those were the places that were the most unique, the most interesting, the most challenging. The places that have stuck in my mind and the ones that I really believe I’ll remember forever.
This isn’t to say that there’s no value in visiting those well-loved and often-talked about places. I just visited Paris for the third time and found it as charming as ever, if not more so. The famous spots are famous for a reason, and many of them live up to or surpass the hype. But as the world gets smaller through technology, finding those semi-secret places feels even more special.
If that appeals to you — if you’re the kind of traveler who prefers the backs of dusty motorbikes to days spent on the beach, as I am — check out this list of nine unexpected spots to add to your bucket list. Some are places I’ve been myself and some are places I’m still aspiring to see, too. Ready to start dreaming?
1Semuc Champey, Guatemala
My boyfriend brought me to Semuc Champey (Semuc for short) for my birthday when we were living in Guatemala, and it still stands as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes. The best way to describe it is what I imagine the Amazon looks like, but without all of the things that can kill you. The trip to get there is long and car sickness-inducing, but it’s worth it.
Semuc is a series of turquoise pools that are connected by mini (and not-so-mini) waterfalls. I know everyone describes water as “turquoise,” but this water is legitimately turquoise, which isn’t something I’ve ever seen in a river before or since. Take a cave tour where all you have for light is the candle in your hand (or sometimes your mouth, when the water gets too deep to walk); jump off a swing into the river; climb up to the overlook for a bird’s eye view; and end the trip by floating down the river in inner tubes while local kids jump into their own tubes to sell you cheap beer.
I’ve spent Christmas on Ometepe twice now, and both times were incredible. It’s a volcanic island in the middle of Nicaragua’s gigantic Lake Nicaragua. You have to take a ferry to get there that doesn't quite seem safe, but the slight danger makes the trip even more delicious.
On Ometepe, you’ll find yourself in one of those rare places of incredible natural beauty that still runs on its own time. Rent a scooter and spend some time exploring, but also just chill for a while.
3Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Saigon is obviously a well-known city, but it’s still one that many Americans haven’t visited. I love it because it exemplifies the hustle and bustle of Southeast Asia better than any other city in the region that I’ve visited so far. Explore the back alleys, enjoy the delicious (and cheap) street food, and poke around the many markets. Even better, take a boat tour along the winding Saigon River, which somehow dominates the city even today.
I visited Mussoorie when I was child, on my first trip out of the country — so it’s been a while. Still, this former British colonial hill station (towns that the British built to escape the heat in the hot months) struck me as unique, even in India, where everything feels unique to a Western. Like many of the other places on this list, Mussoorie isn’t easy to get to but once you arrive, the steep streets, textiles, cool mountain air, and views of the Himalaya are stunning. We stayed in a tiny B&B nestled into the hillside and slept under thick, handmade quilts, only to be awakened by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque in the morning.
The Chilean coast has a raw beauty that is hard to match — and I’ve seen a lot of coastlines. Concon is a tiny surfing town and it’s actually not much on its own — a couple of shops for getting the most delicious crab and cheese empanadas you’ve ever tasted and a great surfing beach — but I chose it out of the many coastal towns because it’s a solid day trip from Valparaiso.
For the bucket list Chilean coast experience, stay in Valparaiso, where you can travel up and down the steep hills in their famous funiculars, visit the sea lions down at the docks, and admire the incredible street art. Then rent a car and drive down the coast to Concon, stopping in other towns along the route or for a swim when you see a beach you especially like.
6Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is another major city that Americans don’t immediately think of when they’re planning travel — and that’s a mistake. Sometimes called “the Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires has all the romance, mystery, and intrigue of a European city, at a fraction of the cost.
While the city is famous for steak and tango — and both of those things should be thoroughly enjoyed while you’re there — you’ll also find an eclectic mix of architecture, a deep-seeded appreciation of the arts, and the world’s only pink capital building. Be sure to take a day trip to Tigre while you’re there. It’s a little city built into the delta about an hour outside of Buenos Aires that you can explore by boat.
7Mesa Verde, United States
This one is on my bucket list. I think the American Southwest is fascinating and I really, really, really want to go to Mesa Verde. It’s an entire Native American city built into the wall of a cliff! Complete with a castle! How cool is that??
8St. Malo, France
My best friend just told me about this place and now I really want to go. St. Malo is a walled city/island in Brittany, France, that used to be a stronghold for pirates. (Well, privateers — but that’s just a fancy name for government-sanctioned pirates.) I a) love walled cities, b) love history, and c) love weird places, so this is definitely on my list.
Granada is one of the coolest cities in Spain, mainly because it’s an incredible mix of cultures all in one. There’s the Alhambra — a palace that was originally built by the Romans, then renovated by the Muslim conquerors, then the royal Spanish court for a while — which deserves a full day all on its own. But exploring the city by foot is an adventure through time and culture all on its own.
Of course, this is only the beginning. The amazing thing about being a traveler is the options are almost never ending. So, what are you waiting for? These places won't cross themselves off your list!