Out of the way travel wonders?
February 15, 2011 8:26 PM   Subscribe

Any out of the way amazing small/medium towns that nobody talks about but are really worth visiting? While I am hoping for more exotic locales any place is fine by me. What makes these places so interesting to you? I am planning a trip starting from East Africa and heading up to the Middle East and then to either Eastern Europe or Asia.

I know that a few previous questions talked about this in regional variations but wanted to broaden the scope past Europe.
posted by tarvuz to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Philosophy-of-unguided-travel-answer: I like meeting people who aren't used to meeting foreigners and having a chat with them, speaking broken English, being invited into people's homes, being stared at, being in a semi-permanent state of confusion and not knowing how to eat the food put in front of me. These situations inspire me.

And they are much easier to come by in small-medium towns no one has heard of: in the big places there are industries around tourists and people just living there will normally ignore you; in the small places people will be more likely to talk and build friendships. Schedule your trip so you transit through unobvious places. Stay the night, eat a meal or two. If you like it, stay more time.
posted by squishles at 8:44 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

From a recent tween by @qikipedia: "Plovdiv, Bulgaria's 2nd city, is one of the oldest in the world, older than Rome, Athens and Carthage and as old as Troy."
posted by zadcat at 8:53 PM on February 15, 2011

If you're going to be in the Middle East and you dig Russian history, I might recommend Sheki and Zaqatala in Azerbaijan. Sheki has some nice old-style buildings from the pre-colonial period and was the seat of a pretty famous insurgency against the Tsar by Sheik Shamil; Zaqatala was the site of imprisonment for the Potemkin mutineers, and you can still see a monument to one of them (I believe it's his grave, but it has a nice bust).
posted by wandering steve at 9:24 PM on February 15, 2011

All my best travel experiences have been of the random and unexpected variety. Meeting a female cricket team on a train through rural Punjab, India. A battle of the brass marching bands in a churchyard during a religious festival in Cusco, Peru. The cafe that my family still calls "That Crazy Old Man's Restaurant" in southern Italy.

However, you can't exactly plan this stuff. And if you tried to force it by deliberately not seeing any of the famous sights or scheduling random days full of nothingness in remote parts of a place you're otherwise not interested in.

A good happy medium is to sight-see as expected*, but instead of trying to check EVERYTHING off the list in the guidebook, try to make room for some less famous things or just to hang loose and not try to get anything in particular accomplished. I was on that train in rural Punjab because I was on my way to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Which is hardly the #1 thing people go to India to do. I had my run in with the marching bands after getting terrible shin splints at Machu Picchu and needing to have a lazy day in Cusco, reading a book on steps of this quirky little church I found. "The Crazy Old Man's Restaurant" was the first restaurant we wandered into after pulling into an Amalfi coast beach town from Rome. If we'd been on a mission to only eat at the "best" places in town, we never would have found it.

*Keep in mind, too, that stuff like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu are famous for a reason. There's no reason to avoid ever doing that sort of thing. I have almost universally had a blast at the huge once-in-a-lifetime tourist traps, despite the usual OMG WHAT A TOURIST TRAP whining you hear from some people.
posted by Sara C. at 9:30 PM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh, um, and to answer your question more directly.

Hampi and Amritsar in India. I also loved Darjeeling and Varanasi, though those are definitely very touristy places. See my asterisk above.
posted by Sara C. at 9:33 PM on February 15, 2011

stuff like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu are famous for a reason. There's no reason to avoid ever doing that sort of thing.

Indeed. When I was briefly in Delhi as a silly, lucky teenager, and was given the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal, I initially turned it down, then thought better of it. Even framed by touristy nonsense, it's spectacular. It doesn't prohibit having some fantastic serendipitous travel moments.

As a general point: your area of interest will take you into places where the culture of hospitality is simultaneously a bit unnerving, a bit folksy, and very genuine. If you have your shields on high for fear of being ripped off or ending up in a dodgy situation, you'll probably get a little ripped off, avoid especially dodgy situations, but also have a fairly sanitised experience. Which is probably not what you're after. It's not so much about a schedule as an attitude.

(More directly: my friends who have been to Syria love Syria.)
posted by holgate at 9:57 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Eastern/Northern Europe, the small University towns of Tartu in Estonia and Kaunas in Lithuania, both generally overshadowed by their nations' capitals.

Heh - having said that, I notice the front page on that link refers to Kaunas as a "sprawling metropolis". I think that probably means a sprawling metropolis by Lithuanian standards ie. it has huge suburbs. But it also has a compact, attractive, historic centre with pleasant pedestrianised streets and the wonderful Devil Museum. If you're just visiting for a few days, I think you're unlikely to be aware of the sprawling. I was there quite some time ago though, before Kaunas was connected to the west by budget airlines, so it may have a sprinkling more drunken Englishmen on stag-dos than the time I visited.

Tartu is lovely though, and has no budget flights.
posted by penguin pie at 12:36 AM on February 16, 2011

You are going to be covering a large area on your travels and the sort of places I suspect you are going to enjoy are the second and third tier attractions in each country - of which there are very many. But perhaps I can give you a single suggestion and my strategy to find more:

In East Africa Pemba Island. Now lets consider the qualities for choosing such a place:

1. It is in the guidebooks - but is not prominent: most tourists get steered towards Zanzibar instead. So the locals will be more surprised to see you.
2. You can reach it on standard transport routes -but with a little more difficulty. It is an island after all. So it will have its own distinctive culture but still be reasonably practicable to get to.
3. It's attractions are a little more niche - Pemba will absolutely be at the top of the list of people who are interested in cloves for example. So there are interesting stories to uncover if you are willing to get interested in a new subject.
posted by rongorongo at 1:17 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lviv, Plovdiv, Braşov, Pecs, Wrocław, Sibiu, Bursa, Sochi, Haifa, Aleppo, Thessaloniki.
posted by mdonley at 1:20 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spent a day on the Greek island Kastellorizo, also called Meis or Megisti. You can get there by ferry/excursion boat from Kaş on the Turkish coast or by plane (very cheap) or ferry from Rhodes. It's sort of a ghost town/island - the Greek government actually subsidizes the residents because otherwise everyone would move to someplace more convenient and the Turks might get the island. Cutest airport I've ever seen; a guy chatted me up in the "terminal" (roughly the size of my dentist's waiting room) then put on an orange vest and went out onto the runway to direct the plane to the gate. Probably not someplace you want to spend more than a day or two unless you really want to veg out on the beach, but kind of lovely in its way.

Kaş is actually also really nice; there are a lot of relatively unspoilt resorts on that part of the Turkish coast. In Turkey in general the heavily touristed areas are often right next to other, very untouristy towns and neigborhoods. And if you're traveling in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia, Turkey's got to be on your way somewhere!
posted by mskyle at 5:54 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Kastellorizo! One of the most beautiful, pleasant, and friendly places I've ever been to. Possibly my favorite place in the world.
posted by danceswithlight at 9:59 PM on February 16, 2011

Pemba's (Tanzania) the only place mentioned in East Africa that I've seen so far. I'd check it out but also make time for Zanzibar and maybe Dar Es Salaam as well. Arusha and Moshi up near Kilimanjaro are a bit of tourist / climber pass-through towns but both have plenty of their own local flavor if you stick around long enough to find it. More remote Tanzania: Mwanza.

Kenya's probably got twice as many options that would fit your bill. Definitely spend some time in Nairobi and surrounding areas, but you could head west to check out Kisumu, Eldoret, or for really remote head north from there to Lodwar (but arrange secure transfer on that road as its not safe). Or head cross border to Uganda - of anywhere in EA that fits the bill for your criteria, Jinja is that city (to a lesser and much more remote extent: Gulu, in northern Uganda). If you're up for delving even further west you have a number of small towns in tiny Rwanda (Butare being my favorite second to Ruhungeri) and Burundi (but Bujumbura is really not much more than a small town itself, to start with). From Ruhungeri its only an hour or so's drive to Goma - just across the western border of Rwanda into eastern DRC.

Back in Kenya, the rest of your best options are east to the coast: start southernly in Diani, kill a day or two poking around Mombasa, head north up to Kalifi, Malindi. From Malindi you can catch a 30-minute flight to Lamu - an island right off the mainland with no cars, and everything from local villages up to huge vacation houses for people like Princess Caroline of Monaco. Last, you could head inland a bit and check out Dadaab for some Somali flavor, relatively safely outside of Somalia (but I wouldn't stray any closer if I were you).

Next up would be Sudan or more likely (and securely) Ethiopia. In Sudan hit up Juba where all the action is in the south right now, and maybe Malakal - one or both of these will give you a taste for if you want to try further afield and much more remote, which everything but Khartoum will be, in spades. For Ethiopia, spend a day or two in Addis, but then head south to somewhere like Hawassa, or even further south to see how the people live rurally down there (not a particular city I can recommend, in that case - follow the guide books for general ideas). North of Addis try Bahir Dar or maybe Kolmbolcha.

Djibouti is pretty desolate outside of the main port city as is Eritrea from what I understand, and from north of there you're on up into more Sudan and southern Egypt, where I suspect others can guide you straighter than I.

That should get you started.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:21 AM on February 22, 2011

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