Favorite Secret Places
November 21, 2016 5:13 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite cool spots/stops around the world that aren't super popular tourist traps?

I'm going back to Zion NP soon and it got me thinking--while I love visiting popular tourist locations (they're popular for a reason!) I also love stopping at the smaller special spots that usually aren't at the top of the tourist list. I feel like I get out quite a bit, but I'd love to know about more off-the-beaten path or even known-but-less-popular/crowded landmarks. For ex: I didn't really know about Arizona Hot Springs or Kanarraville Falls until more recently. It'd be nice to know about places so I don't miss out if I'm in the area!

So what are your favorite secret (or just less well-touristed) spots? Can be in the US or international, nature or city...I don't want to limit answers.
posted by sprezzy to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 141 users marked this as a favorite
I've never met another American (except the person I went there with) who's been to Stromboli and it is among the most fantastic travel experiences I've ever had.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:22 PM on November 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hiiumaa Island in Estonia, with its gorgeous lighthouses and abandoned Soviet WWII bunkers.
posted by eugenen at 5:40 PM on November 21, 2016

Semuc Champey in Lanquin, Guatemala

Xcalak in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Gocta Falls in Chachapoyas, Peru

The Ruta de Casacadas in Banos, Ecuador

I am a big fan of out-of-the-way places to play in water, apparently.
posted by ananci at 5:56 PM on November 21, 2016

The Green Bank Radio Astronomy Observatory in WV. Also Seneca Rocks.
posted by MsMolly at 6:04 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Continuing the water theme, the Fuentes Georginas hot spring, on the side of a mountain outside the town of Zunil in Guatemala, is one of my favorite places in the entire world. It's in a jaw-droppingly beautiful area with an amazing view, and other than that it's very low-key — a few hot pools, a pleasant-but-unremarkable restaurant, some cabins for rent. The area feels very remote and pristine but it's actually not hard to get to at all if you're already in the country doing the usual backpacker destinations in the highlands. It's one of the only tourist destinations I've seen in Guatemala that draws both locals on holiday and foreign tourists, but it also never seems to get especially crowded.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:07 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Orkney Islands, Scotland. They're magical, indescribably magical.
posted by Capri at 6:33 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Opus 40, a monumental piece of art in upstate New York.
posted by Candleman at 6:40 PM on November 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Atlas Obscura will help you discover lots of these places. Just plug in a location! (One of my favourites is the Park of Monstersnear Bomarzo, Italy).
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 6:51 PM on November 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Great question! Have you seen this one, about bustling places that are sometimes deserted?

Tokyo: Yanaka Ginza. Nezu Museum. Japan Folk Crafts Museum.

Hong Kong: Tsz Shan Monastery. Tai Long Wan Beach.

Bangkok: Thonglor. Ko Kret.

Seoul: The LeeUm (on a weekday). Little Russia.

The rest of Asia: do a walking tour inside some incredible colonial buildings with Yangon Heritage Trust. See Akbar's Tomb an hour before sunset in Agra. Sidemen's rice paddies and rushing rivers. Pulau Weh off the northern tip of Sumatra.
posted by mdonley at 7:05 PM on November 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Cienfuegos Cuba Now a city of approx 100,000 Cienfuegos was settled by French Immigrants from Louisiana in the early 19th century. It is quintessential Cuba with few tourists and architecture that echos New Orleans French Quarter. It sits on the inland side of a deep water bay reminiscent of San Francisco bay (without large hills). The far side is hilly and a narrow inlet leads to the sea. None of that is evident from the city but sail boats are parked at the yacht club, think art deco and Moroccan. It has the pace of the 1950s and Cubans are warm and welcoming. Take the leisurely boat tour around the harbor sipping Mojitos.
posted by Jim_Jam at 7:15 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Near Zion, actually, if you haven't been: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. So, so weird- just do a google search for images.

In Alaska- Matanuska Glacier (summer only). Bring a set of crampons or creepers, sign a waiver (and be careful!) and bam! you're walking on a spectacular glacier.
posted by charmedimsure at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

You won't be far from the very special Madrid, NM. Just make sure you see the museum.
posted by Miko at 8:52 PM on November 21, 2016

Shikoku, Japan :)

Be safe with this secret! It is a magical place!
posted by floweredfish at 8:54 PM on November 21, 2016

Not far (in Western US terms) from Zion: Kodachrome Basin State Park

In Oregon: John Day National Monument. The Painted Hills Unit is especially astonishing. (I don't know how secret this is, but there were few people there when we were there, and it's enough off the beaten track that you have to want to go there specifically.)
posted by rtha at 9:49 PM on November 21, 2016

Wikivoyage is a wiki written by travelers. They have a whole section of places like this!
posted by tippy at 10:00 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really loved Weeki Wachee springs, FL. I went in the wet season (Late September) and there was very few people. The river trip was fun, and the swimming area quite pleasant, but there was something magical about the mermaid show.


I also stopped in a dozen random state parks, not knowing a thing about them, and usually had more fun than some of the big name places I went.
posted by Jacen at 2:08 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Big Bend is the least-visited National Park in the 48. Big Bend Ranch State Park is right next door and even less-visited. You can camp and hike in either place for days and not see a single soul save a feral burro.
posted by Brittanie at 4:06 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also near Zion (although closer to Bryce) is Kodachrome state park. You'll see fewer humans and a ton more wildlife there than in the nearby national parks and the scenery is stunning.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 5:15 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cardiff remains one of the coolest cities I've ever visited. They have such an awesome blend of beautiful new architecture and ancient structures, and the whole city is very easy to get around on foot or by bus.

I lived in central WV for college for a few years, and I agree with MsMolly's suggestions and would also add the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, Canaan Valley (you can go for the skiing, sure, but if you go in the warmer months, the flora/fauna there is UNREAL), and the entire town of Davis. West Virginia in general is, I think, a place less frequented by visitors, but there are a lot of really cool sights to see.

Tybee Island in Georgia was also a lot of fun. It reminds you of some of the other similar seaside cities in the southern US, but it's smaller and a lot more laid back and less touristy feeling than places like Hilton Head or the Outer Banks. Their marine wildlife center in particular was small but INCREDIBLE. Plus, it's right outside of Savannah, which is also quite lovely (albeit a little too touristy for my taste).

If you are ever planning a trip to Hawaii and wanted to go to one of the other islands that's not Oahu, Molokai is SO lovely and hardly anyone goes to it compared to the other islands like Maui, Kauai or the Big Island.

Also! Okinawa is super fun! It's like a tropical version of mainland Japan. DON'T go in the summer (OMG SO HUMID) but it's a nice place to go in the winter when it's like 70 degrees out.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:05 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Hawaii Revealed guidebooks are great at pointing out lesser-known spots in Hawaii. We've used it to find amazing waterfalls, hidden beaches, and awesome jungle pools to swim in.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:43 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this quite counts as off the beaten path or a secret, however, if you are in Paris and want the best view of the city, avoid the Eiffel Tower and head for the roof of the Tour Montparnasse. I can't comment on how touristy it is in high season, but out of season it is practically deserted and the view is spectacular.

It also has the advantage that it is the one place in the city you cannot see the Tour Montparnasse...
posted by oclipa at 8:21 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this counts, but if you're ever on Kauai you should really check out Secret (Kauapea) Beach.

It's easily found via GPS/maps and a bit of a challenge to get to it (steep steps/overgrown trail) but it's really beautiful and secluded. Makes the hike worth it!
posted by Twicketface at 8:35 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

People seem to think that Amsterdam is the only city in Holland/The Netherlands, but Utrecht has better canals, great nightlife, a marvelously walkable old city center, and perhaps most importantly, no hordes of drunken tourists.
posted by Gortuk at 9:01 AM on November 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

The tourist traps are there for lazy tourists. In almost all cases, there is something much better and untouristed but there is this inertia that goes on from generation to generation.

In Italy for example, people still plan their only Italy vacation around Florence and Venice. Unless Renaissance Art is a particular interest of yours (and I guarantee it isn't for the majority of tourists) then you are better off roaming the countryside and visiting medieval villages, a much more awesome experience for Americans. If incredible food and wine is what you like, head to Torino and the Langhe instead (Piemonte is my favorite part of Italy). A beautiful Renaissance town? Head to Ferrara instead.

The same is true of most other countries. People come to the UK and want to see London which is lively and interesting for sure but unless you take time to explore its hidden corners, it will look like any other big city. Cities like Edinburgh are I think more rewarding. But even more so is the uniqueness of places like Snowdonia in Wales or the magnificent Scottish islands like Orkney.
posted by vacapinta at 9:26 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm going with Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. Not deserted by any means, but far, far less traveled than the national parks nearby. Also try Valley of the Gods and the House on Fire Ruins. I hate to say it, but it's not always heeded. Please be careful around these rare and irreplaceable sites.
posted by cnc at 10:14 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hana, in Maui. It's well known, but the drive around the north end of the island takes long enough that there's only one hotel back there (ritzy)... but otherwise, it's a very small town in a very deserted spot with the weather and scenery of a paradise.

(It has a general store from the 1800s that's basically a cinder block building. It has a black-sand beach. It has very few people. The drive back there is also damn nice on it's own.)
posted by talldean at 10:15 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tourists in LA flock to Hollywood, and are often disappointed by the tawdry tourist trappings. Then they shlep out to Universal Studios and Disneyland, spending hours getting there crawling through freeway traffic, afterwards wondering, is that all there is? Locals advise them that Southern California's a great place to live, but not such an ideal vacation spot. My advise is skip the Universal -- instead, the best place to see LA is from Griffith Observatory at night or sunset. Note the gates for park entry close at 10PM.
(Bonus points for locating the exact spot there, where Buzz said He's really abstract about James Dean.)

posted by Rash at 1:06 PM on November 22, 2016

I had an amazing experience at Yellowstone - seeing Old Faithful erupt at night with a full moon and bonus lightning storm in the distance. Got the idea from some Yellowstone workers we met. Wherever you go, ask local people. If nothing else, a great way to open conversation.
posted by theora55 at 3:17 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Almost the entire country of Laos felt like this to me. I was there over 10 years ago but from what I have heard it is much the same: absolutely gorgeous country and lovely people, living mostly in small towns and villages, with very little tourism. Delicious food too. Not really a place for seeing big sites, but thee are beautiful temples everywhere, amazing multi-day wooden boat rides up karst-lined rivers, caves filled with buddha statues, and other interesting things to explore and enjoy. It's a nice refuge from the tourist-bustle of Thailand (which I love for different reasons).

The Oaxaca Coast in Mexico. Beautiful beaches, laid-back surfer towns. Not a lot of resorts.

I love the beaches of Olympic National Park. Wild and beautiful. Even in the height of summer, you'll usually find very few people there.
posted by lunasol at 5:42 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Museum of Jurassic Technology. White Sands in New Mexico. Weird Site Specific Art. Blindwerkstatt Otto Weidt in Berlin.
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:44 AM on November 24, 2016

Oh I also loved Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, AL. Road trip through the South.
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:46 AM on November 24, 2016

When I'm on Deer Isle in Maine I always visit Barred Island, which is connected to the mainland by a sand bar at low tide. It's soothing and fascinating -- and beautiful, if you're into the rocky Maine shoreline. (Nearby Stonington is where you can eat a great no-nonsense lobster roll while watching lobster boats navigate the harbor.)
posted by booth at 6:07 AM on November 29, 2016

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is amazing. Despite being a World Heritage site, it doesn't get very many visitors.
posted by mollywas at 10:24 AM on November 30, 2016

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