Ways to find truly off-the-beaten path travel destinations?
June 9, 2024 11:58 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I are avid travelers -- like everyone else these days, it seems. While we love big cities, I've found that many to be full-to-bursting at the seams with tourists, even in the off-seasons now -- and it makes me feel keenly guilty for ruining the place for others. Moreover, even when avoiding cities, Instagram and TripAdvisor feel like they've routed everyone to the same quaint mountain towns, hikes, islands, experiences. How do I plan a trip where I won't be tripping over others just like myself?

This is less a question of which countries (as we like to travel all over) but rather resources that can help us find special places with a lot of culture, that aren't so inaccessible that it will take up all our travel time just to reach them. I realize that inaccessibility is correlated with fewer tourists, but is there a way to strike a happy medium?

Of course there are lesser-touristed countries like Albania, which we definitely would like to visit. I loved exploring Vietnam 10 years ago -- but guided by TripAdvisor back then, it felt like all of us Westerners were hitting up the exact same restaurants, tours, etc. I'm sure it's even worse now.

Sadly we don't have the kind of lifestyle where we can just arrive at a country with no plan and drive around and discover things. We have limited time off so want to have a general sense of what we're doing in advance.

TL;DR: things I'm looking for: travel companies that set you up with a local "fixer" who will help you explore a more remote/untouristed region. Or websites that describe both specific destinations and travel tips for places most tourists skip, or which lack traditional tourist infrastructure. Or sure, specific towns or experiences you've been to that didn't feel overrun but still had some magic to them! Thanks!
posted by egeanin to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The problem with websites geared to off the beaten track tourism is, it's still geared to tourism. But Atlas Obscura has fun/esoteric destinations that are generally not covered in mainstream websites and books. Other than that, your best bet is probably talking to people who are from that region/country themselves, or, especially if you are going somewhere abroad, maybe asking an expat or an academic who spends a lot of time in that region (anthropologist doing fieldwork, historian working in the archives there, etc.)
posted by virve at 12:46 PM on June 9 [6 favorites]

As a generalized side-point, "shoulder season" is a thing in many locales -- reduced crowds because the weather is less good, but most of the infrastructure is still up and running (so you avoid seasonal shutdowns). I've been to a number of high-profile locations without the crowds by figuring out when shoulder season was for that location, and arranging my trip accordingly.

Going in the off-season is also possible, of course, but then you need to spend more time working out which places are still going to be open (eg: if a museum has reduced hours, or a park is entirely closed, etc.).
posted by aramaic at 12:53 PM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Untold Italy does this for Italy. Their small group tours depart in shoulder season for lower profile destinations. You can also get one of their advisors to plan a more off-the-beaten path itinerary for you to follow self service. I haven’t looked into services like these in other countries. In general though, I see the value in paying for itinerary planning of this nature using a country specific guide.
posted by shock muppet at 1:32 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you were looking to travel to England, then my suggestion would be to head to the north and midlands, rather than the south. You could explore as many many stately homes, quaint villages, ancient cathedrals, good local food, striking landscapes and beautiful beaches etc. There would be tourists but not excessively so and they would mostly be English people.

I'm not particularly suggesting you come to the UK, but it did make me think that you might find it helpful to look at places that are suggested for day trips for people who live in the country you are thinking of visiting. You might be more likely to be directed to the less visited places.

[If you do want suggestions for England, then I'd be happy to make them.]
posted by plonkee at 2:14 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I also came in to recommend Atlas Obscura.

It has provided the waypoints for several happy journeys for me.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:35 PM on June 9

and it makes me feel keenly guilty for ruining the place for others.

Everyone traveling for pleasure based on their own economic privilege, even those who want the most special experience, are tourists just like all the other tourists, and the only way you avoid "ruining" a local place is by contributing to the tourist economy that has been put in place for this purpose. Going to places that aren't really meant for or economically set up to benefit from tourism may contribute somewhat to a local economy anyway but can also be a much more ambiguous activity ethically. Everyone wants the most unique experience and not to feel like they're getting the package deal, but don't think that means you're helping or "not ruining" the place you visit?
posted by Tim Bucktooth at 6:00 PM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Buy or check out from your library a good old fashioned guide book. Seriously. Online is all about the algorithm, and it tends to reaffirm what's already been affirmed as Instagram-worthy, or whatever. But guide books tend to be fairly exhaustive in their coverage – I like Rough Guide, it clearly pays people to really go all over – and so within any country you can find places that less crowded or the favored spots of local tourism. I have been able to avoid being surrounded by tourists even in countries whose economy is geared toward tourism, like Costa Rica. It's still doable.
posted by coffeecat at 6:19 PM on June 9 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The Bradt Guides specialize in much-less-frequently-touristed destinations. Their guide to Eastern Turkey, for example, was the only useful English-language guide to that region of Anatolia that went to each and every province, and covered in a lot of depth the archaeology and living cultures of the region, despite being eight years old when I visited in 2022. I’ve also used and enjoyed their more current-to-my-visit guides for trips to Armenia, Albania and the Baltic States.
posted by mdonley at 8:21 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I spent a couple of weeks in Eastern Turkey (Kars, Dogubeyazit, Van) more than a decade ago and it's still the most memorably amazing destination I've ever been. Cannot recommend more highly in terms of history, natural beauty, and friendliness/hospitality -- and very, very, VERY few tourists.
posted by Gadarene at 8:55 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

To some extent I think your desires are just incompatible: the most foolproof way to find places that are great but untouristed is to not plan ahead, because any advance planning requires someone to have set up something (a website a tour company, a blog) that can advise you about a place before you arrive. Which in turn means that others can access it. However, to diminish the likelihood of the tourist crush, choose guides that are less accessible: guidebooks, local guides, guides that you get to know once you're on the ground. The easier the search, the more ppl that will have done it.
posted by jojobobo at 9:28 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

You might have fun following specific hobby-type interests as they may lead you to places and small towns you wouldn’t otherwise end up as a tourist. I sometimes use record shops, independent bookstores, or yarn or fabric shops as proxies for finding fun little neighborhoods worth visiting in the U.S. I've had good and interesting adventures in other countries following things like sheep herding and folk dancing nights into rural or residential areas. Finding local guides who will do bespoke tours and asking them to put together an itinerary for you would be the most straightforward way, though. They’d probably welcome the change from a million tours all asking for the same landmarks, and they’ll have much better local knowledge.
posted by music for skeletons at 10:30 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]

I do wonder if you're doing your research online or if you're buying guidebooks. Before a trip, borrow your local library's guidebooks to your destination and see which is most useful, and then buy the newest edition of a book or two.

Also, please keep in mind that you are beating the path when you go to places like you are describing, and are likely just part of an earlier wave of tourists. There are ethical implications to this too.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:38 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

The world is interesting fractally. At the appropriate scale you can get as much out of Dublin, NH as you can out of Dublin .ie which is ~1000x more populous. Heck, I spent a week in Campbellton and Dalhousie NB and wasn't bored. Because "tourists" do the same limited number of focus destinations in any area, that leaves the majority of each city, county, country empty for "travellers". Here's an algorithm: list all the countries: delete those you've 'done' and those which you deem impossible. Pick one of the remainder at random. In that country: decide the size limits of town by some criterion then pick one of those at random. Then go there, keep an open heart and have a great time.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:38 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]

I do think this is a chance to ask yourself why you travel. What are you looking for? What do you want out of it? If your answer is anything other than "I just want to do the same thing everyone else is doing" then its possible to construct a unique itinerary. Someone above suggested following a hobby or interest.

My mother-in-law for example is a great Art lover and insists on seeing for example every Caravaggio. Because of her, we went to Rome and then took a train out of Rome to a small village where they were showing one of the candidates for 'Taking of Christ'. Few tourists around and we took a chance to explore the surrounding villages.

A few months ago we were in the Swabian Jura because I am fascinated by Ice Age Art. So we booked a place in Stuttgart as a base for day trips. We went to the small town of Blauberen near Ulm because I wanted to see a statuette that was created by human hands 40,000 years ago.

As we approached the town we noticed there were lots of other tourists driving in (we took a train) and I remembered that there was something else in this town: A beautiful but eerie blue lake that everyone was coming to see. Sure enough, the little lake was jammed with people taking selfies and eating currywurst at a small cafe right up against the water.

Well, we walked to another part of town, where the museum I was looking for was. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves. The ancient Venus was inside a safe you had to enter and I found it so moving. The tiny museum even had a film about the blue lake, which is actually an entrance to an enormous cave complex. Afterwards we went to a restaurant next door that was one of the best meals I've had in Germany - delicious Spaetzle but served in a duck sauce and great beer and wine - on a very pretty terrace that was only half-full.

We never saw any of the mass of tourists from the blue lake stroll down to this part of town.
posted by vacapinta at 4:28 AM on June 10 [6 favorites]

Best answer: On a related note, these two entomologists I know run a Scientific Travel company called Taxon Expeditions.

They have expeditions to Borneo and such to document and search for new species. But they also have an expedition to Tuscany, for example, where you stay in a castle.

So, there's lots of options once you add some intentionality to your travel I think.
posted by vacapinta at 5:32 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Echoing others above: going off the beaten track is a method, not a place. You could do it at home.

I just came home from a study trip to Rome, and before we went, the students asked why St. Peter's and Coliseum weren't on the itinerary. They can go see those things on their own, they don't need me for that.
But when we visited Sta. Costanza and St' Agnese Fuori le Mura, we were the only non-locals there. And I don't mean locals as in Romans, but locals as in people from that specific neighborhood. In the cafe on site you can chat with people about their daily life and they are friendly and open because they are not "overrun". They might be the church ladies or the soccer moms or the gardeners, depending on what time of day it is.
Another day, I took my boss to a small restaurant which does cater to tourists, but they focus on their neighborhood customers, so the food and the prices and the banter are more like if we were in a suburb, far away from the tourist track.
BTW some important religious and/or archeological sites are in suburbs and rarely see international tourists. Choose them over the obvious tourist attractions, and you are already on a different track.

I agree that coming at travel from a specific angle like art, or literature, or film or some specific interest in history helps you find new ways. Follow the Silk Road! Gadarene's mention of Kars and Van reminded me that I have always wanted to go there because of Orhan Pamuk. I once went to Marfa, Texas to visit the Cinati Foundation, and while Marfa is not unknown, it is also not overrun, and just going there over land is an adventure. In general I have been to many weird places looking for new architecture. And then when you get there, you meet all sorts of new and different things.
There is also the important point that going with a purpose gives you something to talk about. I went to a small village in Iran that is locally famous for its local costume and vernacular architecture, and there was a man who rather disparagingly asked what on earth we were doing there. I don't think he was suspicious, at least not of us. But it started a good discussion about many things, including politics.
Speaking of Iran: when you truly want to go off-track, group tours are a bit of a contradiction in terms. Except if you have a purpose. I talked with a young woman who had travelled in the most improbable and conflicted places in the Middle East and Central Asia because she wanted to visit all the Sufi shrines. I've been to Cuba to see a contemporary art event and in an obscure small town in Sweden to see a building. In Japan, I visited a "boring" industrial town to see a building, and I feel it was the place I got closest to everyday life in Japan. All of these things were in groups, but more like the ones vacapinta mentions above.

Or go where the locals go. The Greek Islands are filled with tourists, but Aegina is mostly a retreat for Athenians, so even though there are tourists, they are local. One of the most popular summer retreats for Copenhageners is Tisvildeleje, and I've never seen an international tourist there, except in the company of Danes. In places like that, the food and the activities like concerts will be local, and you will meet locals who are not employed in the tourist industry. Venice is one of the places that is most ruined by tourism, but go out to Torcello, have a leisurely lunch in a garden restaurant, walk around on the nature paths and visit the ancient cathedral, and you will feel reinvigorated. (And even in the city there is a whole other side where tourists never go, but that's another story).
posted by mumimor at 6:09 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Studying an area from a non-tourist perspective, then filtering sites by what appears to be visitable, works for me. I got some evocative photos of stone circles in the Spanish Pyrenees a year ago this way, had the sites all to myself, left things exactly as I found them. (Didn't do the influencer thing and blast them everywhere either.)

You could pick obscure wineries, geological sites, birthplace of sport heroes, lots of potential themes.

"What's important to the locals" is often a good approach, too.
posted by gimonca at 8:51 AM on June 10

The day trips that you can get through Viator, Getyourguide, Toursbylocals can work well--you can book ahead, pay online, but get the direction and viewpoint of someone who's on the ground where you are. They do promote the "big sights" as well, but they may be able to suggest interesting off track things to see and do. I've had good luck with this approach.
posted by gimonca at 9:23 AM on June 10

Best answer: One of my best finds while traveling was the Yazidi temple in Akhnalich, Armenia. My guide for the day had no idea that it was there. Really fascinating place. I suggested it, we had time, it all worked out.
posted by gimonca at 9:34 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all -- I do use backpacker guidebooks (Lonely Planet etc), but I find the way they rank sights tends to be by "what people most want to see when they go to X city" so they'll star, for example, the Leaning Tower of Pisa -- but they won't say "hey there's this really cool suburb that's worth coming to the Pisa area just to explore." So those books are not helpful re: my question due to how their information is organized/prioritized. (Also I think those books tend to route all the backpackers looking for a cute quiet bar, to the same cute quiet bar.)

Planning a trip around a specific intention is fun -- and I agree, a good way to ensure you'll go to some off-the-beaten-path places. But I'm still looking for resources that list either personal experiences in off-the-beaten-path places or else services/guides to help you find them.

And I agree that it's possible by visiting I'm implicit in being part of an early wave of tourism -- but since I don't work in that industry and don't disseminate information on IG or whatnot about where I'm going, I don't feel too badly about traveling in general. We're responsible tourists, or at least try to be, re: minimizing negative impact, carbon footprint, and being respectful of the local communities we visit.
posted by egeanin at 12:23 PM on June 10

Best answer: I think your observation about Albania as a less-touristed place is a good one.

Eastern Europe in general is so far off the typical tourist's bucket list that you can often avoid the international tourist crowd easily, particularly if you avoid the absolute peak seasons. And once you get past the obvious things-a-person-feels-they-must-see-before-they-hop-back-on-the-train-after-24-hours stuff, you're only up against local/regional tourists, for the most part. It's the level of crowd you'd get seeing the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, not the one that would line up at Cinque Terre.

Eastern Europe is great if you'd like to see a city that feels like a place real people live and not just Instagram bait for people with a plane to catch. Branch out to smaller towns and villages and it gets easier and easier.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:57 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When you do travel, try to make friends with other people who seem like they enjoy off-the-beaten-path travel, and ask them where they've gone that they liked. (And of course do the same when you meet intrepid travelers in your day-to-day life.)

You can do the same within a trip when you're on the road. Stay in smaller inn-type places, the kind of places that people come back to over and over again, and ask regular visitors where you should go.

Of course, you can ask locals these questions too, but unless they know you, they're likely to assume you want to go to the same places as everyone else, and/or want to keep their own favorite places a secret.

but they won't say "hey there's this really cool suburb that's worth coming to the Pisa area just to explore."

They won't say exactly that, but they will often list less-popular cities that have one or two sites. So it's worth it to look at those short little listings. And it probably goes without saying that if you want off-the-beaten-path, you're not going to get it spoonfed to you in a guidebook. But it's a decent starting place.

One more piece of advice: see if you can find smaller youtube travel vloggers to follow. Not the big ones who are also influencers with huge brand deals, but ones that go deep on certain countries and regions. I used to follow one account that spent like two years traveling around Mexico. They'd post a different half hour video for each place they stayed and I learned about so many non-Cancun Mexican destinations from them.
posted by lunasol at 5:15 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

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