When we think of travel destinations, there are a certain few that spring to mind. You've undoubtedly seen the tourist hot spots on your instagram feed, be it the elephant sanctuary of Chiang Mai, the blue lagoon in Iceland or the Ubud Monkey Forest in Bali, Indonesia.
The allure of a social media photo op can make these locations seem like the place to be and while beautiful and culturally enriching, your photo may not turn out exactly as planned when you're surrounded by thousands of other tourists who had the exact same idea. If you're looking for a truly authentic local experience on your next trip, perhaps it's time to turn your attention the countries that have plenty to offer adventurous travellers, but are often overlooked in favour of more mainstream destinations. Usually, the most memorable moments of a trip are not actually the over hyped tourist attractions. Sure, they’re fun to see and perhaps even tick off the bucket list, but what sticks with us for life are the interactions we share with locals, or trying a dish that is rooted deep in cultural tradition.
Budding tourist infrastructure, unique cuisine and a vast variety of breathtaking landscapes make these 25 countries true travel gems that are frequently overshadowed by their well established neighbours. You're sure to find a destination here you've never considered visiting, but maybe it's time to venture off the beaten path.
25 5. Mozambique
While the majority of tourists head a little further South to the well travelled country of South Africa, Mozambique is a less likely choice that promises gorgeous beaches, marine life and breathtaking landscapes. Tofo is one of the most well known coastal towns and Tofo beach is a hub for marine wildlife.
If you’re determined to keep your legs on solid ground, Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park is a great spot to embark on a safari tour.
The country has a colonel past and while many of their traditional dishes include fresh seafood, you’ll also find much Portuguese influence here in dishes such as barbecue chicken and their famous piri piri sauce.
23 8. Uzbekistan
Does the Silk Road sound familiar to you? Many of us have heard the name but few know that it was a route traveled for trade between multiple central Asian countries beginning in the second century BC.
Uzbekistan hosts three major silk road cities; Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, each of which holds a unique history that will take you back to the time of the silk trade.
Locals dress in traditional costume on a regular, and languages spoken include Uzbek, Tajik (a Persian language) and Russian because of the influence of the Soviet Union.
22 23. Latvia
Riga, Latvia is a gem of Eastern Europe with much Soviet history to speak of. The Corner House is a necessary stop on your tour of the city; the former headquarters of the KGB, the walls of this building hold many stories. They have guided tours available in English.
In Sigulda, visit Tarzans Adventure Park which is the biggest outdoor park in the Baltic area or if you’re craving sandy beaches, Jurmala has you covered.
You didn’t really visit Latvia if you didn’t try their dumplings, right? Pelmeni are Russian style dumplings, filled with minced meat and dipped in sour cream. If you’re looking to skip the snow, try to visit in summer between mid June and September.
21 24. Sri Lanka
Lesser known than nearby India, Sri Lanka is rich in culture and offers a beautiful landscape to snap happy travellers. In Nuwara Eliya you can explore one of Sri Lanka’s many tea plantations to learn exactly what goes into the box in your cupboard at home.
The landscape of the country lends itself to train travel, with one of the most scenic routes being that from Kandy to Ella.
Sri Lanka has loads of national parks in which to enjoy a safari full of wildlife. Udawalawe and Yala are two of many options. The best part is that Sri Lanka can be traveled on a modest budget, with an average day of food and accommodation costing only around $30.00 USD.
20 25. Kyrgyzstan
Another nomadic country where you’re likely to end up in a yurt, Kyrgyzstan is still fairly unknown amongst tourists so it’s best to get ahead of the curve if this sounds like your style of trip. Another meat heavy diet, horse is a common dish here along with mutton and beef.
Drawing on Russian inspiration for their cuisine, potatoes and dumplings are staples, along with better known dishes like Borscht or Zakuski.
The locals are known for being extremely hospitable and inviting you to join them for a meal. It’s best to travel with cash here (local currency is Kyrgyzstani Som) because credit/debit cards are not widely accepted even in the main city of Bishkek.
19 9. Mongolia
If you’ve ever been intrigued by nomadic culture, maybe it’s time to head over to Eastern Asia and see what Mongolia has to offer you. Still relatively uncharted territory in terms of tourism, Mongolia is a land full of adventures. Spend a few days getting your bearings in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar before you venture out to stay in a Yurt (the traditional nomadic style of home) or roam the countryside on horseback.
Mongolia is also home to the Gobi Desert, and you can book tours online (though some are as expensive as 500 USD) and cross riding a camel off your bucket list too.
Mongolia’s cuisine is fascinating but may not bode well for vegetarians. The “Five Snouts” of Mongolia are the meats most commonly incorporated into their dishes and they include horse, goats & sheep, camel and yak.
18 20. Bhutan
The Buddhist Kingdom has finally opened its doors to travellers. Set in the Himalayas, mountains and monasteries are the two main attractions here. It’s not cheap; according to CNN the average cost a day in Bhutan is approximately $250.00 USD. This includes your activities, accommodations, food and transportation but even then, this is a hefty sum. So why is it worth it?
Taktshang Goemba aka “The Tiger’s Nest” is the most famous monastery in Bhutan and requires a trek up the mountain to reach it, but at the top you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful buddhist structure and an insane view.
The buddhist culture makes this an extraordinarily peaceful destination and hopefully you like your food spicy because here, chilli peppers are considered a favourite vegetable.
17 1. Estonia
Often overlooked for it’s neighbours to the North, Finland and Sweden, a surprisingly low number of people seem familiar with Estonian culture. This charming country is rich with history, its buildings and castles reminiscent of medieval times.
Its capital, Tallinn, is best known for its Old Town, which is something out of a fairy tale.
The local cuisine is full of dishes you’re not likely to find elsewhere; a trip to Estonia isn’t complete without trying Kama (rye bread, pea flour, barley), Vastlakukkel (a holiday pastry) or some chocolate from Kalev.
16 2. Bulgaria
Bulgaria is the dream destination budget backpackers didn’t know they were searching for. Like most of Eastern Europe it's extremely affordable with dorm beds available for as little as $ 9.00 CAD a night. Additionally, free tours are the name of the game in the capital city of Sofia. Balkan Bites does a free food tour, while there are also free walking tours available through non-profit organizations like Free Sofia Tour.
For history buffs, Plovdiv is another city you must add to your list!
Its ancient Roman roots shine through in its Old Town and stunning theatre and stadium. Not looking for a history lesson? Bulgaria has a plethora of beaches for you to relax on instead with its coast running along the Black Sea.
15 15. Oman
Described as the “Norway of the Middle East” by the Telegraph UK, this is a stunning country of fjords, deserts and intricate architecture. Between the mountains, deserts and wadis (lagoons), adventurous outdoor travellers will not be at a loss for activities here.
Perhaps most impressive is that Oman has five UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman, Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Alyn, Bahla Fort and Land of Frankincense. The fifth was just added to the list in 2018 and is the Ancient City of Qalhat.
Ramadan is an extremely important event in Omani culture so factor that into your visit if you’re traveling in the spring/early summer as it may affect the availability of food/restaurants open during the day time for you as a tourist.
14 3. Faroe Islands
Located halfway between Iceland and the United Kingdom, it consists of 18 volcanic islands. Belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands are a breadth away from the experience of Iceland. A more isolated location means significantly less tourists visit the Faroe Islands each year than they do Iceland or Norway. You can fly from Iceland or Scotland in about an hour, or from Copenhagen in roughly two hours.
The Islands are also accessible by boat, and ferries depart Iceland or Denmark year round, arriving in the Faroe Islands in approximately one day.
A destination for adventure seekers, you can dive, ride the Faroese horses, rent a bicycle or head out on a fishing boat. If you’re looking for warm weather visit from July - September. To see the Northern Lights, your best bet is November - February.
13 4. Bolivia
Bolivia might make your South America backpacking route, but rarely is it a go to destination when deciding on a vacation. Overshadowed by better known tourist destinations like Lima, Peru and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Bolivia is starting to make it’s name as its salt flats take over social media in 2018.
Mountains, deserts and rainforest, Bolivia really does have everything a traveler could ask for.
Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats, are a top priority for most visitors with the endless horizon creating the perfect setting for hilarious photos of optical illusions. Bolivia is also the perfect place to check an Amazonian rainforest trek off your bucket list. Less crowded, it’s far more affordable than Brazil or Peru, with an overnight trekking trip starting at roughly $190.00 USD.
12 17. Greenland
Often dismissed as an unpopulated, unexplored region, Greenland is the icy one. Travellers who’ve enjoyed Iceland but want something a bit further out of reach will revel in the wild adventure that is Greenland. Visiting from June to September will allow you to experience the midnight sun in Arctic summer, while visiting in the Winter months, December to March, is prime time to witness the northern lights or go dog sledding.
Visit icebergs, fjords and Disco Bay. There are a variety of tours available departing from both Reykjavik and Copenhagen that are worth looking into as travelling with a guide is a secure way to enjoy this vast landscape.
Greenlandic is the language spoken here, with a population of just 56, 171 people. If you’re coming from Denmark, you’re all set with your Danish krone, as that is the local currency.
11 6. Malawi
A lesser known African country, Malawi is mountains, lakes, tea tasting and wildlife. Lake Malawi shares borders with Tanzania and Mozambique and is known for a it’s fresh clear waters and abundance of fish.
Tea is an integral part of Malawi’s history so if you’re a tea lover, this is the country for you.
They were the first African country to plant tea, in the 19th century and since then have turned it into a world wide export.
The best time to visit is during the dry, winter season from May to October in order to avoid the hot, wet summer. Don’t worry, Malawi winters are still hot by most standards, with the average temperature in June and July sitting around 21 degrees celsius.
10 10. Laos
The lesser known leg of the gap year backpacking route, the landlocked country of Laos is frequently tacked onto the traveled path around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Those who visit fall in love, but many people still don’t see it as a long haul destination.
Boasting beautiful temples like Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Ho Pha Bang, you could literally spend two solid weeks purely exploring Laos’ ornate structures and still not have seen them all.
A trip to Laos isn’t complete without experiencing a journey on the Mekong River. Taking a slow boat is a scenic experience, gliding along the surface of the river in this long, narrow vessel. To enjoy the dry season, try to visit between October and April.
9 11. Belize
Not necessarily the first country that comes to mind when you think of a vacation in Central America, Belize is an English speaking country with enticing, vibrant blue waters and a bounty of wildlife.
The island of Caye Caulker is a scuba diver’s (or snorkeler’s) paradise, especially The Great Blue Hole, just a two hour boat ride offshore.
Explore Mayan sites like Lamanai or Altun Ha. Be warned, the hike up Altun Ha is strenuous so if you’re not looking for a workout, Lamanai might be your best bet.
8 12. Albania
Albanian cuisine is reminiscent of the mediterranean which automatically means it’s delicious. You’ll find Baklava is a common dessert here and Qofte, a grilled meatball, should be on your list of foods to try if you’re determined to eat like a local.
You can visit the “city of a thousand windows", Berat, or see ancient ruins of the city of Apollonia which lies in the middle of the country. If you’re looking to spend some time in the Capital of Tirana, check out its great pyramid (Piramida) or take in a birds eye view of the city with a ride on Dajti Ekspres, the longest cable car in the Balkans.
7 13. Armenia
Armenia is certainly off the beaten path for a lot of tourists, but the country’s scenic routes and delicious traditional dishes will create an experience of a lifetime for those who are willing to take the road less traveled. Foods like Harissa (a porridge with egg and fatty meats), Manti (meat dumplings) and Ghapama (rice and dried fruit in a pumpkin) will challenge your taste buds in the best possible way.
A visit to Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater lakes at a high altitude in the world, is a must. Relax here with a picnic for fresh air and view. While beautiful, Lake Sevan is not known for being a good swimming location because there isn’t any beaches and the water is very cold.
The exchange rate for North Americans is good here, meaning you can get an inexpensive meal for roughly $ 8.00 CAD and accommodations in the city of Yerevan can be found for as little as $13.00 CAD/ per night on airbnb.
6 14. Curaçao
Caribbean meets European vibes in this paradise destination. Reconsider your trip to tourist hubs like Cuba and the Dominican next year and instead set your sights on a little bit of Holland set amongst crystal blue waters. The capital of Willemstad will transport you to the streets of Amsterdam with its narrow row houses and beautiful colours. Dutch is spoken here along with English and Papiamento.
Take part in a Willemstad walking tour to get acquainted with the city, snap a photo for your instagram on Queen Emma Bridge, snorkel at one the many beaches or visit the Hato Caves.