The World’s Most Surprising Travel Destinations

Have you ever arrived some place new only to realise it is nothing like what you had expected?

There are so many incredible travel destinations around the world that many people seem to skip or avoid, mainly thanks to misconceptions about a place being dirty, boring or just plain dangerous. Are the places our parents warn us about really that bad, or have they now become the places that interest us most? 

I decided to ask 19 travel bloggers (myself included!) what their most surprising travel destinations around the world were, to get a small insight into how destinations can be misconstrued. At the end of the day, I believe the only way to truly discover what a city is really like is to forget all advice thrown our way, and to go discover it for ourselves. It might just surprise you.

19. Malealea, Lesotho

I want to start with my own suggestion as it is what prompted this entire blog post. While I was travelling around South Africa, just about everyone I met told me not to bother going to Lestotho. Nearly all of these ‘advisers’, it should be noted, had also never been there! People kept telling me I should just stay in South Africa where it is more beautiful and there are more activities to do. They were essentially writing off an entire country for no good reasons except that they knew very little about it. Considering Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa on all sides, it is hard to believe that this tiny mountain Kingdom is so full of contrasts and is totally unique to anywhere I have ever been. The soil there is this crazy colour, stunning shades of red and brown. There are no fences and no gates as the land is owned and farmed by the people, by the communities. The people are overwhelmingly friendly and although extremely poor and suffering from years of drought, they ask for nothing and are happy to show you around their homeland. Most definitely one of the most surprising travel destinations I have ever come across, and I place I will continue to return to.

18. Montevideo, Uruguay

Suggested by Molly On The Road

Montevideo is commonly skipped over and removed from must-see lists when travelers find that they need to make more time for hubs like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro on their South American jaunts, and the Uruguayan capital city holds the common misconception of being boring, expensive, and dull compared to its Argentine and Brazilian older sisters. I was nearing the end of my time living in Buenos Aires, and I had one weekend left to travel—so instead of shelling out big bucks on a flight to Iguazu Falls in the north, I booked a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, skimming the short Uruguay section that was tacked onto the end of my Lonely Planet Guide to Argentina. I arrived surprised to find that Montevideo was exactly what was missing from Buenos Aires—it is friendly, calm, and ultra-manageable to navigate by public transportation. And you can actually visit the beach! It’s smaller size is its biggest strength: there is less noise and environmental pollution, more sense of community, and just enough blend of cultures to keep Montevideo at the top of my “must-return-to” list for the future. Its laid-back attitude, incredible food, and friendly, accommodating locals make it not only a great urban getaway from the quilombo of Buenos Aires, but a great destination in and of itself for the traveler looking for an off-the-beaten path adventure. 

17. Agra, India

Suggested by Anita Hendrieka

Before I left for India I had multiple people warn me about the country who had not even been there before!  The day of my flight I spent nearly the whole day crying and hyperventilating because I was so scared to go by myself from the stories these people had told me.  Usually, I don’t listen to people but that time I did and it got to me.  I am so glad I got on that plane and experienced India for myself and it was the BEST experience of my life and my favourite country I have ever visited.  It taught me to be thankful, gracious, pushy, confident, peaceful, strong and many more traits I never knew I had in me.  Agra was the one specific city in India that also took me by surprise as everyone said don’t even spend a night here.  It was one of my favourite places and there is actually so much to see and do.  For the whole 3 nights I stayed there I loved every bit of it, and it was cleanest city I saw on my entire trip!

16. Gothenburg, Sweden

Suggested by Adri Demattei
Going to Sweden, most people go to (and talk about) Stockholm; and even Bill Bryson (in his book ‘Neither Here Nor There’) wrote Gothenburg off as a boring city with nothing to do. I, instead, fell instantly in love with the city, it’s amazing cultural life, quirky bars, beautiful canals and amazing people with the best sense of humor. I found that the longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to stay and it remains one of my top 3 favourite places in the world. I found that Swedes are nothing like other friends described them, and rather than being cold, boring and distant, they’re intelligent, warm, quirky and egalitarian people, with the loveliest and most welcoming attitude.
I would (and do!) recommend everyone to visit and stay for a while. It might not have all the touristy attractions, but it’s so much more than a touristy place.

Snow in Vasastan 🌨 Photo: @pixelthing #thisisgbg #Gothenburg #Göteborg #gbgftw #igersgothenburg #visitsweden #swedishmoments   A photo posted by Göteborg/Gothenburg (@goteborgcom) on

15. Hanoi, Vietnam

When I told my parents I planned on visiting Hanoi, Vietnam this past Spring you would have thought I was telling them I was going to Mars. They grew up in a time where Hanoi was Pyongyang (though I want to go there, too!) and the idea of traveling to the northern Vietnamese capital was unheard of. My grandfather had visited Vietnam a number of times during the war, and no one really knew anything about this city. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, is a fairly common city most people know of and travel to, but Hanoi is often overlooked. At first glance I can understand why; it’s loud, it’s pretty dirty, and the food stalls are barely more than a woman with a wood fire on the side of the road. Not to mention you may die crossing the street, seriously. But I quickly fell in love with the chaos of Hanoi and it is the only city I visited last year that I would return to because there’s just so much to explore! The food, once you learn where to eat, is phenomenal. It’s dirt cheap so you can do almost anything. The people are surprisingly friendly given the history Vietnam and America have. And it’s stunning, tree lined streets and buildings stacked atop each other. There’s no other city like it on Earth!

 

14. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Suggested by The Wandering Lens

When you hear of cruise ship crowds most people cringe at the thought of flag bearing tour guides leading masses of tourists through a city. Well this is the case in Dubrovnik on certain days but there is one huge surprise, it’s possible to completely escape them! Last summer I visited Dubrovnik to put together a photo location guide and stumbled across numerous locations that were completely free of people. I sat and watched the sun set over the skyline of Dubrovnik with my feet happily splashing in the sea and camera snapping away. The best advice I can pass on is to get outside the old town walls. To the east you’ll find a rocky cove beside the marina, ideal for picnics, views of the old town and swimming. To the south is a hidden gem down a stone staircase below the majestic Fort Lovrijenac, deep sparkling water with cliffs either side. Dubrovnik_TheWorldfromtheWater (3)

13. Beijing, China

Suggested by Laura Nalin

Beijing is one of those places that I neither love nor hate. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my first visit there – especially coming from Korea. To me, China is sort of like the wild, wild, West of Asia. It’s thrilling, kind of dirty and incredibly polluted yet absolutely beautiful at the same time. As an avid Oolong tea drinker, I was pretty much in heaven during my time in China. I loved the food (I often think about the dumpings at Jin Ding Xuan), the architecture and uncharacteristically loved the hectic energy. My boyfriend’s wallet was pick pocketed on a bus, we got caught in a complete whiteout snow storm on the Great Wall of China and we were totally baffled by the alarming amount of impurities in the air, but for some reason it is one of my most favorite places I’ve visited. In all it’s disgustingly polluted glory, Beijing stole my heart and made me appreciate the idiosyncrasies of a culture so vastly different than my own on an entirely new level. I think it proves that it’s all about attitude and that it’s best to keep an open mind while traveling, otherwise you’ll leave with an angry heart and nothing but bad memories. 

Go @Steelers!

A photo posted by Laura 로라 (@willfulandwildhearted) on

 

12. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Suggested by Follow The Sisters As a child of a post-communist society, I was always entertained by the perception which Western people have of Bulgaria before visiting it – 99% of the ones I have spoken to share an expectation for a dark, grey country with angry people. The day I scheduled my trip to Slovenia, I realized I wasn’t any different! I presumed I will see yet another country, struggling to let the past go and catch up with the west. Boy, was I wrong! On my very first day in Ljubljana, I couldn’t stop admiring the wide streets, perfectly paved sidewalks, countless bicycle alleys, all small and large parks around the city, and the calm, smiling people. Then my trip to Lake Bled followed and I was mind-blown: the place looks like a fairytale land and at some point I even thought I will see a princess and a prince on the back of a beautiful white horse. Compared to the “almighty” London, which everyone is dreaming of (and I had a chance to live in for a while), Ljubljana is heavenly! As I wrote shortly after my visit, Slovenia and particularly the people in its capital are a representation of the finest from the Slavic ethnicity and their country is like no other place of earth. Definitely a must-see place!

Ljubljana … #ljubljana #mustvisitplace #travelphotography   A photo posted by Nina & Ellie Alexander (@followthesisters) on

11. Kiev, Ukraine

Suggested by Globetrotting Ginger Travel When I decided to teach English in Ukraine, a lot of people thought I was crazy or they were just genuinely curious. “Why Ukraine?” they all wondered. A lot of them didn’t know much about Ukraine besides that it was supposedly unsafe and that the Chernobyl accident happened thereKiev, the capital definitely has European influences, but with a mix of the Old Soviet. This contrast makes it really beautiful and interesting! Kiev is great during the summer because there are wonderful parks everywhere, with festivals and concerts happening all of the time. It is definitely fun to spend an afternoon at a park and watch babushkas wandering around next to young fashionable woman with their Prada bags. There are amazing markets lining the streets and many also underground. Khreshchatyk, the very lovely and clean street going down the center of Kiev closes on weekends and becomes a pedestrian street. There are wonderful outdoor cafes lining the streets and eating out won’t make you break the bank.  It is also definitely worth seeing their opera and ballet and the Opera Houses are quite extravagant!

Kiev, Ukraine.   A photo posted by Aubrie ✈ Globetrotting Ginger (@globetrotting_gingertravel) on

 

10. Mexico City, Mexico

Suggested by Mélika Morales
My experience with Mexico City isn’t actually one of a trip gone better than expected, but one of rediscovery of my own hometown. I was born and raised in Mexico City and was always told how dangerous it was to be alone outside, how I should avoid public transportation, how children got kidnapped all the time… Many friends I’ve made during my time in Europe also perceive Mexico City as a particularly risky place to travel to. The truth is, Mexico City has changed dramatically ever since I was a kid (besides, I have a strong feeling my mom used to exaggerate things to keep us off the street). Particularly in the last couple of years and thanks to some very heavy investment, the city’s safety level has improved in a crazy way! Short story: I was in the tube the other day and some guy snatched a bag from someone. When he tried to run away with it, a female cop chased and tackled him down! Talk about girl power. I really feel like the police has improved significantly; it is more organized and physically prepared than it used to be. Fact: London is the only city in the world that has more museums than Mexico City. Let that sink in. Don’t let stereotypes fool you: Mexico isn’t the culturally void, all about the beach country some people around the world might think it is. Very much on the contrary. Whether you’re looking for museums, galleries, top restaurants, world class hotels, an extremely rich history, monuments, nature, party, business… you name it, you’ll find in in Mexico. And it’s not just me saying it. The New York Times named Mexico City “a metropolis that has it all” and put it in first place on their list of top destinations to visit in 2016

 

#downtown #MexicoCity   A photo posted by Mélika Mora (@melika.mora) on

 

9. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Suggested by Passport and Plates I know this is a bit crazy, but I had zero urge to visit Amsterdam before I went. Most people I know go there to hang out in “coffeeshops,” walk around the Red Light District, and party in general. Totally fine for some people, but not really my idea of a good time. I’m not much of a museum person either, so I was feeling pretty unenthusiastic about it in general. This past summer, I found myself there during my Euro trip since a good friend was living there at the time. I was surprised to find the city to be absolutely lovely. Not only was it beautiful and quaint, but there were tons of great restaurants and cafes and just so much diversity of culture in general. If the weather was better, I could even see myself living there! Definitely a 180 from my preconceived notions! 

I’m on a boat with @tiffanychanel! #Amsterdam #canals #thenetherlands A photo posted by Passport & Plates | Sally E (@passportandplates) on

8. Marrakech, Morocco

Suggested by Mel Adela

Morocco, where do I begin… it wasn’t love at first sight. My overprotective mother did not want me to go and my partner and I had booked this trip to celebrate our third anniversary. No one thought of Morocco as a romantic getaway, and to be honest, I didn’t either. The first moment I fell in love with Morocco was on our first night. We were staying in a beautiful traditional Riad (Riad Marrakiss) which had a rooftop overlooking what felt like the whole city. We were on it at night just staring at the sky listening to the call to prayer. And even though there were thousands of people making their way to the mosques, it felt so peaceful. But still, I had a few reservations. It had only been two days and I was already getting annoyed by the hasslers on the street constantly trying to sell us weed or guide us somewhere for money. The minute we left the stress of Marrakech, however, we saw the best side of this beautiful country. Driving up the Atlas mountains and visiting the Todgha Gorge showed the astonishing landscapes. And when we met the berbers, we met the true people of Morocco. They were so welcoming and always ready to answer any questions and eager to speak English, I felt more safe here than on the streets of London. But you know what really took my breath away? Finally reaching the Sahara after a 2 day journey and an hour long camel ride. Now I don’t know what gets more romantic than watching the most dramatic sunset of our lives and then sleeping under a sky filled with every star in sight. And that is a moment that I will always be grateful for.

 

 

7. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Suggested by Collecting Labels Everyone said Phnom Penh was dirty, that there wasn’t anything to do there. I couldn’t have disagreed more. I really fell for the gritty city. It’s full of unique restaurants and cafes, there are hard hitting historical sites, beautiful palaces, incredible art galleries and some of the tastiest and most authentic Khmer food I had during my entire 30 days in Cambodia. I liked Phnom Penh so much, I ended up passing back through on my way to a different city and decided to stay a few more days to check out some of the markets. It’s the sort of city that needs to be explored deeper, longer. It’s definitely rough around the edges, but what beloved city isn’t?

 

6. Cape Town, South Africa

Suggested by The Daily S’elf The first place I’ve ever been completely and utterly surprised by and thought “I could live here”, within minutes of the plane touching down. Cape Town has a serious wow factor and my first visit made me understand what all the fuss was about. I could never understand why people raved about it so much, you definitely have to see it to believe it. But then, of course, there are the naysayers. “South Africa? It’s so dangerous there!”…usually from people who have never set foot in the country. I heard it so many times before my trip that naturally a bit of worry kicked in. For the first couple of hours I was cautious to do anything alone, like even to go to the corner shop, but I quickly forgot all about it and never once felt unsafe. That being said, I went to reasonably nice places and when I visited the townships, we were with locals…but it’s not like I’d be going around any unknown area after dark alone! I was really blown away by the beaches, the food and wine, the friendly locals, the sunsets and how colourful Cape Town is. I went from knowing nothing about the city and being slightly wary to falling head over heels in love with it and haven’t stopped gushing since.

 

 5. Athens, Greece

Suggested  by Look Left Blog. Athens is by far the city I love the most, after my own capital. But I have to admit it wasn’t always like that, in fact, I hated living there for the first two months, and I cursed those who decided I should have an internship in Greece. The thing is, and I learned this in Athens, a city is all about its people. Thanks to Couchsurfing I got to meet some amazing people that are now really good friends of mine, almost all of them Greeks, people that introduced me to the real Athens that I love today. The most important thing to keep in mind before visiting Athens is that you should be open minded and be willing to embrace the chaos of a crowded place, it won’t be easy, but I still definitely recommend all those touristic and historical places. Do that during the day, and fall in love after the sun sets. Go back to the historical area, and climb the metallic steps to see Athens and the Acropolis from the Areopagus hill, I promise you that it will be the most beautiful view you’ll see of Athens at night, maybe also the best at day time! After that, find a roof bar, there are several in Athens, and enjoy a warm night with a cold drink under the stars right in the middle of the city. And why not, also go for the movies? Yes, they have a few roof cinema theaters too! Enjoy the city, during day and night, don’t let the crowds spoil your fun. When in Athens don’t be a tourist, let yourself feel the city and you’ll fall in love like I did!

I already miss you #Athens! #Greece #Acropoli   A photo posted by Gil Sousa (@gfpsousa) on

 

4. China

Suggested by The Allophilliacs When Western people think about traveling to Asia most think of Japan, South Korea, or Thailand. It seems to me that the largest country in Asia is the most often overlooked. I am talking about that huge landmass between Russia and SE Asia. China is a massive country filled with thousands of years of history and the center of many different cultures unlike anywhere else in the world. As a student in China I have gotten the chance to explore what China offers and I am in love. If you love food then you are truly missing out by not visiting China. There are hundreds of cuisine types in this one country and it is paradise for foodies. In addition it is the oldest continuous civilization still in existence and you can see it everywhere. It boasts 48 ratified UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is second only to Italy at 51. Yes, the government is communist and yes there are definitely some human rights issues. But the same could be said about pretty much country in the world. China is also more then Beijing, it has hundreds of cities where you can see natural beauty working with new technology to combine ancient Chinese culture with new age technology. So if you are looking for a great place to see culture, food, and nature look no further than China. 

3. Hell, Norway

Suggested by The Longest Haul

What a lot of people don’t realise is that when they fly into the city of Trondheim, Norway, they’re actually flying into Hell. The tiny fjord-side town (population 1,400) is home the local airport, and my Norwegian family – but it’s really not as bad as the name implies. I visited over Christmas, when a thin layer of ice and patchy snow covered the ground, meaning I was obliged to make jokes that the locals definitely hadn’t heard before; along the lines of “when Hell freezes over” and “a snowball’s chance in Hell”. Daylight was a small, dusky window between 12p.m. and 1:30; casting eerie, long shadows over everything, like a page ripped straight from a Scandinavian crime thriller. This is the Norway you imagine. A short hike on the outskirts of town will take you to ancient cave drawings – large, geometrical reindeer – believed to be some 6,000 years old. From the old train station, painted bright orange and built with the traditional sloped, Norwegian rooves, hangs a sign that declares “Hell, Gods Expedition”. To an English speaker, it’s some kind of cryptic reference to the town’s unfortunate moniker – but to a Norwegian it simply means “cargo handling”. The town is surrounded by endless, green hills, and quaint salmon fishing communities tucked into valleys. If you’re ever up near Trondheim, make the time to see Hell. Plus, you can tell your friends afterwards that you’ve quite literally “been to Hell and back”!

hell, norway

2. Naples, Italy

Suggested by Tourists By Chance

Naples is the most underrated city in Italy. In my opinion, it is the misunderstood city of Italy. For years, Naples has been forgotten by the government, which has led to many problems for this city, including crime and large amounts of garbage left on the street (yes it is true!). Lets not forget that Naples is also home to the Mafia, hence, the many issues this city has faced. However I feel a strong need to defend beautiful Napoli, because it really is an incredible city with so much to see and do. Now do not get me wrong. When I first got to Naples, I asked  myself why I had come to this place! And do not get me started on the bus ride to my accommodation and the taxi I took the first night! And yes, I came across the piles of garbage on the streets corners and again, I thought to myself that the American tourists were not all wrong about this place. In fact, it seems that every single tourist that has visited Naples has gotten robbed! I am here though to tell you why this place is worth your while! Let’s start with the people. The Napolitani are the most welcoming, funniest and most vocals of all the Italians. They love their city and are very proud of where they live, regardless of all the issues. The food! Home to the Mozzarella di Bufala, Pizza, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, Baba and all things lemon, Naples will not disappoint. The culture and the views. I conclude with this quote from Aldous Huxley, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Napoli streets

1. Sierra Leone

Suggested by Taoufiq Haesen Sierra Leone is one of those unique destinations you can’t even begin to formulate expectations for. This tiny corner of West Africa best known for blood diamonds, child soldiers, brutal warfare, and most recently savaged by the Ebola crisis, understandably isn’t swarmed with tourists. However for the intrepid traveller, it offers raw and unspoilt beauty, a rich cultural heritage, and best of all people who despite being one of the poorest people on earth are some of the most generous and hospitable you will ever meet.

sierra-leone

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7 Comments

  1. Kate
    January 11, 2016 / 4:00 pm

    Awesome post! Thanks for bringing such great insights into these often overlooked or dismissed places. I’ve definitely added a few to my bucketlist :)

  2. dicampbell
    January 12, 2016 / 5:35 am

    Thanks for sharing! I’m starting to think about where I want to travel this year, so I will definitely keep some of these in mind. (PS: I went to Morocco in 2009, and I totally co-sign Todra Gorge — it took me off guard, it’s fantastic!)

  3. January 13, 2016 / 9:38 pm

    This is so awesome! I loved hearing what everybody thought about places around the world. And y’all are some pretty awesome photographers too. :) I traipsed through Naples, Italy but it was just to get to Capri. I should have explored more. And ate more…that’s for sure!

    • January 14, 2016 / 10:46 am

      I keep hearing both really good and really bad things about Naples…it is hard to keep track! I guess I will just have to visit and make up my own opinions about it!

  4. January 14, 2016 / 10:17 am

    This was an amazing read! I should add these places to my bucketlist. :)

    • January 14, 2016 / 10:26 am

      You should…some great suggestions in here!! :-)

  5. February 12, 2016 / 12:58 pm

    I lived in Cape Town for 2.5 months and totally agree Fantastic city! and the surrounding area is just stunning too!. Im in Playa del Carmen, Mexico now and based on this post am seriously considering putting Mexico City on my list while here. Sierra Leone will have to wait a while though.

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