Why “Off the beaten path” places are the best places to Visit
One thing we realized reflecting on our last 6 years of full-time travel is that our most vivid memories are from the “off the beaten path places” that we’ve visited. Places like Ukraine, Armenia, Colombia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Africa, and North Macedonia.
That’s not to take away from “popular” destinations. We love places like Germany, Spain and Italy. But there’s something about off the beaten path places that just excites us more.
I started travelling to these kinds of places long before I met Lissette in 2005. I was at a time in my life where I felt stressed (work, a recent divorce, raising a son) but also bored with life. My life felt too structured. I felt there was something missing.
In 2001 I had my first trip to Asia. I was 35 at the time. Despite having lived in Africa and travelling a lot when I was younger I had never actually travelled solo. On that trip I spent 3 weeks bouncing around Hong Kong and South East Asia, mostly travelling solo but also meeting up with my childhood friend “George” (“George” doesn’t want me to use his real name). We spent a lot of time arguing during that trip – we’ve been lifelong friends but it’s where I learned that travelling with someone is something entirely different. I realized during that trip that although it was nice seeing a friendly face, I preferred travelling solo.
I can credit that first trip for giving me the confidence to travel by myself. After that I had a couple of trips to the Dominican Republic where I spontaneously criss-crossed the country on buses and drove a motorcycle through the mountains. I met weird characters, made a few Dominican friends, and was introduced to rum, cigars, merengue music, Dominican strip joints and baseball games. In 2004 I did the same thing in Colombia despite warnings from friends and family. People didn’t just go to Colombia at that time. I remember flying from Bogota to Cartagena on a plane filled with soldiers. I met friendly people, saw some incredible natural beauty and fell in love with the country.
For me there was no other way to travel. Travelling to off the beaten path destinations meant that experiences were authentic and prices low. I would show up in a city and have no issues finding a hotel – any other tourist was most likely fighting over beach chairs at an all-inclusive. I met locals and hung out with them and their friends. I had fun and adventure. I think my experiences also helped me grow, giving me confidence, something that I had lacked in my 20’s.
It was travelling as I did that made me dream of travelling full-time. I was hooked. When I met Lissette in 2005 I told her that travelling was what I wanted to do. Lissette had no issue with that – she had left New York to work in Montreal and wasn’t tied down to anything.
Looking back now at the 6 years since we left Montreal in 2014, it is the off the beaten path places that stick out. We of course haven’t travelled the same that I did on those solo holidays in my mid-30’s. Still though, the attraction (and challenges) of these places are the same: they’re less crowded, less expensive, travel can be more complicated, language is more of a factor. But those destinations also mean more authentic experiences and more meaningful personal interactions. Ukraine, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are 3 countries special to us because of interaction we’ve had with locals. Another thing about off the beaten path places is the unknown and unexpected. Sure, the Lisbons and Romes of the world get great press and accolades. But who would have expected Kyiv (Kiev) to be have some of the most impressive highlights anywhere in Europe? (a place where the Canadian ambassador wrote me and invited us to a Canadian embassy party. Now, would that happen in Paris for example?). Who would have expected Sofia (Bulgaria) to be such a pleasant city? And who would have known about Armenia’s fantastic food, Cognac, and its fractious history with its neighbors? (after a month in Armenia last year the current war with Azerbaijan/Turkey isn’t a surprise to us).
You can read about places but until you’re there they’re just words and places on a map. But it’s getting to know these little known, lesser visited places that really gives you an appreciation for travel. I compare it to discovering a good wine bottle. Sure, it’s great when everyone tells you about a great bottle and you try it and love it. But it’s even better finding a great bottle of wine that nobody’s told you about. That’s what’s special about off the beaten path places.
Related: The 5 Best Places to See in Moldova
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As always, it is great to read your posts, I totally agree even though I have not travel as much as you, but when I am traveling and someone tells me “don’t get lost”, I always think that getting lost takes you to beautiful places that otherwise you’ve never been there. Of course for me you are an inspiration, I like the way you describe places and people and make me want to go there, as a matter of fact, our year ago trip to Croatia was following your path, we started in Split, went to Hvar, Trogir, Zadar and Dubrovnik following your recommendations. Some years ago we flew from Paris to Biarritz, rented a car and traveled from Irun and San Sebastian to Ribadeo and the Playa de las Catedrales passing by Santander, Bilbao,Santillana del mar and a lot of not so important towns full of beautiful landscape and very nice people like LLanes, Cudillero, San Vicente de la Barquera, Zumaia and others. Playa de las Catedrales is a beautiful place with huge rocks on the beach that you can walk around them for some hours when it’s ebb tide, then they are completely covered by water. Spain has beautiful places full of flavor, history, nice food and people, when you go to Extremadura, you cannot miss Merida, they have the most beautiful Roman ruins including very well preserved theater and a very good Roman Museum with one of the best mosaics I’ve ever seen. Well, now in Spain you will have to to enjoy all what that country has to offer to avid souls like yours. Take care and continue writing, say hi to Lissette.
Thank you very much for your comment Carlos! Always appreciate them and I like hearing about your trips (you always do a lot. I think going forward we’ll be travelling much like you do). I’m curious: when everything goes back to normal, where do you plan on going?
Glad we inspired you on Croatia and you’ve given us some great tips on Spain. My plan for 2021 is to get a Spanish drivers license and do some long road trips.
All the best to you and your family for the holidays!
I would say none of my best travel memories have occurred in a popular spot full of tourists. You are 100% right!
Thanks Andy. You’ve been to even more weird places than I have, I know we think alike!
Interesting post. Last year I started exploring Europe more. Mostly I go to the Far East because those long-haul flights will get harder on me as I age, making such trips impossible in the future. 2020 was a mess. I really hope 2021 improves but this is going to be a rough winter with Covid. Ugh.
We’re keeping fingers crossed for the summer Edith. Hope by then things get back to normal although some people are saying it won’t be until next autumn…
Frank, I couldn’t agree more. For those with families or perhaps less adventurous spouses or partners, even “soft” off-the beaten path can reap big rewards. When I say “soft” off-the-beaten path, I mean places in more well-known or often-visited countries that may not be on the average or popular tourist path of your fellow countrymen.
Two examples… About four years ago, my wife and I decided to take our son on his first international trip from the US to Mexico. It was spring break, but instead of hitting the popular spots like the Cancun or Cozumel, we went to Mexico City. No, Mexico City isn’t off-the-beaten path overall, but it is for a family with a then-8-year-old. We had an absolute blast. We saw historic and cultural sites totally different from the “normal spring break trip,” ate amazing food, and met amazing people. Two years later when we went to Spain, we did something similar. Instead of going to the Mediterranean coast in the summer and visiting the “normal” sites for American tourists, we headed west into Extremadura and north into Asturias. It was an unforgettable trip. When we ended with two nights in Madrid, it was culture shock to hear English spoken and see multinational big chains. Even within the most popular travel countries, people can reap major experiential rewards for picking places that don’t have 1001 guidebooks written about them.
Great comment Tom. You are absolutely right. You’d don’t have to go to far away places like Colombia or Armenia. And while Mexico isn’t as you say “off the beaten track” the normal tourist doesn’t go to Mexico City. I remember being nervous the 1st time (my mom lives in Mexico) and ended up enjoying Mexico City. Mexico one of my favorite countries (if you can, I’d suggest visiting places like Puebla, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato…). As for Spain, we’re looking forward to visiting places like Extramadura and Asturias. And the Basque. I don’t think we’ll be bored for options.
Thank you very much for taking the time to comment.
I agree. I’ve consistently enjoyed out of the way places for travel more than the heavily travelled tourist spots. Based on your recommendation, I spent a week in Puebla, Mexico exactly one year ago. I had a wonderful time, and I too was travelling solo.
During isolation here in the States, I’ve been gathering the information I need to apply for citizenship in the Netherlands, something I qualify for since my father was born there, emigrated to the States when he was 12 but never became a US citizen. It’s been a challenge since I had no tangible hardcopy records to start with (except for my own), but I’ve been surprising successful. Once some archives are open again, I should have all of the information I need. Then, depending on how life continues to unfold here in the states and my level of courage, I may make the move to Europe by next fall. A challenge, but then isn’t life a challenge and an adventure if we are willing.
Please keep up with the posts. I thoroughly enjoy hearing from you.
Good luck with your move. You won’t regret it.
It always makes it happy when someone says they went somewhere based on my recommendation and they enjoyed it. Glad you liked Puebla, I think it’s a beautiful place and I’m planning to go back with my mom sometime in 2021.
I think you can never have too many options. I went through the same as you but couldn’t get German citizenship – despite both my parents having been born in Germany. Long story but I fell through all the cracks in the rules. Would have made getting residency in Europe so much easier. So if you can get Dutch citizenship I would definitely go through all the steps…even if you never use it it might be beneficial to your kids (if you have any) in the future. I know I wish my parents had tried harder to maintain their German citizenship.
Thank you for your kind comments, always nice knowing that there are people reading my posts.
Hi, Frank. I suspect neither of your parents was a German citizen at the time of your birth? I know Brazilians trying to get Italian citizenship through parents and grandparents and that is what it usually hinges on, unfortunately.
My mom was still a German citizen, but my dad was not. Law states that for children born before 1975 the father needs to have German citizenship for the child to get citizenship.
That’s a bummer. 🙁
As always great enlightening post. Lucky to have lissette to share the passion too. Thanks to you I was exposed to Split and other worthwhile destinations, some are still on my future list. Isn’t it good luck to have been able to already travel for six years and not be caught off guard with the current pandemic? I agree, the memories are more pronounced when they are unique as in your case, you’ll cherish them till…..p.s. I was gutsier when I traveled solo in my mid 20’s up to three months, little English, in hindsight, I was naive to dare it, but never a regret. I wish you both a Merry Christmas, great enjoyable holiday season and a fabulous 2021 traveling year.
We’ve been lucky this year Sara. Everything ended up working out for us.
Happy Holidays to you and Moishe and all the best for 2021.
I love off the beaten path, unplanned and unexpected destinations, sometimes you win sometimes you loose (even though you never really loose), sometimes it’s a challenge(transportation, etc), sometimes it’s easier, but for me ……always worth it.
It’s thrilling to look back and think…..yes, I’ve been there…..it’s not just a name on a map, it’s a living place where life is going on for those in that place or surrounding areas. I LOVE it!
As a matter of fact, I was just looking over some travel photos and saw something that I had forgotten about…..I had wanted to share the photo, but didn’t (SELFISH of ME). I didn’t because It’s off the beaten path- but not far off……and I don’t want people going there and Instagramming it, it’s a place that deserves more respect. I don’t think that Instagrammers will do that. I have seen people drive, get out of their car, take some photo and then……on to the next Instagram spot.
During the time I discovered this place…..I actually saw people in a village- not far away with a photographer following them taking “Paparazzi” style photos.
I am happy are still many great places to be discovered.
By the way, I am somewhat a hippocrite as I have been to Instagram places that I found because of someone sharing, thank you people for that.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said all this….I seem like a real A@@Hole.
Thank you guys for sharing your stories and adventures. It opens my eyes and is helpful to read, especially when I can’t travel. I appreciate your blog.
You don’t sound like an A@@hole Malinda, we get our inspiration from different sources. I generally hate Instagram but not because of the concept: sharing photos of places is great. It’s the people making it about themselves.
Off the beaten path is as you say: a challenge and sometimes it can be a hit or miss. And you can’t be the type looking to just take photos and then dash off to the next place. It’s about the experience as you say.
Thanks for the kind words 🙂
Love this post, Frank. And compliments on the layout design, choice of images for the new site MappingSpain. com
Thanks Duncan. I’ll have to change my bbqboy theme sometime next year to something similar to Mappingspain, it’s running on an old editor and running on a bunch of plugins.