How can you travel more responsibly and have a better vacation? Skip the overcrowded cities and sites and visit these alternative travel destinations!
In my last blog I wrote about how some cities are experiencing a phenomenon called overtourism. At the end of that blog, I listed some ways we can travel more responsibly and avoid contributing to this problem.
One of the best ways is to visit alternative travel destinations.
While popular cities draw countless tourists every year, there are many smaller and undiscovered locations that deserve equal (maybe even more!) attention. By traveling to these lesser known cities, you will not only lessen overtourism but also avoid:
Overpaying for hotels, food, and tours
Stressing about the above items
I don’t know about you but saving money and avoiding hoards of people sounds like a much better time to me!
The list I’ve compiled below includes locations you have probably never heard of in your life but are destinations I have personally visited and enjoyed. I have also visited the places I’m suggesting to replace with these alternative destinations (except for Phuket).
While there are other locations that could potentially be more appealing to you – and places I think would also make great alternative destinations – I can’t justify telling you to go there without seeing it for myself!
So while you might be scratching your head on a few of these, I just ask one thing of you: trust me. I’ve been to a lot of places around the world! Good and bad. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what can make a place a must-see alternative destination for any type of traveler.
Without further ado, here’s the list:
Puerto Escondido, Mexico instead of Tulum
Puerto Escondido is what Tulum was 10 years ago: a surfing paradise with plenty of sun, sand, and surf to go around. I spent about a month here with my partner and this was probably one of the more underdeveloped places we have stayed long-term. Though we usually enjoy city life, we weren’t bothered much (if at all) by the slow wifi and bumpy roads. What the town lacks in sturdy infrastructure, it more than makes up for with its ocean views, amazing weather, and incredible food spots.
Don’t wait though! It’s my prediction that Puerto Escondido is going to become a hot spot location in 3-4 years. For now, if you want to experience the real side of Mexico, this is the place to go. Period.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some slow travel activities to do in Puerto Escondido. Also in my blog about the best food markets in Mexico you will find a market in Puerto Escondido on that list!
Utrecht, Netherlands instead of Amsterdam
In my recent blog about overtourism in Amsterdam I talked a bit about how tourists in recent years have gotten a somewhat infamous reputation, particularly for what has been called “anti-social” behavior (i.e. public drunkenness, vomiting, loud noises).
One of the tourism council’s proposed solutions to the overtourism in Amsterdam is promotion of other, lesser-known cities nearby.
After having visited Utrecht, I would say this is the perfect alternative. By train, it’s only 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam, is cheaper, and has far fewer tourists. It has all the parts of Amsterdam travelers love (‘coffee shops’, pretty canals, quaint storefronts, etc.) without the excessive crowds and bad behavior.
Padua (Padova), Italy instead of Venice
While you’ve probably never heard of Padua, this is a great destination if you are interested in traveling around the northeast in Italy and are looking for a way to spend a day or two off the beaten path. Padua is similar in size to Verona and has some amazing ancient and medieval sites and buildings to explore.
If you only want to spend the day, I recommend doing the following: in the center there is a building called the Palazzo della Ragione, flanked by two piazzas, Piazza della Frutta and Piazza delle Erbe. Around the perimeter of this palazzo you will find tons of food stalls (hence the name of the piazzas) to meander through. I urge you to buy a few items – and a bottle of wine – and make your way to the Giardini dell’Arena. On your way you will pass many beautiful streets and historical buildings. When you finally make it to the Giardini you’ll have some snacks to munch on as you enjoy the beautiful scenery in the park. If you bring wine, don’t forget your cavatappi (bottle opener)!
You can easily find Padua if you are traveling between Venice and Verona. It’s about halfway in between. Other notable, even smaller, cities nearby Padova that I’ve enjoyed are:
Marostica – best-known for its human sized chess board and medieval wooden bridge. Here’s a good travel guide!
Soave – great for wine and castle lovers
Montevideo, Uruguay instead of Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is an incredible city and well-worth visiting but if you want a more laid back place to spend a week or two, I recommend Montevideo. Just a ferry-ride across the channel from Buenos Aires, Montevideo is a fantastic location for three types of people: meat lovers, wine lovers, and beach lovers. Those who love all three, you’re about to find nirvana.
Right after disembarking your ferry you will find yourself at the Mercado del Puerto. This is where you will find the greatest selection of grilled meats, all from Uruguay! Save up your appetite here because the portions are enormous. If you’re ready to get to wine tasting, head to the Montevideo Wine Experience, right next door to the mercado, for a little tasting that will introduce you to all of the best wines in the country.
After you’ve feasted and sufficiently raised your blood alcohol levels, you may need to walk it off. Luckily, there are miles of coastline walkways in Montevideo called the Rambla Francia and/or Rambla República Argentina. Along your way you will find tons of beaches to laze around on and take in the Uruguayan sun. Hard to beat.
Siena, Italy instead of Florence (Firenze)
Florence is one of those cities to which every traveler should manage to make a pilgrimage. It is the quintessential tourist city: Great food? Check. Cool old stuff? Check. Beautiful nature? Check. Shopping? Check. Walkable? Check. Beautiful people? Big check.
Okay, you’re probably wondering, is this section about Siena or are you a spokesperson for Florence? Yes (and also yes, always). I just want to reiterate my love for Firenze because I don’t think it should be skipped but it’s a place you may have a harder time Slow Traveling because there are just endless things to do and see. To really appreciate the city, I recommend staying in Florence for 2+ weeks. I lived there for almost two months and even then didn’t feel I really saw everything.
For those with limited time but who still want to have a Slow Travel experience in Tuscany, I would recommend Siena instead!! It’s far smaller but still extremely scenic. It ticks all the same boxes as Florence but, due to its size, there’s maybe a bit less to see and do. What are the main attractions? Visit the Piazza del Campo and take a tour of the Palazzo Pubblico there. I also recommend visiting Santa Maria della Scala and the Duomo di Siena (almost as grand as the the Duomo in Firenze).
San Sebastian, Spain instead of Barcelona
While San Sebastian is not a relatively unknown city, it certainly does not suffer the same problems of overtourism as Barcelona. Along with its incredible food scene, this is what has landed San Sebastian on my list of must-see alternative destinations.
When it comes to restaurants, you’ll find a quantity over quality approach in Barcelona and a quality over quantity in San Sebastian. That’s not to say there aren’t tons of options in San Sebastian. However, I think of it like this: you’ll find more 5-star restaurants on one street in San Sebastian where in Barcelona you could comb entire neighborhoods to find one restaurant of the same caliber.
When I went years ago, I was also there for the feast of St. Thomas where the whole city transformed into a farmers market serving tons of artisanal food and goods. Xtistorra (chee-sto-rah), a chorizo type of sausage served in a tortilla, was also served as the traditional snack of choice for this saint’s day festival. Here are 13 Festivals in San Sebastian you should also check out when you go!
Besides the incredible food, San Sebastian sits at the center of Basque country, a cultural epicenter with incredible history.
Koh Samui, Thailand instead of Phuket
Disclaimer: I have never been to Phuket! However, from what I read and hear from other travelers, Phuket suffers from being overly touristy. So, if you’re looking for an authentic destination, it is probably not the place for you… If you disagree, let me know!
As island destinations in Thailand go, I believe Koh Samui is relatively unknown to most travelers. Like many islands in the country, it was once a fully fledged fishing town that now caters to tourists from all over the world.
We stayed for about 4-5 days and it was incredible, however I have not visited since 2019. So here is a great resource for some things you need to know before you go to Koh Samui that is more likely to be relevant for the current state of the world.
As with most destinations in Thailand, there is a little something for everyone here: hostels, luxury hotels (and everything in between), adventure tours, beaches, temples, and spas that cater to many different price ranges.
If you’re looking for an island destination in Thailand that is a bit off the beaten track, I think Koh Samui is the spot.
Lübbenau, Germany instead of Berlin
True story, I found Lübbenau by accidentally zooming in on an area outside of Berlin on Google Maps! I saw a big green area with lots of little canals, and when I clicked on it I saw photos that looked a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings. Sold.
I am still so grateful that the friend I was traveling with at the time was up for a bit of adventure. This could have been a massive failure and instead it was one of the best random, off-the-beaten-track travel experiences I’ve had.
Lübbenau is about a one-hour train ride outside of Berlin. Once you arrive, it’s easy to find the “entrance” to the UNESCO Spreewald Biosphere Reserve. At the time (2017), we were able to hop onto a little boat tour for about €10(!) which took us around the reserve for about 3-4 hours. This included a stop for lunch (not included in the €10 obviously!), and some time to stop at a few riverside shops where you could buy artisanal trinkets directly from your boat. It was very very cool.
If you have some extra time while you’re in Germany this is one alternative destination you won’t want to miss.
By taking advantage of all the things smaller or lesser-known cities have to offer, we can all do better as travelers, both for the places we visit and for ourselves. I hope this list gives you some inspiration to try these alternative travel destinations!
Where would you go first? Leave a comment below!