Ten Alternative Destinations for Travelers who Value Authenticity over Popularity
Simple alternatives to popular destinations. Plus: How to blend in with the locals!
“Never meet your heroes”?
What goes for celebrities, applies just as well to traveling. I have been to 47 countries so far, and for me, it was never the major tourist centers that created the best memories. Instead, it was always the smaller cities and less popular places that won me over with their authenticity, character and affordability.
Based on my own experiences, I therefore want to share alternatives to some major destinations. These places offer the same, genuine impressions at a fraction of the cost and hassle of their bigger brothers.
Sure, Paris is shiny. But consider Lyon instead.
Paris is and always has been a dream destination for international travelers. Some have come back slightly disappointed by the overall state of the city and the occasional grumpy waiter. If instead you want to experience the place that the French themselves consider the hot spot for good food, put Lyon on your list.
Only two hours away from Paris by train (or five by car – hats off to the super-efficient high-speed trains), Lyon is a paradise for the “gourmand”. It offers a high density of Michelin-star and excellent affordable restaurants. Here, the fresh, light and regional French cuisine really comes to shine.
To digest, take a walk where the two rivers meet (“Confluence”), or marvel at the historic buildings in the Old Town.
How to pretend you’re a local: Go to one of the traditional, typical restaurants, called “bouchons”.
If you are looking for something special and are into wine, try to reserve one of the very few tables at the Michelin Star restaurant “La Sommelière”. It is run by one of the few female wine specialists in France.
Paella? In Barcelona? Rather go to its birthplace, Valencia.
When Barcelona is on your mind, you are likely looking for beaches, nightlife and a little bit of culture. You will find all that (and fewer pickpockets) in Valencia.
Its unique feature for me is the dried out lake bed that has been turned into an 11 km (6 mls) long public park. In it, the spectacular buildings of Valencia’s native architect Santiago Calatrava form the “City of Arts and Sciences”.
How to pretend you’re a local: Prepare a picnic and spend the day walking or biking in the aforementioned park. Then, to cool off, order a refreshing “Agua de Valencia” in one of the bars in the city center.
Find out more about the magnificent park here.
If you still want to visit Barcelona, read this post first.
For other alternatives to Barcelona, this might help.
And, I admit, there is excellent Paella in Barcelona.
Spanish Art and Culture, but different: Madrid vs. Bilbao
Madrid has the Prado, but if you are into art and architecture, give Frank Gehry’s impressive Guggenheim Museum a chance.
While you’re there, be surprised by how diverse Spain can be: In the North, Spain is green and sometimes humid and the regional basque language is like nothing you’ve heard before.
How to pretend you’re a local: Buy “pintxos”, the basque version of tapas as a snack or to have with your drink at the regional chain “100 Montaditos” or, for higher quality, at one of the many bars in the old town. Once you’re there, wait for nightfall (nothing in Spain happens before 10 pm), get a drink to go from one of the bars and join the thousands of young people that sit in the streets drinking and enjoying their lives. You’ll make friends easily here, everyone is very open and relaxed.
A Castle! Bridges! A River! Beer! Not only in Prague, but also in Český Krumlov
If you want to experience Czechia without being lured into a strip club every five minutes on your walk through the old town, Český Krumlov could spark your interest. From the castle, you have a good view over the old town, which helps you pick a restaurant serving traditional hearty Czech food.
How to pretend you’re a local: Find someone to rent a rubber boat from and float down the river circling the old town.
Bavaria Is More Than Munich – Consider Bad Tölz
Firstly, do not skip Munich! It is very unique in its culture and the variety of things to do and see is hard to beat. Still, the fact that it is the third largest city in Germany takes away some of the originality. If you want the Bavarian experience, take a trip to Bad Tölz. In the center, watch out for the beautifully painted original buildings. You might even see some locals in traditional Bavarian clothing; they wear these daily, not only for special festivities.
How to pretend you’re a local: Get up really early, grab a flashlight and hike up one of the nearby summits in the Alps to watch the sun rise.
Oktoberfest Is the Only Beer Fest? Gäubodenfest Begs to Differ
While we’re on the subject of Bavaria and its customs: As the Oktoberfest draws in millions of visitors from all over the world, it might have lost a bit of the authenticity and become a largely profit driven event. If you don’t know the right people or show up too late, you might not even get into the large tents where the fun happens.
Alternatively, the “Gäubodenvolksfest” also draws in over a million visitors, yet is largely unknown outside of the region. It follows the same concept: during the day it’s a family event with plenty of carnival rides, and at night it becomes the mad, yet friendly and open-hearted “beer fest”.
How to pretend you’re a local: Get into a tent, eat, have a beer. Or two. Or eight. After a while, you will find yourself slightly drunk, very happy, singing, shouting, literally dancing on the tables with hundreds of others.
Berlin is alternative, Leipzig is the alternative alternative
While the hipster movement in Berlin can now sometimes be seen as not much more than a fashion statement, the rise of Leipzig after the fall of the Berlin Wall gave birth to a new haven for those that hold true to its values. The city has created affordable workshops and living space for young artists, and you can find many alternative night clubs, events and vegan restaurants.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed, even the New York Times recommends Leipzig to its readers and the university draws in thousands of new students each year.
How to pretend you’re a local: Spend a summer’s day relaxing at one of the many lakes in the vicinity.
The “German Lake” or an actual Italian lake? Garda and Iseo
Italians call it “Il Lago Tedesco (the German lake)” for a reason, and tend to avoid it in their travels. Due to its proximity to southern Germany, Lake Garda is the most popular destination in Italy for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from spring to fall. Mass tourism has taken its toll and the Italian lifestyle there can sometimes seem like a bit of a show.
Only one and a half hours farther lies the equally beautiful Lake Iseo, which has been able to retain a lot of its original charm. Go swimming, hiking or take a boat to the Monte Isola in the middle of the lake and take in the excellent views.
How to pretend you’re a local: Try surfing or stand-up paddle boarding
If you still want to go to Lake Garda, do so during Christmas time. The romantic Christmas markets in the now quiet villages, with the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the Alps make for a relaxing vacation.
For dinner, have creative, fresh, regional cuisine at “L’Albero” in Riva.
Sicily is famous, Basilicata should be
Sun, sea and lemon trees: The magnificent TV show “White Lotus” is one of the latest in a long line of American productions that create a longing for a week in southern Italy. Less well known – and surprisingly clean for the region – is Basilicata. It is home to an impressive cave town, Matera, that is rightfully UNESCO World Heritage. In the rest of the province, you’ll find everything that Sicily has to offer: Beach resorts, ancient temples, castles and nature reserves, just more untouched by its visitors. In summer, the heat is not as crushing as in the neighboring provinces.
How to pretend you’re a local: Eat the local pasta with “peperoni cruschi”, accompanied by one of the excellent local wines.
Admittedly, Erfurt doesn’t belong on this list, as it can’t really be seen as an alternative to anything else. I still wanted to include it, as no other city has surprised me this much recently.
Unlike other German cities, Erfurt lost only five percent of its buildings to the bombings of the Second World War. Therefore, most of the medieval buildings and street layout could be preserved. Strolling through the narrow, well maintained alleyways makes you realize that modern cities don’t really profit from car traffic rumbling through them day and night.
The unique main attraction is the Krämerbrücke, a bridge that has houses and shops built on top of it. A short drive from the city is Wartburg castle, where Martin Luther famously translated the Bible to make it more accessible for the common people.
How to pretend you’re a local: Erfurt is very green, thanks to the many small streams running through it (one park is therefore officially called “Venice”!). So take your kids to one of the many playgrounds there, relax, and get one of the famous regional sausages for lunch.
At night, have the most interesting cocktail you’ve ever had at Hemingway Bar.
Where to next?
Clearly, this article is not supposed to be a tour guide, it is meant as food for thought for those travelers that are weary of large crowds on their holidays. And of course, the number one destinations are popular for a reason. It’s just that sometimes, silver can make you happier than gold.
What other alternatives have you discovered? Would you be interested in more lists like this about Asia or the Americas?