Some well-known places are genuinely wonderful. Some just have a good marketing team. Here are nine lesser-known places to check out and have a better time for less money or hassle.
Go on, admit it — part of the reason you might travel to a place is to say you’ve been there. Y’know, to the famous landmark everyone’s heard of. If you’ve done this already, though, you probably already know some of the pitfalls of taking the same road as everyone else.
It’s time to think differently. So here we go.
Pompeii, Italy — Where to go instead: Herculaneum, Italy
If you’ve ever picked up a history book, you’ve heard of Pompeii: ancient Roman city, buried under volcanic ash thanks to Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It’s the darling of the tourist brochures and booklets, and it’s cemented a place in history.
Then there’s Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) — it’s less than 10 kilometers away from Pompeii, but only a few centimeters of volcanic ash fell on the city. This was enough to preserve the city as it was — they’ve found organic materials, such as plants, fabrics, furniture, and even an ancient wooden boat. The tour buses can’t navigate the congested streets. though, which means tourists have to find their way there a bit more independently.
Even better, the site is a more manageable size. Having been to both, you can easily spend a whole day criss-crossing Pompeii’s sights. Ercolano needs little more than a couple of hours to navigate its three main streets. There’s a very nice college of the Augustales (senate of the priests), and the Villa of Poppea is considered an excellent example of aristocratic Roman villas.
Machu Picchu, Peru — Where to go instead: Kuelap Fortress, Chachapoyas, Peru
Machu Picchu has helped its cause by continuing to sound mysterious and requiring a long, foreboding journey to arrive (which is partially true). That the Peruvian government is all too happy to milk its cash cow isn’t surprising, either — and by limiting the number of tickets sold, they can continue to charge an arm and both legs (as of publishing date, it was 126 soles, or about $38 US, for the cheapest ticket, which doesn’t include the museum or Huayna Picchu, an additional lookout point).
Peru has more than enough archeological sites to visit, and all of them are cheaper than Machu Picchu. (I dare say you could get to every place in that post for less than the trip to Machu Picchu.) I’ve chosen Kuelap Fortress (AKA Fortaleza de Kuelap) for this post because it’s more easily approached on foot (e.g. not as extensive a hike), and because there are plenty of guided daytrip tours from Chachapoyas. The fortress is part of the most important pre-Incan civilization, which demonstrated its power to the people below, and has plenty of remnants and stories to go around.
Wat Arun, Thailand — Where to go instead: literally any other temple in Bangkok
Wat Arun’s claim to fame is that it once held the ‘Emerald Buddha’. The ‘Temple of Dawn’ holds a prominent place in Bangkok’s brochures — and is one of the only temples in Thailand that actually charges an admission fee. If you needed a hint that the religious building has given itself over to the tourist trade, I can’t think of a better one. This goes for most of Bangkok’s bigger temples as well, by the way.
Where to go instead? There’s the semi-touristy Wat Yannawa, which has a temple building in the shape of a Chinese boat. There’s the tongue-twisting Wat Pathumwanaram Ratchaworawihan, which is ironically located between two of Bangkok’s biggest malls, the Siam Paragon and Central World. It’s a surprisingly peaceful place amidst all the commercialism. Once you get out of Bangkok,
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — Where to go instead: Ballestas Islands, Peru
Whenever some far-off place gets to be a tourist icon, you can bet prices will go up. Dramatically. Yes, the Galapagos islands are famous and popular — and definitely overtouristed.
The Ballestas (bye-YES-tahs) may not have a species of tortoises named after them and weren’t visited by Darwin, but they’re more than a ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ tour as they’re sometimes described. With several species of birds, some penguins and plenty of seals around, there’s plenty of exotic animal life to take in. Bring your long lens and a poncho (to prevent clothes from getting bird droppings or water on them) for this boat-only round-trip.
Phuket, Thailand — Where to go instead: Krabi, Thailand
Phuket is one of Thailand’s better-known cities and beach areas, and the beach resort has catered to tourists for decades. That said, it’s one of the most expensive parts of Thailand, and has earned a reputation as overdeveloped and overcommercialized. Despite the occasional clean-up by volunteers and sweeps by the police, the prostitute trade and messy bar / club scene remain rampant.
If you’d like the beach without the excess of booze and thump-thump-thump of local clubs, Krabi and Ao Nang are worth a look. Krabi (the city proper) and Ao Nang (the smaller town on the beach) are a 30-minute bus ride or a 20 minute scooter ride, so you’re pretty well connected. Prices are on the high-average side for Thailand, but a notch below Bangkok and Phuket. Whether you’re in town for a few days or need to relax for a month, there’s plenty of options.
Gyeongbokgung, South Korea — Where to go instead: Gyeonghuigung, South Korea
While it’s not as familiar a name as many of the other destinations here, Gyeongbokgung is the biggest palace in South Korea and was home to the Joseon Dynasty for the longest period of time. After being decimated by wars and the Japanese occupation in the 20th century, it’s slowly been restored to the delight of many Koreans. It’s arguably the heart of downtown, and is a decent introduction to Seoul. My biggest critique here is that so much of it has that ‘recently restored’ look and feel that it’s hard to imagine it as centuries old. Worse, the palace has made many configurations over the centuries, and there’s no clear sign of when it’s been restored to.
Gyeonghuigung is the smallest of Seoul’s five Joseon Dynasty palaces, and as a result is less sprawling than the others. While my blog post on the place dates from 2009, it always felt a little nicer than the others and a little less crowded. The Seoul Museum of History and the Seoul Museum of Art’s Annex are very close to the palace.
The Roman Coliseum in Rome — Where to go instead: the Roman Coliseum in El Jem, Tunisia
The Roman coliseum in Rome is an interesting combination of touristy and historical — and on balance they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. That balance, however, puts you in the coliseum with thousands of other tourists, many of which are more interested in getting selfies and photos without remembering to watch where they’re stepping. At 12 euros, it’s also one of the more expensive places to see around an expensive town.
Despite the occasional violence, I’m really surprised Tunisia doesn’t rank higher on people’s travel lists. It’s French heritage and Roman history lead it to have a vaguely European feel amidst the sand and deserts. The El Jem coliseum is regarded as one of the last Roman coliseums built, which means the designers and builders had plenty of experience to draw on. The highlight, personally, is being one of perhaps a handful of tourists around. As a bonus, your ticket here also gets you into a spectacular museum of archoeology and art within walking distance.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt — Where to go instead: the Egypt Museum in Barcelona, Spain
Now this one might catch some people by surprise! You’d think with Egypt’s several-millennia-old legacy they would have taken better care of their priceless artifacts. Instead, the Cairo museum of Egyptian art seems vaguely stuck in the mid-20th century. No air-conditioning or climate control, almost no information provided on signs (but conveniently, plenty of private guides semi-organized and able to rattle off ripoff prices), and some outrageous dual pricing? Pass.
Instead, I’d urge you to check out the Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Beyond the pleasures of air-conditioners and no annoying guides, it has a great variety of Egypt’s history with plenty of signs and notes about what’s going on. I haven’t written about it individually as it’s not all that weird, but you’re more likely to make your way to Barcelona than Cairo anyway. I’m here to tell you it’s worth it.
Park Guell, Barcelona, Spain — Where to go instead: Sant Pau Hospital, Barcelona, Spain
Since both of these places probably aren’t familiar unless you’ve researched Barcelona. Park Guell, like any number of places, has an excellent story — the famous architect Antoni Gaudi imagined a creative, unorthodox place for rich people to live, but few moved in. Today, one building has a 45-minute wait to enter and see, and the whole place looks and feels like a theme park — an old one that’s still surprisingly popular even though there isn’t a whole lot to see. Worse, the park only allows in a certain number of people per hour, so you’re more likely to buy your ticket then have to come back.
Sant Pau Hospital served as a hospital until 2009, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a great look at how Barcelona’s aiming to merge last century’s history with this century’s needs. Beyond the architecture (which is worthy and has plenty of signage about), there are just enough modern touches to remind you what century you’re in.
Over to you
Where have you been that wasn’t as awesome as it sounded? Where wold you recommend instead?