The world's best-kept travel secrets

With the planet's most famous sights drowning in visitors, here are the incredible alternatives you may not know about – just don't tell anyone...

5 mins

Get your Catalan fix

Girona, Spain (Dreamstime)

Girona, Spain (Dreamstime)

You know… Barcelona, Spain


When locals took to the Barcelona streets last year to protest the deluge of tourists in the city after some 32 million arrived in 2016 (20 times its population), it sent a stark message. But know that there’s more to Catalonia than its capital.

But what about… Girona Spain


Behind Girona’s 14th-century walls lie Gothic spires, cobbled lanes and narrow flights of stone steps winding to fanciful gardens (Alemanys) or Catalan craft beer bars (Dolce Salato has some potent brews).

Start in the lively Barri Vell, tapas-crawling the cafes and courtyards of La Rambla, then rise through the Jewish Quarter of El Call to the city’s centrepiece cathedral; this stands on Via Augusta, the Roman road that once bisected Iberia. Finish atop the ramparts, gazing over to the Girona Pyrenees, where day treks weave the volcano parks and the rocky Costa Brava beyond, far from the Barca bustle.

My ‘secret’ city

Shared by writer Mary Novakovich

For a taste of southern Italy minus the crowds of Palermo and Naples, head down to its toe, Calabria. Here, Tropea just about manages to cling on to the rocky coast and is surely Italy’s prettiest yet least-known town. Its beach lies in the lee of the cliffs and there’s a beautiful monastery perched on a promontory in front – the spicy cuisine is good, too.

See a reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha in Sri Lanka's Dambulla Cave Temple (Dreamstime)

Reclining Buddha in Sri Lanka's Dambulla Cave Temple (Dreamstime)

You know… Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Of the 32 million tourists that blanket Thailand each year, most pass through the capital. This is a city of hustle and flow, and even at its most sacred sites, such as the city’s Wat Pho temple – home to its famed 46m-long reclining Buddha – the only one taking it easy is 24-carat gold and lying on a plinth.

But what about… Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

For a more sedate introduction to Buddhism’s wonders, Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple is truly unique. Carved into a granite rock face, it actually stretches five grottoes and was once thought to have been the hideout of deposed king. So it goes: when he took his throne back in 85 BC, he gave the caves to the monks that had sheltered him, who then turned them into a series of temples.

It’s a steep walk to get there (riddled with curious macaques) and not best done in the heat of midday, especially as you have to remove your shoes at the top and hot-foot it over the sunny parts. But inside, its five cool caves are daubed in a kaleidoscope of intricate murals, with perhaps the centrepiece of its 157 statues being the 14m-long reclining Buddha, hewn from the cave wall itself.

Discover Maya temples

Caracol, Belize (Lyn Hughes)

Caracol, Belize (Lyn Hughes)

You know… Chichen Itza, Mexico

Every year, the Maya temple complex of Chichen Itza cites new record numbers. Some 2.2 million people now visit the site in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula each year, and while its stepped pyramids are breathtaking, the volume of tourists can make it an energy-sapping day.

But what about… Caracol, Belize

By comparison, the jungle ruins of Belize’s ancient Maya city of Caracol receives barely a trickle of visitors. Its footprint spans nearly 200 sq km – bigger than the capital, Belize City – and set deep in the dense rainforest nudging the Guatemalan border, it can be tricky to reach. From the nearest hub San Ignacio, it’s a three-hour 4WD journey through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, prowled by cougars, jaguars and Baird’s tapirs.

The site was one of the largest of the Maya world in its heyday, home to 35,000 buildings. Climb the Ca’ana temple (43m), said to be the largest man-made structure in Belize, and the canopy-baiting Observatory. Spy the ‘ball courts’, where games were played to determine who was to be sacrificed to the gods, and ponder how something so huge could only be discovered by chance by a mahogany logger in 1938.

Watch the sky dance

Aurora australis over Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand (Dreamstime)

Aurora australis over Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand (Dreamstime)

You know… The northern lights

Whether as the cherry on top of a bursting itinerary or the centrepiece of a journey into the tundra, taiga and frozen seas of the Arctic north, lights-gazing trips take many forms. Yet it is now a fixture on countless adventures, all echoing to the sound of bucket lists being ticked. But it’s not just about being on top of the world…

But what about… The southern lights

The only difference between the northern and southern (aurora australis) lights is the rather obvious geographical one. The same dancing heavens ripple across the skies, it’s just the chances to see them are further away and in the opposite direction. The very tips of Australia, New Zealand or Chile can offer mainland-based viewing, but those in the know suggest that the islands of the Southern Ocean are your strongest bets.

A trip to the Falkland Islands is a fine chance to combine spectacular skygazing with seeing nature at its rawest. The skies are darkest between the Antarctic winters of April and August, but rough weather from May onwards makes visits a chore. Go in the shoulder season in order to skip the cruise passengers and instead search out the honking residents of Sea Lion Island or the penguins of Bluff Cove. Then when night falls, lie back and watch the skies do their work in peace.

Drift a canal city

Picturesque canal views in Annecy (Dreamstime)

Picturesque canal views in Annecy (Dreamstime)

You know… Venice, Italy

During summer, more visitors (60,000) trample Venice’s historic centre daily than actually live there. Many are day-trippers who bring in little money to the city, leaving this Italian icon sinking in more ways than one. Which is why conscientious travellers are looking elsewhere…

But what about… Annecy, France

Out among the alpine villages that scatter the eastern borders of France, on the banks of Lake Annecy, lies the ‘Pearl of the French Alps’. Canal waters and the Thiou river vein Annecy’s medieval Old Town, a grand relic of an age when this was the favoured court of the Counts of Geneva.

Either drift down the languid emerald waters past the island where its grand 12th-century Palais de l’Île (now a fine museum) sits, beside winding cobblestone streets and beneath window boxes overflowing with geraniums. Or take to the narrow paths, pretty bridges and waterside markets by foot.

Altogether, especially when you factor in that horizon of snow-flecked peaks, it gives off a slightly fairytale vibe. But when you’ve have enough of all that picturesque relaxation, there’s always the option to cycle an alpine lake or go dog-sledding on a nearby mountain (Mount Revard). Try doing that in Venice.

Walk the Great Wall

Silhouette of temples at sunset (Dreamstime)

Silhouette of temples at sunset (Dreamstime)

You know… Beijing, China

With time and 10 million visitors a year eroding its Great Wall, China took action. The restoration of Beijing’s Simatai section, in addition to Badaling and Mutianyu, may help protect these popular sections from the crowds, but in flattening watchtowers and smoothing over cracks, many argue it has prioritised numbers over the texture of history.

But what about… Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

Yet for those who don’t fancy being just another brick in the Wall, there are still quieter, wilder parts of the wall to be found, even near to Beijing. Parts of Jiankou (just 2.5 hours away by car) are still far enough removed to avoid crowds, while Wild Wall tours seek out remote sections with an expert in tow.

But few travellers make it to the wall’s westernmost point, out in Gansu Province’s Jiayuguan. Here, on the cusp of the Gobi Desert, you can gaze out from its huge, restored fort before heading to ruined strategic posts and up the snaking wall itself, inching across the tan mountainsides some 10km away. It’s quite unlike any view of the wall you’ll find elsewhere, and in 2019 you can even combine it as a stop on the luxurious Golden Eagle train route from Lhasa, Tibet, as you hurtle there across the world’s highest railway.

Peer into a Grand Canyon

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (Dreamstime)

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (Dreamstime)

You know… The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

There might be deeper canyons out there (Peru’s Colca, for instance) but few can match the Grand Canyon for drama, as its visitor numbers insist. Some six million descend on the park yearly, but it isn’t the only game in town… or even Arizona.

But what about… The Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, USA

While not comparable in size, Canyon de Chelly is still one of the gems of the state, often overlooked for its larger cousin 2.5 hrs to the west. But this US National Monument (co-run with the Navajo Nation, on whose territory it lies) hides a few secrets. People have lived here continuously for 5,000 years, with the Ancestral Puebloans having carved huge dwellings into its rock face long before those of Mesa Verde.

Tours of its petroglyphs and rock-cut villages are off-limits without a Navajo guide or ranger, but Jeep or horse-riding trips to the Mummy Cave – a 70-room Puebloan village hewn into the walls nearly 100m above the canyon floor – are worth it. But if you do want to go it alone, there’s a 4km switchback trail into the gorge that can be done independently, taking you to the 11th-century ruins of the ‘White House’ (so named because of the plaster used inside) for an up-close look. Grand indeed.

Stay in a fortified city

Óbidos, Portugal (Dreamstime)

Óbidos, Portugal (Dreamstime)

You know… Dubrovnik, Croatia

Blame budget flights, Game of Thrones, or even those dazzling Dalmatian views, but Dubrovnik’s epic visitor numbers have prompted the authorities to cap the numbers of those allowed into its ancient walled old town to 4,000 per day…

But what about… Óbidos, Portugal

While it can’t conjure the same clifftop views as its Dalmatian rival, the west-coast hilltop town of Óbidos doesn’t lack for scenery. What began as a tiny Roman settlement is now one of Portugal’s most beautiful escapes, having retained its cobbled streets, white-washed facades, medieval churches and towering Moorish castle (carefully rebuilt after an earthquake in 1755), which glares down over the centre. Enter the town through the prettily tiled gate and lose yourself in the narrow, flower-strewn streets and pastry shops, before clambering onto the ramparts (about an hour’s walk) to tiptoe the fortifications.

The highest point in town is the castle – now a charming pousada (inn) – and stays overnight let you soak it all in after the last of the day-trippers fade away, while the nearby Berlenga archipelago and its striking 17th-century sea fort are also on the doorstep.

See India's riches

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi, India (Dreamstime)

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi, India (Dreamstime)

You know the… Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Rumours of a tourist cap (40,000 per day) will likely dent the icon’s 7 million annual visitors, but either taking the long view from the neighbouring garden of Mehtab Bagh or getting up early to be first to the gate (6am) is still your best hope of catching the Taj crowd-free.

But what about… Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi, India

...or you could have a lie in and visit India’s original garden mausoleum instead. Delhi’s UNESCO-listed Humayun’s Tomb was, in many ways, a prototype for the Taj Mahal. Its gaping red-stone arches and bulbous dome were an early, 16th-century example of the Mughal architecture that was to be refined nearly 100 years later in palatial white marble. Though in a twist of history – and unlike the Taj – this mausoleum was built not for, but by an emperor’s wife.

The building acts as a soothing antidote to the occasionally overwhelming bustle of Delhi. Wander its grounds, spy peacocks strutting in the gardens and breathe in the history and stories behind this under-appreciated architectural marvel, knowing that far fewer travellers make the effort – and therefore are less likely to be blundering into that perfect picture of the South Gate (the original royal entrance) that you’ve spent ages lining up.

My ‘secret wilderness’

Shared by writer Mark Eveleigh

Uganda’s Kidepo Valley NP may be the most beautiful wilderness in Africa. It’s worth every bit of the 13-hour drive from Kampala to see the sacred peak of Morungole, and every time I’ve visited I’ve seen lions (famous for stalking Kidepo’s 4,000-strong buffalo herds) within metres of my camp.

Meet gorillas in the mist

A mother and baby gorilla (Dreamstime)

A mother and baby gorilla (Dreamstime)

You know… Volcanoes NP, Rwanda

The cost of seeing Rwanda’s gorillas in the wild might put some off, but the chance to see these primates up close should always be taken. Yet there are other places where your money is equally needed.

But what about… Odzala NP, Congo-Brazzaville

The gorilla camps of Odzala don’t make a profit, but in providing a link with the communities, they’re reinforcing the value of the forest and its western lowland gorillas. Here, trips are about as remote as they come, as you fly, drive, kayak and hike to the first of the park’s three camps.

Money goes to continuing a habituation project that was decimated when Ebola wiped out 5,000 gorillas south of Odzala. The project regrouped and came here, where the primates are spread thinner, with treks to see its gorilla groups a rare and little-seen pleasure.

Do time on an island

Pianosa, Italy (Dreamstime)

Pianosa, Italy (Dreamstime)

You know… Alcatraz, USA

Prison islands hold a fascination beyond voyeurism, and few are more famous than San Francisco’s Alcatraz, which ferries 1.7 million people a year onto its inescapable shores.

But what about… Pianosa, Italy

The former Italian penal colony of Pianosa limits visitors to just 250 a day, with barely a handful arriving on the island outside summer. Yet for 150 years this was a open prison where inmates wandered freely and worked the fields (their used machinery still lies rusting). Guides will tell you the Mafia had it shut down because it worked too well, but the island has at last found peace as a nature reserve.

Day trippers from Piombino or Elba can stroll its 19th-century battlements, leafy shores and crumbling cells, still piled high with prison records. But Pianosa’s history dates back further: its Roman ruins and 4th-century catacombs, built by early Christian settlers, are worth the trip in themselves.

My ‘secret island’

Shared by Wanderlust editor-at-large Phoebe Smith

With a population under 400, kiwi birds outnumber people in New Zealand’s Stewart Island. It’s not unheard of, but as it takes effort to get to – a flight or ferry from the South Island’s southernmost tip – it sees far fewer visitors than its virgin wilderness and aurora-dotted skies deserve.

Spy a Great Migration

Woodland caribou in northern Canada (Dreamstime)

Woodland caribou in northern Canada (Dreamstime)

You know… The Great Migration, Tanzania and Kenya

The sight of 1.7 million wildebeest huffing their way across the East African plains is a firm staple on travellers’ buckets lists, as the yearly fight for Jeep space attests.

But what about… The Caribou of Northern Canada

From the monarch butterflies that smother the trees of Central Mexico every November, to the wave of 45 million red crabs that washes over Christmas Island in early winter, wild mass-wonders abound. But for remote migrations, turn to northern Canada, where some 1.2 million barren-ground caribou roam the tundra and boreal forest that hug the Arctic Circle.

Getting there is part of the fun, and small planes can whisk you out to Nunavut’s Barren Grounds in spring and autumn to see its 350,000-strong Qamanirjuaq herd on the move. Here, snowmobiles and boats take you up close as the herd barrels across lakes and through forest, with stops to search out wolf dens or spy the northern lights above along the way.

Glimpse through time

Herculaneum, Italy (Dreamstime)

Herculaneum, Italy (Dreamstime)

You know… Pompeii, Italy

The sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum are humbling experiences. Nothing in travel captures so bluntly the power of nature that resulted in these two towns being smothered in volcanic ash. Some 2.5 million visitors a year arrive to glimpse the frozen lives of Romans in 79 AD. But it isn’t unique…

But what about… Joya de Cerén, El Salvador

Unlike their tragic Roman compadres, the residents of the Maya village of Joya de Cerén (32km from San Salvador) got a lucky early warning sign that danger was imminent. When El Salvador’s Loma Caldera volcano erupted in 595 AD, a quake gave the locals notice that it was time to make a swift exit, but in doing so they abandoned their belongings and homes to the ash. The result was a moment in Maya history captured in carbon, from a dish where you can still see the fingerprints in an interrupted meal, to painted books, household objects, even a corn on the cob.

My ‘secret walk’

Shared by writer Martin Symington

The Maira Valley is a remote fold of the Alps that borders Italy’s Piedmont region and France. Dizzying peaks and a lack of skiing ensure it feels bypassed by modernity (and people), with hamlets linked by ancient trails and high pastures. Set out from the village school in Chiappera – now an inn – to soak it up.

Explore a Khmer icon

Preah Vihear, Cambodia (Dreamstime)

Preah Vihear, Cambodia (Dreamstime)

You know… Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The Khmer temple complex sprawls the jungles near Siem Reap and is on most travel bucket lists: over two million visitors a year pass its gates, and even at sunrise now it can be hard to find a quiet spot.

But what about… Preah Vihear, Cambodia

For decades, Cambodia’s other great Khmer legacy, high in the Dangrek Mountains, was off limits to visitors. The 9th-century temple complex of Preah Vihear lies on a disputed border with Thailand, and even now the military presence (and razor wire) on both sides is hardly subtle.

But these days, this force is more for show, and the crumbling gopura towers, intricate Buddhist and Hindu reliefs (it was originally a Hindu temple before Buddhism swept across the Khmer empire) and sweeping views down to the jungle 500m below are well worth the three-hour car ride from Siem Reap. What was once a pilgrimage site for Angkorian kings, who’d arrive with 150 elephants and monks carrying golden parasols, now sees few visitors, meaning you get to wander in blissful quiet.

Spy the glories of the Inca

Inca ruins on the Choquequirao trail (Dreamstime)

Inca ruins on the Choquequirao trail (Dreamstime)

You know… Machu Picchu, Peru

Attempts to slash visitor numbers at the Inca site have had little effect. In 2016, a record 1.4 million people (over 5,000 a day in summer) arrived, geed on by every listicle, guidebook and (ahem) magazine declaring it a Peruvian icon.

But what about… Choquequirao, Peru

Whereas Machu Picchu is wrongly called a ‘lost city’ (it was more likely a royal estate), Choquequirao is a true citadel, nearly three times the size of its more famous cousin. Today, just half has thought to have been uncovered, and from its setting, high above the thrashing waters of the Apurímac River, it receives only a trickle of visitors.

One reason is that the only way up is by foot, on a journey that more than rivals the Inca Trail for views. Around four days is required to hike the Apurímac Valley and back, rising up past Capuliyoc, through little-seen villages and into the thin air of its high-altitude jungle. But it’s worth it, especially with what’s on the horizon. Plans for a new road and cable car (ferrying up to 3,000 people a day) to the site have been mooted for years, but for now it’s still that rare and wonderful thing – minibus free!

Soak up a Moroccan square

Place al-Alaoyine, Morocco (Dreamstime)

Place al-Alaoyine, Morocco (Dreamstime)

You know… Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech

There are few more atmospheric, chaotic and, frankly, overwhelming sights in the world than Marrakech’s central square, Jemaa el-Fna. But as its reputation has grown, so too have the crowds, hawkers and beggars, however, and the whole experience can be exhausting.

But what about… Place al-Alaouyine, Taroudant

But not all Moroccan cities are as intense as Marrakech. The western outpost of Taroudant may bear some superficial similarities – its extensive ramparts and honey-coloured mud walls were enough to earn it the nickname ‘Little Marrakech’ – but this small Berber market town is far more laid-back and still has the feel of a caravan trading post.

Some use it as a jumping-off point for treks into the Western Atlas Mountains, but the chance to stroll its souks and wander narrow passages in comparative peace is to be leapt at. Just be sure to arrive at one of the town’s main squares as the heat dies in late afternoon; come nightfall at Place al-Alaouyine, stick-thin men wrestle gazes with serpents, storytellers spin ancient yarns and Berber musicians play, all with the scent of grilled meat perfuming their (and your) nostrils.

The other Galápagos

Lake Ohrid in Macedonia – Lyn Hughes' secret lake of choice (Dreamstime)

Lake Ohrid in Macedonia – Lyn Hughes' secret lake of choice (Dreamstime)

You know… The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Charles Darwin once described the Galápagos archipelago as ‘a little world within itself’. And true enough, its many unique species evolved because of sheer isolation. But the outer islands are now the province of expensive cruises and record numbers of visitors (some 250,000 a year) fly into its central hubs, all wanting to witness the same wild sights.

But what about… Sibuyan, Philippines

From the polar bear-packed Arctic tundra of Russia’s Wrangel Island to the sub-Antarctic spatter of birding isles off New Zealand’s southern tip, the title ‘the Galápagos of…’ has become rather lazy travel shorthand, meaning any remote island rife with endemic species. And while Sibuyan (‘the Galapagos of Asia’) might not be as remote as some, it has fallen off the Philippines’ tourism map, even though it’s just a two-hour ferry from Romblos.

The island has few hotels and little infrastructure, with unspoiled forests ranging to the foot of Mount Guiting-Guiting (2,057m) at its heart. But the island is special for another reason: it was never a part of the Luzon mainland, and over 700 vascular plant species, 131 bird species, ten varieties of fruit bat and countless undiscovered mammals and lizards roam its little-explored forests. Add to that a reputation for ‘witchcraft’ among the extremely friendly islanders and you have a recipe for adventure.

My ‘secret lake’

Shared by Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes

For a few short weeks each summer, tourists descend on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s sublime World Heritage Site. But at any other time, you’ll have one of Europe’s oldest lakes, its beautiful historical town and adjoining national park (plus another amazing lake, Prespa) to yourself.

Snorkel a Great Reef

Snorkel with sharks in Ningaloo Reef, Australia (Dreamstime)

Snorkel with sharks in Ningaloo Reef, Australia (Dreamstime)

You know the… Great Barrier Reef, Australia

It’s every diver’s dream destination, and that’s the problem. Around 7% of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is set aside for tourism, but recent bleaching events have created a stampede; visitors numbers peaked at 2.68m last year.

But what about… Ningaloo Reef, Australia

With the first direct flights from the UK to Australia’s west coast hub Perth having taken off in March, it won’t be long before Ningaloo Reef is uttered in the same breath as its more famous eastern cousin. Stretching 260km between Exmouth and Carnarvon, you can swim with turtles and manta rays in Coral Bay – where the reef is just metres from the shore – or head into open water to drift beside whale sharks (March–July) and humpbacks (June–November).

Some 500 species of tropical fish flit these clear seas, too, with Gnaraloo Bay or the snorkel trails of Ningaloo Marine Park a kaleidoscope of flashing colour, while kayaking trips head out to rarely seen coral gardens. Finish with bush walks and boat trips into the creek of the rugged Cape Range NP.

See an ancient stone city

Nan Madol, Micronesia (Dreamstime)

Nan Madol, Micronesia (Dreamstime)

You know… Petra, Jordan

Petra’s sandstone-carved walls still inspire Indiana Jones-themed fantasies the world over, such has been its impact on film. Moreover, watchers of the BBC’s recent Civilisations series will recognise the Nabataean city as the melting pot of the ancient world pored over by Simon Schama. But maybe it feels a little bit like we now know it too well…

But what about… Nan Madol, Micronesia

If Nan Madol is anything, it’s unfamiliar. The ruined capital of the ancient Saudeleur Dynasty is found in the lagoon off eastern Micronesia’s Temwen Island. Here, 92 artificial islets (some nearly a kilometre in width) were raised above the water on basalt pillars to create a floating city 1,000 years in the making. Expansion continued from around the 7th century AD until it was abandoned, with many parts now overgrown and unexplored.

Today, its twisting canals prompt Venice comparisons yet it still has that inescapable ‘lost city’ quality, and high tide allows boats and kayaks to weave the tangled compound. And make sure to combine any trip with snorkelling the surrounding reef and swimming with the rays of ‘Manta Road’ for an utterly unique day out.

Wander Roman wonders

El Jem, Tunisia (Dreamstime)

El Jem, Tunisia (Dreamstime)

You know… The Colosseum, Rome, Italy

The restoration work on Rome’s Colosseum has revealed how the arena would have looked back in 80 AD – not that anyone requires a reason to see this icon, as its queues attest. While tricks to beat the crowds do exist (night visits or guided tours of the otherwise off-limits areas are good ideas), it really is very busy…

But what about… El Jem, Tunisia

The Romans built amphitheatres across the ancient world. From France (Arles, Nimes) to Croatia (Pula), they stretched far and wide, though just a half-dozen still stand. Of these, Tunisia’s El Jem is perhaps the grandest: a vast arena directly modelled on Rome’s original but built some 150 years later to host gladiator contests and chariot races.

Back then, the amphitheatre’s stalls held some 50,000 spectators – more than twice the current population of the city of El Jem – and today it makes for an incongruous sight, towering over the low-rise modern buildings that surround it. Yet as tourism trickles back to Tunisia (the UK only dropped its travel ban last year), it can still be savoured in peace, as you stroll the arena floor imagining the roar of the crowd… and the lions.

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