7 Under-The-Radar Alternatives To Mainstream Vacation Destinations
Summer can be a tricky time to travel, though for most of us, it’s the season in which we plan our biggest vacation of the year (or, as we Americans like to call it, “the few days we allow ourselves off from the self-imposed indentured servitude that allows us to buy a new iPhone and flatscreen every six months). Both crowds and prices tend to swell in the year’s warmest months, which can make some of our favorite destinations almost unbearable. For a better summer vacation, we’ve put together a list of destinations that are still somewhat under-the-radar, so you can swap the tourist traps for a more authentic, and ideally more affordable, experience.
Instead of Tulum, try Campeche
Why Campeche? We absolutely love Tulum, but if you’re looking for something a bit more off the beaten path, try Campeche. It’s not the easiest city in Mexico to get to (you’ll need to fly into either Merida or Mexico City and then rent a car to Campeche), but once you’ve arrived, your Instagram/Snapchat followers will thank you—colonial Campeche is insanely photogenic.
Where to Stay If you’re looking for a splurge, we highly recommend the Hacienda Uayamon for a one-of-a-kind, magical experience. The Hacienda Puerta Campeche, which is closer to the action, is also quite nice, as is the Casa Don Gustavo. For a drastically more budget-friendly yet still lovely experience, try the Hotel Socaire or look for an Airbnb in the historic center, which you’ll recognize by its brightly-painted facade.
What to Eat Try La Casa Vieja for the views. La Pigua and Marganzo are also favorites, but the real not-to-be-missed cuisine in campeche is the tamales, which you can find at a number of hole-in-the-wall cafes. Try Chocol Ha, a chocolate shop that (maybe oddly) makes insanely delicious tamales.
What to Do Walk the streets of the walled city, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, as there’s quite a bit to explore. Then, take a day trip out to the Mayan ruins at Edzna, which was built and occupied by people known as Itzaes around 600 BC. Learn more about them here. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (it’s a 4.5 hour drive), head out to Calakmul, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Experts think this may have been the largest city in Mayan times.
What to Know Before You Book Unlike most popular destinations in Mexico, Campeche is not geared towards tourists. If you’re looking for the kind of five-star service you’d find stateside, this is not the destination for you. Also, most inhabitants, even those in the service industry, speak little to no English, so you’ll want to download this app in advance of your visit.
Instead of Paris, try Aix-en-Provence
Why Aix-en-Provence? We know, we know, no city in the world beats Paris, but if you’re looking to try somewhere new and/or just a bit lazier, we highly recommend you check out Aix (pronounced “x”). Aix is also a lovely alternative to its ritzier and glitzier neighbors, Saint Tropez and Cannes.
Where to Stay For a splurge, try the Hotel 28 à Aix, which boasts just four rooms. The Hotel de France can be a more affordable option depending on the season, but for a full listing of mid-range options, check out Lonely Planet’s hotel guide here. Your best bet on a budget is, ultimately, Airbnb--we’ve seen great options from around $75 / night.
Where to Eat Michelin-starred L’Esprit de Violette is a must. Le Formal is also quite popular, though we suggest splurging on L’Esprit for dinner and trying Le Formal for its relatively less expensive ($30) lunch. We also like Chez Feraud, Les Deux Garcons, Le Petit Verdot, Le Zinc d’Hugo, and Le Bistroquet. While you’re in town, be sure not to miss out on calissons, a type of candy which is a specialty of the region.
What to Do The morning market at Place Richelme, wherein you will find everything from cheese to honey to sausage, is absolutely not to be missed for a morning stroll/gorge-fest. If you’re in need of a little pampering, head to the Thermes Sextius Spa, which is built over ancient Roman thermal baths. Aix is the birthplace of artist Paul Cezanne, so a visit to his studio, the Atelier Cezanne, may be in order for art-lovers. Also notable on the art scene is the Fondation Vasarely, which was founded by the mastermind of the Op Art movement. For an all-night party, try Le Mistral.
What to Know Before You Book You can fly into Paris and take a 3-hour train ride to Aix for $22 or fly into Marseilles and take a 30-minutes train ride for around $10. We suggest avoiding a visit to Aix during the Cannes Film Festival, as hotel prices are exponentially higher, in some cases reaching more than 20x their normal levels!
Instead of Rio, try Búzios
Why Búzios? Rio happens to be one of our favorite cities in the world, but it can be a bit intense, especially given the current political climate and the upcoming Olympics. Búzios, a collection of three towns on one peninsula, was ‘discovered’ by Brigitte Bardot in the sixties, and is now known in some circles as ‘the Saint Tropez of Brazil or ‘the Brazilian Riviera.’
Where to Stay Búzios is the type of place where you'll probably want to opt for a hotel rather than an Airbnb, as they’re all so dreamy (though Airbnb is, of course, the most affordable option). For romance, try the Insolito Boutique Hotel and Spa. For the beach, try Hotel le Relais La Borie. For a party, try Rio Buzios. On a budget, try the Pousada Santorini.
What to Do Walk the Orla Bardot boardwalk, which connects the two most picturesque parts of town. Sunbathe on one of the area’s many beaches. Party like you’re in Saint Tropez at Rocka Beach or Fishbone.
What to Know Before You Book You might end up sitting in hours and hours of traffic getting into Búzios on peak weekends, as there is only one (land-based) point of entry.
Instead of Venice, try Trieste
Why Trieste? Trieste is isolated from the rest of the Italian peninsula, being almost completely surrounded by Slovenia, and it’s an understated enough city to have avoided becoming a mainstream tourist destination in the manner of most of the rest of Italy. For this reason, artists of all stripes seem to flock to Trieste.
Where to Stay Try the Hotel Residence L’Albero Nascosto, for one of the nicest stays in Trieste (still under under $200 a night), the Starhotels Savoia Excelsior Palace for something that feels ‘grand,’ the Urban Design Hotel for a reprieve from old world charm or the Hotel James Joyce Hotel, because the author lived in Trieste for some time. Airbnbs can also be booked for under $100/night.
Where to Eat Do yourself a favor and order seafood basically everywhere you go (Al Bagatto, Scabar, Antica Trattoria Suban), with a couple of exceptions: at Chocolat, try rich hot chocolate or gelato; at Buffet da Pepi, probably the most famous of the buffets in Trieste, the menu is all pork, all the time; and at Cafe Rossini, try an afternoon aperitif.
What to Do As with most Italian cities, there are a ton of old-world sites to see and museums to visit, including the impressive Castle Miramare. Be sure to drink some Illy coffee while you’re in town, as Trieste is its birthplace. You might do so at one of the city’s famed literary cafes. Visit Trieste in the summer and you may hit ones of its many music festivals (just don’t expect an Italian Coachella).
What to Know Before You Book You can fly directly into Trieste, but it will likely be cheaper to fly into Venice and then take a 1.5-hour train ride to Trieste. You can fly between the cities as well for under $200.
Instead of Bali, try Lombok
Why Lombok? We have nothing against Bali--it’s absolutely beautiful and dirt cheap--but it does tend to be a bit overrun by tourists. Lombok is its little-known Indonesian cousin, and it’s ideal for those who want to commune with nature and/or enjoy a more untouched Indonesia (Bali's Ubud has a Dairy Queen, after all.)
Where to Stay If you have a lot of cash burning a hole in your pocket, check out the insanely gorgeous Hotel Novotel or The Oberoi Lombok, which is known for being one of the most beautiful hotels in Asia. More affordable choices include the Jeeva Klui Resort, the Qunci Villas, the Tugu Lombok and, for those on a budget, the Senggigi Beach Hotel. There are also tons of adorable Airbnbs in which to stay for under $50 per night (like this one) if you’d prefer to stay on of the nearby Gili Islands, which are known as 'the turtle capital of the world.'
Where to Eat One of the drawbacks to a less-developed island is that there are fewer notable restaurants from which to choose. Many of the most recommended restaurants in the area are actually located on the Gili Islands. Still, you can find great dining options within Lombok’s luxury hotels, such as The Oberoi (which has three), there are some hidden gems in the area like Coco Beach, and the Gilis are only a 30-minute boat ride away.
What to Do Trek to the top of Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, and enjoy the natural hot springs at its summit or the waterfalls at its base. Snorkeling and surfing are also popular activities in Lombok. For a respite from nature, pop over to the Gili Trawanga for a taste of its infamous nightlife.
What to Know Before You Book Lombok actually has its own airport, though it can be much cheaper to fly into Bali and then take another flight into Lombok, or opt for a more time-consuming ferry. The dry season, which is the preferable time of year for a visit, lasts from May to September.
Instead of Gstaad, try Arosa
Why Arosa? Ski season might be over, but it’s never too soon to start planning for next year. Arosa, located in the Swiss Alps, was originally established as a health resort and is known for its clean air. If you’re looking for a low key and ever-so-slightly more affordable alternative to some of Switzerland’s trendier offerings, this is your best bet.
Where to Stay The Tschuggen Grand Hotel is probably Arosa’s most popular lodging, and a stay within its walls includes access to a private ski lift. A great listing of additional options can be found here.
Where to Eat There are many upscale eateries in Arosa, including the Michelin-starred La Vetta restaurant. For more budget-friendly options, Grottino Pizzeria, Hörnlihütte, and Piz Scallotas won’t disappoint, and Burestuebli is great for fondue.
What to Do Ski! In 2013, Arosa combined with another ski area called Lenzerheide to form one of Switzerland’s ten biggest ski resorts. When not skiing, drink slope-side during the day and at Los Arosa or the Kursaal Arosa at night.
What to Know Before You Book Peak season accommodations are going to be expensive no matter where you are in Switzerland, so we suggest booking your lodging as far in advance as possible. You’ll want to fly into the Zurich airport and take a 2.5-hour train ride into town, as the road to Arosa involves a harrowing 365 bends.
Instead of Athens, try Ikaria
Why Ikaria? Ikaria is one of the Blue Zones, which means its inhabitants enjoy greater longevity than those in almost anywhere else in the world. Whatever it is they’re drinking (apparently, lots of red wine), we want in on it. While much of Greece is under duress due to financial issues, unemployment, and the refugee crisis, Ikaria remains peaceful and largely untouched by tourism.
Where to Stay There aren’t any 5-star hotels in Ikaria, but the upside is that both hotel rooms and Airbnb apartments can be rented for around $50/night. Try the Erofili, the Karras Star, the Atheras Hotel or Thea’s Inn of Ikaria.
Where to Eat Mary Mary is one of Ikaria’s most recommended restaurants--celebrity chef Jamie Oliver visited last summer to study the cuisine responsible for such a high number of centenarians. Also try Sta Perix, Naiades and Anna’s Tavern (each of which is run by one of two sisters) and Grand Mam’s (for the loukoumades and goat milk ice cream).
What to Do Ikaria is known for its vineyards, so we suggest you spend a good portion of your time imbibing from this alleged fountain of youth and spend whatever time’s leftover at the beach. Don’t overthink it.
What to Know Before You Book You’ll want to take a 50-minute flight from Athens for around $200, unless you feel you can brave a 7-hour ferry ride.