Skip the tourist destinations—there’s more to explore!
Words by Christine Van Dyk
Rome was not what I’d imagined. After nine hours on a plane between a family of six and a woman in what I could only assume were pajamas, I rushed off toward my “Italian Holiday.” I had visions of a pastel-colored Vespa and a scarf flying in the wind as I sped through a sepia-toned landscape. Instead, I found myself in line for a coin-operated toilet.
Even before the pandemic, we instinctively knew throngs of tourists posing like Kardashians on the Spanish Steps is far from the golden age of travel. Now, those of us already underwhelmed by “must-see” sights are fearful of major destinations. Second-tier cities, secluded beaches, and mountain retreats have become the only places on our abbreviated bucket lists. Here are seven alternative destinations, lesser-visited locales where travelers can explore while avoiding the masses.
Rocky Mountain Highs in Whitefish, Montana instead of Jackson Hole
More low-key than its neighbor to the south, Whitefish is your jumping off spot for the great outdoors and one of Architectural Digest’s “25 Best Small Towns in America." Hike the Trail of the Cedars or cruise the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, cast your fly in a nearby river or sip Montana Mules at sunset. During the holidays, join in the Christmas Stroll or hit the slopes from your very own ski-in/ski-out tree house.
Why Chios Makes for a Better Greek Holiday than Mykonos
The smell of roasting lamb drifting across a square shaded by mastic trees is a simple but lasting joy. While the crowds head to Mykonos, Athens, and Santorini, an unexpected discovery awaits on the island of Chios. Besides an 11th century monastery that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll find ancient seaside watchtowers, steep gorges that shelter hidden beaches, and a monochrome city of black and white “scrafitti.”
California Dreams in San Luis Obispo rather than L.A.
OK, so it’s not a small town, but there are plenty of reasons to visit this second-city, not the least of which is its market. “Farmers” has taken place every Thursday night since the 1800s when locals gathered around a barbecue pit on Higuera Street. Today, growers arrive laden with artichokes the size of melons, and the ringing of the bell by a Cal Poly professor always signifies the market is open for business. You’ll enjoy savory ribs, street music, and puppet shows for the kids. At closing, stumble into a nearby bar or toss a piece of chewing gum on the wall of Bubblegum Alley.
New Smyrna Beach, a Sunshine State of Mind Less Crowded than Miami
There’s plenty of sandy real estate in this small beach-town. From deep sea fishing for reds to kayaking through mangroves and surfing the jetties, it’s the idyllic seaside getaway. Shop and dine in a historic district reminiscent of the coastal towns of the Eastern Seaboard or snap a family pic beside a colorful drive-up motor court. As the day draws to a close, head south for a nighttime shuttle launch or paddle the Indian River Lagoon during a bioluminescence bloom.
Skip Portland and San Francisco in favor of Ashland, Oregon
Ranked among the top 10 of “The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America,” according to the National Arts Administration, Ashland boasts a legendary creative scene. Catch a show in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or check out the award-winning galleries. Try a Mother Pucker Raspberry Sour at the first craft brewery on the West Coast to can and brew its own beer, or sip Lithia Springs Resort mineral water from the city’s public fountains. Then, head outdoors to mountain bike, hike past fairy ponds, and ski Mt. Ashland.
Visit Asheville but stay in Franklin, North Carolina
Snug in the mountains of western North Carolina, Franklin boasts forest streams, waterfalls, and a charming downtown that is a slice of Americana. There are heritage festivals and Pickin’ on the Square, the fall PumpkinFest Pumpkin Roll, and jaw-dropping views of the Great Smoky Mountains. Just a short drive from Asheville, it’s close enough for shopping, touring the Biltmore Estate, and jamming at the evening Drum Circle before heading home to end the day at the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company.
Bypass Budapest for Bled, Slovenia
Bled is tucked between two Alpine mountains whose snowmelt feeds a turquoise lake so glass-like it reflects the flight of swans. On any given spring day, the lake is peppered with oarsmen steering gondola-style Pletna boats past the Church of the Assumption. The chapel is straight out of a fairy tale, but it’s best known for a 17-story bell tower. In honor of an ancient tradition, grooms gather every Saturday to carry their brides up the 99 steps of the tower to garner good fortune for their nuptials.