How many roads go untraveled simply because we don’t know they exist? Too often, cities (and even whole countries) fall off the traveler’s map while brand-name nations get all the attention. But there’s delight in discovering destination underdogs.
Brussels vs. Paris
Consider Brussels, the quirky capital of Belgium and the European Union, too. With the storybook architecture of the Grand’ Place, gourmet food galore (think Belgian beer and chocolate), great shopping finds (from cutting-edge fashions to antiques) and a vibrant cultural scene, it’s a viable alternative to often overcrowded and generally overpriced Paris. And, to be honest, can you really get excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower for the sixth time?
Though you won’t ever hear it from the French Government Tourist Office, many of the hottest shops in Paris are the ones selling clothes from hot Belgian designers, from Raf Simons to Dries Van Noten. It’s far cooler to browse these hip wares at the source.
Ljubljana vs. Prague
Elsewhere in Europe, consider Ljubljana as an alternative to Prague. The problem with the latter—capital and chief selling point of the former Czechoslovkia—is its popularity. It’s beautiful, yes, but the central district said goodbye to any semblance of authenticity years ago. You’ll notice fewer postcard racks and T-shirt stands in Ljubljana, the unpretentious capital of Slovenia, which broke free from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city of 276,000 has an Italian Baroque look but has roots that stretch back to ancient Roman times.
Malta vs. Monaco
For that matter, city-states aren’t immune from touristic overexposure. Take Monaco. Or rather, don’t. This tiny principality coasts on its reputation, but in reality there’s little more here than harbor for yachts and luxury chain stores that wouldn’t be out of place on Madison Avenue. Some aesthetic attributes notwithstanding, it feels like a wistful nod to glamorous days gone by.
The Mediterranean’s potential is more fully realized in tiny Malta, where the archaeological record bears witness to millennia of human history. The ramparts of Valletta brim with swashbuckler ambience (no wonder so many pirate movies have been filmed here). Whereas Monaco has a nice aquarium, Malta boasts some of the best diving in the Mediterranean, some in Gozo, a separate island with an irresistible name.
Cyprus vs. Mykonos
Speaking of islands, what about Mykonos in Greece? The best time of year to go is during the warm summer months, and the only problem is that half of Germany knows that too. Leapfrog over the crowds by going to Cyprus, the easternmost island in the Mediterranean and one with more than 10,000 years of human history.
Cyprus is “at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, where East meets West, and a new experience is always just around the corner—archaeological treasures, inviting beaches and mountain trails in the Troodos peaks are just a few,” says Tasoula Manarides, director of the Cyprus Tourism Organization in New York. And perhaps because it’s a small place, there’s also “the hospitality of the Cypriots” that complements the high levels of service at five-star properties like Anassa.
P.E.I. vs. Martha's Vineyard
As spring rolls into summer, many Americans have Yankee islands like Martha’s Vineyard on their minds—too many, in fact. Come summertime, the Vineyard can feel like a parking lot with a bit of landscaping thrown in. Venture further afield and reap the rewards of island charms hitherto unknown. Up in Atlantic Canada there’s luscious, beachy Prince Edward Island.
There’s another benefit of seeking out and sashaying through hidden-gem countries. Once you’re back on familiar shores, you can share your new expertise of slightly off-the-radar places like Nicosia in Cyprus and Muscat in Oman with those who have yet to turn armchair dreams into a wanderer’s reality.