My favorite activity is traveling. And while I love traveling to any destination that’s new to me, I enjoy veering off the tourist trail most of all. Sometimes my husband and I exit trains at random stops. Other times, we’ll discover a captivating photo and suddenly find ourselves booking a flight. Thanks to these crazy trip planning methods, we’ve seen some incredible places.
During all of our journeys, we make sure take in the moments, while also snapping photos every now and then. There’s nothing like creating a travel scrapbook when we return home, and then reliving our journeys each time we flip through them with friends.
Here are 15 beautiful destinations that we stumbled upon in different ways — completely underrated and worth a visit.
El Valle de Anton, Panama
My husband and I honeymooned in Panama, and enjoyed the nightlife of Panama City, the coffee tours of Boquete, and the nature of El Valle de Anton. There, we went horseback riding along green hills, covered our faces in revitalizing mud, rinsed off in refreshing hot springs, and walked along flowered paths to the town’s center. El Valle gave us a much needed chance to rest our feet after dancing the night away at our wedding.
This is one of my favorite cities in Europe because it’s easily walkable, boasts many parks, and offers about 100 different ways to eat salmon. But what I love most about Helsinki is its obsession with saunas. My husband and I experienced a blissful afternoon in a no-nonsense, no-frills city sauna. First, we relaxed our muscles in the dry heat, and then we got full-body exfoliating scrub downs. Never has my skin felt so smooth!
A short ferry from Helsinki, Tallinn definitely deserves more than a day. But if you, like me, have limited time, spend a few hours traipsing through the beautiful, cobblestoned Old Town. Enter through the historic defensive walls, and you’ll be greeted by rows of pastel-colored buildings. Be sure to stop at the Kalev Marzipan Museum and sample the almond treat that come in shapes of fruit or people. Then, leave the Old Town and grab lunch at the bohemian neighborhood of Kalamaja. Just keep your eye on the time–unless you don’t mind missing your ferry!
Before we knew that our Spanish vacation would, in fact, be a babymoon, my husband and I planned to hike El Camino de Santiago. We’d carry all of our belongings as we hiked miles and miles each day, and then spend the nights in cathedrals. But, a bun in the oven meant a quick search for alternative spots. Enter Vielha, a little town in the midst of the astonishingly gorgeous Pyrenees Mountains. We walked along lush fields, sipped water from natural springs, stared into the blue sky, and breathed in the fresh air. Basically, we relaxed — which was perfect. Once our little boy is older, I can’t wait to show him the travel slideshow I created, pointing out the little bump that would soon become him!
Several years ago, my husband and I escaped bustling, crumbling Bucharest for Sinaia, a mountain resort town named for the biblical Mount Sinai. I recommend spending a day or two there — hiking the green hills, exploring the Sinaia Cathedral, and staying in lovely hotels at very low rates. We chose one of the nicest hotels — at $50/night. We were graduate students at the time, and felt like royalty.
Tel Aviv is home to some of Israel’s most popular beaches. But if you’re looking for a quieter experience on a smaller shore, head north to Nahariya. A friend, my little boy, and I took a mini road trip there, and enjoyed dipping our feet into the calm waves, drinking cappuccinos at a charming streetside cafe, admiring the stream that passes through the center of the city, and indulging in ice cream cones on the boardwalk. Yum!
For Americans, getting to Belarus isn’t simple. You’ll need to purchase a pricey visa, as well as multiple flights. But, if you can pull off the logistics, I recommend a visit. Destroyed during World War II, Minsk was completely rebuilt in the aftermath with stunning green parks, impressive buildings, and enormous avenues. During my trip, I enjoyed taking in the sunrise over the Svislach River, practicing my Russian, and sipping vodka at the hotel bar.
After the dusty Museum of Clocks and a subpar tuna salad lunch, my husband and I were worried that we’d experienced everything that Bratislava has to offer. Then, we stumbled into the city’s beautiful Old Town, complete with fantastic restaurants, a lovely fountain, and a breathtaking castle on a hill that overlooks the city. At night, we paid $7 to see an opera. We didn’t understand a word of it, but the music and costumes were fantastic.
Kiev was the location of one of my first solo adventures. Well, it was meant to be that, but friends of friends took me under their wings and offered to show me the best of their city. Kiev is wonderful. I stayed in an apartment near the grand Besarabsky Market, and nibbled on cheese and fruit each morning for breakfast. I walked along the massive avenues, staring at the austere Soviet buildings, drinking kvass from yellow tanks, cooling off in the stunning cathedrals, and watching locals play chess alongside the Dnipro River. After the trip, I created personalized thank you cards with photos from the trip, and sent them to my new friends.
Andorra la Vella, Andorra
To be honest, I had never heard of Andorra before traveling there. But because it was only a few hours drive from Northern Spain, my husband and I decided to check it out. Known for not having sales tax, many Europeans travel to Andorra la Vella for great deals on electronics and luxury items. The snow-capped mountains in the background only enhance the shopping experience. But a quirky tour at the Parliament won me over. For example, did you know that the country’s only prison is half full — with about 45 prisoners? Incredible!
Queens, New York, USA
Everyone who flies to New York touches down in Queens, but few actually explore it. I love Queens not just because it’s where I grew up. It’s also the most diverse borough in New York, endlessly fascinating and with so many hidden pockets to explore. Spend a day admiring the colorful sari shops in Jackson Heights, chowing down blini and borscht in Rego Park, drinking bubble tea in Flushing, and appreciating the Manhattan skyline from Long Island City’s peaceful park.
Florence is amazing, but after a few days of running from museum to restaurant to church — and pushing through the crowds, I was ready for the quieter side of Tuscany. Lucca gave me exactly what I was looking for. My husband and I strolled through the historic city with gelato in hand, and then biked the path along the city’s Renaissance walls.
Most people fall for Edinburgh, which is home to a beautiful, medieval town. But it was Glasgow, grittier and more authentic, that charmed me even more. Glasgow’s city center is full of pedestrian walkways, where people congregate to shop, listen to street music, and protest. My husband and I happened to be there during their recent vote for independence, and people could not have been friendlier. They all wanted to know how we’d vote — if we were Scottish. We shrugged and enjoyed tea at the Hidden Lane Tea Room and lots of fish and chips.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
I was born and bred in America, and yet, I never connected to American movies about college. You see, I attended a college with no school spirit that was located in a big city. Instead of partying, students protested. Instead of watching football games, we went to museums. So, I was enthralled by Ann Arbor, a true-life college town, where students wear college sweatshirts every day, people tailgate before a football game, and frat parties are the place to be on a Saturday night. If that’s not really your scene, head to the beautiful botanical gardens, grab a cup of coffee at a free-trade cafe, and while away the afternoon in a cozy bookstore.
From the multicolored vats of leather dye to the pyramids of spices to the donkeys bleating down the road to the people covered in velvet jalabiyas, Fez blew my mind and shocked my senses. I visited Fez with my brother, who has traveled throughout the Middle East, and he urged me to buy leather slippers, a handmade jacket, or an intricately designed pillow. But I was too mesmerized to do anything but stare and take in my surroundings. Later, I made sense of the extraordinary sights by creating travel collages.
What is the most underrated destination that you’ve visited? I’m always looking for new places to add to my travel wish list!