Whether you're nomad or a self-proclaimed hermit, you've probably heard about places like Times Square, The Eiffel Tower and Table Mountain - more than once. While nobody can deny their beauty and appeal, it's places like these that keep us away from the hidden gems; stunning and culturally rich cities throughout the world that deserve just as much attention. This month, Essential Travel takes you on a road to discovery and lifts the lid on the Top 10 Underrated Destinations in the World.
Overshadowed by the mountains in Cape Town and beaches in Durban, Lesotho is a destination still largely unspoiled by modern skyscrapers and bustling tourists. The mountainous region lies at the tip of Southern Africa and not only does it offer spectacular, world-class views, it is also home to the Basotho people, a hospitable people with a penchant for art and music.
The Malealea Valley embraces the very best that Lesotho has to offer. Pony trekking expeditions given by locals are especially popular and the opportunity to get unique insight into a culture completely different from your own is certainly not something you should pass up. The brown, dust covered roads are scattered with makeshift craft stalls, made from cloth and wooden boards for tables. And while you admire that handmade beaded necklace, you can watch as the store owner deftly uses her hands to create many other pieces of jewellery. One of the most popular accommodation options is Malealea Lodge,a century-old trading post that was transformed into hospitable lodgings.
You can also take a trip with children from the village who will happily show you their homes, local museums and traditional huts where you can get Lesotho herbs and plants. Discover the secret of their herbal Basotho Tea and how it relates to the history of the local people. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of hikes to take on - like the Pitseng Canyon Hike that will take you to a cascade of three rock pools, and the trickier Botsoela Waterfall Trek. In the evening, when it’s time to relax, you can treat yourself to live music from the local children’s choir. All of these activities can be experienced for under £1.
Thrust into a corner and seemingly forgotten for centuries after a tumultuous history, 21st century Gdansk is an eclectic mixture of the people who inhabit the city and the century-old buildings. Having been thrown into the middle of a violent attack, this city on the Baltic Sea with centuries old architecture was largely destroyed during World War Two. But the people of Gdansk never gave up on the city and although it has taken many years, they have painstakingly reconstructed some of the most important historical elements of the town.
Stepping into the town, you’ll see that it’s very different to other cities in Poland. The 14th century Town Hall houses the historical Gdansk History Museum and the cobbled roads run through the port city at a relaxed pace. Gdansk attractions range from quaint cafés that carry a hint of quirkiness to Amber Shops and museums, which add to the charm.
And up river, boat cruises between the harbours and docks allow you to feel the maritime-ebb of a city crammed with energy. Gone is the Old Town stereotype that the city is filled with elderly people walking the streets; it now boasts a bustling nightlife, parks, a zoo and a stunning coastline not too far away. Gdansk may not be a well-known tourist spot just yet, but the next few years will see the little city getting its share of visitors eager to experience the adventures that this unique town has to offer.
You may know Peru’s Machu Picchu very well, after all it’s been a popular tourist destination for many years. But Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, was also founded on the ruins of an Inca city in the 16th Century. The 1917 Earthquake shook many cities and destroyed Inca architecture in a number of Latin American cities, but Quito has the best-preserved and least altered historical city.
Quito, much like its famous monasteries, is a fusion of Spanish, Italian and Flemish indigenous art and architecture. The city lies between two mountain ranges and is divided into three parts; the Old City at the centre and the southern and northern districts on each side. A decade ago this was a completely different city. Recognising the value of its history and landscape, the Inter-American Development Bank spent the last few years turning Quito into a dream tourist city by promoting its vast array of churches, convents and monasteries, restoring key monuments and training locals to work in the tourism industry.
Perhaps the most alluring aspect of Quito is the tourism initiatives. Instead of being bombarded with fancy hotels and high-rise buildings, Quito prides itself on encouraging visitors to be environmentally friendly - and with thousands of unique species of flora and fauna, this is certainly needed. In fact, the ease with which you can experience nature here is one of Quito’s best features. Mountain biking, rafting or exploring the Amazon forest can be more than just a dream. And if that’s not enough, the Galapagos Islands aren’t too far off for a visit - let the beaches of the Pacific Ocean warm your toes and and cool off your body.
For many years, West Africa was seen as a no-go zone. It was too dangerous, too poverty-stricken, too far removed from the comfortable life that so many of us have become accustomed to. Some travellers visited the region against the advice of their families, friends and tour operators. They came back with an experience unlike any other and tales that could span a lifetime. Senegal is one of the Western World’s biggest myths. It is not a country plagued by famine and civil war; it is a country that has
At the heart of Senegal is its capital, Dakar. Walking through the streets is a tour in itself; the sound of locals speaking French in their hard-to-place accent accompanied by Capoeira-like drum beats that boom through your body. The walk will transport you to a city consumed by the arts and a multitude of traditions. And with each person you meet, you’ll find a different story and a different assortment of crafts, food and jewellery - handmade and carefully created to represent various ethnic groups. The city isn’t just home to a mix of cultures. Museums, mosques and churches line the streets and once you’ve visited this, you can join the locals on their cliff walks and beach trips. Bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and a need to be recognised as a valuable tourist destination, Dakar’s nightlife is a bustling atmosphere mixed with surprised tourists and cheerful locals. Expect plenty of live music, energetic dancing and a lot of singing - before you leave, you’ll be one of those people doing the salsa in the middle of the circle.
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Although listed as New Zealand’s second most popular tourist destination, Doubtful Sound doesn’t get many international visitors and once you see the pictures, you’ll understand our confusion. It’s one of those places where you don’t really have to do anything. You can sit for hours and stare at the crystal clear waters and magnificent mountains without getting bored. Describing Doubtful Sound as “vast” would be an understatement. Compared to us tiny humans in our little boat, the inlet with steep cliffs on either side of a valley is simply mammoth. For some unknown reason (for which we are extremely thankful) the nature gods have managed to keep major construction companies at bay and Doubtful Sound remains unspoiled and almost untouched by man.
The rugged peaks sit atop inlets that twist, turn and at times, remain completely hidden. But don’t focus too much on just the mountains, you might miss the chance to see bottlenose dolphins nudging your boat as they direct you to watch the fur seals play. The only way to get to Doubtful Sound is to take a cruise across Lake Manapouri, followed by a coach trip to Wilmot Pass. I doubt anyone will be complaining about this though. The isolation lends itself to an unparalleled sense of peace. You can choose a day cruise through the wilderness or you can stay overnight. An experience like this deserves to be felt more than once - so I’ll be booking an overnight stay for sure.
Lusaka is a city on the rise. The sprawling, high-rise skyscrapers in the metropolis are juxtaposed with the low-lying shanty towns. It is perhaps this contrast that makes Lusaka a destination so rarely visited, but so worth the trip. In a few years, the city has gone from cobbled streets lined with beggars to multi-storey buildings manned by people from a multitude of different nationalities. Many tourists who have visited the city have chosen to make it their permanent home and can call themselves witnesses to the exponential growth that Lusaka is undergoing.
Again in line with the contrasting nature of Lusaka, one can enjoy a four-course meal at an upmarket restaurant while watching the fairy lights on the ceiling and playing with the champagne glasses on the table, or you can stroll across the road and sit on the floor of a shebeen to eat a plate of stew and rice while playing cards and drinking beer with the locals. If you want a true experience of what the city is like, then the latter is the place you head to. A similar phenomenon occurs when it comes to shopping. While the big malls with their glass doors and pristine interior will no doubt be a comfortable experience, it is the loud, busy markets with the sound of music and bargaining in the background that will make your experience more memorable. A favourite for many of the more curious tourists, is the Sunday Craft Market at Arcades Shopping Centre.
Bordering Zambia and Zimbabwe is Victoria Falls, a spectacular sight courtesy of mother nature. If you’re travelling with children, then a visit to Munda Wanga Environmental Park, the Adventure Theme Park and the Lusaka National Museum, is a must. It’s surprising that a city that offers so much isn’t higher up on the top tourist destination boards - but this is likely to change in the future.
The Grampians, Victoria
Unlike our other underrated destinations, The Grampians isn’t a city; it’s a national park in Victoria, Australia. The park isn’t on our list because it made the Australian National Heritage list for Outstanding Natural Beauty or because it is one of the richest indigenous rock art sites (although these are two very worthwhile feats), it is included because, sadly, this beautiful place isn’t even in the Top 50 tourist destinations! Considering what the national park has to offer, it should be one of the most popular destinations in the world.
A visit to The Grampians is designed for the slightly more adventurous. To get right into the depths of nature, you literally have to throw yourself at it; and kayaking, canoeing, mountain climbing and cycling are just a few ways to do so. One of the best ways to get a bird’s eye view of The Grampians is to strap yourself to an airfoil canopy, make your way to Ararat Airfield and launch yourself off a steep cliff to paraglide over the scenery below. There are also dozens of waterfalls with sprays that gently touch your face from miles away.
Arguably the best part about visiting The Grampians is being able to camp there. Not only do you save money on accommodation, but you’re able to get that unparalleled, rugged experienced from being face to face with nature. The campsites have communal kitchens, showers and washing machines and some even have wireless internet, tennis courts and pools. Or if roughing it isn’t really your thing, you can make use of the cottages, cabins and chalets. You won’t find bustling markets and hordes of local people at The Grampians; this time, it’s all about nature.
The mention of any US city as “underrated” is sure to spark a debate. But have you ever thought of Detroit as a tourist city? For some reason, and one can safely assume this comes from movies and books, Detroit is seen as the city of good cops and bad robbers, a city where the police meet suspects in dark alleys with steaming mugs of coffee. It’s gritty reputation precedes the true nature of the city. These days, Detroit is more than just the perfect setting for the next big crime novel, it’s thriving on a network of people working to widen the the emerging metropolis’ appeal.
Among the 19th century Gothic influenced buildings and the multi-million dollar, 56 room mansions, lies a city with a love for all things theatrical. Detroit bands such as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers pioneered the early jazz era, and the seedy, gritty appearance of the city created an atmosphere for creative musicians. You probably know that New York City has the largest theatre district in the United States. But did you know that Detroit has the second largest? Experience the magic of Broadway musicals in Detroit or the impact of classic Shakespeare in a 5,000 seat theatre. Each theatre has historic significance and many have been restored to maintain its signature style with a certain modern feel. While Detroit is a hub for arts and culture, it is also a city of beautiful landscapes. The Huron River is especially beautiful during the autumn months; red and yellow leaves scatter the marshy, heavily forested area of Northwest Detroit where the river originates.
For a long time, all I knew about Armenia was that it’s where Kim Kardashian’s ancestors came from. And then I saw a picture of the country that is known as one of the world’s oldest inhabited places, but sadly, is barely on the radar of tourists. It was the battleground for centuries of competing empires, it was the base for decades of foreign occupation and finally, with the fall of Soviet Russia, it became independent. With such a grisly history, Yerevan has struggled to gain momentum, but even through that struggle it has always been a proud city.
The capital city of Armenia charged into independence with a desire to push the city to the forefront of world arts and entertainment, architecture and culture. In just a few years, a flurry of buildings have gone up, the population has grown tremendously and the city has opened its doors to tourists. But even amongst the recent decades of construction, the century-old buildings stand out. The Institute of Ancient Manuscripts houses books dating all the way back to the 9th century, and the Erebuni Fortress, built in 782 BC still stands in the midst of its ruins. Up close, the buildings of Yerevan are reminiscent of 16th century castles with haphazardly built houses bordering the gates. With a lively theatre atmosphere, a noticeable appreciation of music and rugged, unspoiled landscapes, Yerevan is any tourist’s dream city - with a wealth of history thrown into the mix.
An unusual choice for tourism, even for a place that is underrated, especially because Turkmenistan has often been declared the cousin of North Korea in terms of political control and domination. Turkmenistan is not a place for someone looking to paraglide off a mountain or swim with dolphins; it’s a place for people to step out of their comfort zone and broaden their minds. The traditional life of some Turkmen borders on nomadic shepherds, although many people have set up homes in different towns. In the post Soviet period, billions have been spent remodeling the city and it’s this renovation mixed with the simple life of Turkmen that makes Ashgabat a place everyone should visit at least once.
Ashgabat seems to hide behind the Kopet Dag Mountain Range and seek shelter within the Kara Kum Desert. In fact it may be said that his flat city, with its determined group of people, has limped somewhat through the past century. But now, home to mosques decked in gold and scattered with elaborate paintings, markets selling everything from handmade carpets to fig jam and many important museums, Ashgabat is truly growing into a gem of a travel destination. While officially, tourists are welcomed, the visa requirements are strict and only the most determined make it into the city. If you’re lucky enough to be part of this group, make sure you visit Ertogrul Gazi Mosque, one of the first mosques built after Turkmenistan’s independence. The Arch of Neutrality is also a must-see; created in memory of victims of a devastating earthquake in 1948, the monument depicts a raging bull with its horns on a globe, on top of which sits a woman with a small, golden child in her arms.