Travel

The Road Less Traveled: 10 Off-the-Beaten Path Destinations for 2020

For many, the New Year is about new beginnings. The frivolities of the holidays are finished and it’s back to the business of life. But who says some of these new schemes can’t be fun – like planning travel for 2020?

This year, why not color outside the lines a bit? The world is full of off-the-beaten-path destinations to spice up your travel year. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the tried-and-true, but some of our most memorable travel experiences happened in these 10 out-of-the-way places.

1. Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

The flowery smell of incense clouds the air, a troop of chattering monkeys bicker in the trees, votive candles flicker under a sacred bodhi tree, and monks chant quietly in the darkness of the cave. If you travel to Sri Lanka there are sights to see, and there are experiences – Dambulla’s Cave Temples are an Experience. Buddhist temples are frequently an assault on the senses, but walking barefoot in a holy place, surrounded by devoted pilgrims, elegant architecture, and intricate artwork is a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed.

2. Ollantaytambo, Peru

It goes without saying that every serious traveler should visit the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. But experiencing the ruins and culture of the Inca without fighting the tourist hordes takes some planning. To help with this, part of your strategy should be basing yourself in Ollantaytambo. Known as “Ollanta,” (pronounced Oh-yohn-tuh), this small, quiet town is unique because it’s one of the only places in Peru which has its original Inca walls and street grid. And modern residents still live within these walls, so you’ll see a side of the Inca culture that you won’t get at Machu Picchu.

3. Luang Prabang, Laos

The charming town of Luang Prabang is a patchwork of gold-plated Buddhist temples, romantic French-colonial homes, traditional Lao wooden houses, fragrant frangipani, meandering monks, and delightful restaurants overlooking the Mekong River. It’s one of the most alluring cities in Southeast Asia and shouldn’t be missed.

4. Subotica, Serbia

In the far north of Serbia, near the Hungarian border, the small city of Subotica (Soo-bo-teets-za) seems an unlikely location for an impressive collection of Art Nouveau architecture. But in the early 1900s it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its building styles show it. It feels very different than Serbian cities farther south, and if you want a glimpse of how the wealthy lived in fin de siècle Europe, a stop in Subotica will do it.

5. Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato clings to the steep sides of a V-shaped canyon in the Central Highlands of Mexico, and what was left when the silver mines played out, and the robber barons left is one of the most colorful and delightful towns you’ll visit in Mexico. With its small-town vibe and tree-shaded central plaza, it could be the source of the Spanish version of “chillax.”

6. Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Monasteries can be somber affairs, but the monks at the famous Rila Monastery in southwestern Bulgaria didn’t get the memo. Nestled in a gorgeous mountain setting complete with panoramic views and a rushing stream, this fortress-like monastery is popular with both pilgrims and tourists alike. Its combination of elegant architecture and richly colored frescoes make it an essential part of any trip to Bulgaria. 

7. Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca has everything that you expect with a historic Spanish city: centuries-old cathedrals, stunning Renaissance palaces, and romantic plazas teeming with local color. But what sets Salamanca apart is its 900 year-old university and student population that adds a distinctive youthful vitality. The exuberant mood in the bustling Plaza Mayor will set the tone for any trip here.

8. Cross Creek, Florida

In 1928 author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings left here New York life behind and bought an orange grove in rural Florida. She settled in a tiny community in central Florida called Cross Creek, where she endured the hardships of the land, embraced her neighbors, and wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling. Today, her home, assorted outbuildings, and orange grove have been preserved as a State Park. A trip to her homestead is a unique step back in time that is well worth the detour off the path to the beach.

9. Bacharach, Germany

Bacharach is a small village in west central Germany perched on a narrow crescent of land between a lazy bend in the Rhine River and steep valley walls to the west. Billed as one of the “prettiest Rhine villages,” it has it all: quaint Medieval buildings, vineyard-covered hillsides, romantic ruins, and pristine river views. There are charming villages all over Germany, but this one is truly exceptional.

10. Kotor, Montenegro

Tiny Kotor escaped damage in the Balkans war, and consequently, is one of the best preserved Medieval towns in the Mediterranean. Believe us, it’s one of the reasons you’re touring the Adriatic. Forget the cruise ship tourists, forget the comparisons to Dubrovnik, and make your way to Kotor.

* * *

With the arrival of 2020 the Roaring Twenties are back, and intrepid travelers should start making memories. We maintain that the road less traveled is the place to begin.

Bon Voyage for 2020, and Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Photo Credits: 2. Thom Quine

53 thoughts on “The Road Less Traveled: 10 Off-the-Beaten Path Destinations for 2020

  1. I’m most intrigued by Subotica because I grew up watching news about the multiple wars that engulfed the Balkan peninsula in what seemed to be an endless cycle of violence in this part of the world, and this Serbian city was often mentioned on TV. I must admit I knew nothing about its Art Nouveau buildings, and after reading your post on it I’m convinced!

    • Bama, when we visited Subotica, we had a painful reminder that the problems in this area aren’t over. We took a bus from Novi Sad north to Subotica, and it was absolutely packed with refugees heading north to the EU. The border crossing into Hungary is only 10 miles away, so the bus station was a gathering point for families and large groups trying to cross. We enjoyed our time in Subotica, but the refugee experience that we witnessed will always be with us. ~James

  2. We have come to appreciate the lesser-known places as well. Last year we discovered Tarragona in Spain, a very Roman town, and loved it. I would love to visit Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s place in Cross Creek. Happy travels in 2020.

    • Darlene, we visited Tarragona years ago on one of our first “Rick Steve’s Europe through the back door” trips. It’s memorable for me because it was my first glimpse of Roman Europe, and it was the seed that inspired lots of future trips. And as an author, you’d love Cross Creek. Rawlings lead an interesting life, and as you can imagine, her home is a wonderful glimpse into her personality. Her old typewriter is set up on a screened porch and I could almost feel her sitting there pecking away. Cool place. ~James

      • One of the highlights of my life was visiting Jane Austen’s cottage in Chawton, England. I too sensed Jane sitting at her little round table, scribbling away, hiding the writing under a book whenever someone came into the study. Touching the very same table sent chills through my body. I imagine it would be the same at Cross Creek.

    • Gilda, I’m happy that you’re going to Laos, and I’m sure you’ll love Luang Prabang. It’s a wonderful, small town and it’s the perfect place to wander. Read our series of posts for ideas, and make sure to visit the Tamarind Restaurant if it’s still in business. The food it excellent and inexpensive – perfect words for us. Bon Voyage. ~James

    • I’m sure the Dambulla Temples haven’t changed at all. It’s on of those timeless places that wouldn’t. When we visited Sri Lanka we were on a Round the World trip and we just stopped on a whim. It’s one of those opportunistic stops that we’re so glad we made. We’d go back in a heartbeat. ~James

    • Laura, you and Steve know enough about FL to know that there a loads of cool, little-known places to visit. Well, Cross Creek fits in this category. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. And BTW, on the road in keep an eye open for sandhill cranes in the open pastureland. They nest in this area this time of year and are pretty neat to watch. ~James

  3. Have been to all of those except 2, 5 and 8, and have to agree with those I have seen. BTW, people who enjoy Subotica should head a little way north and visit Szeged and Pecs, just over the current border in Hungary.

    Last time I was in Luang Prabang, in 2011, I was upset by how much more touristy it was than on my previous visits in 2002 and 2004, but I agree it’s still worth seeing. Friends of mine had the same reaction to Ollantaytambo in December, but still enjoyed it and wrote that the crowds were mostly day trippers.

    • Kathy, as travelers and travel bloggers, we’re our own worst enemy. We search out uncrowded, little-known places to visit, and then promptly blog about them to spread the word. It’s an age-old problem for travel writers I guess. But, in these days of low-cost airlines and an increasingly mobile public, there are fewer and fewer ways to avoid crowds. And honestly, even with the crowds, I can say that every one of these places is worth a visit. So I guess the question then becomes what are the best strategies to avoid crowds. Have a great 2020 filled with fun and travel. ~James

  4. This is the kind of travelers Shane and I are. We love the road less traveled, away from all the tourists. We love immersing ourselves with the locals and learning about a place that way. Some of the best memories are made this way. Thanks for this off the beaten path top 10 post. Happy 2020 James & Terry!

    • Thanks Amy. I’m sure that you’ve discovered that traveling off the path takes considerably more work, but for us, it’s always worth it. We get an apartment in a real neighborhood, use local buses and trains, shop at local markets, and as you say, “immerse ourselves.” This leads to little discoveries about the people and their culture that makes all the difference. We’ve been using this MO for so long we wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. Terri and I hope that you and Shane have a wonderful 2020, and we appreciate your continuing to follow along. ~James

      • It is worth it for sure. The lifelong friends you make along the way & the rich experiences make it worth it. Looking forward to reading your posts this year!

  5. What an interesting collection of unique and fabulous places! Some we have been to (Sri Lanka’s caves of course and one of our favorite spots in S.L), Ollyantantambo in Peru another favorite. The challenge these days is definitely overtourism and for us we always try to go early to popular places and then, sometimes to avoid the popular places and rather to find places off the beaten track which are often overlooked by the masses. Most tourists tend to stick to together and populate a few streets, thankfully ha.I do believe that the Chinese have had a big part in changing tourism now that the middle class is travelling so much and SO many Chinese are travelling ~ usually in huge buses which are packed to the brim. It is definitely hard to go back to places which years back were not really on the mass tourism radar and then to see how much they have changed and been impacted by tourism.

    Peta

    • Peta, as I said to someone else: in these days of low-cost airlines and an increasingly mobile public, there are fewer and fewer ways to avoid crowds – particularly at world-famous sights. And I suspect that it will get worse before it gets better. So I guess the question then becomes what are the best strategies to avoid crowds. As most seasoned travelers, I’m sure you guys have good strategies for minimizing the impact of crowds, so that helps a bit. Since I’m one of the crowd as well, I try to be understanding and patient, but I’m with you on those huge bus-loads of tourists. We wish you and Ben all the best for a wonderful 2020. ~James

  6. This is a really interesting collection, especially since I haven’t visited many of them. I so want to spend more time in Europe. It’s actually the continent I’ve seen least of. Serbia, Bulgaria, Germany, and more of Spain are all on my list!
    Alison

    • Alison, one of the wonderful things about Europe is that from a logistical standpoint, it’s relatively easy to get off-the-path, as opposed to some of the places you’re accustomed to traveling. And every single country has a deep, rich history so the possibilities for unusual and unique experiences are almost limitless. We hope that you and Don have an exciting 2020 and thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

  7. You must have had fun revisiting all these places in your minds while putting together this post! And sorting through what I’m sure are thousands of photos to find just the right one to tell the story of a place. What a trip!
    I’m hoping to go to Peru next year, and when it happens I’ll be sure to visit Ollantaytambo. A friend from here in Oaxaca and I have been talking about doing this trip together. She was in a terrible car accident last year when we were all in Yucatán, and is still recovering from her injuries. I told her Peru can wait, that I wouldn’t go without her!

    • Marilyn, there’s so much to see in Peru that I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it. You’ve probably heard all about the crowds at Machu Picchu, but go anyway – it’s as wonderful as you read. In addition to Ollanta, we really enjoyed Cusco as well. So sorry about your friend and her accident. Auto accidents are scary under any circumstances, and particularly when they happen so far from home. I hope she recovers quickly so you two can visit Peru. It will be just the balm she needs. ~James

  8. Great post. We spent 3 weeks in Peru and still feel its the best country in South America, except of course Colombia! Ollantaytambo, Peru was a highlight. We spent one night there before our 4 day Inka trail hike to Machu Picchu and then another three nights on our hike. It truly is a taste of the Qucheas heritage!

    • Aguas Calientes has a scenic location and is certainly convenient to Machu Picchu, but it’s OTT touristy and we decided that Ollanta as a basecamp was worth the extra effort and time. With your time in Colombia and Peru, it sounds like you had a good look at this part of the world. ~James

    • David, both Bulgaria and Romania are interesting countries, and their tourist services aren’t as well developed as the rest of Europe, so by default, things are more “off the beaten path.” But each has a long, rich history and visiting these two post-Communist countries is worth while. ~James

  9. Been to some and have others in my mind for a visit, but the surprise entry was Cross Creek! I adored The Yearling as a young girl; I read it more than once and pushed it on all my kids as well. I might have to check that place out!

    • Lexie, serious traveler that you are, I’m happy we surprised you. We lived in FL twice, and honestly, I’ve thought about writing a post to advise visitors to get their butts off the beach and travel into the central part of the state. Long before beaches were the draw, Florida was a magnet for new residents, and consequently, it has a deep, rich history. Cross Creek is a magical place, and particularly if you know Rawlings and her work. If you get down this way, don’t miss it. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Sophia and for dropping by the blog. I did a bit of research and the King’s Landing scenes were actually shot slightly up the coast from Kotor in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We visited Dubrovnik as well, and it’s also a very well preserved Medieval city – a bit bigger and more crowded than Kotor, but cool nonetheless. ~James

  10. Another fantastic list! And with your travel experience, you could probably come up with a bunch of off the beaten path destinations every year! How do you manage to pick only one photo for each of these ten places traveled and experienced? I’d have the hardest time, as my blog proves… too many photos! Happy 2020! May it bring as many adventures and simplicity as past years. 🙂

    • Thanks Liesbet. These listicle posts are fun to do. As to photos for the posts, that is Terri’s bailiwick, and she does an excellent job. Pretty much, she has to find one photo that’s eye-catching to encourage readers to click on the post, and of course, it has to be on topic. For me personally, sometimes when I write a post I do so with a few specific photos in mind, and other times not. Either way, Terri always rises to the occasion. ~James

  11. Welcome to 2020!

    I had such joy rekindling my own memories and experiences from many of your off the beaten path destinations, and learning of a few of which I knew nothing (for instance, I’d never heard of Cross Creek, Florida).

    Wishing you both a great new year!

    • Thanks Chris. These posts are a good walk down memory lane for sure. It’s particularly memorable when I look at many of the photos, and I remember standing in that certain spot to get the photo, and it brings is all back. All the best to you and Sarah for a happy and healthy 2020 filled with fun travel. ~James

  12. I’ve been to the first 2 on your list and dream of visiting Kotor some time. This year I’m flying out to a tiny island in the South Pacific with a population of just 600 people to spend a week so I think that classes as off-the-beaten track. What’s your plans for 2020?

    • Fi, anywhere in the South Pacific qualifies as off-the-path for sure. Anytime I actually look at the distances involved in traveling in the SP I’m amazed. Sometimes I wonder how early humans ever settled these widely scattered dots of land. As to Kotor, everyone should visit Dubrovnik, but these days it gets lots of negative press because of cruise ship crowds. So if that bugs you, give Kotor a try. Have a great trip. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Nancy and for dropping by the blog. I see that you live in Spain, and I envy that. We’ve traveled in Spain many times and never grow tried of it. On our last trip we spent a month visiting a few places we hadn’t been before, and Salamanca was on the list. I addition to all the normal tourist sites, it’s a wonderful city to just wander around. All the best for an exciting 2020. ~James

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