10 Places That Deserve More Travelers

Tatev monastery, Armenia

10 Places That Deserve More Travelers
Head off the typical tourist trail to explore these surprising destinations.

Armenia

Why Go Now: Few people know that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in A.D. 301. And Armenia’s ancient churches—massive, sprawling complexes of ruins nestled into the wildly green canyons and mountaintops of the countryside—are among the world’s best preserved. While other Christian churches are decorated with painted frescoes, many of which have faded or been destroyed, the carved stone lions of cliffside Geghard Monastery and intricately carved khachkars (stone graves) of Sanahin stand as a testament to the creative power of one of the world’s oldest, and least heralded, civilizations. And Armenia’s churches aren’t the only attraction of its countryside. The wildflower-dappled hills and valleys here—far more accessible than the vertiginous mountain paths of Georgia—are full of pagan temples like Garni, just outside Yerevan, and cobblestoned “spa towns” like Dilijan, nicknamed “Armenia’s Switzerland.”

Tatev monastery, Armenia

Tatev monastery, Armenia
PHOTOGRAPH BY FLORIAN NEUKIRCHEN, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Nicaragua

The Situation on the Ground: Petty crime. Carjackings. Muggings. Drugs. Central America’s reputation hasn’t been the most sterling in recent years, as spillover from both Mexico and South America’s drug trades has rendered the region a focus point for narcotics-related violence. And the stereotype’s not too far off for some of Nicaragua’s neighbors–Honduras and Guatemala are among the world’s most violent countries, while even statistically safer countries like Costa Rica and Panama have seen a spike in murder rates in the past decade. But Nicaragua–despite being among Latin America’s poorest countries—is also among its safest. Its murder rate is only 11 per 100,000 people (compared with 82 in Honduras). Nicaragua’s relative paucity of gang-related violence makes it an ideal vantage point from which to explore Central American culture.

Bay of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Bay of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
PHOTOGRAPH BY PABLO CASTAGNOLA, ANZENBERGER/REDUX

Nepal

The Situation on the Ground: Although Kathmandu—and Nepal—have long attracted adventurous travelers, the country’s April 2015 earthquake, which killed 8,000 and wrought about $10 billion (half of Nepal’s GDP) in damages, decimated the country’s tourism industry. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, a UNESCO-listed compound of palaces dating back as far as the tenth century, was partially destroyed, as was another of Kathmandu’s iconic structures: the 19th-century Dharahara tower.

Nepal's Annapurna Circuit

Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit
PHOTOGRAPH BY TYLER METCALFE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Iran

The Situation on the Ground: Until recently, visiting Iran was an all but unrealizable proposition for the average American. Chilly diplomatic relations (or the lack thereof)—including a trade embargo—and the aftermath of the 2011 demonstrations rendered Iran both inaccessible and relatively dangerous; Americans could get a visa to visit Iran, a lengthy and onerous process, only in the full-time company of a licensed tour operator or guide.

But this year’s landmark nuclear deal between the United States and Iran has made Iran more accessible than ever for American travelers. While visa rules remain restrictive—expect to still travel with guides—the government is showing some signs of laxity: electronic visa filing is expected to come into effect this year for some countries, while the length of a typical tourist visa has been extended from 15 to 30 days. In the wake of its nuclear deal, Iran is publicizing a battery of infrastructure projects designed to boost tourism and foreign investment, including the arrival of branches of the Ibis and Novotel hotel chains in Iran.

Why Go Now: Since the nuclear deal, Iran’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites—from the staggeringly massive ruins of Persepolis, once the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, to the intricately carved 18th-century Golestan Palace in Tehran to the rose gardens and meticulously painted tile facades of 16th-century capital Isfahan—are more accessible than ever. The former seat of some of the Middle East and Central Asia’s most illustrious dynasties is filled with architectural, not to mention natural, splendor. And while Americans are still a rarity (3,400 visitors came in 2014, up from only 1,800 in 2013) your novelty may prove advantageous: Iran’s jovial hospitality culture all but demands extravagant welcomes (and unsolicited piles of food) for unfamiliar guests.

Ancient city of Persepolis in Iran near Shiraz

Ancient city of Persepolis in Iran near Shiraz
PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVAIN DOSSETTO, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Kosovo

The Situation on the Ground: Europe’s newest country (it only declared independence in 2008) hasn’t exactly been a mainstay on the tourist trail. A site both of violent conflict and political tension between ethnic Serbs and Albanian Kosovars throughout the 1980s and 90s, culminating in the Kosovo War of 1998-89, Kosovo spent almost a decade as a UN protectorate. Today, however, the newly independent Kosovo is one of Europe’s most exciting—and economical—adventure travel destinations.

Why Go Now: While much has been written about the thriving café culture of Pristina, Kosovo’s relentlessly bohemian, if aesthetically dreary, capital, Kosovo’s real draw is in the country’s south. The medieval city of Prizren—a castle-topped hill town of Ottoman hammams and 14th-century basilicas—is a perfect base from which to hike (or ski) in Kosovo’s Šar Mountains, or to simply wander the city’s forested riverside behind the fortress hill. Well-preserved, without the sterility of renovated “old towns” in Balkan neighbors like Sarajevo, Prizren’s easily walkable historic district is a labyrinth of terra-cotta roofs, minarets, and red-umbrella-roofed cafés.

Brezovica Ski Resort Kosovo

Ski slopes in Brezovica, Kosovo
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENNY ISLAMI, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Uzbekistan

The Situation on the Ground: Like many of the former-Soviet “stans” of Central Asia, Uzbekistan (ruled with authoritarian brutality by President Islam Karimov) has long suffered from a combination of dictatorial isolationism and intermittent terrorist threats. But despite, if not because of, Karimov’s hypervigilance, Uzbekistan is extremely safe for travelers. Once the epicenter of the legendary Silk Road, Uzbekistan is one of the most stunning, historically rich destinations in Central Asia. And for travelers willing to veer off the encouraged tourist path, it offers not just extraordinary natural and architectural beauty, but gleeful, hospitable chaos. A quiet dinner on the cross-country Soviet-style night train between Tashkent and Bukhara will more likely than not erupt into a jovial vodka-toasting party with total strangers.

Why Go Now: Uzbekistan’s main historic centers–the extraordinary blue-tiled caravanserai complexes at Bukhara and Samarkand–have undergone extensive renovation in recent years, as the government has transformed 14th-century ruins into glistening, pristine palaces; a decades-long renovation of Samarkand’s Registan Square was completed only last year. While critics decry what they see as over-restoration, Bukhara and Samarkand remain two of the most outstanding examples of urban architecture from the Islamic world and provide evocative glimpses of the centuries in which the steppes of Central Asia doubled as cosmopolitan capitals of learning, art, and trade.

Poi Kalan mosque in Bukhara Uzbekistan

Poi Kalan mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS LINKEL, LAIF/REDUX

Albania

The Situation on the Ground: For decades, Albania was among southeastern Europe’s least visited—and least accessible—countries. A virtual fortress under the isolationist tactics of communist dictator Enver Hoxha (who spent four decades building over 700,000 needless, and largely useless, defensive bunkers across the country), Albania collapsed into chaos after Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the subsequent fall of the U.S.S.R.

Today, however, Albania is no less safe than its more well-trodden Adriatic counterparts. A burgeoning tourist industry—centered around its meticulously preserved UNESCO-listed Ottoman towns, including Berat and Gjirokastra, and the stretch of land now known somewhat archly as the Albanian Riviera—now brings in almost 3.5 million tourists a year.

Why Go Now: While Adriatic beaches in nearby Italy and Croatia have largely been transformed into crowded, hypermodern resort complexes, Albania’s coastal beaches, dotted with ruined Greco-Roman amphitheaters and whitewashed, icon-filled Orthodox churches, are among the few in Europe where it’s possible to stretch out on the shoreline, even during high season. South of Vlorë, the somewhat concrete-feeling coastal hub, ethnically Greek villages like Dhërmi, Vuno, and Himarë—with terrace cafés, waterside squid-hawking fishmongers, and narrow pedestrianized pathways—are inundated with family-run B&Bs that go for as little as $25 a night. Travelers from outside the Balkans are still rare but vigorously welcomed. Don’t be surprised if your B&B host insists on taking you on a dizzying motorcycle tour along the coastline or challenges you to a staggering rakia-drinking competition.

World Heritage site at Butrint Albania

World Heritage site at Butrint, Albania
PHOTOGRAPH BY AGE FOTOSTOCK, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Timor-Leste

The Situation on the Ground: For most of the past few centuries, Timor-Leste–also known as East Timor, a million-person, ethnically distinct swath of the Timor island otherwise part of the Indonesian archipelago–was a colony of Portugal. In the 1970s, Timor sought independence from Portugal but was annexed by neighboring Indonesia in 1975.

A 1999 referendum saw East Timor’s population vote for independence, but the past decade and a half have been characterized by bloody civil war, with the country under UN administration. As of 2012, however, UN troops have finally withdrawn from the country, and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, as the country is formally known, is now stable and embracing its burgeoning identity as an unexpected destination for adventure tourism in Southeast Asia.

Cape Fatucama Timor-Leste

Cape Fatucama, Timor-Leste
PHOTOGRAPH BY DESIGN PICS INC, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Georgia

The Situation on the Ground: Revolution, chaos, revolution, war, upheaval. The years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been uniformly good to Georgia, the balmy, vineyard-dotted Caucasian country that once doubled as an artistic Grand Tour destination for Russia’s literary élite. But in the aftermath of the country’s brief, devastating 2008 war with Russia, waves of foreign investment—only slightly stymied by the 2012 election of a right-leaning nationalist government—have transformed Georgia into a model of frenetic development.

Its once bandit-infested mountains are now awash with newly built ski slopes (and Swiss-style chalets); the crumbling art nouveau facades of its Black Sea port Batumi have been meticulously, and sometimes gaudily, restored. And with its resurgent activist arts (and nightlife) scenes, Tbilisi, its capital, has become one of Eastern Europe’s most innovative cultural capitals.

Abanotubani District in the old town of Tbilisi

Abanotubani District in the old town of Tbilisi
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKHAIL JAPARIDZE, TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Tunisia

The Situation on the Ground: In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia—whose January 2011 ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali triggered a wave of uprisings across North Africa—hasn’t had the smoothest ride. Though compared to other countries in the region (Egypt, Libya, and Syria, for example) Tunisia has seen a somewhat less chaotic path to democracy—its first democratically elected president since the uprising, secularist Beji Caid Essebsi, remains in power—a number of small-scale terrorist attacks, including the killing of 38 at a beach resort in Sousse in June 2015, has threatened the country’s stability.

Still, the past year’s even larger-scale attacks in Paris and Brussels serve as a powerful reminder that tragedy can strike anywhere. Travel to Tunisia remains largely safe, particularly for independent travelers looking to explore the country outside its more high-traffic, congested resort areas.

Why Go Now: With its ruined imperial cities (the vast expanse of Carthage, once Rome’s great North African rival, is an easy light-rail ride from Tunis, the country’s capital) and Islamic pilgrimage sites like Kairouan, Tunisia’s seventh-century capital of Sunni Islamic learning under the illustrious Umayyad dynasty, Tunisia remains the undiscovered cultural and historical capital of North Africa. Its combination of UNESCO World Heritage sites and seafront resort towns like the walled Sfax and Hammamet make it an ideally balanced travel destination for the more intrepid traveler. And while memories of the attacks at Sousse, once Tunisia’s beach capital, might linger fresh in the minds of some travelers, the country’s tourism industry is striving to assuage concerns, ramping up security patrols on beaches and in larger hotels.

The Mediterranean coast at Monastir Tunisia

The Mediterranean coast at Monastir, Tunisia
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREY KEKYALYAYNEN, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Story by Nationalgeographic.com

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