For one reason or another, some incredible countries just tend to get overlooked in favour of the few familiar destinations that get the lion’s share of the tourist crowds. While over-tourism becomes more common, there are plenty of alternative destinations all across the world that make for some of the most rewarding holidays. So I’d like to share my top 10 favourite underrated, hidden gem country destinations based on my own travel experiences.

[Updated November 2022]

 

Georgia

Kazbegi Mountains - Georgia Itinerary

Highlights: Just about everything. A fantastic cuisine, beautiful nature, welcoming people and unique culture

Located on the periphery of Europe and Asia, Georgia is without doubt an outstanding country to visit. The best I can describe it is a small Italy of the former USSR on the crossroads with Asia.

The parallels with Italy are endless. Like Italy, Georgia can be proud of rich, delightful regional cuisine with a special place for cheese and wine. Equally, its variety of beautiful scenery more than matches Italy’s: Alp-like Caucasus mountains, wine regions with picturesque hilltop villages reminiscent of Tuscany; thick forests and stretches of lush green valleys; finally seaside resort towns of the Black Sea.

The people of Georgia are extremely warm, welcoming, passionate and quite loud. Don’t be surprised if you end up being invited for family dinner (and maybe some homemade wine!) by a friendly stranger.

Unlike Italy, Georgia sees a fraction of the tourists – for now, and once you get there is also kinder on the wallet. This is especially surprising given the amount of history this ancient and unique culture has. From ancient cave cities and hilltop castles to medieval monasteries and unique traditions, there is so much to enjoy in Georgia. 

Best time to visit Georgia: May to July or September. August can get too hot while winters do get chilly.

Read more: What to See in the Country of Georgia

 

Colombia

 

Cocora Valley Jeep, Salento

Highlights: Colourful culture and cities with wonderful people, varied scenery from Caribbean paradise to mountainous highlands and everything inbetween.

Countries still shaking off outdated negative stereotypes often make the best under-the-radar travel destinations. Colombia is the perfect example – this colourful country and its warm-hearted people left by far the strongest impression on me amongst the South American countries I visited.

Once marred by decades of violent conflicts, the idea of visiting Colombia still raises safety concerns for many, an outdated belief that’s so far been keeping the tourist crowds away from most of the country, if not for much longer. In reality, Colombia is no less safe than other Latin American countries and if you stay smart, you’ll be fine. And while most Latin American countries can boast diverse nature and cultural heritage, what really puts Colombia above the rest are its people. Colombians are genuinely some of the warmest, nicest and life-loving souls you’ll meet, so much so that I nearly teared up both times when leaving the country.

There is so much to see and do in Colombia, and the variety is huge! The Caribbean vibes of the North are a complete contrast to the chilly cultural hotbed and hotbed of Bogota. Then there is the once-infamous-but-now-transformed Medellin, a bustling and exciting city in the Paisa region. For those who enjoy smaller places and nature, the likes of Filandia and Salento in the coffee region are ideal, with its perfect climate and massive palm trees. Or Guatape, surely one of the most colourful towns in the world.

Best time to visit Colombia: Anytime! It’s generally an all-year-round destination in the lowlands and the tropical Caribbean. For the highlands, the drier December – March are the best months.

 

Read more: The Best of Colombia – Perfect 2-Week Itinerary

 

Albania

 

Albanian Riviera Beaches

Highlights: Excellent beaches, canyons, ancient sites and abandoned bunkers

If there was only one true hidden gem travel destination in Europe, Albania would be it. Being a compact country, it’s generously blessed with pristine sandy beaches that rival Greece, dramatic Balkan mountainscapes, deep river canyons and fascinating history. Not to mention the very respectable cuisine, fresh seafood and the thousands of abandoned bunkers dotted across the country that alone make this country stand out from the rest. And all this at less than half the expenses of visiting its more glamorous seaside neighbours Croatia and Greece.

So what gives? Like the best underrated destinations, Albania is still shaking off a negative reputation (remember the movie “Taken”?). So make the most of this fascinating country before the rest of Europe realises what they’re missing out on.

Best time to visit Albania: May to July or September would be the best months. During this time you have a great chance of mostly sunny, warm or very warm days. August is also game especially if you’re focusing on hiking in the higher terrain, but keep in mind the heat can otherwise get pretty intense and the crowds do tend to build up on the coastal towns, as is normal across most of Europe.

Read more: Albania Road Trip – The Perfect Itinerary for Europe’s True Hidden Gem

 

Romania

Brasov, Romania Panorama

Highlights: Well-preserved Medieval fortresses, beautiful landscapes, Dracula vibes and even a subterranean theme park.

Despite a wealth of memorable sights and easy access, Romania somehow hasn’t yet grown into a mainstream tourist destination which it one of Europe’s last hidden gems.

While the river Danube Delta on the Black Sea and the wooden churches of Maramures in the North are both excellent options to visit, it’s the central region of Transylvania where most of Romania’s most spectacular sights are concentrated. The cities of Brasov and Sibiu with their well-preserved old towns are some of Europe’s most charming. Then there is the Hungary-influenced and buzzing Cluj-Napoca, and the nearby Turda Salt Mines – now a one-of-a-kind underground theme park. In its countryside you’ll find fortified medieval churches, horse-drawn carts and hearty, home-cooked meals. Meanwhile for bucket list road trips, there is the twisty Transfagarasan Road – often named of the most stunning in the world. The Fagaras mountains that it cuts through with their razor-sharp peaks offer countless hiking options in the summer months.

Best time to visit Romania: June to early October are the best months. As always in Europe, August can get scorching hot and busier so perhaps avoid if you don’t like heat. We visited in late May which was already warmish, but as we’ve learned this can have some quite rainy periods. And the mountain pass roads like the Transfaragasan one are unlikely to open until June/early July due to snow higher up.

Read more: 1-week Transylvania Itinerary

 

Bolivia

Sunset & Land Cruiser at Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Highlights: Indigenous culture and incredible nature ranging from salt deserts to jungles, Andean peaks and flamingo lakes.

Paradoxically one of South America’s least explored countries, Bolivia is the continent’s most indigenous and easily one of the more fascinating. Pillaged by colonialists for its resources and more recent military defeats, the landlocked country is the poorest in the region. Yet it’s immensely rich in tourist offerings. These vary from salty deserts and moon-like landscapes to Andean peaks, humid jungles and high-altitude lakes. 

Probably its one best-known destination is the incredible Uyuni Salt Flats, a must on any Bolivia itinerary. Seemingly endless hexagons that let you play with perspectives, cactus islands, abandoned railroads and flamingo lakes are just some of the unique sights you can explore on a 3-day 4×4 tour. Coming in winter you can witness the plains flooded, offering perfect otherworldly mirror reflections all the way to the horizon.

The chaotic but fascinating La Paz, Bolivia’s biggest city and administrative capital, makes for a great base to explore the surrounding region and is itself best and most comfortably enjoyed from a few meters above (avoiding the fumes!) on an impressive network of cable cars. 

The jungles of Bolivia have plenty on offer too, not least the infamous Death Road which you can certainly cycle on safer than you’d imagine. Bolivia shares the Amazon Rainforest with its neighbours and trekking / ecolodge holidays are

Best time to visit Bolivia: April to May or October for the edge months of the dry season. If you want to see Uyuni Salt Flats flooded, try your luck in the rainy period of December to April.

 

Slovenia

 

Lake Bohinj

Highlights: The outdoors – it’s packed full of unspoilt scenery, from its beautiful lakes to the Julian Alps.

It’s amazing how a country so small can pack in so much natural beauty. Tucked in between Italy and Croatia on the edge of Adriatic Sea, Slovenia manages to captures a little bit of seaside, a chunk of the Alps and consistently stunning land inbetween.

Unlike many others on this list, it’s all easily accessible. It’s beautiful lakes, the famous Lake Bled with the island church and the lesser-known tranquil Lake Bohinj are both within an hour’s drive from the capital Ljubljana. Slovenians themselves love and respect the outdoors, and as a result it’s one of the most unspoilt parts of Europe. In fact even the capital is one of the cleanest and quietest you’ll find.

The mountains of Triglav National Park that loom over the aforementioned lakes are an outstanding destination for outdoor activities in the summer. Or in fact skiing in winter at Kranjska Gora. Slovenia’s other hidden treasure is the lusciously fertile Vipava Valley, a wine region reminiscent of Mediterranean yet without the huge tourist influx.

The friendly Slavic country was once part of Yugoslavia, having since fared the best of the newly-formed states and often feels more Western than Eastern European (though technically it’s Central Europe). Yet the cost of travel remains quite welcoming. 

Best time to visit Slovenia: May to September – for the warm European summer temperatures, unless you feel like skiing.

 

Taiwan

 

Taroko National Park Panorama

Highlights: Varied nature, culture and excellent street food scene

Surrounded by Asia’s more popular destinations, Taiwan is often overlooked in favour of Japan, Thailand, Vietnam or even the Philippines. 

So why does Taiwan deserve more attention? A top hidden gem destination has just the right balance of being easy enough to travel in but without the crowds, scammy locals or high prices. It has varied culture and interesting history, a fascinating cuisine yet without the guarantee of stomach issues. A great hidden gem offers plenty of diverse nature and a mostly welcoming climate. Taiwan easily ticks all those boxes and then some! The island nation can honestly lay claim as the ultimate hidden gem of Asia.

More than half of Taiwan is covered in mountains and forests, with most of its population and industry focused on the flatter Western Coast. This means a diversity of scenery. Within a couple hours you’ll ascend past the rugged Pacific coast and rice paddy fields through impressive canyons of Taroko National Park up to mountainous pine forests and towering peaks of the Central Mountain Range. Then there are the various outdoor hot springs to enjoy right across the country.

Culturally, Taiwan has a fascinating past with its own unique aboriginal culture (now mostly in the East) and influence from earlier settlers including the Dutch and Japanese. More recent Western influence makes the country a friendlier alternative to visiting China with less of a culture shock. In fact it’s rare to find a country where locals are so friendly, if you can get past the language barriers.

Taiwan is also a wonderful foodie destination where street food rules. Night markets play a huge role in Taiwanese culture and for a good reason – this is where you will find the best versions of the country’s signature dishes. Overwhelming at first, it’s an experience for the senses – eyes, ears and definitely nose – but a delectable one.

Best time to visit Taiwan: October to April, as it’s not too hot and humid and the risk of typhoons is lowest.

 

Read more: Discovering Taiwan – the Perfect 2-Week Itinerary

 

Lithuania

 

Lithuania Hot Air Balloon - Hidden Gem Experiences

Highlights: white sand beaches, fishing villages and Europe’s cheapest hot air ballooning

From a touristic perspective Lithuania is seen by many as a flat, indistinct European country. But while it’s not on most tourists’ radars, this Baltic country has more than enough unique and interesting quirks and sights that easily make it a worthwhile destination. Perhaps it’s the miles of unspoilt white-sand Baltic coastline and the vast moving sand dunes of the Curonian Spit. Or maybe the colourful wooden houses of its fishing villages and the beautiful courtyards of Vilnius and Kaunas Old towns. Or could it be the Pagan heritage, or it’s complicated history, or the national obsession with basketball and potatoes? Or maybe, it’s a mix of the above!

Being relatively small and yet geographically right in the Geographic heart of Europe – if you count Russia – Lithuania makes for a perfect extended weekend destination in the warmer months of the year. It’s one of Europe’s cheapest destinations and can be crossed by car or train in around 4 hours. This means you can get a feel of the country’s capital Vilnius and the Baltic coastline in a long weekend trip. The Curonian Spit on the Baltic Sea, explored from the port city of Klaipeda, is the hidden secret of the whole region and one of the most relaxing alternative summer getaways

Budget-friendly for European standards, Lithuania is also one of the cheapest travel destinations for hot air ballooning. The options are plenty, including city flights over Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipeda. But the most stunning is surely an early morning ride over the fairytale castle of Trakai and the surrounding lake.

Best time to visit Lithuania: May to September to get the best chance of warm weather. Winters tend to get cold and gloomy.

Read more: Lithuania Itinerary – 10 Experiences not to be Missed

 

Guatemala

 

Sunrise at Acatenango Volcano Summit

Highlights: Active volcanoes, Mayan culture and a spectacular crater lake.

The Mayan heartland in the heart of Central America packs in so much for what is a relatively small country. One way or another, Guatemala’s most unique places to visit involve volcanoes. It’s ancient capital Antigua, surrounded by volcanoes, is a city of “earthquake-baroque”. It’s so known for the many ruined or partially-ruined colonial buildings scattered across it from the many earthquakes Antigua suffered. So much so, the capital was moved to Guatemala City leaving Antigua as a stunning city-museum of sorts. 

In Antigua’s backdrop you will see (and hear) the ever-active Fuego Volcano, erupting as frequently as every 10-15 minutes. And this is where Guatemala offers you one of the world’s most incredible bucket list experiences. You can hike up the neighbouring Volcano Acatenango and enjoy some of the world’s most incredible sunset, eruption and sunrise views while camping up at 3,600m altitude.

Also visible up from the top of Acatenango is Lake Atitlan, Guatemala’s most famous lake and one of the world’s most scenic. It’s an ancient volcanic crater and now one of the few remaining places where Mayan culture is most pronounced. Scattered across Lake Atitlan are a number of towns to explore, each with its own distinct character. The artsy San Juan, the buzzing Panajachel, the hippy San Marcos and the party-central San Pedro, all connected by frequent boat shuttles.

Best time to visit Guatemala: November to April (dry season) – this means less clouds and rain to enjoy the incredible volcanic views and the outdoors.

 

Bulgaria

 

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Highlights: Varied and stunning scenery from mountains to the sea, rich in history and a great cuisine

Another Eastern European hidden gem destination on this list but deservedly so. For many it’s associated with the ill-reputed resort town of Sunny Beach or at most as an alternative cheap skiing destination. Yet the Balkan country has everything for a perfect road trip.

Steeped in rich and complicated history, Bulgaria has been home to Thracians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans who all left their legacy, not to mention the more recent decades of communist rule. It’s home to varied nature, from stunning mountain ranges with glacial lakes to fine sand beaches of the Black Sea. The locals are friendly, the cuisine is one of Europe’s most interesting (not far from Greek or Turkish) and there is plenty of local wine to savour. And importantly, it’s one of Europe’s most affordable destinations, so you can really enjoy the country without breaking the bank.

Read more: The Perfect Bulgaria Road Trip Itinerary

Kyrgyzstan

 

Kyrgyzstan Yurts & Mountainscape

Highlights: Ridiculously beautiful mountain scenery and nomadic culture.

Geographically, Kyrgyzstan is a rugged Asian Switzerland of sorts. Nearly 80% of the small Central Asian country is covered in stunning mountain rangers. Although this is where the similarities end. Its people are far more welcoming and the former Soviet republic is a real off-the-beaten-path experience. With so many treks, mountains and lakes to discover, it’s an adventurer’s dream – whether you prefer to traverse it by foot, horse or bicycle. This includes the Great Silk Road, the ancient trade route across from Asia into Europe. Or the great Issyk-Kul, the world’s 2nd biggest Alpine lake surrounded by jagged peaks. 

For an experience like no other, consider visiting during the World Nomad Games. Usually run in September, it’s the Olympics of nomadic sports featuring horseback wrestling and headless goat polo. I also really recommend a yurt stay with the locals to get a taste of the nomadic lifestyle and perhaps a hearty meat stew.

While remote and sparsely-populated outside of the capital Bishkek, local taxi-vans (marshrutkas) or a private car can get you around many of its fine destinations relatively easily.

Best time to visit Kyrgyzstan: July to mid-September. Kyrgyzstan enjoys hot summers but bitter-cold winters with limited access to the mountain roads.

 

 


Any countries you’d add to this list of under-the-radar travel destinations?

Leave a comment