If you’re one of the many of us who’s cancelled their foreign travel plans to enjoy a staycation in the UK this summer, chances are you’re missing the sunshine of exotic destinations. But when things do get back to normal, where will you be heading? Forget Paris, Rome, or Madrid and think outside the box with one of our unexpected destinations that’s sure to inspire your wanderlust.
Although we don’t recommend jetting off to them just yet, these underrated holiday destinations are places we’d love to see thriving after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided and it’s safe to travel again. Before booking a trip, ensure you check the latest government advice on travel to your destination of choice – and take a look at our interactive map to find out where you can go.
Forging your own path, somewhat off the regular, tourist-beaten trail, means exploring unexpected new cities and destinations. From destinations making sustainable changes to accessible destinations where you can kick back and relax, we’ve got something for everyone. So grab a drink, sit back, and daydream about the day you can visit one of these unexpected travel destinations.
You’ve probably heard of Tbilisi, but there’s more to Georgia than its capital city. Renowned for its hospitable locals, and as the birthplace of wine, Georgia is a land of crumbling ancient monasteries, impressive mountain ranges, and a rich history just waiting to be uncovered – and is one of our favourite unexpected destinations. Head for Mtskheta, one of Georgia’s oldest cities, or visit the stunning cave monastery of Vardzia. You’ll need to be quick though as it’s already becoming more popular. Last year, the country welcomed over 8 million visitors from abroad, more than ever before.
Stay at the Biblioetka Hotel Rustaveli in the heart of Tblisi, with affordable rooms from £24 a night, or bed down at Hotel Liel in Mtskheta, with spacious rooms and a buffet breakfast, from £31 a night.
The birthplace of the tea ceremony, Nintendo, and the ancient art of flower arranging, Kyoto is an intriguing blend of past and present, from its glass boutique hotels and futuristic train station to its ancient Shinto shrines and rock gardens. The city may have lost out on tourist trade following the cancellation of the Olympics, but we think it deserves a record-breaking number of visitors for 2021, with new hotels like Hotel Fauchon and Aman Kyoto, with its views of Mount Hiei, springing up to accommodate the influx of visitors.
Where to stay
For sightseeing, the Hotel Vista Premio Kyoto is a stone’s throw from the city centre, yet enjoys a peaceful location, with spacious rooms from £69 a night. Or try the Resi Stay Giondo Kyoto Higashiyama Sanjo apartments, close to the metro and the National Museum of Modern Art.
According to Responsible Travel‘s accessibility study, The European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) conducted a study in 2014 of three million travel service providers across Europe. They found that just 9 per cent had accessible products on offer. And we already know that trains, underground stations, buses, and taxis in many destinations remain inaccessible, which is why we’ve added Ljubljana to our list.
Slovenia’s capital city has taken huge steps towards becoming more accessible, with largely flat, pedestrianised streets served by accessible electric vehicles. Tactile paths crisscross the city, and the bus network boasts Braille bus stop signs and audio and video announcements for stops. You can even reach many of Ljubljana’s attractions via wheelchair-accessible routes, like the funicular to the 16th-century Ljubljana Castle, which is free for disabled badge holders and their companion.
Where to stay
Bed down at the four-star Central Hotel, with rooms from £59 a night, and you’ll be close to attractions like the Museum of Modern Art. Or get some shut-eye at the Best Western Premier Hotel Slon, which offers spacious rooms from £71 a night, just a stone’s throw from the city centre.
The Azores, Portugal
Winner of the Best of Nature category in the Green Destination Network Awards 2020, the Azores in Portugal is the perfect eco-friendly destination. All nine islands in the archipelago have low levels of development with only around five percent of the ground classed as urbanised. With its main industries of agriculture, fishing, livestock ranching, dairy farming, and tourism, the Azores makes use of renewable geothermal energy and is home to natural heritage and marine life sites where you can spot dolphins, whales, and marine turtles.
This is the ideal place for adrenaline-fuelled activities like cycling, hiking, scuba diving, snorkelling or canoeing. But there are plenty of relaxing activities here too, like horse riding, golfing, or just chilling on one of 33 Blue Flag beaches.
Where to stay
Save your money for adrenaline-fuelled activities and stay at the Atlantic Home Azores, where clean, comfortable rooms with ocean views start at £58 a night. A little further from the ocean, the Antillia Hotel has rooms in a modern building from £66 a night. Here you’ll also find one-bedroom apartments from £111 a night, great if you want to keep to your own schedule.
Sao Tome & Principe
When it comes to unexpected destinations, Sao Tome and Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, is one of our favourites. Hire a 4×4 to see this island nation’s lush local plantations, don your explorer hat and hike through hidden biosphere trails leading to crumbling historic churches, or go bird spotting in the lush rainforests and jungle of Obo National Park. A draw for eco-savvy travellers, these pristine islands are the perfect place to live out your deserted island beach fantasy. If you’re lucky, you may even spot sea turtles hatching between September and April.
Where to stay
Pestana Equador offers affordable, air-conditioned rooms in a relaxing location close to Jale Beach. Or choose to stay at the five-star Pestana Sao Tome beach hotel, with a choice of sea or pool view rooms starting at £160 a night.
If remote, sun-toasted beaches are your idea of the perfect holiday, head for the Andaman Islands. This archipelago of 572 islands – only 36 of which are inhabited – lies 1,370km off the coast of mainland India; in fact, it’s closer to Burma and Indonesia. It’s the perfect escape from reality, with its laid-back vibe and world-class surfing and diving. Spend some time in Port Blair, the capital city, before heading to Havelock Island, the most popular of the islands. Here you can enjoy trekking through verdant jungle, diving in crystal-clear azure waters, and feasting on freshly caught seafood on the idyllic white-sand beaches.
Where to stay
Book a villa or cottage room at Barefoot at Havelock, surrounded by tropical rainforest and close to the beach, from £125 a night. Or stay in the heart of the action in Port Blair at the budget Hotel Lalaji Bayview, with rooms starting at £9 a night.
Lofoten Archipelgao, Norway
Norway may not seem like an unexpected destination, but escape the usual tourist-packed cities of Oslo and Bergen and head north, to the Lofoten Archipelago – a wilderness outpost in the process of being certified as a sustainable destination. A draw for outdoors enthusiasts and nature lovers, this is the place to experience Norway’s raw, natural beauty while hiking, sailing, or kayaking. Spot seabird colonies and white-tailed eagles in the summer months, or experience the midnight sun from late May to mid-July. Come in the winter months to explore Norway’s fjords and see the Northern Lights, from September to mid-April. The area has strong Viking connections, with the Lofotr Viking Museum home to the longest Viking longhouse ever found. The archipelago is also one of the world’s northernmost sites for surfing.
Where to stay
Forget its beachier counterparts of Split and the capital, Zagreb: Croatia’s third-largest city is where it’s at right now. Rijeka has a unique gritty-yet-beautiful charm, from its ancient shipbuilding port to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary art. Named a European Capital of Culture for 2020, the city’s new art quarter is currently in development, with exhibitions, workshops, and cultural programmes set to appeal to the more Bohemian visitors, who also come for the city’s punk-rock roots.
Where to stay
For something a little different, stay at the quirky Botel Marina in the city’s harbour. This 1930s-era boat is a stone’s throw from the city sights, with free Wi-Fi and ensuite bathrooms. Rooms cost from £68 a night. Or get some shut-eye at the Hotel Continental, just under a mile from Trsat Castle, with rooms from £84 a night, many with harbour views.
Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen – these popular Chinese cities all see their fair share of visitors. But stray from the beaten path and you’ll find the city of Qingdao, on China’s Yellow Sea Coast, has much to offer those in search of unexpected destinations. Cool even in the scorching summer months, thanks to the coastal breeze, the city is the home of Tsingtao beer and some of China’s most intriguing architecture. A mish-mash of historic German buildings, red-roofed villas, and old town mansions ensure Qingdao is Instagram-ready – and you’re minutes from the Lao Shan Scenic Area, just east of the city, where you can hike and bike on cooler days.
With the imminent arrival of the new China Eden, China’s answer to Cornwall’s most popular eco-attraction, which will house the highest indoor waterfall in the world at 164 feet, Qingdao’s popularity looks set to soar.
Where to stay
Book a room at the Crowne Plaza Qingdao, less than a mile from the city centre and close to the metro and beach. Rooms cost from £55 a night. Or head for the Starway Hotel, close to Tsingtao Brewery and Jimo Lu Market, with rooms from £31 a night.
We can’t wait to explore the world again – and we’re sure you can’t either. Hopefully, some of these underrated travel destinations have inspired you for your next trip, once travel is safe again. We don’t recommend jetting off right now during the coronavirus pandemic; instead, it’s a great time to put plans in place for the future.
Discover where you can go
Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.