You’re not alone. A recent New Zealand tourism campaign rather brilliantly took a poke at the perils of social media when it comes to travelling. It pointed out the snaking queues behind the picture of ‘that’ summit spread-eagle, and the pervasiveness of the ‘hat-wearing woman in lavender field’.
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“We’ve seen all this before,” the social media ‘ranger’ in the campaign said, clamping down on travel under the social influence. “Share something new!”
There’s a serious message behind the tongue-in-cheek ads, of course. When we return to travel in future, why follow the masses, taking essentially the same pictures of the same places?
Rather than an exercise in box-ticking, why not think outside the box? That way, you might not just find something new, but avoid the crowds and share the tourism love (and spend) among communities beyond the hotspots, too.
Here are 20 alternatives to those typical romantic travel snaps in your feed on Valentine’s Day…
Try: Trieste. Nowhere can replicate Venice — nor, in normal times anyway, its tourist crowds. But Trieste is also an Italian city of grandeur — and a grand canal. Two hours from Venice, it’s a spot to linger over coffee, as is Piazza Unità d’Italia — reminiscent of Venice’s St Mark’s Square and just as stunning. There are castles, churches and museums, the ruins of a Roman theatre and, outside the city, the fairy-tale waterfront castle of Miramare.
Try: You’ve seen endless Instagramers swinging over a jungle valley or rice terrace, in sun hats and flowery dresses, for that perfectly wistful/gung-ho shot. In reality, of course, many have mere moments before being making way for the huge queues behind them. For a fun alternative, why not check into The Swing House in Cincinnati, Ohio — a house built around… a swing! No problems with queuing here. The rest of the place, which sleeps two, has a gallery vibe, with minimal furniture and cool paintings.
Try: Loop Head.Ireland’s iconic cliffs launched a million postcards (not to mention selfies), but you’re unlikely to have had them to yourself. A future tip? Visiting outside of peak times sees lowers prices and fewer crowds — or you could carry on to Loop Head, further south along the coast. The craggy peninsula, its lighthouse and the Bridges of Ross give a wonderful, edge-of-the-world feeling of isolation. Walk the path around the peninsula and see the wild Atlantic Ocean on one side and the River Shannon on the other.
Try: Arcos de la Frontera. Mijas Pueblo is one of Andalucia’s famous ‘white villages’ — pretty, but often awash with tourists and more souvenir shops than you could shake a flamenco doll at. As an alternative, strike further inland for a taste of the ‘real’ Andalucia in this cobbled old town with some excellent restaurants. It’s built on a hill and the reward for tired legs (it’s best to park at the bottom) is the incredible view from the top.
Try: Montparnasse Tower. Yes, the view over Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower is wonderfully romantic (and just plain wonderful). But the queue for the lift? ...not so much. Montparnasse Tower is about two-thirds the height, but boasts something the Eiffel Tower cannot — a view of the Eiffel Tower! Not a bad place for an encounter, or maybe even a proposal?
Details: en.parisinfo.com; tourmontparnasse56.com
6. Instead of: Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Try: Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai. Ko Phi Phi is the island from The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Maya Bay has been temporarily closed due to coral damage caused by the influx of jet-setters and is, by now, well-known, so why not shoot for Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai instead? Unlike neighbouring Phuket and Krabi, these two gems have escaped mass tourism. Both have untouched beaches and incredible views over Phang Nga Bay. Heavenly.
The pools at Glen Rosa with a view of Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran, Scotland
Try: Arran. Skye’s dramatic scenery and bridge connection to the mainland mean it’s often the first choice of Scottish Islands. Arran is a super alternative — this ‘Scotland in Miniature’ has a bit of everything and is easy to get to, with ferries taking less than an hour. Ogle ancient standing stones, castles and cairns, spot red deer and golden eagles in the wild mountain scenery, and throw in bonnie beaches and whisky galore. Perfection.
8. Instead of: Machu Picchu, Peru
Try: Choquequirao. Those amazing images of Machu Picchu aren’t quite accurate, as they don’t show the hordes who descend every day, year round — in ‘normal’ times, anyway. The tough, two-day hike to get to Choquequirao, ‘the other Machu Picchu’, puts most travellers off. There’s no train here to skip the climb, which makes it all the better for anyone who does make the effort. A controversial tram line may change all that in the future, so if you want to see it without the crowds, get ready to go when it is safe!*
Utrecht, The Netherlands. Photo: Erik van't Woud/Hollandse Hoogte
Try:Utrecht. Tree-lined canals, cool bars, art and history museums and… crowds. Over-tourism was a growing issue for Amsterdam before the pandemic, but Utrecht has all of the above without so many people getting in your way as you attempt to stylishly cycle with the locals. Take a boat past medieval houses with cellars, then check out the Dom Church and its tower, tallest in the Netherlands. Outside the city is Castle De Haar, once famous for its Chanel fashion parties and the royal palace, Het Loo.
Details: holland.com; visit-utrecht.com
10. Instead of: Iceland’s Golden Circle
Try: The Diamond Circle. The Golden Circle is Iceland’s signature tourist loop, its geysers and mighty waterfalls on the itinerary of most. The Diamond Circle is a different story. Opened in September 2020 in the north, its attractions equal those of its southern sister, but with a fraction of the visitors. It’s a 250km drive packed with otherworldly wonders like Dettifoss waterfall (which had a cameo role in film Prometheus), the volcanic lake of Mývatn and its geothermal baths, and the Ásbyrgi Canyon. Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of Iceland, too.
Malin Head, Inishowen, Co Donegal. Photo: Chris Hill, Failte Ireland
Try: The Inishowen Peninsula, Co Donegal.
This northern peninsula also dazzles —and if pre-pandemic trends are anything to go by, you may not have to share it with quite so many visitors. The ‘Inishowen 100’ drive hugs coast, hills, glens and wild beaches. See Ireland’s highest sand dunes at Lagg and its most northerly point at Malin Head. Birdwatchers and Star Wars fans will be in heaven (scenes from Star Wars: The Last Jedi were filmed here). If you’re lucky, you may even see the Northern Lights.
12. Instead of: Cinque Terre, Italy
Try: Walking from Lerici to Tellaro then Montemarcello. Cinque Terre is a string of colourful villages clinging to the edge of the Italian Riviera, connected by a popular (maybe too popular?) walking trail. As an alternative, this quiet route to the south is just as beautiful. It takes a couple of hours each way, longer if you stop in Tellaro. At Montemarcello, climb down to the black sands of Punta Corvo beach before your return journey.
Try: The view from the terraces of Oia over Santorini’s caldera (or sunken volcanic crater) is as Cupid-friendly as they come. Sunsets have been notoriously crowded however, so why not look to another option with all of the magic but less of the mass tourism? Milos is another island set around a caldera in the Greek Cyclades, with stunning geology bringing more variety to its beaches. Fyriplaka is a postcard brought to life, for example; Sarakiniko, a meringue-like moonscape, and Paleochori bubbles with warm water from thermal springs. For romantic bonus points, the Venus de Milo was “discovered” here in 1820, too.
Try: Bilbao. Yes, Barca is a place full of passion, with inspiring Gaudi architecture, a buzzing nightlife and city beaches. But Bilbao also gets pulses racing, with fewer crowds. The titanic confection that is the Guggenheim art museum specialises in contemporary art. Old Masters more your bag? Then the Fine Arts Museum is for you. Bilbao is also known for its superb food — from pintxos (Basque tapas) to Michelin restaurants galore. And a future holiday doesn’t have to be confined to a city break — beaches are on the doorstep, as are woodland hikes.
Details: spain.info; bilbaoturismo.net
15. Instead of: Prague
Try: Český Krumlov. Prague is an impossibly lovely place, though its main squares and sights, like the Charles Bridge, are often gridlocked with sightseers. Built in the hills of Bohemia, Český Krumlov is ‘Prague in miniature’, a UNESCO World Heritage site dominated by a mighty castle looming over the Vltava River and the magical old town. If you’re here for more than a day or two, spend some time walking or cycling in the surrounding woodlands.
Try: Le Jardin Secret. Marrakech can feel like a city made for Instagram, and Le Jardin Majorelle is a much-touted (but in reality, busy) retreat away from the souks. Our alternative is true to its name, a little oasis recently restored to show off tinkling fountains and architectural shapes in its Exotic Garden, and delicious scents in its Islamic one, with trees of lemon, orange and argan under-planted with jasmine, lavender and musk rose. In all, five acres (in the courtyards of one of Marrakech’s largest riads) are open to the public here... and the mint tea’s good too.
17. Instead of: Mexico’s Riviera Maya
Try: Riviera Nayarit. What it lacks in blockbuster sights, it makes up for in old Mexican charm. While the Riviera Maya is packed with resorts catering for the crowds wanting to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, here you can hang out in Puerto Vallarta (where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love on the set of Night of the Iguana), before heading along the coast for surf lessons in little towns with a hippy vibe, snorkelling around the Islas Marietas to the ‘Hidden Beach’ (AKA Love Beach!), and enjoying jungle adventures.
Try: The Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Sure, the story’s not as romantic — while India’s homage to love was built as a mausoleum by a Mughal emperor for his favourite wife, Brighton’s iconic pavilion began life as a party pad for the Prince Regent, later George IV. But the building is a delight, with its onion-domed exterior and delightful opulence. Take a spin around the king’s boudoir, the dining room with its dragon chandeliers and the kitchens, with their gilded palm trees (what else?). There’s an underground passageway to explore here, too.
19. Instead of: Spanish Steps, Rome
Try: Ostia Antica. Rome’s Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps are absolute icons of global tourism… with tourist throngs to match. This lesser-known harbour city of Ancient Rome is just a 15-minute drive away from the city, a huge archaeological park boasting ruins of theatre, temples, forum, baths and more, on a site dotted with cypress and pine trees. A museum houses items found in the various (and ongoing) archaeological digs, while the surrounding area is lovely too, with its small medieval borgo and castle.
The Kotor bay is one of the most beautiful places in Montenegro
Try: Kotor, Montenegro. Yes, Dubrovnik is an enchanting walled city, but it was becoming a poster child for over-tourism before the pandemic. That may change if sustainable tourism trends pick up when we re-emerge from lockdown, but Kotor is a little further off the beaten path. It’s not exactly undiscovered, but this tiny country (it’s smaller than Northern Ireland) has been billed as ‘the new Croatia’, bursting as it is with snow-capped mountains, jewel-box lakes and charming towns, like this walled, terracotta-topped treat, where you’ll find a glittering coastline and cats padding along the cobblestones.