I‘ve loved traveling for a handful of years now but it wasn’t until I found myself venturing off the beaten path in Morocco last year when I started to realize the difference between the beaten path, and off the beaten path.
If you read this site semi-regularly you’ll know I talk a lot and recommend having a good guidebook for your travels. Many dedicated travelers frown on it as they want to see a place on their own terms and not how some underpaid guidebook writer tells them to. I see this point, don’t get me wrong, but most of my trips are condensed into two weeks or less and require some assistance with planning. My vacation time is valuable and that’s why I always use a guidebook.
The other day a friend of mine wrote to me and said he has been reading the site but was curious as to where I would recommend he and his wife go for their first adventure.
That question inspired me to write this post. Here are five destinations that I would highly recommend to first-time travelers:
Probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of visiting Italy is the food. And it should be, because eating out in Italy is a treat and worth the trip even if it’s all you manage to do.
Of course Italy has a lot more to offer. You can spend weeks enjoying the wonderful ocean villages of Cinque Terre, the canals and neighboring islands of Venice, the great art in Florence, or the amazing history of Rome. Italy has so much going on that you’ll quickly realize there is not enough time to enjoy it all.
Italy is certainly well visited by tourists and Italians are very welcoming. When I went in 2004 I was prepared to use my poor Italian that I had learned but everybody I met was happy to speak English and would chat me up for hours on end if time allowed. The train system goes everywhere you’ll need to go and is easy to use. And best of all, the major cities are all wonderful walking towns. Rome has a metro system, but you’re better off walking to where you need to go and seeing the great sights around town.
You’ll also be able to find hostels and budget hotels everywhere you go. I rarely recommend booking in advance, but Italy has a lot of visitors and it’s not cheap either. It’s best to book things in advance if possible.
Who hasn’t dreamt of the city of lights? Whether you’re a hopeless romantic, wine connoisseur, or art buff, Paris is a place that everybody can enjoy.
Spend a day (a week is easily doable) in the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa. Check out the Van Gogh paintings in Musee D’Orsay. Walk around the Latin Quarter and practice your French by chatting up a Parisian student. Head up the steep cobblestone walkways of Montmartre and enjoy the views of the city from the Sacre Coeur. Buy some bread, cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine. Don’t forget the obligatory trip up the Eiffel tower!
If you are there for a few days, take the train to Versailles. Enjoying dinner there is expensive, but viewing a castle like that is certainly an awe-inspiring sight.
Costa Rica is a little more challenging for first time travelers but there is a lot of upside. Many hardcore travelers would consider Costa Rica “touristy” but it is far less visited than any of the other countries listed so far.
On the negative side, Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose can be dangerous and offers very little other than a large airport. If you do some research though, you’ll find you only need to go into the city for specific buses and staying in neighboring Alajuela is a much better option for overnight stops. Stay away from the Coca-Cola bus terminal at night and you’ll be safe.
On the positive side, Costa Rica offers some of the most beautiful nature in the world. While the bus system may not be the smoothest in the world, it does exist and can take you around the entire country. It’s also very cheap!
The influx of tourism to Costa Rica over the past few years has increased prices, but it still will only cost a fraction of what a trip to nearly any city in Europe will cost. Hostel beds for less than $10 are common and eating a good meal at the local sodas (cafes) can cost as little as $2-3.
Whether you want to enjoy surfing on the Pacific or Caribbean, explore a rain forest with monkeys swinging overhead, go white water rafting, kayak mangroves, or peer into a Volcano, you can can do it all in Costa Rica. Spend as little as a week or as long as a year, and you can still manage to not go to the same place twice. This tiny country is a real gem in Central America.
Many people dream of visiting ancient Inca and Mayan ruins in Central America and Peru offers one of the most amazing opportunities to do so.
Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive sights in the world to visit ancient ruins despite it being 8,000 ft above sea level. While this elevation might make it a little more difficult to get to than other places, it still manages to be an extremely popular destination for travelers.
The common practice is to stay in nearby Cuzco for a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation. From there, you can book a multi-day hike and camping trek and enjoy the Inca Trail.
There are many providers for this tour and most provide the supplies you need. You should be aware that the number of visitors to the trail is limited so you should book in advance. I’ve heard as few as three weeks is required, and as long as nine months. Your experience may vary, but definitely plan ahead of time!
Canada is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been all over the country and enjoy every little bit of it. It may not be as cheap for Americans as it once was, but there are still budget places to stay.
Vancouver is a wonderful city surrounded by the beautiful nature that is British Columbia. Enjoy the city for a couple of days, be sure to check out Stanley Park (Think Central Park but better!), then head up route 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, and stop in Squamish. The self described “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,” Squamish offers a great place for backpackers to call home for a while. Enjoy the outdoor activities like kayaking, mountain biking and hiking, or use it as an affordable base for Whistler. Located about one hour up the highway, Whistler is one of the best ski resorts in the world and its village provides great shopping and eating choices year round. Hitchiking is safe and popular from Squamish and you won’t be waiting for long before a fellow snowboarder or mountain biker picks you up and gives you a free ride to the mountain. Canadians are so darn friendly!
If you fancy the eastern side of Canada, Quebec is a wonderful place to visit as well. Although a bit pricier, there are several hostels in the Montreal area and English is spoke everywhere. In fact, I dare you to use your high school French and see what happens. They’ll automatically respond in English and you’ll feel a little stupid, but hey, that’s Montreal!
Hop on the train for a lovely three-hour ride to Quebec city and enjoy the more traditional French-Canadian culture. Quebec is a lovely city to simply walk around and go sightseeing. From statues to architecture, Quebec city will easily fill a couple of days and put a few miles on your feet.
There you have it. In no particular order, five great destinations of varying costs and level of adventure.
Do you have a recommendation for a good place beginner travelers should check out? Please share them, or your experiences in the comments below!
Ask anybody who has backpacked for any amount of time what the highlight of their trip was and they’ll likely tell you about a place that you’ve never even heard of.
That’s right, I’ve never met anybody who said the Eiffel Tower was their favorite part of their trip to Europe. Nothing against the Eiffel tower, it’s wonderful, but often the small, out of the way places that you never planned on visiting are what really make your trip.
For me, it was Cinque Terre, Italy in 2004. It was my first backpacking trip and I was all by myself. Made my way from Paris to Venice and met three Americans who were studying in England. They were in my hostel and we decided to go out for dinner. We ended up spending the next day together exploring the neighboring islands before heading to Florence which so happened to be both of our plans.
After a couple of days in Florence they invited me to Cinque Terre. “Where?” I asked.
I looked it up in my Lonely Planet. At the time, there was just one paragraph that said that the olive farming villages of Cinque Terre had no hotels and you had to find a local to rent you a room.
It sounded interesting, but the last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in some place I didn’t know with nowhere to sleep. I was also convinced I needed five days to explore Rome.
Somehow they talked me into it, and after a brief obligatory stop in Pisa, we ended up in Vernazza, one of the villages of Cinque Terre. It was there that an old lady met us at the train station and offered us a room. Thanks to my Pimsleur Italian level I audio tracks and a lot of body language, we secured a room for the night.
The village was beautiful, located right on the water and offered the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen (keep in mind I live at the beach in Southern California and it’s hard to beat our sunsets). We had an amazing and affordable dinner at a restaurant up on a cliff that overlooked the ocean. The sky was lit with nothing but bright stars. No lights from any nearby metropolis polluted the sky.
The following day we hiked between the villages along a path that had previously been used by the olive and grape farmers. Some of the hillside had been carved specifically for the harvesting and that way of life hadn’t changed for many of the residents of Cinque Terre.
These days many Cinque Terre has become quite the hot spot. Located on the Italian Riveria, it’s surprising that it took this long for it to become such a great spot for tourism. Now, nearly every body I speak to who has backpacked Italy has told me they stopped in Cinque Terre. I haven’t looked at the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Italy but I would bet that there is MUCH more than the same short paragraph that I took a leap on five years ago.
I had a similar experience in Morocco when I visited Chefchaouen. While I had read a bit about it in the guidebook, it certainly wasn’t the destination that bigger cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Tangiers were made out to be, but it ended up being the highlight of my trip for both its beauty, and the wonderful locals who invited me into their home for a great meal.
My point is that you never know what is out there when you are traveling. Your guidebook is a necessity but you can never expect that the author visited every square mile of the country.
There are still many of places that have yet to be bombarded with tourists and in the case of Cinque Terre, they soon might be, so go see them while you have the chance!
Talk to other backpackers at hostels or ask a local their opinion on places you can visit to get a real feel for the culture. You’ll be surprised with what you may find. Just because a guidebook doesn’t listen a place, or doesn’t provide you with a lot of information, doesn’t mean it won’t be the highlight of your trip!
Have you found a great off the beaten path destination in your travels? If so, post a comment and let us know where and how you came across it!