We all want to get out and explore, but many of us want to go beyond the places where most visitors spend their time. Deciding to travel off the beaten path means that you’re willing to break from the pack and go deeper into your destination. If you’re like me, you’re in search of unique experiences, surprise magical moments, and more meaningful interactions!
Choosing to venture away from the main tourist trail gives you opportunities to discover those hidden gems that aren’t plastered all over Instagram and connect with locals in a more authentic way. When we travel off the beaten path, we gain a better understanding of our destination and get a glimpse into what life is like for those who live there. During my years of travel, most of the most memorable moments have happened outside of the major attractions and my well-laid plans (which is why I don’t make too many these days!).
In this article, you’ll discover tips to help you find the hidden gems in your destination. We’ll cover the variety of ways you can get yourself off the main tourist track and into local life. You’ll also learn how to use some of the more common planning tools to find interesting spots that will help you travel off the beaten path!
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How to Travel Off the Beaten Path
Talk to the locals! Ask them where else you should visit in their city, country, or region. Find out where they go to dinner, on their days off, etc.
Walk 3 to 5 Blocks from the main tourist trail in major destinations.
Choose small, lesser-known locations near major cities. Use guidebooks and internet research to find these spots.
Keep your itinerary flexible so you have time to visit the places you find out about once you’ve arrived.
Use tools like Atlas Obscura and Google Maps to find hidden gems.
Tip #1 for Travel Off the Beaten Path: Ask the Locals!
Talking to people who live and work in your destination is the absolute best way to find out about interesting and unique spots! They know the cool places that aren’t listed in any guidebooks or written a blog post. In my experience, most people are happy to share more about their home and are excited that you want to see more than just what the buses full of tourists come to see.
Start by talking with the people you encounter throughout your day. Talk to the people who work at the place you’re staying, your server in the restaurant you stop in for lunch, or stop by the tourist information office and chat with the locals who work there. They’re very likely to speak English, if you find yourself with a language barrier.
Ask them where they go for dinner, not where they think you should go. Find out what they like to do on their day off and check out the places they tell you about. Discover where they go with their families on vacation.When I took my six-week solo trip through the Balkans, I let the information from people I met along the way determine the whole itinerary. I’d only booked a place to stay for a few nights when I arrived and before I left. Everything else was undecided! Because I took my camping gear, it was easy to be flexible and go wherever they suggested. Honestly, there’s no way I could have created a trip that incredible just based on guidebooks and internet research.
Tip #2 for Travel Off the Beaten Path: Get Off the Tourist Trail
Every major destination has a “tourist trail”. These are the areas around the popular sites where the big buses congregate or cruise ships dock. This is where you’ll find the souvenir shops, restaurants with English menus posted for passersby to view, touts selling their hop-on hop-off bus tickets, and street performers.
When you want to see more of your destination, simply walk three to five blocks away from the crowds. Once you start to see restaurants or pubs without their menu displayed in the window, you’ve arrived. Most of the people you’ll see look like they live there or are indie travelers like yourself.Don’t get my wrong, the iconic sights are iconic for a reason. I would never tell you to go to London but skip Westminster Abbey. It’s incredible! When you’re done with your time there, its time to travel off the beaten path and find something unexpected. Bonus: everything gets cheaper and the food is usually much better when you do this!
Tip #3 for Travel Off the Beaten Path: Choose Smaller Destinations
Fact: big cities tend to draw more tourists. Natural wonders that have become iconic also tend to draw a lot of visitors. Again, there’s a reason people want to visit these places -- they’re amazing! When visiting one of these places, leave room in your itinerary for a day trip or even spend a few days in the surrounding area.
Great ways to find these kinds of places are through guidebooks, Google Maps, and travel blogs. Guidebooks include a lot of great information about the surrounding region. Look at places that only get a couple paragraphs in the book. Do they sound interesting? Even a day in one of these spots will give you a chance to travel off the beaten path for a bit.
Using Google Maps, look for smaller towns around the main city where you’ll arrive. Zoom out a couple of times to see other cities, towns, and natural areas nearby. As you can see in the photo above, there are a lot of cities, towns, and nature preserves (all of these are less than four hours from Paris!) nearby. Start by looking at the photos on Google for each place and make a list of the ones you want to research more. Easy!
When Stan (my adventure partner) and I found cheap flights to Copenhagen, Denmark, we booked a rental car for a handful of days after our time in the city. We didn’t have much planned so I was talking to the rental agent about places she would recommend to visit (see tip #1!). Because of that conversation we found ourselves at Mons Kilint, an incredibly gorgeous seaside landscape! There was a tiny paragraph about it in our guidebook, but it was one of the highlights of our time in Denmark!
Tip #4 for Travel Off the Beaten Path: Keep Your Itinerary Flexible
Having a flexible itinerary is going to give you the best chance to add things you discover after you arrive. If not knowing where you’ll be staying before you go is uncomfortable, then do your best with the other tips and you’ll still have an amazing time!
In order to have a flexible itinerary, it’s best to visit outside of the busy season for your destination. When you’re visiting outside of the major tourist time, it’s much easier to decide where to go and find a place to stay a day or two in advance. If you’re already traveling to a more remote area, you may still be able to do this during the high season.For example, when I was in Albania during the fall, I didn’t pre-book any of my accommodations before arriving. After talking with the guide from my walking tour and others I encountered, I booked the next place only a couple of days before I would arrive. I did that for the rest of my time in the country and it was wonderful! Because it’s not a crowded tourist destination and it was outside of the busy time, it was easy to find the types of accommodations I wanted at the last minute.
Tip #5 for Travel Off the Beaten Path: Use the Right Search Tools
Knowing the best tools to use as you’re planning will help you find hidden gems before you even get to your destination. Atlas Obscura and Google Maps are two of my favorites for finding those lesser-known places.
With Google Maps, all you have to do is zoom in on a town or city and you’ll start to see different colored pins show up. The image above is from the town of Bourges located in the region around Paris. Each of those turquoise markers you see indicate a place of interest.
Simply click on the marker to see photos, a description, and a website, if they have one. You can decide quickly if this is something that looks interesting to you. Bookmark it and you’ve got your first place to travel off the beaten path for your next trip!The amount of bookmarks on my Google Maps in insane! Anytime I encounter a place in a book, movie, article, or talking to a friend that sounds interesting, I bookmark it. When it’s time to start planning a trip, I look at what I’ve already marked which makes it easier to build my itinerary.
Wrapping It Up
Choosing to travel off the beaten path is one of the best ways to experience indie travel. When we opt for destinations that are less popular, we have more opportunities to go beyond what the destination has set up for the typical visitor. It allows us to learn more about the places we go and gives us more chance to interact with people who call the place home, not just those who work in the tourism industry.
When we travel off the beaten path and immerse ourselves in the destinations we visit, we also have a chance to experience life from a different point of view. If we stick to the main tourist trail, we’re usually seeing the most sanitized and pleasant version of a place rather than the all the layers to life there.For example, if you only visit the usual places people go in Rome, you won’t see much in the way of graffiti and everything is in good repair. When you get a few blocks further, you start to see the real city -- the one that’s a little gritty and rough around the edges, which gives this ancient city its own beautiful charm.
Now that you know how to find those places to travel off the beaten path, it’s time to plan your trip! (FYI, travel planning is my specialty!) Below you’ll find some of my best resources to create a travel experience you’ll love while maximizing the time and money you have to spend! Though some of these articles are specific to Europe, much of the information can apply to destinations worldwide.
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Now get out there. The world is waiting for you!
What off the beaten path places have you loved? Do you have tips for finding hidden gems in a destination?
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