The quintessential tourist trail is well trodden and while there’s no replacing Paris or Rome, there are some spectacular, wonderfully obscure towns that you’ve probably never heard of — until now.
For every Big Ben in London, there’s a romantic fortress in a Cotswold village that barely garners recognition. For every crowded street in ancient Pompeii, there are volcanic ruins left untouched and undiscovered, barely off the beaten track. If you know them already, consider yourself among the privileged few. If you don’t, they’re just waiting to be discovered.
Located at the foot of verdant mountains in on the edge of You River in ancient Hunan, this 2,000-year-old town-built-on-water is Venice on a larger scale. Unlike Venice, Furong Ancient Town wasn’t built on an ever steadily rising body of crystal-clear water, but rather a cascading waterfall with rickety, ancient stilted houses clinging to forested mountain slopes and hovering over a never-ending stream of glittering water. It’s best enjoyed at night when the lights illuminate the falls with the bridges crisscrossing above.
Towering high above the rolling landscape in a sea of terracotta roof tiles and charming cobbled streets, Monsanto sounds like your typical Portugal village — with one notable exception: houses are tucked between, on, and underneath giant moss-covered boulders. Houses and streets curve to accommodate these behemoth rocks, and some even form part of the walls, ceilings and doorways. It’s not surprising that this town hasn’t registered on the tourism radar (yet)… it’s four and a half hours from Lisbon and it’s literally hidden under a rock.
This is not a mirage, though, this it is certainly what you’d imagine after following a sand-cloaked road of dunes. Just a few kilometres west of the small town of Ica, Huacachina is surrounded by sand dunes on all sides — this speck of a village has been built around an oasis of water, only marked by a fringe of palm trees. According to legend, a beautiful Incan princess dropped a mirror in this very spot, which then exploded to become this tiny oasis — the only true desert oasis in the Americas.
Often overlooked, and considered Pompeii’s less famous neighbour, Herculaneum was the other ancient city ravaged by Mount Vesuvius’ violent torrent in 79 A.D. But, unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was sheltered from the worst of the eruption and preserved under the weight of volcanic ash that reduced the former to rumble. Smaller and better preserved, Herculaneum isn’t the hubbub that Pompeii is, but that’s what makes it spectacular. Travel 30 minutes from Naples and back centuries to discover a forum of frozen ancient temples and perfectly realised wide empty streets.
Hidden in the High Atlas mountain range in a tiny medieval city in southwestern Morocco, four hours from Marrakech, is one of the most iconic sights in popular culture — you just don’t know its name. A fortified city of towering kasbahs and home to just five families, Aït Ben Haddou is a giant red, UNESCO World Heritage-listed sandcastle that has served as a movie set since 1999. You will recognise it from Brendan Fraiser’s ‘The Mummy’, Ridley Scott’s epic ‘Gladiator’, and of course more recently, ‘Game of Thrones’.
Croatia is renowned for its ethereal waterfalls like those found in the dreamy Plitvice Lakes. Yet, just 90-minutes outside of Zagreb, the rustic village of Rastoke has waterfalls literally flowing through it but it barely registers as a blip on the radar. Wedged between the Ottoman Empire and the kingdoms of Europe, Rastoke is a historical treasure where Instagram-pretty waters rush amid houses and bridges and topples over the cliff. One thing is for certain — if you’re visiting Plitvice Lakes, share the love with Rastoke.
Ronda will literally take your breath away. Not because it looks like something straight out of a ‘Game of Thrones’ episode, with three Roman bridges and two historical halves connected by a thin bridge, but because all this is perched over a narrow chasm that looks ready to swallow it whole. Just a four-hour train ride from Madrid, Ronda’s spectacular city perched atop the two cliff faces, is well worth the effort it will take to get there — especially when you’re staring straight down the canyon atop New Bridge.
What might look like a desert of rust-coloured dirt on the surface is actually an outback town almost entirely hidden underground. This hidden gem (literally) in rural South Australia is considered the world’s opal mecca where 19th-century miners lived underground to escape the oppressive Australian heat and freezing winter temperatures. And while a lot has changed since then, the soaring temperatures above 50°C have not. More than half of the population still live in these soundproof enclaves — and you can experience it too, with various hotels underground.
Despite its story-book beauty, this is not Arendelle from Frozen. With pastel-coloured houses reflecting on the looking-glass lake and lofty mountains on all sides, Hallstatt’s beauty borders on the surreal and sublime. Accessible only by boat or mountain trail until the 19th century, this UNESCO-listed site invites you take a three-hour train ride from Vienna and discover the depths of its beauty in its ancient salt mine — the world’s first.
Fun Fact: An exact replica of this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town can be found in the Guangdong Province in China, courtesy of an ambitious property developer.
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