Guide to 14 of the most unusual holiday destinations around the world
If you are tired of all-inclusive Caribbean holidays or even marching around historic European cities, you are not alone. After a few vacations like these, the beaches and even the cathedrals all start to look alike. So where else can you go?
Experienced travelers are often looking for something different so we decided to put together our list of the most unusual (and also some of the most desirable) vacation destinations around the world. If you look elsewhere for “unusual destinations” you’ll typically find weird, obscure, and remote places that may be interesting to read about for a couple minutes, but you’d never want to go to any of them. Our list is packed with some of the best and most enjoyable places to go in the world that also are very unique. And we also tell you the best way to reach each of them.
14 Of the most unusual vacation destinations in the world
You might have seen photos of Cappadocia before featuring its famous “fairy chimneys” or a sky-full of hot-air balloons hovering over the amazing landscape. You’d be forgiven for assuming that it’s a small area that could be explored in an hour or two, but it’s actually a HUGE region that is far more impressive when you are within it.
The Flintstones-like landscape is totally natural and there are not only towns built within it, but also ancient cave systems built into it that you can also explore. Better still, Cappadocia is surprisingly cheap once you get there, with good hotels starting around US$50 per night for two people. Turkey is in a bit of a slump so you might want to put this one on your list for when things have settled down a bit.
Getting to Cappadocia
You’ll probably be coming through Istanbul, which is definitely worth a few days as well. From there you can fly into Kayseri Erkilet Airport (ASR) or take a train to Kayseri and get a one-hour bus ride from there to the town of Göreme, which is the most amazing and tourist-friendly place to stay.
Overwater villas in Maldives and Bora Bora
Called overwater bungalows in the South Pacific and usually water villas in the Maldives, you’ve no doubt seen photos of these amazing aquatic resorts and instantly put staying in one on your bucket list. Extremely popular with honeymooners, these luxury rooms-on-stilts are worth a splurge at least once in your life.
Bora Bora in the South Pacific has about a dozen of the world’s best overwater resorts, but the Maldives (south of India) is by far the king of the hill with about 114 water villa resorts as of now, featuring around 5,000 total villas. The cheapest overwater resorts in the world start at around US$300 per night for two people. In the Maldives you can actually get a huge Jacuzzi water villa at an all-inclusive luxury resort starting at around US$500 per night in the low season.
Getting to the Maldives
First you have to fly into Malé International Airport in the capital, and from there you’ll transfer to a speedboat or a sea-plane to get to your private-island resort. Your hotel will handle the reservations, but it will add between US$100 and US$600 per person for the return transfers.
Getting to Bora Bora
Nearly everyone first flies into Tahiti International Airport, which has many nonstop flights each day from Los Angeles. In Tahiti you’ll transfer to a smaller plane for the one-hour flight to Bora Bora and then a shuttle or speedboat ride to your resort.
You may have heard friends gushing about Iceland in recent years as tourism there has been booming. This is one place that more than lives up to the hype, and I’ve yet to compare notes with any other visitors who weren’t also blown away. There are plenty of other volcanic islands, but somehow none that resemble Iceland more than a little bit, so exploring this place feels like exploring Mars, except it’s far more beautiful than Earth.
The best strategy is to stay at least a week (hopefully between May and September) and rent a car to travel the entire Ring Road. You’ll pass lava fields covered in bright-green moss and see more waterfalls than seem possible, and flowing hills and valleys that will have you pulling off the road around almost every corner. One major Ring Road highlight is that the main highway is always almost completely deserted except for the stretch along the southern coast between Keflavik Airport and Höfn. Our article about Iceland prices and how to do a cheap trip should come in handy.
Getting to Iceland
Hotels and food in Iceland aren’t cheap, but flights getting there are often surprisingly affordable. Fly into Keflavik Airport and rent a car there. Reykjavik is worth a day or two if you’ve got the time, but it’s not nearly as special as the scenery itself.
In my opinion, Iceland (see above) is more spectacular, but the Norwegian fjords are still some of the most amazing scenery I’ve encountered and definitey worthwhile. The entire jagged west coast of Norway starting just north of Bergen looks extremely interesting on a map, and it looks really beautiful in person.
You can take various boat tours and short cruises from Bergen and see many of the top highlights, but to get the full effect you’ll want to take a proper cruise to up near the Russian border if possible. A few companies now do these cruises, and the most famous is Hurtigruten. There aren’t many activities on board, but you do stop several times per day to look around and soak in the fantastic scenery.
Getting to the Norwegian fjords
Oslo is the capital and largest city in Norway, but Bergen is the gateway to the fjords and it’s the best place to visit if you can only choose one. You can get direct flights into Bergen from elsewhere in Europe, and of course flights from Oslo. You might also consider the famous Norway in a Nutshell tour that shows you the best scenery as you take trains, a boat, and a bus from Oslo to Bergen.
If you look for stunning travel photos around the internet, no doubt you’ve come across some of the Li River near Guilin in China. The limestone karst hills that dominate the landscape are even more impressive in person. Lest you think that Guilin is a small town in the countryside, prepare for a city of about 5 million, which actually has many karst hills right in the historic town center.
The whole area is gorgeous although it’s also foggy very often so getting those crystal-clear photos isn’t always possible. The main highlight is a surprisingly posh 5-hour cruise leaving from a busy dock near Guilin that sputters down to Yangshuo where you stay for a couple hours before taking a bus back to Guilin. Near Guilin you’ll also find what must be the largest rice terraces in the world, which are another worthwhile day trip.
Getting to Guilin
While Guilin is arguably the most scenic part of China, it’s still probably not worth it to fly in and right back out. Getting a visa for a China visit takes some time and isn’t too cheap, so it’s best to visit Beijing and Shanghai as well, and possibly Xi’an while you are at it, probably on a tour. All of these cities have large airports and flights in are pretty cheap.
Chances are you at least know some people who’ve been to Bali if you haven’t already been there yourself, but this list is about “unusual destinations” rather than obscure ones. If you’ve been to Bali you already know. Indonesia is a huge archipelagoo of over 13,000 islands and its population of over 250 million is mostly Muslim. But Bali’s 3.9 million inhabitants are mostly Hindu and they’ve got this whole amazing culture and history to go along with a gorgeous island.
Bali used to be my favorite place in the whole world, but overdevelopment in the main Kuta Beach area makes it harder to love. Kuta Beach is fun for a day or two, but for something really unusual base yourself in the cultural town of Ubud in the nearby foothills, or visit Lovina along the northern shore, which is still as charming and undeveloped as the south was 30 years ago.
Getting to Bali, Indonesia
Bali has one huge (and recently modernized) airport near the largest city of Denpasar (DPS). You’ll find cheap flights from Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur if you are in the area. From Europe you’ll probably have to change in Dubai and from North America you’ll probably have to change in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Beijing.
Having visited almost every major tourist site in the world at this point, it’s hard to overstate how amazing it feels to actually see the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx with your own eyes. Famously the only remaining Great Wonder of the Ancient World that still stands, the pyramids just have to be seen in person to be believed. At about 4,500 years old, the feat of the construction of things so enormous is nothing less than awe inspiring.
You’ll also want to visit the famous Egyptian Museum in the heart of Cairo, but the main highlight is your visit to the huge pyramid complex. You’ll first see it from the freeway on your way in, and it’s mind blowing when you see in person that the city of Giza literally straddles the edge of the facility. Be sure to pop into the Pizza Hut for a quick photo of the pyramids just across the street. And be careful when hiring a guide because it’s a minefield of aggressive and charming salespeople who will promise more than they can deliver.
Getting to Cairo
Considering how desolate the pyramid complex looks in most photos, it’s strange how easy it is to reach. You can fly into Cairo from most major cities anywhere near Egypt, and fares are usually pretty reasonable. The pyramids are in Giza just across the Nile from Cairo itself, and you can get there by taxi in about 30 minutes for cheap.
Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reap, Cambodia
Nowhere near as famous globally as the Pyramids of Giza, the Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia rivals them as stunning and amazing things to see with your own eyes. Almost 1,000 years old at the time of this writing, the dozens of temples are partly restored and many still in ruins that all make for excellent photographs. It takes at least a day to see the highlights, and you can enter just before sunset the day before with your same ticket for more lovely pics.
The touristy town of Siem Reap mostly exists to serve the many visitors coming to see the temples, and it’s a surprisingly mellow and enjoyable place. You can get excellent food and very cheap pints of Angkor Beer along Pub Street or many other places in the heart of the action. Hotel prices here are bizarrely cheap as well, with nice hotels starting way under US$50 per night for two people.
Getting to Siem Reap
You can fly into Siem Reap International Airport (REP) from all major cities in Southeast Asia, with Bangkok being the most popular hub for foreign tourists. You can also take a comfortable VIP bus from Bangkok or a less comfortable normal bus from the semi-worthwhile capital city of Phnom Penh.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The Li River in China (see above) has far more karst hills, but Halong Bay near Hanoi in Vietnam has plenty of advantages of its own for those who want to see these amazing limestone formations up close. For one thing, Halong Bay’s karst hills are all out in the water so you can cruise between and around them. Vietnam is also much cheaper than China and easier to get a visa for as well.
The standard visit to Halong Bay includes a 2-day and 1-night cruise on a boat that holds 20 to 50 passengers. Including transfers from Hanoi, food, and various activities during the cruise, it will cost less than US$100 per person on a “3-star” boat, and you can add an extra night with a stop at Cat Ba Island in a hotel for about US$50 more. Sunrise and sunset are really amazing if there isn’t much fog or rain, so some times of the year are better than others.
Getting to Halong Bay
You’ll first fly into Hanoi and it’s very much worth spending at least a few nights there. Once there you can buy a package that includes everything mentioned on a Halong Bay cruise. The “travel agents” in Vietnam have a pretty bad reputation because there are many scammers mixed in, so it’s best to book through a nicer hotel or do your research if you book through an independent shop.
For sheer natural beauty, the Alps are home to most of Europe’s best and most dramatic views, and the Interlaken area of Switzerland is where you find the highest concentration of them. Part of the way up the mountain capped by the Schilthorn observation deck and restaurant you’ll find the tiny farming village of Gimmelwald, and a couple nights there will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen or done.
Gimmelwald consists of one long car-free footpath that gently zigs then zags up a hill, passing about 30 small farms and 3 or 4 hotels and one hostel. Rick Steves fans are familiar with Gimmelwald and seem to be a fair chunk of its guests. The views across the Lauterbrunnen Valley are almost beyond belief as long as the weather is clear. You can carry on another 50 minutes up the cable car route to the Schilthorn observation deck for even better views and lunch at its revolving restaurant, and the next day take the Jungfraujoch mountain railway up to Europe’s highest train station and more unforgettable views.
Getting to Gimmelwald
The closest large airport is in Zurich, which is about two hours away by train to Interlaken. From Interlaken you take another 20-minute train ride to Lauterbrunnen and then a short bus ride (past a waterfall) to the bottom of the cable car station in Stechelberg, and then it’s a 5-minute cable car ride up to reach Gimmelwald. It sounds complicated, but you can do it all on one ticket and it’s easy once you get started. You can read more about it in our article on where to go in Switzerland on a short trip.
Since this article is about “unusual” destinations rather than obscure or remote ones, Venice definitely qualifies. If you’ve been to Italy you’ve probably been to Venice and if you haven’t you should put it near the top of your list. Venice is one of the few places that can boast being a tourist attraction for over 400 years now, and it’s still very much worth the trip.
Many cities around the world claim to be the “Venice of…” and some even have more canals, but none come even close to the original. This group of islands carved through by an extensive canal network are gorgeous, romantic, and unique. The fact that you can only get around by foot or boat in a historic city is a novelty you’ll never forget. Venice is packed with day trippers and cruise passengers during the day and it can feel insanely crowded, so staying overnight on the main island and exploring in the early morning and evening are the best ways to feel the magic for yourself.
Getting to Venice
You can fly into Venice Marco Polo Airport (VCE) from many major cities, or save a bit of money and fly into Treviso Airport (TSF) if you are coming from one of the many European cities that Ryanair services. Venice also has a major train station with frequent connections from Milan, which has an even larger airport.
If you are looking for a unusual AND cheap holiday destination you can just skip over this one. Monaco is a tiny Mediterranean country that is completely surrounded by France, and it has one of the world’s most beautiful harbors and seafronts. With fewer than 40,000 residents and a total area of less than one square mile, the world’s most densely populated country is famous as a home for the rich and the tax-averse.
Monte Carlo is one of Monaco’s 10 neighborhoods, by the way, and the famous Casino de Monte-Carlo is one of four casinos, which don’t all have a strict dress code. Hotel rooms in Monaco start at around US$200 per night in summer for something modest, but food and everything else are fairly pricey so it’s a bit of a splurge.
Getting to Monaco
The easiest way to get to Monaco is by train, and its station is centrally located so you can walk most places (although be prepared for hills). The nearest large airport is in Nice, France, which is only about 20 minutes away by train, and is an excellent homebase if you’d rather do Monaco as a day trip.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Some traditionalists dismiss Dubai as a worthwhile destination without ever having been there, which is a shame. Dubai certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you are looking for something unusual you’ve really got to respect what this rapidly-expanding city has become. It’s true that Dubai has an abundance of huge shopping malls (with very good prices, by the way), but it’s also got a big chunk of the world’s most impressive new architecture.
Perhaps what makes Dubai even more unusual is the makeup of its residents and the people visitors will encounter. Only about 10% of residents are Emiratis, and the other 90% are an amazing mix of people from all over Asia, Europe, and elsewhere. With all that diversity you can expect an equally diverse culinary scene, and Dubai delivers with that as well. You may have heard that the only alcohol available is in hotel bars, and that’s true, but some hotels have 4 or 5 bars and there are hundreds of watering holes all over the city. Drinking isn’t cheap though, so consider stocking up at the famous Dubai Duty Free on your way in.
Getting to Dubai
Getting to Dubai couldn’t be easier because Dubai International Airport (DXB) is the world’s busiest airport by international passenger traffic. In other words, there are so many flights coming in and out of Dubai from all over the world that it keeps airfares surprisingly reasonable. Hotels and even apartment hotels in Dubai can also be pleasantly cheap, even though they’ve also got an abundance of super expensive 5+-star places as well.