Even the world’s most popular destinations have hidden delights - back alleys and secret doorways that let you glimpse a place from a fresh angle or even experience it free from the crowds.
Much like a detective, finding how and where to get off the beaten path, be that far from the tourist trail or directly on it, requires looking for clues, following your gut, and taking a few calculated risks.
Here are some tried and tested techniques to help you escape the mainstream.
Talk to people
Everyone likes to share their opinion. Locals usually love directing friendly people to good places - so smile, don’t be shy, and ask for advice. If you don’t speak the language, use online meet-up sites to make coffee dates with expats or English students who want to talk with you as much as you want to talk with them.
This is the oldest trick in the book. ‘Throw away the map,’ they say. Veer off the main drag to explore an enticing lane; drive down those nameless country roads; try different rather than well-worn routes to popular destinations; or simply start walking, biking or driving with no fixed plan in mind and no idea where you’ll end up.
It’s not a bad idea to break the rules by keeping the map (or GPS) tucked away somewhere so you can find your way back - or on to somewhere else. But don’t use it until you really need it.
Look at maps
No, not to find your way, but to select somewhere you haven't heard of before. Look for spots in potentially beautiful or unique locations (such as bordering a beach, or at the base of a mountain), or shortlist a few neighbourhoods in intriguing, unvisited parts of a city.
Is there a place with a hilarious name or with so many letters you couldn’t possibly pronounce it? Google it. Ask those friends you made earlier about it. Or don’t do any research at all and just go. It may be amazing or awful, but you won’t know unless you see it for yourself.
Take public or specialty transport
Here’s a surefire way to get a fresh perspective on touristic places as well as a means to get completely off the map. Public transport puts you in the shoes of ordinary people and allows you to see a place from an everyday angle. This may not support any romantic notions you have of a destination, but it will help you get a better grasp of its reality.
Buses weave through residential areas you’d never normally see and trains can offer amazing views of the countryside, so take them instead on your way to a hot spot. Try the local specialty mode of transport too - from a tuk-tuk to an oxcart - just to experience and enjoy the ride.
Follow a theme
People all around the world have interests and hobbies; if you share any of these passions, it can be the perfect segue into discovering more about a place while doing something you love.
Are you a bird nerd, a surfer, a modern art fanatic or a dedicated underwater hockey player? Find websites in the area specific to your interests, network your connections within the activity or blaze your own trail and hope to meet people along the way. This, more than any other method, can help you make new friends and may send you to some very out-there places.
Travel off-season or out of peak hours
Even the biggest tourist trap can feel like a new discovery if you sidestep the crowds. If possible, avoid high season. Yes, you may risk bad weather but you may also stumble across an event or activity not available at other times, like surfing in Phuket during the monsoon or skiing New Zealand in their winter. US national parks can be nearly empty outside of summer and offer seasonal perks like changing foliage or spring flowers.
If you must go in high season, time your visits to the big sights to avoid tour buses and peak hours. If there’s a spot that gets busloads of people at sunrise, go at sunset instead. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice seeing something at what’s touted as the best time of day for the sake of having it all to yourself. It can be worth it.
Don’t overplan; be spontaneous; take a few risks
We're not suggesting doing anything that risks life and limb, but being spontaneous can result in the most memorable travel experiences. Don’t plan every second and research every detail on the internet before your trip - mystery is an exhilarating and essential part of the journey, so give yourself enough slack to let events unfold naturally. Factor in the time to meet those people, explore those alleyways, and take those buses to nowhere.
You may not get to tick the boxes of seeing X sight at X moment, but your trip will be more personal, more unique and more full of real stories than you can possibly imagine.
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