There really aren’t any places that are off-the-beaten-path anymore. For some people, Thailand or Nepal sound exotic; for others a winter in Allepo or Baku is old hat. With that in mind, depending on how well-traveled you are, these cities may or may not be exotic or new to you. But I feel none of them receive a whole lot of attention in the backpacking world. There are a lot of amazing places in the world, and the following five are just the tip of the iceberg and in no particular order.
As they say, “You Haven’t Lived Until You Have Visited Lahore.” Pakistan’s cultural capital, this thousand year old city has been at the heart of more than one Empire. It sounds like the current city is not without some danger, but as long as you travel respectfully and intelligently, it should be alright. Plus you are well on your way to the Karakoram Highway, the so-called Ninth Wonder of the World.
The Estonian capital is a European Capital of Culture in 2011. It has been popular with vacationing Finns and Swedes since time immemorial, but is still gaining traction with other travelers. With a well-preserved medieval center, affordable prices, and some unique festivals, it sounds like Talinn will be well worth visiting even after 2011 (which is good, because we’ve only got a month left anyway.)
When it was capital of the (medieval) Persian Empire, this city was so grand that it was said “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” (Which means, if your Persian is rusty, “Isfahan is half of the world.”) But it Isfahan goes way back, older than old school. We’re talking Palaeolithic here; people have lived here for nearly as long as people have lived. It’s hard to visit (nearly impossible as an American) but those who have been are more than impressed. By all accounts is a perfect mix of Muslim hospitality, stylish modernity, and medieval buildings.
Krakow has been “the next Prague” long enough that it must just be the current Prague by now. That’s to its credit, though. It dates back to the 7th century (just a baby compared to Isfahan, but by most other measures is quite old.) Seven million people a year visit; you will by no means have the place to yourself, but it’s a far cry from the bustle of Paris or London. There’s even a day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which might not sound exciting, but it is. (Click the link if you doubt me.)
If you haven’t seen Avatar, the scenery here could come with a spoiler warning. The town is famous for not feeling “Chinese”–it’s small, relatively uncrowded and unpolluted, and has loads of amenities for travelers. Spelunkers, rock climbers, bike riders, river drifters, and trekkers will all have lots to do.
Have you been to any of these places? Do you have any other under-appreciated cities to add to the list?