Some travel destinations remain popular because they never cease to enchant. The Egyptian pyramids at Giza astound with their history and size. At dusk, light dances through the streets of Rome. In Agra, India, travelers can gaze across the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal.
However, while the road most traveled can be exhilarating, it can also be crowded. Thus, some travelers set their sights on mostly undiscovered locales, places that delight the senses without attracting throngs of tourists — at least not yet.
Check out these hidden gems before the rest of the world discovers them.
This picturesque island nation off the southern tip of India rarely makes headlines in the Western world, but when it does, the news tends to be negative, such as the devastation of the 2004 tsunami.
Yet, this country known for its warm citizenry and well-established tourism industry is accommodating and thriving. History buffs delight in the ruins of the 1,500-year-old city of Sigiriya, an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Outdoor adventurers scale Adam’s Peak (also known as Sri Pada), a site considered holy by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike. Christians and Muslims believe that the footprint-like indentation at the top of the mountain came from the biblical Adam when he was cast out of Eden, Hindus assert it belonged to Shiva, and Buddhists say it was Buddha’s foot that made the print.
For those who want to experience both the flora and fauna, visit the Elephant Freedom Project, a rescue organization that allows visitors to bathe, feed and play with the elephants.
If relaxation is in order, Sri Lanka offers almost 1,000 miles of sandy coastline, and spa resorts that provide treatment through Ayurveda, a 7,000-year-old form of therapy that focuses on a cleansing diet coupled with physical stimulation, from yoga to deep-tissue massage.
Surrounded by China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh, this small country of 750,000 people in the eastern Himalayas used to be so off the radar that it was untouched by tourists.
In 1974, Bhutan’s government, led by a king with absolute power, decided to let visitors into the nation, and its popularity has been on the rise since.
Although Bhutan may be small — less than 15,000 square miles — there is plenty to do. The Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery is an ornate cliffside structure built around meditation caves significant in Buddhist history.
You can also drive on the winding roads toward the national capital of Thimphu, where travelers take in 360-degree views of the Himalayas on the Dochula pass.
In addition to soothing hot springs therapy centers and meditation retreats, Bhutan has a unique and beautiful culture. The country has national outfits — gho robes for men and kira dresses for women. It also has an official dish called ema datshi, a delicious blend of spicy chilies and melted cheese, made locally with homemade cow or yak cheese.
While the luxurious city of Dubai in the neighboring United Arab Emirates seems to get most of the area’s attention, Oman is a burgeoning country attracting more tourists each year.
The travel experts at The Lonely Planet declared the capital, Muscat, to be the second-best tourist city in the entire world in 2012. It’s no wonder, since Muscat boasts world-class beachside luxury resorts and picturesque local attractions like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which can accommodate up to 20,000 worshipers and visitors at any given time.
From the shores of Khasab, boats called dhow cruise along the coast, allowing passengers to snorkel, dolphin watch and marvel at the natural coastal fjords.
For a great cardio workout with unbeatable vistas, head to Wadi Shab, a dramatic rock canyon that surrounds crystal blue lakes, rivers and waterfalls, a true oasis in the desert.
After a day of burning calories, return to Muscat and dine at one of the many restaurants, where cuisine influences merge from throughout the region, even from as far as India.
People who lived through the Reagan administration likely recall a checkered decade in the history of this Central American nation, including a militant Sandinista government.
Yet, those who visit today find a nation that’s virtually unrecognizable from the war-torn country of the 1980s.
When visiting this tropical nation, head straight from the airport in the capital city of Managua to majestic Granada, only 45 minutes away and situated on the massive Lake Nicaragua.
Granada has a rich history, founded in 1524 by Spanish settlers, who 10 years later built the Iglesia de la Merced, which is ranked by TripAdvisor as the top attraction in the city.
For outdoor adventures, hike up the dormant Mombacho volcano for panoramic views of Granada and Lake Nicaragua — Mombacho is one of 50 volcanoes in the country, seven of which are active. Or take a boat to the stunning Islets of Granada, a chain of 365 islands on Lake Nicaragua.
For a truly secluded beach getaway, travelers can venture 50 miles offshore from the Atlantic Coast to the Corn Islands, a mostly undiscovered paradise where nearly everyone (descendants of British settlers) speaks English, the cuisine is heavy on fresh seafood, and life is simple, humble and beautiful.
Norway ranks first in the world on the Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy, education and income. Clearly, life is good in the Norse nation, and it’s well worth a visit.
As a jumping off point, the capital city of Oslo alone is enough of a reason to buy a plane ticket. From the awe-inspiring sculptures of Vigeland Park (all built by one artist) to the architecturally stunning Oslo Opera House — home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet — there is no shortage of things to do around the city.
Oslo is also in the midst of a culinary revolution that has swept across Scandinavia. The city offers some of the best restaurants in the nation, blending local cuisine with influences from abroad.
Outside of the capital city, Norway opens up as a vast, natural landscape. For snow bunnies, there are a plethora of options for great skiing, including those in the Lillehammer region, home to the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The largest ski resort, Trysil, is not only a powder lover’s paradise, but it’s also an excellent place to view the aurora borealis.
Norway is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites — six cultural, one natural. The latter is the western Norway fjord region, where outdoorsy types can boat, hike, swim, fish and bike in and around the natural beauty of the dramatic cliffs and inlets.
Perhaps the most interesting and picturesque UNESCO cultural site is Bryggen, where traditionally built, colorful wooden houses populate the coastal wharf town.
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