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17 Epic Places You Never Thought To Travel, But Should

HuffPost logo HuffPost 5 days ago Suzy Strutner

© Jon Arnold via Getty Images Paris? Been there. London? Done that. No offense to those storied standbys, but 2017 is a time to break out of your travel bubble and try someplace you’ve never thought to visit before. 

Travel teaches us invaluable lessons we can’t learn in school. It expands our worldview. It pushes us to be better, stronger, more empathetic human beings. And these 17 places, in no particular order, are where that magic is going to happen this year. Some of them can be experienced in the lap of luxury, while others are for only the most adventurous souls. But all of them have the potential to be the best trip you’ve ever taken. 

1. South Korea

© Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Geoffrey Schmid via Getty Images

Don’t let its northern neighbor scare you off: South Korea is full of adventurous travelers’ delights like national parks, mountains and islandsSki resorts here are top-notch, as some are preparing to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. For a more urban feel, try Korean BBQ in Seoul or chill out in Busan, a coastal city.

Seoraksan National Park is the proud site of South Korea’s third-highest mountai. It also features hot springs, temples and jagged rock formations. 

Locals vacation on Jeju Island for its beaches, outdoor spas and spine-tingling lava tube tours.

Changdeokgung Palace, a 15th-century royal villa in Seoul, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Builders expertly designed the complex to accommodate the uneven terrain at the foot of a mountain peak. 

Cable cars haul skiers at what is now Deogyusan Resort, where hot springs await after a day on the slopes.

2. Mauritius

© Sapsiwai via Getty Images

Mauritius is delicious. This tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean offers up a low-key vibe and endless turquoise waters perfect for sports like wind and kitesurfing. You can also sample local rum and street food or explore churches, temples, mosques and lighthouses from Mauritius’ rich history as a colonial trade hub

Le Morne Brabant is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site that serves as “an exceptional testimony to... resistance to slavery.” The mountain’s forbidding cliffs hid runaway slaves known as maroons, and their oral traditions live on. 

It doesn’t get better than this. 

This is the Seven Colored Earths in Chamarel, where naturally occurring sands of different colors form unique striped dunes. 

Above is a shopping center in the capital of Port Louis. English, French, and Mauritian Creole are the most commonly spoken languages in Mauritius, while Hinduism and Christianity are the top two religions. 

3. Kazakhstan
© huseyintuncer via Getty Images

The world’s ninth-largest country is not just for Borat: Fans of architecture, city tours and wilderness explorations will feel right at home in this little-explored corner of the earth. Start in Almaty, the biggest city, for clothing markets and upscale restaurants. Then, venture out to the Tian Shan mountains and hike sacred forests where many modern fruit crops were first cultivated.

Astana has been called the “world’s weirdest capital city,” in part because it hardly existed 20 years ago. CNN reports the area was “an empty patch of land... best known as a former gulag prison camp for the wives of Soviet traitors” before it was declared the new capital in 1997, sparking the quick rise of a futuristic skyline. 

Almaty’s wooden Ascension Cathedral was constructed without nails between 1904 and 1907, and is one of the only buildings in the city to survive a 1911 earthquake. Used for state and public purposes after the Russian Revolution, it was returned to the Russian Orthodox church in the 1990s. 

Big Almaty Lake sits in the Tian Shan mountains. The western Tian Shan range stretches into China and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part for its biodiversity. 

The city of Aktau, a hub for the oil industry, sits on the Caspian Sea and is a popular spot among locals for swimming

4. Cyprus

© Rosita So Image

This lush Mediterranean island sat under the rule of many ancient empires, and it shows: A trip here might include visits to a Byzantine monastery, a mosque or the tombs of high-ranking Hellenistic and Roman officials, which are part of a larger UNESCO world heritage site. Oh, and did we mention the island’s postcard-perfect beaches

In the port town of Kyrenia, you can take a boat cruise to swimming and snorkeling spots or visit a castle for a charming bird’s-eye view of the harbor.

Limassol, Cyprus’ second-biggest city (and still a quaint one at that), has a lively bar and restaurant scene.

See remains of an ancient outdoor theater, villas and baths at Kourion, a former city-kingdom on the coast.

Adorable Pissouri village is the place to go for horseback riding and pub-hopping. Don’t be fooled, though: The ocean and impeccable diving are still within reach. 

5. Latvia

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Did you know Latvia has white sand beaches? This Baltic Sea gem, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is full of little surprises and a slight Scandinavian flair. The capital, Riga, was named the European Capital of Culture in 2014, and roughly half of the country is made up of pristine, accessible natural ecosystems. Historical Old Towns, churches and castles abound. 

Riga’s town hall square features the iconic House of the Blackheads, which was built in 1334, destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 1999. 

Above is the Gauja River, on the border between Estonia and Latvia. Its namesake national park holds more than 500 cultural and historical monuments. 

Not a bad place to spend a summer’s day! Latvia sits across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, Sweden. 

Kemeri National Park features a variety of wetlands, including the Great Kemeri Bog, which can be traversed by boardwalk. 

6. Ecuador

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Perched between Colombia and Peru on the Pacific, Ecuador has everything: mountains, beaches, rainforest, volcanos, hot springs, and the famous wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Once part of the Inca Empire, this dramatically beautiful land is steeped in both pre-Colombian and Spanish colonial culture and is perfect for cheap travelerstrek-happy adventurers and history lovers ― after all, Quito’s sprawling UNESCO-tapped city center is the colonial jewel of South America. (Bonus: Ecuador is on the dollar, so there’s no need to exchange currency.)

Above is a photo of Bartomole Island in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. The endemic species in this volcanic archipelago inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and both land and sea are UNESCO World Heritage sites

Llamas frolic near the Chimborazo volcano, the highest mountain in Ecuador. 

The historic center of Cuenca is yet another of Ecuador’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The town still subscribes to the rigid planning guidelines with which it was founded in 1557. 

Quito’s Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus, informally known as la Compañía, has enough gold leaf inside to wow the most jaded travelers. The stunning baroque church also has a charming number of hidden nods to the local culture, including symbols of suns that salute Inca history and indigenous faces and plants worked into the ornate interior designs. 

7. Samoa
© Michael Runkel / robertharding via Getty Images © Tim Jordan Photography via Getty Images

This island nation ― not be confused with its equally awesome neighbor, American Samoa ― includes 10 islands brimming with volcanoes, waterfalls, rainforests, swimming holes and beaches. Journeying to a natural ocean blowhole or diving deep into a cave pool is just the beginning. Down-to-earth travelers will enjoy its lack of fancy resorts, too.

Swimmers hop into To Sua Ocean Trench, part of a larger area with natural rock pools and blowholes. 

Perfect water awaits you on Upolu Island’s southwest coast.

Papapapaitai Falls is about as impressive as waterfalls get: This showstopper tumbles into a giant gorge. Continue down the Cross Island Road for more falls, swimming holes and picnic spots.

Upolu Island has plenty of beachfront hotels and ecolodges to maximize your time on the warm white sand. 

8. Uruguay

© Richard I'Anson via Getty Images

Uruguay doesn’t get as much attention as neighboring Argentina and Brazil, but this polished, progressive paradise on the Atlantic has a pinch of European flair and is well worth a visit. Experience gaucho culture on a ranch of rolling hills, take to the surf at Punta del Diablo, or party the night away in the clubs at Punta del Este

Stroll the cosmopolitan streets of Montevideo, including the famous Plaza Independencia. 

The rambling, eccentric Casapueblo resort in Punta Ballena was built by late Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, who was inspired by the mud nests of native hornero birds.

The resort town of Punta del Este is known as a place to party, but the public art deserves a hand, too. 

Uruguay’s interior hills are rich in gaucho culture. Book a rural lodge and explore the beautiful countryside on horseback. 

9. Namibia

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First-time visitors to Africa should start here, in the world’s oldest desert, to experience the thrill of feeling like the last tourist on Earth. Considering its vast selection of wildlifenational parks, shipwrecks and larger-than-life sand dunes, Namibia somehow remains awesomely uncrowded. Many cities and towns have a distinctly German feel ― complete with German restaurants and colonial architecture ― due to years under European rule.

Zebras drink at a waterhole in Etosha National Park, which offers various epic safaris

Ludertiz, a confusingly colonial harbor town, includes an old Lutheran church and bustling village shops that make it feel like anywhere but Africa

Namibia’s national symbol, the quiver tree, stands tall in a nature park known as Giant’s Playground.

Off-roaders sit ready to explore the desert’s massive sand dunes, which also make for a daring day hike.

10. Guatemala

© SimonDannhauer via Getty Images

Mayan ruins play a starring role in Guatemala. Deep in the jungle, Tikal National Park is a lush playground of plazas, temples and dwellings that are well over 1,000 years old. Equally gorgeous are Guatemala’s active volcanoes, cascading lagoons and the Caribbean-blue Lake Petén Itzá. Even with all these natural wonders, a historic hotel-museum tops the list of places to visit nationwide.

From the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D., Mayans inhabited what is now Tikal National Park. Current residents include jaguars, howler monkeys and more than 60 species of bats.

Parque Central is a popular outdoor gathering place in Antigua, a city in the highlands. 

At Lake Petén Itzá, the blue water is perfect for sunsets and swimming with the locals.

Daredevils can hike or camp near a handful of active volcanos in Guatemala’s rugged wilderness, though be careful to do so at the right time of year.

11. Papua New Guinea

© David Kirkland / Design Pics via Getty Images

One look at the water should make it, ahem, clear that this is a paradise. The U.S. State Department cautions that due to crime, an organized tour booked through a travel agency is the best way to explore this stunningly diverse and practically untouched country. (There’s little luxury involved, but it’s a trip of a lifetime.) Try a trekking tour along the rugged, mountainous Kokoda Track or journey to a sing-sing festival, at which Papua New Guineans display their many unique tribal cultures through music and dance. 

White sand beaches and few interruptions are hallmarks of the New Ireland Province.

Capital Port Moresby is beautiful from the air, though its crime rate calls for sensible precautions. Infrastructure is virtually non-existent outside PNG’s major cities ― another reason to book a tour rather than traveling on your own. 

Local tribes celebrate a sing-sing in the Highlands. Some 836 indigenous languages are spoken in Papau New Guinea, most by fewer than a thousand speakers each.

Of course, Papua New Guinea boasts excellent snorkeling and diving

12. Newfoundland, Canada

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Why Newfoundland? Here, east coasters can kayak with icebergs without taking a long flight to Greenland or Alaska and beyond. Then there’s 18,000 miles of unspoiled coastline with some 200 walking trails, plus the 22 species of whales that pass through Newfoundland and Labrador between May and September. Add in dramatic, glacier-carved fjords, and this part of Canada is truly a dream for nature lovers who prefer their international travel over-easy. 

Icebergs arrive from the Arctic each spring to places like Trinity Bay, above. Check the map of “Iceberg Alley,” then book a boat or kayak or car to experience them up close.  

We really can’t get enough of Gros Morne National Park, which, in addition to cool neon jellyfish, contains towering fjords you can tour by boat. 

The Fort Amherst historical site in St. John’s honors Colonel William Amherst, who recaptured the area from the French in 1762.

Fall in Newfoundland is not too shabby. This is the Humber River in autumn. 

13. Romania

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Dracula’s homeland oozes eeriness and intrigue: The country has emerged from its Communist past to the delight of travelers who come to explore its medieval towns and ornate castles, including the one where fiction’s scariest bloodsucker once lived. Beyond the charming cobblestone streets, you’ll find adventurous alpine hikes through the towering Carpathian Mountains and all-inclusive beach resorts on the Black Sea coast.

The Black Church, with its interior walls adorned with Turkish carpets, is the star of Brasov, a popular medieval town at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. 

Corvin Castle in Transylvania features about 50 rooms of medieval art. It’s known as the most impressive Gothic castle in the country.

It can take all day to drive the hairpin turns of Transfagarasan Road, which connects the provinces of Transylvania and Walachia through the mountains. Thanks to a gentle gradient, you can even bike it if you dare. 

Bucharest, Romania’s capital, is known for high energy and good food. Socialist and Art Nouveau architecture coexist here, and the nightlife is some of Eastern Europe’s best.

14. Laos

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Even backpackers who have “seen it all” in Thailand and Cambodia will be awestruck in Laos. Stunning waterfalls, soaring mountains and blazing green rice fields are best enjoyed at the Laotian locals’ decidedly slow pace of life. Take a break from zip-lining and cave kayaking to join a yoga retreat or help out on an organic farm. The cuisine ― think sticky rice, papaya salad and fresh fish ― is worth savoring, too. 

A hot air balloon flies over Viet Vang, a jungle town and magnet for backpackers.

Kuang Si Falls are a refreshing ― but cold! ― place to swim. Prepare for the hike in, and look out for hidden pools along the way. 

Terraced rice fields overlook a village in Mu Cang Chai.

Buddha Park in Vientiane is probably the most stunning sculpture park you’ll ever see. 

15. Azerbaijan

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“Untapped” may be the best way to describe this coastal country between Iran and Russia. Start in the capital of Baku, whose Old City has UNESCO world heritage status as a rare example of ancient architecture. Then, move out to explore quaint rural villages at the base of the Great Caucasus mountains. Former Peace Corps volunteers have set up a network of local homestays to help visitors enjoy the country’s outer fringes, where paved roads are scarce but the land is lush. 

Baku mixes old architecture with glittering 21st-century towers on the Caspian Sea.

The Government House is just one of many historic monuments to see in Baku.

Baku also offers museums, theaters, libraries and an opera house. Treat yourself to a balcony room at the glimmering Four Seasons Hotel

High in the mountains, Xinaliq is home to friendly shepherds who can point you in the right direction for adventurous hikes.

16. Slovenia

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Croatia’s been a hot travel destination for a few years now, but don’t overlook its charming neighbor to the north. The snowy peaks of the Julian Alps are the dramatic backdrop for Slovenia’s storybook Lake Bled, while outdoor restaurants line the riverwalk in the friendly capital city Ljubljana and the sprawling Postojna Cave is a dramatic diversion. (Pro tip: You’ll likely save a few dollars by flying into Venice, Italy, rather than Ljubljana ― it’s not far over the border.)

The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation overlooks Ljubljana’s famous Triple Bridge, a lively spot at night.

Above you’ll see Lake Bled in the summer. Swim or row in the crystal-clear lake, dine at Bled Castle perched high on a cliff, or stroll the equally Instagram-worthy Vintgar Gorge.

A tour boat on the Ljubljanica River in Ljubljana.

The town of Piran is a “luminescent pearl” on the Adriatic Sea.

17. The Seychelles

© Jon Arnold via Getty Images

Will and Kate honeymooned here, so you know the views are fit for royalty. This collection of around 115 islands in the Indian Ocean is basically a beach-y theme park, with inlets of every size and type. It could take weeks to see them all. Thank goodness there are both private island villas and casual B&Bs to stay in.

With its pink sand and smooth boulders, Anse Source D’Argent is regularly praised as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Get there early in the day before other fanatics arrive. 

The beaches at Beau Vallon are some of the most highly trafficked in the Seychelles, but they’re still pleasantly low-key. 

From above, Mahe Island’s jungle flora and coastal towns shine in all their glory. Aside from the usual lineup of tucked-away beaches, the island’s forested interior is a hiker’s paradise

St. Pierre is the teensy-tiny islet of your wildest dreams. Seriously.

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