Travel Off The Beaten Path

When travelling, sometimes it’s best to leave the guidebooks at home.

The 19th century Polish poet Stanislaw Jachowicz once wrote about his countrymen’s tendency to praise whatever is foreign while not knowing what they have themselves. It sounds better in its original (and rhymes), but the quote simply means the grass is always greener on the other side.

It’s also a meaningful observation when you consider how people travel and spend their vacations. When it comes to Poles, many travel thousands of miles to Italy or France for weekend getaways but few ever visit the cities just a few hours from their homes.

There’s nothing that’s as exciting and mind-expanding as traveling to far-off destinations and immersing yourself in a foreign culture. But sometimes this drive to explore makes us overlook what’s right under our nose. Sometimes we take for granted what our closer surroundings have to offer.

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When I was living in Poland, I passed by the small city of Plock, northwest of the Polish capital, on my way back home to Warsaw after a weekend on the Baltic coast. I didn’t know much about the city except that it was old and sits on the Vistula river. Plock isn’t on the lists of the country’s top attractions, but that night it looked more beautiful than many other tourist-hyped cities I’ve seen. Massive, illuminated cathedral spires, a castle and church stood tall atop a steep hill that dropped down to the river, where the lights of the city were reflected in the water in streaks of yellow and red. It looked like an old kingdom linked to the modern world and to the other bank of the river by a slim bridge.

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When a friend and I took a week-long trip across Poland, I quickly put Plock on the itinerary. We first visited a few well-known cities. When we finally arrived in Plock, our family called to ask how our trip was going. They’d been enthusiastic to chat about the other cities we’d seen, but in Plock they only asked us, “What the hell are you doing there?”

When I flip through the photos from that trip, ironically most of them are taken in Plock – especially in the stunning park above the Vistula where we wandered through the heavy morning fog and photographed the tall trees, churches and the castle that peeked through the grey like a scene in an old film noir.

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Those kind of trips are my favourite and most memorable because the places are my own discoveries — no travel guides, friends’ recommendations or anything else steer me. Those kinds of trips leave you constantly surprised during your improvised explorations because you arrive knowing next to nothing about the destination.

Since I moved to Egypt, I’ve also travelled off the tourist itinerary and I have received similar reactions. “Why did you go to Mahalla?” a friend asked after I returned from the industrial Nile Delta city that sparked the January 25 Revolution. I wanted to ask them, “Why haven’t you gone yet?” I know there aren’t exactly many hotel choices or family fun parks there to keep visitors entertained. But seeing the textile factory whose workers were the first to tear down Hosni Mubarak posters — or to go into it as far as security would allow us — was certainly an experience worth the speed-limit-defying minibus trip from Ramses Station.

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Similarly, when thousands of Egyptians travel in the summer to the crowded beaches of Alexandria, I prefer the smaller city of Port Said, where you can cross the waters by ferry into Port Fuad, enjoy a fish lunch, sit on the beach and watch the boats heading to the Suez Canal over a shisha under a beach umbrella in undisturbed peace.

The trips I’ve taken to Egypt’s major tourist sites were memorable and beautiful, but the more obscure and non-touristy places I’ve visited offered a more authentic and original experience.

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There are still many places I’d love to see, and the list keeps growing the more I travel and learn about the country: There are the old cotton plantations of the Nile Delta, the small fishing villages and coastal cities like Damietta, the salty marshes of Lake Manzala, the mango harvest in Ismailia, or even the belle epoque hotels of downtown Cairo. While it’s understandable that large tourism companies don’t offer packaged tours to such destinations, it’s harder to understand why so few residents seem unenthusiastic about exploring their own country.

Lesser-known destinations may not offer the photo opps of places like the Giza pyramids or Khan el Khalili, but they give you an experience that to me is the epitome of travel: they let you explore, discover and roam free.

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I’d love to hear from you. Do you travel off the beaten path? What are your favourite places off the tourist itinerary?

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57 thoughts on “Travel Off The Beaten Path

  1. How right you are. I think this every time I return to my home in N. Ireland to places I didn’t appreciate growing up as a child and early teenager. Now it feels as though I’ve left it too late as everything has changed so much from what I remember – even if vaguely. If I move outside the towns and villages, however, and into the countryside, then that has stayed resolutely the same.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s so true! It often takes decades of being away to appreciate the places we grew up. I know when I was young, the countryside really bored me and I longed for a more glamorous life. But having lived in big cities, I really appreciate that peace and quiet now.

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  2. Great post. We had an experience like this last May. We had been to Nice, Lyon, Paris and London and were headed to Sheffield to spend a week with friends. Every time we told this story, particularly to Brits, we could almost hear the eyes roll, before they said…Why in the H— are you going there. After our week, we could only ask why would people not want to go to Sheffield with its rolling hills, pretty countryside, great hikes and history. We can’t wait to go back.

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    1. I know that feeling! It’s amazing what scenery people can overlook just because it’s on their doorsteps. I would love to visit Yorkshire someday.. The English countryside is so evocative for me because of all the Victorian lit. I’ve studied.

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  3. You’re so right. That’s one of the reasons why I love housesitting so much. We get to stay in such out of the way, small places, that I’d never think of visiting otherwise. At the moment we’re in Buntingford, quite near Stanstead airport (London). I admit, I thought it would be boring – suburbia – but it’s charming, and the countryside around is green and lovely.

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    1. There’s no better way to get to know a place and its culture than to spend some time living there.. the Egypt I know now is not at all the Egypt I knew as a tourist. I love your stories and slices of life from the places you housesit. They give such a realistic sense of place!

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  4. I must admit that I haven’t done that yet. My considerations of going to some place include connectivity, ease of communication and finding food with the restrictions I have. Your way sounds very nice and liberating 🙂 and yes, I can say from my experience too that often the best things are found at the most unexpected of places. :).

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    1. Definitely! The downsides are just as you’ve described – it can be difficult, especially if you’re on your own or don’t speak the language. But I’ve found these days, some things like connectivity are getting easier as technology improves.

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  5. I, too agree with the previous sentiments. My husband and I also try to find opportunities to chat with locals who are just going about their day. Most love to engage and talk about their city, country and way of life. Those are the moments I most remember & cherish on my travels.

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    1. That always adds so much to any trip! I find that locals in spots that are off the tourist itinerary are more eager to share their insights with visitors, too. They’re often happy and proud that their corner of the earth was deemed worth visiting.

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  6. Couldn’t agree more. On a recent trip to Scotland, we stopped in the usual – Edinburgh, Skye, and Fort William. But it was a few days in little Newtonmore that really made the trip. We had plenty to do, exploring local hiking trails and even creating our own (brief!) pub crawl. Much less overwhelming than larger cities, it really allowed us to appreciate what was there.

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    1. That sounds wonderful, especially the rural pub crawl! Scotland has such incredible scenery – the rolling hills, the purple heather.. And though these places are still off popular itineraries, I love how more people seem to be discovering hidden gems.

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  7. There are so many undiscovered gems and I love to find them! Living in the Peak District, we tend to avoid the better known dales such as Dovedale as they’re too busy. Instead we seek out the quieter ones which are just as spectacular but haven’t been marked on the tourist map. I hope they stay that way!

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    1. That sounds wonderful! You’d think the well-known destinations got their reputation because they’re more spectacular than their counterparts, but it’s surprising how often it’s not really like that.

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  8. I love this piece so much, Dee. I love how you remember most the small and off-the-beaten-path Plock, and how you enjoy the less-traveled places in Egypt. I hate being with hordes of tourists, although I always do want to see the main attraction. Usually the things I remember most are the places where I can linger and discover something new. I now have the time to linger in places, and I’ve also taken to exploring cities that are within a day’s drive of my home, places that, unbelievably, I’ve never visited before. And I keep finding new surprises along the way.

    I spent a month in Egypt in 2007, and I would love to go back one day; I was studying Arabic at the time and only had weekends to explore, so I didn’t see the things I would have loved to see. I was in Cairo most of the time, with one day trip to Alexandria. What are you doing in Egypt, by the way?

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    1. Thank you, Cathy! I hate being in hordes of tourists as well, but unfortunately that’s impossible to avoid sometimes when you’re visiting major attractions. I try to travel in the off season whenever I can, or to explore in the early mornings or evenings when the crowds have calmed down a bit.

      I love your stories from your day trips! Those old diners and small towns have so much charm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know exactly what you mean, Dee. Sometimes we have to see those iconic places, and we have to wade through the crowds just like everyone else does. I try my best to travel off-season too, or early mornings, but sometimes I find others have the same idea.

        Thanks so much for your kind words. I love old diners and small towns, and even the big cities nearby that I’ve never explored!

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  9. Great post (btw, I don’t know why I saw it in my Inbox just now not earlier). I totally agree: there are so many hidden places that have never received the appreciation they deserve. In Bulgaria, in particular, people are unwilling to explore our unique nature and ancient history. Friends have never heard of some places, which thankfully, I’ve showed to my CouchSurfing guests. When it comes to foreign people here, it’s even worse: they tend to go to places to drink cheap beer (even if the place happens to be one of the oldest settlements ever). I see another trend, with cheap flights, people love abusing words like ‘travelholic’ and showing off: they go to a major destination and then they say “Oh, I’ve been to… blah blah). But there are so much more than a thick and a tag. For example, I love going back to a place, exploring more and more of the country, and if possible, experience its way of life. Now, with the little one, hitchhiking and moving abroad will not possible for a while, but still – the world is hers and we (even though I hate my English husband sometimes) are trying to help her appreciate life 😉 Oh, really sorry for the long and unstructured msg. Great photos anyway!

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    1. Thank you, Elitsa! Bulgaria must have so many hidden treasures, and such a rich history and culture.. And I know what you mean about this kind of “trophy travel” where people just try to rack up the number of countries they’ve visited without really experiencing any local life. I think in a lot of ways, that trend has gotten worse with the rising popularity of Instagram and social media – people sometimes travel to particular spots just to get a photo!

      Wishing you happy travels with your little one and your new family 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Totally agree with you! It’s really sad how social media has shaped beauty and reality.

        Btw, I started using Instagram a couple of months ago, and from what I can see – everyone is an influencer today (whatever it means)… 😀

        Thanks a lot and happy adventures to you, too! Xxx

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  10. Hi Dee. Thanks for a great post about travel off the beaten path. I want to relate doing this in Hanoi Vietnam and earlier in Japan. I currently am living there for another two months and there are the places which are the tourist places. The best way I have found to leaving that is to walk. Walk t a street that you would turn right on and turn left instead. Find a small street that winds its way to a neighborhood you have never been to and walk it. I’ve ended up completely lost in Hanoi and have put on some miles of walking and saw the small shops, parks, street food places and a kazillion coffee shops that are hidden away off the beaten tourist track. In Tokyo Japan i did this repeatedly and one day I walked down these small streets, turned left and right and doubled back and found myself walking with school children smiling shyly at me and laughing. i turned left and right and let and right again and again and i’ll be darned if I did not end up back at the same Starbucks I had started at but it was 5 hours later and almost 16,000 steps that day. My camera goes with so I capture the scenes.

    Now I attempt to do this most days in Hanoi since I can always find a street, a neighborhood, a park, a place. if it rains here, i stop into one of those kazillion coffee shops and there is no language barrier. Coffee is a universal!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mike, that sounds amazing! I’ve never been to Southeast Asia, but it’s a part of the world that really fascinates me these days. Hanoi sounds like an incredible city, with amazing food, and I can just imagine how it can provide for hours of exploration. I loved your post on the streets less traveled!

      I agree that walking is the best way to explore off the beaten path. It adds such an element of surprise and discovery when you don’t have a particular destination in mind, and you don’t know what’s ahead. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Vietnam!

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  11. I agree with you. My family and I prefer to travel to lesser-known destinations, off the beaten path, be it close to home or far away. But these places keep their charm exactly because they are not known, untouched by mainstream tourism. Better for those of us who like to visit these out-of-the-way places. Great article, love your photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! The out-of-the-way places really do give you a sense of exploration when you’re not stuck in crowds of other tourists.. Some secrets are definitely better kept!

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  12. Wow, Dee. I love your post and the beautiful pictures, but… it makes me feel like I have to explain myself. 🙂 So…, I’m actually Polish (Nigerian dad but born and raised w Matce Polsce). I must admit I don’t fancy travelling around Poland so much, but not because it’s not a beautiful country – it is. However, Poland is not very diverse hence I’ve spent my young years there having to explain my Polish origins (I’m mix-raced). I left Poland almost 15 years ago, so things might be different now but I like not having to explain where I’m from when in London or in other metropolitan cities. I totally agree with you though – it’s good to stray off the beaten paths. To me, locations are just as important as my experiences there, so I might be bias when praising one city more than another… Great blog post – it sure inspires me to give Plock and Poland a chance. ♥

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    1. Thank you, Monika! I’m also Polish but I left when I was young, so it’s home but at the same time not too familiar. And I know what you mean about having to explain yourself.. Poland is a bit different now, especially in the larger cities, but it’s definitely not as anonymous as New York or London. Whenever I go back, I get questions about my accent or why I don’t speak Polish very well. All that being said, there are so many hidden gems and I’m happy that I got to explore some of them. I hope you get to revisit soon!

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  13. My wife and I have been walking a lot these past few years when we travel, avoiding tour buses and guide books and crowded “must see” locations. We’ve discovered there’s beauty everywhere, and we’ve met beautiful people along the way. Thanks for liking my blog. Following you now.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. seraphsun

    I totally agree with you. Sometimes the places that are popular with tourists lose their authenticity, and I always did dislike crowds. Some of my favourite places in Japan are still not as well known, like Kanazawa and Kinosaki, and but they are beautiful.

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  15. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing! One of the ways my kids and I like to travel is by staying in one location for an extended period of time, and stay at lodging which connects us to local folks away from the big name hotels. Buying our food from local vendors, swimming at the local pools, etc. The real wonders of a place are hidden in plain sight. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Rachael Jones

    I completely agree with you and your travel philosophy! On my blog, I also make it clear how much a love ditching the itinerary and exploring on your own. I always find the coolest places when I let myself roam and truly experience a new place! Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m happy you liked it! It is amazing what you can discover off the beaten path.. sometimes those hidden places beat the well-known attractions as well.

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