Unsung places of the world
Some places stay persistently off the beaten track, despite their many charms. From India’s Gujurat to Arras in France, these 10 destinations are often overlooked due to geography, chance or the presence of more glamorous neighbours.
Why is this anomalous Italian city not at the top of a must-visit list? It is a cultural melting pot and is on a sea-thrusting prong of land near Slovenia. It was the key port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and retains an enticing, elegiac sense of the past. Former resident James Joyce began writing Ulysses here — not in Dublin. It is full of Hapsburg splendour, from its Viennese cafes and central European cuisine to its sweeping neo-classical waterfront.
With two Flemish-Spanish squares lined by 155 gingerbread-like houses, Arras is an astonishing surprise in an oft-forgotten corner of northern France. In a day, you can admire the 17th- and 18th-century architectural confectionery, climb the elegant bell tower for big views and wander through the town’s remarkable 22km-long underground tunnels, which were used by soldiers during World War I.
India’s northwestern state of Gujarat is not on most travellers’ itineraries, but if you have time, it rewards exploration. Besides a friendly welcome, the state has an off-beat allure: the laid back ex-Portuguese island of Diu; the city of Bhuj, with its evocative dilapidated palace and surrounding craft-rich villages; and the otherworldly salt plains of the Little Rann of Kutch, populated by flamingos and wild Indian donkeys.
Often bypassed in favour of neighbouring Sìchuān, Chóngqìng has an imposing location overlooking the Yangzi River and conversation-stalling spicy food. The futuristic cityscape contrasts with the clutter of old steel boats at the docks and the city’s army of porters, who suspend goods on stout bamboo poles, transporting anything and everything over the city’s steep hills.
The granite town of Aberdeen — with its stately university centred on the 15th-century King’s Chapel — is fronted by a long sandy beach, and is home to the time-capsule, Hobbit-quaint fishing village of Footdee. Beyond the stern, glittering city, you can take a dreamy coastal train to see Castle Dunottar, the awe-inspiring cliff-edge ruin where Franco Zefferelli filmed Hamlet.
Utrecht, The Netherlands
Perhaps it is the lure of Amsterdam that leads people to forget Utrecht. Whatever the reason, this graceful city is bizarrely under-visited. Its old town is encircled by a medieval canal, and you can hop on a boat tour to visit the city’s bustling, vibrant wharves. Built to connect the canalside with Utrecht’s impressive townhouses, today these unique spaces are filled with bohemian cafes, shops, restaurants and bars.
On a smaller scale than its more famous siblings, Marrakesh and Fès, this ancient imperial city has a low key, laid-back feel. But Meknès is also blessed with an architectural and cultural bounty: 45km of defensive walls, nearly 50 palaces, and nearby, the plateau-top Roman ruins of Volubilis.
The small Finnish capital, continental Europe’s northernmost city, looks out over the shimmering Baltic, and several of its major sights, including the 18th-century fortress of Suomenlinna, sit on islands. This unassuming yet charismatic city retains glorious Art Nouveau buildings and 1930s restaurants, and is notably clean and tidy. It also comes alive when the sun shines – almost all night from June to August.
Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
It is rarely chilly — usually either balmy or baking hot — in this lovely Andalucían town. There are ornate churches, an imposing citadel, plus multiple bodegas (wine bars) where you can taste Jerez’s most famous export, sherry. This is also one of the best places in Spain to experience authentic flamenco.
To gain a sense of old Japan, locals recommend that you take a trip to the less-travelled “other” side of the main Honshu island. Located in the east, Takayama is a small city dotted by morning markets, sake breweries and hillside shrines. Nearby Shirakawa-go is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri – farmhouses on stilts – and countryside that looks like a Nihonga (traditional Japanese) painting.