20 Overlooked Countries Not Enough Americans Visit
It's time to rethink your travel goals.
Where will you go when the world opens anew? Many of us have spent these long days of uncertainty dreaming of a return to a beloved place, be it a favorite stretch of tropical beach or a distant metropolis. Others are eager to tick off a bucket-list trip, finally earning that hashtag badge of honor by hitting New York, Paris, or Mexico City.
And then there are those of us who dream of the unexpected, those singular experiences where a photo op is an afterthought and full immersion is the only option. We tapped our network of globetrotters to identify countries rich in experience but without the scourge of over-tourism. They came back with a globe-spanning set of locales that include soul-searching spiritual journeys, natural hot springs, underwater safaris, and beaches both tropical and stratospheric. You'll find rich culinary cultures, indigenous music, and, in one instance, vampires.
For those of us eager to explore beyond the prescribed flight plan, these 20 countries should be what you're dreaming of when the world begins turning once again.
PanamaChannel your inner Robinson Crusoe with remote islands and untouched forest
In a twist of irony, the “hub” of Central America is also the most overlooked when it comes to vacation spots. The literal crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama is a tropical wonderland packed with a surplus of mountainous cliffs, breathtaking beaches, and rich culture. It's enough to make you forget about that famous canal.
Panama is often compared to -- and passed over for -- Costa Rica, its sought-after neighbor to the north. (Confession: I did it too, at first.) But Panama actually beats CR in a lot of categories. It has even more remote mountain and island retreats -- the San Blas Archipelago alone houses a labyrinth of nearly 400 outlying islands, almost all of which are unnamed, uninhabited, and/or comprised entirely of coral. And unlike Costa Rica, Panama maintains a higher-level of internet connectivity as the business epicenter of Central America (ahem, Panama City!). In other words, it’s ideal for those wanderlust-fueled travelers hell bent on avoiding beaten paths, but still want a chance to stay connected. -- Liz Newman
TaiwanA smashing intro to East Asia with irresistible food and nature galore
For first-time travelers to East Asia, we often wonder why Taiwan doesn’t soar to the top of their list. For starters, it’s one of the world’s great food countries, with 300 night markets buzzing in the streets as the sun sets. In the capital Taipei, the largest is the Shilin Night Market, where the evolution of Taiwanese street food can be tasted in the fried milk balls, pork paper, and charcoal meat rolls. Seeking more out-of-the-box kitsch? The bathroom-themed Modern Toilet restaurant chain serves dishes in mini toilet bowls.
Size-wise, Taiwan is a destination Goldilocks would choose: small enough to tackle comfortably, but large enough to access nature in all its corners. Thanks to its outstanding network of high-speed trains, you can zip around with little effort. Peruse the near-700,000 exhibits from China’s imperial collection at the National Palace Museum, and don’t miss the futuristic National Kaohsiung Center for Arts, the world’s largest performing arts center, for its new partnership with the London Philharmonic. And with nine national parks, a dose of nature is never far away -- neither are the ubiquitous geothermal hot springs that can boil your post-hike aches away. -- Paul Jebara
Cape VerdeWhere music and multiculturalism meet on warm sands
Seemingly adrift spree 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde ticks off all the boxes of an idyllic tropical beach paradise: You’ll find the requisite sweeping mountain vistas, sparkling beaches, and colonial towns on its land, shipwrecks and whales in the crystal waters. On a strictly aesthetic level, this should be on any travelers list. But it’s the island nation’s multicultural aspects that merit a spot at the very top of that list.
Arid and uninhabited when the Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, Cape Verde has weathered deep struggles to forge a truly modern culture across 10 stunning islands, each with its own character. Today, it’s where you’ll find rich & nutty stews of Senegal, colonial heritage of the Portuguese, party-loving spirit of Brazil, democratic ethos of Ghana, and wine expertise of the French. It's all set to a soundtrack of Morna, the national music style that combines joy, sorrow, struggle, and celebration into a complex that permeates the complex beauty of this place, at once speaking to the struggles of its past and the light of its future. -- Becki Iverson.
KyrgyzstanThe absurdly beautiful mountain country you probably haven’t heard of
If you’re in Kyrgyzstan, you’re probably on top of a mountain. A range called Tian Shan (“Heaven Lake” in Mandarin Chinese) covers about 80% of the country, and most of it is at least 1,000 meters above sea level. Its geological features vary from peak to peak, but the landscape is tied together by its exquisite, swoon-inducing beauty. You can traverse the country by foot or by horse, embracing the nomadic life by staying in yurts and feasting on stews. And if that all sounds near mystical, you’ll be surprised to discover how truly wondrous country is. But first, you have to discover it exists at all.
The Central Asian country that rewards exploration and effort, from its capital of Bishkek to the sprawling countryside that comprises most of its landscape, where eagles soar and livestock roams. For a concentrated blast of nomadic traditions spiked with adrenaline, Kyrgyzstan is home of World Nomad Games, an international competition akin to the Olympics that got its start here in 2014. Sports like horse racing, belt wrestling, and Kok-boru -- in which horse riders fight for a goat carcass -- are unlike any athletic event you’ve ever been to. Fair that it takes place in a country that itself is unlike anywhere you’ve imagined. -- Michelle No
EcuadorMagnificent diverse landscapes, but in a small, approachable package
Neighboring Peru and Colombia really zoomed ahead in the race for tourism over the last two decades, the former with its award-winning restaurants and the latter with its powdery beaches. But little Ecuador, sandwiched between the two and about one-fifth the size of them combined, should not be ignored. Boasting its own style of ceviche (with popcorn!) and swimmable coastline, Ecuador’s advantage is that it’s super easy to navigate. The national currency? The dollar. Andean Spanish? Slow and clear.
Head here to be awestruck by the floating forests of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the towering peak of Cotopaxi, the sprawling indigenous market of Otavalo, and the colorful architecture of Quito. A compact country of diverse landscapes, Ecuador is ideal for folks with FOMO: You won’t miss out on, well... anything. Swim in the Amazon basin, watch blue-footed boobies, and munch on empanadas to your heart’s content. Then, dive deeper: Head to a smaller city like Cuenca, or even a tiny town like Loja, where you can take in the beauty of an Ecuadorian central plaza, tour historic structures from pre-colonial times, and hike the surrounding countryside. -- Naomi Tomky
MontenegroA tiny, budget version of Italy with some of Europe’s most stunning beaches
Neighboring Croatia gets most of the love these days, but Montenegro is every bit as gorgeous -- without the crowds. This tiny country on the Adriatic feels huge; slightly smaller than Connecticut, you can do a hell of a lot in a short amount of time. The beaches on its lush coastline are some of Europe’s most beautiful and most raucous, with an oceanfront party scene that can skew swanky like Ibiza or sloppy like Cancun. Hop between ancient Venetian towns like Budva, Kotor, and Perast, sporting 15th century fortifications, charming red tiled roofs, and delicious seaside restaurants.
When you’ve had your fill of sun and sand, head to the country’s less-traveled eastern interior for sublime mountain ranges, pristine lakes, and wild forests. You can whitewater raft down the iconic Tara River canyon, or hike through the outstanding Biogradska Gora National Park -- also home to some of Europe’s most affordable ski slopes come wintertime. And all this comes at a typical Balkan budget: a local draft will set you back $1.75. -- Daniel Cole
RomaniaWacky attractions like an underground theme park, and yes, Dracula
To be clear, there’s more to Romania than Transylvania and Dracula lore. Full of historic medieval towns, World Heritage sites, and obscure architectural treasures, the country would make any wannabe archaeologist’s head spin. But seeing as most people focus on the vampires instead of the rich cultural history, Romania remains off the radar compared to other Eastern European spots like Czech Republic or Hungary.
There are endless adventures to tap across the remarkably inexpensive country , like a visit to Salina Turda, a subterranean theme park in the world’s oldest salt mines with attached wellness offerings. Think underground sports (badminton, soccer, and mini-golf), museum, 180-seat amphitheater, dry and wet saunas, sun-bathing, and rides. Elsewhere, don’t sleep on sites like Sighisoara Citadel, a well-preserved, UNESCO-recognized medieval town. It's continuously inhabited to this day, and boasts original medieval architecture, cobble streets and, historic landmarks such as the Church on the Hill, where you'll feel like you've traveled through time. -- Yolanda Evans
LebanonThe question is: to ski, jet ski, or just party?
In Lebanon, the sheer amount of awesome things you could pack into one itinerary is as unreal as it is wildly diverse. Beirut alone could keep you busy for weeks: First-timers shouldn’t miss a tour of the Beirut National Museum for its collection of relics from pre-history to the Arab conquest. Or Beit Beirut, a bullet-marked “memory museum” which recalls the civil war that derailed the “Paris of the Middle East” from its hedonistic reputation. Art lovers will also be enchanted by the city’s growing roster of galleries, like the opulent Sursock Museum.
But the rewards are even greater outside the Beirut bustle. Time it right and you could have a morning ski in the mountains, and by afternoon be jet skiing in the Mediterranean. Stroll through sustainable wineries like the award-winning IXSIR in the hills of Batroun, or explore there’s also the Grand Sofar Hotel, an abandoned retreat for the rich and famous that’s been restored as an art exhibit. And if you think nightlife is restricted to the city, a sunset-to-sunrise session at Frozen Cherry, a club 6,000 feet in the mountains, will quickly prove you wrong. -- Paul Jebara
NepalA spiritual journey and cultural exploration along the roof of the world
Wedged between India and China, this gorgeous little Himalayan kingdom is more than just a quick stopover on the around-the-world circuit. The dollar goes far and attitudes toward Americans are mostly positive, while nearly half of the locals speak English, easing the initial culture shock of being dropped in a city as wonderfully manic as Kathmandu. Though the country is predominantly Hindu, Buddhist pilgrimage sites are everywhere, affording travelers a chance to tap into the country’s strong spiritual vibe.
Not far from the bustling capital is the ancient city of Bhaktapur, where a stunning collection of religious sites offers the perfect day trip for quiet reflection before you explore the rural cliffside dwellings of the Annapurna range, drink yak butter tea in the trekking region around the city of Pokhara, or attempt to scale the famous peaks of Mt. Everest. While mountaineering is the chief activity for a majority of Western travelers, you can also uncover lesser-known sites like the remote Chitwan National Park to view one-horned rhinos, monkeys, and, if you’re lucky, leopards and tigers -- all while riding atop an elephant, if that’s your thing. -- Jay Gentile
BelizeA jungle paradise with some of the world’s best scuba sites
In Belize, the chirps of vibrant birds break the silence in your bungalow -- the perfect wake-up call in a place where everyday is a choose-your-own adventure. Want to swim in hidden waterfalls? Test your diving skills in the Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole visible from space? Explore decaying Mayan ruins? Get blessed by a shaman? Hike among jaguars and monkeys? Belize offers it all -- and since everyone speaks English, there’s no barrier to these experiences on a short or long trip.
While here, be sure to head out on a snorkeling excursion to Silk Cayes, a teeny island 22 miles offshore with nothing more than some palm trees and a grill. You’ll float above coral in every color and tropical fish swimming around the Belize Barrier Reef (the largest reef system in the Northern Hemisphere). Then, refuel with a hearty lunch cooked by your guides before snorkeling again -- this time with nurse sharks and loggerhead turtles. -- Joni Sweet
GeorgiaNew tourism initiatives complement warm, Old World hospitality
In the last decade, once-fraught Georgia has redefined itself, cracking down on crime, paving roads, building new airports, and promoting itself abroad. The most dangerous thing in Georgia these days? Chacha, the zillion-proof moonshine that locals will foist on you in the outdoor markets. You might have to squint to find it, but don’t be by Georgia's diminutive geography: Everything here is dazzlingly over-the-top, from the epically cheesy khachapuri to the whirlwind folk dances to the Alps-shaming Caucasus mountains that tower over the landscape.
Come for the hiking -- there’s a new Transcaucasian Trail that winds through some of the highest settlements in Europe -- and stay for the food, an East-meets-West smorgasbord of slurpable soup dumplings, herb-centric salads, and walnut-thickened stews. Wherever you are in Georgia, expect Old World hospitality at every turn -- and a steady stream of wine, a beverage that Georgians’ Stone Age ancestors arguably invented. And don’t forget to pile into a 4x4 and zoom up to Gergeti Trinity Church, a mossy candlelit chapel that was built above the cloudline in the 14th century. It sits in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, Europe’s fifth-highest peak and the mountain to which Prometheus is said to have been chained after stealing fire from the gods. -- Benjamin Kemper
UruguayThis small South American getaway can compete with the best
Wedged between powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, tiny Uruguay -- a safe, stable and liberal nation -- is more than able to compete for the hearts and minds of foodies, art and design fiends, and outdoorsy types. From the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital of Montevideo to hip beach towns to the emerging wine region of Garzon, major sites are within an hour or two of each other.
Gaucho culture is strong here, as there are more cattle than people in Uruguay -- you may find yourself waiting for cows to cross the bucolic-AF road. Those cattle, it should be noted, are the cornerstone of carnivore-intensive dishes through this culinarily rich country, where dining is often al fresco and paired up with wine from local vineyards. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to party, the beach community of Punta del Este has long been a playground for jet setters, while a lower-key beach escape is available at Jose Ignacio, a former fishing village that’s still pretty sleepy if you avoid the post-Christmas high season. -- Maridel Reyes
FinlandNature (and a sauna) is always within reach in this Scandinavian country
If Iceland is a bit too pricey, or you’re just tired of seeing the endless Instagram parade of Blue Lagoon shots (no shade -- that place is great), consider another Nordic haven: Finland. Thanks to the country’s love of saunas -- the only Finnish word to make it into English usage -- you can get your spa on regardless of the weather.
The country comes with various forms of nature fixes. Fly north to feast your eyes on Lapland’s stunning vistas, made all the more magical with a generous helping of snow in the winter and hours of endless sunlight in the summer. For a balance of town and country, head to Helsinki, where careful city planning ensures you’re never more than a 15-minute bike ride away from nature. Expansive open space and ocean waves are within reach, as are the countries best restaurants. And for the ultimate urbane getaway, take a 15-minute boat ride from Helsinki to Suomenlinna, a World Heritage fortress and cultural site where you can relax on sandy beaches, stare out from jagged cliffs, explore fortresses constructed in the 1700s, and mingle with a few ghosts. -- Laura Studarus
LaosTune into the waterfalls and temples of Southeast Asia’s last hippie wilderness
In Laos, the old-school '60s backpack culture -- when starry-eyed hitchhikers learned to meditate with monks and lived in dollar-a-day beach huts -- is alive and well. For proof, look no further than the “4,000 islands” of the Mekong River, particularly on Don Det island, where hostels spill out on stilts into the quiet water. Or the spectacular limestone mountains around Luang Prabang, considered by many Laos’ cultural (and formerly royal) capital, an electric amalgamation of the spiritual, natural, and modern.
Thanks to shared borders, Laos is home to some of the best food in Asia, drawing similarities to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, but diverging in regional specialties. Coffee, too, is world-class: Many of the plantations around the waterfalls of the verdant Bolaven Plateau offer tastings and overnight stays, and make great bases for exploring the plateau’s cave systems and underwater lakes. Laos’ French colonial legacy is obvious in the wide boulevards and chic villas of Mekong-side cities like Savannakhet and the capital Vientiane, and in the proliferation of French bakeries. As for getting around, keep in mind a regional joke about Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), which some say stands for “Lao - Please Don’t Rush.” -- Liz Dodd
PolandThe capital’s cultural rise signals an exciting future
Between Warsaw’s modernized public transit system and sophisticated banking that allows visitors the option of paying in their preferred currency, Poland has leapfrogged ahead in the tourism game, quietly embracing its past and using it to inform a brilliant future.
The Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw’s city center landmark (a “gift” from Stalin) has been retrofitted to house several cafes, bars, and theaters. Milk bars -- low-cost cafeterias serving traditional Polish food -- now include a rainbow of vegetarian options. Neon graphics and art, once encouraged by the oppressive ruling party as a way to demonstrate the Soviet Block’s modernity to the outside world, is celebrated in the capital city’s Neon Museum, housed in Soho Factory, a creative complex in the Praga district. Fashion designers such as Pan tu nie stał (“The Lord Did Not Stand Here”) are busy adapting the regime’s designs into colorful, forward-thinking shirts, bags, and housewares, while others like wearso.organic and Dream Nation are pushing organic, sustainable, and affordable fashion to the nation’s forefront. For those interested in seeing how the times have not only changed but boldly stepped into the future, put Poland on your list. -- Laura Studarus
JordanOne of the Middle East’s safest destinations brims with antiquities and otherworldly vistas
In a famously dry country associated with deserts and camels, Jordan’s coolest activities have you stripping down to your swimsuit. Scuba diving and snorkeling are probably the last thing you’d expect, but the warm waters of the Red Sea offer up ample underwater exploration. Seeking the red sands of your Arabian night dreams? Hop on a hump and join adventure providers camping with nomadic Bedouins, all beneath a starry sky in one of Earth’s most beautiful deserts, Wadi Rum. Dubbed “Valley of the Moon,” this is just one of several UNESCO World Heritage sites in Jordan, including the iconic Petra, the desert castle of Quseir Amra, and the Roman military camp, Umm er-Rasas.
There’s no better way to get intimate with the country’s otherworldly landscapes than via the Jordan Trail. The cross-country path opened in 2016, connecting ancient trade routes from north to south across some 400 miles, cutting through 52 villages and towns. To complete it in one fell swoop could take 40 days. Alternatively, try sister route, the Jordan Bike Trail, a 15-day journey of mixed-track cycling across more than 430 miles of rolling hills, farmlands, mountains, deserts, canyons, and more. -- Cristina Goyanes
WalesRomantic ruins and craggy peaks dot this cinematic Celtic nation
The fourth country of the United Kingdom, Wales is a gem in Great Britain’s Celtic crown. It’s home to some of the most spectacular and well-preserved ruins in the world, from the spooky gothic cloisters of Tintern Abbey (William Wordsworth, anyone?) to the formidable 13th century Caerphilly Castle, which rises above the mists of the moat surrounding it.
But Wales is more than a heap of medieval rocks. Snowdonia National Park sprawls wildly around breathtaking glacier lakes and mountains, including Snowdon, the country’s highest peak. A grand old-fashioned train runs all the way to the top, and if you’re after more adventure, the park has miles of trails to explore. The capital, Cardiff -- where Doctor Who is made -- is a cosmopolitan city with a salty, naval heritage; it’s also a great place to catch two of Wales’ most important traditions, opera and rugby. Almost everyone in Wales speaks English -- although they might be reluctant to in some rural areas in the northwest -- but the Welsh language is a spectacular thing in itself. Good luck figuring out how to ask for directions to Ysbyty Ystwyth or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. -- Liz Dodd
MozambiquePristine beaches, one-of-a-kind run-ins with wildlife, and relaxed vibes
Unlike other African countries, Mozambique’s Indian Ocean shoreline is largely uninhabited, so you might be the only person on the sand. Here, the land-bound safari is reimagined in the crystal waters: Explore the Limpopo River valley, or surf and reef dive off the coast of Tofo. You might even get close to one of the last surviving colonies of the gentle and endangered dugong (a relative of the manatee) living in the shallow waters.
Mozambique’s proximity to South Africa once made it a popular destination, but a devastating 15-year civil war discouraged tourism -- and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. The war ended in 1992, and Mozambique is still recovering, but these days, resorts abound. Learn more about Mozambique’s struggle for independence in the capital city of Maputo, where colonial-style architecture reveals its past, including the crumbling ruins of the 18th century Portuguese Fort of Sao Sebastiao. It stands in contrast to the country’s future, as seen in the new Fisheries Museum, a handsome modern construction detailing Mozambique’s seafaring history. -- Maridel Reyes
North MacedoniaA quirky, modern revival juxtaposed with the oldest bazaar in the Balkans
Wedged between Greece and several popular Balkan countries, North Macedonia might not be the "cradle of civilization" it advertises itself as, but it still gets short shrift by American tourists. Skopje, the once-humdrum capital of the former Yugoslav republic, is today spiked with giant statues and monumental faux-classical buildings. It sort of feels like North Macedonia managed to five-finger Caesars Palace in Vegas and drop it in the center of town. All told, there are around 50 new statues, including the 100-foot sculptures of Alexander the Great and his father, Phillip. Marble triumphal arches and sculpture-lined bridges compete for attention with the ancient Turkish bazaar -- one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the Balkan region and home to teashops, mosques, and modern museums.
All this makes for an amusing stroll around Skopje. Take a break to indulge in some ubiquitous grilled meat and a pint of beer, costing a mere few coins. Then head to Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest lakes in Europe, to relax in the ancient lakeside town of Ohrid. -- David Farley
TasmaniaAn eclectic mix of rural and rugged, wild and urban
Okay, so it’s not its own country, but Tasmania remains a world away from Mainland Australia. Located 150-miles south of the mainland, this Ireland-sized island transitioned from backwater to a low-stress, visitor-friendly paradise poised to blow up as the (Under) Down Under destination.
In the food-rich cosmopolitan city of Hobart, you'll find the Museum of Old and New Art, a marvel of the bizarre where, an ultra-tattooed still model redefines the meaning of still, a waterfall flashes timely words, trick-of-the eye exhibits test your balance, and entrees at the museum’s restaurant are served upon “living tables” of micro herbs and mosses. Buh-bye, comfort zone. Meanwhile, Tassie’s second city, Launceston (they call it “Lonnie”), is a quaint outpost spilling from a splendid river gorge. Temptations include a sweatshirt-friendly artificial-hormone-free steakhouse, an internationally acclaimed lager brewery tour and a sanctified craft beer hangout. It’s also a launch-point for the epic Bay of Fires Lodge Walk and the enthralling wukalina walk, Tasmania’s “new” ancient walkabout honoring the former penal colony’s Aboriginal legacy. -- Bruce Northam