Wanting to travel and see the world in all its beauty and diversity is a frequent dream for a lot of people. Different cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking found in every corner of the world can broaden the mind of any traveler. Each continent is different, not just in geographical terms, but in almost everything else. Natural wonders made by Mother Nature herself are what gave the residents their inspiration for what they later built. Without any further ado, here are 10 places around the world which, while a bit off the beaten track, may be exactly the destinations you’re looking for.
10. The Small Island of Procida in Italy
Not surprisingly, Italy makes it on this list. Being among the most beautiful countries in the world, Italy has some truly amazing places that are full of history, culture, and tradition. Unfortunately, this brings with it the drawback of being completely packed with tourists. Having to fight your way through the crowds is fun for no one, so you’re basically left with three choices. You either visit Italy in winter, go to a place that isn’t so interesting in the first place, or you can go the island of Procida.
Besides having to take a ferry over there, which is fun in its own right, you get to see true Italy without having to deal with the insane numbers of tourists. The Bay of Naples’ smallest island is also its best kept secret. This is the best place to explore on foot. With the exception of August, when people flock to its beaches by the thousands, Procida offers some truly picturesque sites and hidden Italian treasures, both culturally and architecturally. You’ll also have an amazing view of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the background. Not known by many is that, besides Mount Vesuvius – which completely wiped Pompeii off the map back in 79 AD – another larger and far more dangerous super-volcano, the Campi Flegrei Caldera, lies just beneath the Bay of Naples.
9. Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal
Not far away from Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon, within the historical town of Sintra, lies a particularly interesting estate, filled to the brim with secrets and mysteries. Though it’s had many owners throughout its existence, it never lost its appeal. Built in 1900 by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, the palace combines Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance features, and is sometimes known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire,” after its former owner’s nickname. But while the palace itself is stunning in its own right, filled with all sorts of architectural details like gargoyles perched high up on the rooftops, the really fascinating features are located underground.
Two deep wells, dug deep beneath the earth, with beautifully designed, spiral staircases going all the way to the bottom. These wells, however, were never intended for water collection, but rather for some sort of mysterious initiation rites. Sintra, and indeed the whole of Portugal, are strongly linked with the Masonic order, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. The entire estate grounds are comprised of beautiful gardens, lakes, grottos, fountains, and an enigmatic tunnel system that joins the two wells, more commonly known as “Inverted Towers.”
8. Sapanta Merry Cemetery in Romania
Somewhere close to the border with Ukraine, on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the Transylvanian region of Romania, a small village of no more than 3,200 people exists. Still following a rudimentary way of life, not particularly changed by the technological age we’re living in now, these people have developed a somewhat “merry” way at looking at life, death, and the afterlife. Being a Christian Orthodox people, the villagers from Sapanta bury their dead in a totally unique fashion, contrary to their stern religious teaching. Each deceased person within their cemetery has a brightly colored cross, made out of oak, depicting some of their most memorable traits, as well as their flaws, in the funniest manner.
Some 800 or more such carved monuments exist, offering the visitor a true “festival of color,” depicting the dead, either in life, or at the moment of their death, and accompanied by a plain, yet amusing poem, most of the time apologizing for their simple way of life. Similar to their owners, the images are simple and rudimentary, depicting either women spinning yarn, farmers on their most prized tractor, or a musician playing the local three-stringed cello. One poem among the many goes, “One more thing I loved very much, To sit at a table in a bar, Next to someone else’s wife.” The rest, you have to find out for yourself.
7. The Chand Baori Stepwell in India
Built sometime in the 9th century AD by King Chanda, the Chand Baori stepwell is located in the Abhaneri village of Rajasthan. Unique to India, there are an estimated 3,000 such wells throughout the northern part of the country. This one, however, is the largest and most beautifully ornate one. Going 13 stories deep, the well is descends some 65 feet into the ground and is adorned on three of its four sides by over 3,500 narrow steps, arranged in perfect symmetry.
Back in its day, Chand Baori offered the locals a reliable source of fresh water, since the entire region is “plagued” with a scorching dry climate almost all year. Even if the monsoons wash over every six months, the water disappears almost as fast as it falls from the sky. Its large opening was used to catch as much rain as possible, as well as to let it fill with ground water. The townsfolk used to sit around the stepwell and cool off during the summer days, as temperatures at the base were at least several degrees lower than at the surface.
The steps themselves form a mesmerizing geometrical pattern, while the pavilions have niches adorned with beautiful and intricate Indian sculptures. There is even a royal residence with rooms for the King and the Queen, as well as a stage for the performing arts. Today the water at the bottom is green and unsuited for drinking, but for a long period of time, it was the lifeline for all the inhabitants of the region, many animals included.
6. Popeye’s Village in Malta
The Mediterranean island nation of Malta is home to a small community known as Sweethaven Village. This place also goes by another name: Popeye’s Village. Not an historical settlement per se, Sweethaven was built as a film set for the 1980 Robin Williams movie, Popeye. It has since become a tribute to the popular cartoon character, as well as an open air tourist attraction and museum. Besides its picturesque setting, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that Popeye the Sailor himself, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Swee’Pea, and Wimpy, all walk the streets of this tiny village. A perfect vacation spot for kids, as you can go on joy rides, visit play houses, puppet shows, and cinema sessions featuring the film.
There’s also a mini golf course and a free wine tasting for adults, as well as face painting sessions, balloon modeling, storytelling, open-air barbeques, and all sorts of other crafts for everyone. Depending on the season, there are water trampolines, play pools, and boat rides during the summer, and a Christmas Parade along with Santa’s toy town in December. A huge breakwater was built in Anchor Bay, in order to protect Sweethaven Village from high seas. Over eight tons of nails hold it together, and more than 2,000 gallons of paint were used to make it look so “cartoony.”
5. Putra Mosque in Malaysia
Overlooking the man-made, but scenic, Putrjaya Lake in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putra Mosque is arguably among the most beautiful and definitely the most modern mosques in the world. Built in 1999, it sits next to the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office. What sets it apart from its counterparts is its truly interesting and unique architectural style, which harmoniously blends Islamic motifs together with many traditional designs. The pinkish dome is made out of rose-tinted granite, and it can easily accommodate 15,000 worshipers at any given time. Its base is similar to the King Hassan Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Its minaret is influenced by the design of the Sheikh Omar Mosque in Baghdad, and at 380 feet high, it’s without a doubt the tallest such structure in the entire region.
The Prayer Hall, the Sahn, is decorated with some truly elegant water features and motifs, making it a quiet and relaxing prayer space. Within it, there are 12 columns propping up the 118 foot (in diameter) dome. The mimbar (pulpit) and mehrab (niche that denotes the direction of Mecca) are adorned with khat or Islamic calligraphy. Putra Mosque is capable of incorporating Malaysian, Persian and Arab-Islamic architectural designs in a harmonious and elegant house of worship, pleasing both locals and tourists alike.
4. Djenne-Djenno in Mali
Inhabited as early as 250 BC, the Niger River Delta is home to a “typical African city.” Made entirely out of clay, the town of Djenne-Djenno quickly became an important trade hub in the trans-Saharan gold market. Built on small hills within the Delta itself, the Bozo people were able to escape the marshes and floods provided yearly by the rainy season. In fact, these people were proven to be cultivating wild rice in the region, way before Djenne-Djenno was even built. Further archaeological evidence points to a continuous human presence on the site up until the 14th century, when the majority of people relocated to the nearby town of Djenne, built in the 11th century. But up until then, the city, and palace itself, acted as real centers of power in their region.
With King Koumboro’s conversion to Islam in the 13th century, the grand palace at the center of the 120 acre complex was converted into a mosque. At the beginning of every April, the people living in Djenne come together in a truly amazing local ritual. Since the clay that makes up all of Djenne-Djenno is easily washed away during the rainy season, the locals engage in adding a fresh layer of mud across the entire surface of the Grand Mosque.
3. Ulan-Ude in Russia
As a split in Russia’s Christian Orthodox Church took place back in the 1650s, a group of people known as “Old Believers” had to flee their homes into Siberia in order to practice their religion. Officially founded in 1666 by a group of Cossacks as a fortress, Udinskoye (now Ulan-Ude) soon enough became an important trading town, due to its location along the tea-caravan route from China via Troitskosavsk (now Kyakhta). Up until 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the town was closed to foreigners due to the military activities taking place there.
Today, however, things have changed for the better, and Ulan-Ude is home to some 400,000 inhabitants, happily welcoming whoever wants to pay them a visit. Being so far away from the capital city of Moscow and, in fact, the western part of the country, Ulan-Ude harbors a truly unique architecture. With over 20% of the population being of Mongolian descent, this can clearly be seen in the style of the buildings. Besides the many fun and refreshingly exotic sites that can be found throughout the town, just 60 miles north there is the mighty Lake Baikal, which in itself offers an amazing experience.
2. Ouro Preto in Brazil
Ouro Preto (Black Gold), in Brazil’s Minas Gerais province, is a small town reminiscent of the country’s golden age in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the many churches, buildings, bridges, and fountains are a permanent link to its glorious past. Being rich in gold and other resources, the region of Minas Gerais was littered with mines, and Ouro Preto was its capital from 1720 until 1897. Perched on the steep slopes and hills of the Vila Rica (Rich Valley), the town has a picturesquely irregular layout, following the bends and turns of the valley itself.
The town was also the symbolic center of the Inconfidência Mineira in 1789, a Brazilian independence movement, and home to the many Brazilian Baroque artists of the time. Due to the isolation of the region in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the economic stagnation of the same period, Ouro Preto kept many of its original colonial constructions and general architecture intact. As a result, the entire town is now a World Heritage Site and is under mandate for the preservation of its colonial façade. If you’re interested in seeing Brazil as it once was, hundreds of years ago, Ouro Preto is a good travel destination.
1. Toronto’s Sewers in Canada
We admit, this is an odd entry in this list, especially since it takes the number one spot. But admittedly, this list is written in no particular order, and Toronto’s sewage system is definitely something worth taking a look at. Though it’s not technically allowed, one can get access with a special permit and if accompanied by a public works employee. Or, you can find your own way in through the many manholes, maintenance shafts, spillways, and water treatment offshoots, if you really want to feel that adrenaline rush you’ve been missing in your everyday life.
Given the city’s well maintained waste management system, the passage network below its streets looks more like subway tunnels than anything else. This has resulted in a subculture of urban exploration around subterranean Toronto. The Garrison Creek Sewer, for example, flows underneath the west end of the city and was once, as the name suggests, a natural above ground water flow. But as Toronto got larger, the city council wisely decided to bury it underground, as it slowly became a “highway” for human waste and other…stuff. Given that it’s more than 100 years old, it’s surprising it’s in as good a shape as it is. Now, if you don’t have the means to go all the way to Paris and visit its underground catacombs, Toronto’s sewers might give you an idea of what it’s all about.