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You probably have your ultimate ‘Bucket List Destinations’ that you have been dreaming of visiting and hope to get to one day. However, most of you have also visited places that were never on your list and somehow ended up in—whether by choice or not.
These are 11 travel destinations that we had little to no expectations before visiting. In fact, most of these places we expected to be duds, but thankfully they weren’t!
All of these places were expected our expectations and many became some of the best places we have ever visited! Read on to find out which places surprised us most!
1. Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava is a European capital that many people simply skip over because its small and so close to more popular travel destinations like Vienna, Austria and Budapest, Hungary. Now, these cities are 100% worth a visit too, but that doesn’t mean you should just skip Bratislava.
We actually stopped in Bratislava just because it was near these cities and decided to spend a night there. While we came with essentially no expectations, Bratislava simply blew us away.
It has all the beauty of Budapest and Vienna—at least in its Old Town—fewer tourists, and it’s less expensive. Plus, Slovak food is incredible!
If you are traveling in Eastern Europe and are looking to visit another country, take the time to stop and spend at least one day in Bratislava.
The small country of Belize has so much to offer travelers, but typically isn’t the first country people pick when visiting Central America or the Caribbean. While Costa Rica is beautiful, Belize is a fantastic surprising travel destination that will beg you to come back for a second visit.
Belize has both the rich, wild jungle of Central America and the picturesque beaches of the Caribbean, which makes it an ideal country for people looking to relax and do something adventurous.
The best part is that you can do both of these things in just one week in Belize. It’s such a small country that you can easily divide your week up to see all of what Belize has to offer.
Make sure to see the jungle, explore a cave used for Mayan sacrifices, relax on the beaches of Belize’s cayes, and snorkel in the second largest barrier reef in the world!
There are simply so many things to do in Belize, which is what makes it such a surprising travel destination for many people.
Before you visit, here are 9 things to know before you travel to Belize!
3. Tikal, Guatemala
Neighboring Belize, Tikal, Guatemala is another surprising travel destination that most people don’t know about.
One of the best things about visiting Tikal is that you can do it as a day trip from Belize. This way you can travel to two of the places on this list in one trip!
Tikal is a massive Mayan city that dates back to around 1000 BC. It had a population from about 10,000 to 100,000 people and was around until about 900 AD.
Tikal, Guatemala is one of the best places to see Mayan ruins in the world!
The photos really don’t even do it justice because it’s so massive and elaborate. In fact, there are a total of about 3,00 structures in Tikal, but only a small percentage have been uncovered.
Visiting Tikal from Belize is an absolute must-do if you are in Belize, and it’s obviously one of the best things to do in Guatemala too!
4. La Rioja, Spain
When most people visit Spain, the typically only go to the major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Granada, and while those cities are incredible, there are many smaller cities in Spain that will surprise you!
Chances are that if you’ve visited Spain, you had your fair share of Rioja wine, but did you actually consider visiting La Rioja, Spain where the wine is made?!
La Rioja is not heavily traveled by either foreign travelers or Spaniards, but it really such be! At least if you are into world class wine and some of the best food in Spain!
Logroño is the capital city of La Rioja, which is a region in Spain. It was awarded the title of the being the Gastronomic capital of Spain in the past and has one of the best pincho scenes in Spain on Calle Laurel.
For those unfamiliar, pinchos are essentially the tapas of northern Spain. It’s also spelled pintxos in the Basque Country—same pronunciation though.
Aside from pinchos on Calle Laurel, the region of La Rioja offers hundreds of unique wineries that range from huge and modern to traditional and family-run. Use your tastebuds as your guide through La Rioja, Spain as you explore this surprising destination in Spain!
Insider tip: visit in fall to see the colors changing in the vineyards😍
5. Badlands National Park
South Dakota is not the usual travel destination most people think of. In fact, most people forget about the Dakotas when naming all 50 states…
Even if you can name all 50 states, when thinking about visiting America’s national parks, more popular ones like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone seem to come to mind. However, South Dakota is home to a truly fantastic national park that is not overcrowded at all: Badlands National Park.
Badlands National Park kind of pops up out of the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, but its unique, otherworldly geography makes a real impression on its visitors.
One unique thing about Badlands is that it’s an open-hike park, which means you are allowed to hike anywhere you want!
If open-hiking and exploring the park isn’t your thing, there are some established trails you can use, including these 6 Best Hikes in Badlands National Park.
There’s also a great chance you’ll see wildlife just driving on Badlands Loop Road, including bison! The Loop Road goes through the entire park and has tons of pullouts with amazing views, which is great if you don’t want to hike in Badlands.
Badlands is also near Custer State Park and Devils Tower National Monument.
6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Speaking of the Dakotas, North Dakota is home to a Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which most people probably don’t even know exists.
Full honesty, we didn’t even know it existed until we saw it on the map and decided to stop on our drive through North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park surprised us mostly because of its wildlife, especially the feral horses and tons of bison!
Since this national park is not really visited much, the wildlife is really easy to spot and not scared away from places where the few humans are.
Even if you are just driving through North Dakota, stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and drive the loop road around to see wildlife and the natural beauty of the park. It will 100% be worth your while, especially if you already have a National Parks Pass!
7. Zagreb, Croatia
Croatia is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of surprising travel destinations as tons of people flood to its coastal towns, like Dubrovnik, but its inland capital of Zagreb is a true hidden gem!
Zagreb is Croatia’s biggest city and has so much to offer visitors, which we didn’t know until we happened to spend two days there. And truthfully, the only reason we stopped was to take a day trip to Plitvice Lakes from Zagreb.
FYI, visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park from Zagreb is absolutely worth it!
However, there are also a lot of things to do in Zagreb, including eating some of the best Croatian food you’ll have: Strukli.
Strukli is a northern Croatian food that you most likely won’t find if you just hop over to the coast.
Zagreb also boasts the Museum of Broken Relationships, a great Old Town, and prices that cannot be beat by the rest of Croatia.
It’s really the perfect city to visit for one or two days for an experience where there are not many tourists, something definitely hard to come by in Croatia!
Not convinced, check out all our posts on Zagreb!
8. Bayonne and Biarritz, France
Bayonne and Biarritz sit in southwest France in the French Basque Country and are two polar opposite cities that are only about 20 minutes apart, but are connected by a distinct, common culture.
Most travelers think of the Spain when they think of the Basque Country as it’s one of the most famous regions in Spain. But did you know that the Basque Country actually continues into southern France as well?
Biarritz is the coastal destination many will think of with its beautiful beaches and grand hotels, but Bayonne offers just as much, if not more!
Bayonne is the more industrial, inland city that’s a little more rough around the edges. Visiting Bayonne will really give you a glimpse into the culture fo the area with its Cidrerie (cider houses), bars, and some of the best chocolate in the world!
Biarritz is worth the visit, but you if you really want to delve into the Basque culture and travel somewhere more off the beaten path, visit Bayonne!
9. Meow Wolf Santa Fe, New Mexico
No, this is not a typo.
Meow Wolf is continuously listed as one of the best things to do in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but even though we were excited to visit, it far surpassed our wildest expectations!
Meow Wolf is an interactive art exhibit where you can openly explore a gigantic world artists put together. There are secret rooms and tunnels, hidden messages, and a seemingly endless amount of things to explore.
We spent 2 hours there and could have continued to wander around for more! Each area is so incredibly unique and has so much depth that with the art, puzzles, and small intricacies it continues to leave the mind with more mysteries than you came in with.
If you visit Albuquerque or Santa Fe, you NEED to visit Meow Wolf, which is why it makes this list of surprising travel destinations.
There is now a Meow Wolf in Las Vegas and one opening in Denver too!
Plenty of people visit San Francisco every single year, but not as many make the trip out to tour Alcatraz. While most of this is probably because there is so much to do in San Francisco, others probably just don’t think the Alcatraz tour is worth it.
Well we’re here to tell you that doing the Alcatraz tour is absolutely worth it! The rich and spooky history of the island makes it a must for any history buff or traveler fascinated with dark tourism.
The prison on the island sits today just as it was left, so it actually feels like you were inside Alcatraz when you take the tour.
Yes, it’s a little pricey. And yes, taking the boat there isn’t the most fun, but at least you get to see San Francisco from the bay!
11. Sloth Trail in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Last on our list is a surprising destination within a very unsurprising one.
Costa Rica is well-traveled and was not a surprise travel destination to us as we had high hopes when visiting. Included in our high hopes for visiting Costa Rica was seeing wildlife, and specifically a sloth.
But although we saw plenty of other wildlife, we struck out on spotting a sloth when visiting Monteverde and Tamarindo.
So when we arrived in La Fortuna, we decided to check out the Bogarin Sloth Trail. It is a large piece of private land that more or less promised seeing a sloth on their tour—at least when you hired a guide.
While skeptical because we didn’t want to be supporting a zoo, we were blown away to learn that it was actually a nature reserve where they were reclaiming land that was once rainforest that had been torn down to make fields.
The Bogarin Sloth Trail in La Fortuna, Costa Rica is rebuilding the rainforest so native species can have their habitat back, and it’s going really well! They have been restoring the rainforest here for over 20 years, and you can’t even tell that it used to be a cattle field!
Aside from the eco-friendly nature of the La Fortuna sloth trail, it is an incredible place to see sloths! Perhaps one of the best places to see sloths in Costa Rica!
Make sure to hire the guide though! Without the guide, we don’t think we would have spotted any. Plus, they can point out other wildlife and give you a detailed history of the area and Costa Rica.