As of July 2019, I officially hit my fifty-country mark.
I have visited most countries in Western Europe, a few in Eastern Europe, a good chunk of Southeast Asia, and have seen four of the seven world wonders. I’ve stepped foot on six continents, and have climbed crazy mountains ranging from Rainbow Mountain to Kilimanjaro. Many people have asked me, “So, what’s next?” and while I am interested in touristic spots I haven’t seen yet such as Iceland and Costa Rica, my brain has been telling me to go visit the unknown. Here are ten unconventional destinations on my mind for upcoming travels:
I know it’s absurd for an American traveler to have any desire to visit Iran, let alone a solo female American. After all, on the US travel advisory website, Iran is rated in code red at a level four: “Do Not Travel.” Several US citizens have been detained for unknown reasons, and the US government is unable to provide emergency assistance to US citizens in Iran. This obviously adds a huge damper on the safety and security of travel throughout this Middle-Eastern nation. So, where does the fear end and the interest begin? I have been following several travel bloggers and researchers for years now, both via social media and several news sites. While facts remain facts in that there are indeed a few US citizens currently in detainment in Iran, most American travelers leave unscathed with nothing but a new outlook on a misconceived country thanks to the media. If you google image search Iran, immediately you will see photos of a burning American flag, protests, bombs, missiles. If you talk to people who have been there, and look at their personal photos and hear their personal experiences, you will see anything from pink lakes to stunning mosques to even snowy mountainous regions. So, ok, the landscape is cool, but, what about the people? Won’t they hate me because I’m American? While I cannot say from personal experience, I have been told the hospitality in Iran is unlike and above anywhere else. I can say that I have personally experienced the best hospitality in predominantly-Muslim nations much over their Western counterparts.
Tip: As an American traveler, both a tourist visa and a hired guide are a requirement months in advance.
Check out: Instagram @iranian_nomad , an Iranian local who shows you all parts of the country to break the stigma against his homeland.
For a “less risqué” destination, but one that is maybe one-hundred times harder and more expensive to get to, my eye is on Tonga, a South Pacific nation that is one of the least visited in the entire world. There are several countries in the South Pacific that fall under least visited (I imagine because they are so expensive and difficult to get to, as mentioned), so why Tonga? Tonga became known as “The Friendly Islands” thanks to the warm welcome Captain James Cook received on his first visit back in 1773. Like most islands in the South Pacific, there is a vast amount of activities ranging from snorkeling to scuba diving to bird watching to kayaking. After spending winter in Antarctica, humpback whales migrate to Tonga to give birth to their young, making swimming with humpback whales a huge attraction. If you want to visit this tiny island nation, plan accordingly as there are only twenty-two flights a week, either from New Zealand, Fiji, or Australia.
Tip: If you want to swim with the humpback whales, visit between June and October.
Not to be confused with the US state, Georgia is a country between Turkey, Russia, and The Black Sea. Though Georgia was founded in 1008, a tumultuous history led to occupancy by The Soviet Union, and the country became fully independent in 1991. Due to its location, the landscapes vary from rocky beaches to mountainous terrains. Its capital Tsibilsi is known for stunning views that can be seen by either walking or taking a cable car. It is, apparently, incredibly affordable and not over-flooded with tourists yet. I have noticed an influx of interest in this country just based on my own nomadic friends (in the past year, I have seen four of my friends travel to Georgia, and prior to that, no one had ever even mentioned it) so I’d say if you’re interested, head over there before it becomes the next Iceland! Georgia also has a bustling food scene and is one of the oldest wine regions in the entire world.
Tip: A national delicacy is called Khachapuri, a piece of bread shaped like a boat, filled with cheese and egg. Don’t leave the country without trying one!
Check out: Instagram @thegeorgiangirl , a Georgia-native who is now traveling the world.
“I’ve been to Africa!” says me who has only been to Kenya and Tanzania. Africa is the largest continent with fifty-four countries, so while seeing two is more than seeing zero, I realize I have a long way to go before admitting to properly exploring this continent. Truthfully, two years ago, I had never heard of Senegal, had never been introduced to any of its influence, and like most tourists, when I thought of Africa, I could only name a few countries. (I have since educated myself and can now name every country on this amazing continent and pinpoint them on the map.) I used to live with some friends in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and they informed me of a restaurant nearby called Café Rue Dix. It was then I was introduced to Senegalese cuisine when I ordered thieboudienne, a spicy fish, rice, and vegetable dish native to the country. The flavors were unlike anything I have ever experienced, and I immediately began to research Senegal. I learned it was a country in Western Africa known for its vivid colors and lively music. I saw photos of pink lakes (I have a thing for colorful bodies of water), surfers, and even baobab trees that I was made to believe only existed in Madagascar. Out of this entire list, Senegal is probably the place I plan to get to first due to sheer desire.
Tip: Senegal is a Francophone country, so learn a few French phrases before heading to this vivid nation.
Check out: Instagram @senegalphotography
Imagine a more secretive and much more luxurious North Korea, and you will find Turkmenistan. The capital of Ashgabat is allegedly a bizarre city with marble-paved streets and over-the-top statues. While it is ranked lowest in the world for freedom of press, there are a few things the outside world knows. It is one of the most oppressive countries to reside in, from all aspects of life, and is run by dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The few times he has been in media, he is known to show off: from lifting a golden rod over his head to posing in front of fancy cars. Jennifer Lopez was invited to sing “Happy Birthday” to him in 2013, in which she did, and later she apologized for being unaware of the human rights’ crisis currently happening in the country. Berdymukhamedov is so bizarre, in fact, he gave Vladimir Putin a dog for his birthday one year. It’s safe to say he gives Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump a run for their money when it comes to unstable men abusing power! Turkmenistan’s most famous landmark is “The Gates of Hell,” or the Darvaza gas crater. It is a natural gas field that was intentionally set on fire by geologists in 1971 to prevent the spread of methane gas. It has allegedly been burning ever since. Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries to enter as a tourist. A visa must be obtained at least six weeks in advance, and a hired guide is required for all travelers.
Tip: If you dare try to enter this unknown country, save a lot of money. It was recently voted to be the most expensive tourist destinations for expats.
Antarctica is the only continent I have yet to step foot on, so you better believe it’s on my list of unusual destinations I’m interested in visiting! The most common way to get to Antarctica is by finding your way down to the most southern part of South America, in either Chile or Argentina, and then taking a twenty-four hour cruise through the notoriously rough Drake Passage. There are several tour options in regards to getting down there: from luxury cruises to environmentally conscious adventures to taking a very expensive flight if you get seasick easily. Regardless, traveling to the most remote continent on earth is not a cheap feat. I have been searching how to get down there for years, and the cheapest excursion I’ve seen is a ten-day trip for around $5,000, and this does not include the flight down to Ushuaia. However, it is possible to plan ahead and set up a payment plan for a trip to the seventh continent as many tour operating companies know it’s costly for the average folk.
Tip: You can only visit Antarctica in the winter (November-February).
Check out: Quark Expeditions and National Geographic Cruises have great prices and packages.
7. Svalbard, Norway
While mainland Norway appeals to many travelers alike, it seems the majority have never heard of its northernmost counterpart, Svalbard. Svalbard is a quirky little place, to say the least. There are more polar bears than people, so it is mandated as a resident to walk around with a shotgun. No one is permitted to give birth or die there (imagine controlling either of those), due to permafrost. Only 2700 people reside there. There are two towns, Longyearben which is Norwegian controlled, and Barentsburg which is Russian controlled. To me, the most unique and interesting fact is the world’s official “doomsday” vault can be found here. It is the “Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” locked deep in a mountain with all of the world’s most vital crops in case we ever experience, well, doomsday.
Tip: Because you’re so far north, determine if you’d rather have it be daylight for the majority of the day or pure darkness.
Check out: Norwegian Air has daily flights to Svalbard from mainland Norway.
I first toyed with the idea of going to Ethiopia when I found out Ethiopian Airways allowed an extended layover of the capital, Addis Ababa, in which they’d throw in a free hotel room. This is a tactic airlines often use to increase tourism. My plans fell through and I ended up going with a different airline, but since then, I have been fixated on visiting this northeastern African nation. While it was a bummer to miss out on that flight, I have taken it as a blessing in disguise, as Ethiopia appears to be much more than just the capital. In fact, it is the world’s twenty-eighth largest country by landmass. Due to Ethiopia’s size, it has an array of wildlife and climate. Over eight-hundred species of birds and even an endangered Ethiopian wolf can be found in this vast nation. Ethiopia is an ever-growing country, with its population growing from 38 million in 1983 to 109 million in 2018. You can find landscapes ranging from waterfalls to several national parks to one of the world’s most stunning landscapes: the Danakil Depression, the hottest (on average) place on planet earth. Ethiopian’s cuisine is not to be missed either; you won’t be using any utensils and instead, will be given injera with every meal. You take a little piece of injera (thin bread), and use it to pick up whatever it is you would like to eat!
Tip: Public transit is not widely available in Ethiopia, so it is recommended to hire either a guide or a private driver.
Check out: Look up a local Ethiopian restaurant in your neighborhood, and check out the cuisine. National food often leads me to wanting to visit a place. My personal favorite in Brooklyn is Ghenet.
9. Iraqi Kurdistan
Kurdistan is a region extended over Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, occupied by Kurdish people. They have no government and are essentially a stateless nation. Its largest city and capital, Erbil, lies in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning if you travel to Erbil, you will have technically traveled to Iraq. Erbil international airport is one of Iraq’s busiest airports, and has connecting flights to cities such as Germany, Turkey, Jordan, The Netherlands, and many other destinations around the world. Despite being in the middle of a landlocked warzone, Kurdistan is quickly surpassing the rest of Iraq in regards to development and infrastructure. There is an array of trendy restaurants, bars, and cafes. Being predominantly Muslim, you won’t be able to find alcohol everywhere, but it is still attainable in certain Christian neighborhoods. Overall, Kurds are amongst the least religious people in the middle east and have a liberal attitude towards religion. Unlike its Iraqi counterparts, travel throughout Kurdistan is overall considered safe, with its last terrorist attack taking place in 2014. However, it is strongly advised to frequently check what’s going on in the region, due to its geographical location.
Tip: Citizens of most countries are given a free stamp on arrival, but have a mandated blood test to check for Hepatitis C and HIV (you can obtain this either before entering or upon arrival), so be prepared for a lengthy wait at the airport. The Iraqi-Kurdistan visa cannot be used to travel through other parts of Iraq.
Check out: Instagram @baderkhanamerbadran, an Iraqi-Kurd traveling around the world to show he’s a “tourist, not a terrorist.”
10. North Korea
What list of bizarre places around the world would be complete without including the infamous North Korea? US citizens have officially been banned from travel to this mysterious region after Donald Trump put a ban on it. This occurred after US citizen Otto Warmbier was sent home from North Korean detention in a vegetative state, only to die less than a week later. Trump declared it officially unsafe for Americans (before, we could obtain visas and go on a short-term guided trip). From what I have been told by folks who have managed to travel to this off-the-radar destination, North Koreans live a “normal life.” This mean that there are restaurants, bars (and yes, they can drink), live music, and shops. I cannot speak on personal experience as to whether the people appear to be happy, brainwashed, told to be happy because the tour guides show you what they want to show you, etc., I am simply relaying what I have been told. Maybe one day, I can find out for myself! The only way to enter North Korea is through a guided tour, and you must enter from China. The prices range anywhere from $500 to $2500 depending on quality and length of stay. There are many rules you must obtain while visiting North Korea, and you’ll want to stay well within those rules to not end up like Otto.
Tip: If you’re too nervous to take the risk of going into this unknown territory, head to South Korea and plan a day trip from Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). From there, you will be able to physically see North Korea (the only thing separating you will be a bridge) and learn quite a bit about the history.
Check out: Here’s an extensive list for rules to abide by in North Korea.
This lesser-known Eastern European destination is famous for its ‘Dracula’ Castle – but in fact there’s much more to the country than that. The Carpathian Mountains take up 1/3 of the country’s surface and are pretty wild – Romania is a great hiking destination but also good for wildlife watching and tracking. It’s home to the biggest brown bear population in Europe! The capital, Bucharest, is a city of contracts mixing communist architecture with Western lifestyle and Latin blood, while the cities of Brasov, Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca attract many tourists thanks to their impressive medieval architecture and laidback feeling.
There are many day trips from Brasov you can book to explore top tourist attractions such as Transfagarasan Highway or Sighisoara Citadel and the villages of Transylvania, so the city is a good place to set up base for a couple of days. Oh, and Romanian food? Simple or fatty, heavy on meat or vegetarian, hearty and made with organic, homegrown vegetables!
Kaitlyn has been traveling internationally for 10 years.