Ditch the crowds at these lesser-known lookalikes
If you’ve already visited (and loved) the likes of Venice, Barcelona or Machu Picchu, why not head to a doppelganger destination that offers a similar vibe without the crowds or the inflated cost?
Venice’s annual carnival floods its picturesque, canal-filled streets with a colourful haze of flamboyant costumes and elaborate masks. The already lively city will be busier than ever in February – with the elevated price tags to go with it. So, if you’ve already experienced a watery weekend in the floating city, why not visit Chioggia (pictured above) instead this year? It’s less than an hour’s drive south of Venice. Sometimes nicknamed Little Venice, Chioggia is built on a network of canals inside the Venetian lagoon and oozes the same Italian fishing-port charm found further north – with none of the overtourism.
If that’s whet your appetite, there are plenty of other lesser known but equally incredible destinations across the globe that you can visit over their crowded counterparts, especially if you’ve been to the big hitters before. Here’s our pick of the places that effortlessly compete with some of the world’s most popular places but aren’t – yet – as widely known.
Try Grenada over Martinique, Caribbean
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Martinique is often seen as the Caribbean’s foodie hotspot, but less visited Grenada has just as much to offer when it comes to eating well. The Spice Isle has been exporting nutmeg, turmeric, cinnamon and more for centuries, and these make their way into everything from the chocolate made at Belmont Estate or the nearby Grenada Chocolate Company, to regional dish crab back (try it at local favourite BB’s Crabback in St George). Honey is also a Grenadian speciality, with the much garlanded Jessamine Eden Wellness Farms pitting its own against manuka.
A visit wouldn’t be complete without a stop at roadside eatery J’s Roti Shop. Rotis came to the island along with the Indian indentured labourers in the mid-1800s. Here, they’re handmade fresh each day – try one filled with lambie, the local name for conch, and wash it down with fresh pomegranate juice.
Epicureans should stay at The Calabash, a luxury hotel that also houses Rhodes Restaurant – one of Grenada’s best – and offers regular Grenadian rum tastings.
Visit Comillas instead of Barcelona, Spain
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Just like Barcelona, this small seaside town in northern Spain is known for its Modernism architecture. Set across verdant hilltops overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, Comillas is home to epic buildings by renowned Catalan architects such as Domènech i Montaner and Martorell i Montells. Not to mention the near-secret Gaudí masterpiece El Capricho. The brick villa, covered in ceramic stripes of sunflowers, was one of his earliest works. Tickets are from €7 – a third of the entry price to the Sagrada Família.
To see an even older home, the Cave of Altamira is less than a 30-minute drive away and is worth a visit (€3) for the prehistoric paintings inside. Continue driving east from there and you’ll stumble upon Michelin-starred restaurant El Nuevo Molino plonked in the unassuming village of Arce, where you can test out modern takes on traditional local fare. When it’s time to rest your head, turn in at the historic palace Hotel Palacio Guevara, a short drive from the town centre.
Head to Makrigialos over Santorini, Greece
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It’s always enticing to spend your holiday wafting around Santorini’s whitewashed villages, but the average price of a five-star hotel room there has risen by 110 per cent in the past three years. If you’re thinking about value but don’t want to sacrifice beatific Greek architecture and culture, a great alternative is Makrigialos on the island of Crete.
The gorgeous village offers Santorini-like, picture-perfect white houses (you can even stay in some), as well as some of the best beaches on the eastern side of the island, a Minoan villa from around 1600 BC, and traditional tavernas. Make sure to eat at Kalliotzina Tavern, a small spot with sea views that opened back in 1954. It serves Cretan food cooked by two sisters and overseen by their grandma – a true family affair that reflects the authentic atmosphere that permeates the entire place.
To round off the holiday, treat yourself to a stay at Daios Cove Luxury Resort Villas, just 50 minutes away by car.
Swap Machu Picchu for Choquequirao, Peru
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This Incan archaeological site in Southern Peru is often referred to as ‘mini Machu Picchu’ – but it’s actually considered to be better preserved and is a whopping three times bigger than its famous cousin. Despite this, Choquequirao is much less crowded, seeing only 8,000 visitors per year compared to the 1.5 million that descend on Machu Picchu. This might have something to do with the fact that it requires a strenuous two-day hike from Cuzco to reach it (and same to get back) but, if you’re interested in pre-Columbian ruins, the trip is a must-do.
Choquequirao, which means ‘cradle of gold’, is a former Incan city that was thought to have been built by emperor Pachacuti and extended by his son. Much of it is still hidden in the jungle, but visitors can explore a temple, buildings around the main square, and several terraces.
The closest accommodation to the ruins is Choquequirao Sanctuary Lodge. Stay in A-frame cabins with thatched roofs and fuel yourself for your expedition at the onsite restaurant.
Swap Arizona’s Grand Canyon for Cataract Canyon, Utah
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Avoid the crowds at the Grand Canyon and head upstream to go whitewater rafting at Cataract Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The two are both on the Colorado River, separated by just one canyon, but Cataract arguably offers the most thrilling section thanks to some 700 miles of undammed water and the Green River tributary. During early summer, you’ll find some of the most difficult rapids here. Thrill-seekers can also go biking, hiking, canyoneering and rappelling in the surrounding area.
Head to Viana do Castelo instead of Sintra, Portugal
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Everyone seems to know and love Sintra – including Madonna, who has a home here. But it means that the picturesque hillside town just outside Lisbon is always packed to the rafters with visitors clamouring for the ideal selfie spot. A quieter but equally beautiful destination is Viana do Castelo, closer to Porto. It offers similarly terracotta-roofed houses, plus beaches, monasteries and the 20th-century Byzantine Santuário de Santa Luzia. No Madonna, though (except in the churches).
For dinner, book a table at Tasquinha da Linda, a Bib Gourmand-recognised seafood restaurant. Or for something sweeter, visit Pastelaria Confeitaria Manuel Natário, a traditional bakery known for its Berliner doughnuts. Be prepared to queue for a fresh one.
If staying in town, you can’t go far wrong with Pousada Viana do Castelo, a hotel that’s perched on the Monte de Santa Luzia. Those wanting to stay in Porto and just pop by for a day trip should rest their head at the epically wine-themed hotel The Yeatman.
Visit Sukhothai instead of Ayutthaya, Thailand
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Sukhothai, a Unesco World Heritage site that’s 400km north of Bangkok, has far fewer visitors than the world-famous temples of Ayutthaya – yet still plenty of history to explore. As the first capital of Siam, it dates back to the mid-13th century. Rent bikes to get around the well-preserved ruins, wheeling past temples and huge Buddha statues to rival those at Ayutthaya as you go. Don’t miss its best-known, largest and most historically important temple, Wat Mahathat, which enshrines several large statues of the Buddha.
Sukhothai is not only notable for its ruins, but also for its speciality pork noodles served in a slightly sweet broth, kuaytiaw Sukhothai. Try them at family restaurant Jae Hae, which is synonymous with this dish. There’s a host of good hotels in the vicinity, but Sriwilai Sukhothai Resort & Spa overlooks peaceful rice fields and is less than 2km from the archaeological site.