There's a reason places like Hawaii, Iceland, Cancun and Yellowstone are wildly popular. But at some point, too many tourists can make it difficult to enjoy a destination's charms.
At a time when tourism is rapidly on the rise — a record 1.3 billion international tourists traveled in 2017 — why not swap an overrun destination for somewhere you can truly relax and call your own instead?
From wine country to Europe, national parks to the northern lights, here are our picks for places to skip — and where to head instead.
Northern Europe: Skip Amsterdam, Go to Hamburg
Canals are cool, and Amsterdam has 165 of them, spanned by 1,753 bridges. But too many tourists are swamping this European hot spot.
The compact Dutch city of fewer than 1 million residents is hosting 20 million tourists annually — including an increasing number of rowdy tourists in its 24-hour Red Light District. (There’s a reason the city’s deputy mayor recently said, “If the only reason for you to come to Amsterdam is to get drunk, to get stoned, don’t come.”)
Five hours away by train, Hamburg has less obnoxiousness, plus more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. Hamburgers are proud of their 2,496 bridges, more than any European city.
Here, you can walk narrow cobblestone streets in the Art Deco historic district and take in panoramic views from atop Elbephilharmonie, the striking new concert hall overlooking the port. Plus, the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's Red Light District, is one of Europe's most prominent...and has yet to be overrun with unruly out-of-towners.
America’s Parks: Skip Yellowstone, Go to Gates of the Arctic
Yellowstone National Park’s eruption is measured not just by Old Faithful’s steam jet, but in visitor numbers. The famous geyser spouts up to 184 feet high, spewing an impressive hot water show every 60 to 110 minutes to onlookers’ delight. But, in the northwest corner of Wyoming, mass tourism plagues the nation’s first national park at more than 4 million visitors per year.
Instead of joining bunches of humans to search out lone wolves, forego Yellowstone for Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. Located north of the Arctic Circle, it’s totally untouched by roads, trails and campsites. “Wander at will across 8.4 million acres of superlative natural beauty,” suggests the park service’s website. But do be proficient in backcountry survival skills, and do not expect cell phone service.
South America: Skip Machu Picchu, Go to Ciudad Perdida
Machu Picchu — the legendary, sprawling Incan citadel perched high in the Andes — is one of the world’s great ruins, attracting 1 million visitors year in and year out.
Unfortunately, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was never built to cope with such numbers, and now it’s a victim of its own magnetic popularity. In 2017, timed ticketing access was implemented, limiting the four-day trek to 500 per day to preserve the fragile ecosystem.
Alternatively, visit the “Lost City,” an ancient archaeological site deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Dating from the 9th century, it’s believed Ciudad Perdida could be 650 years older than Machu Picchu.
“Rediscovered” in the 1970s, the only way to get to the remote pre-Hispanic ruins known as “Teyuna” is on foot. Some consider this 4-, 5-, or 6-day trek through lush rainforest to be the best in South America.
Islands: Skip the Greek Islands, Go to Italy’s Aeolian Islands
Santorini has become a cliché. Massive cruise ships roll up one after another and honeymooners are a dime a dozen. Price are sky high, privacy is impossible and hotel pools are practically piled on top of one another.
Consider the small volcanic chain of seven Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily, kicked off the toe of Italy’s boot. Ferries frequently ply the Tyrrhenian Sea, connecting the islands to one another and to the port terminal at Messina. Go island hopping by chartered boat for views of looming volcanoes, intriguing landscapes and quick dips into cobalt seas.
Alternatively, hike Stromboli; it’s active and it’s epic. For a luxury stay, Capofaro has pretty villas and a lovely pool at a Relais & Chateaux property with its own chef’s garden, vineyards of sweet Malvasia grapes stretching down to the sea, and views of the historic lighthouse.
Spain: Skip Barcelona, Go to Granada
Since hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona has seen its star rise higher with each passing year. This beautiful Mediterranean city with enviable weather has a wealth of engaging architecture, lovely parks and an urban beachfront.
Topping it all, La Sagrada Familia, the towering unfinished Gaudi masterpiece, draws sellout crowds daily. But with this popularity comes 30 million visitors annually, which is not sustainable for the Catalan capital of just 1.6 million residents. During summer peak season, anti-tourism graffiti and protests have popped up in recent years.
Swap the sea for the mountains, without sacrificing cultural appeal, by heading to Spain’s Andalusian city of Granada, the land of a thousand castles, including Alhambra. Set against a backdrop of Sierra Nevada’s high peaks, the high-profile fortified palace complex is a must for history buffs and those who appreciate its astonishing Moorish architecture.
California: Skip Napa Valley, Go to Paso Robles
Napa Valley has perfect weather, rolling hills of vineyards, luxury spa resorts fed by thermal springs, and sumptuous Michelin-starred dining experiences. Add the best wines this side of Bordeaux, and it’s easy to understand why this destination has become so wildly popular...and why it’s also become saddled with epic traffic jams and overpriced wineries.
Instead, drive 200 miles south, following the Pacific Coast Highway for megawatt coastal views. Stop in beautiful Carmel-by-the-Sea, where a dozen wine-tasting rooms get you in the sip-and-swirl mood. Drive on to admire Big Sur, lolling elephant seals, sweet seaside villages and magnificent Hearst Castle along the California Highway 1 Discovery Route.
Finally, turn east to Paso Robles, a less trafficked and more affordable wine region with exemplary Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône-style varietals. The town’s restaurants rival Napa’s, and the coast is a short four miles away.
Northern Lights: Skip Iceland, Go to Norway
“Overexposed” doesn’t just refer to Iceland’s clothing-optional thermal spas. Known for being both crowded and costly, the capital city of Reykjavik has been the flavor of the month for so many months that spending $500 for a hotel room and $15 for a beer is beginning to sound normal.
In Norway, you can likely cut the cost of a domestic beer by one-third. And because the country has more than 15 times the population of Iceland, tourists are easily absorbed into the daily fabric. If the sight of Aurora Borealis lighting up the northern sky is on your bucket list, Norway is also a solid pick.
To get there, choose a direct flight on the popular long-haul, low-cost carrier, Norwegian Air, and head for lively Tromsø in the Arctic Circle.
Islands: Skip Hawaii, Go to Puerto Rico
Hawaii tourism numbers have reached critical levels, and not only at the Waikiki Elvis tribute dinner show. The metrics say Hawaii is full to the brim for much of the year, hosting nearly 10 million visitors annually. Air seat capacity keeps rising and some hotels are running above 90 percent occupancy. In Maui, a luxury resort stay means looking at $600 a night, plus the requisite poolside Mai Tai.
Go to Puerto Rico instead. There’s still no need for a passport and you’ll be supporting U.S. jobs and tourism receipts, especially important in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. An authentic colonial blend of intriguing cultures with beautiful beaches and rainforests ensures you won’t be disappointed.
Schedule a visit from mid-April through June, before the rainy season begins.
Indonesia: Skip Bali, Go to Raja Ampat
Sure, Bali is beautiful, but its overly Instagrammed beaches are also overrun with tourists. Equally stunning are the other 17,000-plus islands in the Indonesian archipelago — including the equator-straddling Raja Ampat Islands.
In this far-flung corner of West Papua, sparsely populated, lush forested islands surrounded by white sand beaches lead to translucent shimmery seas where divers flock. According to Conservation International, surveys suggest that Raja Ampat has the most diverse marine life in the world.
Keep in mind, getting there is part of the experience. Pack light and investigate short-haul flights in and out of Jakarta to Domine Eduard Osok Airport in Sorong, as there is no international service to Raja Ampat.
England: Skip Stonehenge, Go to Avebury
In Great Britain, it’s difficult to find a better example of overtourism than the prehistoric monolith rings at Stonehenge. Newer policies mean you cannot just wander in, but must buy advance tickets for timed admission and shuttles to and from the visitor center 1.5 miles from the site. Once there, ropes keep spectators back from the monument. Stone Circle Access requires a separate ticket for very early or late entry, allowing only 30 people per session.
Some people are surprised to learn that Stonehenge isn’t the only Neolithic henge monument in Wiltshire. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site located 25 miles from Stonehenge, Avebury has three stone circles, including the world’s largest. Other than the parking, it’s free to enter Avebury, and you can wander at will amongst the sheep.
Mexico: Skip Cancun, Go to Mazatlan
Cancun is a planned tourist community on the Yucatan peninsula. Built from scratch in the 1970s, the resort destination is now overbuilt; even the beach is unromantically called “Hotel Zone.” The tiny island strip sees nearly 6 million visitors a year and is headed for 9 million before 2025, according to tourism officials.
Go to Mazatlan instead. Known as “The Pearl of the Pacific,” this is the capital of big game fishing. Find authenticity over dinner al fresco served at a sidewalk table in Old Mazatlan, surrounded by 19th-century landmarks such as Teatro Ángela Peralta and the towering basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
If nightlife is what you’re after, Mazatlan has a vibrant local scene in Zona Dorada, the Golden Zone, right beside the beach.
European Wine Country: Skip Tuscany, Go to Brda in Slovenia
Tuscany likely conjures visions of a 15th-century sun-splashed villa tucked away at the end of a winding road lined by stately cypress trees. But in reality, you’re more likely to encounter medieval piazzas crammed with sightseeing coaches.
Escape to the Municipality of Brda in the Goriška region, the "Tuscany of Slovenia." Situated midway between the Alps and the Adriatic, rolling landscapes are planted with vines and orchards, and cypress-tree-lined roads lead the way to hilltop villages.
Only five miles from the Italian border and 15 miles from the sea, this ancient wine-growing region is sprinkled with family-owned farmhouse homesteads where traditional local dishes are shared with visitors.