10 alternative attractions in the world's top tourist destinations, from Utah to Sicily to Galicia in Spain

Füssen in Germany is an alternative to the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle, and an example of attractions to be found off the beaten track in the world’s most visited countries.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Huge pent-up demand for international travel means that, when all pandemic-related travel restrictions are removed, the world’s alpha attractions are likely to be even busier than they were in pre-coronavirus times.

For those who would prefer fewer crowds, here’s an alternative sightseeing suggestion for each of the planet’s 10 most visited countries.

Disneyland, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre rank highest on the to-do lists of visitors to France, but as Paris may soon be packed with travel-starved tourists, let’s head to the French Basque Country (Pays Basque) instead.

Straddling the border between Spain and France, at the western edge of the Pyrenees, the Basque Country offers awe-inspiring natural landscapes, mountains and forests of beech and fir.

The French Basque Country is known for buildings painted in traditional dark red and white.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Drivers dodge sheep on rural roads that lead to villages where firewood is stacked in neat piles beside houses painted in traditional dark red and white.

Track down a bed-and-breakfast, order a hearty Axoa d’Espelette stew and congratulate yourself on being half a country away from Mickey Mouse and Co.

Scenic roads lead past rocky bays and uncrowded beaches in Galicia.
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When Spain throws open its doors to tourists, attractions such as the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, and the Alhambra, in Granada, will be swarming with international travellers once again.

By contrast, Galicia welcomes in-the-know domestic visitors and pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. Hire a car and explore some of the Celtic province’s 1,660km (1,030 miles) of coastline. Scenic roads lead past rocky bays and uncrowded beaches. A 40-minute ferry connects Vigo to the Cíes Islands, where you’ll find powder-white Rodas Beach, once voted best in the world by a British newspaper.

For a bit more bustle, head for fishing towns such as Muros, where trawlers come and go, seagulls squawk and staff at pulperías (octopus restaurants) chalk up the daily specials. It’s Spain all right but far removed from the overdeveloped Mediterranean costas.

Rugged Utah attracts a lot of mountain bikers.
PHOTO: Pexels

Times Square, Central Park (both New York), Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon currently make do with locals and staycationers, but when foreign visitors return in numbers to the United States, claims of overtourism won’t be far behind. You could always opt for the quieter American (rather than Canadian) side of Niagara Falls and the less-visited north, rather than south, rim of the Grand Canyon.

A better idea would be to skip the Arizonan chasm altogether and set your sights on the rugged red-rock scenery of Utah instead. Base yourself in the charming desert town of Moab, the mountain biking capital of North America. If you’re not into cycling, sign up for a jeep safari, a rafting trip along the Colorado River or a Moab zip line.

Hikers will find plenty of scenic trails, not to mention Utah’s Mighty five National Parks (since we’re trying to escape the crowds, 1,366 sq km [527 square mile] Canyonlands is the least visited of them all).

Fuli is a crowd-free option for tourists to China – when they return.
PHOTO: Twitter/visitourchina

The Great Wall, Forbidden City, terracotta warriors and Guilin’s pinnacles are top of most tourist itineraries in China . The latter attracted 80 million visitors in 2018, and even its downriver doppelgänger, Yangshuo, has reached the limits of its carrying capacity. So hire a bike and pedal off through paddy fields and limestone landscapes filled with toiling farmers and lumbering water buffalo.

Thirty minutes from gridlocked Yangshuo you’ll reach the ancient market town of Fuli, where cobbled lanes are lined with shops selling paper fans and scroll paintings.

The peaceful settlement of Xingping is a further 17km on and offers overnight lodging options – some with spectacular views of the Li River and rock formations breathtaking enough to be depicted on China’s 20 yuan (S$4) banknote.

The Unesco-designated city of Ragusa awaits those who visit Sicily.
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Holidaymakers wanting to be far from the madding crowds and overpriced restaurants of Florence, Rome and Venice could do worse than detour to southern Italy.

The island of Sicily is regarded as the crossroads of Mediterranean civilisation – scholars consider the capital, Palermo, to be the most conquered city in the world. Greek ruins litter the landscape, Unesco-designated cities including Ragusa lure photographers and there’s even an anti-mafia museum.

Taormina overlooks the turquoise Mediterranean Sea from its hilltop location.
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The gorgeous city of Syracuse dates back 2,700 years and Taormina, which overlooks the turquoise Mediterranean Sea from its hilltop location, is overlooked in turn by Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

Vineyards and olive groves corduroy the island’s mountainous interior and the humid Sicilian breeze carries the scent of lemons. Rustic trattorias plastered with family photos serve up delicious dishes such as swordfish à la Siciliana, followed by ice cream.

Cappadocia in Turkey is home to honeycombed hills and volcanic rock formations.
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Visitors to Istanbul, Turkey, make a bee­line for the Hagia Sophia Mosque, photograph the Topkapi Palace from Bosphorus ferries and gawp at the Blue Mosque from Galata Bridge. They tick off the ancient Greek city of Ephesus and sunbathe on Turkey’s busy Mediterranean beaches.

Those wanting to get away from it all trek 800km (500 miles) inland to the high, dry plateau of Cappadocia. The region is home to a succession of honeycombed hills and soft volcanic rock formations that serve as homes and hotels, stables and storehouses.

The “fairy chimneys” attract their share of sightseers but Göreme National Park covers a vast area and there’s plenty of space.

San Cristobal de Las Casas is a mix of cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings, churches, craft markets and busy plazas.
PHOTO: Unsplash

Beach resort Cancun was the world’s second most visited destination (after Dubai) in 2021. The purpose-built Caribbean party town in Mexico is handy for archaeological sites such as Tulum and Chichén Itzá, although it’s hard to imagine the college crowd taking time out to inspect Mayan ruins.

For a more authentic Mexican experience, head south to the Spanish colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. An architectural gem, recognised by Unesco as a member of its Creative Cities Network, San Cristobal’s centre is a mix of cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings, churches, craft markets and people-filled plazas.

San Cristobal has generally avoided the drug violence that has affected other parts of Mexico but to avoid hostility of another kind, ask permission before taking photos – a few indigenous locals still believe the camera steals their souls.

Tha Ton sits on the Mae Kok River.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Thailand’s holiday hotspots range from the Grand Palace, in Bangkok, to Maya Bay, on Koh Phi Phi, famed for its appearance in the adventure-drama film The Beach (2000). The spectacular location became so popular it had to be closed to tourists in June 2018 and only reopened in January 2022. Since we’re trying to avoid the hordes, let’s get as far away as possible.

The sleepy town of Tha Ton sits on the Mae Kok River, which meanders south from Myanmar, a couple of kilometres upstream. Travel in this mountainous part of northern Thailand is safe, scenic and picturesque. Fishermen fling their nets into the currents, children play and water buffaloes venture into the shallows to cool off.

To get your bearings, head to the hilltop Wat Tha Ton temple, from where northern Thailand unfurls like a map below.

Füssen makes a great getaway from Germany’s more crowded attractions.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Must-sees for holidaymakers to Germany include The Brandenburg Gate, which marked the Cold War border between East and West Berlin, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. You won’t need to travel far to escape the coach tour crowds at the latter – most take photos, upload them online and are back on the bus within an hour.

Those who visit the nearby town of Füssen are rewarded with alpine vistas reflected in glistening lakes and delightful riverside hiking trails that lead all the way to Austria. The Neuschwanstein circus feels a million miles away.

The market town of Oakham in the English county of Rutland. The nation’s smallest county has been named Britain’s best rural place to live.
PHOTO: Twitter/ iainw_802

Britain’s most popular tourist attractions include London’s museums, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle and the Bicester Village designer shopping outlet in Oxfordshire (more than 7 million people visited in 2019). But as we’re trying to avoid the holiday honeypots, let’s head to Rutland.

The nation’s smallest county has been named Britain’s best rural place to live and it’s easy to see why. Neat villages with duck ponds, cottages, medieval churches and pubs are linked by country lanes that wind through ancient hunting grounds. Oakham, one of only two towns in Rutland, feels more like an overgrown village.

Normanton Church at Rutland Water. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The diminutive county has been in the news recently after a Roman mosaic and villa complex were unearthed in a farmer’s field. This was followed by the discovery of a 180-million-year-old skeleton of an ichthyosaur, a marine predator from the time of the dinosaurs.

Despite these hugely significant archaeological discoveries, Rutland remains under the radar and most Britons would still struggle to find it on a map.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.