This page is a shout out to the smaller towns and cities that often get overshadowed by the bigger, polluted, chaotic megacities. Unlike their multimillion counterparts, these particular places are quieter, cultural, and much more authentic. In making this list, I chose to put no more than one place per country in order to bring some variety to it. Likewise, I based this upon my entirely arbitrary preferences, which are a bit stranger than the average person. Needless to say, each one of these places is awesome, and I highly recommend visiting any one of these instead of their country’s capitals or better known cities. Anyway, here goes.
9. Antigua, Guatemala
Do you like being warm in January? Do you like things that are colorful, people that are friendly, and horizons that contain large mountains? If so, quit your desk job and head to Antigua, Guatemala. It is a small city on the western side of the country (and was the original capital 300 years ago), full of colorful, historic buildings, cobblestone roads, and lush green plant life everywhere you go. It is also the perfect place to begin if you wish to explore the Mayan part of the country, as there is regular, easy transportation to Lake Atitlan and the Pacific coast. And, also important, Antigua is also one of the safest cities in the country, especially compared to the capital Guatemala City.
While you’re there, try to climb the mountain Acotenango which looms over the city. It takes about two days, and since it is a volcano, you can actually see the lava spurting out as you go. Also, I highly recommend staying at Matiox Hostel. The staff there is super friendly and helpful, the common room has an open roof, there’s a hot tub, and they have tons of activities such as bar trivia as well as yoga and excursions out into the surrounding area. So yeah, it’s a nice place.
So, I was pretty lucky during this visit since I got to see the local's perspective, which I can assuredly say was amazing. Everything to me seemed so communal and welcoming to the point where I never once felt like an outsider And there were so many aspects of it that I found to be so interesting from the medieval city center to the university and the surrounding nature to the not for profit bars that served free food and beer for 1.50 euro. I guess the only reason why it doesn't take the top spot is because of Doolin's music scene, but it definitely was taken into serious consideration.
7. Vladimir, Russia
Unlike all other cities on this list, I actually visited Vladimir in two different seasons, summer and winter. Both came during my time living and working in Moscow, and this city (about 2-3 hours by train), came to be one of my favorite getaway spots to relax and unwind for a weekend. The place is overall quiet and relaxing, but still has a fair amount to do and is very enjoyable to walk about. With the city being nearly 1000 years old, there are plenty of historic sites, but virtually no tourists at all. Therefore, you never feel like you’re in a hurry or have to talk over people. Vladimir lets you take it at your own pace.
As for recommendations, there are several nice restaurants near the center, including an Uzbek place (of which I cannot remember the name) and an Azeri place called Shesh-Besh. To buy, I recommend the local Medovukha (honey beer) which the region is known for. A nice place to stay is Pilgrim Hostel, which is relaxed, cozy, and very affordable. Finally, make sure you visit the statue of Prince Vladimir of Kiev (who the city is named after). Its on a hill overlooking the river that runs through the city and provides a really nice view of it all.
6. Digne-les-Bains, France
Although many of you readers may not have heard of this southern Alpine French town, it served as the center of my visit... and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Located south of Marseilles, this modestly sized town is tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains, rivers, forests, and some of the most interesting geographical formations I've ever seen. I stayed with my friends Lea and Olivier (who helped make the trip as good as it was), and since I came outside of the tourist season, I got to have much more of an authentic experience.
Digne is a quiet and pretty little town. Intertwined with trees and nature, the place is comprised of small twisting streets, local shops (many of which make great bread), and warm and rustic cultural buildings. The atmosphere is overall very relaxed, as most people from my perspective did not seem to be stressed or in a hurry. In the center in the town was a bi-weekly local market that sold home-baked food, chocolate, honey, and handmade gifts. In the fashion of a stereotypical foreigner visiting France, I bought a croissant there. (see story)
5. Burlington, Vermont, USA
As I've said, if I ever move back to the States for an extended period of time, it's going to be to Burlington. I'll be straightforward and say that pretty much everything about the city is great. It's not big or overcrowded, yet it holds on to a pretty strong local culture and there's no shortage of things to do. The streets are loaded with local interesting cafes and the microbreweries are the best in the country (yes, I stand by that claim). Whenever I'm there, I just feel super relaxed and welcomed. Plus it's in the mountains, on the shores of Lake Champlain and populated by hippies. What's not to like?
4. Brasov, Romania
For some reason, Brasov looked and felt exactly as I had imagined Transylvania. It just had a certain lore to it, and it was amazing. Whether it was walking down the quiet city streets with the baroque architectures or climbing through the forests on the outskirts of the city, this feeling seemed ever-present. Except for one feature. Overlooking the city on a green mountain covered in trees was a large sign that read BRASOV in large white block letters, similar to that of the HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles. It seemed very out of place, but none the less, I thought it was hilarious, and on our first day there, Blake and I decided to climb up to it. We thought it would be awesome to get as close as we can (which apparently turned out to being on it), and it was. But we didn't consider the views that we would see on the way up. About twenty minutes into our climb, I decided to look out over the city and was mesmerized by what I saw.
Down below, in every direction, little red roofs covering the old city buildings turned hear and there in interwoven spirals and patterns, cobblestone roads crawled here and there like snakes through the grass, and green trees sprouted up from the ground nearly everywhere. And it got even better. Every step further up, more and more was visible, and soon, the open country, beyond the city confines, came into view as well. The only downside of this whole experience though happened to be the existence of a cable car that went from the city to the top of the mountain, which to me was cheating. It was an affront to nature, getting a chance to see the views without putting in any of the work.
But regardless, the city and surrounding country are both incredible and worth a several day visit. The mini old town is so picturesque and the restaurants there are delicious and very very very affordable. Plus, being in Transylvania, the city is pretty close to Bran Castle (the inspiration for the novel Dracula) which is definitely worth a visit, even though the actual man, Vladislav Dracul/Vlad the Impaler, did not actually live there.
3. Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
I knew next to nothing about Karakol prior to arriving other than its proximity to the lake Issyk Kol and the mountains, and that made it all the more exciting for me when I actually got to see the place. It felt as if it existed somewhere outside the general confines of time. A lot of the roads were still dirt, people's animals roamed around town, grazing here and there, while Soviet statues stood in the parks and you'd buy food at personally owned grocery stands. But while all that was pretty interesting to be a part of, the real reason why I include this town is because of the surrounding nature, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before, in the most amazing way imaginable. The mix between the rich, green valleys, roaring glacial rivers and gigantic Tian Shan mountains on the horizon is pretty indescribable.
Karakol is on the eastern side of the country, in close proximity to the country’s largest lake, Issyk Kol as well as some of the tallest mountains in Central Asia. The town itself is the perfect place to set up a base if you want to go trekking in largely untamed nature, and many of the guesthouses (including Duet Hostel, where I stayed) even allow you to sleep in yurts. There is an open market in the center of the town and a couple of small shops for you to get whatever you need, but walk just a little bit out of town and you’ll feel as if you’ve left civilization entirely. And it feels amazing.
2. Dingle, Ireland
So, Ireland is loaded with tons of awesome small towns and villages. Therefore, this was a hard choice for me to make, I came so close to choosing Doolin, but ultimately, I have to say I had the best overall experience in Dingle, and therefore it gets the spot. Dingle is a small town on a peninsula in Kerry county that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The whole surrounding area is gorgeous too, with hills and open fields all around, and Mt. Brandon looming on the horizon. One thing I would personally recommend in order to see as much as you can would be to rent a bicycle and ride around the whole peninsula. You’ll see so many incredible landscapes and even ancient neolithic huts that look a bit like beehives. The whole trip will take about 3 hours and the rental costs 10 euro for the day.
While there is some tourism, it holds much more cultural authenticity than other parts of the country, as seen since all the street signs are only in Irish Gaelic. And when it comes to Irish culture, the music is second to none. Every night and in every pub, you can listen to a local group of musicians play for hours on end. And while you’re here, stay at Grapevine Hostel. They hosts are really nice and play music all day long, always including any guest that wants in. Plus, they’re right next to a bike shop, making it all the more convenient.
Winner: Omalo, Georgia
While making this list, I quickly came to realize that I couldn’t have concluded it any other way. No other small town was so unique, nor did any give me such a memorable experience. Omalo is not for the standard traveler, as it is tucked away up in the mountains and only accessible by a narrow dangerous dirt road that is blocked off for over half the year. And for that reason, it remains largely untouched and unique. Aside from the small cluster of houses and a couple ancient guard towers, there is just vast open mountainous country as far as you can see. Herds of sheep occasionally cross the fields, while everything is heated by solar power (since electrical wires cannot reach the area), and none of the roads are paved. The stresses of modern society and civilization have not really be able to penetrate Omalo, and as a result, live felt exponentially better.
While there, I recommend staying at one of the local guest houses. There, your host or hostess will make a hearty Georgian breakfast and dinner as the day remains yours to go trekking into the wild, untamed countryside. I fell into a cycle of waking up, eating breakfast (including coffee), hiking for the next 8-10 hours, then returning to refuel myself with a gigantic dinner with generous amounts of homemade wine. It was exactly what I wanted in life, and I’m certain I will return again soon. Nothing compares to Omalo, and therefore, it is the undisputed champion of this arbitrary list.