On Being Blown Away by Travel Destinations I'd Never Even Heard of Before My Visit
It happens way more often than I expected.
Back in June of 2018, during Michael’s and my first year of nomading, we found ourselves in the town of Matera in the central part of southern Italy. We’d ended up here because we’d been enjoying “coliving” — living with other nomads in facilities designed specifically for us — and Matera’s Casa Netural was the only such facility we could find in all of Italy.
But our attic bedroom was small and stuffy, and the whole facility was located in a somewhat dumpy neighborhood on what seemed like a potentially loud road.
Michael wanted to leave right away, but I was more reluctant, mostly because we’d paid in advance for the whole month, and we were eating 1000 euros in rent over my dead body.
We went for a walk to clear our heads, and after twenty minutes or so, we came to Matera’s modest downtown area. We’d heard something about Matera’s “old town,” located a bit beyond that, and that it might be worth seeing.
So we stepped up to an overlook and stared out over what we would later learn was officially called the Sassi de Matera — a vast, ancient city carved right out of the white limestone and occupied by humans since around 7000 B.C. but now almost entirely abandoned.
We were blown away.
After a long moment, Michael said, “Okay, maybe we should stay a few more days.”
In fact, we spent the entire month exploring the hell out of the Sassi — and we would have happily stayed even longer except our visas were expiring.
And for what it’s worth, Casa Netural also turned out to be absolutely fantastic, one of the best coliving communities we’ve ever experienced. While staying there, we also met a young woman named Gillian, who would become a very close nomad friend we’d go on to travel with through seven different countries.
As for the Sassi de Matera, in 2021, it would finally get world-wide exposure when it was prominently featured in the James Bond movie No Time to Die. These days, its buildings, which are often half stone-work and half cave, are full of restaurants and boutique hotels.
Even now, the Sassi is still the most fantastic place I’ve ever been that I’d never even heard of before my visit.
But over the next five years of nomading, I would be blown away many more times, coming across incredible destinations that would often catch me entirely by surprise.
Not surprisingly, this is much more likely to happen in places off the beaten path — in countries and locations that are not well-known and haven’t been Instagrammed to death.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, I saw a random flier in a hotel that mentioned something called Tito’s Bunker, which was apparently an abandoned Cold War nuclear survival facility that the Yugoslavian dictator Tito secretly commissioned in 1953 and spent some $26 billion USD (in modern dollars) to complete.
Michael and I visited, and it was even more surreal than I expected — a lot like that secret underground bunker where Dr. Owen takes El in Stranger Things.
I loved almost everything about Mexico City, where Michael and I lived for three months in 2019, but then our friend Tyler suggested we visit Xochimilco, which is a city neighborhood that includes a vast network of canals. These waterways are all that’s left of the lake on which Mexico City used to sit and the canals dug by Mexico City’s pre-colonial civilizations.
These days, a series of colorful party boats ply these waters, taking folks to different island bars and restaurants, all while being served by other boats selling drinks or souvenirs, or carrying mariachi bands that will pull up right beside you to put on a personal show.
It’s Mexican culture at its most beautiful and exuberant, and I absolutely loved it.
Other places that have unexpectedly blown me away since Michael and I started nomading include:
The deserted Greek island of Delos off of Mykonos, with its endless ruins — of early Greek structures and later Roman villas — that you can simply wander through at will.
The Emerald Cave near Koh Lanta, which appears to be just another one of Thailand’s lovely sea-stack islands — but actually hides a hidden pirate cove inside, complete with a crescent beach and tiny jungle, and it’s all only accessible via a swim through a dark, 80-meter sea cave.
The Museum of Terror in Budapest, which “recreates” the experience of those brutally tortured by two subsequent Hungarian regimes and is, hands-down, the best museum I’ve ever visited.
Herculaneum, the seaside retreat for rich Romans that, like Pompeii, was eerily preserved in the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But unlike Pompeii, which was working class, this is a collection of lavish villas, and it also has approximately 1/50,000th of Pompeii’s crowds.
The haunting ruins of the 1984 Winter Olympics near Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Olympic medal podium became the spot where Serbian soldiers lined up prisoners during the Bosnian War and shot them.
Villa d’Este, often overshadowed by nearby Hadrian’s Villa on the outskirts of Rome, which includes a massive Renaissance garden with an absolutely astounding collection of bizarre fountains, with thousands of spouts, jets, and waterfalls — all powered by gravity.
And Lake Ohrid, a gem of a destination in North Macedonia that I’m still reluctant to write about because I don’t want hordes of tourists to descend on it and ruin everything.
Being unexpectedly blown away by a travel destination is a slightly different topic than the question of travel expectations in general.
It’s true that when you expect some place to be amazing, you’re setting the bar fairly high — which means the destination or attraction damn well better be amazing. There’s a reason why so many people find Stonehenge, the Spanish Steps, and the Mona Lisa underwhelming.
On a very basic level, they simply don’t deliver.
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And it’s also true that when you have no or low expectations for a destination, it’s much easier to be surprised and delighted.
When Michael and I visited the Vatican Museums in Rome, okay, sure, the Sistine Chapel was fine. But it was also mobbed, and they rushed us through, literally timing how long we could spend inside.
No, what’s most stayed with both of us from that place is the Gallery of Maps: an incredible 120-meter corridor with dozens of surprisingly accurate ancient maps on the walls and hundreds of dazzling frescos on the ceiling.
Likewise, on another day during our time in Mexico City, Michael and I joined some friends on a trip out to the pyramids at the ancient city of Teotihuacan — occupied by the Aztecs, but built by a previous civilization about which much less is known.
The ruins were amazing, but I expected them to be amazing.
What I didn’t expect was at our lunch at La Gruta, a restaurant about a half kilometer from the entry to the complex — which is located down inside a vast, candle-lit cave.
Despite having the greatest gimmick of all time, the food was somehow also great (and affordable!).
No doubt our wonderful meal at La Gruta was influenced by the fact that I was with Michael and two good friends — including Gillian, the nomad-friend we met back in Matera, who we wouldn’t know at all if we’d left in a huff over that small, stuffy bedroom.
But this article isn’t really about travel expectations, and it’s also not about the subjectivity of travel, which is also a very real thing.
No, I’m writing about all the flat-out mind-blowing destinations that most people — including me at the time I visited — simply haven’t heard of yet.
Before Michael and I left to travel the world, I assumed that most of the famous destinations were famous for a reason — and, similarly, that all the world’s truly incredible places were almost certainly well-known by now.
I honestly couldn’t have been more wrong. I have been repeatedly and continuously shocked by how some of the world’s “premier” travel destinations are disappointing — although, frankly, it’s often because the experience has been ruined by crowds and overtourism. That’s the real problem with the Mona Lisa.
But I’ve also been equally shocked by how often I think: Why in the world isn’t this place more famous than it is?!
Case in point, Michael and I are currently in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and we recently visited Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, which, nope, I hadn’t even heard about before visiting this area.
And yet again, I was blown away.
The temple is the work of a brilliant — and let’s also say “eccentric” — Thai visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who has created and self-financed the entire complex of what will eventually be nine different buildings.
Yes, this is an actual Buddhist temple, and it will one day house monks, but it’s also clearly intended as an audacious work of post-modern art. Indeed, the entire complex is infused with references to pop culture.
The complex’s latest addition, the Cave of Art, just opened on April 27, 2023. It was created by Kositpipat and his apprentices, though it seems much more like something you’d find at an amusement park. It’s a walk-through attraction — a fake cave, the walls of which are molded with more characters from pop culture, such as Darth Vader, the Predator, the Terminator, R2D2, and the Creeper from Jeepers Creepers.
But rest assured, it all leads to a final, beautifully lit cave with a statue of the Buddha in a glistening pool.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Captain America on the façade of a Thai temple. Other newer temples do similar things — though I seriously doubt any of these designers have the rights to use these images.
But, yeah, I was definitely blown away.
I’m not the first to write about the White Temple — it’s quite famous here in Thailand — just like I wasn’t the first traveler to discover the Sassi de Matera in Matera, Italy.
But like the Sassi, I’m fairly certain that the White Temple and the Cave of Art will one day be much more famous than they currently are.
Or maybe not. Because, yeah, there really are so many amazing destinations around the planet that just aren’t that well-known to the larger world.
And that’s okay.
Hell, it’s probably one of the big reasons why travel remains so damn fascinating in the first place.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.