Most destinations that claim to be off the beaten track are all talk. You turn up to find the secret beach is carpeted in beach towels and that all the undiscovered cafés have actually been discovered by several tour groups. But this list is a little different.
Each year, Euromonitor International ranks over 700 cities in 135 countries by visitor numbers. At the top are the big-hitters like London, New York and Bangkok. But at the bottom are a whole host of under-explored urban sprawls. Here are some of the best least-visited cities in the world.
1. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
No destination less deserves to be so little appreciated than Samarkand. This ancient city has a storied past that involves the Silk Road, Tamerlane and a run-in with Genghis Khan. It’s a story still told in Samarkand’s fantastically preserved buildings. Squeeze through the narrow streets hugged tight by traditional mud houses to find the grandest mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums in Central Asia.
2. Bodden Town, Cayman Islands
It’s perhaps because the Cayman Islands are better known for their banks than beaches that this British overseas territory attracts so few tourists – but it has more to offer than tax dodging. Skip the overpriced capital at George Town and head for village sized Bodden Town to find atmospheric colonial architecture, fish fry on the beach and a reef-fringed coastline to explore.
3. Lichinga, Mozambique
Stranded 1300m up a dusty plateau thousands of miles from everywhere, Lichinga is a forgettable city in northern Mozambique. But it is a fantastic base for adventures in some of the country’s boldest landscapes. Fringed by plunging rocky mountains and 2000-year old baobab trees, super-sized Lake Niassa has golden sands to stretch out on and more than 1000 species of fish to snorkel alongside.
4. Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Still at the heart of a political tug of war between Bosnia and Serbia, Banja Luka is the capital of the unrecognized Republika Srpska. Head here and you’ll be a rare visitor to one of central Europe’s more handsome cities. The tree lined boulevards and leafy squares host smart cafés that have perfected that great middle Europe tradition of coffee, cake and conversation.
5. Liepaja, Latvia
The Latvian coast isn’t exactly first to spring to mind when you are looking for somewhere to build sandcastles. But this port city not only has an 8km Blue Flag beach, but also some of the best kite-surfing in Europe. When the sun sets head for the red brick warehouses along the waterfront to find out why Liepaja is becoming the Baltic party capital.
6. Solo, Indonesia
Solo, or Surakarta as it’s less catchily known, often gets overlooked by visitors to Indonesia because – well, basically because it’s not Bali. But what this historic city lacks in beach real estate it makes up for in grand temples and royal palaces. This is the cradle of Javanese culture, and beyond the big ticket architecture sights you’ll find no better place to try classic regional cuisine like timlo solo (beef noodle soup) from street side hawkers.
7. Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar
Democratic elections and relaxed visa rules have seen visitors flock to Myanmar – just don’t expect to meet any in Nay Pyi Taw. Custom built by the country’s military rulers with purposeful grandiosity, the government moved here in 2005 but few people followed. Today, the mix of lavish villas and vast monuments with half empty streets and car free highways make for an eerie introduction to the former leaders’ Stalinist ambitions.
8. Karak, Jordan
Regional instability hasn’t troubled Jordan but it has troubled visitor numbers. That means you can visit Petra, Wadi Rum and Karak without the usual crowds. Karak has one of the biggest and best preserved Crusader castles in the world. Set across seven levels, you can explore guardhouses and barracks and get a feel for what life was like inside this fortress when Saladin’s siege came knocking on the door outside.
9. Rotorua, New Zealand
Rotorua finds itself on the list because the statistics only count international visitors and New Zealand is a long way from much of the world. But Kiwis love Rotorua, and why wouldn’t they when there’s the chance to learn how to stomp out a Maori war dance at the Tamaki Maori Village, or a volcanic landscape of bubbling mud pools and spurting geysers to investigate?
10. Concepción, Chile
This truly is the least visited city in the world. Found at the finish line of a branch of the Pan-American Highway, the isolated location doesn’t help to attract tourists and neither does the concrete sprawl of skyscrapers.
However, look past the carbuncle buildings and Chile’s second city claims a student population famed for throwing salsa shapes until the early hours, as well as stunning black-sand beaches where the Bio Bio River meets the rolling waves of the Pacific.