Alternatives to Overcrowded Destinations
Elanor Parker, 27.09.19
Overtourism might be something you’ve noticed already. Perhaps you searched online for the ‘best beach’ to visit whilst you’re on holiday only to turn up and discover there’s not enough room to place your towel. Or been to cities with streets so crowded you’ve ended up with more bruised toes than authentic experiences. Not to mention the identikit selfies that end up filling your Instagram feed afterwards as everyone posts their poses taken in the exact same spot.
We’ve found the best alternatives for some of the world’s busiest destinations so you can enjoy your holiday in peace.
Venice → Trieste
Venice has around 26-30 million tourists visit each year. Fewer than 300,000 people actually live in Venice.
Ah, Venice. The city of romantic walks across the iconic Rialto Bridge, gazing out onto the still waters of the Grand Canal, before taking a peaceful gondola ride with your loved one and then dining on fine Italian food. Unfortunately, the reality is that you’re more likely to be greeted by hoards of selfie sticks marching across the Rialto before waiting in lengthy lines to share a gondola with another bunch of tourists who also can’t afford a private trip and then rounding the day off with a plate of reheated pasta.
If you’re looking to avoid the infamous crowds and even more infamous prices of Venice then Trieste might be your answer.
A view over Trieste
✔ Northern Italian port city
From the very first trading ships sailing out across the world, Venice’s success has been built on its relationship with the water surrounding the city. As another port city, Trieste has also relied on the water and was once a fierce maritime trade rival to Venice, which lead to the two regions even declaring war on each other. Now in more peaceful times you can take in the fresh sea air with a stroll along the quayside, down the 200m stone pier, known as Molo Audace. Once on the pier, on a clear day you may be treated to views of the Dolomites.
✔ Fascinating history and culture
Venice, once an independent state, may have had its historic clashes, but Trieste has an even more complex history. Occupied by Romans, the Austrain Habsburg Empire, the Napoleonic French Empire and others, Trieste only officially rejoined Italy in 1954. Unlike most of Italy, Trieste also borders Slovenia and Croatia whose influence can be felt in the local architecture and food, such as a popular stew called Jota, which is made from a mix of beans, garlic, olive oil, potatoes and sauerkraut. Discover more of Trieste’s fascinating history and uncover some extremely talented local artists at the Museo Revoltella which houses a mix of objects and art in a grand 19th century building.
Top tip: Many agree that Trieste has the best coffee in all of Italy! A great claim indeed in a country which takes its caffeine intake seriously, but as a port it has imported coffee into Europe since the 18th century and developed a taste for the beans ever since.
✔ Romantic walks
Just outside of Trieste is the stunning Miramare Castle. This fairytale-esque 19th century castle offers panoramic views overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Miramare is also home to an unusual garden where plants and trees from across the globe are grown, including giant sequoia (more usually found in America) and Lebanese cedars.
It’s also easy to take a trip out from Trieste into the Prosecco vineyards. This Italian sparkling wine has soared in popularity in recent years, due to its comparatively cheaper price to champagne and refreshing taste.
Top tip: If you’re a wine lover, then you can’t miss out on visiting our picks for the best wine regions in the world. Why not combine a trip to Prosecco with wine tasting further south in Tuscany?
If you simply must visit Venice:
✖ Don't take a cruise
The island of Venice sits in a beautiful lagoon and its water is the very soul of the city. But visiting Venice on a cruise is probably not the best way to visit this stunning city. According to environmental scientist Jane da Mosto, “the passage of every single ship causes erosion of the mudflats and sediment loss”. Not to mention the toxic emissions the huge cruise ships leave behind. After a cruise ship crashed into the dock in June 2019, injuring at least five people, the Venitian authorities have decided to take even more drastic action against enormous cruise liners, aiming to reroute them away from the lagoon permanently. Instead: consider flying in and staying on the mainland and taking one of the local buses onto the island of Venice. If you’ll miss the multi-stop nature of a cruise, why not take a train out from Venice to Padua, Verona or Ferrara?
✔ Explore away from the main island
Once you’ve seen St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, why not spend the rest of your trip exploring areas away from the main island? The nearby island of Torcello is mostly a calm nature reserve filled with lush greenery, although the 7th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell’Assunta stands out. The pastoral island of Sant’Erasmo is equally peaceful, with picturesque marshlands, views over the lagoon and even stretches of beaches. Both can be reached from Venice on local vaporetto ferry services.
Take me to Trieste, Italy
Take me to Venice, Italy
If you want to fly into Venice, there are two to choose from. Venice Marco Polo Airport (VCE) is the primary airport and you can fly there on many airlines including American Airlines (with routes from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Philadelphia International (PHL)), Ural Airlines, Aegean Airlines and easyJet.
Treviso Airport (TSF) primarily offers short-haul flights from the UK and Europe as it mainly receives flights from Ryanair and Wizz Air.
Amsterdam → Utrecht
Amsterdam has around 19 million tourists visit each year. Only one million people actually live in Amsterdam.
Bike rides, good beer, art and culture, Amsterdam seems to have it all. However, this picturesque city has ended up with too much of it. With so many tourists trampling down the streets their tourist board has now made the drastic move to turn away from promoting the city as a destination. With locals complaining of only having tourists for neighbours and their neighbourhoods being transformed by short stay lets and tourist shops, perhaps it’s time to experience more of the Netherlands than its capital and visit Utrecht instead.
*The Oude Gracht canal in Utrecht *
✔ Carefree Cycling
It’s hard to imagine Amsterdam without thinking of someone cycling down one of the much photographed canal paths. However, all of the Netherlands is known for its easy cycling as the Dutch love cycling! Around a quarter of the Dutch population cycle everyday, and there’s over 33,000 km of purpose built, wide cycle paths across the country. You can hire a bike in Utrecht for as little as €10 ($11 USD) a day, and then cycle around the city’s most beautiful spots sights in under an hour, although you may want to stop off and enjoy Utrecht’s cafes and bars along the way.
Bikes parked in Utrecht
Top tip: If you wanted to go to Amsterdam for its easy cycling, then why not consider our pick of the best cycling routes around the world?
✔ Colourful houses by the water
One of Amsterdam’s main draws are the cute and colourful narrow houses lining the canals. You’ll find some very similar scenes in Utrecht. Taking a boat tour is the best way to see the pretty building façade and there many charming restaurants and terraces surrounding the canals to grab a bite to eat and drink and admire the view.
Colourful narrow houses next to a canal in Utrecht
✔ World class art
The Netherlands has punched above its weight in producing some of the world’s best artists. One of the most distinctive and prolific artists of all time, Piet Mondrian, was born in Amersfoort, a small city just outside of Utrecht only 15 minutes away by train. Visit the house where he was born for a permanent exhibition about his life before visiting the Centraal Museum to see some of his iconic colourful paintings up close.
Looking to see something completely new? Then Utrecht has plenty of galleries displaying new and exciting works. EXbunker is just that - an exhibition space in an ex-WWII bunker that opens at the weekends with everything from poetry and photos to sculptures, paintings and performances.
If you’re keen to see some Dutch classics, then Utrecht is also home to paintings by some of the Netherlands’ most famous artists so you can still get your Van Gogh fix. Here are some of our top picks:
|Rembrandt||The Baptism of the Eunuch||Museum Catharijneconvent|
|Van Gogh||Autumn Landscape at Dusk||Centraal Museum|
|Van Gogh||Undergrowth||Centraal Museum|
|Van Gogh||Farmhouses in Loosduinen near The Hague at Twilight||Centraal Museum|
|Van Gogh||Still Life with Clogs and Pots||Centraal Museum|
|Van Gogh||Still Life with an Earthen Bowl and Pears||Centraal Museum|
✔ Lively nightlife
As a university city, there are plenty of students during term time making sure that the nighttime atmosphere is vibrant. TivoliVredenburg is the city’s main music venue, hosting all kinds of music from club nights to pop, jazz, classical and more.
Le Guess Who? is a Utrecht based festival that celebrates an eclectic mix of ‘boundary-crossing’ music and culture, with the added bonus of being held out of season in November. In fact, year round the city attracts many world famous DJs, and talents such as Dutch DJs Tiësto and Armin van Buuren have played here in the past.
If you have to visit Amsterdam:
✔ Consider making Amsterdam one stop of many
Rather than a long weekend in Amsterdam, why spend one day in the capital to see the sights before discovering the real Netherlands? As a small country, it doesn’t take more than a few hours to drive or take the train from one side to another, making it the perfect country to explore in a short time. If you have more time to travel, consider renting a bike and travelling around the country’s well maintained cycle paths - luckily the Netherlands is famously flat so you won’t encounter too many hills!
✔ Take your stag/hen (bachelor/bachelorette) party down a notch
Amsterdam is famous for its lax policies on cannabis, bars and adult entertainment, which has attracted plenty of groups looking to go ‘all out’ for the weekend. However, inappropriate conduct from some tourists has made it a very difficult environment for local people, with drunken behaviour outside bars and rubbish being left behind being some of the worst culprits. If you really want to party, keep it in the club rather than the street, where noise should be kept to a minimum.
Top tip: If you’re interested in Amsterdam for its beer, then why not consider some of our best destinations for beer lovers instead?
Take me to Utrecht or Amsterdam:
As the Netherlands is a small country, it’s best to fly into the main airport of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), which got a mention in our guide to the best airports for foodies. It’s a hub for airlines such as KLM and Transavia, but receives flights from many different airlines, including Royal Air Maroc, Pegasus Airlines and United Airlines.
Utrecht is then just a half hour train journey away from Schiphol Airport.
Dubrovnik → Bansko
Dubrovnik has around 1.27 million tourists a year. Less than 50,000 people live in the city, with fewer than 2,000 living in its historic centre.
Once an undiscovered gem, since Dubrovnik became the setting for King’s Landing in HBO’s astonishingly popular Game of Thrones TV series, its tourist numbers have skyrocketed.
In the first quarter of 2019, Dubrovnik has already seen a 53% increase in tourism after a record breaking year in 2018. With this rapid rise, Croatia is now ranked number one for overtourism by some measures, with 57,587,000 tourists annually, compared to just 4,170,600 locals. As an alternative, why not venture out to Bansko in Bulgaria? Despite being roughly twice the size of Croatia, Bulgaria attracts only 13 million tourists a year. However, Bulgaria has plenty to offer prospective visitors.
In fact, Bansko was featured as one of our top picks on our blog about the best ski resorts in the world! However, don’t write it off as simply a ski resort as there’s plenty to do year round.
✔ Beautiful red roofs
You simply can’t visit Dubrovnik without thinking of those highly Instagrammable red roofs. But they’re not unique to the city. If you’re lucky enough to get a room overlooking Bansko, you’ll see the full effect of hundreds of red tiled roofs set against the dramatic mountains looking back at you. Don’t forget to take a snap!
A view over the red roofs of Bansko. Image credit: Michael Jensen and Brent Hartinger, Brent and Michael are Going Places
✔ Cheap living
For many visitors, part of Dubrovnik’s appeal has been its reasonable prices. With only 250kn ($37 USD) for a nice three course meal for two and only 17.50kn ($2.62 USD) for a local beer (when the cost of buying the same would be at least double in another European city such as Rome) it’s easy to see why. However, the same meal in Bansko is only 35лв ($19.81 USD) and a local beer just 2лв ($1.13 USD).
In fact, this cheap living has made the city a hub for digital nomads, such as Michael Jensen who gave up life in Seattle to travel with his partner Brent Hartinger and start their blog Brent and Michael are Going Places. Praising Bansko after spending three months living there, Jenson says “located at the base of the gorgeous Pirin Mountains, Bansko is a ski destination in winter and in summer it's a relatively unknown gem offering spectacular hiking, charming stone-cobbled streets lined with red-roofed buildings (you really have to see Bansko from above), and prices that most Westerners will find incredibly affordable.”
Michael and Brent enjoying Bansko life. Image credit: Michael Jensen and Brent Hartinger, Brent and Michael are Going Places
✔ Stunning nature
Dubrovnik is known for its glorious views over the Adriatic Sea, which admittedly you won’t get in Bansko, as it is located many hours drive away from the sea. However, if you’re happy to swap a seaside view for striking landscapes, Bansko is nestled at the foot of the Pirin mountains in Pirin National Park. That’s great for people who love skiing on a budget, but also makes it an ideal base for anyone who likes to hike, taking in incredible views along the way.
A view over a lake in the Pirin Mountains near Bansko. Image credit: childrenofrevolution
Few people know that Bulgaria is ranked second in Europe (after Iceland) for having the most natural thermal mineral pools. The area around the Pirin mountains is home to some of these mineral springs, so you’ll easily find a place to relax in a thermal bath or spa, such as in the village of Banya just a few minutes drive away from Bansko.
If you can't miss out on Dubrovnik:
✖ Don't go to Pile Gate
Since this is where many day-trippers from cruise liners reach Dubrovnik’s Old Town, you’ll often find long queues blocking your entrance. Try entering the Old Town through either Ploče Gate or Buža Gate instead.
✔ Get up early
Avoid the crowds by visiting the city’s most popular sites as early as possible. Not only will you hopefully avoid the influx from the cruises (and late sleepers), but you should also be able to walk a loop of the famous City Walls (which opens at 8am) long before the midday sun, giving you the chance to relax at one of Dubrovnik’s beautiful beaches for the rest of the day.
Take me to Bansko:
Bansko doesn’t have its own airport, but you can choose to fly into either Sofia Airport (SOF) or Plovdiv Airport (PDV).
Take me to Dubrovnik:
General tips for visiting popular places and travelling sustainably
If you really can’t resist visiting an overcrowded destination (and we can’t blame you — some of the most popular sites in the world are popular for a good reason!) here are our top tips to help you avoid crowded places and leave the locals happy.
1. Visit during the off-peak/low season
The definition of when off-peak season is will vary from place to place, but visiting during this time will help you to avoid the crowds. For many destinations, winter is the low season, such as in Venice where the low season is from around November to March (excluding Carnival in February). Yes, the weather might be a bit colder and wetter, but would you prefer to be queuing up all day in the beating sun for all of the attractions? As fewer people visit during these times, you’ll be less likely to annoy the locals by overcrowding the streets and more likely to skip the queues. As an added bonus, it’s likely to be a lot cheaper to stay then too!
2. Be respectful
No matter where you travel to you must remember that this is someone’s home country or city. Acting respectfully should be common sense, but can include everything from keeping quiet at night, learning some of the local language and never dropping litter.
3. Shop locally
Many of these popular places rely on tourism as an important source of income and employment, so staying at locally owned hotel rather than a chain will mean that more of your money will stay in the local economy and help the local community. The same principle applies to everything you choose to do whilst travelling, including eating out. With plenty of reviews and travel advice out there helping you choose the right places to stay and eat, it’s never been easier to ditch the safety of McDonalds and try somewhere new. You’re also more likely to get an authentic experience that reflects the local culture.
4. Consider staying in a hostel or hotel rather than private accommodation
Despite the above, staying in unofficial private accommodation (such as many of the apartments offered by Airbnb) rather than designated hotels or hostels can sometimes be problematic. As landlords can make more money from short term lets than long term stays, they start to focus their business towards tourists, which increase rents. The local people are then priced out of their own homes, leaving behind ghost neighbourhoods without any permanent residents. Eventually, businesses and services are forced to close, ruining the character of the city that attracted so many visitors in the first place! Research ahead of time to see if this in an issue in your chosen destination. If you’re worried about your budget, then hostels are a great alternative to hotels, with many now offering free Wi-Fi and private rooms if you’d prefer not to share a dorm. Another sustainable accommodation option is a homestay, where you live with a host or family. As well as a bed for the night, you might also have the opportunity to share meals and memories with them - this way you get accommodation and travel advice all in one!
5. Don’t forget to tip (if appropriate)
Be generous when tipping! Although not all cultures commonly accept tips (such as in Japan or Hong Kong), those that do will always appreciate a little extra cash in gratitude. As debit and credit cards get cheaper to use abroad and pre-paid cards become more popular, you might be tempted to go cashless on holiday. However, don’t forget to always carry some cash in the local currency so you’re never caught short when you need to leave a tip.