My Favorite Alternatives to Top US Travel Destinations

Statue of Liberty with Text "Maybe Next Year"

I’m writing this post in the middle of July, 2020.  Walt Disney World opened over the weekend, despite spiking COVID-19 numbers across the United States of America.  The President of the United States is still tweeting hateful rhetoric every day.  People fighting for equal treatment for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals and groups are being attacked.  No country is perfect, and I’m letting you know in advance that I will delete any comments that use whataboutism to try to justify the current conditions in the USA, but few countries have – and completely squander – the expansive educational, economic, political and social advantages of the United States.  This is a country that could easily be doing so much better and that is failing so profoundly due to daily choices made not only by leaders, but by regular citizens.  This is a country that I refuse to even consider visiting.

If you’re like me and have no interest in giving your tourist dollars to the United States at the moment, and have concerns that visiting the USA would put your personal health and safety at risk, I want to share a personal post.  I have researched and found the most popular tourist attraction in every American state.  Rather than just recommend a popular alternative in another country, I am going to recommend an international alternative based on my personal travel experiences.  These might not be the most obvious or even most famous alternatives, but I believe they, at the time of publication, a far superior alternative to any US tourist attractions.

I have visited the United States of America many times, mostly as a child but sometimes as an adult as well.  Shortly before Donald Trump became president I visited Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, and I truly hope that one day the USA will return to being a viable travel destination for international visitors.  I truly hope that the country with the world’s largest economy and one of the oldest systems of participatory democracy can live up to its full potential.  Until then, however, I encourage all of my readers around the world to check out these alternatives to popular US tourist attractions (and share your alternative ideas in the comments, too!).

Alabama’s Gulf Coast Beaches | Alternative: South Africa’s Western Cape

Western Cape Beaches in South Africa

In December, I drove (way too quickly!) from Durban to Cape Town.  I thought the most beautiful section of the drive was the Western Cape area, stretching roughly from Plettenberg Bay to Cape Town, along the stretch of road known as the Garden Route.  The beaches were wild and rough and stretched for as far as the eye could see – and beyond.  They are perfect not only for suntanning, but also for swimming in the natural tidal pools, surfing and even scuba diving (with or without sharks!).  The coastal towns of South Africa’s Western Cape (shown above) are the perfect alternative destination to Alabama’s top attraction: its white-sand beaches that draw in over six million tourists each year.

Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier | Alternative: Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands

Queen Charlotte Islands British Columbia Canada

Haida Gwaii, the largest of Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands, is only about fifty miles from the southern tip of Alaska, so it shares a strikingly similar ecosystem.  Every year, tens of thousands of travelers flock to Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier to take in the spectacular natural scenery and get “up close and personal” with wildlife including whales, eagles and bears. Savvy travelers looking for a more intimate experience opt for a visit to one of the Queen Charlotte Islands instead, where luxurious eco-lodges and Indigenous-operated homestays welcome visitors looking for a similar trip without the crowds. 

Arizona’s Grand Canyon | Alternative: Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs

Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia

In 2019 almost six million people visited Arizona’s Grand Canyon.  In the same year, less than one-tenth of that number, or fewer than 600,000 people, traveled to Mongolia for tourism.  Of those 600,00 people, few traveled deep into the Gobi Desert to visit the Flaming Cliffs, also known as Bayanzag.  I visited Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs in 2015, as part of an eight-day tour of the Gobi Desert that I organized privately (with two other travelers) through Golden Gobi Hostel (highly recommended!).  Here, the sandstone cliffs glowed red and orange, and at sunset they were so vibrant that you couldn’t imagine them ever having any other name.  In general, Mongolia is a fantastic tourist destination and one of the few countries that I am actively considering visiting again.

Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park | Alternative: European-Style Thermal Baths in Baden-Baden, Germany

Outdoor Pools at Caracalla Therme in Baden-Baden, Germany

I was torn on this one because I knew I could have picked any pretty national park anywhere in the world, but I decided that if Arkansas’ top tourist attraction is its natural hot springs, I’d focus on the hot-water element and recommend a trip to Germany’s Baden-Baden instead.  With a name literally meaning “Bath-Bath”, Baden-Baden is one of the best places in Europe to experience an authentic thermal bath complex, including both family-friendly pools and adults-only, “textile-free” naked sauna areas.  You get all the benefits of warm, mineral-dense water, without having to go to Arkansas.

California’s Golden Gate Bridge | Alternative: The Bridges of Budapest

Bridge in Budapest Hungary at Night

I actually had Budapest down for the last one and I changed it at the last minute, so I’m glad I can pop it on the list here.  California’s most iconic tourist attraction is San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which draws more tourist eyes than even Disneyland (at $235 USD for a two-day Disneyland ticket, that doesn’t surprise me!).  Skip California (which, as of today, has more than 325,000 cases of COVID-19) and opt for a trip to beautiful Budapest instead.  Budapest is actually made up of two districts, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Danube River.  Seven bridges span the river, connecting the two neighborhoods and creating fantastic walking and cycling routes for both tourists and locals. I last visited Budapest in 2010 as a side trip from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and I was blown away by the friendliness of the locals and the beauty of the city’s architecture.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park | Alternative: Canada’s Banff National Park

Banff National Park Canada

The Rocky Mountains don’t just end at the US border, y’all!  They continue north into Canada, where they create the border between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. The two most famous national parks along the border are Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. Because I live closer to Banff, it’s my go-to destination for day hikes and overnight mountain getaways.  I highly recommend visitors spend at least one night in one of the iconic, palatial Fairmont Hotels that were built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s and early 1900s, like the Banff Springs Hotel or the Fairmont Palliser in nearby Calgary.

Connecticut’s Mark Twain House & Museum | Alternative: Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania

Elie Wiesel's House in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania

This one is coming out of left field.  It was hard to narrow down Connecticut’s top tourist attraction (one site said it was the state’s natural history museum and another listed a brewery!) but I settled on author Mark Twain’s house due to its balance of being noteworthy and unique.  Again, based on my own personal travel experience, I would like to propose the Romanian town (city?) of Sighetu Marmatiei as a very offbeat alternative destination.  First, “Sighet” is the birthplace of Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel, and his childhood home is now a museum, much like the Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut.  Just a few blocks away, the town’s old prison has been converted into The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, a museum that offers a heartbreaking look into life in Communist Romania.

Delaware’s DuPont Mansions | Alternative: Varadero, Cuba

Varadero Beach Cuba

Apparently the DuPont family has (had?) at least three significant mansions in Delaware, including (today’s) Nemours Mansion, Winterthur Museum and Hagley Museum.  In short, the Duponts were really rich, did not always make ethical choices and often became embroiled in scandals (including recent, horrifying criminal activities).  But hey, they’re rich and they had nice houses so let’s go take a look!  Or not.  If you want to vote with your dollars, head to Varadero, Cuba instead.  I’m not usually an all-inclusive kind of girl, but back in grad school I needed a break from two years of endless paper-writing and journal-reading, so I booked a week at the Melia Las Americas, which was, at the time, the highest-rated resort in Varadero (as of today it’s the Iberostar Selection).  I’m getting to my point here.  Beside the Melia Las Americas there is the Varadero Golf Club, which was built around another DuPont Mansion – this one called Xanadu Mansion.  If I absolutely had to vacation somewhere close to a DuPont Mansion, I’d choose Varadero over Delaware every time.

(Unfortunately I couldn’t find a photo of the mansion that I had the legal right to borrow, but you can find lots of pics online!)

Florida’s Walt Disney World | Alternative: Singapore’s Sentosa Island OR Haw Par Villa (Your Budget, Your Choice)

Best Tourist Spots in Singapore - Haw Par Villa

The first time someone asked me if I was being facetious I didn’t know what the word meant.  I’m not being facetious when I recommend you skip the COVID-19 cesspool that is Disneyworld.  Canadian media is currently called Orlando’s Disney World “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” as half-masked tourists queue for hours to moistly scream on Space Mountain.  Count me way out.  Instead, travel to Singapore and visit one of two polar-opposite theme park attractions: Sentosa Island or Haw Par Villa.  I’ve never been to the former but it came highly recommended by many travel bloggers when I was preparing my list of the best tourist attractions in Singapore.  Instead, I indulged my taste for the truly bizarre with a visit to Haw Par Villa (shown above), the crumbling remnants of a Chinese-mythology-inspired theme park founded by the brothers who created Tiger Balm.

Georgia – The Entire State | Alternative – Georgia, The Entire Country

The Ananuri Fortress - Day Trip from Tbilisi

Lately I have been having mad cravings for Georgian food.  Please, God, send me a cheesy khachapuri, some khinkali filled with exotic mushrooms and a plate of eggplant slices rolled up with garlicky walnut paste and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.  And then, God, drown me in Georgian red wine.  There is no reason to go to the state of Georgia when you can go to the country of Georgia.  Start with my guide to Tbilisi (I last visited in 2017) and then check out some nearby day trips (like Ananuri Fortress, shown above).

Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour | Alternative: The Westerplatte Monument in Gdasnk, Poland

Westerplatte Monument in Gdansk Poland

Okay, I’ll admit that the weather in Hawaii is a little nicer than the weather in Gdansk, but if you’re looking for World War II history, an alternative to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour is Gdansk, Poland’s Westerplatte Monument.  From Gdansk’s Green Gate, boats regularly depart for the Westerplatte Peninsula, which is where one of the first battles in World War II occurred.  In August 1935, Germany sailed a battleship into the area under the guise of making a friendly call.  It sat in the water for a few days until, on September 1st, it launched an attack on a Polish garrison and officially started the war.  The boat ride takes about thirty minutes and then it’s an easy, flat stroll from the dock to the monument itself. Along the way there is multilingual signage explaining the historical significance of the site and Poland’s role in World War II.

Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve | Alternative: Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon Kazakhstan

I made a brief stop at Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon on my disastrous group tour of Central Asia.  This one could also be a good stand-in for Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but in general, I feel like so much of Central Asia is “lunar-looking” that it doesn’t matter which country goes in which spot.  What really placed Charyn Canyon here, however, is that Charyn Canyon has it’s own sub-canyon known as the Yellow Moon Canyon!  Hire a guide and a 4WD vehicle to venture into this isolated, exotic landscape overnight, spotting all kind of exotic birds, rodents and even mountain goats along the way.  For more information, check out Caravanistan.

Illinois’ Millennium Park & “The Bean” | Alternative: Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

Baiterek Tower in Nur-Sultan or Astana

I did not expect to put Kazakhstan on this list twice, much less back-to-back, but here we are!  If you want a glimpse into the next millennium, skip Chicago’s Millennium Park and its over-exposed “Bean” sculpture, and head directly to Nur-Sultan, the bizarre, futuristic capital of Kazakhstan.  The modern city center is virtually empty, and it’s packed with futuristic designs like the Baiterek Tower (shown) and the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.  To see more of this “weird but wonderful” Central Asian city, read my full guide to Nur-Sultan.

Indiana’s Children’s Museum of Indianapolis | Alternative: The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada

The Royal BC Museum in Canada

This is another one where it’s hard to narrow down the state’s most popular tourist attraction.  Some sites said it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while other said it was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.  It was a bit of a stretch of the imagination to combine the two, so I decided to focus on the latter (since it’s open year-round?). That brings us to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada.  I’ve been to a lot of museums in my life but few are as adult-friendly and child-friendly as the main museum in the capital of the province of British Columbia. Although the museum is best-known for its life-sized reconstruction of a woolly mammoth, my favorite part (as both an adult and as a child) was the recreation of Victoria’s historic city center, complete with hotels, cinemas and a train station that you can explore at will.  I’m 99% sure there’s an old car in there as well!

(Creative Commons image by Mike on Flickr.)

Iowa’s Field of Dreams Filming Location | Alternative: Any Bollywood Movie Theater in India

Indian Cinema

One of the highlights of my 2019 trip to India was going to a local cinema to watch a Bollywood movie.  Apparently the top tourist attraction in Iowa is a corn field where they filmed an early-90s movie about baseball, and I propose that literally any Bollywood movie watched in literally any Indian cinema wins out over a corn field.  If you’re in Mumbai, the iconic Art Deco Eros Cinema is slated to reopen in the near future, but if your visit occurs before then, check out the nearby Regal Cinema, which is always packed with local teens and young adults queuing for the latest Indian blockbusters.  Local films won’t be dubbed or subtitled, but it doesn’t take a genius to follow the plot of an Indian rom-com!

Kansas’ Monroe Elementary School | Alternative: South Africa’s Robben Island

Robben Island Cape Town South Africa

One of the reasons that I refuse to travel to the United States of America at the moment is its record of police brutality and non-progress towards to a solution that reflects the country’s diverse BIPOC population.  This is the first item on the list that I feel bad about including, as Kansas’ Monroe Elementary School is a formerly-segregated school whose policy was challenged, and overturned, by the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.  Still, its contribution to desegregation isn’t reason enough for me to turn a blind eye to everything happening in the USA today.  Instead of going to Kansas, consider visiting Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, which is the island prison where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were held there until the maximum-security section closed in 1991 (the medium-security section closed five years later).  Robben Island is now a museum, with highly-emotional tours led by former inmates who give insight into the anti-apartheid movement and their time in the prison.

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail | Alternative: The Bars of Berlin

Drinking Beer in Berlin Germany

I’m not much of a drinker (besides a day drink or two when I’m on holidays) but if I was going to travel somewhere to follow a literal trail of alcohol, it would not be to Kentucky.  Nope, I would head to Berlin, Germany instead, and I would spend my days wandering from biergarten to biergarten, with a few stops at craft beer bars, cocktail bars and the infamous “pay what you want” wine bar as well (I’ll skip the absinthe bars though!).  In Berlin you can drink in the street, you can drink along the river (for example, at the Young African Artist Market, where I left a generous tip!) and you can drink in the park, making it the perfect destination to drink until you forget what a massive shitshow the world is in 2020.

Louisiana’s Bourbon Street | Alternative: The Altstadt in Dusseldorf, Germany

Drinking Beer in Dusseldorf Germany

While we’re talking about drinking in Germany, I would be remiss not to mention The Altstadt (or, Old Town) in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Sometimes, this otherwise-unmemorable section of the historic center is called “The Longest Bar in the World” because in the streets around Ratinger Straße there are more than 300 bars!  When I visited in July, 2017 I couldn’t believe how many groups of friends had come from around the world to spend a weekend drinking in Dusseldorf (apparently sometimes being served by a giant bird…).  While Bourbon Street serves up Hurricanes (sugary cocktails made from rum, lemon juice and passionfruit syrup), Dusseldorf is unsurprisingly known for Altbier, a dark beer with toasted, nutty notes… definitely a safer choice if you’re planning to go hard all day!

Maine’s Acadia National Park | Alternative: Canada’s Bay of Fundy

Bay of Fundy Canada

As you may know, Maine is home to Senator Susan Collins, who threw every American woman under the bus when she ignored sexual assault victims and voted in favor of nominating ultra-Conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court (I know how he would have voted on Brown vs. Board of Education Education…).  I will not give Maine one penny of my money until they vote out this misogynist… and fortunately, there’s no good reason to visit Maine when you can see natural splendor surpassing that of Acadia National Park just a few hours north, in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.  Straddling the border of the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (both of which I lived in as an infant!) the Bay of Fundy has the highest tides anywhere on the planet, along with world-class whale-watching and opportunities for adventure, luxury and family travel experiences.

Maryland’s Ocean City Boardwalk | Alternative: Walk from Plaza Catalunya to Frank Gehry’s Goldfish in Barcelona, Spain

Is Barcelona, Spain the most beautiful city in Europe?

Apparently Maryland’s Ocean City Boardwalk runs for about 3.5 kilometers along the Atlantic Coast and is a typical beachfront promenade.  My alternative suggestion is one of my favorite walks in the entire world: starting at Barcelona’s Plaza Catalunya, walk down the bustling pedestrian street called Las Ramblas, amble through the historic fishing district called Barceloneta, arrive at the beach and then turn north, walking along the golden sand until you arrive at Frank Gehry’s famous goldfish statue.  This route is iconic on a hot summer day (cool down with a few glasses of cava or sangria at any side-street bar, but avoid the pricey ones right on Las Ramblas!) and evocative on a winter day, when locals going about their daily lives vastly outnumber the tourists.

Massachusetts’ Fenway Park | Alternative: Medellin, Colombia’s Estadio Atanasio Girardot

Football in Medellin Colombia

I’ve been to a Major League Baseball game.  My strongest memory, other than being bored, was that the McDonalds in the stadium served cheese pizzas (does anyone else miss McDonalds’ pizza?).  I’ve also been to a Real Madrid football game in Madrid, which was significantly more enjoyable, and I recently attended a day of World Rugby Sevens games in Cape Town, which was extremely fun (who knew rugby games only lasted fourteen minutes and the stadiums served $3 pink beer?!).  However, the most exciting sporting event I have ever seen in my entire life was an Atlético Nacional football game in Medellin, Colombia.  I have never seen a stadium so alive with team spirit, with every single fan decked out in the team colors, non-stop singing and dancing, and absolutely zero fucks given when the team lost (I’m not sure anybody noticed!).  If you want to experience the joy of sports, do not miss an Atlético Nacional home game in Medellin.

Michigan’s Henry Ford Museum | Alternative: Turin’s Lingotto & National Automobile Museum

National Automobile Museum in Turin Italy

Michigan was another hard state to research.  On TripAdvisor, most of the statewide top attractions were regional parks, but I did find a site saying that the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn (near Detroit) was the best thing to see in the state.  It’s basically a car museum.  If you want a car museum, get thee to Turin, Italy, which is the birthplace of Fiat.  Start at Lingotto, the company’s former factory with its iconic rooftop race track, and then walk over to the nearby National Automobile Museum, where you can check out everything from a 1899 Fiat Model IV to a limited-edition 1980s Ferrari.  When you’re done, you’re just a few streets away from the flagship location of Eataly, so you can indulge in a typical Northern Italian lunch and shop for take-home essentials like sweet pistachio cream and truffle butter.

Minnesota’s Mall of America | Alternative: The Siam District, Bangkok, Thailand

Shopping in Bangkok

Apparently forty million people visit Minnesota’s Mall of America every year.  If you don’t have COVID-19 already, you will by the time you leave the mall.  If you love the experience of shopping, I recommend spending at least half a day wandering around the Siam neighborhood in Bangkok, Thailand.  The central district is home to several major shopping centers (MBK Center, Siam Discovery, Siam Center and Siam Paragon, notably).  The shopping here is great, with everything from clothing to housewares at prices from market-cheap to Chanel-expensive, and most of the malls either have fantastic restaurants or, even better, epic Thai food courts.  This area is also a hub for arts and culture, with pop-up exhibits appearing in the shopping centers and the free, world-class Bangkok Art and Culture Center across the street (accessible via pedestrian overpass!) and the powerful Jim Thompson House just down the street.

Mississippi’s Vicksburg National Military Park | Alternative: The Plains of Abraham & The Citadel of Quebec City

Quebec City Citadel

Apparently Vicksburg National Military Park is a popular destination for travelers who want to learn about the American Civil War.  My alternative destination is sort of like the Canadian equivalent.  As you may know, Canada is a bilingual country where both English and French are the official languages.  This stems from the colonization of the country by both British and French settlers, who fought both the local Indigenous community and one another for control of the region.  This is most apparent in Quebec City, a charming European-style city in the province of Quebec.  In 1759 a major military battle was held here on the Plains of Abraham, where the English victory ultimately shook French control of the area.  Several decades later Americans invaded Canada during the War of 1812 (need another reason not to go to the USA?) and although we repelled their forces, the British military identified a need for further fortifications and constructed a hilltop citadel.  Today, both the plains and the citadel are open to visitors and feature different family-friendly activities focused on Canadian history.

Misssouri’s Gateway Arch | Alternative: Kiev’s People’s Friendship Arch

Kiev Ukraine People's Friendship Arch

Gateway Arch stands 630 feet tall and visitors can ride a tram to the top for panoramic views of St. Louis.  The People’s Friendship Arch in Kiev stands 164 feet tall, cannot be ascended and is often in varying states of disrepair.  It’s also scheduled to be removed and replaced with a memorial to the Ukrainians who were killed when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.  Kiev is a fantastic city in a beautiful country that deserves our tourist dollars, and maybe their arch doesn’t have a tram but I promise you will love your time in Ukraine and it should be at the top of your post-COVID travel list.

Montana’s Glacier National Park | Alternative: Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park

alternative-destination-for-glacier-national-park

Canada actually has its own Glacier National Park, but as an alternative to America’s Glacier National Park I would be remiss not to recommend Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, which is immediately adjacent to the US’s Glacier National Park, just across the border.  In fact, cute little cruise boats sail from the town of Waterton across the lake to Goat Haunt, a little outpost that is technically in the USA but only accessible from the Canadian side of the park.  Here, there is a tiny pavilion celebrating peace between the two countries, and a ranger station where you can get a real US stamp in your passport!  Waterton Lakes National Park has lots of wildlife (expect to see bighorn sheep and elk right in the town center), fantastic hiking (including the famous Crypt Lake Hike – not for beginners!) and a few quirky attractions nearby (like Cardston, a town still practicing prohibition!).

Nebraska’s Chimney Rock | Alternative: Georgia’s Katskhi Pillar

Katskhi Pillar Georgia Alternative Destination

I haven’t personally visited Georgia’s Katskhi Pillar, but I was extremely close on my adventurous trip to Chiatura, Georgia, which I visited just in time to ride its networking of decaying Soviet-era cable cars.  Just a few kilometers down the road there is the Katskhi Pillar, a 130-foot rock formation topped with a tiny hermitage occupied since 1995 by a single monk from Chiatura.  I didn’t visit because the monk doesn’t allow female visitors to ascend the ladder to the top… I don’t love that kind of gender-based discrimination but I do understand that a monk living on top of a rock might have a different perspective than me.  Anyways, if you’re a guy who is into climbing, the Katshki Pillar would be a better destination than Nebraska’s Chimney Rock, which might be twice as tall, but which doesn’t have a hermit on top.

(Image via Wikimedia – I can’t read the Georgian attribution but it’s Creative Commons!)

Nevada’s Las Vegas Strip | Alternative: Chernobyl, Ukraine

Chernobyl Two-Day Tour - The Duga Radar System

Do you get a rush from the thrill of losing it all at the poker tables?  Does it make you feel alive inside when you pull the handle on the slot machine, knowing that this moment could be your ultimate downfall?  Then you’ll love a trip to Chernobyl, Ukraine, where one wrong step off the path could nuke your toes right through your shoes and you’ll eye the mushrooms on your dinner plate with a suspicion previously reserved only for the guys walking into the bank behind you in balaclavas.  Las Vegas is for people who are only brave enough to gamble with their money.  Chernobyl is for those who are willing to put their lives on the line for a taste of history.  I stayed overnight… do you dare?

New Hampshire’s Conway Railroad | Alternative: Romania’s CFF Viseu de Sus

CFF Viseu de Sus Romania

Another state that is apparently just a bunch of parks.  I had to dig around a bit to learn about the Conway Railroad, a historic steam engine (built in Canada in 1921!) that offers touristic trips in the Mount Washington Valley.  I’m no ferroequinologist but when someone mentions historic trains, I can’t help but interject with my own tale of riding a historic steam-powered logging train into the Maramures Mountains in Northern Romania.  The CFF Viseu de Sus chugs its way through the forest to a logging camp, where it stops for lunch (bring your own or opt for a ticket including a “mixed grill” that I 100% guarantee does not have a vegetarian option) before chugging back down, stopping every now and then to feed the steam engine with more freshly-chopped wood.  I rode the train on a cold, rainy day in 2010 (in case you couldn’t tell from the photo quality!), and ten years later it remains one of my all-time favorite travel memories.

New Jersey’s Atlantic City Boardwalk | Alternative: Sopot, Poland

Alternative Destination - Sopot, Poland (Near Gdansk)

Just outside Gdansk you’ll find Sopot, a typical beachfront weekend getaway destination with sun loungers, beach bars, shops selling bikinis, sanitoriums (of the general health variety) and one very Eastern-European casino hotel.  It also has the longest wooden pier in Europe, stretching half a kilometer into the chilly Baltic Sea.  When I visited Sopot in 2012 I felt like it had something of a mid-century American vibe, making it an interesting alternative destination for travelers who might otherwise go to Atlantic City.  The beach here stretches all the way back to Gdansk, so if the weather is nice you can walk or cycle between the two towns.

New Mexico’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum | Alternative: Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico City

Casa Azul Mexico City - Frida Kahlo's Home

I didn’t bother to investigate New Mexico’s actual most popular attraction, since my 1001 Places to See Before You Die calendar for July 2020 was actually about New Mexico.  I just walked over to my calendar and picked one of the pictures that I thought was pretty, and it was of the interior of the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.  My alternative destination is Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, the house in which the famous Mexican artist was born, lived and died.  Located in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City it was actually closed when I visited in 2011, but I saw the exterior and I certainly don’t mind having a legitimate reason to return to Mexico City (for the fourth or fifth time?).

New York’s Empire State Building | Alternative: The Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Italy

Start Your Trip to Turin at the Mole Antonelliana

I will never be a person who gets excited about towers, so going up the Empire State Building in New York City sounds about as exciting as vacuuming my guest room.  There is one building, though, that I will always go up: the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Italy. This iconic Italian building is featured on the two-cent euro coin, and now houses the astounding National Cinema Museum. I won’t spoil all the fun, but going up the Mole Antonelliana involves riding a glass escalator through the dead center of that dome, to a panoramic viewing terrace showcasing not only the city, but also the nearby Alps. It is a really special experience.

North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate | Alternative: Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace

Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany

In case my disinterest in the DuPonts was unclear, let me tell you how much I care about the Vanderbilts:

Yeah, that much.

So the Biltmore Estate is a fancy mansion and gardens and stuff that is still owned by the Vanderbilt family, and that charges $64 USD for a general admission ticket.

Let me introduce you to Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin.  Situated on the west side of the city, this baroque and rococo palace’s grounds are freely open to the public, who love strolling, cycling and picnicking on the beautiful grounds. Feel like going inside?  A ticket costs less than $20 USD and also includes admission to Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace in nearby Potsdam.  Don’t line the Vanderbilt’s tight denim pockets with even more cash… travel, carefree, in Berlin instead.

North Dakota’s Dakota Thunder | Alternative: The Lion Cave in Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh

Lion Cave in Nagorno-Karabakh

So I have actually never talked about my travels in Nagorno-Karabakh, as I have feared repercussion in countries that are friendly with Azerbaijan.  I’m not going to go into great detail here (if you’re interested in reading more, let me know in the comments and I’ll consider writing a dedicated post) but basically North Dakota has a giant statue of a bison called “Dakota Thunder”, and a tiny village in Nagorno-Karabakh has a cave that has been carved to look like a lion and that emits a surprisingly loud roar every five or ten minutes.  Honestly, I don’t recommend Nagorno-Karabakh for the amateur traveler, but anyone with experience in disputed regions or politically-sensitive environments may find it a very appealing alternative destination.

Ohio’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame | Alternative: Stockholm’s ABBA Museum

The ABBA Museum in Stockholm

If you’d asked me five minutes ago where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was located, I would have guessed Los Angeles or New York.  Apparently, though, it’s actually in Cleveland, Ohio.  So this one is a bit of a stretch, but I’ve settled on a museum I’ve never been to in a city I only visited for one day, way back in December 2005.  Still, I think you’ll have a way better trip overall if you skip Cleveland and head straight to the ABBA Museum in Stockholm!  This is an interactive, tech-heavy museum celebrating the journey of ABBA from childhood through total global domination.  I’m glad to see it opened after my visit, as otherwise I’d be kicking myself for not going!  I would definitely be up for a return visit to Stockholm… this time in the summer, though!

Oklahoma’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum | Alternative: An Estancia in Argentina

Estancia in Argentina

If you want to learn more about Cowboy Culture, skip the tired old museum in Oklahoma and head south to Argentina, where your dollar goes further and where you can stay on an authentic estancia – a working cattle farm.  Although my recent trip to Argentina was focused on Buenos Aires, I am looking forward to returning to the country to see more of the countryside.  Expect lots of horseback riding, wine drinking and steak eating (call ahead if you’re vegetarian!) plus extras like hikes through archeological areas, river rafting, animal interactions and even polo lessons!

Oregon’s Multnomah Falls | Alternative: The Waterfalls of Bali

Alternative Destination for Waterfall Viewing - Bali, Indonesia

Multnomah Falls in Oregon might be 611 feet tall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Indonesia’s island of Bali has more than 611 waterfalls that are even prettier (if not as tall).  Bali is a waterfall-lover’s dream destination, with spectacular waterfalls all over the island.  The easiest way to reach the waterfalls is to ride your own scooter, but if you’re wobbly (like me!) then you can join a tour or hire a private driver for the day… you definitely don’t need a scooter to enjoy Bali!  If you want to go full Bali-tourist, pack a flowy evening dress in your backpack and stage your own photoshoot at the base of the waterfall… just be careful if you wear heels on the slippery rocks!

Pennsylvania’s Liberty Bell | Alternative: Mandalay, Myanmar*

Bells at Myanmar's Buddhist Temples

Philadelphia’s enduring symbol of independence and abolition has more than 18,000 reviews on Google, making it the most-reviewed attraction in the state (that I could find). When I was thinking about bells I’d seen in my travelers, I was immediately taken back to Myanmar, where many of the beautiful padodas have bells (including the Mingun Bell, often believed to be the world’s heaviest functioning bell).  That being said, I can’t write a blog post about ethical alternatives to US travel destinations and send you to Myanmar, which committed genocide against the Rohingya people in 2017 (one year after my visit) and still has not resolved the underlying racial and religious discrimination that led to the genocide.  So, I’m putting Myanmar here because it has nice bells, but I’m encouraging you to delay your visit until not only is the genocide over, but also until a long-term, respectful, legal solution is both implemented and sustained.  You are not a white savior (no matter what race you are) and your simple presence in the country will not improve things for the Rohingya people.  Don’t fool yourself.

Rhode Island’s Roger Williams Park Zoo | Alternative: Ometepe Island in Nicaragua

Howler Monkey on Ometepe Island

If you’re new to my blog, you might not know that I avoid travel experiences involving animals in captivity.  In fact, pre-COVID I was contacted by the marketing department of a major zoo – they invited me for a free visit and animal interaction.  Of course I would have loved to get up-close-and-personal with exotic wild animals… but I couldn’t accept their offer because, at my core, I believe wild animals should be… wild.  Rhode Island’s top attraction was actually another Vanderbilt mansion, so I went with their second highest-reviewed attraction: a zoo in Providence that had a picture of a sloth on their website.  Sloths made me think of wild animals that live in trees, like the howler monkeys I saw every day on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.  This island, in the middle of a volcanic lake, is home to an amazing array of biodiversity including several species of easy-to-spot monkeys, colorful exotic birds and even freshwater sharks!  It’s a beautiful destination for lovers of wildlife and natural landscapes.

South Carolina’s Barbecue Trail | Alternative: A Food Tour in Turkey

A Traditional Turkish Breakfast on an Istanbul Food Tour

Technically, the top thing to do in South Carolina was a horse-drawn carriage tour of Charleston, but I don’t believe in making poorly-treated horses pull me around in the hot afternoon sun when I’m perfectly capable of walking.  I dug around a bit and I found a list compiled by Time Out that highlighted “Barbecue Trail” (my vegetarian stomach is churning) – a route featuring more than two hundred barbecue restaurants serving meat grilled in the state’s “four official sauces”.  What state has official sauces?  Why is that a thing?  Regardless, I’ve already talked a bit about great places for drinking, but when it comes to the best city in the world for a food tour, I’ve got to give my alternative destination award to Istanbul, Turkey, where a full-day walking food tour takes you across two continents and samples more than thirty different dishes!  There’s no tired horse dragging you around and every stop had at least one vegetarian option (except the street vendor selling mussels).

South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore | Alternative: Mount Batur in Bali

Mount Batur in Bali

Undoubtedly one of the most contentious attractions on this list, Mount Rushmore is a bunch of white guys (including two slave owners) carved into a mountain on stolen Sioux territory.  Grab the kids, Earl, it’s time for a family vacation! I wanted to think about another place in the world where there is a mountain or hike or something similar that respects and celebrates the indigenous or local culture, and I was reminded of Mount Batur in Bali.  Considered one of the most sacred spots on Bali, nearly 200 travelers ascend Mount Batur every morning with the assistance of a local guide.  They climb more than 1700 feet in the dark, arriving at the summit just time to see the sunrise.  Hiring a Balinese guide at Mount Batur contributes to the local economy, ensures your safety and helps you adhere to local cultural norms (for example, it is forbidden for women to climb Mount Batur if they are menstruating, lest they offend the gods!).

Tennessee’s Graceland | Alternative: The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, Thailand

Alternative Destination to Graceland - Jim Thompson House Museum in Bangkok Thailand

Graceland was Elvis Presley’s extravagant home.  I’ve been to a few “house museums” around the world, and without a doubt, one of the coolest is the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, Thailand.  Much like Elvis contributed so much to rock and roll, Jim Thompson is believed to have single-handedly saved the entire traditional Thai silk industry through his founding of the Thai Silk Company, which employed hundreds of locals with ethical working conditions and living wages.  A trained architect, he incorporated traditional elements of Thai design and construction into the home he built both for living and to house his extensive Asian art collection.  Jim Thompson actually disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, another region of Southeast Asia that I highly recommend you visit (but keep your phone’s GPS on!).

Photograph by D Ramey Logan / CC BY-SA

Texas’ Space Center Houston | Alternative: The Sergiy Korolyov Astronautics Museum in Zhytomyr, Ukraine

Sergiy Korolyov Astronautics Museum in Zhytomyr Ukraine

At the time I’m writing this, Texas has seen a massive spike in COVID-19 numbers, and I suspect they’ll reach 275,000 total cases by the time I finish eating my lunch.  Regardless, Space Center Houston is still scheduled to open in five days, so visitors can learn all about the science of space exploration while completing ignoring the science of infectious disease prevention.  I’d like to present an alternative destination for lovers of space science: The Sergiy Korolyov Astronautics Museum in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.  An easy day trip from Kiev, the museum is a surprisingly interesting glimpse into the Soviet space program (if you’re really curious, email or call ahead to arrange an English tour).  During my visit there was only one other family in the entire building (social distancing!) and when I was finished in the museum, it was fun to wander around this quaint Ukrainian town for the rest of the day. 

Utah’s Zion National Park | Alternative: Barcelona’s Parc Guell

Parc Guell in Barcelona Spain

I feel like Zion National Park looks a lot like the Grand Canyon and Craters of the Moon National Park?  Is it just me?  I didn’t expect to have to think of so many rocky destinations when I set out to write this post. Consequently, this is the part of the list where I say that if you want to go to a place with lots of red rocks, look above for information about Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs and Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon.  If you just want to go a nice park in a place that got their COVID-19 numbers under control, I recommend a shoulder-season trip to Barcelona and a visit to Antoni Gaudi’s iconic, hillside Parc Guell.  The park is full of beautiful tilework and elaborate carvings, and offers panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea.

Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s Factory | Alternative: Any Gelateria in Italy

Gelato in Italy

First, I need to acknowledge that Ben & Jerry are pretty cool guys who do a lot of social justice work and have less tolerance for many US policies than me!  That being said, I believe they would support me in recommending that you delay your trip to the USA until the situation is safer and more respectful for both locals and tourists alike. When things get better, definitely go to Vermont and eat all the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that you can handle.  Until then, I suggest you choose an alternative destination like Italy where ice cream, or gelato, is an integral part of the culinary culture.  You have to go out of your way to find a bad ice cream cone in Italy, where my favorite flavors are pistachio, almond and extra-dark chocolate.  Buon appetito! 

Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg | Alternative: Suzdal, Russia

The Most Beautiful Places in Europe - Suzdal, Russia

One of the things I love most about traveling in rural areas of Eastern Europe is the way that many places feel like a living history museum, but it’s actually just the way people go about their daily lives.  I distinctly recall the first time I saw two farmers moving hay on a horse-drawn carriage in Romania… it felt like something out of a fairy tale to me, a Canadian girl from a big city.  Apparently Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum that shows what life was like in the region in the 1700s.  You don’t need a museum to step back into the past if you go to Suzdal, Russia, a quaint, pastoral town a few hours outside Moscow.  Here you’ll find a 10th-centry Kremlin, countless Orthodox churches dating back to the Medieval and Renaissance eras, operational farms and meaderies, and more than fifty family-owned guesthouses where you can experience authentic, rural Russian life.  Don’t make it a day trip from Moscow – stay for at least two nights to forget that 2020 ever happened.

Washington’s Pike Place Market | Alternative: A Colombian Fruit Market Tour

Fruit Market Tour in Medellin Colombia

I love a good market and it was hard for me to narrow it down to one singular favorite, but then I remembered the best market tour I’ve ever taken… an all-fruit tasting tour in Medellin, Colombia.  I had previously taken a market tour in Cartagena that turned out to be not very vegetarian-friendly, but this “fruitful” tour in Medellin was right up my vegetarian alley.  Pike Place Market is known for its vendors who joyfully toss dead fish around in the air, but on a Medellin fruit tour you’re more likely to see vendors smashing a West Indian locust with a hammer or laughing as they unwrap a sticky, mushy borojó for you to sample.  A few different companies run similar tours, but I went with Real City Tours and am happy to recommend them.

West Virginia’s Bridge Day | Alternative: Scuba Dive in Roatan, Honduras

Cheap Scuba Diving Trip - Look at That Coral Reef

West Virginia actually gets a thumbs-up from me over this one, as they have cancelled Bridge Day 2020 out of concern for public safety.  Can you hear me, Disney World?  Apparently Bridge Day is held every year in October, and it’s a chance for pedestrians to cross the longest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere on foot, while watching extreme sports-enthusiasts BASE jump almost 900 feet into the gorge below.  I feel vertigo every time I go onto my third-floor balcony, so I won’t be recommending BASE jumping any time soon.  Instead, I’m going to recommend my favorite adventure sport: scuba diving in Roatan, Honduras.  Located on the Meso-American Reef (the second-largest in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef… just look at it!), Roatan offers comfortable, safe and affordable scuba diving for all experience levels.  I’ve been diving in quite a few places (Cozumel, Koh Tao, Nusa Penida, Gili Air, South Africa, Providencia, etc…) and I keep going back to West End, Roatan because the water is so calm, the experience is so comfortable and the prices are so affordable.

Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Art Museum | Alternative: The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain

City of Arts and Sciences by Santiago Calatrava in Valencia, Spain

Did you even go on vacation if you didn’t see a building designed by Santiago Calatrava?  Milwaukee has an art museum designed by the famed Spanish architect, but if you want to experience his vision in full scale, head to Valencia, Spain and visit the City of Arts and Sciences.  I haven’t seen Westworld (don’t @ me) but I’ve seen commercials, and I know this complex of museums, planetariums, concert halls, bridges, walkways and water features features prominently in the sci-fi series.

Wyoming’s Old Faithful | Alternative: The Sulfur Baths in Tbilisi, Georgia

Sulfur Baths in Historic Tbilisi, Georgia

Every ninety minutes, Wyoming’s Old Faithful geyser shoots up to 30,000 liters of boiling water almost 200 feet into the air, and every now and then a dumb tourist dies by ignoring the many warning signs, walking off the path and falling into a pool of scalding thermal water.  Personally, I do enjoy a nice hot bath, but I’d rather not die in the process.  Enter the historic sulfur baths of Tbilisi, where the mineral-dense hot springs emerge from the ground to provide both cleansing and relaxation to locals and tourists.  I somehow ended up at the bare-bones public baths, which were really just a giant shower room full of naked local women doing their daily personal hygiene routine, but there are more upscale baths where you have your own private soaking tub and can order additional services like body scrubs and massages.  Sulfuric water is said to be good for your skin, muscles, digestion and relaxation… basically it cures everything (except Coronavirus…).

So that brings us to the end of my list!  I’m not saying that I will never travel to the United States of America again.  I can drive from my house to the US border in about five hours, making it the closest and most accessible international travel destination for me.  However, I have always believed that travel is political and that how I spend my tourist dollars matters, and as I sit here in July 2020 I cannot, in good conscience, even think about planning a trip to the United States.  I hope that things improve quickly for the sake of the country’s citizens, but I want to emphasize that international travelers have a lot of amazing options outside the USA, and shouldn’t feel bad about choosing an alternative destination to visit. The world is a big and beautiful place with so much more to see than just one country!

Are you postponing your US travel plans?  Where are you going instead?  Let me know in the comments!

Safe and Ethical Alternatives to Every Popular US Travel Destination for Savvy Travelers in 2020Skip that trip to the USA and travel to one of these fifty safe, ethical international alternatives instead!

 

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