Travel 2019: Where History Lovers Should Go to Avoid the Crowds
As a history lover, I’ve spent my fair share of time in cities like Paris, Rome, Berlin, and London. But I’m in the phase of my life where I like visiting the not-so-popular but still incredible destinations. If you’ve ever flipped through the magazine, Eat This, Not That!, my travel recommendations for 2019 are a little like that. ‘Visit this charming village, not that over-crowded metropolis!’
You can hear me chat through my list of where to go in 2019 on my travel podcast, the Postcard Academy (subscribe here for free). Here’s a quick rundown of where I’m headed.
If you’re visiting London, I highly suggest you do at least a day trip if not a weekend to Folkestone, which is only an hour away by train. For centuries Folkestone was a small fishing village, but during the Victorian and Edwardian era, it became a posh summer resort thanks to trains and cross-channel ferries. You can see France from here on a clear day.
After the world wars, Folkestone kind of faded from the maps, but over the last decade, more and more creatives have been relocating here from London and Brighton. Folkestone is the kind of place where artists can actually afford to live, and and they’re setting up galleries and studios and cute little shops, and lots of good restaurants that are vegetarian friendly and a lot cheaper than what you’ll find in London.
I randomly moved here two weeks ago. I needed to find a new apartment and then thought, “Why not try something completely different from London?” So I looked up seaside town’s in the U.K. and here I am. So far, I love it. Right on the ocean. Near other sweet little seaside towns, like the more-popular Whitstable and less than an hour from Canterbury by train or bus. I feel like I’ve discovered one of the U.K.’s best-kept-secrets (so keep it between us).
If you want a taste of Istanbul on a much smaller, scale, go to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital city. When you walk through this humble yet cosmopolitan city, you’ll see architecture that spans centuries, as well as bullet holes and bombed out buildings from the siege in the 1990s, the longest and most devastating in modern times.
When you’re there, you can hang out in the Old Town, Stari Grad, which dates back to 1462 and in its heyday was a major trading center in the Balkans, with hundreds and hundreds of shops. A fire destroyed half of it in the 1800s, but these charming little streets still feel incredibly lively today, with both locals and tourists eating, drinking, and shopping in the bazaar. You can ride the cable cars up the mountain and then find the ruins of the bobsled track from the 1984 winter Olympics, when Bosnia was still a republic of communist Yugoslavia.
I love the architecture in Sarajevo, known as ‘Europe's Jerusalem,’ for its multicultural mix of people, religions, and empires. The Austro-Hungarian Empire overtook the Ottomans. And there’s actually a street — Ferhadija — where you can see the history of Bosnia through its architecture. Walk down it, and buildings go from Islamic to Viennese to Yugoslavian to modern malls.
Food in the Balkans is not traditionally very vegetarian friendly — they love their sausages. But the last time I was in Sarajevo, I found a number of good restaurants that had veg options. And everything is reasonably priced, even in the nicest restaurants.
I recommend a tour group called Funky Tours that can take you around Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia. I love them and have done a few tours with them, including one that took me all the way down to Mostar, and on to Dubrovnik in Croatia.
Side note, even though Dubrovnik is a city suffering from mass over-tourism, I still think it’s a city worth seeing. I’d stay somewhere on the sea and visit the old town and walk the city walls really early in the morning or in the early evening. And then spend time sailing up Croatia’s coastline, which is on my agenda for later this year.
Here’s another Istanbul alternative. Or rather, if you’re going to Istanbul, also consider visiting Izmir, Turkey’s more liberal, laidback city on the sea.
The Greeks founded Izmir as Smyrna 2,000 years ago, though people had been living there for thousands of years before then. You’ll find some of Turkey’s most important Greek and Roman archaeological sites around this area, including Ephesus, which was a thriving seaport in Roman times. They sold olive oil and statues of gods and goddesses that they shipped to the rest of the ancient world.
Today, you can see the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; a Greek theatre; and also the Virgin Mary’s house, which was discovered when the location came to a German nun in a vision. The apostle Paul wrote the new testament here. So the region went from Pagan to Christian to Muslim, and you can read this fascinating history in the architecture. Then kick back with a drink by the seaside.
When you hear the word ‘Communist,’ you tend to thing of big, blocky imposing buildings. Very cold. And you will find these in Albania, which suffered under Communism for decades. You can even do a Communist Architecture Tour in Tirana. As part of this, you’ll see formerly drab apartment complexes painted in vibrant colors. This is because in 2000, Tirana elected a painter for mayor who made over the city.
But Albania has plenty of sweet little villages and is another small country that has something for everyone: mountains, lakes, ancient ruins, castles, and beaches as beautiful as what you’d find in Greece, but for half the price. Albania is still a very, very cheap country to travel in.
While Tirana is a lively city full of culture and cafes and galleries, Shkodra is considered the cultural capital of Albania and has lots of beautiful buildings to explore, including a castle, churches, and mosques — Albania is a majority Muslim country.
It seems like every country has a ‘little Paris of the [insert country/region of the world], and Korça is that for Albania. This town is home to the oldest brewery in the country and they have a beer festival every summer.
Another plus for travelers from the U.S.: Albanians LOVE Americans. Why? After WWI, President Woodrow Wilson helped save Albania from being carved up and divided between other countries, which is why you’ll see Wilson’s Square in Tirana and why so many baby boys were named Wilson back then. Later, the U.S. helped Albania join NATO after Communism fell — democracy and freedom are very important to people here. And then in 1999 President Clinton led the NATO intervention to end Serbia’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which is majority ethnic Albanian.
So American travelers will be welcomed with open arms, and that is always a nice feeling.
Matera and Lecce, Italy
I first went to Matera a few years ago because I wanted to see the Sassi, the caves that people were living in until the 1950s! In the 20th century, this area was actually known as the ‘shame of Italy’ because people were living in such poverty. So, the government relocated the peasants and farmers, about 16,000, to nearby public housing and the Sassi were abandoned for a few decades. But the area has transformed completely, and Matera is 2019’s designated European Culture City.
The beauty of Matera’s stone city really surprised me. I don’t usually think of a city as romantic, but this feels like a place where honeymooners should spend some time in. Matera is one of the oldest civilizations in the world — the third-oldest where people have lived continuously. The Passion of the Christ was filmed here because Matera can double as Jerusalem.
If you want to spend the night, you can rent a hotel room in one of the caves, so you could be sleeping in the same spot as someone else did 9,000 years ago. And there are also underground restaurants, museums…it’s a little secret city.
Matera is small so I’m not sure I’d spend more than a weekend. I recommend staying in nearby Lecce, which is a beautiful beach town with delicious restaurants and a lot more going on.
If you wanted to combine Albania on this trip, a ferry goes to and from Saranda, Albania, to Brindisi, Italy. This is in the heel of Italy’s boot. From there, take a train and in less than 30 minutes, you will be in Lecce.
I’m in love with Krakow’s elegant historic center, which contains the largest medieval market square in Europe. The entire old town is a UNESCO site serving the best pierogi you’ll eat in your life. I’d always blown off Warsaw, though, on recommendations it was too industrial compared to more charming Polish towns. But Warsaw is rising in stature as a competitive global city, and now is a great time to see what it has to offer.
Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII, after the Polish people rose up and tried to fight them. The city has suffered throughout history. It’s been occupied by Russia, was communist for decades. But it’s a resilient city.
I know a Polish person who recently moved back to Warsaw after years away and she told me about how energetic the city is, and how a lot of people who previously would have moved abroad are staying to launch start ups and other businesses. And with this entrepreneurial spirit comes the cafes and nightlife. And there is still a beautiful UNESCO-listed old town, which was rebuilt after the war.
Fun fact: Both Chopin and Marie Curie, the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, are from Warsaw.
Providence / Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A.
If I were to live anywhere in the U.S., it would be Providence, Rhode Island. Aside from personal reasons (my sister and her family live there), I like the pace of life, which is slower than in Boston and New York, where I’ve also lived. Providence has everything those cities have to offer, on a smaller scale.
As one of New England’s first cities, Providence maintains its historical charm. Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from England and the state has a history of free-thinking. The golden statue on top of the state capital building is not of a particular person, but rather represents ‘the independent man.’
Providence is rammed with great restaurants and there are always cultural-goings-on some of which are related to Brown University and RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design, which has a museum and a nice little shop. There’s local theatre and music venues and a community vibe that you don’t feel in a lot of cities. Personally, I think Providence is friendlier than Boston, which is only 45 minutes away.
Providence is also near Newport, Rhode Island, which holds annual jazz and folk festivals. Newport is another one of the U.S.’s most historic cities, where you can tour some of the oldest colonial homes in America. And then there’s the Cliff Walk, one of my favorite summer activities.
Going down the Cliff Walk, on one side of you, you have the ocean. On the other side, mansions from the Gilded Age. This is where they filmed The Great Gatsby, the first one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The museums have been turned into museums that show you how the Vanderbilts and other rich industrialists lived. And how they spent money on their lavish summer parties will blow your mind. Does a treasure hunt for rubies and other precious gems sound fun? It does to me.
A road trip idea
If you’re thinking of road tripping down the East Coast, I suggest the following route: Boston; Providence & Newport; New York; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Panama City, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and in July will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when we went to the moon.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.