I recently went on a trip to Cleveland, USA, a city I can honestly say I've never even thought of as a travel destination, and there's a reason for that: it isn't one. I had a great time, though, and it made me realise that smaller, non-touristy cities are actually awesome for travel.
Illustration by Sam Woolley
Popular cities are filled with tourists for a reason: there's usually a lot to see and do. Cleveland isn't exactly Tokyo, after all. That said, just because a city isn't featured on your favourite travel show doesn't mean it's not worth visiting. Here are a few reasons to visit a city even though it may not be known for its tourism.
You Can Have a Great Time on a Budget
Generally, non-tourist cities are more affordable. There's less travel demand, so flight prices are usually cheaper. Plus, non-tourist cities are usually smaller cities, where cost of living is lower. For example, coming from a big city, I was pleasantly surprised when I ordered a drink at a fancy Cleveland bar and my drink was $US6 ($8), half of what I normally pay in L.A.
It's not just food and drink, though. It's generally easier to find flight deals, depending on where you live, of course. You can use Google Flights or Kayak's Explore tool to browse cheap flight prices around the world, depending on when you want to travel. You pick a month or specific date, the tool shows you how much it costs to fly to various cities around that time, and you pick a place that suits your budget.
Budget Travel lists a few mid-sized cities in Europe where you can typically find great deals and Travel + Leisure has their own list for the U.S. The point is, if you're looking for a new place to explore and you don't have a specific attraction in mind like the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge, non-tourist cities are a budget-friendly option.
You Can See More in a Limited Amount of Time
There's more to love beyond the price tag, though. For one, it's a lot easier to navigate a smaller city with fewer tourists (and people in general).
You don't have to fight crowds and stand in line for an hour to see the city's attractions. This gives you time to do more stuff on your itinerary. A Smaller town means thinner crowds, which gives you more time and opportunity to do the coolest stuff on your itinerary without wading through oceans of people and paying too much for tickets.
Better yet, don't even bother with an itinerary. That's what I enjoy most about non-tourist cities: you don't have to schedule every single hour of your day. In Cleveland, I just left my hotel room when I finished up some work, then wandered into the city at my convenience and Yelped a few things to do. This is a lot more difficult in touristy cities.You never know how packed a place will be, or if you need tickets or reservations, and you may spend an hour trying to get there. If it's too far from where you have to be later in the day, forget it.
Don't get me wrong, I love visiting big cities and exploring everything they have to offer, but you have to strategize your day, pick a central hotel, and basically, plan your entire trip around a limited time frame. In smaller cities, you have far more flexibility. Since crowds are non-existent and demand isn't high, you can do stuff at your leisure, which is a lot more enjoyable if your holiday goal is to relax.
It's also easier to get to know a non-tourist city. You can visit some cities several times and still not even scratch the surface on all they have to offer. Hell, I've lived in Los Angeles for six years and I still can't keep up with it and don't completely understand it. With a smaller city, you can squeeze in more activities and sights, and you're not just rushing through those activities, you have time to explore, which makes it a lot easier to appreciate and understand the city's culture.
You Don't Have to Fight Tourist Culture
To me, travel is about exploring new places and experiencing new things. Non-tourist spots offer a different kind of experience from popular travel destinations.
For one, you don't have to worry about tourist traps. If you have lunch too close to the Coliseum, for example, chances are, you'll pay too much for crappy Italian food. You have to venture off the beaten path. Sure, you can Yelp some places, but you're relying on a bunch of other tourist recommendations, so it's still hit or miss. When you're in a non-tourist city, you're already off the beaten path! That's not to say delicious food will fall into your lap, but at least you don't have to contend with overpriced, overrated tourist food.
There's a lot of novelty in touristy cities, too. It's hard to tell which attractions are overrated and which are worthwhile, and a lot of it is subjective anyway.In non-tourist cities, you don't have to worry about that. Sure, you'll still find an overpriced gift shop wherever you roam, you don't need but you'll also find plenty of locals who just consider the attraction part of their city, not some tourist novelty.
Many travellers spend a lot of time avoiding tourism in general. We don't want to see the overrated sights every other visitor sees; we want to dig deeper and experience the heart of a city and live like locals. Lesser known destinations are perfect for this. You don't have to worry about fighting tourism because you're not in a touristy place to begin with. Granted, there are plenty of reasons to visit those beautiful, popular cities that are on everyone's bucket list. However, non-tourist destinations offer a whole different kind of travel experience that's definitely worthwhile.