- Lifestyle & Sports
- 06 Feb 18
Throw out your old travel itinerary and explore our selection of this year’s best alternative destinations.
Maybe you’ve only heard of half of them – or maybe you’d never dreamed of going to any of them! – but for anyone with irrevocable wanderlust, you’d be absolutely mad to leave even one of our top destinations off your bucketlist. Taking you as far away as possible from the Western World’s well-worn tourist traps, or the eye-rolling stock of ‘found-myself’ epiphanies located in South-East Asia, we’re taking you to islands, countries and continents that will push your boundaries, open your mind and test the resolve of that fair Irish skin of yours. But before all that – Coventry.
All joking aside, you may not have to jam-pack your suitcase with sun cream, but when it comes to the English Midlands, it’s hard to think of a more central, convenient and exciting city at the moment than Coventry. This much-overlooked medieval city boasts an impressive – and devastating – history, as well as an ambitious future. Coventry was one of the cities worst affected by the Luftwaffe bombing campaign during World War II, and in the post-war period became a beacon of regeneration and modernisation. That sentiment is likely to take off again over the next few years, as Coventry gears up to become the official UK City of Culture in 2021.
So whether you’re thinking of heading to Coventry’s Godiva Festival (which regularly brings in over 100,000 during the start of July); looking to learn about the early history of Britain’s most famous 20th Century poet Philip Larkin; heading off to explore the city’s bubbling musical legacy (ska legends The Specials are among the acts to have emerged from city); or even just going out to meet the good-natured and fiercely city-proud citizens, Coventry is an ace stop-off.
For those looking to get there from Dublin, the easiest way is taking a relatively inexpensive flight to Birmingham, then getting a half-hour bus or train journey to the city.
Much like their former British compadres, the European Union also deign Capital of Culture status to several overlooked urban areas per year. For 2018, all eyes are on the northern Dutch city of Leeuwarden. A one-and-a-half hour drive from Amsterdam, Leeuwarden is situated on some of the Netherlands’ most rugged and versatile landscapes. To the north, you’ll find the Wadden Sea, a Unesco World Heritage and setting for Erskine Childers’ famed Irish novel, The Riddle In The Sands, while surrounding the city are four stunning national parks.
But while beautiful landscapes will stay around forever, 2018 is the year to get the full Leeuwarden experience. With over 40 major projects on the agenda and hundreds of individual events, the city will begin a cultural transformation on the stroke of noon, January 26, when new museums and attractions will open their doors. A choir of children will also sing a bespoke Leeuwarden anthem in the city centre.
And if that all seems a bit soppy for you, you may be more interested in some of the festivals taking place throughout the summer. June’s Oerol Festival sees the island of Terschelling transformed for ten days into one big stage for theatre, dance, street theatre, the visual arts and music, while July’s Welcome To The Village brings top national and international acts from the worlds of music, art, innovation and theatre right into the heart of the city. Dozens of other events across the next 12 months will seek to explore the artistry, vibrancy and personality of this unique city.
Moving south to sunnier ports, we arrive at Europe’s second Capital of Culture for the year ahead. Founded in 1565 by the Order of St John as a refuge for soldiers returning from the Crusades, the modern Valletta is now a slice of living, breathing history. With an unsurpassed collection of original Baroque architecture; fortified city walls overlooking the Mediterranean Sea; and a spectacular Cathedral, (which features intricately carved stone vaults and a famed painting by Caravaggio), it’s little wonder that this – the smallest of European capital cities – is also a world heritage site.
But far from being a mere historical relic, 2018 will see Valletta reborn, with restored museums, unique experiences around the city’s outlying areas, and new hotels, bars and restaurants popping up in wonderful converted 16th-century buildings. Flights to Malta go direct from Dublin and are eye-wateringly cheap, so don’t miss this chance.
Yes, it’s a firm outsider choice when it comes to advertising the sheer variety of American cities, but this year we’re taking our bets with Cleveland. Coming to most people’s attention after it played host to the much-publicised Republican National Convention in 2016 (a good endorsement or a bad one depending on your politics), Clevelanders themselves are always the first to declare that their city should’ve been in the international spotlight at least a decade earlier.
On top of a completely revitalised cultural scene (complete with plenty of opportunities for artists and musicians), Cleveland seems poised to muscle in as a tech start-up hub, luring young people away from places like San Fran and Boston, and providing them with a new workplace and playground.
All that aside, one of the biggest attractions of Cleveland over the years has been its professional sports teams. Despite having had a Mayo-esque curse on them (the city failed to win a trophy in any major sport from 1964-2016), the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, finally won the NBA Championships in 2016. If you’re in the city, and even if you don’t much care about sports at all, do the done thing and buy yourself a ticket to any football/baseball/basketball game. The city is also home to the world-renowned Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, which boasts several decades’ worth of mementos, souvenirs and memorabilia from some of the iconic artists in rock history.
Your gateway into the formidable African continent doesn’t have to begin with well-established countries like South Africa, Kenya, or Egypt. There’s literally hundreds of beautiful, undiscovered gems which have been side-stepped by many because of the perception of Africa as mainly a war-torn, poverty-stricken, resource-depleted continent. Even a brief journey out of your comfort zone will have you adamant that that view is, at best, reductive.
To that end, we’re singing the praises of Harar. The largest city in Ethiopia’s ‘laid-back east’, Harar is notable for its contradictions. The entire city is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a bustling commercial centre, it’s the fourth holiest city of Islam and makes the best beer in the country. You can visit the old town mosques and shrines, or the stately mansion which once belonged to the poet Arthur Rimbaud, or explore its surrounding natural environs (if you’re there at the right time, you can even take part in the long-standing yearly tradition of feeding organic refuse to hyenas).
La Paz, Boliva
Situated in a valley set against the stunning, swirling backdrop of the Andes Mountains, La Paz (pictured at the top) sits about 3300-4100 metres above sea level, making it the highest capital city in the world. This ‘city in the clouds’ is rich with stately 19th century churches, museums full of artefacts from Bolivia’s pre-Spanish Conquest era, and colourful markets (including the exotic Witch Market, which sells unique charms and potions, as well as souvenirs).
But truly the best part of La Paz is outside of the city itself. Ever since Bolivia passed its ‘Law of the Rights of Mother Earth’ (which astonishingly accords nature the same rights as humans), both the city and country have become a fine example of how societies should treat their beautiful, yet vulnerable, landscapes. If you have the time, take a three-day trek from the mountains of La Cumbre (the city’s highest peak) down through the jungle to the village of Chairo. Across the 60km journey, you’ll be able to experience the rapid change in climate, vegetation and wildlife, as you go from dizzying mountain tops to tropical forest plains.
Flights to La Paz involve a few stopovers, normally in London or Bogota, but for anyone planning on doing a long-term South American adventure, put this city high on your list.