In baseball, the sweet spot is the place on the bat where you can hit the ball best. In travel, the sweet spot it a bit different, but it has a similar reward. Visiting a city, region or country during its sweet spot is ideal. The crowds aren’t too big, the area isn’t a complete tourist trap and you get to see a spot before the entire world. I’ve visited many places during the first three months of my trip that are still in their sweet spot, a few that are just about ready for prime time and some that have already been well discovered.
Everyone will define sweet spots differently, but for the purpose of this article, I define a travel sweet spot as having:
- Adequate infrastructure and transportation to handle tourism
- Friendly and helpful locals
- Enough room to move (i.e. not being completely full of tourists)
- Bonus – it doesn’t break the bank
While some may see a sweet spot as one no one has discovered, I think it needs to have a bit more than that for most travelers to enjoy. Below are some places that I think are at their sweet spot, near their sweet spot and others who are past the spot. I’m not including places like Paris, London, Rome, etc., which despite being discovered long ago are still very much worth visiting!
Bosnia – I remember hearing about Bosnia during the war in the 1990s. I was curious to see how the country fared post conflict, and I’m pleased to report that they are on the rebound. While reminders of the war are ever-present with bombed-out buildings and mortar-pocked facades, there’s a great energy to the country – especially in Sarajevo – and a desire to welcome the world – especially Americans. Sarajevo has a lively downtown area with restaurants and night life, but Bosnia also has great beauty with waterfalls and mountains. I especially enjoyed my time with Sarajevo Funky Tours and I know they will be happy to show you around if you make it to town!
Iceland – When I visited Iceland in July, I was afraid that I may have already missed the sweet spot. Fortunately, it wasn’t true. But I have a feeling it will become too crowded very soon, so if you’d like to visit, get there ASAP. The tourism infrastructure and tours are excellent, the locals are friendly and speak great English and it has some amazing, untouched nature. It is, however, insanely expensive, so make sure to prepare for this before leaving.
Puglia – Perhaps one of my favorite spots on my trip so far, Puglia is a lovely gem in my favorite country – Italy. Nature, friendly locals, amazing food (this is Italy, right!). Puglia is not in a ton of guide books, and I think that it’s because it’s a bit more challenging to travel without a car. While there are trains and buses between most of the main towns, schedules to some locations are not as frequent. There are tours, but many of them are private, so book well in advance (or rent a car). You won’t regret it.
Slovenia – I first visited Slovenia two years ago, and loved the beautiful natural scenery, the friendly people and the ease of travel in small groups. I’m writing this today from Slovenia, and it’s still just as sweet. Ljubliana has the feel of a little Vienna, Bled has some of the most lovely Alpine lake views, and the coast feels like you’ve stepped into Venice. While the accommodations might not yet be five-star ( I think they’re coming), there’s adequate hotels and now is the time to visit before everyone discovers it!
Portugal – I visited Portugal last year, and besides the food poisioning, I highly recommend it. Nice, affordable hotels, great train and bus network, friendly locals, great tours and beautiful scenery. Not quite as discovered as Iceland, but I have a feeling the next five-years will have a major boon to tourism in this country.
Other Sweet Spots – Petra, Jordan; Annecy and Colmar, France; Tel Aviv, Israel; Korcula, Mljet and Brac, Croatia; Scottish Highlands
About to hit the Sweet Spot
Malta – I visited Malta in July, and while I really enjoyed the beautiful sites and amazing history, it’s not quite at its sweet spot. It is much busier than I thought it would be and has decent, but not great infrastructure. The capital Valletta is the 2018 European Capital of Culture, so I think in a few years, it will probably be an awesome spot to visit once the folks embrace hospitality a bit more and there’s roads and tours to support it.
Morocco – I spent 13 days in Morocco, and while I enjoyed it (minus not being able to eat anything there), I think it has a little way to go before becoming a sweet spot. The locals are super-friendly (although some may be considered too friendly), and if you can eat the food, it’s great. It’s fabulously inexpensive and there are lovely accommodations. It’s on the verge of a sweet spot, it could just use additional transportation options that I, as a female traveler, would feel more comfortable with. We ended up hiring a driver, which worked out well. If you can go that route, then I do think it’s very sweet and you should check it out!
For the adventurous type, I think some of these on the fringe of the sweet spot might be just right for you.
A Little Too Sweet
There’s a lot being written in the travel media about places that are turning away tourists. And honestly, most of these places are the ones that I find a bit past the sweet spot.
Croatia – I first wanted to visit Croatia 10 years ago and then again five years ago. It didn’t happen for various reasons, and I feel I may have missed the sweet spot. Cities like Dubrovnik, Split and Hvar are very crowded and the beautiful Plitvice Lakes can be shoulder to shoulder. That being said, I really enjoyed Croatia and am glad I finally made it. I also think there are some locations still in their sweet spot, such as Brac, Korcula and Mljet.
Barcelona – I’m pretty sure everyone on earth disagrees with me, but I think Barcelona is a bit past its prime. I love the Gaudi, I love the sea, but the crowds just get to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t think you should visit, but beware of crowds – especially on La Rambla.
Prague – I visited Prague five years ago, which was about five years after I first wanted to visit… it was full of tacky souvenir shops and tons of bachelor and bachelor parties. It was also beautiful, but frustrating to see the beauty being a bit trampled on.
However, just because a location is past its sweet spot, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still visit. These places are popular for a reason, and have many beautiful things to see. You just need to plan it a better so that you hit the shoulder seasons (often May and September in Europe), visit popular spots very early in the morning or later in the day and bring your patience!
Your Sweet Spots?
So what are your sweet spots? Where should people go now before they’re over-discovered? What are some that should only be visited in low-season? And where do you think the next sweet spot will be?