5 Fabulous Places Around the World I Discovered Thanks to Spontaneous Trips
17th February 2018
It doesn’t matter whether you follow your guide or your gut while traveling. I wholeheartedly believe everyone should try what I call ‘free roaming,’ or spontaneous walks, as a way of sightseeing at least once in their lifetime. Sure, thanks to a scrupulous itinerary you get to see all the attractions you’d dreamed of, but sometimes the most memorable adventure awaits you in the least expected places.
For those of you who are reluctant to throw away guidebooks, I’ve prepared a list of 5 incredible places I discovered thanks to carefree strolls with no purpose, map, or a particular aim in mind. Footloose and fancy-free. That’s the spirit!
Some of these places are popular spots, which you will find in guides. Nevertheless, I came across them by chance as they hadn’t been on my itinerary. Others are quite exotic places, and therefore even more tempting.
Ready? Let’s roam!
1. Haputale, Sri Lanka – lip-smacking food at a local diner.
Haputale is a small town in Sri Lanka, Badulla District, elevated about 1,500 meters above the sea level. We stopped over there for a short stay to visit Lipton’s Seat and the surrounding tea plantations. Planned, and for a good reason. Just take a look at these gorgeous landscapes:
To admire that spectacular view, we had to get up pretty early, before fog lifts and hides all of it from us. We spent a good few hours strolling up and down the plantation hills and then visited the nearby Dambatenne Tea Factory to take a sip of the local tea and learn how the tea is processed to end up boiling in our European kettles.
At the end of a long day at a plantation, we came back to Haputale. No plan, no map, no idea where to go.
Unexpected culinary gem in Haputale
Haputale stretches along a swirl of green steep hills and ridges. The town is also quite small, so it literally begs for a spontaneous, carefree stroll. As we were roaming the serpentine paths, we came across several viewpoints overlooking tea plantations, bushy hilltops, and grass areas. Some of the views there were genuinely breath-taking. But apart from the soul, a body has a stomach, too. We got hungry.
Haputale is not an extremely touristy place, but local food was exactly what we were hoping for. We continued our walk along one of the town’s main roads and found ourselves a cozy place, Spice Hotel. Our expectations were quite modest. We just wanted some food. The diner looked decent, it offered a wide choice of food (as displayed on the picture boards outside of the shop), and there was a free table. And they had both, Coke and Pepsi.
As I mentioned, we didn’t expect a lot, but the food over there was delicious. The host paid little attention to our English or our order. He simply served us whatever was available: roti, bean curry, fish curry, fried fish, roti, fried rice, and vegetable mixes. And all of it was delectable.
I’ve tried a lot of delicious food during our stay on the island, but this outranked most of them. The entire meal was also very inexpensive. The total for three people for all the food with drinks was about… $5.
Verdict: Sometimes it’s better to try your luck when looking for a place to eat instead of meticulously checking restaurant comparison sites. I’m not sure whether Spice Hotel in Haputale is in Trip Advisor, but I had no idea it existed back in 2017 and had it not been for free roaming I would have missed that food gem!
2. Busan, South Korea – fishermen’s tents.
Yep, this one is also food-related. We’re in Busan (or Pusan) now, South Korea, the country’s second-largest city, and its busiest port.
To be honest, the city did not appeal to me, maybe except for the impressive Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Should I plan my trip to South Korea again (and yes! I hope to visit that country sometime in the future again, as it is entirely fascinating), I’d skip it and go to Geoje or Daegu instead.
But there’s one thing I definitely don’t regret, and it’s something I had not included in my sightseeing plan for Busan. Again, I had no idea this place existed, and I discovered it by wandering around with no purpose.
Culinary adventures on Haeundae Beach
Busan boasts the longest and most famous strip of beach in the country, Haeundae Beach. For sure, in the summer it looks much more impressive, but in the winter, we did not expect to find it terribly appealing. Especially at dusk.
But I’m a sea fanatic, and in Poland, we’re always told that we need more iodine. And is there a better way to get more of it than to have a random long seaside walk along a South Korean beach?
As we walked along the coast, we spotted this:
These are fishermen’s tents lined along Haeundae Beach. In each of the tent, there are fish tanks with several species of live seafood, a small bar table, and seating for about 6-8 people. Every tent also serves local beer and soju, a Korean distilled alcoholic beverage, usually made of rice.
Don’t let your mind play tricks on you when I say ‘seafood.’ Most of the seafood here is not your usual red lobster. Meet the local delicacy, Urechis unicinctus, or, which pretty adequately represents its looks, penis fish:
So you say or show what you want, the bar owner fishes the poor thing out and prepares it for you at the back of the fish tanks. Again, ‘prepares’ doesn’t usually mean ‘cook,’ but bone, crack open or decapitate, as most of the food is eaten raw.
Here are the poor fish again:
I did not eat them though. As hypocritical as it may be to someone, it would break my heart to watch a fish or another creature swimming and then see it dead on my plate 5 minutes later. So even though I was starving when we got there, I preferred to fake stomach ache and nibble on my husband’s cucumber and tomato.
Polish-Korean diplomacy saved by a bug
But our Korean companions whom we met 10 minutes earlier and who invited us to join their tent must have known that I was pretending. They practically did not speak any English at all but understood that I wouldn’t eat anything of the swimming lot. No problem. They presented me with a lovely little cup full of… fried bugs.
A woman gotta do what a woman gotta do. In that case, I had to set all my humanitarian objections aside, save my own face and the entire Polish-Korean diplomatic relationships. I took my aluminum chopsticks, dipped them in the cup, pulled out a poor, little, scorched bastard, and crunched it. And then another one.
It tasted like burnt whey protein. (Our comrades from Korea chanted: “Pro-tein! Pro-tein!”)
My face expressed confusion mixed with distaste and a desperate cry for help and kale (kidding, I don’t care for kale). But our Korean comrades cheered us with a glass of soju. I guess I saved us from a Polish-Korean conflict.
Verdict: Sometimes, you plan, and you fail. But then you go with the flow and wander off to find places where, unexpectedly, you experience things that will become your memories for life.
3. San Fran, USA – scenic walk down Sea Cliff.
Some of you (depending on your age) will recognize this picture:
Again, this is a “Full-House” landmark I had planned to see during my visit in the breath-taking, one-of-a-kind city of San Fran. Of course, the Golden Gate Bridge was another must-see attraction on my list.
However, because San Francisco has so many iconic landmarks (Alcatraz, cable cars, Union Square, Chinatown, Pier 39, to name just a few), it’s easy to overlook places that are also worthy of your attention when you’re meticulously planning the trip.
Mansions with a view
It was a luminous morning when I ventured to admire the collection of Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum. That part was on my itinerary. What I had not included there was a leisurely stroll down to the Golden Gate, past enormous luxury mansions on El Camino del Mar street, all the way down to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Initially, I thought about taking a bus from the Museum to the Bridge. But as it often happens during my trips, I changed my mind. Instead of heading back to the bus stop, I went downhill and followed my intuition, the advice of the passers-by, and sparse roadsigns to discover one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever seen.
The coastline is lined up with grand mansions overlooking the ocean, outlined by perfectly trimmed lawns and pampered hedge fences. That kind of estates which you can see in “Big Little Lies” or other TV series about nasty rich, incredibly successful, and too-beautiful-to-be-true people. As these are private properties, I wasn’t taking any photos, but if you want to see some of these beauties (Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder supposedly lives in one of them), just google “El Camino del Mar mansions.” The asking price in this area usually oscillates around $5-10 million.
As I continued my walk, the trek got much bumpier. The local path turns into a cliffy hike with a spectacular view onto the entire bay and the Bridge. The whole route takes about 1-1,5 hour on foot and may be challenging at times, but boy, it’s worth it.
Verdict: I’m the first person to carefully check transport options. But I don’t always stick to them. Getting off the bus and choosing a walk instead may lead you to some awe-inspiring spots.
4. Barcelona, Spain – Montjuïc cemetery.
You can find this cemetery in some guidebooks. However, I had no idea this place existed until I came across it by chance when we were wandering around the Montjuïc hill.
Visiting graveyards when I’m abroad is my thing. First of all, every culture has its unique set of funeral practices and burial customs. In some regions, people are buried horizontally, in others – vertically, in some countries, people prefer to keep their graves modest, while in others – e.g., in Poland, they invest exorbitant amounts of money in cemetery decorations. In some traditions, it’s customary to display pictures of the deceased, in others, there’s very little information provided about the unfortunate inhabitant of the grave. Regardless of the geographical location, burying sites are always a place where one can retreat to seek peace, composure, and reflection.
A resting place on hilly slopes
Barcelona’s Montjuïc cemetery, also known as Cementiri del Sud-oest, offers one of the best viewpoints of the city. It is a place unlikely to be included in a typical ‘must-see’ guide, but I’d definitely call it the city’s hidden gem.
Opened in the late 19th century, the cemetery is laid out on a surprisingly symmetrical plan, with roads, roundabouts, and pedestrian crossings intersecting its alleys. There are even several bus stops along the main cemetery road. This remarkable topology results from the fact that a large section of the cemetery is supposed to imitate the layout of Barcelona’s Eixample district. Tellingly, the Montjuïc cemetery creates an impression of a city of its own, a modern necropolis.
What I also found exceptional about this place was the distribution and display of caskets. Most of them are not buried, but placed in compartments, or niches, within high, long sections of walls, in the same fashion as we store urns nowadays. Each niche has a small screen behind which one can place a candle or flowers. To reach to the top niches, people who visit graves need to use a… ladder on wheels, similar to the one used in libraries.
Verdict: When you travel with an itinerary, you tend to oversee places that don’t seem an instant tourist attraction. But quite often, there’s much more to them than meets the eye. Unplanned travel gives you an advantage because you don’t take any sights for granted. And your efforts will be rewarded.
5. Shinjuku Golden Gai, Tokyo, Japan.
This one is a bit of a cheat as we had a local helping us here. But if you have an insider who can help you around and show you the real city, then you’d be a fool not to use such a joker. Especially in such an exhilarating, breath-taking, energetic, monster-city as Tokyo. We only had 36 hours to spend there, minus the time to sleep (but we used it to the maximum – check my next post, ‘36 Hours in Tokyo You Won’t Forget… A Traveler’s Guide to High-Speed Tokyo Tour‘).
Shinjuku was on my list, but Golden Gai – nope. I didn’t find it in any of the typical ‘top Tokyo attractions’ guides, and I don’t want it to get included there (it is on Wikipedia, though). This way, Golden Gai will maintain its incredibly low-profile, a bit dodgy, and wonderfully decadent feel, a bit like the one in Krakow’s underground drinking holes in the early 90’s.
Golden Gai is an area composed of 5 or 6 ultra-narrow alleys joined by tight passageways. In the lanes, there are dozens of minuscule bars and pubs, seating 5-8 people each. Some of these places are out of bounds for foreigners (“Japanese only. Foreigners not welcome.”), others are very hospitable. In most, a seat charge applies. In many, you will get a free appetizer (we got some Japanese kimchi with fried chicken).
What more can I say? I absolutely fell in love with that place!
If you want to read more about Golden Gai, check out the Wikipedia entry and click on this article: http://www.unmissabletokyo.com/golden-gai.
Verdict: If you know a local person, don’t follow any guide, review website, or your gut. Just ask that person for a recommendation to experience a place abroad as if you lived there.
Final verdict: Ready to roam free?
So what’s your final decision? Are you more willing to go footloose now? Shred your map and enjoy uninhibited exploration!