Nine awesome tourist attractions in unlikely locations

"What am I doing here?"

That's one of those golden questions for travellers, the kind of thing you'll ponder on many occasions. Sometimes it's in a positive way (say, standing in front of the Great Pyramid), sometimes in a negative way (standing in front of another bus terminal), and sometimes it's out of complete confusion (anywhere/anytime in India). But the question remains: what am I doing here?

I've found recently, however, that there's another great question to ask yourself: what's this doing here? Because, just the same as finding yourself in strange places, there are some tourist attractions around the world that also crop up in very odd locations.

I love them. I love arriving somewhere and finding something so completely unexpected in a part of the globe it really doesn't belong. They're not necessarily strange attractions - just strangely located attractions. I've come up with a list of recent attractions that have made me think, "What's this doing here?"

MONA, Australia

This was actually the catalyst for this story, a visit to Tasmania's now-world-famous modern art gallery. There you are cruising down the Derwent aboard the ridiculous MR-1 ferry, looking at the neat little houses and the countryside along the way, when MONA appears by the side of the river. Our country's most interesting and daring collection of modern art, housed in a building that's an attraction in itself, cut into the side of a cliff, and it's out in the middle of nowhere, Tasmania.

El Djem amphitheatre, Tunisia

There's not much going on in the town of El Djem. It's a working city in the centre of Tunisia, a place surrounded on all sides by flat, featureless desert, with little to recommend it as a tourist destination. No nice buildings, no monuments, no quiet streets. Except there's something even better. Because eventually you'll round a corner and see an incredible sight towering above: an almost 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, a 35,000-seat stadium that rivals the Coliseum in size and grandeur, sitting right in the middle of the city. And not a fake Gladiator in sight. 

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran

Given Iran's fractured relationship with the West, and its fiercely proud history and traditions, you could reasonably expect that you wouldn't find much in the way of European artwork on display in its capital city. And you'd be wrong. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art houses works by Pollock, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Munch and Miro - among many others. It's as impressive as it is unexpected.

Hearst Castle, USA

The hills around San Simeon, on the central Californian coast, are dotted with plenty of little farmhouses and holiday homes. They're also the location, however, of one of the most ridiculously opulent - and publicly accessible - mansions in the USA: Hearst Castle. Designed for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the castle is a hodgepodge of collectibles and treasures from throughout the world, from centuries-old European ceilings to a Roman-style indoor pool. And it's all perched on a hill a few hours north of LA.

Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

It's not so much that they exist here, in this location - it's the fact these churches exist at all that's so surprising. While most people know about the rock-hewn city of Petra in Jordan, few know that something equally impressive exists in a tiny town deep in the mountains of Ethiopia. Lalibela is home to a network of 11 churches that have been chiseled out of solid rock, huge structures that are almost 1000 years old. They should be a wonder of the world.

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Goldwell Museum, USA

No one lives in Rhyolite. It's literally a ghost town, a crumbling ruin of a place in the western Nevadan desert that boomed during the mining years, and then busted spectacularly afterwards, leaving behind a library, a town hall, and little else. Little else, that is, except for the Goldwell Open Air Museum, a collection of sculptures by a group of Belgian artists who for some reason decided they wanted to place their creations in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The permanent collection of seven sometimes-creepy sculptures is topped up by a revolving cast of guest exhibitors.

Faviken Restaurant, Sweden

It's strange enough that the world's 25th best restaurant can be found in Sweden. This is not, after all, a traditionally great culinary nation. But what's even stranger is that Faviken is smack bang in the middle of nowhere. Even by Swedish standards it's out there - the town of Jarpen is a good six and a half hours on the train from Stockholm. Set in the wilderness of northern Sweden, Faviken is housed in an 18th century barn, and serves food that is mostly foraged or hunted from the local area. And it's incredibly good.

Tierra Santa, Argentina

Out on the banks of the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires you can find plenty of amusement, mostly in the form of trendy restaurants and super-clubs like Pacha. This is, after all, the uber-cool Belgrano district, and it's a place people come to party. Just next to all of this, however, is a fairly incongruous sight: Tierra Santa, or "Saint Land". It's a religious theme park where a 12-metre-high Jesus is resurrected every hour, and vendors sell falafel rolls in a life-sized fake Jerusalem. Weird.

Memento Park, Hungary

When you think big, imposing social realist statues of angry men waving fingers at you, you'd generally think of Russia. And maybe Poland. Or even Ukraine. So it's a surprise to find perhaps the world's best collection of these huge sculptures in Budapest. At Memento Park, many of the formidable statues that dotted the city during the Communist period - including figures of Lenin, Marx and Engels - have been collected. It's a reminder of a past that seems like it can't ever have existed there.

(Note: Tunisia, Iran and Ethiopia are currently on DFAT's 'Reconsider your need to travel' list, so bear that in mind before planning a trip to these attractions right now.)

What are your favourite tourist attractions in unlikely places?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: The best country in the world for food

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