The world's 21 most underrated, surprising destinations

Surprises happen. There are the places for which you expected little or nothing and they win you over, their reality far better than the expectation. Then there are the other places which we didn't know that much about, or we'd badly misunderstood, only to discover something truly different, and special.

This is what travel is all about. The delight of discovery. The opportunity to sort fact from fiction, to decide for yourself, to determine the places you love and the places you'd prefer to forget.

The following eclectic places and attractions - some of which we've managed to experience during the course of the pandemic - have all taken the Traveller team by surprise, in the best possible ways. - Ben Groundwater

CONTRIBUTORS: Anthony Dennis, Ben Groundwater, Julietta Jameson; Brian Johnston, Catherine Marshall, Rob Mcfarland, David Whitley

CITIES

DOHA, QATAR

The skyline of West Bay and Doha City Center during sunret, Qatar
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The skyline of West Bay and Doha city centre at sunset. Photo: iStock

I'm discomfited by the queues of downcast Ethiopian labourers lined up at Doha immigration, but a 14-hour stopover lures me from the chilled arrivals hall into the oppressive heat of this Persian Gulf country. I'm ferried to Souk Waqif, where I waft through shisha fumes in warrens piled high with Ottoman trinkets and bolts of dazzling fabric. Nearby is Doha's famed Corniche, a pale crescent tracing a foreshore from which I behold a city arising from sand, white as the pearls once farmed here, and a gulf coloured preternaturally blue. See visitqatar.qa CM

See also: Six of the best museums in Doha, Qatar

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Few tourists make it from the coastal citadel of Rio to Sao Paulo, Brazil's financial capital. I arrived in Sao Paulo expecting little, aside from a reunion with Brazilian friends. What I found, however, was a multicultural city, a creative city, and a city that knows how to have a good time once it finally leaves the office. I went dancing. I ate churrasco. I lunched at the belle époque Mercado Municipal. Mostly I met people. Warm, friendly, engaging people. See visitbrasil.com BG

NEW PLYMOUTH, NZ

Stuck out on its own on the North Island's western flank, New Plymouth is on the way to nowhere. Yet, it's home to the striking Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (dedicated to modernist filmmaker and kinetic artist Len Lye), a delightful 13-kilometre sculpture-peppered coastal walkway and the beguiling Pukeiti botanic garden. What really swung it for me was the Pouakai Crossing, a stunning 19-kilometre tramp in the shadow of Mount Taranaki. See taranaki.co.nz RM

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MANCHESTER, UK

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Millennium Bridge and Lowry Centre at dawn, Salford Quays, Manchester. Photo: Alamy

Manchester. Wasn't it just some grimy former industrial city commiserating itself over a lost empire? But a combination of massive urban renewal projects and a subsequent Cool Britannia overhaul resulted in revitalised docks, warehouse districts and downtown core. Grand Victorian civic architecture now blends with industrial chic, and the city buzzes with boutique hotels, quirky shopping, good dining, funky bars, and live music. It has added impressive museums too, including the very interactive Imperial War Museum North. See visitmanchester.com BJ

See also: Nine things you should do in Manchester

ADELAIDE, SA

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Adelaide Fringe Festival. Photo: Meaghan Coles

I have to admit that "the city of churches" doesn't sound enticing to me. I mean: churches. Great. I'm not even that jazzed about churches in Europe. So I didn't have high hopes for Adelaide. But then I arrived and almost immediately discovered the best food market in all of Australia. I found a charmingly laid-back CBD embraced by parklands on all sides. I found a world-class arts scene. See southaustralia.com BG

See also: Move over, Melbourne and Sydney: Australia has a new most liveable city

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA

So often considered just a transit hub for travel within Central and South America (guilty as charged), Panama City has a lot more going for it. Highlights included visiting the mind-boggling expansion of the Panama Canal, wandering through Casco Viejo, the city's atmospheric historic district, and an immersive gangster tour (led by a former gang leader) around what was once one of the city's most dangerous suburbs. See visitpanama.com RM

NAPLES, ITALY

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The cityscape of Naples, Campania, Italy. Photo: iStock

No one is supposed to like crime-ridden and run-down Naples. But then, no one tells you about Naples' heart, about its soul, about its deeply appealing sense of passion and humanity. Walk narrow cobbled streets here and see tiny shrines dedicated to local saints. Feast on pizza while Che Guevara and Diego Maradona stare down from graffitied walls. Drink Italy's finest coffee. Drink in its loudest and warmest characters. See italia.it BG

HULL, UK

Once voted the UK's "Crappiest Town", Yorkshire's only maritime city has spent decades battling "Get the Hull out of there" jokes. Yet, its cultural cachet includes the award-winning Ferens Art Gallery and one of the country's most innovative theatre companies, Hull Truck Theatre. Add, too, The Deep, a stunning subterranean aquarium, and a busy calendar of festivals. See visithull.org RM

TUCSON, US

The notion of a "college town" in the desert conjured up images of beer-swilling, dust-kicking, boredom-busting mayhem. But Tucson, Arizona, is a cultural delight, right from its proper Mexican restaurants and authentic steakhouses, to its beautiful, 1797 Mission San Xavier del Bac church. Add in the fabulously retro Hacienda del Sol hotel, where Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn once had trysted, and it's a perfect oasis. See tucson.org JJ

TOWNS

GUNDAGAI, NSW

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Aerials overlooking Gundagai NSW

Gundagai, NSW. Photo: Destination NSW

"A toilet stop enroute from Sydney to Melbourne" was the consensus from friends about Gundagai in the heart of NSW's Riverina. What they failed to mention was the striking bronze sculpture honouring the life-saving flood efforts of two local Indigenous  men, Yarri and Jackey,  the incredible Rusconi's Marble Masterpiece (a one-metre-high baroque sculpture made from 20,948 pieces of Australian marble), the Old Gundagai Gaol (once home to notorious bushrangers Moonlite and Peisley) and two National Trust-listed timber viaducts. See visitnsw.com RM

See also: Track winding back gets busy as Gundagai enjoys a renaissance

LIGHTNING RIDGE, NSW

Passing through on a somewhat directionless road trip to accrue hours for my daughter's driver's licence, my low expectations stemmed from visits to Coober Pedy and White Cliffs, opal mining settlements scratched from the moonscape. But the local bowlo's bar and bistro were bursting with jovial inhabitants and for a few dollars apiece for a year-long guest membership, we could dine there. Later, a chatty Irish fellow checked us into his motel while a German woman at the opal museum apologised for the heat. See lightningridgeinfo.com.au CM

COOKTOWN, QLD

In "Cookie", the locals talk about the "one-finger wave" when you pass another car on the road and the driver lifts a digit off the wheel as a greeting. You raise an index finger too, and continue on your way. You'll wave to the next car too, in about half an hour or so. There aren't many people up here in Cape York and those that are around will always smile and nod if they see you "doing a wharfie", Cooktown's refurbished wharf area. I had no idea how charming this town would be. See queensland.com BG

TIBOOBURRA, NSW

In this part of the world, with its red, red soils butting against glimmering white gibber plains, the giant, empty sky, uninterrupted by trees or power poles diminish your sense of place in the world. You can feel tiny – and a bit scared, like you should turn back immediately. No bad thing, especially when you finally reach Tibooburra, and meet the hardy, generous folk who call this tiny and isolated town home. See visitnsw.com JJ

WYNDHAM, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

By the early 1900s Wyndham's gold had run out and the population dwindled. Today, you pass by the "Big Crocodile", a vulgar piece of Australiana kitsch and then the "work camp" or, in reality, jail. There is a photo from here dating to the late 1800s, early 1900s. It is of Aboriginal people in neck chains at the then Wyndham prison. No photo better illustrates the brutal treatment of Australia's Indigenous peoples. Seeing modern Wyndham and the context of that photo deepened my thirst for truth and acknowledgement of the past. See westernaustralia.com JJ

PLACES AND EXPERIENCES

HOOVER DAM, US

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It would have been churlish to object to my engineer husband's desire to detour to Hoover Dam (but, really a 400 kilometres round trip to see a dam?) while driving Route 66. And what a revelation this concrete arch gravity dam - built during the Great Depression on the Colorado River where it bisects Arizona and Nevada - turned out to be. The structure is an engineering masterwork of white concrete and azure water plugging a gargantuan cleft in the red volcanic rock of Black Canyon. See usbr.gov CM

NORFOLK ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

Norfolk always sounded like a pensioner's paradise (each to their own), a pale comparison to a more glamorous and wondrous Lord Howe Island. Lord, Howe wrong I was, and, oh, why did I take so long to finally go? Time doesn't merely stand still on Norfolk, a former draconian penal settlement from the 19th century, it opens up its lungs and draws in deep the 110 per cent pure South Pacific air and marvels at the stupendous seabirds forever circling above bottle green-capped sheer cliffs pummeled by eternal crashing waves. See norfolkisland.com.au AD

GOLD COAST, QLD

I'm a Queenslander originally, so I'm allowed to say I've never had much time for the Gold Coast, tacky and touristy with high-rises shadowing the beach, dodgy nightclubs and tatted-up dudes in hotted-up utes. But then I ventured south to Burleigh Heads and Palm Beach, around Currumbin and Kirra. I'd move there tomorrow for the restaurants, bars and cafes, the markets, the surf clubs, the seaside promenades, the laid back beachy vibes. Give me the friendly people and the outdoorsy lifestyle. See queensland.com BG

TAIWAN

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Taipei, Taiwan at Liberty Square. Photo: Getty Images

I never thought I'd hate Taiwan, it's just that, well, I didn't really know what to think of this confusing country you're having, when you're not having, or allowed to have, a true country. Taiwan or Chinese Taipei? Formosa or the Republic of China? What I found was indeed a nation, an advanced, sophisticated, friendly, at times spectacular island that has drawn in the best aspects of mainland China and Japan, its former coloniser, as reflected in its superb fused cuisine. Let it only ever be invaded by appreciative and discerning tourists. See eng.taiwan.net.tw AD

CROWN SYDNEY, NSW

Despite all of the controversies swirling around it, Crown knows how to wow. It starts in the lobby, a mesmerising montage of white marble, mirrored columns and a six-storey crystal chandelier and continues at the fifth-floor infinity pool, an Instagram magnet with Vegas-style private cabanas. By comparison, the 349 rooms and villas are relatively restrained with plush furnishings and quality finishes with wow-factor harbour views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Casino or no casino, it's the statement property Sydney's been missing. See crownsydney.com.au RM

SCULPTUREUM, MATAKANA, NZ

I arrived expecting a lacklustre collection of haphazardly curated vanity pieces. How wrong I was. It took a full-time barrister, Anthony Grant, seven years to transform 10 hectares of farmland near Matakana, 70 kilometres north of Auckland, into this startlingly original experience. The complex contains more than 400 works, spread over six galleries and three gardens, ranging from serious pieces by Picasso, Rodin and Cezanne. The highlight? A stunning two-metre-high orange and blue glass chandelier by celebrated American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. See sculptureum.nz RM

EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISING

As someone whose idea of a river trip involved charging through class five rapids, the idea of a sedate European river cruise never appealed. And then came along U by Uniworld with its sexy jet-black ships and active itineraries. Aimed at the "young and young at heart", during a seven-night cruise along the Danube from Regensburg, Germany. to Budapest, Hungary our trip featured morning yoga classes, silent discos, drumming workshops and rooftop parties. See uniworld.com RM

Agree? Disagree? What are your own places that you never thought you'd end up loving? Write to us at travellerletters@traveller.com.au and we're publish the most interesting responses

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