Long-suffering readers of the blog will know that I’m in my element when I’m tracking down unusual or obscure sights on my travels, but I know not everyone finds it easy to do the detective work, especially if you’re short on time or patience.
I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take much of an effort to really research a destination, so that’s why I was pretty chuffed to see Expedia throwing down the gauntlet to travellers with the launch of their new interactive map, called Hidden Places, centred around Dubrovnik, in Croatia.
By taking one very popular city and giving users a ton of useful trivia (crafted into a beautiful map by the team at Caliber), the idea is to arm holidaymakers with enough information to head off the beaten track. Or, in the case of Dubrovnik, the Stradun, which is its busiest tourist street. Having devised my own interactive map of Rome in the past, I know just how much of a labour of love this can be, but the pay-off comes when you see how much it inspires people.
I was keen to quiz Adam Rowley, of Caliber, to find out more about Expedia’s Hidden Places. Firstly, what was the reason for creating it? “The interactive guide takes users to the lesser known corners of the city,” said Adam, “to find the hidden gems tourists wouldn’t think to visit.” What really makes the map stand out is the use of quirky collage-style animals, dreamt up by design creatives Giulia Ferro and Aurore Carric, to introduce those hidden gems. Each animal was specifically chosen for its relevance to Croatia, from the rare lynx to the Dalmatian dog.
As well as introducing users to new sightseeing opportunities, the guide also gives some useful background information on some of the more popular attractions in the area, such as Lazareti, a former quarantine house that’s now a nightclub (if you’re not a fan of clubbing, but your friends refuse to let you leave Lazareti without them, I imagine you’ll get the quarantine vibe big-time). For something more low-key, it recommends Sulic Beach, which is ‘mostly used by locals’ – surely a great place to ditch the crowds.
So, how did the Croatian hotspot get to be picked for the challenge of Expedia’s first Hidden Places map? “We chose Dubrovnik because of its popularity this summer,” Adam explained. If you want to dissect that popularity, you don’t have to dig deep to find impressive travel press in recent years, with the Independent calling Dubrovnik ‘essential viewing’ in 2012 and dropping in one of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quotes amongst its summary.
In 2013, the Mirror sang the praises of the local Game of Thrones walking tour, operated by Viator, giving tourists a new way of looking at Croatian sights – they could now explore real life locations for scenes set in (fictional) King’s Landing and Qarth. In the same year, prolific blogger Gary Arndt dropped by for a visit, and National Geographic Traveller published a glowing city guide, unable to resist titling it ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, after Bernard Shaw’s comments. Today, with local bloggers like Englishman in Dubrovnik keeping enthusiasm alive, it’s hard to ignore the lure of this place.
Ultimately, the great thing about tools like Hidden Places is the scope for users to really blossom into curious adventurers, rather than resorting to their usual holiday habits or favourite places time and time again. Expedia hopes holidaymakers will be encouraged to broaden their horizons after using the map. “It would be great if people develop an appetite for visiting Croatia as a country,” Adam told me.
If you’ve already booked your holiday this year but you’re still lacking the motivation to do a bit of hands-on research à la Expedia, here are my top tips for tracking down the secret side of a destination:
- Don’t rely on TripAdvisor alone – due to the quantity and brevity of reviews, you could easily be put off visiting a more unusual sight, simply because a few people have written comments like: ‘Boring! Wasted two hours of my life here. Zzz!’.
- Get Googling local bloggers or well respected global websites for more insightful tips. Firstly, try a straightforward search for ‘[Destination name] + blog’, then try more specific terms, or longtail search queries, in the Blogsearch strand of Google.
- Remember that it’s not only the alternative/hipster neighbourhoods where you’ll find unusual attractions. You’re just as likely to find hidden gems in plain sight, such as street art off the main thoroughfares of Prague, or one of the best (and most overlooked) bars in Reykjavik on the tourist-heavy street of Laugavegur. I know because I tracked them down!
- It may sound obvious, but make sure you’re not putting your tourist blinkers on. As long as you stay aware of your surroundings and don’t spend the entire time with your head in the guidebook or focused on your iPhone, you’ll be ready to seek out the unusual.
- Whilst many travellers only go as far as asking the hotel receptionist for advice, it pays to look further afield for top tips. Staff in restaurants, bars and shops are often happy to give you some recommendations, as long as you’re not hassling them when they have a huge backlog of customers! If they are too busy to help, look out for English language local newspapers with events listings and ideas of what to see in the area.
Do you have any research tips to add to this list? I’d love to hear your comments about tracking down your own hidden places.