“You’re going where?…And why?”

I can’t tell you how many times we got that response when we told our friends we were taking the kids to Alabama. Our Northeast community is pretty well-traveled, but people just couldn’t wrap their heads around why, out of all places, we would choose Alabama for a vacation.

Ok. I’ll be honest. The Deep South was not at the top of our bucket list. However, free Frontier Airline vouchers, plus our kids’ desire to visit all 50 states led us to consider Atlanta. Then, when I checked the map and saw how close Alabama is, we decided to go for it. 

Yes, we love visiting well-known places. We’ve been to big cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, LA, and Boston. Our kids have hiked in Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. And, while each of those places is amazing in its own way, we’ve discovered that sometimes traveling to the lesser-known vacation destinations can be just as fun and exhilarating.

Here’s why you should consider visiting those off-the-radar places, too: 

1. It’s Exciting to Experience the Unknown

Before you choose a travel destination, you’ve probably seen a lot of photos and done your homework. There is endless information on the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Hoover Dam. Sometimes, the picture in our mind is so clear, that when we finally arrive, almost feel deja vu.

However, when you travel to an unfamiliar place, you feel like you are discovering it for the first time.

While Birmingham has recently popped up on some of those top cities to visit lists, I don’t know one person who has actually made the trip. We had no expectations; I couldn’t picture the skyline, or what the neighborhoods would look like. So, when we went, were pleasantly surprised by its unique character. We felt like explorers; navigating to an undiscovered place on our own.

2. You Can Connect with Locals

When we travel to a new area, we usually try to visit some museums and historical sites. But, when you visit landmarks like the Museum of Natural History in NYC, or the Adler Planetarium in Chicago you don’t connect with many locals.

However, upon our arrival to The Freedom Rides Museum and Dexter Memorial King Baptist Church in Montgomery, we were greeted warmly by local guides who gave us personal tours and shared stories.

In fact, the women who worked at the Baptist church welcomed us with true, Southern hospitality; literally embracing us as if we were long-lost family members when we arrived. 

Having such personal experiences with locals, instantly makes you feel more connected. You are no longer a tourist but treated like a member of their community.

3. It Breaks Down Barriers

As much as we like to think that we’re open-minded, we often gravitate towards others who share a similar worldview. Escaping to an unfamiliar place that doesn’t pander to throngs of tourists means that we get a more authentic glimpse of their culture.

We live in a huge, diverse country, and every pocket is different. Basing your opinion of a place solely on hearsay or stereotypes encourages us to travel to the “trendy” spots. However, by doing so, we can travel thousands of miles and still stay in our bubble. 

If we had done this, we would have missed out on cool spots like Chris’ Hot Dogs in Montgomery — a small, unassuming hot dog shop that has been around for a century, serving chili dogs to FDR, Harry Truman, Elvis, and Hank Williams. We also wouldn’t have met the quirky guy at the counter who showed us how he can solve any Rubik’s cube in under a minute! 

4. Small Destinations Can Have Big History

The Newly designated United States Civil Rights Trail links 100+ historically significant locations across 16 states. Most of these landmarks are nowhere near popular tourist destinations and therefore get overlooked. However, we were fortunate enough to visit several on our Alabama trip, including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors the 4000+ victims of lynching and racial terror.

In Birmingham we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, where our kids got to walk on the same ground where police dogs were sicked on students peacefully protesting for equal rights. Doing so brought these significant moments of our country’s history to life in a way that a book or website couldn’t.

Lessons Learned:

Driving back to Atlanta, the kids wistfully looked out the window at the green, rolling hills of Central Alabama. Our 10-year old’s voice cut through the silence, saying:

 “I didn’t expect Alabama to look like this.”

And that’s when it hit me. We were visiting somewhere that isn’t trending on Instagram or at the top of anyone’s bucket list, and that’s good!

The point of travel isn’t just to follow the crowds or impress your friends on social media. The point is to open your eyes to places out of your comfort zone. Yes, you can do that in far-flung, exotic locations; but with over-tourism on the rise, we should also try to discover the overlooked but special places in our own country. 

These days our worlds are carefully curated. We live in towns and neighborhoods surrounded by mostly similar, like-minded people. Algorithms record our online behavior and present us with agreeable content and news to support our existing world views. Our election map shows counties in blue and red, and we prefer to travel to areas where we’re comfortable.

But, is it fair to our kids to stay in this “bubble”? 

So, the next time you find yourself with a free weekend, consider the places that weren’t previously on your radar. Go there and eat at the local restaurants, walk through the neighborhoods, see the street art, and talk to the locals.

You just might discover a new favorite place. And, your family might return home realizing that we all have a lot in common. 

As travel guru Rick Steves says, “Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.”