Culture Trip's Top 12 Slow Travel Destinations in 2021

Travelling by train through the mountains in Ella, Sri Lanka, gives you the chance to take in forests, rivers and tea plantations
Travelling by train through the mountains in Ella, Sri Lanka, gives you the chance to take in forests, rivers and tea plantations | © Suranga Weeratuna / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Cassam Looch
Social Editor19 January 2021

Slow travel allows us to experience different destinations in a way that is both relaxing and enriching. It’s all about forgoing hectic city itineraries and whistlestop tours of never-seen-before destinations in favour of taking the time to actually get to know them – embracing the local culture and different ways of life. From road trips in California to exploring Kyoto by bike, here’s our pick.

Slow travel doesn’t have to be in an exotic destination; it could be as simple as visiting your nearest seaside town or national park, or even taking the scenic but slightly longer route to your nearest train station. The point is to appreciate what makes a place unique, and make the most of the time you have there. When travelling abroad, that means staying local wherever – and whenever – possible.

California, USA

California is a spectacular location to visit for any number of reasons, but how to make the most of a trip to this vast state on the west coast of America? There’s the obvious glitz and glamour of Hollywood in Los Angeles, but the vibrant Downtown district offers a much more laid-back experience. Street food is a major draw here and there’s arguably no better way to discover the City of Stars than by hopping from one food vendor to the next.

To explore the rest of the state, you could take things slow with a road trip on some of the famous highways that run between destinations such as San Diego and San Francisco. There’s no need to rush, and these seven outstanding sustainable hotels provide a great selection of places to stay right across the state.

A road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway is a great way to take in California’s dramatic coastline | © PictureLake / Getty Images

Isle of Skye, Scotland

A popular film location, the Isle of Skye certainly feels cinematic when you first lay eyes on it. The largest island of the Scottish Inner Hebrides, Skye boasts a spectacular mountainous landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in The Lord of the Rings. You can catch a ferry to the port of Armadale and there’s a small airfield for private use, but by far the easiest way to reach this destination is via the Skye Bridge. If you don’t hire a car, you can take either the bus or train from mainland cities Glasgow and Inverness.

The Talisker Distillery is a popular attraction on Skye. We recommend visiting to warm your cockles with a single malt whisky before setting off on a ramble around this unspoiled Scottish gem. For resting tired limbs, we recommend a stay at one of these boutique boltholes.

Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye | © Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo

Sri Lanka

Travel has never been anything but slow in Sri Lanka. This large Indian Ocean island nation was once part of the maritime Silk Route – an ancient trading route that connected China and Roman-controlled ports in Egypt – and in modern times it has emerged as a favourite destination for taking it slow. The ancient Anuradhapura region is strewn with temples and ruins, while there are cultural treasures to be found on every other corner in the country’s capital, Colombo.

Anuradhapura is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilisation | © Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s an extensive road network that connects all the major points of interest, but by the far the most magical way to get around is by rail. Photogenic trains and stunning scenery combine for the defining images associated with slow travel, while luxury resorts and relaxing retreats complete the experience.

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum was once a sleepy beach town that few people outside of Mexico had heard of, but the slow trickle of visitors has turned into a constant stream in recent years. Nevertheless, there’s still a way to enjoy the Mayan ruins, sandy beaches and local culture without feeling as if you’re stuck in a tourist trap. The key is to avoid staying in an overcrowded beach hotel. Instead, pick a boutique property in the heart of Tulum itself. It’s a good 20- to 30-minute walk from the town centre to the coast, but you can easily hire a bike and cut that journey time down.

The main street in Tulum is very laid-back | © Rainer Lesniewski / Alamy Stock Photo

If you go, pick a place to stay for a few nights and take each day as it comes. There are lots of things to do around town, but there’s no need to plan more than a day or two in advance.

Matera, Italy

This rocky outcrop of Sassi di Matera, in the Basilicata region in southern Italy, was largely abandoned until the 1980s ,with only a few inhabitants left. After considerable investment by the Italian government towards improving living conditions, visitors have slowly returned and now Matera is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

If you really want to embrace the relaxed way of life in Matera, do as the locals do and book a stay at one of its incredible cave residences. Unlike other places, these rock-hewn properties aren’t a gimmick and provide an authentic way to immerse yourself in la città sotterranea (the underground city).

The cobbled narrow streets in Matera create an old-world atmosphere | © haris vithoulkas / Alamy Stock Photo

Kyoto, Japan

Japan’s cultural capital Kyoto may be one of the more crowded destinations on this list, but there are a great selection of places to stay across the city that allow you to live like a local, from traditional ryokan to luxury modern hotels with onsen facilities. There’s also a thriving street food scene that any visitor ought not to rush – check out this article on the must-try meals around the city.

Bikes are a great way to get around Kyoto | © Ron Yue / Alamy Stock Photo

Kyoto is an essential stop if you’re planning to travel around Japan by train, but you might want to make it your final destination as it’s a hard one to leave behind.

Costa Rica

We recently showcased Costa Rica for its nationwide focus on sustainability, and we’re sticking with it for this slow travel guide. The country’s diverse ecosystem has allowed a number of innovative property solutions to develop organically in recent years, and the result for visitors is a great range of ecofriendly lodges to stay in. Unlike other countries where green tourism initiatives are becoming increasingly central, Costa Rica has already done this at scale, keeping the costs low for consumers and providers alike.

If you’re looking for a place to take the family to in 2021, you should consider a trip here as there are also a wide array of family-friendly tours we can recommend.

Costa Rica is blessed with tropical beach and rainforest | © Chris Fredriksson / Alamy Stock Photo

Cappadocia, Turkey

Central Turkey is often overlooked by tourists in favour of coastal cities in the north and south, but this region is truly unmissable. Cappadocia is home to breathtaking natural parks, remarkable geological features and countless cave dwellings still lived in by locals today. Many of these properties now also function as hotels – check out our pick of the best you can book in this article – offering outsiders the chance to experience a more sedate travel experience either before or after they take to the skies in an unforgettable hot air balloon ride.

Take a hot-air balloon trip over Cappadocia, in Turkey | © INNA FINKOVA / Alamy Stock Photo

Cappadocia is a semi-arid region with lots of natural rock formations, so it’s a place you can easily unwind, and there are more than enough things to keep you entertained should you wish to extend your stay.

Wanaka, New Zealand

With its mountains and coastline, the South Island in New Zealand is a year-round magnet for outdoor adventurers, and Wanaka remains beautifully unspoilt thanks to strict protection rules. Historically, the area was a fishing and hunting spot for the Maori people – something you can still do today.

Rolling vineyards are a relatively new addition, although the beautiful landscape has remained largely unchanged over time – film boffins might recognise the lakes and peaks from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time (2018). If you’re tempted to visit, keep your carbon footprint to a minimum by staying at one of these fabulous ecofriendly places to stay.

Rippon Vineyard on Lake Wanaka, is one of New Zealand’s many world-class wineries | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Vancouver Island, Canada

If you cast your eyes away from the cities skyscrapers, Vancouver Island, on the west coast of Canada, feels miles away from the BC capital. To get here, you can take commercial flights to cities such as Victoria and Nanaimo, or hop on a seaplane for a special adventure. You could also catch a ferry across the Strait of Georgia – a good option if you’d like to bring your own car. However you get here, there’ll be a whole brochure of things to do when you arrive – from wining and dining in the Cowichan Valley to hiking in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and whale watching offshore.

Vancouver Island feels a world away from the busy city | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Whatever you do, though, just take it slow. Here’s our suggested itinerary for a four-day trip, and a curated selection of the best places to stay on the island.

Granada, Spain

Granada is best known for its mesmerising Alhambra Palace, a centuries-old Moorish citadel that sits atop a vibrant hill overlooking the city. The Sierra Nevada mountains – home to Europe’s southernmost ski resort – beckon on the horizon to complete the pretty picture seen from the El Mirador de San Nicolas on the other side of the valley. You’ll do well to avoid the crowds here – such is the popularity of the viewpoint – but you can find quiet through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the whitewashed Albaycin, which winds down the hillside below.

Narrow street in Granada, Spain | © mofles / Getty Images

There are some stunning hotels in the city – and amazing hotels, lodges and apartments beyond its borders too – that we highly recommend. To get a real flavour of the Andalusia region and its North African heritage, consider a two-week break to give yourself time to explore the cities of Seville and Cordoba, both home to equally captivating Islamic-era landmarks of their own.

Singapore

There are countless reasons to visit Singapore, from its colourful streets to its modern architecture, but best of all is the hawker culture, especially if you’re a street food fanatic. This food scene is so legendary, in fact, that it has attained Unesco recognition. In essence, this practice boils down to enjoying an open-air meal in one of the many hawker centres around the city-state. It’s one of the best local experiences you can have – a fantastic way to taste authentic Singaporean food and support small local businesses while you’re at it.

There are excellent street food options to enjoy in Singapore | © PBWPIX / Alamy Stock Photo

Singapore is a world leader when it comes to sustainability, proving that megacities can actively, and effectively, reduce their carbon emissions through renewable energy sources. You can do your part by picking a forward-thinking place to stay when you visit, and making greener choices about how you get around the city.

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