You may love these destinations for their bustling cities or their lush outdoor spaces, but they probably wouldn’t top your list for a seaside getaway. That is, until now.
Germany might be well known for its castles and Korea for its shopping, but these places are also home to some of the world’s most dazzling beaches. In fact, from East Asia to East Africa, incredible seaside getaways are hiding in countries you might not expect.
Like their popular counterparts, these sandy stretches of coast have all the snorkeling, wildlife-spotting, and ruins-exploring you could hope for, minus the crowds and high prices. Enjoy a quiet Greek-style island getaway in Bulgaria, relax post-safari on Tanzania’s white sand beaches, or take in the views while paragliding over Turkey’s blue lagoon. You might just find your new favorite beach in one of these countries others often overlook.
Set on the coast of the Black Sea, Sozopol is a popular vacation destination for Bulgarians because of its ancient ruins, locally caught fish, and great beaches. The town, which was settled by Greek colonists over 7,000 years ago, is one of the oldest in Bulgaria, and with a population of only 5,000, it’s perfect for crowd-averse travelers who still want a Greek-ish experience. When you’re not sleeping in the sand, explore the streets of the Old Town for a view of the wooden buildings and painted facades characteristic of the national revivial architectural style, or head to the Southern Fortress Wall, which dates back to the 5th century C.E. There’s also an archeological museum and a number of art galleries worth checking out.
On the coast of South China, glittering Hong Kong is primarily known for its cosmopolitan charms, but when you need a break from exploring those bustling streets, hit the beach. On the south side of Hong Kong island, Repulse Bay Beach—named for a 19th-century battle during which the British army “repulsed” attacking pirates—is in one of the most expensive housing areas in Hong Kong, and it’s a great place to mix some shopping with your sunbathing. While you’re there, you can also visit cultural sights that run along the beach like the Kwun Yam Shrine, Tin Hau Statue, or the red Longevity Bridge, which is said to add three days to your life if you walk over it. End the day with a scenic mile walk up the Seaside Promenade, which will take you north to nearby Deep Water Bay.
If you head west from Hong Kong, you’ll reach Sharp Island, a UNESCO Global Geopark and home to Hap Mun Beach (also known as Half Moon Bay Beach). There, when the tide is low, you can walk across a rocky tombolo to another nearby island, Kiu Tau. Keep your eyes peeled for pineapple-shaped rocks, which are common in the area.
Achziv Beach, on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast, is both a historical treasure and an excellent place to swim. It’s surrounded by the Achziv National Park, where you can visit the remains of a Crusader castle and a biblical city. A perfect destination for anyone traveling with children, the beach is connected to two huge lagoons—one deep, one shallow—and is a haven for sea turtles, which lay eggs there during the summer months. If you head a little north, you’ll reach Akhziv Land, an unofficial micronation founded by Eli Avivi in the 1970s. Before Avivi passed away in May 2018, he’d stamp the passports of anyone who visited.
Plage les Aiguades, or Aiguades Beach, sits on a forest-lined, turquoise bay just outside of Béjaïa, a port city on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast. It is protected by the Yemma Gouraya Mountain, which locals claim looks like the sleeping figure of the spirit of the mountain, Mother Gouraya. If you get tired of relaxing on the beach, hike through the neighboring Gouraya National Park, or climb to the top of Pic des Singes, a habitat for the endangered Barbary macaque, with a great view of the bay below.
For clear water, white sand, and disco ponies (yes, really), head east to South Korea’s Naksan Beach. Located at the base of the Seoraksan Mountains and surrounded by pine forests, this relaxing beach is close to an equally relaxing seaside town. After dark, take a ride around the beach with a disco pony: a horse-drawn carriage covered in twinkle lights.
Or check out Muchangpo Beach on the country’s west side. While not known for its beauty, the beach features a natural phenomenon called the “Moses Miracle.” A few times a year in late spring or early summer, the ocean recedes, revealing much of the seafloor. At the Muchangpo Mystic Sea Road Festival in August, you can also participate in a shellfish-catching tournament, an arm-wrestling competition, or folk dances, and you can enjoy a nightly fireworks display.
Nida Beach sits on the border of Russia and Lithuania on the curving Curonian Spit—a 61-mile-long, narrow sand dune that separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. A UNESCO World Heritage site and a Lithuanian national park, the beach is home to some of the highest sand dunes in Europe, which are so fragile you’re not allowed to walk on them. The landscape here has inspired many painters; a local inn called Hermann Blode (now a museum) housed an expressionist colony during the 19th century.
Go for a two-for-one vacation and end your safari at Nungwi Beach, on the northern tip of the island of Zanzibar. Palm trees, white sand beaches, and crystal-clear blue waters aren’t all this destination has to offer. There’s also the Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond, where you can feed sea turtles in a natural coral pool, and a nearby fish market where you can enjoy local delicacies.
A little farther south is the equally charming Matemwe Beach. There, swim or snorkel to Changu Island. The spot is also known as Prison Island, named after a prison built in 1893 that was only used as quarantine center for yellow fever. Now it’s just a great place to watch giant tortoises roam in their natural habitat. You can also book a private spice tour with local company Colors of Zanzibar and learn about (and eat) all the spices that Zanzibar has to offer.
The French Riviera may get all the attention, but the Turkish Riviera, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, is just as amazing. The can’t-miss Ölüdeniz Beach (which translates to “blue lagoon”) is named for its famous turquoise-and-aquamarine water. Go paragliding for the best views, scuba dive to explore the bay, or simply hang out by the lagoon. If you feel like making a trek, the amber-colored walls of the Saklikent Gorge—the second-largest gorge in Europe—and the emerald-green river that runs through it are worth the 40-minute drive from the beach.
When they aren’t flying south to Mallorca for the winter, Germans spend their vacation days on the beaches of Sylt, Germany’s northernmost island. Westerland Beach sees the most foot traffic mainly because it hosts the annual Windsurf World Cup in September, but also because of its grassy, sandy landscapes and views of the North Sea. Check out Keitumer Landstrasse, a street along the beach where you can book a strandkorb—a cabana-style seat designed to protect you from the sun, wind, and the occasional rainstorm. Or, if you’re up for it, drive across the island to get a view of the stunning Morsum Cliffs on the east side.
Naz Islands Beach is one of the most gorgeous spots on Qeshm Island, which, just off the south coast of Iran, is the largest island in the Persian Gulf. At low tide, you can walk to the neighboring tidal Naz Islands, where you’ll see dolphins, turtles, and other wildlife, as well as scenic pebble beaches. Qeshm Island is in a free-trade zone, so unlike in other parts of Iran, foreign tourists don’t need a visa for trips shorter than two weeks. Quiet and calm, the place has few amenities, but you can ride camels or go paramotoring—like paragliding but motorized—alongside vacationing Iranian families.