Off-the-radar cities to explore in 2018

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If your new year’s resolution is to travel, you might want to follow in the tracks of Sal Lavallo, who at 27 is one of the youngest Americans to have visited all 193 U.N. member states. During his explorations, which were partially underwritten by Marriott International, he found that obscure destinations were the most memorable, and he shared many on his Instagram feed, @sallavallo. He recalls some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY. But before booking a trip, check U.S. State Department warnings because some destinations are near trouble spots.

Baku, Azerbaijan

This oil-rich capital city has invested billions in culture and modern architecture, making for a surprising stop in the Caucasus. “Walking around in the city is like an open-air museum. They have these ancient, ancient ruins and in the background are modern buildings,” Lavallo says. There’s also ballet, opera and caviar tastings. “You can do quite a bougie trip in Baku.” azerbaijan.travel

Dili, Timor-Leste

Don’t expect to see many other tourists in the capital city of one of the world’s newest countries, Lavallo says. “You have stunning beaches and mountains and almost no one going there. The general mood is hanging out in paradise.” The island nation, which sits just north of Australia, uses the U.S. dollar and is surprisingly easy to visit, with direct flights from Bali and visas available on the spot. “You can literally just arrive.” timorleste.tl

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Although less flashy than neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi has more must-see sights, says Lavallo, who lived there for several years. Highlights include the new Louvre museum, the Emirates Palace and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which he calls the “most beautiful mosque in the world.” Although a global city, it doesn’t feel like it could be anywhere, he says. “It’s absolutely my favorite place.” visitabudhabi.ae

Kigali, Rwanda

Lavallo calls Kigali “Africa’s safest and cleanest city,” one of the few places on the continent where it’s practical for visitors to rent a car. The country makes it easy to visit national parks to see gorillas in the wild and, on a more somber note, to learn about the 1994 genocide at memorial sites. rwandatourism.com

Skopje, Macedonia

This Balkan city offers visitors a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western Europe. “Just walking through town is like a history lesson. There seems to be more statues than people,” Lavallo says. “They’ve really focused on tourists, and it’s fun to go. Everyone’s really excited you’re there.” exploringmacedonia.com

Beirut

Although it remains under a State Department travel warning, this Mideast capital is also a shopping, dining and party center, Lavallo says. “The best food, maybe in the world, is in Lebanon. I went there one time with my girlfriend, and rented bicycles and went to rooftop bars at sunset. It’s like a pleasure city.” destinationlebanon.gov.lb

More: Five myths about State Department travel warnings

Mendoza, Argentina

Visitors to Argentina should venture beyond Buenos Aires to this city in the foothills of the Andes, known for wineries, olive oil and barbecue. “There’s a heightened feeling of Argentina. There’s so much to do,” Lavallo says. welcomeargentina.com

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Lavallo calls this West Africa’s most beautiful city, with unmatched beaches and oceanside cliffs. The country’s 1990s civil war made headlines, but that’s long over, he says. “In our minds, it’s so dangerous, but it’s fine now. It looks like a lot of islands in the Caribbean. It has the best beaches in West Africa, and no one’s ever there.” sierraleonenationaltouristboard.com

Asmara, Eritrea

While you must visit with a tour group and the State Department cautions against travel in other parts of the country, Lavallo says it’s worth seeking out this city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. The former Italian colony offers an intriguing mix of European and African influences. “It feels like Italy did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are cafes on every little street, and Italian food everywhere.” eritrea.be

Bagan, Myanmar

With a huge concentration of temples that some compare to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, this ancient city is beginning to attract tourists, so the time to go is now, Lavallo says. For many visitors, one of the top experiences is floating over the archaeological zone in a hot air balloon. myanmar.travel

Constantine, Algeria

Built on and around mountains, this former Roman outpost is often called the city of bridges because of its many ravine-crossing spans. “There are lots of viewing platforms and the views are stunning,” Lavallo says. “It’s a combination of Northern African and Berber culture, and French.” However, it’s advisable to stay in the city, as the State Department cautions against travel to remote areas. ont.dz

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