Americans are notoriously bad at geography We can’t seem to correctly place major countries with political significance like Sudan and Saudi Arabia. (Although some research suggests other countries aren’t great at geography either.) But we at least know those countries exist.
There are plenty of countries that don’t make the headlines often enough to be household names. Here are 10 countries that you probably had no idea existed.
Crossroads of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe
Azerbaijan is at the crossroads of many cultures. It was the first democratic state in the Muslim world, then it became part of the Soviet Union and today, Anthony Bourdain is banned from the country for traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh, a contentious pocket of land next to Azerbaijan.
Seaside cities, undulating mountains and a mix of art and architecture styles make up modern day Azerbaijan. There are 78 cities in the country, providing plenty of places to visit and stay. Saffron-rice plov is a popular dish and black tea is the national beverage.
You better visit soon though. Azerbaijan has had explosive growth in the tourism industry and is poised to become a major destination in the coming years.
Northeastern Europe, just north of Ukraine
Self-imposed isolation from the rest of Europe has kept Belarus in a peculiar state of being like Europe and like the Soviet Union all at once. You’ll find all of the culture that Europe has become famous for– museums, churches, architecture, music and regional food– in a sleepy country.
Sprinkled here and there around the country are Soviet war monuments. You can visit WWII bunkers and see other large military equipment from WWII and the Cold War. You can even take a joyride in a Soviet era tank at the Stalin Line Museum.
Southeast Asia, on the island of Borneo
Officially called the “Nation of Brunei and the Abode of Peace,” this island nation is located on the island of Borneo and is almost completely surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
As you can probably already tell, Brunei has a complicated history. The strongest cultural influence in Brunei is Islam, with the country boasting beautiful examples of Islamic architecture.
The rainforests in Brunei are pristine and teeming with life unlike some of the more famous rainforests in neighboring countries. The beaches are also amazing and the cities have a quiet, sleepy relaxed feel. With a little planning, Brunei can be an unforgettable destination.
Northeast Africa, north of Ethiopia and east of Sudan
Eritrea is a country steeped in tradition. Its history goes back to the beginning of mankind and its people are mentioned throughout antiquity.
Its climate ranges from subtropical to tropical with coast line along the Red Sea, mountains and fertile highlands and desert land to the east.
Sadly, you probably won’t be visiting this culturally diverse country any time soon. Most western governments have a travel ban on the country. According to the United States government’s travel website: “The Government of Eritrea restricts the travel of all foreign nationals in the country.”
Central Asia, south of Russian and east of Uzbekistan
Rugged is the word for this central Asian country. Located along the fabled silk road, Kyrgystan has ancient cities that traded goods between China and Europe. Mountains dominate the landscape. The valleys are green and scrubby and the higher reaches are coarse and rocky with the occasional bright blue pool of water.
This wild country is mostly a haven for hiking enthusiasts but the cities have plenty of cultural attractions and Issyk Kul Lake is a picturesque get-away.
High altitude South African country inside the country of South Africa
Two million people live in this tiny landlocked country. Africa usually conjures images of the Serengeti, Congolese rainforests and captivating wildlife. Lesotho has the wildlife but the rest of this country is outside of stereotypes. Located on a high plateau, snow is common in winter (which is June, July and August because it is south of the equator) and the landscape is beautiful in a rough craggy way.
Lesotho is a relatively safe and welcoming place to visit and stay. It’s also affordable and easily accessible from Johannesburg. If your journeys take you to South Africa, Lesotho is a welcome retreat and great place to visit.
Europe, north of Italy, east of Switzerland and west of Austria
This is a fairytale kingdom if there ever was one. Picture perfect castles cling onto the sides of rolling mountains. Medieval towns dot the landscape and a wealthy monarch rules this prosperous country.
Because of its small size, Liechtenstein culture is heavily influence by southern German cultures such as Austria and Switzerland. Liechtenstein celebrates its national holiday in just about the coolest way possible. All Liechtenstein subjects are invited to celebrate in the castle of the head of state. Guests enjoy speeches and complimentary beer.
Northeastern coast of South America
Suriname is the smallest country in South America. Culturally, it is a Caribbean country but it has been home to indigenous peoples for eons and the Dutch ruled the country from the late 17th century until 1975.
You’ll find Dutch colonial cities, dense forests and few tourists. It’s a great escape into dense jungles and a vibrant mix of cultures.
Southeastern Africa, inside of the country South Africa
This developing nation is led by an absolute monarch. It’s one of the smallest countries in Africa but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in diverse landscapes.
The highlands are generally cool and dry with average temperatures staying in the 60’s and 50’s (degrees F) year-round. The seasons are flipped in Swaziland because it’s south of equator. In the lowlands, temperatures can reach as high as 104° F in summer months.
This lush country is only for the experienced traveler however. Infrastructure is still developing and the HIV/AIDS crisis is endemic in the country.
Southeast Asian island located north of Australia
Also known as East Timor, this island nation’s coasts look like camel humps. The beaches are rugged but the views are spectacular. Even better are the coral reefs.
The population is just over 1 million and is almost entirely indigenous groups. The island has Portuguese influences but you’ll mainly discover indigenous cuisines and practices. It’s a seldom visited destination with adventures that will make your friends jealous.