14 Biggest Surprises When Traveling to New Countries

It’s natural to get a surprise or two when exploring foreign countries! Here are 14 things that surprised people online the most when going somewhere they hadn’t been before.

Experiencing new cultures is one of travel’s greatest joys. Everything from the social norms to the sights and smells can be completely alien, forcing you out of your comfort zone and broadening your horizons.

It’s profound, but it also comes with “surprises.” You regularly see things overseas that would be unthinkable at home. Similarly, things ubiquitous where you’re from can be conspicuously absent while traveling.

I recently found a Reddit thread where people revealed the most surprising things they’d noticed in new countries. Their responses are a good reminder that “normality” is subjective! Here are 14 of the best:

1. Liberal Alcohol Laws

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When you’re accustomed to something being illegal at home, it can be discombobulating to go abroad and realize it’s suddenly allowed. One person experienced this in Europe:

“[My biggest surprise was] probably in Germany, when I bought a beer in a convenience store and they offered to open it for me so I could enjoy it on my walk.”

2. Accurate Stereotypes

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Sometimes the biggest surprise comes from realizing the stereotypes you hold about a certain place are 100% true. One person experienced this in the Big Apple: “New York is exactly as advertised. Everything I see on TV shows and movies is exactly the same. I’ve been to a lot of places, but New York is the only one that is exactly my expectation.”

3. Specialist Infrastructure

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Sometimes, you might be surprised by the infrastructure on show. The unique challenges a country faces (e.g., weather conditions) can mean it’s different from anything you find at home.

For instance, one person on Reddit was amazed by Finland’s heated sidewalks, which help melt the snow and ice: “Absolute life savers for me who had no idea how to walk on ice.”

4. National Pride

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The level of patriotism and/or outward displays of devotion to national leaders might raise a few eyebrows in some places, too – especially when it’s involuntary. One person wrote that their biggest surprise came in Thailand: “We were watching a movie [at the cinema], and they played the national anthem, and everyone stood up for their king.”

5. Special Traditions

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Most overseas surprises relate to cultural practices that simply don’t happen back home. One Redditor described seeing “la Passeggiata” in Italy, a tradition whereby locals stroll through town together each evening.

“In Herculaneum, we were wandering around in town when 5:00 pm rolled around, and within 15 minutes, the streets were filled with people, not hurrying past one another, but just standing around talking, having an ice cream, drinking a beer or whatever.”

6. Incredible Cleanliness

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When you’re accustomed to city streets full of litter, grime, and garbage, you notice when you go somewhere that’s incredibly clean. One Redditor found this in Singapore:

“As soon as I stepped out of the plane, I swear I did not see a single speck of dust at their airport. Even the toilets were squeaky clean and completely dry. Every day I [went] out to explore the city by foot and [came] back to the hotel with almost no dirt on the soles of my shoes.”

7. Dirtiness

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The opposite can also be true, though. It’s natural to assume that popular travel destinations in developed nations will be clean and modern. The surprise comes from realizing they’re dirty and dilapidated. One person thought this about France:

“Many parts, even in Paris, looked very third world. Lots of scammers, unpaved roads, trash bags etc. The food was also somewhat underwhelming.”

8. Disappointing Attractions

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One of the nastier surprises you can have while traveling is realizing that famous tourist attractions don’t always live up to the hype. Somebody on Reddit felt this way about riding a gondola in Venice, Italy: “Not what I expected with the smelly waters, the crashing gondolas with the “drivers” cursing each other in Italian. [There was] nothing romantic about it.”

9. Relaxed Lifestyles

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Experiencing new cultures shines a spotlight on your own. You realize there are different ways of doing things – and that yours isn’t always right. One person on Reddit felt this way about the relaxed lifestyle in Italy:

“[I’m from the US, and] I worked on farms in Italy. They couldn’t believe how fast I worked. I was trying to be fast and efficient. It was puzzling to them. They kept telling me to slow down. It took a lot of effort for me to slow down, take coffee breaks, and really enjoy being in the moment. Wish I could import that feeling here.”

10. Religious Devotion (and Tolerance)

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Some of the biggest cultural differences you’ll notice while traveling relate to religion, and its importance/prevalence in local life. One person who traveled in Bali, Indonesia, commented:

“I was surprised at how much time the Balinese people spend on religious ceremonies, offerings, and worship. Yet despite being some of the most religious people I’ve ever encountered, they were completely nonjudgmental and understanding of others.”

11. Crime (or Lack Thereof)

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Given the common concern that travel is dangerous, a pleasant surprise many people have overseas is how safe they feel and how rare problems are. For example, one person couldn’t believe “the incredible security in Seoul,” the capital of South Korea.

“I’m from Latin America, so I’m used to [being] very alert at everything, everywhere. I forgot my backpack in a small cafeteria and after 25 minutes it was completely untouched in the same spot. You could walk at 3 am with your cell phone in your hands and [there’d] be no fear about anything.”

12. Local Celebrations/Events

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One of the most memorable surprises you can get overseas is seeing how different destinations celebrate special events. For instance, somebody on Reddit described the culture shock of their first Julefrokost (“Christmas lunch”) after moving to Denmark with her husband:

“[It] sounds like a nice, wholesome lunch to celebrate the holidays…What it really is, is sitting down at about noon, and not getting up from your seat again until midnight or later. The food never stops coming. The schnapps never stop coming…combine that with strong liquor over a 12 hour stretch and you are likely to die.”

13. Unsociable Locals

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You’ll be surprised at how outwardly friendly and talkative locals can be in some places. But in other parts of the world, being so open and forthcoming with strangers simply isn’t part of the culture – as one Irishman discovered in Sweden:

“In Ireland, it’s not uncommon to make small talk with strangers. If you pass someone on the road when walking, you’re usually expected to smile at them at the least. It’s the complete opposite in Sweden, I think. People seem not to acknowledge each other or try not to draw any attention at all to themselves if they’re in public.”

14. Poverty

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You know poverty exists, but it can still be startling to see up close – especially when you’re traveling somewhere with an affluent, high-end, touristy reputation. For example, one Redditor was surprised by how different life in the Caribbean looks away from the tourist trail:

“I was shocked by the level of poverty that exists there. This was almost 20 years ago now so could be different today, but at the time…all I’d ever seen about the Caribbean was the white sand beaches on TV.”




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Author: Danny Newman

Title: Writer and Content Creator

Expertise: Travel, Digital Nomadry, Outdoors, Blogging

Danny Newman is a writer, content creator, and digital nomad from the UK. He founded the travel and lifestyle blog What’s Danny Doing, a popular resource for people seeking more adventure, self-discovery, and purpose. A nationally syndicated writer, Danny’s work features in dozens of online publications, including MSN.com and news sites across the US.