Our editors have scoured the globe to bring you the top destinations to visit with a backpack in tow. Whether you're hoping to get the biggest bang for your travel buck or just looking for an epic adventure, we've got you covered.
Argentina and Patagonia
Photograph by AZAM Jean-Paul/hemis.fr/Getty Images
By Julian Smith
Argentina’s lengthy list of offerings includes the Old World yet cosmopolitan allure of Buenos Aires and the chilly expanses of Patagonia. Add a constantly falling monetary exchange rate versus the U.S. dollar, and you have ever more inexpensive steak dinners, bottles of Malbec, tango lessons, and trekking tours.
Buenos Aires has weathered its share of upheaval in recent years, but that doesn’t keep porteños (Buenos Aires locals) from enjoying life to the fullest, whether it’s at a milonga (tango dance club), a century-old café, or the bright and glass-walled galleries of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. One of South America’s top modern-art museums, “El Malba” houses a permanent collection of works by Frida Kahlo, Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral, and Argentine icon Xul Solar.
Twice the size of California, Patagonia feels like the end of the world: windswept, glacier-chewed, and with seemingly endless grasslands climbing to savage snowy peaks. The Argentine section includes the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, home to the glacier of the same name, a stunning 18-mile-long river of ice and the third largest freshwater reserve in the world. Find outstanding hiking trails here and across the Andes in Chile’s Cerro Castillo National Reserve, where multiday treks lead through mossy forests and past neon-blue meltwater lakes. Feeling more ambitious? Consider the ten-day, 52-mile “W” circuit around the unearthly granite crags of Torres del Paine National Park.
How to Get Around: These are both very big (or at least long) countries, so internal flights—there are plenty—are the quickest way to get around. Long-distance buses are more affordable and just as comfortable, if not more so. The only way to reach Chilean Patagonia, cut off from the north by ice caps, is by air, water, or via Argentina.
Where to Stay: Pop Hotel in Buenos Aires’s Villa Crespo district bills itself as “budget boutique,” which explains the bright modern color scheme and surprisingly affordable rates. Some rooms have balconies, and the Malabia metro station is close by. In El Calafate, the closest town to Perito Moreno, the Argentine Automobile Club runs the ACA Hotel, with spotless rooms and a modern minimalist design aesthetic. It’s near the bus station and the city’s main shopping and dining area. The Paine Grande Lodge isn’t fancy—it’s essentially a hostel, with dorm rooms and shared baths—but you can’t beat the views of Lake Pehoe and the surrounding mountains of Torres del Paine National Park. An ideal trekking base camp, it has a basic restaurant and bar (open October through April) to boot.
What to Eat or Drink: You can’t visit Argentina without hitting at least one parrillada (barbecue restaurant), and La Carniceria in Buenos Aires is a solid choice that avoids the tourist crowds at more famous spots. The modern restaurant offers meaty options from the owner’s farm, including smoked spare ribs and chorizo (spicy sausage). It’s small, so show up early or make a reservation. A leisurely café con leche (coffee with milk) at one of Buenos Aires’s classic cafés is another must-do; try the Bar de Cao in San Cristóbal. The atmospheric spot, all old wood and antiques, doesn’t seem much changed from when it opened in 1915, aside from the ultramodern espresso machines.
When to Go: Buenos Aires is best in spring (September through November) and fall (March through May). The blooming jacaranda trees in October and November give spring a slight edge. Patagonia’s weather is best from December through February, which is why prices are highest then.
Currency: Argentine peso, Chilean peso
Don’t Miss: The Valdés Peninsula, an approximately 600-mile flight southwest of Buenos Aires, is famous for its abundant marine wildlife. Between mid-June and mid-December, whale-watching boat tours leave from the town of Puerto Madryn in search of southern right whales. Get a new perspective on the aquatic giants from the Yellow Submarine, a custom-built semisubmersible lined with underwater viewing windows. A hundred miles south, Punta Tombo is the home of South America’s largest Magellanic penguin colony.
Fun Fact: Researchers aren’t sure exactly why, but the Perito Moreno glacier is one of only two in South America that is actually growing.
Staff Tip: A trip to Buenos Aires isn't complete without experiencing La Bomba de Tiempo—an incredibly talented percussion ensemble. They perform at Konex every Monday night from 7-10 p.m. and the show is unique each week. The amazing rhythym and sound of this 16-person group is sure to have you dancing the night away. —Megan Heltzel Weiler, @MeganHeltzel, producer, National Geographic Travel
Eastern Europe (Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia)
Photograph by Tom Till, Alamy Stock Photo
At the southern end of the Adriatic Sea, opposite Italy’s boot heel, three small countries are emerging from the shadows of communism and civil war and enticing travelers with their natural beauty and deep, complex history. A quarter of a century after Albania’s communist regime collapsed, the country is finally emerging as a prime and affordable destination. Its incredibly varied geography ranges from the rugged uplands that cover three-fourths of the country to its long Mediterranean coast. For a capsule view of Albanian history, visit Gjirokastër Castle, set on a rocky bluff high above the city of the same name in the Drino Valley. One of the largest castles in the Balkans, it has roots in the 12th century and was used as a prison by occupation forces during WWII. Today it houses a somewhat spooky collection of armor, communist memorabilia, and even a U.S. Air Force jet.
Neighboring Montenegro is barely 60 miles long, a day’s drive if you’re in a hurry. But that would mean missing a lot, including ancient towns full of ornate Orthodox monasteries and the remains of Roman villas. The country’s coast is as beautiful as Croatia’s but much less crowded. It’s hard to pick the best beach, but Pržno, just south of Radovići, is a definite contender: sapphire water and white sand backed by green olive and pine trees. Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, combines cultures like few other countries: Greek, Roman, and Ottoman history and a modern mix of Slav, Turk, Serb, Bulgarian, and Albanian residents. Its mountains are a Balkan version of the Alps, peppered with traditional villages and medieval monasteries. The best way to explore is on the new 120-mile Peaks of the Balkans Trail through Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. The marked trail follows shepherd paths up to 7,500 feet through some of the wildest and remote parts of each country.
How to Get There: Fly into Tirana International Airport in Albania, Podgorica Airport in Montenegro, or TAV Skopje Airport in Macedonia, which has recently started seeing more budget airlines. By land, daily long-distance buses connect all three countries with each other and their neighbors, including Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only Macedonia and Montenegro are connected to the Eurail network.
How to Get Around: Buses are the most common form of public transport, both large (often newer and air-conditioned) and small. Minibuses go by various names, including furgon in Albania and kombi in Macedonia. Taxis are another surprisingly inexpensive option—these are small countries—but make sure to negotiate fares beforehand.
Where to Stay: In the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastër, one of the country’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the family-run Hotel Gjirokastra occupies a 300-year-old house just under the hilltop castle that dominates the town. Rooms have beautiful carved wooden ceilings and huge balconies with sweeping views of the historic city center, famous for its Ottoman period architecture. There isn’t a formal menu, but the owners are happy to cook up local dishes like lamb meatballs on request. The simple, clean, and friendly Hotel Pana Kotor sits on the waterfront in Dobrota, Montenegro. It’s a good value, and its location on the edge of the Boka Kotorska (Bay of Kotor) offers easy access for swimming and dolphin-spotting in the gorgeously clear water. The owners don’t speak much English, but they can point you toward nearby restaurants and shops that rent bikes and kayaks.
What to Eat or Drink: Macedonia has been known for its vineyards since Roman times. Founded in 1946, Tikveš Winery in Kavadarci is the largest winery in the Balkans, producing 24 different kinds including Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and a famous grape brandy. In Skopje, Stara Kuka is a warm and welcoming eatery in what is said to be the oldest house in the country. The menu is full of traditional Macedonia fare; try one of the pastrmajlija meat pies filled with tuna or cheese. Tirana, Albania’s BrauHaus is a brew pub in the Bavarian tradition. They offer better than average pub fare, heavy on the meat, along with pints of excellent of lager and red and wheat beer. It’s a prime spot to catch a football match on a rainy afternoon, and there’s even a kids’ play area.
When to Go: Late spring and early summer brings the best combination of good weather and low crowds, especially along the coast of Montenegro and Albania. Head into the hills as the beaches crowd up and the heat rises. In August, the Ohrid Summer Festival brings world-class music to the shores of Macedonia’s centerpiece lake.
Currency: Albanian lek, Macedonian denar, euro (Montenegro)
Language: Albanian, Macedonian, Montenegrin
Don’t Miss: Picture Lake Tahoe or Lake Como without the jet-setting celebrities and multimillion-dollar mansions—that’s Lake Ohrid on the Albania-Macedonia border, a stunning blue gem lined with beaches and Byzantine churches. The best beach is just south of the town of Ohrid, where you can shop for lake pearls and munch on roasted chickpeas while you soak in the scenery.
Fun Fact: The Dinaric Alps, stretching along the Adriatic Sea from northern Albania to Slovenia, are sprouting a generation of what may be the tallest people on earth. Male adolescents here average just over six-foot-one-inch tall, which, if the trend continues, may be lofty enough to edge out the legendarily gigantic Dutch.
Staff Tip: More than 200 species of birds flock to the largest lake on the Balkan Peninsula, Lake Shkodër (also called Lake Scutari), which straddles Montenegro and Albania. I enjoyed visiting Zogaj, a small Albanian village that is home to a women's collective that dyes wool with natural materials, then weaves traditional patterned carpets on large looms in a small workshop on the scenic shore. The rugs come in all sizes and make for a perfect authentic souvenir to bring home. —Christine Blau, @Chris_Blau, associate producer, National Geographic Travel
Photograph by NSP-RF/Alamy Stock Photo
As decades of political and economic strife come to an end, travelers are discovering Zimbabwe’s incredible diversity of scenery, culture, and wildlife. It’s an easy place to get around, many residents speak English, and in late 2015 the government adopted the U.S. dollar to stave off hyperinflation. (By the time the switch happened, the exchange rate was 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar.)
Ironically—and fortunately—the lack of tourism development in recent years has left Zimbabwe’s world-class parks mostly untouched. You won’t find convoys of safari trucks at places like Hwange National Park, the country’s largest game reserve and one of Africa’s ten biggest. It’s an elephant hot spot, with roughly 40,000 of the beasts in residence. Matobo National Park, named after the granite hills scattered across the landscape, is the place to spot the near-threatened white rhinos on walking safaris through the bush. Then, of course, there’s Victoria Falls, whose cloud of mist can be seen up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. Some come for the sheer spectacle of the world’s largest sheet of falling water, others for the plethora of adventure sports, like white-water rafting, bungee jumping, and rappelling.
Organized safaris and tours aren’t cheap, but even budget-minded ones practically guarantee plenty of dropped jaws. G Adventures’s small-group Kruger, Falls & Zimbabwe tour hits South Africa as well as Zimbabwe, and helps support a preschool for park rangers’ children.
How to Get There: Harare International Airport is Zimbabwe’s main aviation gateway. Long-distance buses arrive from Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa.
How to Get Around: Air Zimbabwe flies to Victoria Falls and Bulawayo, close to Hwange and Matobo. Local buses range from luxury long-distance models to local kombis of questionable provenance.
Where to Stay: Hwange Safari Lodge, located right outside the park, has two restaurants, a pool, and 100 air-conditioned rooms. Grab a cold Zambezi beer on the viewing deck of the aptly named Waterhole Bar and watch elephants and other wildlife congregate at the watering hole below. They can also arrange guided day or nighttime game drives. Jacana Gardens is a tastefully appointed boutique guesthouse in a quiet corner of Harare. Each of the six rooms has patio doors that open onto verandas overlooking lush gardens.
What to Eat or Drink: Stop by the cozy Indaba Book Café in laid-back Bulawayo for a solid cup of joe, light fare, poetry readings, and live music on Thursday evenings.
When to Go: The dry season from May to October is the best time to see wildlife; forest greenery is at a minimum and animals congregate at water holes in places like Hwange National Park.
Helpful Links: Zimbabwe Tourism
Currency: U.S. dollar
Language: English, Shona, Ndebele
Don’t Miss: The Great Zimbabwe National Monument near Masvingo are the largest and oldest collection of ruins in Africa south of the Sahara. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, the complex of stone structures centers on a series of massive stone walls and towers built entirely without mortar.
Fun Fact/Cultural Tip: Say "thank you" by clapping twice—or if one hand is busy, clap the other on your chest.
Photograph by R. Hackenberg, Corbis
Istanbul is the logical starting point for exploring Turkey, where low prices, improving infrastructure, and a stunning wealth of archaeology (more Roman ruins than Italy, more Greek ruins than Greece) are among the top draws for backpackers. Sitting astride the Bosporus Channel between Europe and Asia, Istanbul has a millennia-long history that has always been shaped by water. That’s why it’s worth taking an afternoon to visit the Rahmi M. Koç Müsezi, in a former Ottoman Navy anchor foundry on the shore of the Golden Horn. Here the quirky and wide-ranging nautical collection includes a 1961 “Amphicar,” whose engine drives both rear wheels and propellers, and a 1944 U.S. Navy submarine that saw action in WWII. It later served in the Turkish Navy for 30 years, and if you’re lucky a former sailor will be on hand to give tours.
From Istanbul it’s a 180-mile drive west to the slender Gallipoli Peninsula, where in 1915 and 1916 some half a million soldiers were injured or killed during some of the most brutal—and some would say most senseless—fighting of WWI. A century later, you can take a day tour of the battlefield at the Gallipoli Historical National Park and learn how the eight-month campaign was critical in the development of modern Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand, all of whom, including the United Kingdom, sent troops to the slaughter. Step back even further in history on the other side of the strait of Dardanelles, where a new museum opened in 2015 at the Archaeological Site of Troy, of wooden horse fame.
How to Get Around: Trains and luxurious long-distance buses connect major cities, while shorter trips are best done by private cars or minibuses called dolmuş (“stuffed” vehicle).
Where to Stay: The famous cliffs and canyons of Cappadocia are riddled with dwellings, churches, and even entire villages carved out of the soft volcanic stone. Some have been converted into memorable lodgings, like the Asmali Cave House, a boutique hotel with three roomy and elegant suites. Tastefully decorated with sculptures, artwork, and muted lighting, each one has a kitchen, open fireplace, and private terrace.The Kale Konak Cave Hotel is another good option, with 17 rooms and views of the “fairy chimneys” (hollowed stone towers) from a terrace restaurant.
What to Eat or Drink: In İzmir, Turkey’s third largest city, Üzüm Cafe offers local wine and some of the best homemade hummus you’ll ever have in an outdoor garden setting complete with resident cat. It’s the perfect spot to unwind after a day exploring the Greek ruins at Ephesus. If you still have the energy, steer for the nightlife hot spot of the Alsancak neighborhood, where the bartenders at Öküz serve cutting-edge cocktails as DJs spin tunes until the early hours.
When to Go: Although Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is pleasant virtually year-round, late October and early November is probably the best time to visit, combining not-too-hot weather with a dearth of crowds. In general, traveling off-season (i.e., not between June and early September) is the best time to find and bargain for deals.
Helpful Links: Go Turkey
Currency: Turkish lira
Don’t Miss: The full experiences of a hamam, or public Turkish bath, starts with a good sweat in a steaming hot room. Next comes a brisk cool bath and (if you want) a vigorous massage, follow by a final unwinding in a cooling-down room.
Fun Fact: St. Nikolaos of Myra, the original inspiration for Santa Claus, was born in the third century in Patara, Turkey.
Photograph by Paul Kennedy, Alamy Stock Photo
After the widespread destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the Philippines are poised to become Southeast Asia’s next hot backpacker destination. (You hear the phrase “like Thailand used to be” a lot.) But with more than 7,100 islands, the country can present an overwhelming abundance of choices. Head to the central Visayan Islands at the heart of the archipelago, where long, skinny Cebu Island is the perfect hub for exploring the surrounding beaches and volcanic jungles.
Cebu City can be a little overwhelming, but it does offer a jumping nightlife scene at least, especially in the trendy Lahug district. It’s also the jumping-off point for coastal hot spots all around the country’s ninth largest island. Outstanding diving awaits at Malapascua Island, off the north end of Cebu Island, and nearby Bantayan Island offers laid-back seaside resorts on pristine beaches.
To the west of Cebu, Mount Kanlaon National Park on Negros Island centers on the 7,987-foot active volcano, one of the country’s tallest peaks. Definitely hire a guide—and maybe a porter—for the climb from jungle lowlands to the white-knuckle crater rim. Tiny Apo Island, just off the southern tip of Negros, is home to a marine sanctuary set up and maintained by local fishermen. Snorkelers and divers alike can enjoy reefs teeming with marine life. (The project was such a success it inspired similar sanctuaries around the country.)
How to Get There: Philippine Airlines recently gained approval for direct flights to Europe, Australia, and the United States from Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which is connected to Mactan-Cebu International Airport by dozens of daily flights. Passenger and vehicle ferries also run between Cebu and other major islands.
How to Get Around: On land, transport options include buses, minivans, jeepneys—wildly decorated vehicles with roots in WWII U.S. Army jeeps—pedicabs, and motorcycle taxis. Public ferries and smaller craft called bangkas ply the water.
Where to Stay: The Pensionne La Florentina is a good mid-range option down a quiet side road in the center of Cebu City, a short walk from a major shopping center. It’s in an older building but is well kept, clean, and charming. (The upper rooms get more light.) Also in Cebu, the Mayflower Inn has a café in its small garden, complete with koi and turtles. It’s decorated with local art and has a lounge filled with used books and games. If you make it to Apo Island, head for the Apo Island Beach Resort, with cute cottage rooms right on the sand.
What to Eat or Drink: Lechon, or spit-roasted suckling pig, is a Filipino tradition handed down from the Spanish. Find some of the best on Cebu at Rico’s Lechon in Cebu City, where lechon is cooked every morning to get the perfect blend of crisp skin and tender meat. Regional dishes such as prawn sinigang, a sour seafood soup, are on the menu at Golden Cowrie. Malapascua Island might not be your first choice for Italian food, but Ristorante Angelina serves some of the best in the country on Poblacion Beach. After a day of diving there’s nothing better than cracking open a cold Beer Na Beer and digging into a wood-fired pizza or a plate of crab risotto.
When to Go: Summer brings the southwest monsoon to the western parts of the Philippines, so aim outside of those months. January is dry and relatively cool with highs in the 80s (degrees Fahrenheit).
Helpful Links: It's More Fun in the Philippines
Currency: Philippine peso
Language: Filipino, English
Don’t Miss: While most of Cebu City’s impressive traffic is motorized, two-wheeled horse-drawn carriages called tarantillas still ply parts of downtown around Carlock Street and market area. Originally ridden only by the rich, these colorful relics are now open to anyone—although definitely negotiate a price before you climb aboard.
Fun Fact: The modern yo-yo traces its roots to the Philippines: The first yo-yo factory was opened in California by a Filipino immigrant in 1928, and the word itself probably comes from the Ilocano language of the northern islands.
Australia and New Zealand
Photograph by Matteo Colombo, Getty Images
Australia’s southeast corner can feel as far from the rest of the world as it’s possible to go, at least from a Northern-Hemispheric perspective. Yet between Sydney’s sparkling seaside cityscape and the wild reaches of Tasmania—not to mention New Zealand’s movie-worthy landscapes across the water—travelers will find plenty to make the journey worthwhile. (A falling monetary exchange rate helps, too.)
New South Wales is Australia’s most populous state, but you’d never know it in the dark-sky expanses inland. In Coonabarabran (or just “Coona”), the new Milroy Observatory is home to a 40-inch telescope, the largest one that is open to the public south of the equator. For extended overnights, there’s a six-bedroom homestead on site that can hold up to 12 people. Farther west, Outback Astronomy is a new company in Broken Hill offering naked-eye and binocular-assisted astronomy tours of the heavens.
Crossing the Bass Strait to Tasmania is like stepping back in time. The island’s natural beauty ranges from rock-strewn coastlines to national parks packed with lakes and wild rivers. World-class wilderness treks are another draw, and the new Three Capes Track out of Port Arthur is one of the best. The four-day, 29-mile journey winds across the fractal map of the Tasman Peninsula, skirting sea cliffs and stopping at cozy cabins at night.
If you’d rather roll, the new Rimutaka Cycle Trail out of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island might be more your speed. The 71-mile mountain bike route climbs over forested hills to the Wairarapa Valley before circling back along the Pacific coastline. It’s not too difficult, and paved side branches lead to wine-country towns such as Martinborough and Greytown.
How to Get There: Sydney Airport, one of the oldest continually operating commercial airports in the world, is the main hub for Qantas. Major carriers such as Qantas and Air New Zealand connect to Hobart on Tasmania and Wellington in New Zealand. Spirit of Tasmania runs at least one overnight ferry daily between Melbourne and Devonport on Tasmania.
How to Get Around: As always, renting a car offers the most flexibility. More budget-friendly options include Greyhound Australia and “backpacker bus” companies such as Oz Experience. Metro Tasmania runs buses between the island’s larger cities.
Where to Stay: Sydney’s Russell Hotel starts with a wonderfully central location in the historic Rocks district, then adds a rooftop garden, an excellent free breakfast, and a lively pub downstairs. In Hobart, Tasmania’s Battery Point waterfront area, the Montacute Boutique Bunkhouse is a solid step up from your average hostel. Set in a renovated 19th-century mansion, it has an outdoor terrace and a garden with barbecue grills. Rent a bike on-site to explore the city. The Lighthouse and the Keep, about 15 minutes from downtown Wellington, offers two separate but equally memorable lodgings: a three-story stone tower and a restored lighthouse, both fully self-contained units just steps from the water.
What to Eat or Drink: Sydney’s Old Growler isn’t a local curmudgeon—it’s a comfy basement alehouse with award-winning burgers and local craft beer and cider on tap. After a visit to Bourke Street Bakery in Surry Hills, one of ten in and around Sydney, you’ll understand why locals line up outside this tiny café for pastries, sandwiches, and celebrated sausage rolls. (Try the ginger crème brûlée tart.) Set in a former gas station, Hobart’s Room for a Pony is a trendy spot with great coffee and imaginative offerings for breakfast and lunch: Think chai-infused rice porridge and Cajun meatloaf with bacon. No ponies, sadly.
When to Go: Summer (October/November to April/May) is the best time to visit, although Sydney qualifies as pleasant year-round. Expect the most fellow visitors in November and December.
Currency: Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar
Don’t Miss: Helm’s Deep, Rivendell, Minas Tirith: If these names elicit shivers of excitement, hop aboard a movie tour of Wellington and the surrounding area, where many scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed. If you have a car, you can take a tour of the Weta Workshop, where many of the special effects were done, and grab a guidebook there to do the tour on your own.
Fun Fact: New Zealanders are justifiably proud of their country, but they are far outnumbered, starting with nearly seven sheep for every person. Overall, New Zealand is said to have one of the lowest human-to-animal ratios in the world.
Photograph by Andy Le, Getty Images
Forty years after the end of the war, Vietnam has emerged as one of the top budget-travel destinations in Asia: safe, affordable, and full of people who are as friendly as they are hardworking. Southern Vietnam is the more dynamic end of the long, narrow country. It’s anchored by Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly called Saigon), where glittering new skyscrapers rub shoulders with French colonial architecture and a young, entrepreneurial verve is palpable. Yet this is still a country shaped largely by conflict, as shown in the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection of weapons, vehicles, photographs, and other memorabilia. Many of the unflinching displays have a decidedly anti-Western slant, but you can’t leave without a deeper understanding of the country and its people.
Vietnam’s astonishing geological diversity ranges from steamy river deltas to rugged highlands. Most visitors head straight for the labyrinth of limestone islets in Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, but you can also explore one of the world’s largest cave systems at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to some 300 caverns. On the northern border with China, the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark encompasses almost a thousand square miles of dramatic karst upcroppings, canyons, and “stone forests.” Climb to the French fortress of Pu Lo, built in 1890 and evacuated in 1945, and enjoy the scenery while it’s still pristine: Roads are being upgraded, and the first high-rise hotel is under construction.
How to Get There: Ho Chi Minh is the busiest of Vietnam’s three main international airports, followed by Hanoi and Da Nang. Less expensive international flights are often routed through Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok.
How to Get Around: Private companies run moderately comfortable buses and minibuses along major highways. Trains and planes are also surprisingly inexpensive options, and the adventurous can rent motorbikes for a song. Within larger cities, options include car taxis, motorbike taxis (xe om), and bicycle rickshaws (xích lô).
Where to Stay: In Ho Chi Minh City, Madam Cuc 127 is a sparkling-clean budget hotel with spacious rooms and attentive service. Room prices include a breakfast of baguettes, eggs, fruit, and Vietnamese coffee. A gated patio off a back alley in a busy residential area leads to the secluded Ma Maison, an elegantly decorated boutique hotel in a former villa filled with French furniture.
What to Eat or Drink: In a place as crowded as Ho Chi Minh City, every square foot of real estate is precious, up to and including rooftops. Many of these have been converted into open-air bars and eateries—ideal spots to escape the chaos below when the weather cooperates. A seemingly endless series of tiny staircases brings you to Quan Bui, a leafy refuge cooled by fans and lit by strings of lights. They serve excellent traditional Vietnamese dishes like lemongrass chicken and pumpkin flowers with slow-roasted garlic. Eon Heli Bar sits atop the Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s tallest building. Try a basil gimlet as you enjoy the view from 52 floors up. For dessert, head to Fanny, an ice-cream parlor that combines French recipes with Vietnamese fruits. The 14-scoop platter can feed a whole family.
When to Go: Spring and autumn are probably the best overall times to visit Vietnam, but the weather varies widely between different parts of the country. The southern part of the country around Saigon sees monsoon rains from May to October, but summer temperatures seldom climb as high as they do up north (i.e., over 100°F).
Helpful Links: Vietnam Tourism
Currency: Vietnamese dong
Language: Vietnamese, English
Don’t Miss: If you make it to Cambodia—and you should if at all possible—take a spin on the “bamboo train,” or nori, in Phnom Penh. Powered by small engines, the jerry-built vehicles run along old rail tracks. If two cars going in opposite directions meet, the one with fewer passengers is taken apart to let the other pass.
Fun Fact: Son Doong in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is the largest single cave passage in the world. Discovered by a local farmer, it is roughly two and a half miles (four kilometers) long and contains stalagmites more than 230 feet high.
Photograph by Eric Girouard, Corbis
Of the handful of places that truly deserve the adjective “otherworldly,” Iceland ranks near the top of the list. It’s a geological work in progress, packed with glacier-covered volcanoes, jagged fjords, and multicolored landscapes of moss and stone. It’s also a lot more affordable than it was before the 2008 banking collapse.
Start in Reykjavík, home to about a third of the island’s 330,000 inhabitants, all of whom seem to know each other. Here, new restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are frequently popping up to meet visitor demand. The two-mile waterfront path toward the lighthouse on Grótta Island offers views of the Mount Esja across the harbor.
East of the capital, the 155-mile Golden Circle route leads to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, occupying a rift valley on the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. (You can dive or snorkel above this intercontinental crack at Silfra on the country’s largest lake. Visibility in the crystal-clear water can extend hundreds of feet in front of you.) Keep going through the geothermally active Haukadalur Valley—birthplace of the word “geyser”—to reach the Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), where the raging Hvítá (White River) seems to disappear into a 105-foot deep crevice.
An even more alien encounter awaits on the Reykjanes Peninsula west of Reykjavík: the ice cave into Langjökull, Europe’s second largest ice cap. Opened in 2015, the man-made tunnel leads nearly a third of a mile to a cavern carved out of blue-glass ice. (Like it? You can even get married here.)
How to Get There: Keflavík International Airport is served by most major transatlantic airlines, and is the hub for Icelandair and budget carrier WOW Air.
How to Get Around: Public buses serve Reykjavík and the main Ring Road that circles the island, but renting a car offers much more freedom. Camper vans are another good option to explore the backcountry.
Where to Stay: The retro-hip Kex Hostel fills a former biscuit factory in downtown Reykjavík with dorm beds and private rooms. It’s decorated with vintage and salvaged goods and has a popular gastro pub called Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, where you can enjoy a local beef burger and Nordic craft beer overlooking the waterfront.
What to Eat or Drink: Near Reykjavík harbor, the bright and airy Forréttabarinn serves small plates with an Arctic twist, like cured wild goose with terrine of reindeer. Gear up for a taste of the city’s legendary nightlife—courtesy of the long northern nights—at MicroBar in the City Center Hotel, offering local microbrews such as the bright and hoppy Gæðingur Brugghús IPA.
When to Go: Summer (June through August) is peak tourist season—understandably so, since it’s the warmest and daylight lasts almost 24 hours. Prices are the highest as well.
Helpful Links: Visit Iceland
Language: Icelandic, English
Don’t Miss: Public thermal pools and hot springs abound in Iceland; the Blue Lagoon is the country’s most famous, set in a lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula. And don’t leave without trying a hot dog from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a red-and-white stand open since 1937 near the Reykjavík harbor. Loaded with everything from remolaði (remoulade) to sweet Icelandic mustard, it’s practically an Icelandic national dish.
Fun Fact: With a landscape this magical, it’s not much of a surprise that a survey taken in 1998 revealed that more than half of Icelanders reported believing in huldufólk, or “hidden people,” magic beings linked to the natural world.
Colombia and Ecuador
Photograph by The Colombian Way Ltda/Getty Images
Two cities at the northern end of South America have undergone dramatic transformations in recent years. Medellín was once notorious as cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar’s violent home base. Now, Colombia’s second largest city pulses with upbeat energy, with sidewalks full of cafés and nightclubs bouncing with reggaeton, vallenato, and cumbia tunes. Medellín is a showcase of successful urban renewal, from architectural masterpieces that have breathed new life into former slums to a shining metro system that ties it all together. The ultramodern Parque Biblioteca España has turned the Santo Domingo neighborhood into a destination for tourists and paisas (locals), and the Museo de Arte Moderno, whose permanent collection includes paintings by Débora Arango and sculptures by Hernando Tejada, underwent an expansion in 2015.
Five hundred miles by air to the southwest, Quito, Ecuador, has put $200 million into restoring its 16th-century historical center, or Old Town. Hop aboard a double-decker tour bus to explore ancient convents, churches, chapels, and monasteries, where stone steps are worn low from centuries of footsteps and flocks of pigeons erupt from cobblestone plazas. Take the Teléferico cable car from 10,226 to 12,943 feet up the slopes of the (active) Pichincha volcano that looms above the city. Saturday evenings bring guided walking tours, music performances, and art exhibits, and on Sundays many of the city’s streets are closed to all traffic except bicycles.
How to Get There: Medellín’s José María Córdova International Airport is connected to Miami and other countries in the Americas by numerous daily flights and in December began welcoming Delta flights from Atlanta. Quito’s new Mariscal Sucre International Airport replaced one of the same name that was infamous for white-knuckle descents seemingly into the heart of city. This larger airport is in a valley 11 miles northeast.
How to Get Around: The Medellín metro may be the country’s only subway rail line, but it’s still impressive, running 14 miles north-south and four miles east-west across the city. The system includes three aerial gondola lines called Metrocables. Quito boasts three north-south electric bus routes: the Trolé through the middle of the city, the Ecovía along the eastern side, and the Metrobus to the north.
Where to Stay: A mere ten-minute walk from Medellín’s hopping Zona Rosa nightlife district, Kolor Hotel Boutique has rooms each named after colors and elegantly decorated accordingly. All have air conditioning and TVs, and some have whirlpool baths. Also in the El Poblado neighborhood is In House, a good value hotel with snug yet stylish rooms with pine furniture and large windows. Opt for a front room with a balcony, and be warned: There are five floors and no elevator. Two blocks from Quito’s Plaza Foch, the Hostal El Arupo is a historic house with a communal kitchen and lounge. From the dark wood floors to the flower-filled front patio, it’s a warm haven from the bustle of New Town.
What to Eat or Drink: Medellín’s Cambria Café Resto is a tiny, romantic spot in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood. Try the corn on the cob—one of the three pieces is topped with cheese and bacon—but save room for one of their outstanding oven-baked pastries for dessert. Try Son Havana for drinks and the best live salsa dancing in town—which is saying a lot. In Quito’s New Town, Café Cultura is a prime spot for a coffee on their outdoor patio (the refurbished old mansion is also a guesthouse), while nearby La Choza is the place for traditional Ecuadorian dishes like llapingachos, fried pancakes of mashed potatoes with cheese. In Old Town’s Mercado Central, Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy is a famous hole-in-the-wall that has been serving deep-fried corvina (sea bass) over rice for half a century.
When to Go: Both cities are known for their year-round springlike weather, so picking a time to visit is more about timing around annual festivals. (Just make sure to make any reservations well ahead of time.) Medellín hosts the world's loveliest Flower Fair in August, and the Founding of Quito Festival in early December follows a week of citywide revelry.
Currency: Colombian peso, U.S. dollar (Ecuador)
Don’t Miss: Escape the hubbub of downtown Medellín at the Zen-themed Parque de los Pies Descalzos, or “Barefoot Park,” where visitors are encouraged to remove their shoes and explore trails through a bamboo forest. At the end, you can cool your aching dedos de los pies (toes) in a bubbling water fountain. If you’re not afraid of heights, Quito City Tours offers a unique perspective of Old Town: a rooftop tour with ebullient guide and historian Julio Rivas Garcia. Scramble through tiny creaking doorways onto the rooftop of the Church of La Merced and up the bell tower of the Church of San Agustin—you’ll never look at the city the same way again.
Fun Fact: Ecuador is named after the equator, so it’s no surprise that the hundred-foot high Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument 15 miles north of Quito is one of country’s top tourist draws. One problem: it was built a few hundred feet too far south, according to GPS readings. To find the true location, head to the Quitsato Sundial two miles south of the nearby town of Cayambe.
Photograph by Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy Stock Photo
Colorado’s southwestern corner is far from the crowds of Denver and the rest of the Front Range, but the craggy scenery is just as stellar—if not better. The definitive mountain town of Durango is the perfect place to start. Nestled in the Animas River Valley, it’s a young, active city full of college students and outdoorsy types drawn to the endless hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and skiing options in every direction.
The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been chugging into the hills from downtown since the late 19th century. Restored Victorian coaches rattle across high river bridges during the six-hour, out-and-back trip to Silverton—at an elevation of 9,318 feet, it’s one of the highest towns in the country. (Keep an eye out for backpackers hopping off midway for the hike up to gorgeous Chicago Basin.) Trains run to Silverton from May to October.
For even more alpine scenery, drive north around the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that crests four 10,000-foot passes as it snakes through the San Juan Mountains. Along the way, the All-American Road passes countless waterfalls, ghost towns, trout streams, and public hot springs. Standout stops include Victorian-era towns such as Ouray and Ridgway—where How the West Was Won and the original True Grit were filmed—as well as a short side branch to the celebrity ski town of Telluride.
The Skyway’s main attraction, though, is Mesa Verde National Park, 35 miles west of Durango, one of the world’s exceptional archaeological sites. Between A.D. 600 and 1300, inhabitants built about 600 massive cliff dwellings, essentially apartment blocks of stone protected by natural caves and overhangs. A few have been restored and are open to the public, offering a glimpse of ancient life on the high desert mesas.
How to Get There: The closest major airport is in Albuquerque, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away from Durango. The regional Durango-La Plata County Airport, 5.5 miles from town, is served by both United and American Airlines.
How to Get Around: Durango has a local bus and trolley system, but otherwise a rental car is the only practical way to get there (215 miles from Albuquerque, almost 340 miles from Denver) and explore beyond town.
Where to Stay: In Ouray, the Riverside Inn has one- and two-room cabins along the Uncompahgre River, some with kitchens and sleeping lofts. Durango’s less expensive lodging options are mostly chain hotels, but there is one place downtown that’s worth a look, if only to stop in for a drink: the 1887 Strater Hotel, where the antique atmosphere is so authentic it inspired Louis L’Amour to write Westerns. Wait staff in the hotel’s Diamond Belle Saloon wear Victorian finery.
What to Eat or Drink: Based in a 100 percent wind-powered “brew fortress” three miles south of downtown Durango, local favorite Ska Brewing serves Rudie Session IPA, Pinstripe Red Ale, and seasonal flavors like the unique (and tasty) Autumnal Molé Stout, brewed with cocoa nibs, spices, and three kinds of chili peppers. Grab a brick-oven pizza at the Container of Food, two bright-red repurposed shipping containers in the beer garden out back. Ska Brewing is open daily, with live music on most weekend nights.
When to Go: Summer is a great time to escape the heat that grips the desert country to the west and south. Spring and fall are more brisk, especially at night, but the weather makes side trips to southeast Utah and the Grand Canyon more feasible. Winter is ski season and can bring road-closing snowfalls.
Currency: U.S. dollar
Don’t Miss: At Mesa Verde, the National Park Service offers special guided hiking tours that offer an up-close look at ruins that visitors usually can see only from afar, including Square Tower House and Oak Tree House. Reserve tickets in advance.
Fun Fact: Durango was a rough-and-tumble place during its 19th-century mining heyday. One source told how an early streetcar line closed after less than a year because “the crews were abusive and insulting to patrons, and the cars invariably pulled away from the railroad station before all incoming passengers could get aboard.”
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