I’ve been travel blogging for 10 years and yet it’s taken me all this time to attempt to answer the most basic question of all: “where to travel?”.
I’ve now visited nearly 70 countries (many of them more than once), but if that seems like a lot, I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface! The more I travel, the more I know how little I know. “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”
Still, at this point I believe I can share at least a few solid tips on where it’s good to go. I did my very first solo trip to another continent when I was 17; I’m now 39 and have travelled far and wide, gaining some clear favourites over the years. Perhaps they will be some of your favourites too.
Scroll along and find some travel ideas for your next trip — and perhaps to also learn a bit about me along the way.
Tropical starter countries
I love travelling in tropical countries! I also usually travel as a ‘backpacker’. For me, this simply means travelling independently and staying mostly in budget or local accommodation. If that style of travel appeals to you, then these countries will let you do it with ease. But if you’re just looking for a worry-free holiday, they’ll be just as suitable.
Most people know resorts like Cancun or Tulum, but Mexico gets so much more interesting on a cultural trip. You can find many more authentic places in the Yucatan, or go instead to Chiapas state, Oaxaca, or Mexico City, to name a few.
Mouth-watering food, ancient pre-Columbian ruins, cities with tons of culture and museums, gorgeous beaches, and epic national parks make Mexico a no-brainer. It’s easy to travel in Mexico and yes, away from the border regions and some specific trouble zones, it’s safe and super welcoming.
For a safe Central American destination with incredible ecotourism, look no further than the land of ‘pura vida’. You can expect great beaches & surf, lots of wildlife, incredible adventure tourism, and lots of positive vibes.
Just beware: Costa Rica is not cheap! Prices are more or less at Western levels. I didn’t like the high costs when I was a stingy backpacker in my 20s, but I’ve since gained much respect for Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism development. I recommend Costa Rica wholeheartedly for an adventure, beach, or nature-focused trip.
The ruins of an Incan citadel high in the mountains called Machu Picchu — you may have heard of it? — draws throngs of tourists to Peru. But there are so many more interesting experiences in Peru. Put a few of them together and you’ll soon have a perfect 2- or 3-week travel circuit through the southern part of this colourful Andean state.
With comfortable bus transportation, ample tourist infrastructure, lots of variety, and great hospitality, Peru is an ideal South American country to tackle first.
Peru was actually the first non-Western ‘backpacker destination’ that I ever went to. It proved a perfect introduction, getting me truly hooked on adventure travel. I’ve since been back to Peru and plan to visit a third time.
Right, so everyone has heard of Bali. But it’s actually a bit misunderstood, as there are different sides to this Indonesian island. Knowing where to go is essential! Some visitors complain of crowds or dirty beaches. I’ve also heard from disappointed honeymooners expecting Hawaii or Maldives-like majesty but ending up in loud and polluted Kuta (and having only themselves to blame).
The secret to Bali is getting away from the highly urbanized and commercialized south. Go into Bali where it’s really good. A mere 90-minute drive will make all the difference, as its interior and north coast are just gorgeous. While I’m not a fan of Kuta, I’ve had a phenomenal time in the centre of Bali and while scuba diving off the north coast. The beaches there don’t have sand but volcanic rock pebbles, keeping them much more low-key (which is just the way I like it).
Take cheap minibuses or rent your own scooter (small motorbike) to travel independently. Eat in the local warangs, stay in nice guesthouses or eco-hotels among the terraced rice fields, and you’ll be in heaven. Bali is an amazing budget-friendly destination and it’s super easy in almost every respect.
With low cost, incredible tourist infrastructure, and truly worry-free travel, Thailand is often touted as the perfect starting point in Southeast Asia—and I agree, having once started a 2-year round-the-world trip there myself while using it as my springboard into Asia.
An unknown destination Thailand is definitely not and, honestly, before the pandemic the tourism levels got a bit much sometimes, especially on the coast. Still, there are so many brilliant places in Thailand that this doesn’t have to matter all that much — and now, post-pandemic, it’s a perfect time to enjoy its famed hospitality again.
Thailand may be a tourism juggernaut, but it’s also so reliably good that it remains the quintessential place to dip your toes into the world of travel. While it feels exotic, it’s also very undemanding. I’ve been to Thailand many times and I still love easygoing Thailand and its incredible food. If you ever wanted to try solo travel do it in Thailand, as it’s one of the world’s best countries for solo travel.
My tropical favourites
The aforementioned headliner destinations are good places to get started, but the following may be slightly more original destinations in the tropics and are all among my personal favourites.
Indonesia outside Bali
Bali is lovely, though I consider the rest of Indonesia highly underrated. Try Java, Lombok, or Flores. The vibe changes so much if you go off the typical tourist routes just a tiny bit. Visit a village in Flores and all the kids will come running out yelling “Mister! Mister!” and wanting to play football with you. (Curiously, since they are only taught some specific phrases in school, they will yell this even if you’re a woman.)
Most people only know Bali and some people don’t even realize Bali is not a country, which just goes to show how much more attention this island gets compared to the rest of Indonesia. This also means there are lots of places in Indonesia you can explore with relatively few other tourists. Since each island has different traditions, cultures, and even religions, Indonesia is truly like a collection of destinations in one.
Landlocked with no beaches, no large cities, and lacking an iconic site like Angkor Wat means that Laos is not top of many people’s travel lists. Sadly, Laos is often overlooked in favour of Thailand or Vietnam. But if you think you might enjoy its understated Buddhist vibe and rural places, then Laos is an absolute gem.
Motorbike loops, such as the Bolaven Plateau Loop, pass by rural scenery and some jaw-dropping waterfalls. If you love nature, waterfalls, caves, visiting small villages, and local markets, then don’t think twice about going to Laos. Some say Laos is ‘like Thailand but X years/decades ago’. I don’t know how accurate that is as I only first visited Thailand ten years ago, but it maybe gives you a rough sense of what to expect.
My favourite place is probably Nong Khiaw, a gorgeous village on the Nam Ou river among the limestone peaks. Don’t also miss the chance to spend a night or two sleeping high up in the trees at the Gibbon Experience.
But my best experience in Laos was accidentally crashing a big Laotian wedding. At first, we shuffled away thinking we were intruding, but locals immediately grabbed us by the arm and pulled us in, inviting us to have drinks and dance with the villagers all in a big circle. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Perhaps this comes as a surprise, but I consider Vietnam a strangely underappreciated destination. You may hear some tourists complain about Vietnam, but it’s likely they only visited the tourist traps and/or visited Vietnam in the past when scammy behaviour was a lot more prevalent.
Ignore the naysayers — if you approach it right, Vietnam is truly one of the highlights of Asia.
Sure, the beaches may not be the very best in Asia and there is a lot of mass tourism in Ha Long Bay. But explore elsewhere, especially the countryside, the mountains, and its buzzing cities, and Vietnam will show you its absolute best side.
Motorbiking through the north is one of my most treasured travel experiences — a journey I spent about 90% with a big stupid grin on my face. Caving in Phong Nha is another all-time travel highlight. The cities may be chaotic and the air polluted but they are also absolutely thrilling beehives of activity, especially the Old Quarter in Hanoi. I wrote a post on how best to enjoy Hanoi — it somehow never gained any traction, but I think it shows very well why I absolutely adore Vietnam.
It’s much safer than you’d think! Enjoy Caribbean vibes in- and around the beautiful city of Cartagena, or head inland for more varied adventures. It’s worth being a bit careful in the nightlife/cities, but otherwise, you can leave preconceptions about Colombia at home. Fantastic hiking, ecotourism (Amazon, Andes, and Pacific coast), and inviting and culture-filled cities make this a great introduction to South America.
While Colombia lacks a signature iconic sight like, say, Iguazu Falls, the Uyuni Salt Flats, or Machu Picchu, it makes up for this by having a wide diversity of travel locations with lots of smaller highlights, arguably making it a better destination across the board. Stay on a coffee farm in the Zona Cafeteria, go paragliding in San Gil, go whale watching in Choco, or simply chill in your hammock at a cosy hostel or eco-lodge.
The Philippines is usually a bit overlooked and I suppose I understand why. The food is not always what foreigners expect, the capital Manila is not the most immediately appealing, and being a Catholic country I think some visitors miss a perceived ‘exoticism’ due to a lack of any Hindu or Buddhist temples (entirely superficial as this is).
But it’s a big mistake to ignore The Philippines. With over 7,000 islands you are free to island-hop and entirely improvise your travel route. It seriously has some of the most beautiful beaches with white sand and perfect turquoise waters that I’ve ever seen, though without the need to remortgage your house or sell a liver when going to somewhere like the Maldives or Fiji.
I recommend The Philippines especially if beaches are an important element for you, though the nature and cities will also add plenty of variety. The vibe is also super fun: you can travel around in colourful Jeepneys (even sitting on the roof at times) and easily chat with the friendly locals most of whom speak perfect English.
My craziest experience? Definitely being there during Easter and seeing an actor playing Jesus getting actually-for-real nailed to a cross with actual nails. Nuts.
It’s one of the poorest South American countries, so don’t go here for 5-star luxury. The internet is also horrendous, so avoid it if you’re a digital nomad. But for a fun, adventurous, and extremely budget-friendly trip, you seriously can’t go wrong with Bolivia.
The salt flats of Uyuni are such a dreamlike place, La Paz (at 3,625m) is surely one of the world’s most fascinating capitals, and Sucre is a lovely town to stay a while. You can learn about the local culture, including some strange and at times macabre superstitions of the Quechua people, and explore Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.
One of the coolest things to do in Bolivia is to go mountain biking down Death Road. Once known as the world’s most dangerous road, this narrow mountain passage was used by trucks and cars that had to desperately avoid its dizzyingly steep drops. These days it’s closed off to motorized traffic and has become a (much safer) tourist attraction, taking you from the cold high-altitude Andes all the way to the sweltering jungle valleys.
My personal favourite in Central America. Lake Atitlan, surrounded by volcanic peaks, is simply gorgeous. The Mayan temples at Tikal were my favourite in the whole region. You can visit coffee farms, go volcano trekking, and visit charming colonial towns. I think Guatemala has some of the most dramatic scenery and colourful culture in Central America—and you can see all the highlights in about 2 weeks, making it ideal for a holiday or shorter trip.
My best experience in Guatemala was climbing up Mt. Tajamulco at night and witnessing the sunrise from this volcanic peak. I felt like I was on top of the world. It still gives me goosebumps thinking of it!
Low travel costs, fun surfer towns, and treks to active volcanoes make this a highly rewarding destination in Central America. León and Granada are charming colonial towns to visit too. It hasn’t developed its ecotourism potential at all to the level of Costa Rica, but being so budget-friendly, less trodden, and relatively safe also makes it underrated.
If you’re looking for adventure, Nicaragua is a terrific choice. You can easily go volcano boarding (yep, that’s a thing), surfing, kayaking, mountain biking, or zip-lining.
But Nicaragua also has an easy charm. I had an amazing time in Nicaragua staying on a beach without any WiFi, taking surfing lessons during the day and chilling by campfires at night. While floating on our boards and watching the sunset, we’d often be surrounded by a flock of pelicans. I also loved taking Spanish lessons in Nicaragua, letting you benefit from the low cost of classes and the mild Nicaraguan accent.
Cuba is an interesting one. If you expect everything to be 100% beautiful, comfortable and made for Instagram, then Cuba may not be where you should go. This country does have its share of issues — some visible and others less so. But if you’re open to a unique cultural trip and accept this country warts-and-all, then Cuba offers experiences you literally can’t have anywhere else.
From the vintage cars still driving the streets to the local life that still feels like a mostly pre-internet society (despite having limited public WiFi), visiting Cuba is truly like stepping through a mirror. For budget-friendly accommodation and more local contact, stay in casa particulares (local B&Bs identified by a blue sign), which also provide home-cooked meals. I met numerous interesting characters on my trip and found Cubans to be some of the friendliest people around.
I’ve not really blogged about Brazil, mainly because my camera had a nervous breakdown causing me to have zero pictures of my trip! But I was awestruck by the epic waterfalls of Iguacu, loved staying in the colourful coastal town of Paraty, and consider Rio de Janeiro one of the most scenic cities in the world. A great country with super friendly people. Safety issues are limited mainly to specific areas in the big cities.
Insanely good mountain hiking
I adore hiking, especially in the mountains. Trekking is to me the ultimate form of slow travel, forcing you to be fully immersed every step of the way. I grew up doing many hikes in the French Alps on family holidays and carried on hiking since. I loved hitting the trails in these countries in particular.
Incredible treks to Himalayan peaks and through lush valleys dotted with small villages. You can go independent trekking in Nepal extremely well even if you’re not the most experienced, thanks to an extensive network of so-called tea houses where you can eat and stay the night.
I hiked to Annapurna Basecamp with a friend of mine just at the end of the hiking season and standing there nearly alone and surrounded by several legendary 8000m+ peaks is something I’ll never forget.
Treks to Machu Picchu and to the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range in Huaraz make Peru a phenomenal trekking destination. The 2-day Colca Canyon trek is also worth considering, taking you into a valley that’s known for easily sighting giant condors.
You can book various guided multi-day treks in Peru where all equipment is provided. Certain trails are also fine to do independently. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu you do have to book a permit for, usually months in advance, as it’s the most popular trek in Peru.
The Canaries Islands, Azores, and the Cape Verde archipelago are simply amazing for hiking. These islands all have various micro-climates within them, letting you see wildly different landscapes within one trip. Trails are well-marked and easy to do on your own.
Volcanoes in Central America
“What is the sound of that roaring jet engine?”, I thought to myself before realizing that was, in fact, the sound of lava spewing inside the crater we were about to see.
Numerous dormant and active volcanoes make for epic hikes in Central America. Antigua in Guatemala and León in Nicaragua are especially great bases for hikes. See lava flows from a safe distance, lie belly-down on the edge of a crater, or simply climb a dormant volcano for panoptic sunrise views above the clouds.
Republic of Georgia
Excellent trails through the Caucasus Mountains, often stopping by traditional villages and mountaintop monasteries. See this post on hiking in Georgia.
Growing up in The Netherlands, I had the chance to travel all over Western Europe when I was younger. This probably made me turn to less-visited parts of Europe later, many of which are now my unequivocal favourites.
These countries tend to fly under the radar and are often cheaper to visit too. Don’t underestimate them!
I’ll confess: the only thing I knew about Bosnia was that there was a war there in the 1990s. What I didn’t know is how lovely it is to visit Bosnia today.
Sarajevo is absolutely my favourite capital in the Balkans. The Medieval town of Mostar makes for an easy side-trip from Croatia. Bosnia has some great cuisine, lively culture, and nice people — while still overcoming the past it is highly inviting.
Possibly the cheapest country in Europe and also incredibly fun and interesting. Once known as ‘the North Korea of Europe’, Albania had quite a peculiar history. It’s a democracy today, and while it’s still developing, the infrastructure has improved enough to make it easy to travel around.
Some say Albania will one day be ‘the next Croatia’. Until then, it’s an original choice for a Balkans trip — right next door to Greece but with just a fraction of the tourists. Go there for the unique culture and language, Ottoman-era architecture, great food, and some of the last unspoiled coastline in the Mediterranean.
Oh dear, where do I begin? Many people have inaccurate images of Romania being a destitute place, or believe that Romanians are gipsies (not to go into the controversy here, but at least one has to recognize they’re entirely different peoples).
Anyway, be sure to go to Transylvania, a region dotted with colourful Medieval towns and incredible landscapes. Epic mountain ranges and some of the last truly wild nature areas of Europe make Romania such a thrilling place. Don’t miss my reasons why I loved travelling in Romania. It’s an absolute gem.
I’m half-Polish so I may be biased, but I like Poland a lot, especially cities like Gdansk, Krakow, and Zakopane near the Tatra Mountains. I mostly visited Poland on family trips in my teenage/young adult days. This led me to do my share of random local stuff such as sailing with my uncle to Krynica Morska in a little boat, camping at some lakes I can’t remember the names of, and staying in less-visited cities like Częstochowa.
Poland is quite preoccupied with the Ukraine refugee crisis at the moment, but it’s a great country to visit. Kraków in particular features in a lot of European city-hopping itineraries as it has a well-preserved historical core and is just a short hop from Czechia or Slovakia.
Republic of Georgia
Wedged between Turkey and Russia, some consider Georgia to be already part of the Middle East or Asia. But Georgians very much see themselves as European, so I will list it here.
Undiscovered by the masses, I feel Georgia nevertheless has mainstream appeal, thanks to incredibly delicious food, a quirky and inviting capital, unique towns with ancient defense towers, monasteries dug into mountains, and phenomenal hiking trails.
You can read more about things to do in Tbilisi, hiking in Georgia, and travel tips. Since I went in 2018, Tbilisi has been discovered by digital nomads (as I predicted) but still only barely by tourists more generally. If you’d like to go somewhere pure and authentic and with lots of friendly attractions then Georgia gets my strong recommendation.
Armenia, which neighbours Georgia, seems a lot poorer and is maybe not as ready for mainstream tourism as Georgia. I nevertheless loved my time in Armenia, especially since it’s such an unsung and barely-visited country. You can go to a UNESCO World Heritage like the Geghard Monastery and be virtually alone. Yerevan has some great museums and it’s for sure an original and authentic place to go.
One particularly amazing thing happened when I was in Yerevan: it happened to be the annual celebration of Vardavar, during which everyone battles each other in the streets with water buckets, hoses, and super-soakers. And by ‘everyone’ I mean everyone, ranging from children to grannies, and including the fire department and police. Crazy!
Since everyone goes to the north or centre of Italy (Florence, Venice, Rome, Milan, Pisa…) it leaves the south barely visited, at least by comparison.
I loved my time in Puglia. It has so much charm, insanely good food, history, and a gorgeous coastline, while feeling like the sort of region where Italians themselves might go for holiday. The slow-paced south of Italy is also much more affordable than the industrious north.
Hungary is another one of those countries I tackled quite early on in my travel career, long before I started travel blogging. I went with my friends to Sziget Festival, which takes place on an island in the river between Buda and Pest. (Fun fact: Budapest is actually an agglomeration of two cities). After a big day at the music festival, we’d chill the next day, steaming off in one of Budapest’s ancient bathhouses.
The creative bar scene and the historical significance, much of it rooted in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, make Budapest such a fantastic city to visit. I also went camping by Lake Balaton which was nice but maybe not quite as special. I prefer neighbouring Romania for travelling around the country, while Hungary’s capital is definitely a lot more interesting.
A few other European places that are much more on the travel map, but where I’ve enjoyed spending my time.
This is where I’m from (hoi!). I can’t be objective at all but people do love The Netherlands a lot, particularly thanks to its quaint and bicycle-friendly cities. Amsterdam gets crowded so try to check out other places, such as my wonderful home town of Haarlem.
I lived in the UK for six years, alternating between London and Brighton. I must admit I didn’t actually travel that much within the UK while I was there, perhaps because the many London airports made it so easy to go elsewhere.
Luckily I still did get to poke around a fair bit. I had an especially memorable time in Scotland, where for a friend’s birthday we stayed in a small castle in the wintery highlands. London is a phenomenal city to visit with so many museums and so much culture. I also enjoyed living there for a while, though for quality of life reasons it wasn’t a place I wanted to stay permanently — which is ultimately why I moved to Lisbon.
I twice travelled in the south of Ireland, which I found absolutely lovely albeit fairly low-profile. Arguably the best thing to do is a road trip along the rocky coast and see the limestone cliffs. It does often get cold, grey, and rains a lot — so not really in my tropical destination wheelhouse, but I won’t complain. Staying in a country house with an open hearth and good whiskey will cosy up a rainy day, as will the warm-hearted Irish.
Count me as a big fan of Berlin with all its fascinating history, museums, grungy aesthetic, and international scene. Munich is there for the classic Bavarian vibes. Definitely two essential cities to add if you’re doing a European city-hopping trip. I also spent time in Leipzig, Osnabrück, Cologne and elsewhere
As far as ‘core Europe’ goes, Italy is probably my favourite of the bunch. Clearly, everyone should visit Rome at least once in their life… you can just feel the history everywhere. I did trips to Napoli, Capri, the ruins of Pompeii (fascinating!), the Amalfi coast (touristy as hell but stunningly gorgeous) and Puglia (a bit more off the beaten path).
Italy basically has great stuff to see everywhere and I find Italian culture to be both amazing and hilarious. Ma che vuoi?! *pinches fingers*
Growing up in the Netherlands, I spent many summer holidays in France (a popular trip for Dutch families). I have incredibly good memories of camping in the French Alps. I also visited Paris some years ago. France being fairly expensive has led me to visit other countries instead, but I’ll be back inevitably.
To the unacquainted, it may seem like Spain is the country where Spanish people live who speak Spanish. You know, Spain!
But get to know it a bit more and you’ll realize it’s not quite so unified. Spain is actually more like a collection of kingdoms that once got fused together, each region having their own customs, cuisine, and often local language. This diversity makes repeat visits to Spain especially interesting.
You can check out some Spain itineraries here. Barcelona is crowded but good, Valencia being a more laidback alternative. Andalucia in the south is always a great bet. I love cities like Seville and Granada where I spent a lot of my time. My partner worked from Seville for a year which made me live there part-time as well. Renting a car and exploring the white villages of Andalucia is one of the best things I’ve done in all of southern Europe. Avoid August as you’ll be fried to death by the scorching sun, but spring and autumn are perfect.
Galicia, Cantabria, and Basque Country in the north are less-visited (mainly because of the climate) but they’re highly worthwhile. The famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route also runs through these parts.
I’ve been based in Portugal since 2016 and now consider it my adopted home. It’s an utterly delightful country, home to some of the prettiest cities, most wonderful landscapes, great food, and amazing islands. It’s definitely a hugely trending destination these days, but I have yet to come across anyone who didn’t like Portugal.
Porto and Lisbon make for popular city trips but there is a lot more to discover. Consider travelling in the remote region of Gerês, hiking in the Serra da Lousã, island hopping on the Azores, staying on the wild and unspoiled Vicentine Coast, and discovering unique villages like Monsanto, as well as seeing the non-obvious sights in Lisbon.
Due to living in Portugal, I’ve blogged about this country quite a bit, so you can check out all my posts about Portugal here.
It’s a hugely popular summer destination in Europe, especially along the Dalmatian coast. I did a backpacker island hopping tour there many moons ago, which was definitely a very fun way to see Croatia (and to party). I’ve since been back twice; once on a road trip, and once on a backpacking trip through the Balkans.
Having been to the Croatian coast in winter / early spring I have to say that it is clearly 100% based on summer tourism. Lots of locals even leave for the capital Zagreb and other places during this time, making the Dalmatian coast feel somewhat desolate. Croatia is one of those few places where I think there isn’t too much point travelling in the off-season.
Nevertheless, in a fun twist of fate, I ended up in Dubrovnik while there were camera crews setting up everywhere. “Are you on Space Bear?”, someone asked me in a bar. I thought they were referring to some wild new party drug, but this was in fact the code name for a Star Wars film that was in production at the time. Hanging out with some of the crew and seeing stunt performers practice their moves was quite an unexpected attraction in Dubrovnik, making my winter visit there a lot more interesting. That said, I normally advise going in spring or summer.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Czech Republic several times, including with family, a week in Prague with friends, and while driving through Czechia on a European road trip with other friends. (We bought a second-hand car in the Netherlands and drove it through Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary and back. Thanks to some outstanding maintenance by some Czech mechanics, we sold the car for a profit after. How’s that for a budget travel hack?).
Anyway, the capital of Prague is always a big hit with travellers and its charms are undeniable. I also enjoyed visiting Pilsen (where the beer comes from) and the spa town of Karlovy Vary. If you’re on a backpacking trip through Europe, you pretty much have to add Prague, which many consider a top-tier European city. It’s very touristy and crowded (including many weekend trippers and stag do’s from Britain), but all its history and charm nevertheless make it a must-visit in Europe.
I did a big island-hopping backpacking tour in Greece in my 20s, during which I visited iconic islands like Mykonos and Santorini (stunningly scenic but definitely also hyper-touristy). Other islands like Naxos were a lot more laid-back. I hugely enjoyed travelling in Greece, honestly combining a lot of partying with boat trips and swimming, though also checking a few cultural sights along the way.
I went back more recently on a road trip through the Peloponesse peninsula with a longer stay in Athens and enjoyed it in a different way. This trip had just a perfect combination of ancient history, visiting authentic villages, and swimming and snorkelling on the coast. I love the islands but I’m also intrigued to travel more around the mainland interior — even moreso to do it a bit out of season. Northern Greece is high on my travel list.
Exotic, developed, but expensive
Looking beyond Europe, these countries are highly developed and not always the cheapest, but highly worthwhile to visit.
While living in London I worked for SEGA, a Japanese video game company, and so I was fortunate enough to be sent to Tokyo for work several times. I used the opportunity to tack on some holiday to my work trips, letting me visit Japan essentially for free.
I’ve had some crazy adventures in Tokyo for sure. I experienced more or less my own versions of Lost in Translation multiple times over, in some cases even matching specific scenes from this film — including all of the karaoke.
It’s my introduction to Japan that later inspired me to travel all over Asia (and the world) when I left my career in video games behind. Japan remains to this day one of the most extraordinary places I’ve been. Its culture is just so wildly different and enigmatic. Japan can be cacophonous and overwhelming, but also gentle, quiet, and respectful. It isn’t the cheapest destination in the world, but it’s for sure one of the most fascinating.
Tip: don’t ever have sushi in Japan as it will ruin sushi for you anywhere else. Almost every time I have sushi in Europe now I cry a little inside.
If you’re from Australia it won’t be exotic, but to me, it certainly was!
On the surface, it can still feel somewhat familiar to Europeans and Americans, but it’s the details that get you. While having drinks in a beer garden in Brisbane, I looked up and saw hundreds of bats just casually hanging from the trees above us — wtf?! While strolling through the park I could hear the cicadas and unusual bird noises. Seeing a koala or kangaroo will definitely prove you are in a very different place.
Apart from the natural environment, it’s interesting how much of global culture comes from Australia — without us non-Ozzies necessarily realizing. E.g. hipster cafe culture originating in Melbourne and so much of surfer culture coming from the Gold Coast.
Australia is not easy on the wallet. Despite the cost, Australia is often considered an ideal backpacking starter country, being safe and having great infrastructure as well. Backpacker hostels attract a much younger crowd in OZ, especially filled with Brits on their first-ever trip. (Even when I visited Australia at age 27, the travel scene was noticeably young.) Working holidays and gap years are highly popular in Australia.
Singapore + Malaysia
The city-state of Singapore often gets faulted for being overly sterile and filled with high-rises and financial offices. Having visited on several layovers and after staying with an expat friend who lived there, I now see Singapore very differently.
Sure, Singapore isn’t Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. It’s flawlessly organized and the nightlife is surely far too timid. Yet its urban design, green spaces, and the hi-tech solarpunk vibe of the architecture and the Gardens by the Bay are really something else. Local culture is there: the famed Hawker Centers are a paradise for sampling all types of Asian food, while the colorful Hadj Lane and Chinatown take you away from the glittering hi-rises.
It’s a welcoming, safe, and in its own way fascinating city — and worth spending at least a few days. It can be easily combined with neighbouring Malaysia, which is a great place to go next for its ecotourism and its multi-cultural cities. Malaysia is a bit pricier than other countries nearby but it’s clean, developed, and family-friendly, making it an attractive option if you are looking for these qualities.
You can meet friendly people everywhere, but the ratio in these countries seems particularly favourable.
The Nepalese seem to be some of the most chilled-out people on the planet. Always a warm namaste, no fuss, and little chance of scams or overcharging. It’s one of those places where I felt utterly welcomed everywhere I went.
I’m in a poorly-lit concrete car park in Brisbane trying to find my way up to the ground floor of a hotel when, utterly out of the blue, a passing stranger goes, ‘G’DAY MATE!!!”. What on Earth just happened?!
I love the genuine, outgoing, and deeply family-oriented Filipinos. Maybe it helps that most Pinoy speak perfect English, making the language barrier lower than elsewhere in Asia. Being randomly invited for dinner at some villager’s bamboo hut home was a special highlight for me.
Dive into a local pub and within minutes some old geezer with a flat cap and a Guinness will have taken a random interest in your group, delighting you with some classic Irish banter. The casual charm and sense of humour of the Irish are simply off the charts.
Yep, you just got invited to a beach BBQ by people you met only moments ago. Don’t worry, just roll with it.
Road trip countries
You’ll probably need a car here…
Before I became a travel blogger over 10 years ago I worked in the video game industry in London. My job, as well as my American girlfriend at the time, prompted various visits to cities such as SF, LA, Boston, NYC, Buffalo, and elsewhere. I visited Miami, Houston, and other cities on stopovers, too.
I’m generally not so much into the sprawling grid-based cities, but I do have a real soft spot for SF and the Bay Area, and New York is simply on another level. About 40% of my readers are American though, so there is a good chance you know the USA better than I do!
Public transport in the US is, on the whole, awful compared to Europe. One day I’d love to do a classic coast-to-coast American road trip, maybe stopping by some iconic places like New Orleans or Monument Valley. It’s still on the bucket list.
I’ve visited Toronto, Lake Eerie, Niagara Falls, and a few other places. Sadly it’s difficult to get around by public transport and easily enjoy Canada’s biggest asset: its spectacular nature. Canadians are super friendly and I hope to visit again one day, preferably on a road trip.
It was once the perfect backpacking country in Africa; a kind of ‘Africa lite’ with a well-worn backpacker trail. The pandemic sadly forced the Baz Bus, South Africa’s only flexible form of transportation, out of business. Due to its very poor public transport system, South Africa must now be considered a road trip country.
If you get the chance to have your own vehicle in South Africa, then the obvious place to start is in easy and developed Cape Town and to follow the Garden Route. But don’t miss the underrated and stunning Wild Coast (a majority Xhosa region), the epic hiking in Drakensberg, and of course, safaris in Kruger National Park.
The Arab world
This destination can be love-it-or-hate-it. I’ll be honest: Marrakech, its main tourist draw, is one of the worst places I’ve ever been in terms of scammers, pushy salesmen, tourist traps, and harassment. It’s just a non-stop barrage. If Marrakech is your only impression of Morocco you might never want to go back.
But… go anywhere else and the vibe will be (mostly) very different. With some of the most colourful spice markets, ancient desert fortresses, and the chance to camp under the stars in the Sahara Desert, Morocco is without a doubt a unique and thrilling destination. New high-speed trains even make it easy to move all around Morocco in comfort.
Morocco can be difficult for solo female travellers, so read up on the various cultural aspects before going. Consider skipping Marrakech entirely if constant harassment is not your idea of a fun time. Other places in Morocco are not immune to this problem either but are much better. I loved Essaouira, Tafraoute, Chefchaouen, and elsewhere.
Ecotourism is not just fun, but it’s also good for the world. Staying in eco-accommodation or booking ecotourism experiences will let you connect with nature and see wildlife in their natural habitat. It also creates a viable business model that can prevent deforestation, overfishing, and so on.
Having met former loggers turned nature guides and witnessing a number of unique projects, I feel very passionate about ecotourism as a positive force for good.
Costa Rica is possibly the world’s best ecotourism destination. It’s astonishingly easy to see all sorts of wildlife here including sloths, monkeys, lizards, coati bears, tropical birds like toucans, hummingbirds, and more.
In Costa Rica, the jungles are actually growing due to its strategic decision (made a long time ago) to stop deforestation and focus on sustainable tourism development. Costa Rica is not that cheap but knowing your tourist money goes to nature preservation makes the prices a lot more acceptable.
The country Malaysia encompasses a big part of Borneo, a place name you’ve no doubt seen appear on screen in nature documentaries. On a jungle boat trip in Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, I spotted countless hornbills, crocodiles, and rare proboscis monkeys. A night tour at our lodge revealed many more species normally hidden from view.
The Batu Caves and the peaks of Mt Kinabalu are other epic nature experiences in Malaysia. On the peninsula, there are many canopy walks, eco-lodges, and islands with beautiful reefs as well. The quality of ecotourism in Malaysia reminds me somewhat of Costa Rica. Lots of great nature-based fun and very family-friendly too if this is what you seek.
It’s not necessarily known for ecotourism, but Vietnam may surprise you. See the national parks or head to Phong Nha, home to some of the world’s biggest caves. Oxalis Adventures does some incredible jungle tours focused on sustainability. Sleeping inside the cathedral-sized Hang En Cave, which could easily fit a stack of 747 aeroplanes, is one of my best experiences ever.
An incredible island group in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. See huge pods of hundreds of dolphins or go whale-watching in the season. Great hiking and also nice snorkelling in summer. A little slice of paradise.
Since areas in the Amazon are becoming increasingly safe since the peace accord with the FARC in 2016, I think Colombia will become much more known for its ecotourism. Leticia was always the obvious place to go in the Amazon, but eco-adventures are now offered in many other places too.
In addition, there’s whale watching on the Pacific coast, hiking/trekking in Tayrona Park, the ‘Lost City’ trek, and Andean mountain treks to consider. Don’t miss Salento, home to the world’s tallest palm trees.
Ecuador (Galapagos Islands)
The Galapagos Islands have long been one of the most famed ecotourism destinations in the world, as these pristine islands are home to many species not found anywhere else. You can see tortoises, penguins, marine iguanas, and more, often at very close range.
African safaris are not my speciality, but I have visited South Africa where the wildlife experiences are very accessible — Kruger National Park being the main safari destination. Seeing a herd of 50+ elephants is a humbling experience. Prices in South Africa are reasonable compared to other more premium safari destinations, making it easier to enjoy African wildlife on a normal budget.
Unexpectedly, there are also penguins in South Africa (who knew?). At Protea Banks, I scuba-dived in the middle of the open ocean with sharks — mostly blacktips, but tiger and bull sharks are also known to pop up. It’s quite an adrenaline-pumping experience.
For more amazing scuba diving or snorkelling, consider Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico, Belize, or Panama (Coiba Island) — these are all places where I’ve dived and had an incredible time doing so. I’ve heard great things about diving in Egypt and the Maldives.
Insanely good food
I’m not exactly a typical foodie, though food is a huge part of travel for me. While I’m not always actively on the hunt for obscure dishes or the best chefs, I always appreciate something good when it’s on my plate. Here are a few countries whose cuisines I’ve especially enjoyed.
Peruvian cuisine offers an underrated mix of indigenous, colonial, and Chinese immigrant influences. I feel fairly neutral about South American food generally, but consider Peru a major exception. Oh, and you can also eat unusual stuff like alpaca and guinea pig meat here, which can be pretty interesting (if for nothing else than the story to tell).
Insane mix of Indian, Malay, Arab, Thai, and other culinary influences. Laksa noodle soup is next level.
Another one of those great melting pot cuisines, mixing Turkish and Iranian influences with Greek and Eastern European ones. It’s also the likely birthplace of wine, having been produced there for at least 8000 years. They still make it today with ancient traditional methods.
I love food all over the Balkans but I’ll just go with Romanian cuisine here, given its mix of Mediterranean and Hungarian/Eastern European styles. Poftă bună!
Sadly embroiled in civil war at the moment, though Burmese (Myanmar) food is amazing. Mainly what I love is that you’ll often be presented with like a dozen little plates each with different things to try. Yum!
And, of course, Japan, Italy, Mexico, and Thailand.
I like travelling in inexpensive countries as it simply removes a lot of stress. When things don’t cost too much, you can take a chance on things without having to justify every single expense.
Crisis upon crisis has sadly kept Argentina’s economy down for decades. This does present an opportunity for travellers. Bring fresh and clean US dollar or Euro bills and exchange them at the local rate and you’ll enjoy a destination with European-like standards at a fraction of the normal cost. I loved the atmosphere in Buenos Aires (‘the Paris of the south’), Córdoba, Salta, and other cities.
Truly one of the cheapest destinations in the world. You can find private rooms with ensuite bathrooms (and yes, Western-style toilets) for 3 Euro or 4 Dollars per night — even less if you’re not using an online booking platform. Conversely, you can enjoy 5-star luxury at bargain prices.
Not everywhere in India is inexpensive; Mumbai or Bengaluru are highly developed and costly by foreign and local standards.
Probably the cheapest country in Europe (apart from Ukraine, currently at war). Albania is a ton of fun and, with improved infrastructure, not difficult to travel in. You can eat out for several Euros while basic private rooms can easily be found for 10 Euro a night.
The least expensive country in Central America is home to colonial cities, surf towns, and the twin-volcano island of Ometepe inside Nicaragua Lake. I once spent several weeks studying Spanish in Nicaragua while barely spending anything at all.
On my six-month backpacking trip through Central America, Nicaragua was the perfect place for me to slow down and recharge while keeping expenses down. It’s also an easy add-on to a trip to Costa Rica.
Despite a booming economy, Vietnam remains exceptionally good value in terms of accommodation, tours, and food. Local beers cost no more than $0.50, delicious street food can be had for just a little more, and private rooms under $10 are common, especially in more rural areas.
Republic of Georgia
This country in the Caucasus, wedged between Russia and Turkey, can be shockingly inexpensive. Delicious food and a good standard of accommodation should make it a budget travel favourite.
New affordable flights with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and even with RyanAir from Europe ensure you may not need to spend a lot on your trip to Georgia overall.
Places such as Tulum can be savagely expensive as they clearly target well-off Americans visiting on a brief holiday. If you want to keep it cheap, go to Chiapas State.
In the colourful town of San Cristobal De Las Casas, you can find hostel dorm beds starting at 5 Euro or 6 US Dollars per night. Chiapas also happens to be wonderful—filled with jungles, river canyons, Mayan ruins, and authentic towns.
Sadly not advised right now
I went to Myanmar (also known as Burma) in 2013, shortly after it had reopened to the world. It was wild and thrilling being in a place that had been almost totally shielded from tourism and globalization for decades. Sadly, the country soon fell into a civil war, closing to tourism again.
I remember my time in Myanmar very fondly, especially its friendly people and the wonderful train journeys. Hopefully, Myanmar will be able to solve its problems and rid itself of the military regime.
Underrated Atlantic islands
If you think you have to go all the way to the Pacific or Indian Ocean for some amazing islands, think again! The Atlantic has its share of epic islands, too.
Since I live in Portugal I can easily hop over to the many Portuguese-speaking islands, so I’ve been doing it often. Cape Verde is great for backpacking (using cheap local minibuses), while the others are better for a road trip with your own transportation.
It’s off the coast of West Africa, though very safe and welcoming even if you’re not an experienced traveller. Santo Antao is just crazy good for hiking, while Mindelo on São Vicente is the cultural capital with lots of live music, food markets, and a big carnival in spring. The Cape Verde archipelago is not hugely well-known (outside of some package resort tourism) but highly rewarding. Don’t miss the top reasons to go to Cape Verde.
Amazing island group in the Atlantic. Temperate weather keeps the beach tourists away while hotel beds across the archipelago are capped, ensuring a sustainable level of tourism.
Most visitors end up on the largest island of Sao Miguel, which I definitely recommend, though other islands like Pico, Faial, or the less-visited Sao Jorge are also highly worth it. The Azores are not really a backpacking destination, so make sure you have your own car or use local tours to get around.
I used to think of Madeira as just a cruise ship stop and a location for resort hotels. Having finally paid it a visit, I now recognize it for the wonderful adventure island that it actually is! I spent my time road-tripping, hiking, canyoning down a 60-meter tall waterfall, and sampling the unique local fruits and dishes. You can check out my explorer’s guide to Madeira for a different look at this gorgeous island.
How on Earth could the Canary Islands be underrated? It’s true; some parts of this Spanish island group are fully oriented towards package tourists from the UK. The southern coasts are dominated by huge hotels serving English breakfast instead of Spanish fare. On the radio in Tenerife I even heard adverts for a supermarket where British women can shop while their husbands watch football in the lounge (yes, really).
But the crass commercialism of (parts of) Tenerife and Lanzarote hides the fact that there are some amazing adventure islands without any sort of mass tourism. Don’t miss the stunning La Gomera and or the hiking paradise of La Palma, which is also one of the world’s best places for stargazing. If you’re into authentic destinations, don’t underestimate the Canary Islands… you may be very pleasantly surprised.
Where to go on a big trip
If you want to go on an epic trip someday, you can read about what it costs to travel 1 year, how to plan a round-the-world trip, and common overland travel routes around the world. These guides will tell you more about travelling for an extended period of time.
This is also a key topic of my book on how to travel the world, which will tell you everything you need to know to travel more and travel further, while making the most out of every adventure.
I’m constantly thinking of where to go next, so if you have any tips, feel free to leave them in the comments. Currently, I have plans to re-visit Colombia, go to India later in 2022, and visit the ‘Stans in Central Asia!
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