In 2019, Kaitlan and I were fortunate to travel to some wonderful destinations. From our home-base in Brussels, we traveled north to the Nordics, west to Ireland, south to Morocco, and east to Russia, with many unforgettable stops in between.
Comparing such varied and culturally distinct places is difficult – each country (and often, each region within each country) offers something unique, and all have contributed to the incredibly rich experience we have had during the year in review. With that said, here is my valiant attempt to highlight the top five destinations as we ring in the New Year.
First, a word on the factors I considered when compiling this list. The top travel destinations are about more than where you can capture the best Instagram photos or see the most popular tourist attractions. What weighed most heavily for me was what I consider to be the three primary benefits of traveling:
- Experiences – this could of course include seeing world-renowned tourist sites with your own eyes; but it also includes savoring the local cuisine, enjoying the beauty of the local scenery, and partaking in local activities and traditions that you simply couldn’t experience elsewhere in the world.
- Connections – there are over 7.5 billion people in the world, and most of them are not venturing to your hometown any time soon. It’s amazing the people you meet while traveling and how that shapes your experience. Friendly locals and adventurous fellow travelers can contribute exponentially not only to a memorable visit, but a lasting connection for future endeavors.
- Perspective – perhaps less apparent than the first two, but arguably the most important. Seeing new parts of the world, including those of historical significance, and interacting directly with different cultures is a profound intangible benefit of traveling that helps provide you with a more complete and accurate lens through which to view the world.
Without further ado, let’s count down the top five places that, in my view, offered the most in terms of the factors outlined above.
5. Marrakech, Morocco
Just do it. Submerse yourself in the vibrant, bustling world of the Marrakech medina. There is no shortage of unique, unforgettable experiences to be had in this former imperial North African city. The cuisine is some of the best that you can imagine – tangia, tagine, pastilla, couscous, and Moroccan salad made to perfection. Mint tea is not just a drink, but a cultural staple and part of the lifestyle. The fresh orange juice will make you wonder what you had been drinking out of that carton your whole life prior to coming to Morocco.
The people are very friendly. Hospitality is an important part of the culture, and it shows – if your host pours the mint tea from up high, consider yourself a welcome guest. Learn about the rich and diverse Moroccan culture, which includes multiple languages (Arabic being the main one), ethnic groups, and traditions. For a westerner, a visit to this destination helps provide a greater level of familiarity with Islamic culture. The Koutoubia Mosque is visible from far and wide within the city, you will hear the call to prayer at scheduled intervals throughout the day, and you will find that alcoholic beverages are not on the menu at most local establishments. You will also find that people here are as friendly and welcoming as anywhere, and you will not soon forget the colorful sights, chaotic sounds, and general buzzing excitement of the Marrakech medina.
4. Moscow, Russia
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. There is a certain level of mystique associated with visiting the former land of the Tsars. Russia is the largest country in the world by area (twice the size of Canada), and Moscow is the northernmost megacity in the world with around 15 million inhabitants. To walk through the historic Red Square is a simultaneously awe-inspiring and confounding experience. There, you’ll see the one-of-a-kind Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin, the former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s Mausoleum, and apparently even a kid-friendly ice-skating rink in the winter – something for everyone. While the city can of course get bitterly cold during the winter, the magnificent light displays and Christmas décor covering seemingly every inch of the city do their part to convey a warm Christmas spirit.
If you’re looking for vodka, you’ve come to the right place. However, this massive city has plenty more to offer from its food and beverage scene. In addition to traditional Russian dishes such as caviar, dumplings, borsch, and herring, Georgian restaurants are also numerous and offer their own distinct traditional style of food preparation and delicious wines. In terms of the welcome, I was humbled by the kindness and generosity shown by so many of the locals. Here, understanding cultural differences widens your perspective immensely. Rather than focusing on the existence (or lack thereof) of a western customary smile that may not be part of their custom, focus instead on the genuine consideration and helpfulness of those who are welcoming you into their world. From tips and recommendations, to event invites, and general friendliness along the way, we received no shortage of warm welcoming in our visit to this destination.
Of course you cannot forget about St. Petersburg, which is a four-hour train ride from Moscow and an exceptional destination in its own right that should not be missed in your visit to Russia.
3. Normandy, France
See the beaches of the greatest military invasion in the history of the world for yourself. The monumental significance of this place is palpable and was particularly poignant in our visit during the 75th D-Day anniversary commemoration. Here is where the tide turned in the deadliest conflict in human history thanks to the unimaginable levels of courage and sacrifice of Allied troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944. A guided tour will give you a solemn appreciation for the events that unfolded here a couple generations ago and how we owe the freedom we enjoy today to the bravery of those who served here.
Believe it or not, this region has a storied history long pre-dating WWII. The Vikings stormed these beaches during the 9th century, and their handiwork can be seen in medieval towns such as Bayeaux, which boasts a magnificent cathedral that was originally consecrated in 1077. Walk the narrow cobblestone streets, try the local cider and Calvados, and absorb the historical significance of this place. The locals are also some of the nicest you will meet – special thanks to our Airbnb hosts who shared the personal story of heroism of an American soldier whose helmet their family found on Omaha Beach after the war. The people of Normandy were the first to be liberated after the D-Day invasion thanks to the sacrifices of the Allied soldiers, and they will be the last to forget.
2. Cairo, Egypt
You want perspective? Egypt has more than five-thousand years of it coming in hot. Literally – over 90% of the country is desert, and thus nearly the entire population lives within a few miles of the Nile river and its northern offshoots. See for yourself the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only surviving member of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. By no means should you confine your Egyptian visit to just Cairo and Giza – hop a domestic flight to the south for a visit to Aswan and Abu Simbel, then board a Nile River cruise north to Luxor. Learn about the thousands of years where Egypt reigned supreme, and set your eyes on the unbelievably well-preserved ancient pyramids, temples, tombs, artifacts, and….people. Yes, have a look at the unwrapped mummy of Ramesses the Great himself, along with many of the other Pharaohs who erected these mind-boggling monuments several millennia ago. Behold the breath-taking solid gold mask of King Tut, who reigned around 1330 BC and whose tomb was discovered unopened as recently as 1922.
Tourism took a hit in Egypt a number of years back due to threats to safety and the 2011 revolution. It has been rebounding in the past year or so, which has been positive for the local economy as it relies heavily on the tourism industry. This will be apparent to you as a visitor when you find that approximately 100% of the time you are being solicited to buy something or giving a baksheesh (tip) for something you may or may not have asked for. You will also find that many locals are working hard to make the most of their difficult circumstances, and you’ll have a greater appreciation for the comforts and privileges we have that we too often take for granted. Fellow travelers that you encounter on this trip are sure to be adventurous, and the shared experience here can produce a lasting connection as future travel plans and experiences are exchanged. History may be the draw to this destination, but don’t forget about the people who call Egypt home today – learning some Arabic phrases and being mindful of the local culture and customs will help you have an optimal experience in the place that has captivated foreigners, including the likes of Herodotus, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon, for centuries.
1. Rome, Italy
There’s no place like Rome. If you love food, wine, and history, I challenge you to think of a place that is more deserving of the top spot than Italy. France, you say? Over a millennium and a half before France’s King Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles, Julius Caesar was taking the helm in Rome to control the entire Mediterranean world (including the land of modern day France). I’ll also take a simple, yet mouthwatering fresh Italian pasta followed by Tiramisu over an elaborate and expensive 7-course French menu any day, but I digress. Ancient Rome left its mark on the world in countless ways with incredible geographical reach – from language, to religion, to law, to politics, to architecture, and far beyond. The number of world-renowned attractions in Rome may be second-to-none – the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps are all dazzling and simply cannot be over-hyped.
Rome is far from a hidden gem, so take into account the massive crowds that can make your experience less enjoyable – getting off the beaten path is imperative. Try to visit during non-peak tourist season (i.e. not during summer), and embrace some of the small things that go beyond the main sites with hordes of visitors and the inevitably related tourist traps. Go for a majestic morning run or stroll through these historic streets. Find the local neighborhood café and savor your cappuccino (only in the morning, or you’ll be laughed at) or espresso and biscotti. Take a break between touring to enjoy the magnificent wines and prosecco; and I don’t need to tell you about the gelato. I also probably don’t need to tell you that the people of Italy are as expressive and social as they come. If you want the opinion of a local, you will have no problem getting it. If you don’t – tough luck!
Book a cooking lesson and learn to master fresh Italian dishes yourself (we did ours in the north of the country, but there are many offerings in Rome as well) – you may also learn a thing or two about the local culture in the process. I won’t soon forget how to make my coveted tiramisu or how to order it at a restaurant using only hand gestures, which might as well be considered a second official Italian language and warrants a separate lesson of its own. Take in all that Rome has to offer, then venture out beyond – the beauty to explore in this country is seemingly endless.
For more background on our experiences traveling to these destinations and more, check out Kaitlan’s fantastic recaps by country. Her posts offer something for all, and there is plenty of new content to come as our journey continues. After enough badgering on my part, she was nice enough to allow me back this year for another guest post, so if you think I did a bad job here just tell her you liked it anyway for the sake of our marriage!
Happy travels and a happy & healthy holiday season to all as we ring in the New Year and a new decade – cheers, santé, proost, and salud!