WHERE WILL YOU GO WHEN THE WORLD OPENS ANEW? Many of us have spent these long days of uncertainty dreaming of a return to a beloved place, be it a favorite stretch of tropical beach or a distant metropolis. Others are eager to tick off a bucket-list trip, finally earning that hashtag badge of honor by hitting New York, Paris, or Mexico City.
And then there are those of us who dream of the unexpected, those singular experiences where a photo op is an afterthought and full immersion is the only option. We tapped our network of globetrotters to identify countries rich in experience but without the scourge of over-tourism. They came back with a globe-spanning set of locales that include soul-searching spiritual journeys, natural hot springs, underwater safaris, and beaches both tropical and stratospheric. You’ll find rich culinary cultures, indigenous music, and, in one instance, vampires.
For those of us eager to explore beyond the prescribed flight plan, these 20 countries should be what you’re dreaming of when the world begins turning once again.
Channel your inner Robinson Crusoe with remote islands and untouched forest
In a twist of irony, the “hub” of Central America is also the most overlooked when it comes to vacation spots. The literal crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama is a tropical wonderland packed with a surplus of mountainous cliffs, breathtaking beaches, and rich culture. It’s enough to make you forget about that famous canal.
Panama is often compared to — and passed over for — Costa Rica, its sought-after neighbor to the north. (Confession: I did it too, at first.) But Panama actually beats CR in a lot of categories. It has even more remote mountain and island retreats — the San Blas Archipelago alone houses a labyrinth of nearly 400 outlying islands, almost all of which are unnamed, uninhabited, and/or comprised entirely of coral. And unlike Costa Rica, Panama maintains a higher-level of internet connectivity as the business epicenter of Central America (ahem, Panama City!). In other words, it’s ideal for those wanderlust-fueled travelers hell bent on avoiding beaten paths, but still want a chance to stay connected. — Liz Newman
A smashing intro to East Asia with irresistible food and nature galore
For first-time travelers to East Asia, we often wonder why Taiwan doesn’t soar to the top of their list. For starters, it’s one of the world’s great food countries, with 300 night markets buzzing in the streets as the sun sets. In the capital Taipei, the largest is the Shilin Night Market, where the evolution of Taiwanese street food can be tasted in the fried milk balls, pork paper, and charcoal meat rolls. Seeking more out-of-the-box kitsch? The bathroom-themed Modern Toilet restaurant chain serves dishes in mini toilet bowls.
Size-wise, Taiwan is a destination Goldilocks would choose: small enough to tackle comfortably, but large enough to access nature in all its corners. Thanks to its outstanding network of high-speed trains, you can zip around with little effort. Peruse the near-700,000 exhibits from China’s imperial collection at the National Palace Museum, and don’t miss the futuristic National Kaohsiung Center for Arts, the world’s largest performing arts center, for its new partnership with the London Philharmonic. And with nine national parks, a dose of nature is never far away — neither are the ubiquitous geothermal hot springs that can boil your post-hike aches away. — Paul Jebara
Where music and multiculturalism meet on warm sands
Seemingly adrift spree 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde ticks off all the boxes of an idyllic tropical beach paradise: You’ll find the requisite sweeping mountain vistas, sparkling beaches, and colonial towns on its land, shipwrecks and whales in the crystal waters. On a strictly aesthetic level, this should be on any travelers list. But it’s the island nation’s multicultural aspects that merit a spot at the very top of that list.
Arid and uninhabited when the Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, Cape Verde has weathered deep struggles to forge a truly modern culture across 10 stunning islands, each with its own character. Today, it’s where you’ll find rich & nutty stews of Senegal, colonial heritage of the Portuguese, party-loving spirit of Brazil, democratic ethos of Ghana, and wine expertise of the French. It’s all set to a soundtrack of Morna, the national music style that combines joy, sorrow, struggle, and celebration into a complex that permeates the complex beauty of this place, at once speaking to the struggles of its past and the light of its future. — Becki Iverson.
The absurdly beautiful mountain country you probably haven’t heard of
If you’re in Kyrgyzstan, you’re probably on top of a mountain. A range called Tian Shan (“Heaven Lake” in Mandarin Chinese) covers about 80% of the country, and most of it is at least 1,000 meters above sea level. Its geological features vary from peak to peak, but the landscape is tied together by its exquisite, swoon-inducing beauty. You can traverse the country by foot or by horse, embracing the nomadic life by staying in yurts and feasting on stews. And if that all sounds near mystical, you’ll be surprised to discover how truly wondrous country is. But first, you have to discover it exists at all.
The Central Asian country that rewards exploration and effort, from its capital of Bishkek to the sprawling countryside that comprises most of its landscape, where eagles soar and livestock roams. For a concentrated blast of nomadic traditions spiked with adrenaline, Kyrgyzstan is home of World Nomad Games, an international competition akin to the Olympics that got its start here in 2014. Sports like horse racing, belt wrestling, and Kok-boru — in which horse riders fight for a goat carcass — are unlike any athletic event you’ve ever been to. Fair that it takes place in a country that itself is unlike anywhere you’ve imagined. — Michelle No
Magnificent diverse landscapes, but in a small, approachable package
Neighboring Peru and Colombia really zoomed ahead in the race for tourism over the last two decades, the former with its award-winning restaurants and the latter with its powdery beaches. But little Ecuador, sandwiched between the two and about one-fifth the size of them combined, should not be ignored. Boasting its own style of ceviche (with popcorn!) and swimmable coastline, Ecuador’s advantage is that it’s super easy to navigate. The national currency? The dollar. Andean Spanish? Slow and clear.
Head here to be awestruck by the floating forests of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the towering peak of Cotopaxi, the sprawling indigenous market of Otavalo, and the colorful architecture of Quito. A compact country of diverse landscapes, Ecuador is ideal for folks with FOMO: You won’t miss out on, well… anything. Swim in the Amazon basin, watch blue-footed boobies, and munch on empanadas to your heart’s content. Then, dive deeper: Head to a smaller city like Cuenca, or even a tiny town like Loja, where you can take in the beauty of an Ecuadorian central plaza, tour historic structures from pre-colonial times, and hike the surrounding countryside. — Naomi Tomky
A tiny, budget version of Italy with some of Europe’s most stunning beaches
Neighboring Croatia gets most of the love these days, but Montenegro is every bit as gorgeous — without the crowds. This tiny country on the Adriatic feels huge; slightly smaller than Connecticut, you can do a hell of a lot in a short amount of time. The beaches on its lush coastline are some of Europe’s most beautiful and most raucous, with an oceanfront party scene that can skew swanky like Ibiza or sloppy like Cancun. Hop between ancient Venetian towns like Budva, Kotor, and Perast, sporting 15th century fortifications, charming red tiled roofs, and delicious seaside restaurants.
When you’ve had your fill of sun and sand, head to the country’s less-traveled eastern interior for sublime mountain ranges, pristine lakes, and wild forests. You can whitewater raft down the iconic Tara River canyon, or hike through the outstanding Biogradska Gora National Park — also home to some of Europe’s most affordable ski slopes come wintertime. And all this comes at a typical Balkan budget: a local draft will set you back $1.75. — Daniel Cole
Wacky attractions like an underground theme park, and yes, Dracula
To be clear, there’s more to Romania than Transylvania and Dracula lore. Full of historic medieval towns, World Heritage sites, and obscure architectural treasures, the country would make any wannabe archaeologist’s head spin. But seeing as most people focus on the vampires instead of the rich cultural history, Romania remains off the radar compared to other Eastern European spots like Czech Republic or Hungary.
There are endless adventures to tap across the remarkably inexpensive country , like a visit to Salina Turda, a subterranean theme park in the world’s oldest salt mines with attached wellness offerings. Think underground sports (badminton, soccer, and mini-golf), museum, 180-seat amphitheater, dry and wet saunas, sun-bathing, and rides. Elsewhere, don’t sleep on sites like Sighisoara Citadel, a well-preserved, UNESCO-recognized medieval town. It’s continuously inhabited to this day, and boasts original medieval architecture, cobble streets and, historic landmarks such as the Church on the Hill, where you’ll feel like you’ve traveled through time. — Yolanda Evans
The question is: to ski, jet ski, or just party?
In Lebanon, the sheer amount of awesome things you could pack into one itinerary is as unreal as it is wildly diverse. Beirut alone could keep you busy for weeks: First-timers shouldn’t miss a tour of the Beirut National Museum for its collection of relics from pre-history to the Arab conquest. Or Beit Beirut, a bullet-marked “memory museum” which recalls the civil war that derailed the “Paris of the Middle East” from its hedonistic reputation. Art lovers will also be enchanted by the city’s growing roster of galleries, like the opulent Sursock Museum.
But the rewards are even greater outside the Beirut bustle. Time it right and you could have a morning ski in the mountains, and by afternoon be jet skiing in the Mediterranean. Stroll through sustainable wineries like the award-winning IXSIR in the hills of Batroun, or explore there’s also the Grand Sofar Hotel, an abandoned retreat for the rich and famous that’s been restored as an art exhibit. And if you think nightlife is restricted to the city, a sunset-to-sunrise session at Frozen Cherry, a club 6,000 feet in the mountains, will quickly prove you wrong. — Paul Jebara
A spiritual journey and cultural exploration along the roof of the world
Wedged between India and China, this gorgeous little Himalayan kingdom is more than just a quick stopover on the around-the-world circuit. The dollar goes far and attitudes toward Americans are mostly positive, while nearly half of the locals speak English, easing the initial culture shock of being dropped in a city as wonderfully manic as Kathmandu. Though the country is predominantly Hindu, Buddhist pilgrimage sites are everywhere, affording travelers a chance to tap into the country’s strong spiritual vibe.
Not far from the bustling capital is the ancient city of Bhaktapur, where a stunning collection of religious sites offers the perfect day trip for quiet reflection before you explore the rural cliffside dwellings of the Annapurna range, drink yak butter tea in the trekking region around the city of Pokhara, or attempt to scale the famous peaks of Mt. Everest. While mountaineering is the chief activity for a majority of Western travelers, you can also uncover lesser-known sites like the remote Chitwan National Park to view one-horned rhinos, monkeys, and, if you’re lucky, leopards and tigers — all while riding atop an elephant, if that’s your thing. — Jay Gentile
Previously published on Thrillist.