The more you travel, the more you realise there’s so much of the world still to discover
With a brand new year in front of us, and 14+ days to spend on some new travel adventures, we think it is time for a new “Top 10 countries to visit in 2018”. Given the current political climate, North Korea is off for now, as we don’t want anyone to become a bargaining chip in some pan-pacific power play.
We’ve also included expedition-type trips and opted for a collection of cities that are interesting from a historical and cultural perspective. By focusing on those destinations that aren’t on everyone’s tongue we hope to create a list that will inspire your travel adventures in 2018. Oh, and please don’t expect a “best countries to visit on a budget” or a repetition of “best countries to visit 2017”.
1. Seville, Spain
Not having been to too many places in Spain, Seville certainly triggered memories from past visits to Barcelona. Seeing that the Spanish are very proud of their cities, I am guessing residents of both Seville AND Barcelona will scoff at the comparison, but the fact remains. The similarity is there, in architecture, colours and a sensibility about colours and design that even the casual observer will notice.
Dig down deeper however, and you will start to see differences under the surface. Inherently closer to the dark continent, Moorish influences can be seen all over town, and it is said that the cathedral (one of the main tourist attractions) is built on an ancient mosque. Christopher Columbus is buried in the cathedral and it is considered the 3rd biggest church in the world and definitely deserves your visit.
Another famous attraction in the city is the Alcazar, a palace built by the moors and intended as a fortress initially. Rulers from later generations adjusted the complex, and turned it into a palace over time, while preserving the typical Islamic architecture.
Even to those who have never visited Seville, the Alcazar may look very familiar. Dozen of films have been shot in and around the building, with the latest production being an obscure TV-show called “Game of Thrones”. The “Water gardens of Dorne” scenes were shot in the gardens of the Alcazar, and local touring companies have jumped on the hype with a Game of Thrones” tour. The two-hour tour includes an optional trip to Daznak’s Pit, where Daenerys was attacked by insurgents and flees on her biggest dragon. (Note: the pit was the bullring of Osuna, a town nearby).
2. Detroit, USA
Anyone who’s seen “8 Mile” with Eminem is well aware of just how gritty an urban landscape can look. That movie was shot over ten years ago, and they managed really well to portray the bankrupt landscape of Detroit.
But as these things usually go, artists and other creatives, drawn to the low rent and dilapidated buildings, gradually moved to Detroit. With them came a wave of hipsters, art galleries and craft distilleries. And for the more adventurous amongst us, there is still plenty of urban exploring to do, with a lot of abandoned buildings like the Central Station, Grande Ballroom or the Michigan Theatre, which now doubles as a multi-story car park.
This particular car park also features heavily in 8 Miles, so if you’re a movie buff, all the more reason to check it out. On that note, try to avoid Detroit winters, because they can be brutal, especially for Europeans and Asians unfamiliar with the temperature drops that North America will throw at us.
3. Ljubljana, Slovenia
The first thing that Ljubljana travellers will point out is the pricing of pretty much everything. I’ve heard Melania Trump, the first lady comes from Ljubljana too, so keep that in mind when you walk the streets of Slovenia.
For me, the mix of neogothic architecture in the old town centre, blended with the art and graffiti in the more contemporary parts of the city make for a very nice atmosphere for travellers.
You will notice that you won’t be the only one who’s made it out to Slovenia, as there are people from all over (mostly Europeans though), and when I noticed a bridge with thousands of “lovelocks” secured to it, I knew for sure. Tourism is thriving in Ljubljana.
Rent a bicycle, and ride up and down the river, or simply sit on a terrace somewhere and watch the day go by. The Bourgeoisie architecture feels similar to other locations in continental Europe, but distinctive at the same time, as unique accents pop up here and there. The castle in the city centre is certainly a highlight, and so is the Cobbler’s Bridge. For a more opulent bridge experience in the city, make sure to visit Dragon Bridge. Once you get there, the name becomes obvious.
Pro tip: Slovenia is one of the best countries to visit on a budget.
4. Agra, India
Approximately four hours driving from Delhi, you will find Agra. Made famous because of the Taj Mahal, one could argue that there is a lot more to see than “just” the Taj.
Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with India, as there is this heart breaking element to the misery of the poor, that you can’t help but notice everywhere you go in the bigger cities.
But then all of that is offset by the sheer beauty of the many sights and attractions on offer. Make sure you don’t just visit the Taj Mahal, but the “Baby Taj” or Tomb of L’Timad-Ud-Dalauh (I hope I got that right) as well. What I really like of both Mausoleums is that they feature an incredible building with some (very!) exquisite artwork. But that is only half the story, as they are both situated in these incredible garden installations that feature miles of symmetric walkways.
Merely walking there is a soothing experience in itself. A lot of people complain about the rules surrounding Taj Mahal (no cameras), but regardless of the motivations behind this rule – it simply makes sense. The dimensions do not come across through a lens and really deserve a personal visit at one point in your life too.
Agra also has a fort that features more of the delicate ornaments that makes Indo-Islamic buildings so special. Whereas Taj Mahal was swarmed by tourists from in- and outside the country, Fort Agra was not, and I spent several hours walking through the compound, amazed at the size of the walled city.
Since a visit to Agra involves high temperatures, the best time to come down there is between October and March, the comparatively cooler months.
5. Bordeaux, France
For anyone who calls themselves a red wine aficionado, Bordeaux is one of those must-see destinations in Europe. It is considered the regional hub of the entire wine-growing region and its proximity to the coast makes it an attractive destination for water sport fans as well.
The lakes close to Lacanau and Biscarosse allow newcomers to improve their skills until they feel ready for the real deal on the Atlantic, a few kilometres to the west.
And even though Paris is the more popular destination in France, Bordeaux has an enormous amount of preserved historical buildings of its own. From a cultural, a culinary and a historical point of view, you simply can’t go wrong with a multiple-day visit to Bordeaux.
Wine tourism is a big thing in the area, but with over 350 historical monuments inside the city itself, one could go on for days and keep seeing new things at every step. From early roman buildings, right up to 18th century cathedrals and basilica, Bordeaux has a well-preserved historical centre.
6. Maastricht, Netherlands
Situated between Belgium and Germany, Maastricht is a little Dutch city in the heart of Europe. Similar to Bordeaux, it is one of those picturesque cities that is often overlooked by International tourists because another city is simply the bigger draw (Amsterdam in this case).
But if you are in the area you are doing yourself an enormous disservice by not giving Maastricht the attention it deserves. Like most historical towns, it is divided by an ancient waterway, with several dated bridges allowing one to cross over from one side to the other.
Throughout the middle ages, Maastricht was a political centre of power, combining trade and manufacturing. Its strategic location meant that its rulers invested in fortification installations which can be admired to this day, adding to the romantic atmosphere of this city.
Very suitable for a weekend getaway, I always recommend travellers go for some antique hunting, and take the time to walk through the city instead of going from A to B with Über. The annual summer concerts by Andre Rieu are legendary, but coming from the Netherlands myself, I’d say there are other, more interesting things to see.
The St. Pietersberg caves are a great trip for families and don’t forget to make a reservation well in advance if you plan to dine in one of the many upscale restaurants in the city. Maastricht is popular amongst gourmets from all three countries and it is not uncommon for some of the better restaurants to be booked out weeks in advance.
7. Toronto, Canada
Any self-respecting travel blogger has made it out to Toronto on multiple occasions, due to its convenient location between the Americas and Asia. If you ever were to play some sort of travel blogger/instagram bingo, you’d be in luck if Toronto’s CN Tower was on your card.
The Yellow Bridge or “Puente de Luz” is almost as popular amongst professional photographers, due to its hypnotizing lines and suitability for model shoots.
Regular tourist can’t help but doing the selfie in front of the Toronto sign on Nathan Phillips Square, while natives will jump at the chance of getting (and tagging) the old city hall in their pictures. Grab your phone and have a look yourself, and you will know whether Toronto is your future travel destination or not.
The Toronto islands a re a popular tourist attraction as well, made famous by the native American leader Hiawatha, an important historical figure of the Iroquois Five Nations.
8. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Most worldly travellers will end up in Bangkok as well, since it is one of the main hubs for flights to and from Australia. Backpackers who are all geared up for their gap year often start their journey here, and the more seasoned ones will make a trip to Chiang Mai.
Often overlooked by Thailand first-timers, Chiang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand surrounded by mountains and national parks. Without any beaches in sight, tourists will often skip Chiang Mai in favour of Phuket, Pattaya or one of the many islands, which is very ironic. Considered by many the best country to visit in Asia, most tourists run for the beaches.
But unlike these overly touristy destinations, a visit to Chiang Mai will allow you to get closer to the Thai culture unlike all these other destinations. The temperatures are a little lower, allowing for some great outdoor activities, of which there are many.
And without a corporate tourist industry, you will stay in small, family owned hotels or hostels in all likelihood which has a charm of its own. Add the many little hipster coffee shops in the old town, the art galleries and jazzy bars and cafes, and you will start to see that Chiang Mai is both uniquely Thai and yet unlike anything you had expected.
Plus, with an airport of its own, you can fly to many other destinations at very affordable rates.
9. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
As Mongolia is still largely undiscovered by tourism, Ulaanbaatar is its biggest city and features a range of monasteries and palaces for you to admire. The combination of Russian influence, Mongolian heritage and tundra culture makes this a city unlike anything else.
Because everything has a foreign feel to it, I highly recommend finding out what the locals are doing and simply going there. Whether this is a sports event, a celebration or a concert, simply give it a go and you will not regret it.
Archery, horse racing and Mongolian wresting are still revered sports to this day and attending the Naadam festival (“The Games”) will allow you to witness these ancient activities, practiced by several generations for everyone to admire. For visitors with a fascination for the nomadic lifestyle, Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries to visit.
Note that feminism has trickled into Mongolia as well, so local girls will now participate in the archery competitions and the horse riding, but the wresting is still considered off-limits.
If that is all a little too foreign, fear not as there are numerous multinationals in town. And as such, there is a significant expat community in the city with their own bars, food and hangouts.
10. St. Petersburg, Russia
Considered the cultural capital of modern-day Russia, St. Petersburg represents a nice counterbalance against Moscow, the big bear further up North. Formerly known as “Leningrad”, I’ve been told some locals prefer calling it that to this day. To add to the confusion, “Petrograd” was briefly in the running as well.
But all you should know is that St. Petersburg is a unique reserve of European architectural style for the last three centuries. Thoroughly destroyed during the World War, the deserving buildings were rebuilt to their former glory and I just wish they had managed the same level of restauration in Rotterdam, another city affected by Word War bombing campaigns.
Absolutely must-see sights are the Grand Palace, the street art museum and any event on New Holland (island!) is worth attending as well.
In conclusion, these ten cities make a great list and should you have any plans to travel to any of their respective countries, whether it is for business travel or for personal pleasure, we highly recommend making the time to spend some days there. Several of these cities are located in some of the most beautiful countries to visit, so you simply can’t go wrong.
Pro Tip: Always check the weather forecast for the particular period you are traveling in!
More Inspiration: Check out other amazing places you need to visit
Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.