While the rest of the world was seemingly burning to the ground, we were actually having a pretty flippin’ fantastic time in 2016. To help take your mind off of bracing for whatever 2017 may hold, here are some of our favorite destinations of 2016 — each awarded a title, high school yearbook style.
Everything it’s cracked up to be: Chiang Mai, Thailand
There’s not much we can say about Chiang Mai that hasn’t already been said. There are plenty of naysayers who will argue that Chiang Mai is overdone and past its peak, but that was certainly not our experience. Northern Thai food is fantastic, it’s a great homebase for trekking adventures (and seeing elephants), there are so many temples to visit, you can go on a meditation retreat, and the city has a very hip “maker” culture with the yoga studios and trendy coffee shops and juice bars to match. Sure, maybe “everybody’s doing it,” but sometimes, everybody is right.
Check out our top 9 must-do activities in Chiang Mai and the perfect 3-week Thailand itinerary here.
Get there before it’s gone: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The Cameron Highlands in Malaysia is hardly a new destination — it was a popular retreat for colonialists way back when. However, in recent years, development is putting the absolutely breathtaking scenery here at risk. This is a huge shame, as the rolling tea plantations and cool rainforests make the Highlands unlike anywhere else in the world.
Read everything you need to know about the Cameron Highlands here and our 10-day Malaysian itinerary here.
Honorable Mention: Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s greatest wonders, and it’s an enormous tragedy that it is disappearing. However, we’re listing it as only Honorable Mention status, since you hardly needed us to tell you either of those facts.
Greatest diversity of experiences: Bangkok, Thailand
Nearly a year ago I wrote “Bangkok is a chaotic, high-octane metropolis where old slams into new at every turn, and opulent wealth lives side-by-side with dismal poverty.” Yeah, all of that…and I loved it. There are still random memories that will pop up in my mind that I’ll think “Oh yeah, that was in Bangkok… Oh yeah, and that was in Bangkok, too…” It is an incredibly diverse city with fantastic street food, bustling markets, mega-malls, and world-famous palaces, as well as peaceful and serene little temples tucked into the corners in between.
Don’t miss my guide to staying sane in Bangkok.
Most romantic: Hoi An, Vietnam
There are plenty of incredibly famous and romantic destinations (Venice, Paris, several islands in the Pacific Ocean), but this year we didn’t visit a whole lot of the ones you may typically hear about. So instead, allow me to make a case for Hoi An. The riverside in Hoi An at night is breathtaking. Hundreds of candles float along the water as couples glide past in festively painted row boats. You can dine on a second-story terrace overlooking the water as the sounds of a traditional Vietnamese band float up from the performers down below. Not to mention the beach is just a short bike ride through rice paddies away, and you would be remiss to forego the sun loungers with a cold, freshly cracked coconut.
Check out our 3-week Vietnam itinerary.
Trip of a lifetime: Uluru, Australia
Words do not do this place justice. The land itself is incredible, as are the stories of the aboriginal people who have lived here for millennia. We highly recommend finding a way to camp out under the stars while you’re here, as well as hiking around not just Uluru, but also King’s Canyon. As an aside, The Wayfinders is a worthwhile read before a trip here or to any indigenous people’s traditional lands.
Learn more about our experience touring Uluru and the surrounding parks.
The “I could live here” city: Auckland
Over and over again on our travels, we’ve found ourselves saying, “Yeah, I could live here,” but Auckland really takes the cake when it comes to livability. We’re super bummed that we only spent two nights (with only one full day) in Auckland, but we loved the communal spaces, farmer’s markets and eco-conscious culture here. It’s also in a beautiful part of the country.
Best place you’ve never thought to travel: Utrecht
While visiting Amsterdam in June, the lodging options were absurdly expensive, so we expanded our AirBnB search to include some of the smaller surrounding cities. That search landed us in Utrecht, which is about 20-30 minutes outside Amsterdam by train, but is absolutely worth a visit on its own, too. Unbeknownst to us when we booked it, Utrecht is, like Amsterdam, a beautiful and bike-friendly canal city. You can enjoy the experience of pedaling along the water here without having to fight the throngs of other bicyclists and pedestrians, like in Amsterdam. It also has its very own UNESCO World Heritage-listed site (the Rietveld-Schroder House), as well as a funky brewery and cool cafes.
You can get all the details on how we did Amsterdam (and Utrecht) on the cheap here.
Most underrated: Milan, Italy
I have heard more than a few people scoff at Milan. “Ugh, it’s so boring,” “It’s so ugly.” WHAT?! I will say, without shame, that Alex and I love Milan. It has several incredibly picturesque neighborhoods (um, hello, Navigli district), more than a few fantastic museums and historic sites – many of which are free – and, obviously, Italian food. I have, on separate trips, eaten perhaps the best spaghetti and best croissant of my life there.
Check our recommendations for Milan on a budget here.
Wine-lover’s paradise: Eger, Hungary
Somehow, we do not have a single decent picture from Eger. 🙁
There are far more famous wine regions around the world. We even visited some (Barossa and Hunter Valleys in Australia). But in the name of sharing some lesser known favorites, we have to tell you about Eger. Picture dozens of centuries-old cellars all huddled around a sun-dappled square. Almost every cellar sells Hungary’s famous “Bull’s Blood” wine, but also so much more. And each glass will run you about a euro. Conveniently, you can walk back to your hotel (the biggest drawback of most wine regions is that you have to drive) with a bottle in hand, or even stop at a park and drink thanks to Hungary’s open container laws. The next day when you’re hungover off of red wine, enjoy the enormous Eger baths which more closely resemble a water park with sprawling lawns and plenty of fried snacks.
Best drive: Robe to Melbourne, Australia, aka “The extended Great Ocean Road”
The Great Ocean Road is hardly news for most road trip enthusiasts, but we really liked this longer route, which took us through towns like Robe and Port Fairy and sees less of the GOR traffic. Of course, I hardly need to say that the entire drive was stunning, and well worth the effort of figuring out how to drive on the other side of the road.
Want to know how much this’ll run you? Check out our 5-week Australia budget.
Honorable Mention: Croatian coast
This summer saw me taking a girls trip down to Croatia, which was absolutely incredible. The scenery, the architecture, the food, and the weather were all fantastic. Best of all, you could take in that scenery from the road. The route along the coast of Croatia features absolutely breath-taking views, yet the roads remain a remarkably easy drive. Don’t forget to stop along the road for farm-fresh produce and handmade goodies.
Check out our 9-day Croatian roadtrip itinerary.
Best city for art lovers: Madrid
Like wine regions, there are plenty of more famous cities for art (Paris, New York, Florence), but of the destinations we went, Madrid was definitely the best. I was really surprised when I actually thought through just how many incredibly famous Spanish artists there are, and you can see them all at Madrid’s two largest museums, the Prado (more of the country’s older art) and the Reina Sofia, which features Modern art. Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You could easily spend a week or more exploring Madrid’s many art museums featuring some of the world’s most famous and influential works.
Best place to unplug: Gili Trawangan
Not only is Gili T the perfect place to relax and unwind, it’s all but required that you unplug here. You won’t be getting 4G speeds on your smartphone or speedy wifi at your guesthouse. Aside from that, it’s also absolutely stunning, has no motorized traffic, is incredibly easy to get around (walk from one end of the island to the other in 30 minutes), and has gorgeous diving right off-shore. There’s also a cool vegan/yogi/juice bar scene cropping up here, which is awesome if you’re into that.
And there you have it! Our 12 favorite destinations of the past year. Where did you go this year that you absolutely loved?