the 30 most exciting destinations to visit in 2024

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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Ahead of the new year, we’ve crossed the world to find the 30 most exciting destinations for 2024. With landmark hotels opening, ambitious rewilding projects under way and new train routes making travel easier than ever, there’s a lot to choose from for your next trip — whether you’re looking to connect with nature in Norway, scale Himalayan peaks in Sikkim or savour the culinary stars of Lima.

EUROPE

Albanian Alps, Albania

A wild escape in Europe’s rising star

Travellers on the hunt for something a little different from their next European adventure are increasingly looking towards Albania. This piece of the Balkan jigsaw is drawing a rising number of visitors thanks to its Adriatic and Ionian coasts, intriguing Ottoman and Communist past, and relatively nascent tourism scene.

Tucked into the northern interior, the Albanian Alps are equally part of the draw. Known, rather ominously, as the Accursed Mountains, this realm of jagged karst peaks is a dream for hikers, where lynxes roam spruce forests and wildflowers cover valley floors. Those looking to tackle the region’s challenging trails can set off on a new, eight-day, self-guided tour with Walks Worldwide, which offers an itinerary that includes treks through mountain passes, traditional homestays and a visit to the village of Theth, starting point of the Peaks of the Balkans hiking trail. 

Albania is also more accessible than ever thanks to a raft of new air routes. Ryanair has recently started flying to the capital Tirana from Edinburgh, Manchester and Stansted, while Wizz Air will operate from Birmingham, Edinburgh and Liverpool from 19 December 2023.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

A long-promised year of culture comes to the home of the Titanic

If city pride in Belfast is like a flower that’s managed to grow in difficult soil, then 2024 should see a super-bloom thanks to the Northern Irish capital’s year of culture. It’s been years in the making — the 2010s saw an unprecedented rise in the number of visitors, drawn in part by the new Titanic Experience museum, its use as a Game of Thrones filming location, and a chance to look back on turbulent history with some peaceful distance. Belfast’s 2017 bid to become a European Capital of Culture aimed to build on this, but it was scuppered by Brexit. Not wanting to waste the work it had already put in, the city continued with plans for a year of cultural celebration. Most details are still under wraps, but Belfast’s riverfront and maritime heritage will loom large, with a mass boat-building initiative, among others. There will also be a collaboration with Cornwall’s Eden Project to explore the city’s relationship with nature, and following its 2021 listing as a UNESCO City of Music, the birthplace of Van Morrison and home of over 80 music venues is sure to put on a performance to remember. 

Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Tour the gastronomic heartland of Italy on two wheels

The Tour de France kicks off in Italy next summer, with the Grand Départ happening in Florence on 29 June. But most of the action on this first stage will take place not in Tuscany, but in the villages and vineyard-draped landscapes of neighbouring Emilia-Romagna. The finishing line will be in the beach resort of Rimini, while Bologna and its famous cuisine await at the end of the second stage. Riders will then push off from historic Piacenza on their final leg to Turin.

Not that you need a support team to discover the region by bike — this is one of Italy’s greatest cycling destinations, perhaps best explored on a gentle, self-guided itinerary visiting Bologna, Parma and Modena with scenic stops in between. A growing number of tour operators are offering trips, including Inntravel and Skedaddle. More seasoned cyclists can tackle the Ciclovia di Dante under their own steam: starting in Ravenna, where the poet died in 1321, the trail winds for 139 miles back to his birthplace, Florence, passing hilltop towns and chestnut forests along the way.  

(Exploring Emilia-Romagna’s gourmet heritage on a city food tour of Parma.)

Europe by train

The night-time railway renaissance continues

After decades in decline, Europe’s network of once-fusty sleeper trains is having a revival. Leading the charge is Austrian rail operator ÖBB, which is in the process of rolling out 33 new trains on its Nightjet sleeper service and a host of new routes, including Paris to Berlin. Elsewhere, European Sleeper is extending its recently launched Brussels-Berlin route to Prague via Dresden, with plans to make tracks into Scandinavia and Spain, too. Midnight Trains — which is billing itself as a 1920s-inspired “hotel on rails” — is also set to launch its first service, from Paris to Venice via Milan, in 2025. Other routes in the offing include Paris to Edinburgh and Porto, meaning travellers from Scotland could soon reach Portugal with just a single change in the French capital, bedding down in slick carriages on the way. 

These companies aren’t the only ones to tap into a sense of nostalgia, either. Next year, the Orient Express La Dolce Vita sleeper train is poised to roll out six itineraries spanning the length of Italy, from the snow-capped Alps to the shores of Sicily. Naturally, it’s a seriously stylish affair, evoking the golden age of rail travel, with a cream colour palette, five-star service and top-notch Italian cuisine.  

(How to plan a family rail adventure around Europe.)

Galloway and Southern Ayrshire, Scotland

A bright future for Scotland’s original biosphere reserve

From windswept slopes to dense forests threaded with streams, the richness of landscapes in the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire region helped it become Scotland’s first UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2012. Just over a decade later, the reserve has further cause for celebration after being granted an extra 10 years of protection by the organisation. Its boundaries have also been extended, upping the area from 2,034sq miles to over 3,780sq miles. The expansion is culturally significant, as the village of Alloway now falls within the new borders. The birthplace of Robert Burns, it features in his epic poem Tam o’ Shanter. Budding bards can channel the poet on a writing retreat, or try one of the tours offered by the Biosphere Guides, a group of locals whose expertise ranges from creative writing to bushcraft. 

The biosphere is also part of Scotland’s new UNESCO Trail, unveiled earlier this year. It connects all 13 of the country’s listed locations, from Glasgow, a City of Music, to the pine-covered hills and lochs of Wester Ross Biosphere Reserve on the northwest coast. 

(A journey along Scotland’s Ayrshire & Galloway coast.)

Nordland, Norway

Off-grid innovation in the Arctic Circle

Nordland is a region of glaciers and soaring peaks, tiny fishing towns and remote villages, where Sámi traditions play out beneath the midnight sun or the Northern Lights. Next year, its powerful landscapes will be celebrated with the much-anticipated opening of Six Senses Svart — the world’s first energy-positive hotel, running entirely off-grid from its own solar power. The pioneering design will be complemented by a Nordic spa and zero-waste dining.

There’s much to attract adventurous travellers to this fjord-frayed coast year-round, with mountain biking and fishing in summer, and dog sledding when winter creeps in. The twisting drive along the E10 through the Lofoten Islands, which rise like humpbacked dragons from the Norwegian Sea, takes some beating. Nordland also offers plenty of culture: the town of Bodø is marking its turn as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2024 with artistic and musical events. 

North Yorkshire, England

New shoots of hope in the edge of the Dales

Deep in the Yorkshire countryside, around a third of 3,000-acre Broughton Sanctuary estate is being returned to nature to help visitors reconnect with the wild environment. Intensive sheep grazing is being reduced, peat bogs and waterways are being restored and tens of thousands of newly planted saplings will boost tree cover from 6% to over 20%. All this is intended to help boost the area’s biodiversity, which already includes otters, hares and kestrels. 

The project is a natural move for Broughton, which already offers experiences such as foraging tours, woodland dining and even moon bathing on its grounds. The rewilding initiative is part of a long-term vision for the estate. “It’s going to take decades to get to the point where we’ve rewilded so much that nature is truly looking after itself at scale,” says Broughton’s environmental adviser, Professor Alastair Driver. In the meantime, visitors can explore the changing landscape on one of the Sanctuary’s walking trails — perhaps with a picnic in hand, prepared by the estate’s in-house chefs. 

Pompeii, Italy

A fresh way to reach an old classic

Those who want to delve deeper into ancient Italy after a few days exploring the Eternal City can now head to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii in under two hours, thanks to a new direct train from Rome. Day-trippers previously had to change at Napoli Centrale station on the 150-mile journey south. The new service, on Sundays only, means it’s possible to swoop straight through, leaving Rome Termini station at 8.53am, arriving in Pompeii at 10:40am. The return train departs at 6.40pm and pulls into Rome at 8.55pm — just in time to head to a trattoria for a bowl of Rome’s legendary carbonara.

The service has come at a good time, too, with Pompeii’s frescoed, first-century House of the Vettii having recently emerged from a 20-year renovation. Meanwhile, in the Regio IX area of the site, more discoveries were made in 2023, including jewellery, human remains and a still-life fresco depicting food. As Italian culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano put it: “Pompeii is a treasure chest that always reveals new treasures.”  

Saimaa, Finland

A taste of the lakes in the European Region of Gastronomy

It’s not just the fresh air and peace that draws Finns to the woods and lakes of Saimaa — it’s the food, too. And its star is set to rise in 2024 when it becomes the European Region of Gastronomy. Much of the region’s best-loved produce comes from its forests and waters: wild game, chanterelles and blueberries from the woods, perch and vendace from the lakes. Smoked reindeer hints at the region’s Arctic influences, while producers like the Ollinmäki Winery fly the flag for Finland’s burgeoning wine industry. 

Food makes for a helpful compass when exploring a corner of Europe full of hiking trails, manor houses and historic towns. Särä, a dish of roasted lamb and potatoes, is a speciality of Lemi, while the markets in the nearby city of Lappeenranta and town of Mikkeli sell everything from local pickles and Finnish caviar to fresh strawberries and meat pies. The town of Savonlinna, a 65-mile drive east, is worth a detour — home to a fortress, it’s also the birthplace of lörtsy, a crescent-shaped pastry filled with meat and rice.  

Tartu, Estonia

The second city steps into the spotlight

Estonians have long considered Tartu — 110 miles from capital Tallinn — to be their country’s cultural and intellectual heart, due to its top-notch museums, lively cafes and the country’s oldest university. Little wonder, then, that this UNESCO City of Literature has been selected as one of three European Capitals of Culture for 2024, alongside Bad Ischl in Austria and Bodø in Norway.

Tartu and the wider southern Estonia region are marking the occasion with a year of events, from classical concerts and film screenings to edgy outdoor art installations. One of the highlights will be Kissing Tartu, a nod to the city’s Kissing Students fountain. Its roster of events will celebrate the joy of locking lips — with a kissing demonstration set to take place in Town Hall Square and broadcast live. Stencibility, the annual roving European street art festival, will also hold a special edition in the city, showcasing Europe’s biggest sticker exhibition. The Curated Diversity scheme, meanwhile, will oversee a major drive to spruce up Tartu’s public spaces with new greenery.

The Euros, Germany

A year of art, culture and first-class football

For a month from mid-June, football mania will descend on Germany during the 17th UEFA European Championship, providing travellers with a fresh reason to visit the country’s beer halls, gothic churches and Berlin Wall in the 35th anniversary year of its fall. Munich, Hamburg and the capital, Berlin — where the final will be held on 14 July — are among the 10 host cities, but the Euros also gives new grounds to explore Germany’s lesser-known outposts.

Visitors to host city Dortmund can tour the National Football Museum at Signal Iduna Park, which charts the sport’s colourful history in Germany. It’s around a 30-minute walk from Phoenix West, the reclaimed bones of Dortmund’s old steelworks, which can be explored on an 85ft Skywalk. Leipzig, another host city, has made admission to four of its biggest museums free of charge, including the City Museum and Natural History Museum. An hour east by train, Dresden should also be on travellers’ radars in 2024 as it marks 250 years since the birth of Caspar David Friedrich, the Romantic painter who lived in the city. The celebrations include a major exhibition at Dresden State Art Collections, opening 24 August, to showcase his work — much of which was inspired by the surrounding Saxon countryside. 

(5 of Europe’s best family city breaks for football lovers.)

Valletta, Malta

Gladiatorial combat returns to a Mediterranean city of epic views

A sequel to the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator is in the works, set for release in late 2024. And, just as with the original, director Sir Ridley Scott has used the Mediterranean light and golden rock of Malta as his canvas for recreating ancient Rome and its arenas. Photos of the set show a mocked-up Colosseum and other Roman buildings taking shape behind the 17th-century ramparts of Fort Ricasoli in the east of the island, next to the capital, Valletta. Ridley’s new biopic Napoleon also uses the Grand Harbour area, linking the city with neighbouring walled strongholds, as a double for the French naval city of Toulon. It’s little surprise that filmmakers would be impressed by Valletta. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its skyline of battlements and cathedral domes was shaped by a multinational order of knights who ruled Malta from the 16th to 18th centuries. Scenic terraces are set above a glittering waterfront, where wooden townhouse balconies overhang the narrow streets — add in year-round warm weather and it’s not just filmmakers who should be inspired to visit in 2024. 

Whisky in Wales

Raise a glass to the Welsh distilleries renaissance

Scotland and Ireland may be the cradles of whisky/whiskey, but Wales has a centuries-old tradition of its own, too. Whisky production here declined in the 19th century and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the craft saw a slow, steady revival. Since then, the industry has blossomed — so much so that Welsh single malt whisky was awarded UK GI (geographical indication) status in July, joining the likes of Welsh lamb and Anglesey sea salt in receiving the coveted protection. 

Nothing beats sipping it at the source. Connoisseurs can learn more about the production methods involved — and have a dram or two — at one of Wales’s four UK GI-sanctioned single-malt distilleries. These include In The Welsh Wind, set in the rolling fields above Cardigan Bay, and Penderyn, located in Bannau Brycheiniog (formerly the Brecon Beacons). The latter is just a few minutes from the gorges of the Vale of Neath, also known as Waterfall Country — it became Wales’s first commercial distillery in over 100 years when it opened in 2000. 

Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Celebrating a decade of West Coast adventures

Winding for 1,600 miles along the rugged west coast, the Wild Atlantic Way has become one of Europe’s most exciting road trips, not least because it ticks off some of Ireland’s most memorable experiences: the edge-of-the-world lighthouse at Fanad Head; Galway’s legendary oysters; the lunar-like landscape of the Burren; and the paintbox-palette town of Kinsale. It’s celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2024, and a string of new experiences along its route means there’s more to enjoy than ever.

This summer saw the opening of the National Surf Centre at Strandhill in County Sligo, where the Atlantic swells draw novices and seasoned surfers alike. In nearby Sligo town centre, the development of Queen Maeve Square is continuing apace on the banks of the Garavogue River and will offer a scenic spot for farmers’ markets, craft fairs and live music when completed later in 2024. 

Down in County Cork, the final county on the trail, Ireland’s only cable-car has recently reopened after a major upgrade, whisking passengers across the sea from the Beara Peninsula to the windswept silence of Dursey Island in just 10 minutes, a favourite spot for birdwatchers with its guillemots and razorbills. 

THE AMERICAS

Atacama Desert, Chile

A new oasis in the driest place on Earth

On rare occasions (around once every three to 10 years) for a few weeks in spring, carpets of wildflowers erupt from the parched floor of the Atacama, transforming one of the world’s most arid environments into a riot of colour. It was this ‘desert bloom’ event in 2022 that prompted the Chilean government to establish the Desierto Florido National Park in 2023 — 141,000 acres of protected landscape around 20 miles south of Copiapó in northern Chile.

The park was created to safeguard the region’s flora, much of which is endemic to the Atacama. It will allow scientists to study more closely how 200-plus species of plants — such as the yellow mallow and fluffy pussypaw — survive in some of the planet’s starkest conditions. It’s also hoped the drought-resilient vegetation can offer solutions to the challenges posed by climate change, while the microorganisms living on trace amounts of water inside rocks here could even offer clues to life on Mars. The new park is best admired on a drive from Copiapó to Vallenar along Route 5 — ordinarily, the region’s largely flat landscapes have their own stark beauty, but in superbloom years, the scene makes pulling over in awe an inevitability.

(The ultimate Andes road trip, from Chile to Bolivia.)

Lima, Peru

Get a taste of the exciting culinary capital

Lima’s culinary star shows few signs of dimming. It was the only city with two spots in the top 10 of the most recent World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. The Nikkei cuisine (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) at Maido earned it sixth place, while Central, regarded by many as having placed Lima on the global food map, came first for its innovative focus on indigenous ingredients. 

Away from Michelin-starred restaurants, rooftop bars have fast become the hangout of choice for Limeños. Most are in the Barranco and Miraflores neighbourhoods, including Hotel B, which serves small plates such as trout ceviche and suckling pig tacos, and slick Insumo at AC Hotel, which goes big on Nikkei. 

If all that’s whetted the appetite, the good news is that the Peruvian capital will be even easier to reach from December this year, when LATAM Airlines will begin flying direct from Heathrow up to five times per week.

(A guide to Lima: South America’s culinary capital.)

New York State, USA

Milestone museum openings across the Empire State

In 2024 there’s a lot to look forward to across the state of New York. It’s going to be a hundred years since the creation of New York State Parks, and Niagara Falls — the nation’s oldest state park — has some additions to celebrate: the Niagara Falls Heritage Gateways Project will offer panoramic views from a new spiralling observation deck, while the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center will transform into Great Lakes 360, showcasing local wildlife. 

Meanwhile, New York City is opening the American LGBTQ+ Museum on the Upper West Side. Several years in the making, the space will be the first in the city dedicated to both international and local LGBTQ+ history and culture. Over on Christopher Street, the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center will explore the legacy of the 1969 protests through exhibitions when it opens in June. 

And while the eyes of the world will be on Paris in summer 2024, fans of the Olympic Games can enjoy a slice of sporting excellence at the new Lake Placid Olympic Museum, which focuses on the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, held in the scenic upstate town.

Miami, USA

Creative openings are taking the beachside city in fresh directions

After the High Line in New York repurposed an abandoned Manhattan rail viaduct into a leafy, green space, Miami has embarked on a similar project: the Underline, where land beneath the elevated Metrorail is being transformed into a 10-mile linear park. The second of its three phases is about to open, greatly adding to the small initial segment. Public art has been a big part of the project, with new works adding to the dazzle of a city already known for the murals of Wynwood Walls, and the recently expanded Museum of Graffiti alongside it. 

Next door to Wynwood, the Allapattah neighbourhood is set to gain an artistic reputation of its own: Marquez Art Projects (MAP) has just opened a gallery there dedicated to emerging artists, with works picked by major local collector John Marquez. For the boldest turn in Miami’s creative transformation, though, look offshore from Miami Beach, where the Reefline should soon receive the first works in what will be an underwater sculpture gallery open to snorkellers and scuba divers. 

Dominica

A new trail highlights the wild isle’s beaches and swim spots

Dominica is that rare Caribbean island where the coast is often bypassed by visitors in favour of its magnificently wild interior. The Waitukubuli Sea Trail is a step to redressing the balance, while staying true to the island’s focus on adventure activities and low-impact tourism. It’s the first dedicated sea kayaking route in the Caribbean, running along the west coast for almost 40 miles. The 14 stages take in sculpted cliffs, fishing villages, hidden beaches and rewarding spots to go snorkelling, with strategically placed rest stops for the night. Local outfitters rent out equipment to experienced sea kayakers, and offer guided multi-day expeditions for beginners. 

‘Waitukubuli’ is the name of the island in the language of the Indigenous Kalinago people, and the sea trail is a conscious companion to the 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail, which opened over a decade ago as the longest hiking route in the Caribbean, and helped to establish Dominica’s nature-loving reputation.

Nova Scotia, Canada

A feast of music and seafood comes to the Atlantic coast

Atlantic Canada, comprising most of the country’s east coast, is best known to travellers for its seafood, thrillingly high tides and traditional lighthouses clinging to the craggy shore. But in August 2024, its 400-year-old Acadian community will be in the spotlight, as the Congrès Mondial Acadien (Acadian World Congress) takes place among the villages at the southwest tip of Nova Scotia. 

While family reunions are part of the programme for those descended from the original French settlers, travellers can look forward to concerts showcasing the ever more diverse Acadian music scene, which is heavily influenced by the community’s bluegrass-style roots. Cooking demos will also draw on traditional foods, including the coast’s rich larder of lobsters and scallops. 

The congress rotates every four years between different places linked to the Acadian diaspora, and this will be the first time in two decades that the nine-day event will be back in Nova Scotia, taking place right beside the Atlantic swells. 

Texas, USA

All eyes on the sky for a solar eclipse

Texas may be the Lone Star State, but in 2024 attention will be on the sun and moon as they align in a total solar eclipse. On 8 April, a huge band of central Texas will be plunged into darkness as the moon passes between Earth and the sun (following the path of totality), meaning the state offers great opportunities to catch the spectacle. Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio are some of the cities expected to offer the best view of the phenomenon, along with the Dark Sky Parks of the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. 

The Texas Eclipse Festival, just outside Austin, will mark the occasion with four days of live music, lectures from expert speakers and immersive art experiences. Space enthusiasts can also join a specialist tour with companies such as Intrepid Travel, which will combine the eclipse with observatory visits, stargazing sessions and visits to historic Fredericksburg, with its German heritage and up-and-coming local wineries. 

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico 

Discover ancient cultures in the Maya heartland

Few archaeological discoveries stir the imagination quite like the unearthing of a lost city, and that’s just what happened this year in the jungle-cloaked depths of the Yucatán Peninsula. While the remote site of Ocomtún is still being properly unearthed, and travellers can’t yet visit, it adds a piece to the puzzle about what is known about the Maya civilisation, which spread across parts of Mexico, Guatemala and northern Belize before its mysterious collapse around 900 CE. Now all that’s left are the great stone buildings and pyramid temples, but some six million people in the region still speak Mayan languages, and this living culture is increasingly reflected in how visitors can experience the region. Hotels such as the newly refurbished Maroma, on the Riviera Maya south of Cancún, follow Maya design principles and offer traditional treatments in their spas. The Camino del Mayab, meanwhile, is an 80-mile hiking and mountain biking route that weaves between less-visited Maya communities and cenotes to end at the Maya city of Mayapán. 

Iberá Wetlands, Argentina

South American wildlife returns to a sub-tropical reserve

Not long ago, you’d have had zero chance of finding a giant anteater in the watery maze that skims Argentina’s northern border. Now, as rewilding efforts in the Iberá Wetlands reach a turning point, there are around 200 of these distinctive creatures, recognisable for their thin faces and big, shaggy tails, under which they often sleep. The wetlands lie within a finger of Argentina that squeezes between Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil to reach sub-tropical Iguazu Falls. Once largely given over to cattle ranches, the core of the Iberá area became a national park in 2018. Giant anteaters were an early priority for reintroduction, but other creatures have followed in their wake. Following the release of eight jaguars in 2021, their population is now a dozen strong; a small number of giant river otters is being readied for reintroduction, too. The chance to spot these creatures alongside capybaras, caimans and 370 types of bird makes the Iberá Wetlands a haven for wildlife-watching.  

AFRICA

Akagera, Rwanda

A shining example of safari success

Marking its 90th anniversary in 2024, the 433sq-mile Akagera National Park is a patchwork of swamps, savannah and woodland that teems with wildlife. But it wasn’t always this way. One of Rwanda’s oldest national parks, it was decimated after the country’s civil war in 1994, when formerly exiled farmers returned to the area, razing the land and wiping out wildlife to make way for cattle grazing. In 2010, the Akagera Management Company was established with the vision of restoring the park to its former natural glory. Conservation successes have included the reintroduction of lions and black rhinos in 2015 and 2017, and the introduction of white rhinos in 2021. Giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, leopards and birds thrive here, too. And it’s not just the wildlife that’s benefited: 2,000 schoolchildren visit each year as part of the park’s education programme, and the increased need for guides, rangers and anti-poaching staff offers employment opportunities.

Andrefana Dry Forests, Madagascar

An expanded World Heritage Site honours a unique environment

In Madagascar’s wondrous western flanks, the rocks are razor-sharp, the trees bulbous and the lemur species adapted to thrive in an otherworldly region. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, famed for its maze of jagged limestone pinnacles and first inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1990, saw its boundaries expanded this year to include the Andrefana Dry Forests. Although these are home to fewer species overall than the rainforests of the east coast, those that are found here are more likely to be endemic. This is especially true in Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, in the country’s southwest. Its most visible attractions are its thick-trunked baobabs, but it’s also home to the critically endangered Verreaux’s sifaka, a lemur often spotted skipping and jumping along the forest floor. 

Sierra Leone

An upgraded airport makes this natural beauty easier than ever to visit

Fresh shoots of tourism are finally springing up in Sierra Leone, with new infrastructure making it easier than ever to access the West African country. The international airport opened in Freetown, the capital, got a major upgrade in 2023, and many miles of roads are in the course of being revamped.

Nature is a major part of the appeal here, with wide, sandy beaches lapped by Atlantic waves and a mountainous inland plateau that’s home to the country’s national animal, the chimpanzee. Community-led projects have been key to showcasing its natural beauty, including the nation’s first surfing school, at Bureh Beach, and the Tasso Ecotourism Project, on mangrove-rich Tasso Island, which runs a rescue programme for the endangered Timneh grey parrot. Meanwhile, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bunce Island makes for a poignant visit, chiefly for its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Travellers will soon have more accommodation options to choose from, with hotels springing up across the country. In Freetown, boutique hideaway Toma is adding more suites, while later in 2024, the country’s first Hilton will open its doors, offering a clutch of luxurious rooms. Estuary Resort, a laid-back beach retreat on the banks of an inlet, is also expanding, with new chalets and a pool.

ASIA

Sikkim, India

An overlooked Himalayan kingdom steps into the limelight

A corner of the Himalayas wedged between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, Sikkim often gets overlooked. One of India’s smallest states, it was its own kingdom until 1975. It was also the last state in the country to get an airport — in 2018 — although teething difficulties and Covid-era travel slumps have meant that regular services have been patchy. Direct flights from Delhi and Kolkata resumed in 2023, a move that has seen an upsurge in domestic tourism — the alternative route involved a mountainous drive of five hours to the next-closest airport. Travellers can also join in after getting the necessary permits to visit this frontier region. As in neighbouring Bhutan, visitors are drawn here by trekking opportunities, mountain monasteries and dazzlingly coloured festival displays. Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, rises 8,586m on the border with Nepal. It’s a stand-out sight on the 10-day, 50-mile Goechala trek. Shorter walks are also possible in this land of glaciers, where hillsides are bright with rhododendrons and forests are home to red pandas.

Tainan, Taiwan

The country’s oldest city marks its 400th birthday

Where Taipei sparkles with steel and glass, Tainan — Taiwan’s former capital — cuts a more historic figure, its skyline dotted with fortress towers and soaring temple roofs. And in 2024, the city’s quadricentennial puts its intriguing heritage under the spotlight and offers a fresh reason to visit.

The area has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1624 that the foundations of Tainan were laid by the Dutch, who named it Fort Zeelandia. Centuries of international influence followed, from Chinese and Spanish to Japanese. The history is evident in the wealth of architecture, from the Old Japanese Martial Arts Academy to the Qing-era facades of Shennong Street, festooned with red lanterns. Street food is a major draw, too: look out for prawn-rich danzai noodle soup and hollowed-out ‘coffin bread’, filled with a deliciously creamy chowder. 

Tainan is also known for its calendar of events, the most unforgettable being the raucous Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. Taking place 15 days after the Lunar New Year, the day sees rockets being let off from large, apiary-like structures in the streets — it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Xi’an, China

A 2,200-year-old wonder marks five decades above ground

It’s strange to think that just 50 years ago, an icon of Chinese culture was resting unknown beneath the fields of Shaanxi province. Farmers digging a well on 29 March 1974 discovered the head of a figure who turned out to be one of more than 8,000 soldiers in the Terracotta Army. Their duty was to guard the nearby tomb complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, after his death in 210 BCE — the low, forest-covered pyramid remains unexcavated to this day. The nation’s cultural sector isn’t standing idle, though: 382 new museums were registered in 2022 alone, including Xi’an’s Shaanxi Archaeology Museum

China had the longest-lasting Covid-related travel restrictions of any major country, so visitors have a lot of catching up to do, from sailing down the river between the mist-draped peaks of Guilin to finding a banquet of regional cuisines in Beijing or Shanghai. But where better to start than Xi’an, the historic capital, and the earthen army still being reassembled under a vast hangar in its outskirts?

AUSTRALASIA

Victoria, Australia

Take the plunge on the country’s steamiest new road trip

Australia’s beaches feature high up on many travellers’ itineraries, but Victoria’s lesser-known hot springs might be about to tempt travellers away from the surf and sand. Drawing on a rich history of open-air bathing, thanks to the mineral-rich waters bubbling underground, the Great Victorian Bathing Trail links thermal springs and sea baths across the state to form a 560-mile road trip, with state capital Melbourne at the heart of the route. 

Six spots are already open, including the luxurious Alba thermal springs and spa, on the Mornington Peninsula, and Metung Hot Springs, where a soak in a bathing barrel full of thermal water can be followed by a night in a safari-style tent. Two more additions are planned for the trail in 2024: Phillip Island Hot Springs and the 12 Apostles Hot Springs and Resort. Just a short drive from the iconic sea stacks of the same name, the latter will be the largest hot springs complex in Australia when completed, featuring 150 rooms and 3,363sq metres of bathing facilities, drawn from natural hot springs.

Published in the December 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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