While 2020 was the year that caused travelers all over the world to screech to a dramatic halt, there’s no stopping wanderlust.
If you’re anything like us, you’ve got an ever-growing list of cities and countries you want to visit when the world reopens—and it’s exactly that kind of wish-list-making that’s keeping your wanderlust alive.
Since we don’t yet know what travel will look like in a post-pandemic world, this isn’t a list of specific destinations to put on your 2021 travel radar. Instead, we hope this list of travel experiences (complete with examples one domestic and one international destination suggestion for each) will percolate in your brain so that when you’re planning your next trip—whenever that turns out to be—you’ll have even more ideas for places to go both close to home and far away.
Here are 21 of the places we're dreaming about visiting in 2021. We hope it inspires you to make your own 2021 bucket lists, too.
Somewhere with the bluest water you’ve ever seen
While most people would say the ocean is “blue,” there are countless variations on that shade. Whether you want to soak in warm turquoise waters on a sandy Caribbean beach or cross the deep blue depths of the icy North Atlantic, there’s a blue for you. With the help of satellite images like these from NASA, you can see the many varieties of blue that swirl in the planet’s oceans—and maybe get inspired for a future trip.
International idea: There’s the Maldives, where the water is full of microscopic phytoplankton. This changes the way sunlight refracts through the water, making the blues not only more brilliant but also crystal clear. And it’s hard to beat the island’s spectacular overwater bungalows for a close-up look at all those shades of turquoise, azure, and aquamarine.
Domestic idea: Closer to home, you can see some of the deepest (both in depth and color) blue water in the world in Oregon’s Crater Lake, where indigo water fills the caldera where a volcano once stood. With a depth of more than 1,949 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States.
Some of the past deals we've found to places with blue water:
Somewhere you can see all the stars
Since most of us live in places where light pollution obscures our view, the stars we see at night are only a fraction of what’s up there. The International Dark Sky Association not only works to protect dark sky environments, it’s got a handy map to help you explore stargazing spots around the world.
International idea: One such spot is the NamibRand Nature Reserve in central Namibia, near the southern tip of the African continent. Due to its sparse population, it’s one of the darkest areas of land on the globe. There’s a research and education center at NamibRand that hosts nighttime programs to learn about the skies.
Domestic ideas: Central Idaho’s Dark Sky Reserve in the protected wilderness area of the Sawtooth National Forest (three hours from Boise) is also sparsely populated enough for a spectacularly starry night sky. And, several National Parks, like Arches, Big Bend, and Joshua Tree are certified Dark Sky Parks.
Some of the past deals we've found to stargazing spots:
- $691 roundtrip to Namibia from LA or Chicago
- $97 roundtrip nonstop to Boise
- $77 roundtrip nonstop to Arches National Park
Somewhere with sugar soft sand
The softness of sand varies around the world, with some beaches boasting such delicate sand you’d think it was made of velvet. While there’s no criteria for sand softness in becoming an official Blue Flag beach, there are cleanliness, environmental protection, and educational requirements in order to get the prestigious designation—and this map shows Blue Flag sites all over the world.
International idea: Not surprisingly, islands rank highly on every list of the softest sandy beaches, and Rendezvous Bay on the Caribbean island of Anguilla is among the best, with a wide strip of brilliant white sand curving gently around the water, and plenty of beachside restaurants available when you need to refuel with a view. While there is a small airport on Anguilla, the more common way to reach the island is to fly to St. Maarten and take the 20-minute ferry from there.
Domestic idea: Siesta Beach, on the barrier island of Siesta Key off Florida’s southwest coast near Sarasota, routinely ranks at or near the top of “best beach” lists in the United States. The sand on this public beach is soft as silk, almost entirely made of sparkling white quartz, and is so highly reflective it remains cool to touch even on hot days.
Some of the past deals we've found to sandy beaches:
Somewhere you can be (almost) totally alone
Finding real solitude can sometimes be tricky, but it’s not impossible. To find some of the emptiest places on the planet, you can research population density numbers or find the dark spots on a nighttime view of the globe.
International idea: The East Asian nation of Mongolia is big (it’s the 18th largest country in the world by total area), but it’s also the most sparsely populated nation on earth, with an average of just over five people per square mile. In reality there are vast swathes of the beautiful country that are entirely uninhabited—nearly half of Mongolians live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Deals to Ulaanbaatar are extremely rare; look at booking a flight to Beijing or Seoul and then a separate flight from there to Ulaanbaatar (get tips on booking this kind of two-step itinerary here).
Domestic ideas: Check out Wyoming, Vermont, or Alaska, the three most sparsely populated states in the US. Though each averages about six people for every square mile, in some spots you’ll find far fewer, so you can truly enjoy a bit of time to yourself.
Some of the past deals we've found to empty places:
Somewhere to make the kids happy
Every kid is unique, but chances are good that your travel itinerary needs to be a little different when the kids are along for the ride. It’s always good to try to find ways to explore or learn about something your kid is already interested in, like wildlife or rock climbing or castles, since a fun learning opportunity is one they’re more likely to remember.
International idea: No matter how many times kids see animals at the zoo, seeing them in the wild is exponentially better. A trip to the Galápagos Islands offers chances to see giant tortoises, sea lions, marine iguanas, and dozens of colorful bird species—including penguins, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, and Darwin’s finches. With a stop at the Charles Darwin Research Center, the whole family can put what they’re seeing on the islands into scientific context. Deals to the Galapagos are quite rare (though we have found them); you can also fly to Quito or Guayaquil (about two hours by plane from the Galapagos).
Domestic idea: Hawaii is a good idea regardless of age, but for kids, a visit to the other-worldly landscapes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a unique thrill. The park, south of Hilo on the Island of Hawaii (also called the Big Island), contains two active volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. There are roughly 150 miles of hiking trails through the park, some of which run through older craters, near blackened lava flows, and within sight of volcanic steam vents.
Some of the past deals we've found to kid-friendly spots:
Somewhere fit for an epic roadtrip
Roadtrips truly embrace the notion that part of the fun is the journey, and one of the best things about roadtripping is being able to stop along the way for anything that catches your eye. The Roadtrippers site and app, can help you plan your route and find worthy spots for a detour.
International idea: Iceland’s dramatic natural landscapes were made for a roadtrip. Its 800-mile Ring Road circles the island nation and bypasses glaciers, volcanoes, and epic sea cliffs. If you don’t have a week or more to spend, a day trip through what’s known as the “Golden Circle” includes jaw-dropping (and tongue-twisting) sights like þingvellir National Park and Gullfoss waterfall.
Domestic idea: One of the most beautiful roads in the United States snakes the length of the country’s west coast. The Pacific Coast Highway, nicknamed the PCH, is lovely from top to bottom but is at its best in the 900-plus miles through California. There are dense forests, historic coastal towns, rugged cliffs, and plenty of beaches—not to mention famous points of interest like Redwood National Park, Big Sur, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Some of the past deals we've found to roadtrip destinations:
Somewhere the street food is amazing
Eating is, for many travelers, one of the best parts of being somewhere new. In cities where street food is part of the culture, eating a meal can be a combination of sightseeing and simple nourishment. Give your taste buds something to inspire a future trip with the Taste Atlas street food map.
International idea: There are numerous cities that raise street food to an art form, but it’s hard to beat Bangkok. The city’s talented outdoor chefs cook up a feast for the senses and taste buds alike, with different neighborhoods offering different culinary options. Chinese dishes take center stage in Bangkok’s Chinatown night market, while Banglamphu is the place to be for some of the city’s best pad thai.
Domestic idea: Stateside, few places have the history and variety of street eats of Portland, where there are more than 500 carts to choose from. Unlike food trucks, Portland’s food carts don’t move—when you’re hungry, you always know where to find your favorites.
Some of the past deals we've found to street food hotspots:
Somewhere you can embrace winter
Traveling in winter has plenty of perks—and not only if you’re a skier. If you’re looking for a travel bargain, booking a trip during the off season is a fantastic way to do that. And, of course, some experiences can only happen during the winter.
International idea: Sitting between Norway’s northern coast and the North Pole, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is a winter paradise and a superb place to see one of Mother Nature’s greatest shows—the aurora borealis. Svalbard’s Northern Lights season runs from roughly October–February, when it’s always completely dark and the ethereal light show can happen at any time. Svalbard isn’t easy to reach, though. You’ll need to get to Oslo first and from there take a four-hour flight north.
Domestic idea: Colorado’s snow-covered mountains are winter havens for skiers and snowboarders, with Vail’s eponymous mountain being one of the most popular. Vail Ski Resort, located about two hours from Denver, was established in 1962 in a town designed to look and feel like a Bavarian mountain town. Hit the slopes of Vail Mountain to your heart’s content, then explore the picturesque Alpine streets of Vail Village and Lionshead Village.
Some of the past deals we've found to snowy wonderlands:
Somewhere that’s so hot right now
Some places on earth are literally hot (the temperatures regularly soar), while others are figuratively so (they seem to be on every traveler’s must-see list right now). The former is visible on this world map charting more than two decades of land temperatures. The latter might seem like it’s always changing, but some places are routinely among the most popular with visitors.
International idea: For a combination of literal and figurative heat, consider Israel. Before the world came to a standstill in early 2020, Israel was poised to break the tourism records it has set in recent years—and there’s every reason to think those trends will continue when we’re all allowed to travel again. Israel offers both historic sacred sites like those in Jerusalem and the ancient desert fortress of Masada, plus the sunny beaches and vibrant nightclubs of Tel Aviv.
Domestic idea: California’s Death Valley National Park (about two hours from Las Vegas) is the place to be for literal heat. The air temperatures routinely top 130°F at midday in Furnace Creek, where most Death Valley residents live. Visitors need to be vigilant about hydrating and taking it slowly, but there’s plenty to do for those who like it hot—including hiking and golfing.
Some of the past deals we've found to hot places:
Somewhere to sleep in the great outdoors
Camping can be a great way to travel on the cheap, especially if you’re the self-sufficient sort, but the appeal of camping is about more than budget. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next camping trip, this worldwide camping index ranks 53 countries around the world.
International idea: There’s no place for camping quite like Norway. Camping is permitted throughout the entire country, so long as you’re not too close to a residence. Some parts of Norway (like the Lofoten Islands) are truly bring-your-own-everything, but there are also spots to camp not far from big cities—including Oslo—to help you stretch your travel budget.
Domestic idea: National Parks in the United States offer some of the best camping in the country, including the options at Yellowstone, America’s first national park. Yellowstone National Park has 12 campgrounds to choose from, one of which (Mammoth) is open all year long and four of which allow reservations to be made in advance. Fly into Bozeman and it’s only about 90 minutes to Yellowstone’s north or west entrances.
Some of the past deals we've found to camping hotspots:
Somewhere for Michelin-starred meals
Michelin stars aren’t the only indicator of quality when it comes to restaurants, but no one completely disregards the Michelin Guide, either. More starred restaurants in a city tends to equate to more options for incredible meals.
International idea: No city on earth rivals Tokyo for Michelin stars. With a whopping 226 Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the city, Japan’s capital has 111 more than the city in the number two spot (Paris), and roughly as many as the rest of the top 10 combined. While the vast majority serve different types of Japanese cuisine, price tags vary wildly. If splashing out for a 3-star meal isn’t in your budget, it’s possible to get a fantastic Michelin meal for under $50.
Domestic idea: In the melting pot of New York City, Michelin-starred restaurants showcase the city’s cultural diversity. Of the Big Apple’s 76 Michelin restaurants, diners will find Japanese, Italian, Korean, Austrian, French, and Scandinavian fare, among many other options. And a Michelin distinction isn’t an indicator of formality, either—more than 30 of NYC’s starred restaurants even offer take-out.
Some of the past deals we've found to culinary capitals:
Somewhere to see rare animals in the wild
Wildlife tourism has been big business for ages, since most people don’t live in places where they can easily see a wide variety of wild animals in their natural habitats. To explore options for animals worth traveling for, check out this map of the endemic animals that only live in one part of the world.
International idea: The town of Churchill in the arctic tundra of northern Manitoba is among the best places in the world to see polar bears, hundreds of which can be seen via tundra buggy safaris around Churchill every year in October and November (and elsewhere in Manitoba as early as mid-July). To reach the remote town, fly to the Manitoba cities of Winnipeg or Thomspon and then take a flight or train ride north.
Domestic idea: Florida’s Everglades ecosystem sustains a stunning variety of wildlife, including more than 360 bird species, and it’s the only place on the planet that’s home to both crocodiles and alligators. Some of the most endangered animals in the Everglades National Park are the Snail Kite, enormous Wood Stork (which can reach three feet in height), and the elusive Florida panther—the park’s population is said to be hovering around 100.
Some of the past deals we've found to wildlife wonders:
Somewhere for an epic hike
Sometimes the best way to get to know a place is on foot. There are walking and hiking trails all over the world, from the popular ones you always hear about to lesser-known footpaths that offer some serious elbow room. There’s a little bit of both on this list of 40 inspiring walks around the world, and plenty of reports from hikers on AllTrails when you’re ready to lace up your boots.
International idea: In England, hiking (called “rambling” there) is a popular pastime, but all that land was once cut off by fences around private fields and pastures. A group effort called a “mass trespass” in 1932 led to the creation of the UK’s National Parks and legislation ensuring there are public paths through most private lands. One of the longest foot paths is the Pennine Way, running more than 430 miles from the Peak District in northern England to just over the border with Scotland.
Domestic idea: One of the best-known hiking trails in the United States is also the longest hiking trail in the world. The Appalachian Trail, built from 1921–1937 by volunteers, spans more than 2,180 miles through 14 states in the eastern part of the country. While hiking the entire A.T. in one season is a goal for many, it’s easy to select certain parts of the trail, from short day hikes to backpacking trips of a few days.
Some of the past deals we've found to legendary hikes:
Somewhere to explore on two wheels
Whether you ride simply as a means of transportation or to enjoy the scenery along the way, check out Epic Road Rides, which categorizes routes primarily by country and Bikemap, which features hundreds of thousands of routes uploaded by cyclists all over the world.
International idea: Road cyclists the world over know the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez as one of the most famous venues of the Tour de France. And while it’s a thrilling stage to watch on TV or—if you’re very lucky—in person, it’s another thing entirely to pedal your own way up the steep climb. It’s no easy feat, though. The narrow road works its way up the side of a French Alpine mountain about two hours from Lyon, and twists through 21 hairpins in 8.6 miles with a maximum gradient of 11%.
Domestic idea: For anyone who loves fat tires, there’s no place like Moab and Arches National Park, with roughly 1,890 miles of trails and something for every age and skill level. From scenic and mostly flat gravel or paved trails to twisting downhill slopes into canyons to Moab’s famous (and extremely technical) 11-mile Slickrock Bike Trail—whatever challenge you have in mind, as long as you’re doing it on two wheels you’ll fit right in.
Some of the past deals we've found to cycling routes:
Somewhere to learn something new
You don’t have to be in school to have a mini-study abroad experience as part of your travels, like a tour of Roman ruins with an archaeologist, a tango lesson in Argentina, sushi-making class in Japan, or a language immersion program to kick your fluency into high gear.
International idea: In Venice, Row Venice offers private rowing lessons in traditional Venetian boats similar to the gondola. While it takes official gondoliers about 1.5 years to master the art of piloting the sleek boats through the city’s myriad waterways, visitors can learn a little about the skills required in about 1.5 hours. You won’t be an expert after one lesson, but you’ll gain a whole new perspective of the canal city.
Domestic idea: Downtown Chicago is a veritable history book of American architecture styles, with most of the familiar skyscrapers built after a massive fire in 1871. Architecture tours in Chicago are a must, and they’re not just for design or history buffs. Choose from a walking tour, an “L” train tour, or one of the extremely popular boat tours to learn about the city’s feats of engineering and design.
Some of the past deals we've found to places where studying is fun:
Somewhere to embrace the local customs
Learning about local customs—and diving in rather than simply watching from the sidelines—is the best way to understand what makes a place unique.
International idea: Spain’s famously late dinner hour (it can begin as late as 10pm) is often assumed to be one of many byproducts of the country’s relaxed atmosphere. The reality, however, is tied to history. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco shifted the country’s time zone to align with Nazi Germany in 1940, but it was never changed back. The result is a later start and end to the work day, and—yes—later meal times. Sitting down to dinner at 9 or 10pm is often hard for visitors to get used to, but if you can shift your daily schedule like the locals do it gets easier.
Domestic idea: People all over the world have lingering romantic notions about the “Wild West” of the United States. In truth, much of what made the west so wild is long gone, a casualty of human development. There are a few events that make it easier to imagine cowboys and settlers, however, like the many annual rodeos that take place around the country. The biggest and most legendary is Cheyenne Frontier Days in southern Wyoming (about 90 minutes from Denver), a 10-day celebration of modern cowboy life since 1897.
Some of the past deals we've found to places for cultural exploration:
Somewhere to celebrate spring
Spring is a time for celebrating new beginnings, and there are countless springtime traditions around the world to attest to that.
International idea: Head Mexico, and specifically to the pre-Columbian city of Chichén Itzá outside of Cancún, on the spring equinox. The archaeological complex's El Castillo pyramid produces a special phenomenon that thousands of people come to celebrate each year. As the sunlight changes on the face of the pyramid, it produces the illusion of a serpent slithering down the side of the building. The effect is visible for a few days around the equinox, but it's most distinct on that day.
Domestic idea: In Washington DC, the Instagram-worthy scenery turns the volume all the way up when the cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin are in full bloom. The timing when blossoms reach peak pink changes every year based on weather, but it’s usually in late March or early April. The original cherry trees were planted in DC in 1912, a gift from Japan, and the blooms are celebrated annually during the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Some of the past deals we've found to spring celebrations:
Somewhere to gaze at fall colors
Deciduous trees all over the world change colors in fall, but some areas put on a more spectacular show than others. Cold weather and a lack of rain create especially brilliant colors, though the colors themselves vary depending on the species of the trees—red maple trees produce bright red leaves, aspen leaves turn yellow, and oaks are usually a darker red. And, in places with large enough patches of trees, even satellites can see the changing colors of fall foliage.
International idea: In China’s Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, beautiful autumn colors surround many of the park’s 114 lakes. Originally created by glaciers, the lakes contain a combination of minerals that make the water appear in hues of bright turquoise, green, and green. Five Flower Lake is a particular favorite for its stunning colors, which look even better next to the surrounding trees in autumn.
Domestic idea: In much of New England, “leaf peeping” is a beloved pastime, and you can find brilliant fall colors almost anywhere you go. One of the best places to see autumn in all its glory, however, also happens to be one of the best roadtrips in the United States: Vermont’s Green Mountain Byway. The 200-mile route snakes through the Green Mountain National Forest, where the many red and sugar maple trees show off their unbelievable red and orange colors against spectacular blue skies.
Some of the past deals we've found to fall color:
Somewhere straight out of a fairy tale
Traveling often makes what might be ordinary settings seem magical, and then there are some places that make you feel as if you’re actually in a fairy tale—complete with castle turrets or manicured flower gardens or gargoyles on cathedrals.
International idea: If you’re familiar with the castle at the heart of Disneyland, you’ll no doubt recognize the real-life castle that inspired it. Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, near the Austrian border about 90 minutes from Munich, was built in the mid-19th century for Bavaria’s King Ludwig II. The view of the castle from the Marienbrücke (Marie’s Bridge) across a small valley is about as fairytale as you can get, and some of the rooms are equally fanciful—especially the artificial indoor grotto.
Domestic idea: For surreal surroundings that will leave you humming a song or two from Frozen, make a wintertime trip to one of the Ice Castles in the United States (Colorado, New Hampshire, Utah, Wisconsin). These man-made installments take shape each winter and feature rooms and tunnels surrounded by layers of ice and decorated with icicles, and every location even has an ice slide. At night, the creations get even more magical, as the ice sparkles with colorful LED lights.
Some of the past deals we've found to fairy tale castles:
Somewhere to fall in love
Romance can (and does) happen anywhere, but there are some experiences and parts of the world that just seem tailored made for lovers. Whether your brand of romance involves a breezy beach and stunning sunset or a big city full of historical intrigue and candlelit restaurants, there’s likely an option closer than you think.
International idea: Few places inspire romantic sighs (or romantic books, songs, and movies) like Paris. There’s plenty of strolling to be done along the Seine, picnics to be had in the Luxembourg Gardens, and a slice of artsy bohemian culture in Montmartre—not to mention a certain tower that brings out the romantic in everyone. Whether you’re falling in love with your travel companion or simply falling in love with the city itself, Paris is romantic either way.
Domestic idea: Hawaii is one of the top honeymoon destinations in the United States, with good reason, but Maui is particularly popular with those seeking romance. Take in the sunrise atop Mount Haleakala, swim under secluded waterfalls along the Road to Hana, enjoy a gourmet meal, indulge in a private outdoors couples massage, or stroll among fields of lavender at the Ali`i Kula lavender farm.
Some of the past deals we've found to romantic destinations:
Somewhere you’ve seen on screen
Frequent travelers who watch a lot of movies and TV shows undoubtedly have a touch of déjà vu now and then, with so many places around the world serving as filming locations. Luckily, there are resources online to help you figure out why you recognize a place you’ve never been—or if you want to seek out the real-life places you fell in love with on screen.
International ideas: Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones know Westeros is fictional, but you can visit some of the places that brought the show to life. The coastal Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Split became King’s Landing, while Morocco’s Essaouira was the setting for Astapor. Starz’s beloved Outlander series is shot largely in Scotland, naturally, but Prague stood in for much of 18th-century Paris, and Cape Town was the unexpected scenery for the Caribbean storyline.
Domestic ideas: The Twilight series has brought an abundance of attention to the real-life town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, but most of the scenes set in Forks were actually filmed in the little town of Vernonia in Oregon (about an hour from Portland). The fictional land of Panem in The Hunger Games was primarily created for the big screen in North Carolina, including a historic mill that served as District 12.
Some of the past deals we've found to TV and film spots: