The Must-Visit Vacation Spots in 2020
From the next must-visit destination off the beaten path to one that may not be there much longer, our list of where to go in the year ahead.
When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, we are welcoming in not just a new year, but a new decade, one that is kicking off with a profound amount of uncertainty. There are the political concerns (impeachment and a 2020 presidential election in one year?), the cultural (will Lin-Manuel Miranda produce his next Hamilton and save our souls once again?), and the existential (will Mars be ready for us when Earth finally objects to our neglect? And will we ever stop keeping up with the Kardashians?)
One thing is clear: your anxiety will only be assuaged once you get your travel plans in order. From the next European hot spot and a new mecca for surfers to the places that are still off-the-beaten path, here are the top spots to go in 2020.
An Adventure… While It Lasts: Antarctica
The southern continent is freezing, austere, and not easy to get to. And that’s what makes it a fascinating destination for explorers looking for their next big adventure. Expedition season in Antarctica—the only season where travel to the continent is possible—takes place from November through March. Nearly the only way to visit is via cruise, though the high-end travel outfit White Desert offers one of the only experiences to actually stay on land. For a small fortune (think $58,000 per person for a five-day trip cavorting with penguins), they erect a small village at the beginning of the travel season and take it back out at the end, leaving a carbon-neutral, and smallest possible, footprint along the way.
“It is really amazing that people are embracing [Antarctica] and wanting to go and experience it while you can,” Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations at Virtuoso, says. “I think there’s this renewed almost sense of urgency knowing that climate change is affecting destinations like this.” When it comes to travel right now, she laughs, “The cold is definitely hot.”
For Risk-Seekers: Chernobyl
Dark tourism has long been a fact, though one that is more than a tinge unsavory, in the travel industry. Right now, the fearless lookie-loos have their eyes set on Chernobyl. Fueled in part by the HBO series that premiered in May, the site of the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster has seen a marked uptick in tourists over the past year. Interest in visiting the exclusion zone has spiked to such a degree that the Ukrainian president announced in July that the country is working to make it an official tourist destination. Radiation levels in some parts of the exclusion zone are still high, and a coat of radioactive dust still covers much of the undisturbed landscape, so visitors should use extreme caution and limit their time in the area. Despite this danger, many tourists are having a hard time resisting the lure of a place both frozen in time and one in which the plant and animal life has been able to flourish without human interference.
Embrace the Dolly Fever: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN
Whether you’re red or blue, left, right or center, we can all agree on one thing: Dolly Parton is the Queen of America. Though her reign has been long, she is having a special moment as the decade closes. A new podcast examining her impact on American life by one-half of the dynamic Radiotopia duo, a Netflix show and a Lifetime movie, monumental awards and award show appearances—2019 has been a good year for Dollymania.
So it should come as no surprise that pilgrimages to Dolly’s homeland are among the top U.S. destinations, according to Vrbo's 2020 trend report. Set aside at least a day for a hot pink, hairspray-and-rhinestone-laden trip into the Dollyverse by way of the Smoky Mountain Nightingale’s legendary theme park, Dollywood, and dinner theater extravaganza, Dolly Parton’s Stampede. When you’ve had about all you can take of the country music madness, find your zen in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park or decamp to the famous luxury resort, Blackberry Farm.
It’s All About the Gorillas: Rwanda
“You can’t really beat the Serengeti during the migration, but on the other hand the Serengeti is very crowded nowadays,” says William Howard, the nom de plume of the editor-in-chief of luxury travel site the Hideaway Report. Instead, Howard says, Rwanda has become popular, particularly “because of the gorillas.” Nearly half of the surviving mountain gorillas in the world live in the Virunga Mountains, of which Volcanoes National Park in the northwest corner of Rwanda is a part.
With luxury resorts popping up to cater to animal lovers in style (Howard calls out the new Singita properties as well as Wilderness Safari’s Bisate Lodge), Rwanda is now a sought-after destination for travelers who want an upscale safari experience while also getting up close, but not too personal, with their hairy ancestors.
The New Portugal: Croatia
If you breathe, you know someone (or you are that someone) who has traveled to Portugal sometime in the last few years. The country has joined Iceland as one of the most popular destinations for the globetrotting set and is responsible for the flood of colorful tiles and rocky shorelines filling your Instagram feed. But the position of reigning hot spot can only last so long before the tourist surge unseats it. Enter Croatia, the country poised to take Portugal’s crown.
Croatia has a little something for every type of traveler: history and culture-laden cities filled with crumbling castles and medieval churches (the up-and-comer Rijeka was recently named one of the 2020 European Capitals of Culture); charming seaside towns with rocky beaches to explore; and several national parks for the outdoor-loving adventure seekers. After years spent under restrictive communist production rules followed by the devastation of the war in former Yugoslavia, the Croatian wine regions are also beginning to receive global attention.
Belles says the country has recently made the leap from emerging destination to full-on hot spot. “I think it has that old world feel, but it’s a part of Europe that’s still not as explored as Italy or Spain or some of Western Europe. So it still feels unique and interesting.” It also doesn’t hurt that a blockbuster HBO show filmed there and celebrities (hey, Mrs. Bey!) have been spotted walking Croatia’s cobblestoned streets and boating around the Adriatic Sea.
The New Croatia: Georgia (the country)
If Portugal is about to have its crown snatched by Croatia, what destination will replace Croatia as the star-in-waiting? Our money is on Georgia, the tiny but action-packed Caucasus nation. Much like Portugal a decade ago or Croatia a few years past, Georgia has been the destination of choice for travelers who are always looking for the next big thing before it’s the next big thing.
Georgia’s diminutive size (roughly the equivalent of West Virginia) belies its bevy of options for a diversity of travelers. It has one of the world’s oldest and most talked-about wine-producing regions. The capital, Tbilisi, is notorious for a wild nightlife scene. Georgia’s rich culinary tradition is having a moment—and finally receiving deserved attention from diners outside of the region. And some of the world’s most scenic hikes can be found all along the Caucasus Mountains. Plus, the country has a rich history, both ancient and modern, to explore. (Stalin was born here after all.)
Go Off the Grid: Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan combines two of the things that true globetrotters love most: a spot that is relatively undiscovered by fellow adventurers and a land filled with gorgeous views and undisturbed nature. Next door, Uzbekistan is rapidly becoming a sought after destination, and rightly so. As William Howard from Hideaway Report explains, the country is still historically interesting with its ties to the Silk Road and the Soviet Union, but recent development has resulted in upgrades to the available accommodations and a new high-speed train system so that “you can move around quite comfortably as well.”
Kyrgyzstan is the better option for those who prefer luxurious nature to a luxurious hotel. With over 95 percent of the country made up of mountains and the two-year old, 506-mile Issyk Köl network of trails ready to be explored, this is a dream for the outdoorsy types. Get out of the capital of Bishkek and wander the hills, meeting the nomadic locals and enjoying a scenic stay in a yurt.
Surf’s Up in Japan: Chiba Prefecture
Five new sports will be making their debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, among them surfing. While Japan might not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of big waves and a strong surf culture, the Summer Games may just change that. The Chiba Prefecture an hour by train outside of Tokyo is gearing up to host the official competition, which will take place at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach in the town of Ichinomiya. According to Japan Times, Ichinomiya has fully embraced the role of surfing mecca, adopting an economic strategy deemed “surfonomics” and investing in new infrastructure including a main street aptly nicknamed “surf road” that hosts restaurants and stores that cater to the sport of choice.
Ichinomiya may be where some of the best wave-riders in the world will test their mettle against the Pacific rollers come July, but the Chiba Prefecture welcomes visiting surfers at every level of experience. The coastal enclave is home to a series of beaches, each with a distinct reputation and its own specific water conditions. On days when you’re feeling a little soggy, the peninsula is also home to some beloved hiking spots (summit Mt. Nokogiri for stunning views and a path lined with Buddha statues) and one of the oldest temples in Japan, the 10th-century Shinshoji Temple.
It’s All About Wellness: Bhutan
Bhutan is a trip that takes some advance planning—think visas and a mandatory daily fee that includes a registered guide—but that is precisely what makes it desirable. Despite the growing interest from outsiders, the country’s tourist industry is managed in a way that has helped to protect its cultural heritage. Linden Schaffer, CEO and founder of Pravassa, a luxury wellness travel company, says these factors have helped bring Bhutan to the attention of travelers interested in exploring ancient wellness practices.
“[Bhutan] has really been able to maintain their ancient practices, whether that’s in the way that they pray as a Buddhist culture, the way that they ritualistically do food ceremonies and have other spiritual ceremonies, cultural ceremonies,” Schaffer says. “The country itself… is also opening up. There’s more development.”
For nearly a decade, global wanderers have overwhelmingly sought one quality in their next adventure: authenticity. As a destination that is still off the beaten path, Bhutan has managed to share its local sights and sounds, flavor and traditions with visitors while also preserving its national culture and identity.
Get Cultured: Galway, Ireland
Rijeka, Croatia, shares the honor of being named the 2020 European Capital of Culture with Galway, the charming city on the western coast of Ireland. In a normal year, Galway is known for its impressive line-up of festivals—international arts and film festivals, the famous Galway horse races, and plenty of celebrations of food, particularly oysters. But, starting in February, the next year will bring a whole new meaning to that identity.
The slate of programming to honor this achievement was scheduled around the seasons of the ancient Celtic calendar and includes new art, theater, music, and dance exhibitions throughout the year. There will be special appearances by Margaret Atwood (stopping by for International Women’s Day), Homer (by way of a live reading of Emily Wilson’s translation on a blustery Galway beach), and famous Burning Man artist David Best. Around the region, issues including migration, the environment, and community will be explored with visitors and residents from near and far.
But No Matter What: Sustainability
At the end of each year, the top trends and destinations are endlessly rehashed, while predictions rage for the upcoming hot spots. But if there is one overarching theme in travel at the moment, it is sustainability. With plane travel notoriously energy-unfriendly and many people discontent to stay home, this may seem like a difficult proposition. As Schaffer says, “It’s not realistic to say don’t go there. But it’s how do we consciously make choices once we’re there in order to minimize the impact, or even to give back.”
Increasingly, travelers and the industry they support are demanding that the environment be taken into consideration when plans are made. This is materializing in different ways. Some tourists are changing their method of travel, opting to spend a little extra time riding the rails rather than taking to the air. (Tagskyrt, or “flight bragging” in Swedish, is being touted as the new hygge.) Others are choosing green destinations (like the Frisian Islands in Denmark and Ljubljana in Slovenia) or patronizing hotels and tour operators who put sustainability first.
“[Sustainability] is cultural preservation, it’s supporting local economies, and it’s also the environmental aspect and wildlife preservation,” Belles says. “It really touches a bunch of different things and, depending on who you are as a traveler, you can support it in any number of ways.”