As someone who travels full-time, one of the most common questions I get is this:
What is your favorite place?
It’s a hard question and one I usually answer with caveats. My favorite place for food is Italy. My favorite places for landscapes: Southern Africa and the Swiss Alps. My favorite place for kind, artistic, wonderful community, Ghent, Belgium.
I never really answer the question straight up.
And so as I was thinking about how to close out the year, I thought perhaps just this once I will attempt to do so. Attempt to answer straight up.
So far, in 15 years of traveling internationally almost every year and over 3.5 years of traveling full-time, these are my personal favorite towns and regions in the world.
15. New York City
I lived in New York for over a year just out of college. It wasn’t the right place to live long-term, but it’s still a place I think of as magical. Which is probably why it’s where I’m writing my first North American guidebook for.
14. The Maroon Bells, Colorado
Particularly in the fall when the leaves are turning, this is something spectacular to see. It’s probably also such a fond memory because I was there with my best friend, who has a talent for making anything a fond memory.
13. Bruges, Belgium
You know that feeling when you step around a corner and find something unexpectedly beautiful, charming, or interesting? That bubbling delight in your chest? For me, every corner of Bruges was like this both the first and second times I visited. The canals, the swans, the winding parks, the Flemish architecture…there’s a joke the locals have about a tourist that walks up and asks when Bruges closes for the night, thinking that the town&;because it is so fairytale-like—is an attraction, an amusement park. The locals think this is funny. Because they live in this attraction. It’s a real city.
12. Paris, France
I’m not normally a city person. I prefer small towns and forests and empty mountaintops. I like little neighborhoods and curious sub-cultures.
And, surprisingly enough, this is why I love Paris.
Because despite its size, which is formidable, it’s a collection of small, unique neighborhoods—each its own community, culture, and feel. I particularly loved Montmartre, with its artsy past and relaxed current-day feel, and Le Marais, which is lively and mixes populations that you wouldn’t otherwise think of mixing (it is both the Jewish and the gay neighborhood).
11. Freiburg, Germany
Freiburg is a quintessentially European university town, full of cobbled alleyways and intricate clocktowers and old city walls, but the reason I love it is for its forest. The Black Forest—the one of myth and legend—snuggles right up to the town with paths weaving their ways up into and through the hills. The forest is named because its thick-growing trees block a lot of the natural sunlight, leaving the paths in a constant state of twilight that feels mystical and perhaps even a little foreboding. It’s glorious.
10. Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France
This little town, just down the coast from popular, glitzy Biarritz, is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. I loved it for its lush green cliffs along the coast, for its half-moon beach and handsome surfers. For its proximity to France’s chocolate capitol (Bayonne). For its long walkways along and near the coast. This is a quiet town and one that would be perfect for a writing or artist getaway, especially if you like French and Spanish cuisine.
9. Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast
It’s hard to beat the views here, where the mountains run directly into the shockingly blue sea and the horizon is dotted with islands. One of my favorite experiences in the last three years has been riding on the back of a motorcycle down this coast with a new friend.
8. Venice, Italy
And now we come to Italy.
If you’ve been to Venice, you already know it’s special. The architecture, the waterways, the winding maze-like back alleys, the dozens upon dozens of masquerade shops with their elaborate masks…it’s just unlike anywhere else in the world. I loved wandering the streets. I loved chasing the sunset from photogenic scene to photogenic scene. I loved the ancient feel of the place, the way it felt like stepping backward in time.
(There’s a reason my first guidebook was for this amazing country.)
7. Cinque Terre, Italy
On my first trip to Italy, I came back to the Cinque Terre twice. I know it’s touristy. I know it’s crowded. But I don’t care. I adore every inch of those beautiful pastel-colored towns and their awe-inspiring cliffs. I loved our little apartment in Riomaggiore with its views down the hill and to the sea. I loved the colorful shops with their boutique fare. And I loved the cliffside walk between all five towns. Hands down one of my favorite places in the world.
6. Assisi, Italy
So many of the places that I love have been because of how they made me feel. And from the moment I arrived on the hilltop that is Assisi, I felt curious and alive. I loved the charming little town with its pink-stone facades and pretty shops. I loved the bakeries, where I had one of the best pastries of my life. I loved the whitewashed monastery and church. I loved the pretty hiking trails down the hill with their views back up to the monastery. And I loved how mystical it felt when the mist settled over the city. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
5. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Africa holds a really special place in my heart and Victoria Falls was definitely one of the highlights. If you go, make sure to eat at the Boma Restaurant, which serves up ostrich kabobs, crocodile soup, milpani worms, and melt-in-your-mouth warthog. Then, the next day, visit the falls and the little town with its seemingly endless vendors selling hand-crafted wooden hippos and five-foot giraffe and stone chess sets and hand-woven baskets.
4. The Soca Valley, Slovenia
My favorite new place I visited in 2015 was Slovenia and one of my favorite places within Slovenia was the Soca Valley (it is one of the country’s most popular places with good reason). I loved the unusual turquoise water, the deep gorges, the moss-covered paths. I loved walking up hills to find tiny mountain towns with glorious white church steeples rising into the mountains around them. I loved cycling past old sheds and churches in massive green fields, draped in morning fog. I even loved the roads, which wind through forest and past rivers, never becoming less than picturesque.
3. Lake Bled, Slovenia
There are more than a few places in Europe that conjure up ideas of magic and fairies and castles and quests. Lake Bled is one of my favorite of these places, with its clifftop castle overlooking the lake, its teeny tiny island (complete with fairy legends and a church whose bell is said to grant wishes), and its perfectly-kept lakeside walking and cycling path. I circled that lake so many times in the few days I was there and I never got tired of the ever-changing views, the clear water, and the shifting light.
2. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
There’s a reason I chose to live in Lauterbrunnen for almost two years. The place is pure magic.
Picture towering mountains, massive glaciers, quiet hiking trails, forest landscapes, wildflower fields, and more waterfalls than you can reasonably count and you’d be picturing the Bernese Oberland and particularly the area in and around Lauterbrunnen.
There’s something truly special about the landscape, the nature, and how easy it is to get into that nature and connect with it and yourself. I can’t recommend Lauterbrunnen, Murren, and the surrounding area enough. (There’s a reason Switzerland is my most popular guidebook.) Just go.
1. The Okavongo Delta, Botswana
Recently, someone asked me about Africa and I told him that if I had to do my life over and I could only take one international trip, it would be to Africa. And specifically to the Okavongo Delta in Botswana.
Not only is it beautiful and alien and strange, a landscape of canoes made from dug-out logs, marshy shallows, strangely arid, sandy areas around the water, and unusual animal life…not only that, but its culture and people are so wildly different from the west. And this is what changed my life.
People say travel changes them all the time. And I’ve had more than my fair share of perspective-altering experiences on the road. But this was the first and the biggest for me. It was the trip that made me question my western perspectives. It was the trip that made me realize how different cultures truly could be and how empathy didn’t come from shared experience, but from love and from really listening, trying to understand.
Africa forged me in some way. It forged the adventurer, but also the lover, the empathizer, the one capable of deep wonder, and the one who is humble enough to recognize that the world is full of perspectives and hers isn’t always right.
If I could only go to one place, it would be Botswana.
What are your favorite places?