The world is full of wonders—even if they’re hard to reach. While the pandemic has brought our journeys to a standstill, it has not quieted our curiosity. Ahead of a new year—with the promise of a return to travel—we are eager to share these 25 timely tales of timeless places that will define our future itineraries.
Reported by the global editors of National Geographic Travel and framed by five categories (Adventure, Culture and History, Nature, Family, Sustainability), these superlative destinations speak of resilient communities, innovative conservation efforts, and thrilling opportunities for future explorations.
The joy of travel comes from the unexpected. Now is the time to dream of your next journey and lay the foundation for your next trip. We hope our list of the new year’s most important places will inspire you. We look forward to seeing you out in the world soon!
See brown bears in remote Katmai National Park, Alaska. Discover mountains, beaches, and waterfalls in the Caribbean’s climate-resilient Dominica. Hike a kingdom of electric-blue ice in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. End a rugged trek with a warm welcome in the high-altitude Svaneti Region, Georgia.
In the shadow of the volcano
There are no roads into Katmai. Most of the nearly 5 million acres of this combined national park and preserve are designated wilderness where no hunting is allowed. The only way in is by boat or float plane.
For many travelers to the park—limited in number even before the pandemic—Katmai is where to visit a 1.2-mile-long fishing hole that serves the largest concentration of brown bears in the world. Thanks to the Bear Cam and Fat Bear Week it has become famous.
For archaeologists such as Laura Stelson, who explored here in the footsteps of a 1910s expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the park is a site to study 9,000 years of human history. The longstanding Indigenous communities that lived in the area were displaced and re-established after the massive 1912 eruption of the Novarupta, the largest volcanic paroxysm of the 20th century. Stelson hopes one day to find the right technology to scan what lies beneath the pumice and other rock that covers this otherworldly landscape about 290 miles southwest of Anchorage.
“Katmai is a very unique place with all these different types of landscapes presented in one single park,” says Stelson. “You have coastal beaches. You have tundra. You have spruce forest, mountains, volcanoes, and you have this weird desert. So there’s just a lot of environmental diversity and diversity of experiences.”
Caribbean adventure tourism helps fuel this island’s climate resiliency
The weathered mountains running down the spine of Dominica formed a natural shield, largely protecting the eastern Caribbean island, called Waitukubuli (“tall is her body”) by the Indigenous Kalinago, from colonial intrusions and overdevelopment. Left alone to thrive were leafy rainforest and a thrill-seeker’s dream collection of natural marvels: nine active volcanoes, 365 rivers, towering waterfalls, black sand beaches, and blistering-hot geothermal features like Boiling Lake, a flooded fumarole with water temperatures nearing 200°F (93.3°C).
What Dominica’s formidable volcanic terrain couldn’t block is global climate change, which is worsening the effects of hurricanes. Warmer ocean temperatures supercharged Hurricane Maria, whose direct hit on the island in September 2017 caused catastrophic landslides and critically damaged nearly every man-made structure.
Post hurricane, nature rebounded, residents rebuilt, and the government resolved to make Dominica the world’s first climate-resilient nation. It requires not only hurricane-proof buildings but also a diverse economy, including a tourism sector that attracts more high-end spenders and an agricultural system that grows a variety of fruits and vegetables eaten locally. Adventure tourism plays a huge role in the climate resiliency push by creating jobs and an economic incentive to restore and protect Dominica’s greatest natural resource—its wild side.
Where to hike a kingdom of ice
Along the turquoise shores of Lake Argentino, the town of El Calafate gets its name from the thorny plant whose berries infuse cocktails and regional beers. However, its proximity to Los Glaciares National Park has placed the town on the tourist map as the gateway to the kingdom of ice in southern Argentine Patagonia.
There, near the border with Chile, the 1,722-square-mile park encompasses subantarctic forests that preserve habitats for species such as the guemal, puma, rhea, condor, guanaco, and the calafate plant. But the park’s main draws are the nearly 300 glaciers that cover almost half of the park surface. The most popular and accessible, three-mile-wide Perito Moreno glacier, stands almost 200 feet above the surface of Lake Argentino. Huge masses of ice spectacularly calve from its face with thunderous roars. It’s possible to hike with crampons on the glacier to find swaths of electric-blue color among waterfalls, crevices, ice caves, underground rivers, and extravagant ice formations.
This frozen desert is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest expanse of continental ice in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland. After exploring the frigid ends of the Earth, visitors return to a boat waiting on the lake to celebrate their adventures with a shot of whiskey and chips of ice. —Erick Pinedo, Nat Geo Traveler Latin America
A remote land of warm welcomes
Located in the shadows of 15,000-foot peaks, the Svaneti region in northwest Georgia’s Caucasus mountains may seem forbiddingly inaccessible. The rugged landscape bristles with medieval stone towers that doubled as dwellings and defense posts. These fortresses attest to a time when Svan families fought fiercely to hold possession of their lands in small villages and lofty settlements such as Ushguli. Protected as the Upper Svaneti World Heritage site, Ushguli is one of Europe’s highest inhabited communities, at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level.
Due to its remoteness, Svan culture evolved over the centuries in isolation from the rest of Georgian lands, developing a unique oral-only language and traditions such as ritual beard cutting and blood feuds. Once infamous for lawlessness, the region is recognized today for its welcoming spirit. “Georgia is famous for its hospitality, but Svaneti is Georgian hospitality times 10. Parties, toasts, and alcohol are the order of the day,” says Michał Głombiowski, a travel writer and photographer from Poland who frequently visits Georgia.
While still far off any beaten path, Svaneti now is accessible to intrepid adventurers via the Upper Svaneti section of the Transcaucasian Trail, an ambitious long-distance trail network project ultimately aiming to connect Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Trekkers with enough lung capacity to tackle a four-day, high-altitude hike from Mestia, the regional capital, to Ushguli are treated to cool vistas of serrated peaks by day and warm receptions in Svan guesthouses at night. —Martyna Szczepanik, Nat Geo Traveler Poland
Reckon with a racist history to build a better future in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Celebrate Native resilience in Pueblo Nations, New Mexico. Revisit 500 years of Magellan’s Pacific legacy in Guam. Relish relics of a golden age in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. Delight in a cultural crossroads in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain. See an art festival in a legendary landscape in Tonglu, China.
A hub for discussions on race in the U.S.
Greenwood Rising, the name of Tulsa’s new “Black Wall Street” history center, aptly describes the groundswell of support for sustainable socioeconomic transformation in the Oklahoma city’s Historic Greenwood District—site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the United States’ history.
Beginning on May 31, 1921, white terrorists destroyed the prosperous district in an 18-hour assault, murdering some 300 Black residents and erasing nearly 35 blocks of Black-owned homes and businesses. To commemorate the 100th anniversary—and tell the story of the once vibrant community—the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is building Greenwood Rising (expected to open in fall 2021) and is hosting speakers, concerts, and other special events throughout the year.
The history center is designed to be a catalyst for revitalizing Greenwood and for confronting and ending systemic racism across the U.S., says Phil Armstrong, project director of the Centennial Commission.
“There’s a real sense in Tulsa and throughout the country that we are much better than this,” Armstrong says. “Greenwood Rising will be a launching pad for continuing the discussion of racial trauma and reconciliation, and the entire historic district will be a place where people can come to learn, acknowledge implicit bias, and personally commit to enacting real change within their own spheres of influence.”
Surfacing Native American voices in the American Southwest
In New Mexico, monuments to oppressors of Native Americans—such as Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas—are toppling, as some activists call to honor Po’pay, organizer of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The uprising ousted the Spanish from Pueblo Indian homelands. Although Spain regained control in 1692, the revolt is credited with ensuring the long-term survival of Pueblo culture.
A statue of Po’pay represents New Mexico in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. At home, Po’pay’s enduring legacy is evident in the state’s 19 Pueblos, including Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Each Pueblo is a sovereign nation and living community with distinct traditions. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) in Albuquerque is the starting point for exploring the Pueblos—online via a Virtual Culture Guide and in-person when it’s safe to resume group tours and celebrations.
Michael Lucero, IPCC’s guest experience manager and member of San Felipe Pueblo, calls the center’s resources the “lens” through which visitors can better appreciate the richness of Pueblo life. “When you step foot on a Pueblo, you’ll start connecting the dots,” Lucero says. “This is where we feel safe and connect with the Earth.”
Revisiting Magellan’s legacy in the Pacific
The 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe isn’t exactly a cause for celebration on Guam, a U.S. territory and largest of the Mariana Islands. During a three-day stopover in March 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan killed Indigenous Chamoru people and erroneously labeled the Marianas Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of Thieves).
A Spanish naval vessel will stop in Guam in March 2021, as part of a commemorative voyage retracing the world-circling route launched by Magellan in 1519 and completed by Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano in 1522. For the Chamoru today, the arrival of the anniversary expedition is an opportunity to tell their story, one whose chapters include the Magellan encounter, Guam’s colonial history, and the realities of living at what’s dubbed the U.S. military’s “tip of the spear” in the Pacific.
Guam’s complex story is reflected in the Chamoru language, which features Spanish, English, and Japanese words. Young Chamorus are increasingly learning to embrace their culture, says Chamoru author and activist Michael Bevacqua.
“Chamoru is an Indigenous memory,” adds Bevacqua, who teaches free language lessons and encourages fellow Chamorus to voice their choice for the future of their island’s political status—whether statehood or independence. “To me, being able to speak Chamoru and pass it on is at the core of our culture and the identity of our people.”
This ancient Korean kingdom still glitters
Named Korea’s Culture City of East Asia 2021, Gyeongju is more commonly known by its nickname: “the museum without walls.” The city, located at the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula, is home to an astonishing abundance of archaeological sites, thanks to a nearly thousand-year reign as capital of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935).
Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Gyeongju Historic Areas are a captivating collection of Buddhist art from this golden age. Among the treasures: temple and palace ruins, stone pagodas, rock carvings, a superb eighth-century statue of Buddha, and about 150 Silla nobility burial mounds, some up to 75 feet high.
Gold, silver, and gilt-bronze crowns, jewelry, and other glittering artifacts excavated from the tombs are displayed in the Gyeongju National Museum’s “Silla the Kingdom of Gold” exhibit. Virtually tour the exhibition hall for an inside look at the lavish lifestyles of Silla royalty. —Bo-yeon Lim, Nat Geo Traveler Korea
Jazz and legends in a Basque cultural capital
In the interior of Spain’s tradition-rich Basque Country, one city claims the cultural crown. Vitoria, also known by its Basque name of Gasteiz, was historically a commercial and cultural crossroads due to its prime position on the shortest route connecting the medieval kingdom of Castile with northern Europe.
Now, Vitorians continue the tradition of welcoming outside influences by hosting emerging and legendary jazz artists—such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose Vitoria Suite album pays tribute to the city—during the international Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival held each July. A bronze statue honoring Marsalis stands in the gardens of La Florida Park, Vitoria’s green lung and part of a ring of parks giving Vitorians more square feet of green space per inhabitant than any other Spanish city. Urban nature conservation efforts coupled with a commitment to sustainable transport—a large part of the population travels by bicycle or tram—earned Vitoria-Gasteiz the title of European Green Capital in 2012.
Planet-protecting Vitorians are equally passionate about preserving tradition, particularly in the historic quarter. The Gothic majesty of the Cathedral of Santa María tops a hill overlooking the centuries-old district. On streets that bear the names of medieval artisans’ guilds, locals throng bars and restaurants, sampling the habit-forming Basque version of tapas, known as pintxo. A plaza at the southern end of the old town is the site every August of an unusual celebration that honors the patron of the city—and the plaza’s namesake—la Virgen Blanca (the White Madonna). During the festival, a crowd gathers here to watch an effigy of a Basque villager, known as Celedón, whiz down a zip wire with his open umbrella to kick off the party. On reaching a balcony, Celedón magically “becomes” a real person who then encourages the crowd to enjoy the revels. —Sergi Ramis, Viajes National Geographic (Spain)
A Chinese landscape made famous in paintings lands its first art fest
Completed in 1350, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” is a touchstone of traditional Chinese shanshui, or landscape painting—a flowing visual journey along the Fuchun River and mountains that, when fully unrolled, extends more than 22 feet long.
Painter Huang Gongwang, one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, lived in seclusion alongside the Fuchun River, in Tonglu, for three years before completing this handscroll masterpiece. Ever since, tranquil Tonglu—tucked in the mountains of eastern Zhejiang Province, 168 miles southwest of Shanghai—has been a source of inspiration for generations of Chinese artists and writers.
In 2021 Tonglu is once again in the art spotlight. The first Tonglu Art Triennale, originally scheduled for autumn 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic to spring 2021, will display modern art installations in fields and along the river—and, the hope is, boost rural tourism. Festival curator and director Fram Kitagawa, founder of Japan’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, says the very word “Tonglu” embodies the spirit of the event.
He explains, “At this season, the fog on the Fuchun River and the clouds in the mountains are intertwined with each other, which is very similar to the Chinese landscape painting I knew when I was young.” —Yi Lu, Nat Geo Traveler China
Watch for wolves and moose in a national park on Isle Royale, Michigan. Imagine yourself in a Jurassic Park among the savanna grasses of the Cerrado, Brazil. Roam the “last paradise” of UNESCO-recognized Lord Howe Island, Australia. Marvel at the northern lights in Yellowknife, Canada.
Wolves and moose roam this lesser known U.S. national park
Nature runs wild on Michigan’s untamed Isle Royale, a best-kept secret of a national park in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior. The 45-mile-long wilderness island is only 18 miles from the shores of northeastern Minnesota, yet frequent fog banks, fierce storms, and choppy waters can make it seem edge-of-nowhere remote.
Along with causing numerous shipwrecks in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the hazardous waters surrounding Isle Royale shaped the island’s unique ecosystem. The park has only 18 mammal species (compared to more than 40 on the mainland), many of them descendants of the hardy animals who were able to swim here in summer or cross the frozen lake in winter.
Since 1958, scientists have been observing Isle Royale’s most famous residents, wolves and moose, in the world’s longest predator-prey study. When only a single wolf pair remained in 2018, a multiyear relocation plan began to restore the population, helping keep moose numbers in check and boosting the resiliency of the entire ecosystem.
Moose sightings are frequent, as are haunting loon calls. Less seen or heard are humans. The isolation and solitude mainly beckon seasoned backpackers, kayakers, and canoeists who arrive equipped to navigate Isle Royale’s roadless backcountry and inland lake paddling route, Chain of Lakes.
This Brazilian wilderness may be the closest thing we have to a ‘Jurassic Park’
Environmental victories in the Brazilian Amazon don’t always turn out to be a good thing for its lesser known biome neighbor, the Cerrado. South America’s largest savanna, the Cerrado covers nearly a quarter of Brazil’s land surface and is extraordinarily biodiverse. But it is increasingly vulnerable to deforestation due to soybean farming and cattle ranching driven from the Amazon. More than 40,000 square miles have been destroyed in the past decade alone.
The Brazilian Campaign for the Defense of the Cerrado (“No savanna, no water, no life”) is sounding the alarm about the pressing need to save this endangered wonderland. Several of South America’s major rivers—including São Francisco, Paraná-Paraguay, and Tocantins-Araguaia—begin here, and 5 percent of the planet’s plants and animals are found here.
The Cerrado’s dizzying variety of life includes more than 10,000 species of plants (nearly half of which exist nowhere else) and Jurassic Park–size creatures: boarlike tapirs that can top 650 pounds; rare giant armadillos weighing up to 110 pounds; and giant anteaters, threatened with extinction in Brazil, that can weigh more than a hundred pounds. Equally outsized is a giant palm tree called buriti, nesting site for some of the 850-plus bird species and a main food source for many other wild things that call the Cerrado home.
A ‘last paradise’ in the Tasman Sea
Being off the path to anywhere helped Lord Howe, a tiny island in the Tasman Sea, stay human-free until the 18th century. Today, only 400 visitors (slightly more than the permanent population) are permitted at any one time, helping protect one of Earth’s most isolated ecosystems in what locals rightfully call “the last paradise.”
While less than seven miles long and just over a mile at its widest, Lord Howe is the largest in an eponymous World Heritage-listed chain of islands, remnants of an underwater volcano that erupted millions of years ago. Surrounding the island is Lord Howe Island Marine Park, home to the southernmost coral reefs on the planet, more than 500 fish species, and a who’s who of protected and threatened marine species, including the whale shark, great white shark, and hawksbill turtle.
The island’s Protecting Paradise Program takes a holistic approach to biosecurity, enlisting the help of community volunteers and technology to remove destructive invasive species (most recently rodents) and protect endemic ones like the critically endangered Lord Howe Island Phasmid, or “walking sausage,” a big-as-your-hand stick insect thought to be extinct until 2001.
Northern lights shine here 240 nights a year
The story of Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, reads like an adventure novel. Sitting at the edge of the Arctic, on the banks of the Great Slave Lake, and surrounded by wild taiga, the city of 20,000 came into being when gold was discovered in the area in the 1930s.
Gold mining was the main industry in Yellowknife for decades, and when the last of the local gold mines was closed in 2004, the city was already busy mining diamonds: In 1991, geologists found one of the richest diamond deposits on Earth here.
The Dene people have stewarded and traveled this land for thousands of years. Today, in the face of global challenges like COVID-19, climate change, and environmental degradation, the Dene find freedom in the land, says Catherine Lafferty, a Yellowknives Dene Nation author whose latest book, Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a, is the first penned under her Dene name, Katłıà.
“Going out on the land is one way to find peace and solace, to reconnect and to heal,” says Lafferty, who was raised in Yellowknife and writes about Indigenous injustices in northern Canada. “The land helps us to remember what is important. It is there that we can find happiness in the simplicities of nature’s gifts.”
Future visitors to Yellowknife can experience some of these gifts during nights lit by the aurora borealis shimmering over the boreal forests and countless small lakes outside the city. —Ondřej Formanek, Nat Geo Traveler Czechia
Learn about 10,000 years of cultural history in Indigenous British Columbia, Canada. Reach for the stars at Florida’s Space Coast. Stroll the world’s longest seafront walking trail on the England Coast Path. Watch traditional cowboys at work in the marshes and meadows of Hortobágy, Hungary. Find the real-life idyll beneath the fantastic facade of Transylvania, Romania.
Where nature and First Nations connect
Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia, is home to more than 200 distinct Nations. Amid the global reckoning on race, learning about Indigenous B.C. as a family is a springboard for talking with kids about timely issues such as cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes.
With an Indigenous history that spans some 10,000 years, the province is a perfect place to embark on authentic Indigenous travel experiences hosted by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Vancouver and Vancouver Island are among the most convenient places for families to learn about Indigenous culture. The island alone has more than 45 Nations and the city offers some kid-friendly urban options, such as Talaysay Tours’ “Talking Trees” walk in Stanley Park.
On the 90-minute forest ramble, Squamish and Shíshálh cultural ambassadors share knowledge passed down through the generations to help visitors understand how First Nations people across southern British Columbia use the land for food, medicine, and technology.
“We do not see ourselves as separate from the land,” says Candace Campo, co-owner of Talaysay Tours and a member of the Shíshálh Nation. She explains that in the Shíshálh language, they have a saying: “Nuchutmulh, [which] means ‘we are one’ and connected to all living things.”
A launchpad for wonders both in the sky and in waters below
With all systems go for U.S. astronauts to rocket into orbit via NASA’s new Commercial Crew program, Florida’s Atlantic shoreline east of Orlando is again at the center of space exploration. The 72-mile stretch, known as the Space Coast, includes launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (open with COVID-19 restrictions), families can watch scheduled blast-offs of SpaceX and Boeing spacecrafts and walk among gigantic rockets towering over a hundred feet high. A different sort of giant, the lumbering West Indian manatee, plies the waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, surrounding the space center.
Tour company Florida Adventurer leads kayaking trips in the 140,000-acre refuge. By day, kayakers are treated to glimpses of manatees and dolphins. At night (June to September or later), the refuge’s Indian River Lagoon hosts an otherworldly underwater show, called bioluminescence, courtesy of billions of light-producing plankton.
“On bioluminescence tours, kids see light zigzagging in every direction under the water,” says Florida Adventurer owner Josh Myers. “During the day, a manatee could pop up next to their kayak and squirt water at them. Those moments are life-changing for kids, inspiring them to learn more about what lives in the water.” —Ivan Vasin, Nat Geo Traveler Russia
An epic walk to remember
A colossal undertaking reaches fruition in 2021 as the England Coast Path—the world’s longest seafront walking trail, stretching nearly 2,800 miles—is unveiled in its entirety.
How does a small nation successfully vie for this global title? The answer lies in England’s geography: peer closely at a map of Great Britain and you’ll see the land meets the water in an uneven zigzag of estuaries, inlets, and promontories. That rugged seascape—awash with secretive coves, windswept bluffs, and welcoming port towns—has been intrinsic to shaping the nation’s fortunes and character. And the new England Coast Path aims to bring this prized patrimony to the people and, in so doing, protect the landscape for generations to come.
While the project was partly inspired by the opening of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path in 2012, England has a long history of coastal hiking. In the 1970s the 630-mile South West Coast Path was established as a National Trail. The England Coast Path absorbs such existing stretches and has created dozens more from scratch for a total of 67 sections. Landowners, residents, and conservationists were consulted to harmoniously enact the landmark ruling of 2009 that legally opened up England’s whole coastline to the public for the first time.
Each segment of shore has a different character. While some stretches offer unspoiled rural scenery, others have been carefully curated. Opened in September 2020, the 40-mile segment dubbed “Cumbria’s Hidden Coast,” winding from Whitehaven to Millom in the country’s northwest, is dotted with art installations and adrenalized activities. Meanwhile, in the southeast, a trail christened “England’s Creative Coast” links artworks and plots out a digital geocaching tour across Sussex, Kent, and Essex. —Maria Pieri, Nat Geo Traveller UK
Cowboys and cranes in Europe’s wide-open plains
The broad spaces of Hortobágy National Park are nature-made for social distancing. Covering nearly 200,000 acres of the Great Hungarian Plain in eastern Hungary, the expansive World Heritage site preserves the largest remaining native grassland in Europe as well as pastoral traditions dating back millennia.
Poor soil for farming helped keep Hortobágy’s mosaic of alkaline marshes, meadows, pastures, and loess-steppe vegetation intact. Free from plowing and significant development, this puszta (barren land) flourished. The resulting rich grassland ecosystem, protected since 1973, provides critical habitat for some 340 bird species, including tens of thousands of winged fall migration travelers, such as gray geese and common cranes, that make the park one of central Europe’s best birding locations.
Hortobágy isn’t strictly for the birds, though. A few hundred shepherds and cowboys, called csikós, still roam the wavy grass, giving families a rare look at centuries-old animal husbandry traditions. Horse-drawn carriage tours pass by herdsmen and their puli dogs, an ancient Hungarian breed with a coat like a mop, and racka sheep, famous for their corkscrew horns. Tours typically feature demonstrations of big-thrill rodeo skills—like galloping while standing on the backs of two horses—by daring csikós dressed in their flowing, blue-and-black traditional folk wear.
Also home on the Hortobágy range: one of the largest populations of endangered Przewalski’s horses. Some 300 wander the park’s Pentezug Wild Horse Reserve. Although the reserve isn’t open to the public, the add-on safari ride from Hortobágy Wild Animal Park rolls closely past the grazing animals—untamed residents of Hungary’s wild, wild east. —Tamás Vitray, Nat Geo Traveler Hungary
Finding the real in a land famous for fantasy
One of the side effects of Dracula—the Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker—was that it transformed Transylvania, a perfectly real Romanian region, into a mythical realm, a “cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet!” as the writer put it.
Since Stoker had never seen the place himself, he craftily compiled information for his 1897 novel from books written by British travel writers. He got some of the details right: the “robber steaks” (grilled beef kebabs called rablóhús) and national dish mămăligă (a cornmeal porridge); sweet Golden Mediasch wine; descriptions of the folk wear; the roadside crosses; and the culturally complicated mix of Magyars, Saxons, Székelys, and Wallachians.
What Stoker missed is what Transylvania should be known for: its pastoral, old-Europe feel. Cosmopolitan Cluj is a base for exploring rural Transylvania’s wildflower meadows, storybook castles, and cobbled-lane villages. For families increasingly tethered to technology, a future farm stay here would be a chance to unplug, to spend time instead traveling by horse-drawn cart, hiking in the wooded Carpathian Mountains, and helping with chores like milking sheep, collecting eggs, and piling haystacks.
Transylvania’s bucolic charms have long captivated the Prince of Wales, whose foundation funds local architectural heritage preservation projects. “It’s the timelessness of it which is so remarkable,” the future king says in the travel documentary Wild Carpathia, “almost out of some of those stories one used to read as a child.” —Catalin Gruia, Nat Geo Traveler Romania
Bike the streets of “green giant” Denver, Colorado. Dive to an ancient shipwreck in the underwater museum of Alonissos, Greece. Look for wildlife on land and at sea in the 13 national parks of Gabon. Meet marine mammals in the pristine reefs of New Caledonia. Take a spin through eco-chic Copenhagen, Denmark. Go green in planet-friendly Freiburg, Germany.
A green giant of a city in the American West
Despite financial challenges related to COVID-19, Denver is powering forward with its goal of achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Among the latest forward-thinking initiatives are 125 miles of new bike lanes by 2023 and solar gardens to be “planted” on municipal parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land in 2021.
“Investments in Denver’s clean energy economy will strengthen our community and address multiple concerns including our carbon footprint,” says Grace Rink, executive director of Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency. Along with producing clean energy for public buildings, vehicle charging stations, and nearby low-income neighborhoods, the gardens will grow jobs and a paid training program during construction.
Connecting climate action and sustainability to economic prosperity and social justice has helped Denver earn the coveted LEED for Cities Platinum Certification. To encourage business owners to join the effort by putting eco-friendly solutions to work, Colorado’s capital offers free, customized sustainability plans through Certifiably Green Denver. Thanks to the program, nearly 2,000 Denver businesses are creating greener, more efficient operations that use less water and energy, and produce less air pollution and waste.
“We’re so fortunate to live in this beautiful place,” says Adam Schlegel, co-founder of Chook, a Certifiably Green restaurant that champions sustainable food practices, “and with that fortune comes the responsibility to protect it.”
Mediterranean haven for seals—and a deep dive into an ancient shipwreck
Called “the Parthenon of shipwrecks,” the eerie remains of the ancient Peristera shipwreck recently opened as the first underwater museum in Greece accessible to recreational divers. Located below the surface in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades, the site is thought to hold cargo from a large Athenian barge that sank in the fifth century B.C. Limiting human activity in the 873-square-mile marine park—established in 1992, primarily to save the endangered Mediterranean monk seal—helped keep archaeological looters at bay, preserving the wreck site and its bounty of intact, two-handled wine jars.
To explore the submerged museum in person, you’ll need to be able to dive to depths of 80 feet or more on a guided tour (slated to resume in summer 2021). Or, visit the information center on the small island of Alonissos and embark on a virtual reality tour of the wreck—no swimming required. —Lakshmi Sankaran, Nat Geo Traveller India
More than 11 percent of this African country is national parkland
Elephants and hippos walk undisturbed on the beaches of Gabon—“Africa’s last Eden,” according to National Geographic explorer-in-residence Mike Fay—where more than 11 percent of the country is national parkland encompassing white-sand shorelines and inland forests.
Not all of Gabon’s 13 national parks are readily accessible. But Loango alone offers a variety of landscapes, vegetation, and wildlife, as well as the waterside Loango Lodge. One of this standout park’s highlights is an encounter with critically endangered western lowland gorillas. One group per day of four people maximum is allowed to try and find them, with no guarantee of success. In Pongara, one of five national parks protecting important sea turtle habitat, the beachfront Pongara Lodge offers close-up views of nesting leatherbacks, November to March, and migratory whales and dolphins, June to August.
Thanks to global investment in the country’s transportation networks, visiting Gabon—where an estimated 80 percent of the landmass is still covered by forest—is expected to become easier in the future. A sustainable development strategy also promises to expand ecotourism responsibly, helping ensure the country’s wildest places stay wild. —Barbera Bosma, Nat Geo Traveler Netherlands
Where marine life frolics in the south Pacific
Humpback whales, green sea turtles, dugongs—all congregate in the welcoming waters of New Caledonia. This French territory comprises a group of islands set like jewels in the southwest Pacific Ocean, some 900 miles off the east coast of Australia.
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, New Caledonia’s lagoons represent one of the most extensive reef systems in the world, with pristine waters and more than 9,000 marine species. In 2014, the government created the 500,000-square-mile Coral Sea Natural Park, which extends well beyond the UNESCO site. Christophe Chevillon, senior manager at the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy, says the establishment of the Coral Sea park was “a notable and critical step for the conservation of New Caledonia’s waters as well as the protection of the last virgin coral reefs in the world.”
Now, the territory has taken further steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of its unique marine sanctuary. Fishing, nautical sports, and boats carrying more than 200 passengers are forbidden in large parts of the park, while some areas are banned from any human activity at all, except scientific research. A coral farm will open on Lifou island to restore reefs damaged by tourism in the past.
Inland, the government is promoting ecotours and a new law aiming to ban all disposable plastic products by 2022. Tourism is strictly regulated in provincial parks, and the Giant Fern Park—a must-see in the tropical rainforest on the main island—is divided into zones for walking and biking while others are left to nature. —Marie-Amélie Carpio, Nat Geo Traveler France
A cosmopolitan capital creating sustainable solutions that pay off
The widespread inequalities unmasked by the COVID-19 pandemic have ignited global interest in making cities more resilient, equitable, and healthy. In other words, a city like Copenhagen, on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.
“In Copenhagen we insist on green solutions because they pay off,” the city’s Lord Mayor Frank Jensen says in We Have the Power to Move the World, the sustainable transport guidebook for mayors produced by C40, a network of cities committed to addressing climate change.
“Copenhagen’s green transformation goes hand in hand with job creation, economic growth, and a better quality of life,” he says.
Denmark’s capital has long targeted sustainability. The city has a very efficient public transportation network, and all its buses are transitioning from diesel-fueled to electric.
CopenHill, a waste-to-energy power plant burning 70 tons of waste per hour, produces clean energy for 60,000 families, while heating 120,000 homes. In 2019, CopenHill opened its outdoor play areas to the public: a rooftop green space, including hiking trails and a year-round ski and snowboard slope, and a stacked-block facade climbing wall.
Planet-friendly urban planning—such as the web of cycling paths that more than 60 percent of residents use to pedal to work and school every day—has resulted in Copenhagen having five times more bicycles than cars. A tour on an electric bike easily takes in the city’s most well-known places, from Nyhavn, a former industrial port now lined with restaurants and bars, to Rundetaarn, a 17th-century astronomical observatory housing exhibitions. It’s no surprise that bike-centric Copenhagen was chosen to host the Grand Départ of the Tour de France in July 2022. —Marco Cattaneo, Nat Geo Traveler Italy
This German university town is schooling the world on the best green practices
Germany’s vibrant university city of Freiburg readily embraces sustainable living. Mainly known as the gateway to the Black Forest, Freiburg is remarkably green, both in appearance and in action. Woodland covers more than 40 percent of the urban area. Renewables, such as solar, biomass, wind, and hydroelectricity, power the city, which converts its trash into biomass energy. Walking, biking, e-buses, and trams are the main modes of transportation, boosting chances Freiburg will meet its goals of cutting CO2 emissions in half or more by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
Best practices in green infrastructure—including cooperative housing with rooftop solar panels, urban gardens, and incentives for living car-free—were baked into Freiburg’s Vauban district, developed on a reclaimed brownfield site. Recognized as one of the world’s most sustainable city quarters, Vauban was shaped by a citizen-led vision of an ecological, self-organized, and socially just neighborhood. Completed in 2016, Quartier Vauban has grown into Freiburg’s most densely populated district, demonstrating that if cities build sustainably, people will come. —Werner Siefer, Nat Geo Traveler Germany
Written by the global editors of National Geographic Travel, with additional reporting and writing by Maryellen Kennedy Duckett.
An earlier version of this story referred to Freiburg as part of the Swabia region of Germany.