Best of the World: 35 incredible places to discover in 2021 and beyond

Our global travel editors have lined up 35 of the best places our planet has to offer for 2021 and beyond: destinations that speak of resilient communities, smart sustainability efforts and unforgettable experiences for post-pandemic explorations.

By National Geographic's global travel editors
Published 17 Nov 2020, 12:30 GMT, Updated 2 Feb 2021, 14:17 GMT
While the pandemic has brought journeys to a standstill, it’s not quieted our curiosity. Ahead of ...

While the pandemic has brought journeys to a standstill, it’s not quieted our curiosity. Ahead of a new year — with the promise of a return to travel — we’re eager to share these 35 tales of timeless places that will define our future itineraries.

Photograph by Getty Images

The joy of travel comes from the unexpected. And while the pandemic was just that, bringing journeys to a standstill, it’s certainly not quieted our curiosity. With the new year comes the promise of a return to travel, and we’re eager to get going. The world is full of wonders — even if they’re hard to reach right now — so take this time to plot and plan your next journey and lay the foundation for that much-dreamed-about big trip.

This list was compiled in collaboration with National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s colleagues at National Geographic and the 16 local language editions of National Geographic Traveler, which serve millions of readers across their magazines and websites around the world.

Dive into our shortlist, covering sustainability, nature & wildlife, adventure, culture & history and family travel.

Amos Rex contemporary art gallery, Helsinki.

Photograph by Lola Akinmade Akerstorm

1. Costa Rica
Celebrations for the pioneer of sustainable tourism

Imagine a country that’s one-quarter national park, a place where you could hike in a rainforest in the morning and surf tropical waves in the afternoon. That country is Costa Rica. 2021 is the bicentennial of its independence, an anniversary it aims to celebrate by becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country. Already one of the greenest nations, conservation has been cultivated here since the 1970s, with drives to protect areas, close zoos and reverse deforestation. For a deep immersion, plot a course for the Osa Peninsula; an astonishing 2.5% of the Earth’s biodiversity is squeezed into 0.001% of its surface area.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. Gabon
Africa’s ‘last Eden’

With 13 national parks, Gabon is a place where elephants and hippos roam free; where dense inland forests, which make up 80% of its landmass, are home to critically endangered western lowland gorillas. Beach-blessed Loango National Park is a boon for wildlife-lovers. Set on a lush river, just inland from Gabon’s Atlantic coastline, Loango Lodge offers electrifying wildlife encounters; just one group of four visitors per day is permitted to set to try and find the local troop of gorillas. Global investment in the country should soon make Gabon easier to reach, and a sustainable development strategy promises to expand eco-tourism — helping ensure the country’s wildest places stay wild.
From National Geographic Traveler Netherlands

3. Helsinki, Finland
Sustainable travel, made easy

Sustainability isn’t just a buzz word in Helsinki. The Finnish capital has vowed to be carbon neutral by 2035 and it’s part of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Helsinki’s bid to go green has also involved tourism, with a campaign by the city’s tourist board to ‘Think Sustainably’, which shows you how to put together the trip of a lifetime while going easy on the planet. The Think Sustainably microsite on the tourist board’s website has all the information you need — not just pointing you in the direction of where and what is sustainable but explaining why. From shopping to saunas, it's a one-stop shop for planning your getaway. 
From National Geographic Traveller UK

4. Denver, Colorado, USA
A green giant 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 2023. Among the latest forward-thinking initiatives are 125 miles of new bike lanes by 2023 and solar gardens to be ‘planted’ on municipal car parks, rooftops and vacant land in 2021. Along with producing clean energy for public buildings, vehicle charging stations and nearby low-income neighbourhoods, 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 the Colorado capital earn the coveted LEED for Cities Platinum Certification.
From National Geographic Traveler US

5. Alonissos, Greece
Dive into the Parthenon of shipwrecks

The 873-square-mile National Marine Park of Alonissos & Northern Sporades, established in 1992 to protect the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, is a watery wonderland for divers. Zone A is a Special Protection Area, and is largely off limits to humans, while Zone B includes the Peristera ancient shipwreck site, recently opened as an underwater museum accessible to recreational divers. The site is thought to hold cargo from a large Athenian barge that sank in the fifth century B.C. 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.
From National Geographic Traveler India

6. Copenhagen, Denmark
Europe’s sustainable city pioneer

On track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, Copenhagen has 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. The city has an efficient public transport network, too, and all its buses are switching from diesel to electric. Head for CopenHill, a pioneering waste-to-energy power plant, now home to a rooftop green space with hiking trails, a ski slope and climbing wall.
From National Geographic Traveler Italy

7. New Caledonia, France
Where marine life thrives in the south Pacific

Humpback whales, green sea turtles and dugongs throng the French territory Pacific island. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, New Caledonia’s lagoons represent one of the world’s most extensive reef systems, 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, to which visits are strictly regulated. Now, the territory has taken further steps: fishing, nautical sports and boats carrying more than 200 passengers are banned in large swathes. Furthermore, the government aims to ban all disposable plastics in the territory by 2022.
From National Geographic Traveler France

8. Freiburg, Germany
Schooling the world on green practices

The historic university city of Freiburg, gateway to the Black Forest and covered in woodland, is powered by solar, biomass, wind and hydroelectricity. Walking, biking, e-buses and trams are the main modes of transport, boosting chances Freiburg will meet its goals of cutting CO2 emissions in half or more by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. Urban gardens and car-free living incentives were baked into the sustainable model area of Vauban, now Freiburg’s most densely populated, buzzing district.
From National Geographic Traveler Germany

The coast of Lord Howe Island, New South Wales, Australia.

Photograph by Alamy

1. Scotland, UK
Rewilding the Highlands and beyond

While we might swoon at Scotland’s wild glen-and-loch scenery, for some it’s not wild enough. Since 2003, the 39sq-mile Alladale Wilderness Reserve, an hour north of Inverness, has planted close to a million native trees, restored damaged peatland and reintroduced a now-thriving population of red squirrels. Owner Paul Lister, of The European Nature Trust, is also engaged in a breeding programme for rare Scottish wildcats, and has a longer-term plan to bring back wolves. It’s not the only rewilding project; elsewhere, beavers and golden eagles are making a comeback. Charity Scotland: The Big Picture is running 10 rewilding-themed retreats in 2021, among them a ‘wilderness weekend’ at Alladale.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. South Africa
Safaris for a new era

Of all Africa’s great wildlife destinations, South Africa is easily the best set up for independent travel. Anyone queasy about trying to social distance in a tour group can self-drive around the Big Five in wild havens such as Kruger and Addo Elelphant National Parks and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where online booking systems with arrival windows have been set up in the parks to reduce face-to-face contact. New for this year, the 67,000-acre Samara Private Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape, has introduced fly-camping experiences for guests travelling in groups of one to six, where a guide and wildlife tracker cook dinner over the fire.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

3. The Cerrado, Brazil
The closest thing to Jurassic Park

Covering nearly a quarter of Brazil’s land surface, this marvel is eclipsed for environmental attention by its neighbour, the Amazon. It’s the source of several major South American rivers and home to 5% of the planet’s plants and animals, yet the Cerrado is suffering from deforestation. More than 40,000 square miles have been destroyed in the past decade alone. Travel with operators that help fund the conservation of its unique wonders, including 10,000 species of plant (nearly half of which exist nowhere else), as well as boar-like tapirs, giant armadillos, giant anteaters and the buriti palm, nesting tree of choice for over 850 bird species.
From National Geographic Traveler US

4. Lord Howe Island, Australia
A last paradise in the Tasman Sea

One of Earth’s most isolated ecosystems, known to its handful of residents as ‘the last paradise’, tiny Lord Howe Island permits a maximum of 400 visitors at any one time. Its reefs host over 500 types of fish, and threatened species including the whale shark and hawksbill turtle. The island’s Protecting Paradise programme enlists volunteers to remove invasive species and conserve such endemics as the endangered Lord Howe Island stick insect, believed extinct until 2001.
From National Geographic Traveler US

5. Isle Royale, Michigan, USA
Where wolves and moose roam

Isle Royale in the north west of Lake Superior is populated with unique mammal species, descendants of the hardy creatures who managed to cross the lake. Since 1958, scientists have been observing Isle Royale’s wolves and moose, in the world’s longest predator-prey study. When only a single wolf pair remained in 2018, a multi-year relocation plan began to restore the population. 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.
From National Geographic Traveler US

6. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
Year-round aurora

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 back in the 1930s. In Yellowknife, the sky sparkles with the Northern Lights 240 nights a year. Amid boreal forest and countless small lakes, learn its elemental secrets from the Dené people, stewards of this land for thousands of years.
From National Geographic Traveler Czechia

The medieval stone towers of Ushguli, Georgia, which doubled as both dwellings and defence posts.

Photograph by Alamy

1. Greenland
New terrain for serious adventurers

For many of us, the year ahead will be about seeking out a particular sort of escapism — to places where the views unravel to eternity and the stresses of you-know-what seem far away. Step forward Greenland. The world’s largest island remains one of the most remote corners on the planet: an iceberg-fringed, high-latitude realm of glaciers, fjords and mountains. New for 2021, Quark Expeditions’ Greenland Adventure: Explore by Sea, Land & Air voyage is a first for polar travel: the expedition itinerary has been put together in conjunction with the island’s community and includes some seriously adventurous off-ship activities via helicopter. For travellers looking to move more slowly across the map, the 103-mile Arctic Circle Trail can be done self-supported (there are 10 huts en route), although specialist operators such as Monkey Mountaineering and Snowdonia Climbing offer guided packages. 
From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. Antarctica
All eyes on a southerly solar eclipse

The morning of Friday 4 December 2021 won’t be easily forgotten in Antarctica. Not because of the iceberg-laden bays or the edge-of-the-earth penguin colonies — although all the above will be on hand to keep travellers’ mouths agape — but because a total solar eclipse will be visible from the Antarctic Peninsula for just the second time in human history. Hurtigruten has two separate cruises taking place and will have a professional astronomer on board. Other options include Silversea, which has multiple eclipse cruises of its own, and wildlife specialists Naturetrek, which is chartering a 116-berth ship for the event. The fact that Antarctica enjoys around 22 hours of daylight a day at this time of year is only likely to make the experience even more dreamlike.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

3. The Carian Trail, Turkey
Hike through history

Lace up your walking boots and escape the crowds: Turkey’s longest hiking trail offers a window into the country’s lesser-visited, southwest shores and hinterlands. The 530-mile route, completed in 2013, has its roots in ancient history — some stone paths are said to have been laid by Alexander the Great’s men over 2,000 years ago. In an exciting addition to the trail, a new project aims to develop and promote one of its most underrated attractions: the Latmos rock paintings. Nearly 180 Neolithic paintings adorn the Latmos Mountains, many of which have been interpreted as symbols of peace and brotherhood that further elevate the historic importance of the Carian Trail as an ancient trading thoroughfare.
From National Geographic Traveler Turkey

4. Dominica
The Caribbean island bouncing back

The 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. What Dominica’s formidable terrain couldn’t block is global climate change, which is worsening the effects of hurricanes. New jobs in adventure tourism are at the heart of an effort to restore and protect the island. Key to this is the Citizenship by Investment programme, which grants legal citizenship to overseas contributors who fund projects such as hurricane-proof homes and a geothermal power plant.
From National Geographic Traveler US

5. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
A kingdom of ice

Near Argentina's border with Chile, this 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 this spectacular park. The most popular and accessible, three-mile-wide Perito Moreno Glacier, stands almost 200 feet above the surface of Lake Argentino. Travellers can ice-hike on its surface to discover frozen waterfalls, ice caves and underground rivers, before toasting their adventures with a whisky ‘on the rocks’ (chips of glacial ice).
From National Geographic Traveler Latin America

6. Svaneti Region, Georgia
A 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. Svan culture evolved over the centuries in isolation, developing a unique language and traditions such as ritual beard cutting. It’s now accessible to intrepid adventurers via the Upper Svaneti section of the Transcaucasian Trail, a long-distance network aiming to link the Caucasian states of 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.
From National Geographic Traveler Poland

Azulejo tiles at the Capela das Almas, Porto.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Porto, Portugal
Old-world wine in a bold new setting

There’s a new reason to visit Porto: the World of Wine museum, based in the riverside Vila Nova de Gaia district of Portugal, which has long been where port wine from the Douro Valley has been stored for export. Set in former warehouses, its six galleries cover the history of wine, cork and drinking vessels, as well as chocolate, fashion and city history. There are also restaurants, shops and a wine school. The new attraction serves as the centrepiece of a newly invigorated cultural district. It’s a brave new opening for our times, a 5,000sq metre space that cost £95m and took five years to come to fruition.
From National Geographic Traveller (UK)

2. Coventry, UK
Community is at the core of this year’s UK City of Culture

‘Sending someone to Coventry’ used to be a punishment, but how things have changed. The UK’s City of Culture for 2021, will focus on making the arts accessible as part of an overhaul of a traditional ‘city of culture’ programme. From the launch on 15 May, right through to May 2022, the calendar is jam-packed with events, including CastAway, an all-female dance show focused on the single-use plastic crisis (staged on the water in Coventry’s Canal Basin in August), and CVX Festival (12-15 August), which will bring together role models to work with the city’s youth on social change and unity.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

3. Guam, USA
Revisiting Magellan’s legacy in the Pacific

The quincentenary of Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival on the Micronesian island is being marked with respectful fanfare in March 2021, when a Spanish naval vessel will call as part of a commemorative voyage. This time, the indigenous Chamoru, who suffered in 1521, will have the chance 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 blends Spanish, English and Japanese. Today, young Chamorus are starting to embrace their culture.
From National Geographic Traveler US

4. Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain 
Jazz legends in a cultural capital 

Culture runs through the veins of the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, historically a commercial crossroads due to its prime position on the 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’ pays tribute to the city — during the international Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival, held each July. August, meanwhile, sees an unusual celebration to honour the Virgen Blanca ('white Madonna’), involving an effigy of a Basque villager whizzing down a zip-wire to kick-start the annual festivities.
From Viajes National Geographic Spain 

5. Tonglu, China
A storied Chinese landscape gets its first art festival
Completed in 1350, ‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains’ is a touchstone of traditional Chinese shan shui landscape painting — a flowing visual journey that, when fully unrolled, extends more than 22 feet long. Painter Huang Gongwang lived in seclusion by the Fuchun River for three years before completing his masterpiece. Ever since, Tonglu — a county in the mountains of Zhejiang province — has been a source inspiration for Chinese artists and writers. And in 2021, it’s back in the art spotlight. The first Tonglu Art Triennale will display modern art installations in fields and along the river — and, the hope is, boost rural tourism.
From National Geographic Traveler China

6. Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
A brave new hub for discussions on race

Greenwood Rising, the name of Tulsa’s new ‘Black Wall Street’ history centre (set to open in autumn 2021) aptly describes the groundswell of support for sustainable socioeconomic transformation in the city’s Historic Greenwood District — site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. To mark the centenary, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is hosting speakers, concerts and other events throughout the year to address the issue of systemic racism in the country.
From National Geographic Traveler US

7. Pueblo Nations, New Mexico, USA
Native voices of the American Southwest

As monuments to Native American oppressors are toppling, calls rise to honour Po’pay, who led the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that ousted the Spanish from native homelands. Although Spain regained control in 1692, the revolt is credited with ensuring the survival of Pueblo culture. Po’pay’s legacy is evident in the state’s 19 Pueblos, including Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is the starting point for exploring these communities, each a sovereign nation with distinct traditions.
From National Geographic Traveler US

8. Gyeongju, South Korea
An ancient kingdom that 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). Highlights from this golden age include UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed Buddhist art, and gilt-bronze crowns excavated from jewel-sparkling tombs.
From National Geographic Traveler Korea

Forest walk, North Vancouver, British Columbia.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. England Coast Path, UK
Beating a trail along England’s rugged coastlines 

A colossal undertaking reaches fruition in 2021 as the England Coast Path — the world’s longest seafront walking trail, stretching nearly 2,800 miles along rugged estuaries, inlets and promontories — is unveiled in its entirety. While some stretches offer unspoiled scenery and muddy trails, others have been curated with premium facilities and points of interest. Opened in September 2020, the 40-mile segment dubbed ‘Cumbria’s Hidden Coast’, winding from Whitehaven to Millom, offers new cycling paths and the chance to try activities like rock climbing at Muncaster Castle. Meanwhile, in the South East, a new trail — christened ‘England’s Creative Coast’ — links artworks and plots out a geocaching tour across Sussex, Kent and Essex.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. British Columbia, Canada
Where nature and First Nations connect

With an Indigenous history spanning 10,000 years, British Columbia is an ideal place to embark on a travel experience hosted by First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. The provincial capital, Victoria, is a great base from which to explore the cultures of Vancouver Island. Hire an RV at stay at ocean-front indigenous-owned campsites, prime spots for whale-spotting. Look out for orcas, grey, humpback and minke whales, plus dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and otters. Vancouver itself offers child-friendly options, including Talaysay Tours’ Talking Trees Tour, led by Squamish and Shíshálh cultural ambassadors.
From National Geographic Traveler US

3. Japan 
Cinematic sights and Olympic excitement

With its mash-up of pop culture and ancient tradition, Japan is irresistible for families. Head to Japan in 2021, not only for the summer Olympics in Tokyo, but also for the opening of Super Nintendo World in Osaka’s Universal Studios. For film fans, Studio Ghibli, whose animated classics like Spirited Away and Ponyo were released on Netflix over lockdown, is found in suburban Tokyo, where tours include an exclusive short film. New for 2021, Studio Ghibli-inspired campsite Hygge Circles Ugakei is a Nordic-Japanese, sustainability-focused nature park with glamping cabins, an hour’s bullet train ride from the city of Nagoya.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

4. Montenegro
Bikes, hikes and zip-wire adventures

How does Montenegro fit so much in? This Adriatic escape is smaller than Northern Ireland, yet bursting with snow-capped mountains, jewel-box lakes, rushing rivers, charming beach towns and gregarious locals. Cheaper and less visited than neighbouring Croatia, the Balkan state looks set for breakthrough year. Five national parks protect over 60 peaks and a glittering slice of Adriatic coast, where hiking, biking, canyoning and rafting are options on offer from the likes of Responsible Travel, Families Worldwide and Utracks; while Tailormade Rail’s new trip puts all this within train access.
From National Geographic Traveller UK

5. Florida, USA
A launchpad for inspirational journeys

With the new era of US launches upon us, Florida’s sunny Space Coast has never been more of a blast. Its 72 miles encompass Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, home to SpaceX launches and 100ft-high rockets that stand like mighty monuments. New for 2021 is Planet Play, an out-of-this-world interactive area where kids can ‘walk’ on the sun and slide through an asteroid field.
From National Geographic Traveler Russia

6. Hortobágy National Park, Hungary
Cowboys and cranes on open plains

Covering nearly 200,000 acres of the Great Hungarian Plain in eastern Hungary, the expansive UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves the largest remaining native grassland in Europe as well as pastoral traditions dating back millennia. Hortobágy provides a critical habitat for around 340 bird species, making it a top birding spot. A few hundred shepherds and cowboys, called csikós, also roam the grassland, seen on horse-drawn carriage tours, where riders show off their rodeo skills by standing on the backs of two galloping horses.
From National Geographic Traveler Hungary

7. Transylvania, Romania
Finding reality in a land of gothic 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. But what the author missed is Transylvania’s pastoral, old-Europe reality, with wildflower meadows, storybook castles and cobbled-lane villages. A farm stay here offers families the chance to unplug, with hiking in Carpathian Mountain forests, collecting eggs, milking sheep, and piling haystacks.
From National Geographic Traveler Romania

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