Best of the world: seven cultural highlights to experience in 2023 and beyond

From epic landscapes and cultural reawakenings to conservation initiatives and family favourites, National Geographic Traveller’s Best of the World list is back with the destinations that should be on your radar for 2023

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 26 Oct 2022, 14:46 BST
Skyline of Busan, South Korea at dusk

Skyline of Busan, South Korea at dusk

Photograph by Alamy

1. Appian Way, Italy
The revival of Europe’s ancient ‘superhighway’ is a pilgrimage route through history

If all roads lead to Rome, this ancient highway built 2,300 years ago was the mother of them all. Stretching for 360 miles from the heart of Italy’s capital to the port of Brindisi on the Adriatic, the Via Appia (nicknamed Regina Viarum — the Queen of Roads) was trod by ordinary citizens, marching soldiers, and glitterati from the Latin poet Horace to the gladiator-tussling Emperor Commodus.

Neglected after Rome’s fall but never forgotten, the road is undergoing a renaissance as the Italian government seeks to retrace, uncover and restore the ancient cobblestones, transforming the Appia into a walkable route for modern travellers. The goal is a pilgrimage through history, with stops at scenic villages and archaeological sites as well as planned overnight accommodation at the end of each day’s journey.

2. Busan, South Korea
From craft breweries to Asia’s top film festival, South Korea’s second largest city is fuelling a cultural boom

Cinema is a communal experience in Busan, Korea’s second largest city, which has hosted one of Asia’s most prestigious annual film festivals for nearly three decades. In 2022 the Busan International Film Festival held screenings in 14 neighbourhood venues across this seaport of 3.4 million people.

Before performances, movie lovers can grab a craft beer or coffee — Busan is celebrated for its artisan brewers of both beans and hops — or stroll through Citizens Park, a redeveloped US military base (the city played a strategic role in the Korean War). Opened in 2014, the park is a 133-acre retreat in the middle of downtown, planted with more than one million trees and shrubs, comprising 97 species in all. 

3. Longmen Grottoes, Henan Province, China 
VR technology is generating renewed interest in one of the largest collections of stone statues in the world at this UNESCO World Heritage site dating from the 4th century

Can ancient artistry from the Tang Dynasty thrive in the 21st-century metaverse? The Longmen Grottoes in China’s Henan Province offer a clue. More than 100,000 figures devoted to the Buddhist religion, primarily sculpted between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, are tucked inside countless caves within limestone cliffs rising above the Yi River. In 2021 Henan TV showrunners used the UNESCO World Heritage site as a backdrop for their acrobatic dance programme Longmen King Kong (the title refers to a Buddhist champion, not a large gorilla). The show’s whizz-bang special effects combined with the spectacular statues became a countrywide sensation.

But the use of high tech at the grottoes isn’t just for entertainment. Archaeologists are using 3D printing to reconstruct damaged statuary, and scientists are applying digital scanning to create a 3D map of the site.

4. Egypt
King Tut’s new home at Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum debuts

The debut of King Tut’s magnificent new home on the 100th anniversary of his discovery — and a string of recent archaeological findings — is reigniting global interest in Egypt. Dramatic and modern, Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will be located in Giza at the edge of the Pyramids, “the perfect museum in the perfect setting,” says Fredrik Hiebert, the National Geographic Society’s Archaeologist-in-Residence, who started his career in Egypt and is currently supervising National Geographic’s virtual, multimedia exhibition Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience.

“It’s like the Egyptians built another pyramid to display all the golden treasures of Tutankhamun, many of which were hidden in the basement of the [old] Cairo Museum,” he says. “It’s going to become a destination museum and will change the way people visit Egypt.”

5. Charleston, South Carolina
South Carolina’s largest city addresses a grimmer aspect of its history with the opening of the International African American Museum

A new year shines a light on an old wrong in Charleston. Known for its Low Country cuisine and walkable urbanism, South Carolina’s largest city addresses a grimmer aspect of its history when the International African American Museum opens on 21 January. The building is located on Gadsden’s Wharf and faces Charleston Harbor, where ships brought 100,000 enslaved Africans in chains to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nine galleries tell harrowing tales of the Middle Passage and the horrors of plantation life. But they also uncover stories of the triumph of the enslaved and their enduring cultural contributions, including a section devoted to the Gullah Geechee people who live along the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to Florida and continue some of the African traditions of their ancestors.

6. Vilnius, Lithuania
Lithuania’s capital marks 700 years

The Lithuanian capital will be 700 years old in 2023 and it’s throwing its own year-long party to celebrate. Public events will draw attention to a variety of arts, educational and green initiatives, including an invitation to both visitors and locals to help plant more than 100,000 trees around the city and create an urban forest in its Ozas Park. At the Lithuanian National Museum, a new interactive pavilion depicts the city as it was 200 years ago. Spoiler alert: it looks familiar in many respects, thanks to the many well-preserved gothic and Renaissance buildings found in Vilnius’s Old Town. This historic neighbourhood, with its cobblestoned streets, outdoor cafes and collection of baroque churches, is one of the largest and best-preserved medieval centres in Eastern Europe.

7. Hauts-de-France, France
A culinary focus sees the northernmost French region celebrate its heritage and terroir in 2023

Food, glorious food… and drink, too. Haut-de-France is the European Region of Gastronomy for 2023 (a label awarded by the International Institute of Gastronomy, Culture, Arts & Tourism). After feasting on its fresh seafood, craft beers and Flemish recipes, you’ll be in little doubt as to why.

This is France’s northernmost region, bordering Belgium, and it’s a place where ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ were a way of life long before they became menu buzzwords. Think of Maroilles cheese, fresh endives, Chantilly cream, or finger-lickingly gorgeous gaufres (thin, honeycombed waffles traditionally sold outside churches), just for starters.

Today, the heritage and terroir of Hauts-de-France has been taken to new levels by dynamic young chefs and restaurateurs, and culture vultures can work up an appetite exploring the galleries and markets of Lille, or touring a stunning, little-known coastline.

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