I’m not usually a big fan of the word bucket list. Personally, I want to see as much of the world as I possibly can, so my bucket list is: Earth. That being said, there are of course some places I would like to visit before others and there are certain destinations and experiences I think are better than others. Travel is about broadening one’s horizons, about considering things outside of the norm, which is why today I want to share some amazing countries that may not be on your bucket list, but I think should be. No, they don’t have the glamour of Paris or the exotic nature of Thailand, but they are each special for different reasons and I believe are well worth some exploration.
The quirky island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean has a long and important history, but it’s one not many people actually know a lot about. Long considered by Europeans as a sunny getaway, others from around the world are learning about this small country not just for its beaches and turquoise blue waters, but also for its art, architecture, cities and incredible history. Personally, there’s nothing I enjoy more in Malta than roaming the hilly streets of the capital city, Valletta. Whether it’s the incredible harbor views or delving deep into the history of this colorful island, there’s plenty for all types of travelers to enjoy.
I’m fairly certain that this isn’t on your bucket list, but it honestly should be. I get it, I understand, I never imagined I would visit this country in Central Asia, but once I did it quickly became a personal favorite. Tourism is new to Kyrgyzstan, but it exists and is growing every day. It’s also an unexpectedly fun country to visit, no matter your interests. Long famous for its outdoor experiences, nature lovers can enjoy everything from alpine treks to visiting starkly beautiful deserts. Kyrgyzstan’s cities are also a fun way to experience the country, including some of the largest – Bishkek, Osh and Karakol. Thousands of years of history are on clear display anywhere you go and go you must, I guarantee it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Enveloped by Italy near the coastal city of Rimini, San Marino is very much a real life fairy tale. This small speck of land calls a series of mountain peaks home; castle forts perched high above the surrounding valley serving as intimidating sentries. Most people only visit San Marino as a day trip from other areas in Italy, all eager for their opportunity to walk into that fairy tale. Visits to San Marino tend to be brief. It’s small, there’s only so much to see and do and for me, the hilly walking got a little annoying after a few hours. But there’s also no denying the travel magic contained within the city walls. Sure, most of the shops are touristy, but they’re in traditional buildings, ones that have been there for centuries. Walking along the winding streets, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in a San Marino of years gone by and you start to appreciate what life must have really been like. There are very few places left on this Earth, much less in Europe, where you can really and truly get this sort of perspective and it is for that reason more than any other that San Marino lives on as a place of enchantment for everyone who visits.
No, Colombia probably isn’t what you think it is; it’s so much more. I’m not entirely sure what I expected before visiting in early 2017, but I was pleasantly surprised at almost every turn. Delicious food (and coffee), gorgeous landscapes, vibrant cities, there’s a lot to love about Colombia, but when you visit you have to visit more than one place. Spend time in Bogota and Cartagena, but also in the rural coffee growing regions with small but colorful villages dotting the hills. You’ll leave just as enamored by this South American country as I was and also vowing that your first visit won’t be your last.
I honestly didn’t expect a lot from my brief visit to Luxembourg. It was a stop en route to somewhere else, but as so often happens, Luxembourg quickly became a new favorite destination of mine. Let’s be clear, Luxembourg is not a microstate. It is not Andorra or San Marino or the oft-confused-with Lichtenstein. Although it’s not big (999 sq miles with half a million residents) it’s big enough to have more than one city with actual things to do and see, unlike the other European microstates. Naturally though the most popular, and likely also the most interesting, is the capital Luxembourg City. Recognized by UNESCO for the important role it’s played in European history due not only to its strategic position within Europe, but also to the fact that it’s one of the largest fortresses on the continent. A few days is really necessary to properly enjoy the country, a surprisingly fun country to visit hidden quietly away in the middle of Europe.
Belgium (Brussels and Beyond)
I love Brussels and find myself returning time and time again, although almost always in December. Light rain and grey skies are normal in this part of Europe in the winter, but it adds to the spirit of the season. The highlight of spending time in Brussels around the holidays is the annual Winter Wonders Festival, the city’s Christmas market. The fun starts in the iconic Grand Place, which hosts a gigantic Christmas tree and at night features a light and music show that can’t be missed. It loops every 15 minutes, so don’t worry about missing it. From there follow your nose along the side streets and meander through the stalls that have a little bit of everything from hot mulled wine to snacks and of course gifts. While I love Brussels, there’s of course a lot more to love about Belgium than its capital city and exploring the quirky cities of Bruges and Ghent and going deeper into the countryside itself is a bucket list experience I guarantee you’ll enjoy.
Exploring Southeast Asia is always a fun experience; there’s just something intoxicating about the region, including the sometimes-overlooked country of Laos. Many times overshadowed by neighbors Thailand and Cambodia, there’s a lot to love about the country, especially the city of Luang Prabang. My first exposure to the center of town in Luang Prabang was at the night market. Night markets are great, they’re fantastic places to find interesting food and trinkets of every size and shape. We selected a restaurant and sat outside in the unusually hot evening and just watched everyone walk by. It was clear that this was the touristy part of town, just about everyone who walked by was foreign, mostly European with a few American and Australian backpackers in the bunch. Over the course of a few days I got to meet more of the city as we walked through countless temples and got lost in residential neighborhoods. The temperatures were the hottest of the year and combined with palpably thick humidity, we restricted our sightseeing to short bursts. But luckily there’s not that much to see or do in Luang Prabang, not really. There are temples, a palace and a couple small museums, but the real draw to Luang Prabang is the city itself, more than any single attraction. That was fine with me, as we were indeed able to relax and take things slow.