It’s never easy to decide which destinations to feature in our annual Where to Go list. When you’re a traveler, there are always reasons to go everywhere. For 2018, we chose the following 18 places because they all have a new story to share. We shine a spotlight on locations such as Mexico City and Northern California Wine Country, where, in the wake of tragedy, travelers are more welcome than ever. We identify the next great American cocktail city (it’s probably not where you’d expect). We call out destinations with new, world-class cultural institutions. We highlight the best places for finding peace in nature and the cities bursting with creative energy. The common thread? All guarantee inspiring experiences and opportunities to connect with the local culture, which is the kind of travel we love at AFAR. Think we missed a place? Let us know. But in the meantime, we hope you’ll read our list, start planning your next trip, and get out there.
—Julia Cosgrove, Editor-in-Chief
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATESThe long-awaited opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is reason enough to travel to this Middle Eastern emirate. It took 10 years and an estimated $600 million dollars to build French architect Jean Nouvel’s vision of a massive cupola that shades 55 buildings housing a collection of works from such artists as Ai Weiwei, Vincent van Gogh, Jenny Holzer, and Leonardo da Vinci. While you’re there, you can also stroll the city-length seaside promenade and see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s pristine white domes or sleep in a Bedouin tent in the middle of a desert.
A wave of national pride is energizing modern Athens. Works by Greek artists are finally on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art; chefs are returning to (and reinventing) traditional Greek food; ordinary citizens are embracing—and feeding—the many newly arrived refugees and migrants. But in the return to their roots, Greeks are looking forward, not back. See it in the striking design (and sustainable LEED Platinum certification) of the recently completed Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center, which houses a park, a state-of-the-art national library, and a new opera house. With Greece’s first Four Seasons hotel set to open south of Athens in the spring of 2018, visitors will have an elegant place stay while experiencing this Hellenic resurgence.
BHUTANBuddhist monasteries nestled into cliff sides. Colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind. Rugged peaks towering over valleys blooming with purple primroses. Views such as these are common in Bhutan—and there are now more opportunities for travelers to see them. The kingdom, closed to tourism until 1974, has slowly opened its borders to the outside world, and 2018 marks the arrival of a major player: In the spring, in conjunction with the opening of a cross-kingdom highway expansion, the hotel and resort group Six Senses will open five lodges sprinkled throughout the country. Getting there will be easier, too: Bhutan Airlines, one of only two airlines that fly into Bhutan, is increasing flights in 2018, and a second international airport is under construction.
BIG SUR, CALIFORNIABig Sur is once again open for business following last spring’s debilitating mudslides, and there’s never been a better time to explore this legendary stretch of central California coast. Big Sur’s magic lies in its untamed wilderness: redwood groves, chaparral-covered hills, and iconic rocky cliffs that sprout improbably from the ocean. Condors circle overhead and sea otters float just offshore. For many, the isolation—and peace and quiet—that Big Sur offers is the reason to return again and again. For travelers seeking a soft landing, the Ventana Big Sur resort recently reopened under new ownership. A massive renovation added glamping cabins; the new Sur House restaurant, helmed by executive chef Paul Corsentino; and an on-site gallery to showcase works by the region’s most renowned artists.
DUNDEE, SCOTLANDAs the U.K.’s only UNESCO City of Design, it’s fitting that in 2018 Dundee should become home to Scotland’s first dedicated design museum, when London’s Victoria and Albert museum opens its first outpost. More than 17,000 square feet of gallery space will display items from the V&A’s collection and from native Scottish designers. With more cruise ships docking at port than ever before (including maiden calls for Azamara Club Cruises and Crystal Cruises), plus a surge in hotel construction, it’s easier than ever to access and unlock the city’s design scene.
Awe-inspiring landscapes are the main reason to voyage to this tiny North Atlantic archipelago located between Iceland and Norway: Think layer-cake mountains ringed in shades of green, deep blue inlets that cut through craggy sea cliffs, and incredible panoramic vistas. Hiking, fishing, and bird-watching opportunities abound. (The island of Mykines is home to a massive puffin colony.) Travelers should balance out days in nature with nights in Tórshavn, the pint-sized capital city. Book a meal at Koks, the islands’ first (and only) Michelin-starred restaurant, which specializes in traditional Faroese cooking techniques. The crowds have yet to descend on the Faroes, though at the rate airlines are adding flights to Vágar Airport and cruises are adding the destination to their itineraries, the islands won’t remain a secret for long.
FRANCEHistory buffs know that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. To commemorate the armistice, travelers can take part in remembrance activities organized across the Western Front, the 400-mile swath between France and Belgium where the majority of the fighting took place. Visitors can learn about the transatlantic relationship between the United States and France at the recently renovated Franco-American Museum of Blérancourt; understand the impact of war on the Champagne and Marne regions at the “Champagne et Guerres” exhibit at the Cité du Champagne (now through March); get a perspective on U.S. involvement in the war at the new American Interpretation Center, which opens next June at the Hill 204 American Memorial at Château-Thierry; and celebrate the centennial on November 11, 2018, with events in Verdun and Bar-le-Duc.
GUATEMALAThe sense of opportunity and creativity in the country is palpable. You’ll still find Central American colonial architecture and Mayan ruins, but thanks to an ongoing tech boom, pockets of the country have a fresher, contemporary feel. The gritty epicenter is Guatemala City, where a number of design-focused communal spaces have popped up (check out La Esquina food hall in the trendy Zona 4 neighborhood). The historic colonial city of Antigua also joined the digital revolution when the hotel and coworking brand Selina, popular with digital nomads, opened in August of 2017. Craving more of an adrenaline rush? A recently completed network of mountain biking trails outside of Antigua takes adventure travel in the region way beyond ziplining.
HAIDA GWAII, BRITISH COLOMBIAFor years, the indigenous people of Haida Gwaii fought for the right to govern the 150-island archipelago off the coast of British Columbia. In the 1980s, they won a major victory: The Canadian government granted the Haida Nation control over the logging of the islands’ precious cedars and recognized the nature-rich Gwaii Haanas region as a national park. Fast-forward to 2018, which will see the opening of Ocean House at Stads K’uns GawGa, a fly-in eco-lodge that was built and will be run by the Haida, and it’s clear that the archipelago is in good hands. The islands offer both wild adventure and First Nations culture for travelers who make the effort to get there, all presented and protected by the people who have long called it home.
KAZAKHSTANTen years ago, actor Sacha Baron Cohen raised the profile of this central Asian nation through his mocking portrayal of it in the movie Borat. The comedy ushered in a tourism boom. Today, new luxury hotels—including a St. Regis, a Hyatt, and a Ritz-Carlton—are opening in the capital city, Astana, and the country is upgrading its highway infrastructure with tourists in mind. But it is Kazakhstan’s wild nature and uncharted ski slopes that put it on our radar. The country’s Tien-Shan mountain system, one of the world’s largest, with altitudes topping out just under 15,000 feet, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2016. The Shymbulak Ski Resort, just 16 miles from Almaty, the country’s largest city, has 13 miles of slopes serviced by six lifts and is fast becoming the ultimate off-the-grid ski destination. In recent years, tour operators such as Intrepid Travel and Remote Lands have launched new itineraries that may include the chance to watch a Russian rocket launch.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIAKuala Lumpur is famously multicultural: In the course of a day, you can wander the Chinese zodiac sculpture garden at colorful Thean Hou Temple, ogle the 40-foot-tall Hindu monkey god at Sree Veera Hanuman Temple, and learn about Islam on a volunteer-led tour of Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan, an architecturally magnificent mosque that holds up to 17,000 worshippers. You’ll also find a wealth of Asian art on display at the inaugural KL Biennale, which concludes at the end of March at the National Visual Arts Gallery. The capital is thrumming with energy; new construction appears around every bend. But traditional kampong life can still be observed in time-capsule neighborhoods such as Pudu, Lucky Garden, and the back streets of Chinatown. Getting lost on foot is the best way to experience it.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICOIt’s a megacity, yes. But in the weeks following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 300 people, Mexico City’s humanity shone through: Residents from all walks of life donned rescue vests to help the search-and-rescue efforts, and stores turned into donation centers. Now in a period of rebuilding, the city is welcoming travelers once more—and there are many new reasons to visit. The city, a hub for cutting-edge art and architecture, was named the 2018 World Design Capital and will roll out events throughout the year tied to its theme of “socially responsible design.” The culinary scene is exploding, too, from street food to fine dining, a wave capped by Enrique Olvera’s reopening of his famed Pujol restaurant devoted to reimagined Mexican classics.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRYReports of the destruction of Northern California Wine Country have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties weathered devastating (and deadly) wildfires this fall. But most of the tourism infrastructure was unharmed, and wineries, hotels, and restaurants are ready to welcome visitors with open arms in 2018. In Napa Valley, check out downtown Napa’s new ultra-modern Archer Hotel, which opened in November and will debut a rooftop bar this spring. In Sonoma County, don’t miss SingleThread, a one-of-a-kind culinary experience (and hotel) in Healdsburg that received two Michelin stars in its rookie year.
PALAUPalau is one of the tiniest countries in the world, known for the superlative underwater experiences to be had in spots such as its UNESCO-designated Southern Lagoon. But this remote archipelago has also become a heavyweight in the climate change fight: Over the last few years, Palau designated a Marine Protected Area the size of France; limited flights from China (its largest source of tourism); restricted development; banned plastic bags; and announced the “Palau Pledge”—an oath to protect the islands’ natural and cultural resources that all visitors must take upon arrival. Making sustainability such an intrinsic—and explicit—part of the travel process puts this future-thinking paradise high on our list for 2018.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTONIt’s tech boom time in Seattle, and construction cranes dot the skyline. In the fall of 2018, the new Hyatt Regency—which will be the Pacific Northwest’s largest hotel—opens in downtown’s Denny Triangle. Book one of its 1,260 rooms and then dive into the city’s cultural riches. Take a one-day writing workshop in at the stunning new home of the non-profit Hugo House writing center and see why Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature; snap a photo with a seven-foot-tall Hulk battling a flying Thor at the new Marvel Universe exhibit at the Gehry-designed MoPOP (Museum of Pop Culture); or tour the Amazon Spheres, three otherworldly biodomes built by the online shopping behemoth that are packed with 9,000 plants, slated to be completed in 2018.
SUN VALLEY, IDAHOIn the 1940s, such superstar visitors as Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable turned the Sun Valley ski resort into America’s coolest mountain enclave. Today, new restaurants and bars, including Enoteca and Town Square Tavern, have revitalized the adjacent town of Ketchum, and new lodgings are putting these storied slopes on the map again. Last winter, the 99-room Limelight Hotel—Sun Valley’s first new hotel in 20 years—opened its doors and replicated the famously convivial happy hour from its sister location in Aspen, Colorado. Another boutique property, the Auberge Resort and Residences, is on its way, making Sun Valley’s future seem as glamorous as its past.
TROMSØ, NORWAYTourism to this Norwegian city, located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is booming, and winter is an especially beautiful time to visit. There are the northern lights, of course, viewable in 2018 on a five-night Arctic Highlights cruise with Hurtigruten, but that’s only the, err, tip of the iceberg. The city is a playground for winter sports–lovers, who can cross-country ski or try skijoring, where skiers are pulled across the snow by a dog. In June of 2018, Tromsø opens a new cruise terminal complete with an ice bar designed by the company behind Scandinavia’s popular Magic Ice bars.
TWIN CITIES, MINNESOTA
Thanks to a host of new craft distilleries—complete with on-site bars—and an influx of bartending talent, the Minneapolis–St. Paul cocktail scene is one of the best in the United States right now. Pair that with talented chefs and a well-established craft brewing scene and you get a metropolitan area buzzing with inventive flavors. Want proof? In 2017, Twin Cities–area folks earned a dozen James Beard nominations.
>>PLAN YOUR NEXT TRIP: WHERE TO GO IN 2018