Until I recorded this week’s episode of Unpacked, I’d never thought much about Estonia. But after listening to AFAR executive editor Billie Cohen wax poetic about her time there, I knew I had to go. In the episode, Billie—along with Tim Chester and Sarika Bansal, two other editors who helped assemble the list—talk about how they chose the places they did, the places nearest and dearest to their heart, and the ones they’re visiting the first chance they get.
Aislyn Greene, host: I heard a little bit of the static, but does anyone else hear…?
Sarika Bansal, editorial director: Let me move my phone a little further away.
Aislyn: Yeah, that sounds great.
Sarika: OK, great.
Billie Cohen, executive editor: I like that it represents that we actually are all over the world and, like, Sarika’s calling in from Nairobi where there’s no power. This is a travel magazine, people.
Aislyn: This is. We walk the walk.
Aislyn: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel every week. Happy new year, everyone, and welcome back.
I know that we are a few weeks into the new year, and I hope it’s been treating you well. We have a whole new season for you full of tips and tricks to make your travel life the very best it can be. And this season, we are debuting a new series called “Unpacking” that explores places around the world to help you understand them better and to experience them more fully.
You can get hints about where we’re traveling this season by following me on social media—I’ll link to my handles in the show notes. And this season, we are also debuting video podcasts. So if you want to see my currently terrible background, follow AFAR Media on YouTube. We will also link to that in our show notes. And I do promise that my background will improve as the year goes on and the construction that we’re undergoing finally wraps up.
OK, so now we have all the admin out of the way. Because we’re really here to talk about a fresh year in travel. It’s a clean slate. We’re all itching to fill our calendars and book our trips, or at least I am. And I imagine maybe you are as well, or [are] just looking for a little bit of inspiration. And I may be biased, but we do have some really fantastic suggestions for you. Our “Where to Go in 2024 list” has 25 destinations. And that list is part of our annual “Where to Go” issue, which we just released on newsstands. So if you are a magazine person like myself, be sure to pick that up, because we have these phenomenal photographs that accompany the list.
We will also link to the digital version of that list, which is fantastic. But there is something that I find very satisfying about sitting down with the magazine, putting your phone aside, reading the stories, and just dreaming a little. And today we are going to unpack that list with three of the AFAR editors who made it happen.
Aislyn: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Unpacked. Welcome back to Unpacked.
Sarika: Thanks so much for having us. We’re so excited to be here to talk about where to go.
Aislyn: I know, and you are fresh off making this list happen.
Billie: It’s burned into our brains. We’re all very excited for 2024 to happen so we can start taking these trips we’ve been writing and editing about for months.
Aislyn: I cannot wait. Before we start talking about the list, I’d love to just start with having everyone introduce themselves and say where they are in the world. Sarika, do you want to start?
Sarika: Hi, I’m Sarika Bansal. I am the editorial director; I’m based in Nairobi, Kenya. As an FYI, there’s been a countrywide power outage the last 24-plus hours now. So I have a bit of a cobbled setup right now. Uh, luckily we do have, like, a good solar power backup and everything, but, but I feel very, like—I’m glad I’m here by the, you know, string of my teeth.
Aislyn: It is very impressive that you’re here given all of that, thank you. And, uh, Billie, how about you?
Billie: Hi, I’m Billie Cohen, executive editor, and I’m based in New York.
Aislyn: And you have power.
Billie: And we have power, yeah. Yeah.
Sarika: It’s not 2003.
Billie: And it’s not summer, right? Where everything, there are a ton of brownouts in the city. But yeah. Seems to be doing OK. We have construction, though. So if you hear any of that out, out of my back window, that’s what that will be.
Aislyn: And Tim, that leaves you.
Tim Chester, deputy editor: Hi, I’m Tim Chester. I’m deputy editor. Yeah, I’m in a very sunny, power-filled Southern California, Thousand Oaks, near L.A., where I always am when we do these. I thought I was a traveler, but I always seem to be at home when it’s podcast time. So, yeah. California.
Aislyn: We need to plan the next recording for when you’re somewhere really fascinating.
Tim: Exotic, yeah.
Aislyn: Maybe someplace on the list. All right. Well, let’s dig into this wonderful list that you’ve put together. I mean, it’s a big one. How did you approach this this year? What was your mindset going into it?
Sarika: I think a couple of things that we tend to look for when we start getting pitches in are—of course, there’s just no shortage of great places to go, ever. And I know that these lists can sometimes feel a little bit random. One of the things that we really try to filter for is, like, what’s new in a place or what places are really having a moment. And that can be, you know, one of many things: if there’s a cultural opening or if there’s something exciting happening regarding conservation, or if there’s just some big event happening that is a reason to go specifically next year. That’s one thing that we really typically try to look for.
And then we also really, you know, are looking to get a good geographical mix. So, you know, we don’t want to just focus [on] a bunch of places in Europe but really want to try to get around the globe and give people reasons to go—maybe back to places that they’ve already been [to]—and also consider some places in the world that they may not have ever heard of. And I think our list has a nice mix of both of those.
Tim: One hundred percent. My favorite part of making the list and working on this, apart from when the issue’s just left the building, is right at the beginning when we solicit pitches, and, uh, we have writers and contributors all around the world in all sorts of places. And getting back in touch with them, finding out where they are, where they’re recommending, what they’re excited about. . . . We kind of get all these ideas in—like, well over a hundred, a couple of hundred ideas—and divide them up by continent and then have a look at them together. And it’s just really interesting to sort of take the pulse of the travel-writer community and see what’s exciting everyone.
And then the hard work of kind of narrowing it down into, you know, [a] smaller list comes in.
Billie: Yeah. And I love that we’re working with writers and our staff who’ve actually been in these places with their feet on the ground. Some of them are—live in these places. So we get all these pitches and we get all these ideas, and sometimes they’re locations that surprise us because maybe we wouldn’t have thought of that, but because that person is very familiar with that location, they’re able to give a new spin on it that we think is really interesting and will be really interesting to travelers as well.
Aislyn: I love that. I love that there’s so much knowledge and kind of intimate experience with these places going into the list. Tim, you mentioned it started as a pretty big list, and this year we have 25 destinations on the list, which still feels like sometimes more [than other years]. How did you wind up with 25?
Tim: Well, it couldn’t be 24 for 24.
Billie: Too cheesy. We don’t go in for that kind of numerical punnery.
Aislyn: Other puns are fine . . .
Billie: Right? Totally. Wait till we start talking about Brno.
Tim: Oh, I was wondering who would be first.
Billie: It’s so obviously gonna be me.
Sarika: Obviously, it’s Billie.
Tim: I had it down as my answer for the second question. You beat me to it. No one’s gonna know what we’re talking about. Um, should we just talk about that joke now? There’s, uh, one of the places is Brno in Czechia.
Aislyn: Go for it.
Tim: And it’s spelled B-R-N-O, which is obviously Bruno without the “u,” and Billie, do you want to explain why that is?
Billie: Because of Encanto? And so the minute it got pitched, I just started making that terrible pun. Every time it came up, I was like, “Let’s talk about Bruno. Let’s talk about Bruno.” And then I enlisted Tim to ask him to repeat the joke every time he was talking about it too, and he very gamely agreed. So here we are. And here are all the listeners get to know the high jinks behind the scenes and my, my, my love of puns.
Tim: I think with the list, we did get it down to sort of a dozen, and then, and then we kept having places that we really wanted to have in, and so we, it went up, it sort of doubled in size, didn’t it? And obviously some of them are rounded up in thematic-type pieces, which we can get into.
Sarika: Yeah, yeah, we started seeing some places like—for example, Paris has the Summer Olympics going on. So it felt like an obvious inclusion. But we also didn’t want to give it so much space in the magazine because also the Summer Olympics could be, for a lot of people, a reason not to go to Paris next year.
But we did, we didn’t want to not mention it. So it became, like, we had a few places like Brno, Czechia, and a bunch of others that, that we were really excited to feature. But then there were some others that also just felt like there were important enough things happening there, or they were capitals of something, like the European Capital of Culture and whatnot, that felt, you know, really interesting and important to mention. But then we didn’t want to give it as much space in the print magazine.
Aislyn: Yeah, that makes sense. Um, well, you mentioned events, and that does seem to be a bit of a theme throughout the list. We’ll talk about some of [them] in particular a little later on, but why was that a focus? And what are you most excited about?
Billie: I’ll jump in. One of the big events for 2024 is the solar eclipse that’s happening on April 8. Across the staff at AFAR we all seem to be obsessed with these eclipses, so that—um, and Texas—so the idea, um, was raised by one of our colleagues, Mae Hamilton, that Texas, in the Hill Country in Texas, would be an ideal place to, to experience the eclipse coming April 8. So we knew we wanted to do something on that. And then using that as an opportunity to talk about that area of the country, where there’s also a lot going on. There’s a lot in the wine scene. There’s a lot of small towns with a lot of culture to visit.
[It] seemed like a great way to talk about an event but also make it more about a place that people could experience beyond that one day. Another way that we were thinking about events: not just go and have the event and experience the event, but what can we share with people about the location that that event is taking place in.
Tim: I think that really comes out nicely in Texas on the, um, choice of photography here. When I thought of that piece, I imagined just big, wide open Texan plain at night with some stars or something obvious about the eclipse. But actually what we’ve got is this lovely shot of two girls swimming underwater at one of the swimming holes there.
And a truck driving through the kind of wildflower meadows. And that’s one of my favorite things about writing for a magazine, especially, is when the art team bring it to life. And it just, it’s just amazing. I love it.
Aislyn: Yeah. An unexpected look at the place. Why do you think so many people are drawn to traveling for solar eclipses?
Sarika: It feels like a nerdy phenomenon that’s still cool. And everyone can still appreciate the enormous power of it. I think it’s also a moment to just feel connected with this much broader galaxy that we live in and to just realize that we are quite, quite small.
I felt that for sure. I got to see some really faraway galaxies in a telescope, you know, [a] very powerful telescope, and just that feeling of being really small and reminded of, you know, that we are just little dots. It’s kind of an amazing feeling. And I think it just brings people together.
Billie: Yeah. And the fact that we all get to witness it together, right? So you’re there with people. That’s a place we can’t go yet, right? But we’re all experiencing this crazy phenomenon together, no matter kind of where you are. So I think there’s something really special about that.
Tim: Astrotourism seems to be a big thing at hotels everywhere nowadays. I mean, a number of places, someone at a hotel, someone’s rolled out a telescope, and [there] has been an impromptu stargazing-type experience. I think people are just traveling for that all the time. So obviously the eclipse is like the big-festival, you know, dramatic version of that.
Aislyn: Absolutely. Well, what else surprised you on this year’s list?
Tim: I don’t want to, um, give Brno too much of the limelight, the place in Czechia, but I wasn’t very aware of it. Obviously Prague is the more well-known city. And great story from Emma John about just the arts and culture and the vibe of that city and some of the, um, really interesting things going on there. Like Kabinet Múz, this vegan café by day and band venue at night. A museum of fine arts with floating chairs, and as part of the exhibits cocktail bar, where you—[it’s] sort of immersive, drinkers take part in the story. And a hotel that’s only 26 feet wide. I think she, in that piece, really brought out all the sort of interesting curiosity to that place and, uh, definitely made me want to visit, which is obviously the point of these pieces.
Sarika: I’ll say two things, generally, that surprised me about the list. One is a lot of places that we chose are places that you’ve, you had—I mean, of course we do have the Brnos and a few others that I think are, will be quite new for a lot of readers—but we do have a quite a few places that I think people have heard of and may have traveled to before, but we have sort of fresh reasons to visit.
Two examples that come to mind there are Rome, Italy, and Los Angeles, California. And both of them are pretty well-known destinations. In the case of Rome, there are a lot of new, beautiful-looking hotels that I think will be a draw for people to come and not just come in and try to see the Colosseum and try to do all of the bucket-list type of things that Rome is famous for, but also just try to stay and enjoy the city and experience a lot of the other pieces of the city that may be overlooked.
There are also a lot of archaeological sites that are being breathed new life into. And I think that that just gives a lot of people who maybe have been to Rome once before on a Europe trip at some point a reason to go back and really try to explore the city afresh.
In Los Angeles, there’s a really large Black art movement that’s going on there, a really large space that’s opening up, and also a ton of new restaurants that I think a lot of our readers would be excited to check out.
And the second thing that surprised me about our list is that a lot of destinations we chose because of their sustainability and conservation commitment. This is true for places like Fiji, where a lot of hotels have, uh, strong commitments to help preserve ocean life. Places like Norway, where there’s just so much green transport and ways to get around the country. And many others, too, that I think that really have done quite a lot on the environment, which was one of our factors in choosing it.
Billie: Yeah, some of the places that we chose had a cultural sustainability and a cultural aspect that was coming up. Obviously, events and festivals, but one of the places that surprised me or that I learned something about was St. Kitts. The pitch came in from a writer we’ve worked with, Rosalind Cummings-Yeats. And she had been there and met two people who were sort of bringing back the legacy of rum in St. Kitts. Now, it’s in the Caribbean, and I think people sort of widely know that there were sugar plantations there during the various colonial eras of those islands. And St. Kitts had been a British colony for a very long time, where there were a lot of plantations that were farmed by enslaved African peoples.
And recently, there’s this movement to reclaim that really painful and complicated past, but through local residents, local, uh, Kittitians, they, they call themselves. So there are two companies that are, that are doing that to sort of bring back that history and talk about it in a new light, really reevaluating that history and sharing what it meant to the local people who were living there and their, their descendants now.
And I think especially in the Caribbean, where maybe people are just thinking about it as a, a sun-and-beach destination, to learn that there are points of cultural connection that are available, that was surprising and exciting to me.
Aislyn: That’s so cool. And you can taste the rum?
Billie: Yes, you can go to these places. The two companies, one is run by this guy, Jack Widdowson. It’s called Old Road Rum Company. And he grew up on an estate that was a sugar plantation. And when he was, like, a teenager, there are archaeologists who found the ruins of an old distillery on it. They dated it back to the 1600s and they think it’s the oldest rum distillery in the Caribbean. And he was, like, 14 when they found this.
And so then he grows up and he’s like, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to start a rum company.” He’s trying to rebuild that distillery, actually, so that they can, for the first time in a long time, you know, make rum actually on the island. But in the meantime, he’s blending rums from, from the region and inviting people to the property, where he does tours and lets them taste and talks about this history.
So yeah, you can go, and there’s a tour you can take called the St. Kitts Rum Masters Tour, so you can go and visit the Old Road Rum and another company called Hibiscus Spirits and taste and learn how to make St. Kitts—Kittitian—cocktails and Caribbean-influenced cocktails and really hear the story and learn about the history in a new perspective.
Aislyn: Well, one of the other things that I’m hearing you say, I think all three of you, is that you learned so much through making this list. Is there anything in kind of a broader sense that you feel like you learned kind of putting this list together?
Billie: How many places there are in the world that I cannot wait to visit. You know? It’s never-ending, which, I mean, thank goodness.
Sarika: I think also we have a lot of focus on arts and culture this year in a lot of our stories, like the Los Angeles that I had mentioned before, St. Kitts, there’s many others too: Manchester, England, which Billie wrote. And they all seem so specific, their art scenes. You can get to some things that feel like, you know, you could be anywhere, but all of the ones that we highlight, I feel like they seem very specific to the place, which I just, I love that.
Aislyn: Some of that seems to come because many of the writers who wrote pieces this year actually live in these places or know them really well. You mentioned Rome earlier, Sarika, and that was written by someone who lives there and has that kind of insider knowledge, right?
Sarika: Yeah, Laura Itzkowitz. She first moved to Rome for a couple of years in 2009 and now she’s lived there permanently since 2019 or so. It was so clear working with her just how knowledgeable she was.
One thing I really enjoyed while working on that story in particular was, she talks about some of the archeological digs and these different sites that were uncovered first by Mussolini and then fell a little bit more into disrepair and then are now being brought back. And I almost felt like, as I was reading the story, I was getting the type of tour that she was talking about in Rome that so many tourists don’t do because they’re just focused on hitting up the Colosseum, going to the Forum, then, you know, booking it to the Amalfi Coast so they can take all their Instagram photos.
And this was just such a—even the process of reading the story, I felt like, “Oh, I get what she’s talking about.”And every question that I had for her, she would just write these long paragraphs and then say, “Well, if this doesn’t work, then we can try this site.” And she would just tell me all about the history of that site going back to, like, Julius Caesar. And, um, it was a little bit of a European history primer that I was getting.
Aislyn: You need to put that out somewhere for listeners to read. I also wanted to talk about sustainability. You mentioned it earlier. Is there anything else that you wanted to add about how this list was framed for a climate-conscious traveler?
Sarika: Yeah, so a couple of things that come to mind for me—and Billie and Tim, please add. One is that we do have a decent number of domestic destinations on the list as well. So people don’t have to travel halfway around the world in order to get to experience something magical. Like, we do highlight a few great American cities, including places like Philadelphia and Seattle and Charleston that are having moments right now. And other North American cities, too, like Toronto and Los Angeles. So all of these places, I think, are much closer for a lot of our readers to actually get to. So that’s something that, of course, like, you know, the actual act of traveling somewhere, uses a lot of the carbon.
And then a lot of the hotels that we mentioned throughout the piece, they also have really strong climate initiatives. For example, for getting back to Rome again, the Six Senses that we mentioned as one of the hotels there that’s recently opened, they actually are on 100 percent green power. So, you know, guests can feel a little bit better about staying at places that have such strong climate commitments.
And so you can make your trip greener both in how you get there and, then once you get there, where you stay—like all of these things sort of add up, and you can have a much lighter footprint than, uh, maybe a more traditional traveler would.
Tim: Yeah, I think you covered it. I mean, obviously we’re always trying to help people find lesser-known, lesser-touristed places. Or if they’re going somewhere like Rome to stay longer, and I think there’s plenty of ideas in the Rome piece for making a longer trip, supporting local businesses.
I will say—you talked about what we learned making the list—I realized I need to see a lot more of L.A., which is just down the road. Obviously Destination Crenshaw, the Black art project is finally opening next year, but there’s loads of small businesses in that piece I could go and support and check out, and some great food options.
It’s also, just while we’re on L.A., the 100th anniversary of the Hollywood sign as well. So as well as everything new there, there’s a lot of heritage obviously to enjoy. And I went for a walk up to the letters with the Hollywood Sign Trust chairman.
It’s very, it’s very vertiginous—high. I’m not one for heights. And he was giving me a long story of the history of the sign while I was kind of, like, holding onto the, the piece of wood that used to hold up the “l” for the “land” when it was Hollywoodland.
Aislyn: Oh, wow.
Tim: Yeah, some great history there, and you can walk all the way up behind it and see the sign and the city behind it. So sustainability-wise, what did we miss?
Billie: There are three locations in particular on the list that are notable for their sustainability efforts. And those are Fiji, which Tim wrote about and he can talk about, Norway, and Bhutan. Norway, it’s, it’s almost, I won’t say behind-the-scenes, but there’s a sort of a countrywide effort to honor the beautiful nature that’s there, right? Obviously they have fjords and beautiful water and mountains. And they know it, right? But they also know, “Hey, we have to protect this.”
So the public transportation options. They’re working on hybrid electric trains and fully electric trains. The country is phasing out internal combustion cars. So, like, I think one in every five cars is an electric vehicle, very easy to rent that. So the sort of day-to-day of your trip, if you were traveling there, could be respectful of the nature that you’re seeing, and we wanted to recognize that.
Tim, you want to talk about Fiji? There’s a similar kind of thing going on there.
Tim: Yeah, what struck me about Fiji is obviously lots of high-end resorts there. But a lot of them are taking ocean conservation really seriously and letting guests help with that. So you can help plant coral, you can plant mangrove saplings. So mangroves is obviously the, the kind of plant superheroes when it comes to carbon sequestrion, sequestration? How do you—what is the word there? Drawing down carbon. And also acting as flood barriers and habitat.
So yeah, I went there a year ago to stay at Nanuku Resort on the south coast of the main island, Viti Levu. And, yeah, just met some really passionate people there who were just doing lots of great things in the ocean and on the land.
Billie: I thought that was so cool that their resorts have marine biologists on staff.
Tim: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarika: It’s amazing.
Billie: Right? Not just for sustainability, but for nerdiness. Like now I want to go to Fiji and just hang out with a marine biologist.
Tim: Yeah. And they’re doing great work with local communities as well, helping them come and see the project, get involved. And they’re planting these mangroves near the villages to help sort of add flood protection there rather than, you know, building big concrete walls and putting bricks down.
The other thing that struck me about Fiji is very few people go there from the States. When I went from L.A., it’s a direct flight but you have to take an overnight flight both ways, which is the downside. But the plus side is: in 2022, 70,000 people went from the U.S. and 7.7 million went to Hawai‘i. So, if you’re looking for somewhere with a lot less tourists and a lot more space to enjoy all this natural beauty, then I recommend it. I loved it.
Aislyn: Well, we talked a little bit about events earlier, but one that really caught my eye was—I think the whimsy of it—was the kite festival. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Chinese city that hosts it?
Tim: Yes, Weifang. I’ve never been there myself. I’ve only been to Beijing, but it’s about halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, about four or five hours’ drive from each. And next year is the Culture City of East Asia.
And I think it’s, it’s sort of one of the places that has a claim to being the birthplace of kites, but it’s definitely known as a kite capital of the world. And they have this festival every April, International Kite Festival. It draws in tens of thousands of people and as you can imagine, all the kind of colorful kites. And they have a World Kite Museum.
I don’t know. Have you guys flown kites? For me, it’s like half an hour of untangling and three minutes of fun. So I imagine it’s amazing to see experts [with] beautifully made, handmade kites. The skies full of them.
Billie: Does sounds so cool.
Tim: Yeah. Weifang is also a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art. So it’s not just kites. Visitors there can learn about clay modeling, paper cutting, woodblock printing. It just sounds like a very interesting, creative city. And apparently has a great night, food market, um, scene as well.
Aislyn: Well, I think it kind of came up naturally earlier. But, you know, because Tim, you’ve been to Fiji, but have you been to any of these places recently? I mean, Billie, I know you were just in Estonia and loved it.
Billie: Yeah, I, I’m, I’m, I’m going to say I won’t bore you all with it, but I will bore you all with it.
Aislyn: Please do.
Billie: I loved it. I loved it. Estonia, I didn’t know much about it. I think most U.S. travelers’ familiarity with it is Tallinn, the capital, which is a stop on Baltic cruises. So that’s the port that people go to. And they don’t really get out of that city. And that is just a missed opportunity.
The country’s small. It’s phenomenal. It’s gorgeous. You’ve got this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Old Town in Tallinn, which is gorgeous. It’s, like, 14th-century castles and walls and things. And then you can go two hours outside and be in a couple of national parks.
I went hiking in a bog, which was like walking on snowshoes on—imagine a, a carpet of peat moss like a foot thick and it just kind of sinks slightly and you’re on converted snowshoes. So you’re sort of walking on water and it’s just gorgeous. So I got to do that and hike through a forest and you can pick your own mushrooms because everything is, like, fresh and natural.
And all of it, everything’s like two hours apart, and, and it’s super modernized like the, the roads and the highways. It’s very easy to get around. Everybody speaks English. There’s Wi-Fi everywhere. Like the country’s really committed to internet access and digital education and stuff. So it’s very easy for travelers to experience.
And then in Tartu, which is the second-largest city—it’s only about 100,000 people, so it’s still pretty small—they are one of Europe’s Cultural Capitals for 2024. So, there, we talked about events, but all year long in 2024, there are going to be various things that people can go and experience and get to know that city. Which is also—surprised me because you get to the main town square and it looks like something out of, like, Nice. Like it looked like southern Europe, it’s like a cobblestone town square with a statue in the middle and these beautiful colorful stately buildings around and open air cafés everywhere and a river running through it. So it has this very European feel that my guess is people don’t associate with that far north in, in Europe. So and it was just cool. And so there’s all this like very sort of classical Europe feeling stuff, but there’s also leftover Soviet era relics, and that was really interesting to see.
I had a blast, I met so many cool people, and I can’t recommend it enough. Go to Estonia.
Tim: Billie, what made you want to go there in the first place?
Billie: I’d read an article in BBC Travel, where, um, a writer had interviewed this man who, um, lives in the area where they do the bog hiking. And I think the writer hadn’t even gone because it was during the pandemic. But—you can cut all this out, Aislyn—but there is, in, in this region of Estonia where it’s all bogs, like, it’s all marshes and stuff, um, they have what they call a fifth season that happens in March when all the snow melt from the surrounding areas. There’s no real mountains in Estonia, but there’s a lot of rivers, so snow melt from the surrounding areas floods these rivers, and every couple years, like, cars sink, you know, like the water raise is really high and everybody has to get around on canoes.
And I just thought that sounded so interesting and was such a—it’s such an interesting climate story. It was such an interesting cultural adaptation story, and I, I just thought it was fascinating, so I was like, “Well, I want to go there.” And then the rest of the, the trip happened. And then I got to meet that man who, who, who does the canoeing in, in the bog. He’s the one who took me hiking.
So you never know. People read our stories, and then years later, they go to these places. And then it turned out, because Tartu was going to be the 20, one of the 2024 European Capitals of Culture, it was like, “OK, well now it’s, there’s a moment happening. And how, how is this country going to embrace that and show off, you know, their arts and culture scenes for, for the rest of the world?” That was, that drew me in.
Sarika: That is one thing I just love about our list in general is just hopefully, even if people aren’t able to go this year, it just plants a seed somewhere that, “Hey, this is a place that I never really thought of before. And hopefully one day when I’m able to go somewhere, that this may be somewhere on my list.”
Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that you kind of save, right? Like you save this version of the magazine or bookmark the article online and hopefully use it as inspiration for years to come.
Sarika: I was just thinking [of] the destinations I wrote about, which is Lamu, Kenya, I think is hopefully going to be that for a lot of people. Because I think many people who come to Africa for the first time—the continent of Africa, which contains 54 countries—that they do typically go on safari to experience Africa’s wild places, which are incredible. And I totally understand that.
At the same time, there is so much more to the continent than animals and, and wild places. There’s also just incredible cities and, and in this case, the one that I wrote about, this island with a really very unique and well-preserved Swahili culture, which is this blend of Bantu, like East African culture, combined with Arabic and Persian and some European and Indian and Chinese cultures that have sort of made this melting pot.
And it’s very, you know, you wouldn’t be able to find this architecture in many other places or a lot of other cultural facets that are very well preserved. Again, Lamu Town, which is the main town on the island, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site for that reason. And I think anyone who is planning a trip to the continent, I feel like it’s, it’s also really worth going to places like this.
Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. How far is it from you, where you live?
Sarika: It’s about an hour flight. Flying is the best way to get there. And that’s from Nairobi and there’s direct flights. And there’s gorgeous hotels and guest houses to stay at. Like truly, you just feel like you’re in a photo shoot all day. Then the really unique thing about the island is that there’s no cars, so—and there’s not really, like, any, like, street signs or anything—so you just kind of walk around and there’s, there’s just, they’re like meandering alleys, and you kind of find your way, you know. That’s the thing: Like you will get lost at some point, but then you’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I recognize, I recognize that tree or I recognize that donkey.” There’s a lot of donkeys there. And you sort of just, like, find your way again.
Aislyn: I mean, there’s so few opportunities to get lost anymore. I love that.
Sarika: But still feel safe. You know, it’s like you’re, you feel like you’re still contained in this small place. Like you really can’t go very far.
Aislyn: The donkey will take you back.
Sarika: The donkey will. Yeah.
Tim: Distinctive donkeys.
Sarika: Yeah. There actually is a, like a donkey rehabilitation site on the island as well. And yeah, you can go and visit and see just, you know, three-legged donkeys that are being rehabilitated and all sorts of other things. It’s pretty cool.
So another African destination that we’ve mentioned in our list is another city on the other side of Africa, uh, Tangier, Morocco, which is in the very, very far north of Morocco. I ended up learning a lot about the colonial history of the city, and it used to be considered part of an international zone, and it was managed by a consortium of other countries, including, like, Italy and Spain. So it wasn’t really considered part of Morocco for a long time, and it has a bit of an international edge to it.
Now the city is becoming a lot more connected to its Moroccan identity. There’s a lot of really creative Moroccans who are doing amazing things. Like they’re running restaurants and cultural programs and shops that are selling different types of home goods and beauty products that are all Moroccan-led companies, and a lot of them are also run by young women. So I think it’s a really cool way to experience a city that has historically had this international, very, also very artsy edge to it. But now that artsyness is being led by a lot of creative young Moroccans. So it seems like a place that I would be really excited to, to go and kind of see both the old Tangier and the new Tangier combined.
Aislyn: Yeah, there are so many great cities on this list this year. Are there any that you feel like we didn’t talk about that we should?
Tim: Yeah. I’ll give a pitch for San Diego. It’s in our list along with Tijuana. The two cities on both sides of the border are the World Design Capital 2024 cities. Lots of design-focused events, and lots of great architecture to see there, which is, you know, people think of San Diego and just beaches and tacos and, obviously there’s, uh, it’s a huge city and there’s lots to see in that regard.
And I was there, I think, earlier this year, um, driving an EV around, for an EV road trip for a digital article, and so it’s very easy to fly in and rent an EV and not have to, you know, have a, gas-powered car. And some of the design things are happening up in La Jolla, which is this lovely neighborhood north of the city on the cliffs. You can go sea kayaking in the caves there. There’s leopard sharks in the water and bright orange Garibaldi fish and snorkeling and it’s just beautiful, beautiful place. So I’d heartily recommend that.
Billie: I give a shout out to Philadelphia. We put that in. I think we’re all pretty excited about Philadelphia this year. People know Philadelphia. Obviously, it’s a place for American history, Constitution was written there. But the food scene is just on fire. It won more James Beard Awards in 2023 than any other city for the chefs and restaurants. And they’re diverse and just so, so interesting and varied. And, it’s a great reason to rethink and revisit that city this year.
Plus, the art scene has always been great. And there’s amazing institutions of art like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation, but also the gallery scene has long been thriving and it still is. They still do a first Friday every month where the galleries stay open, that’s actually expanded. It’s near New York, so I’ve been there a lot, so I’m very excited.
Tim: You know, when you said it has more James, it has more James Beard Award winners, I was reaching for the hand clapping emoji to pop up on the screen. I think I’ve spent too much time on Microsoft Teams.
Sarika: I’ll also give a shout to Toronto, which is, I did not know this, that it is by many measures, the most diverse city in the world, even more so than New York City and London.
There are upwards of 180 languages spoken there. And just this year, one of the reasons why it became included on our list this year is because they elected their first mayor who’s a woman of color, Olivia Chow, who has talked a lot about diversity. And the piece takes you through several of the neighborhoods, um, where you can go to a Little Tibet and have momos. You can go to Koreatown and go sing karaoke there. You can go to a neighborhood where there’s a lot of Somali people.
And there’s also, similar to Philadelphia, there are also some more high-end gastronomical experiences to have. And also just a lot of cultural events happening throughout the year. The Caribbean festival in August draws, I think, a million people. And then there’s a contemporary arts night in October that’s an all-night affair and just brings in Torontonians from all stripes.
Aislyn: Amazing. And we’re going as a company in March. I’m so excited.
Sarika: I know. I’ve actually like, you know, I feel like the entire essay for that is basically just, like, my to-do list of all the different restaurants and neighborhoods to get, to check off.
Billie: It is. We have much more to eat than we have time for.
Aislyn: Unless we can extend or come early.
Billie: Or just do all our meetings at the restaurant.
Sarika: Second lunch, first dinner, second dinner.
Tim: We had a great run of digital stories on Toronto earlier this year as well.
Aislyn: Oh yeah, we’ll link to those.
Tim: So if you’re thinking of going there, look at the Toronto guide on the website. We do this thing called My Perfect Day and a local runs us through how they spend their perfect day. And one by Tiffany Ramsubick, who runs, um, Ode, which is Toronto’s only Black-owned boutique hotel. She just, she describes a great day there, and yeah, we’ve got a lot to do. We’re going to need some extra time because we don’t want to just be at meetings.
Aislyn: No, the meetings should be in the restaurant. Well, we’ve talked a lot about these urban destinations, arts, and culture. What about people who like to travel for nature or to be outside?
Sarika: Billie had briefly mentioned Bhutan. I think that Bhutan is an amazing country. I have not been myself, but Kathleen Rellihan, who, uh, she went last year and was one of the first people to hike the newly restored Trans Bhutan Trail that fell into disrepair in the ’60s and just reopened last year.
And now just this year, Bhutan has lowered—it’s always had a tourist tax, so that covers, you know, various things like lodging and a guide and whatnot—it’s recently lowered the tourist tax to now $100 a day in order to spur more tourism.
So, and there’s also a lot of new hotels that have opened as well as the Trans Bhutan Trail. So the Trans Bhutan Trail goes through the Bhutanese countryside and you get to pass, both these stupas and temples and all types of small towns and villages that were previously pretty much off limits entirely to foreigners.
So lots of really cool reasons to visit Bhutan. It’s also hugely conservation minded. So 60 percent of the country must be under forest cover, and it’s the first carbon-negative country in the world. So that’s another cool reason to visit. See how they did it.
Aislyn: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. We’re all clapping.
Billie: We’re all reaching for again the clapping hands emoji.
Sarika: One of our roundups that we have in the [issue] is classic spots that are potentially worth a revisit. One of them is Machu Picchu, which is Peru’s most popular destination with good reason. I mean, Machu Picchu is a brilliant feat of Incan engineering. The Sacred Valley though, more generally is just, it’s one of the prettiest places in the world, in my opinion.
And Intrepid Tours has recently opened up a new hike that takes people to be able to see Machu Picchu, but also see lesser-, lesser-visited sides of the Sacred Valley. So it’s called the Quarry Trail and they’re able to visit older Incan towns and also just see some waterfalls and some other sites that were previously a bit more off limits.
So definitely I, I love the idea of revisiting a classic destination, but with a bit of a twist on it.
Tim: I would say, um, if you like your outdoors with a glass of wine, then head to Uruguay this year. We had a lovely piece from Julia Buckley who wrote about this region called Maldonado. It’s a coastal region. I think it’s the next one along from Montevideo and Canelones.
But anyway, it’s very much the up and coming wine region of the country. And there’s a sommelier there who’s worked on a Mapa del Vino, which is a map of the all of the boutique vineyards in Uruguay. So you can follow that trail and it just looks beautiful—land of alfresco food tastings and great reds, red wines and yeah, definitely added that to my list after working on that piece.
Aislyn: Well, I’d love to just pivot a little bit more broadly to kind of where we’re traveling next year, how we’re traveling. You know, 2023 was such a busy travel year and it continues to be. Do you have any predictions for 2024?
Billie: I think it’s still going to be busy. That’s not going away anytime soon. But don’t let that stop you. I think that’s, that’s one of the messages of our list too: Look to places off the mainstream path. For example, you know, in Europe, Estonia and Brno. In Africa, Lamu and Tangier. And then also rethink places that may be familiar to you, like a, like a Rome or a Toronto. There’s actually, there’s another layer that, that we’re trying to bring to the surface. So maybe that will, that will help people avoid the goat track of the main masses of tourism.
Tim: Yeah, the busy places are just going to get busier and climate will obviously, um, play a part—you know, an unpredictable climate, so be prepared for that in certain places. Try and go shoulder season where you can. You know, the pandemic was a big reminder that you never know what’s around the corner. So travel where you can, make the most of it. That kitchen extension or new car can wait. Just go, get out there and see the world.
Aislyn: Uh, book your travel insurance. We’ll link to our episode about that. Well, I’d love to end this conversation with where you are planning to go this year, where you want to go. It could be places on the list. It could be other trips that you have planned. Where are you editors going?
Sarika: In part inspired by—not our list, but a feature story in our previous issue, our epic trips issue—over the holidays, I’m going with my family to Oman, which I’m really excited about. I, I’ve known a bit about it, but didn’t really know just how diverse it was in terms of the types of things that you can do there, from snorkeling or scuba diving to mountain climbing to visiting the desert to, of course, like spending time in cities and eating lots of delicious Middle Eastern food.
So I’m really excited to be able to, to do all of that and definitely was also additionally inspired by our feature story, which is absolutely gorgeous. The photographs as well are just breathtaking. Some of these wadis, which are these big gorges with—they’re very sand-colored and then they have bright turquoise blue water running through them. They, they just look like they’re, I don’t know, out of a movie set or something like that. They don’t, they don’t even look real.
Aislyn: We’ll link to that story as well because it’s such a good one.
Billie: It is one of my favorites.
Sarika: Yeah, I should say the writing is amazing and the photographs are—just kind of add to it even more. So it’s just like on both sides of it, you’re just like, “Wow, this place is just otherworldly.”
Aislyn: Gotta go. Billie, how about you? What’s your list look like this year?
Billie: I’m heading to Kenya in February, so I’m going to, yeah, I’m gonna visit Sarika. And then see if I can also get to Lamu from our list. And I, I often will travel for music or a, like, one random event. So Brno’s on my list. They have that free music festival in August.
And, and Manchester has a bunch of stuff going on because they’ve, they have also, we were talking about arts and culture, have opened several venues, including the U.K.’s, like, largest entertainment, basically a concert venue—it’s purpose built for music.
And so there’s concerts there I want to see. And I’ve already got a couple on my list, including a citywide, what’s it called? It’s called City of Floating Sounds. And it’s an interactive symphony project where there’s going to be music throughout the city of Manchester and then it’ll guide you through it and then back to this new theater space called the Aviva Studios at Factory International, which just opened this year and it’s one of the reasons that the city’s on on our list, and then it’ll end up there. So that’s in June and I want to go back for that.
Aislyn: Oh my gosh.Yeah. That sounds, I want to go too.
Billie: Come on. Second company meeting.
Aislyn: I wish.
Tim: I loved your Manchester piece, Billie, how obviously the city is so well known for its music scene, but there’s so much more happening nowadays that people maybe won’t be aware of.
Billie: Yeah. Yeah. And that was one of the reasons I went, because it had that music history, but I was just floored by how much more there is there, including amazing libraries. But that’s another episode.
Aislyn: Um, Tim, where, where will you be podcasting from the next time we meet?
Tim: I’ll be back in my office at home. Um, my travel calendar’s looking quite light considering I’ve been working on this feature. I’m going to Palm Springs in January, and we have the trip to Toronto, but other than that, I’m looking at a blank slate that’s filling up with other things, so I need to get the travel slotted in. I’d love to go to Peru, I think there’s a direct flight from L.A., and the idea of doing a trail like the Quarry Trail really appeals, so, um, we shall see.
Aislyn: Would you take your kids, do you think, or are they still too young?
Sarika: That was so fast.
Billie: It was very quick.
Aislyn: Not even a moment of thought for that.
Tim: We’re not hiking to Machu Picchu with eight year olds and four year olds.
Aislyn: It doesn’t sound fun to you?
Tim: We were going to all go back to England in the summer, but we’ve just bounced it back to the next Christmas now. And then that, yeah. I’m not looking forward to the flight.
Aislyn: I look forward to seeing how your slate fills up. Well, thank you so much. I mean, the list is phenomenal. The work that you did is really incredible. So, thank you and thanks. I feel very inspired to go to all 25 in 24. I think that’s doable, right?
Billie: Yeah. Where do you want to go, Aislyn? What’s on your list?
Aislyn: Well, all of them. I mean, Manchester, the music aspect sounds wonderful. Toronto is obvious. We’re going to do that as a company. And then, I don’t know, I feel like Kenya would probably be the first one that I would pick if I were just going to go anywhere tomorrow.
Sarika: Karibu, Kenya. That means “welcome to Kenya.” Come visit.
Aislyn: That’s right. We started our Swahili lessons.
Sarika: Yes. I’ll make sure there’s power when you come.
Aislyn: Nah, that’s OK. I appreciate that. I’ll just bring my solar charger.
Aislyn: And that is it for our very first episode of the year. We will link to all of our social media handles in the show notes, as well as all of the resources we mentioned earlier. And next week, we’ll look back with a guide to cruising in 2024 with our resident cruise expert, Fran Golden. So be sure to return for that.
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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.