Wanderlust Hot List: The top 15 places you need to visit in 2020

Need inspiration for your next adventure? From unspoilt Albania to promising Pakistan and the ‘new Zimbabwe’, we present 15 essential destinations to visit over the next year...

4 mins

1. Kenya

Maasai warrior on the beach (Shutterstock)

Maasai warrior on the beach (Shutterstock)

It’s time to rediscover classic Africa

We sayFor many, Kenya IS Africa: its acacia-dotted savannahs, teeming game parks, Rift Valley lakes and remote rustic-luxe camps are the classic image of the continent.

Security concerns following a spate of terrorist attacks have deterred some travellers in the past few years. But while the FCO urges against specific areas of the country, many places are still on-limits, including the premier safari destinations: elephant-roamed Amboseli, mountainous Aberdare, uncrowded Laikipia, the matchless Masai mara - as well as dazzling Indian Ocean resorts such as Mombasa, Watamu and Diani.

Tourist numbers are starting to increase – international arrivals in 2019 are predicted to be around 5% up on the previous year– but this still remains a great time to rediscover Kenya’s iconic wilderness without quite so many other people.

Visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy for the chance to see two of the world’s only remaining northern white rhinos. Look for endangered black rhino, too.

After receiving four of the creatures in 1989, it set the target of housing 120 by 2020 – an aim surpassed by late 2019, with 134 black rhinos living on site.

2. Namibia

Family of African elephants drinking at a waterhole in Etosha National Park (Shutterstock)

Family of African elephants drinking at a waterhole in Etosha National Park (Shutterstock)

Shining light of community conservation is fab at 30

We say: Namibia is ageing extremely well. As the country gears up to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence from South Africa in 2020 – a big-budget affair that will culminate in a grand event in Windhoek on 21 March – it continues to offer an ever-more sustainable and responsible travel experience. 

Namibia has long been a pioneer of community-driven ecotourism; communal conservancies, where local people are empowered to manage and protect their environment, comprise 20% of the country.

Summer 2019 saw the launch of a dedicated community conservation and tourism website (conservationtourism. com.na) to highlight the wealth of cultural, activity and wildlife-focused adventures available within these areas, from mountain hikes to tracking trips with the San people. 

These also include exceptional safaris – Namibia is the only country where elephant and lion numbers are increasing, and is home to Africa’s largest population of free- roaming black rhino. Many conservancies provide buffers to the national parks. 

Planning a self-drive Namibia trip? Visit TOSCO, a non-profit organisation connecting the tourism industry to local people and conservation organisations.

They can help offset your vehicle’s carbon emissions via tree-planting schemes.

3. Nicaragua

Skyline of Granada city (Shutterstock)

Skyline of Granada city (Shutterstock)

The ‘New Costa Rica’ is back in business

We say: Wracked by political unrest, Nicaragua had a torrid 2018. But earlier in 2019 the FCO lifted its no-go advice for the country and, slowly but surely, tour operators and travellers are returning to what many consider the unsung star of Central America. 

Costa Rica might grab the headlines, but neighbouring Nicaragua is also a paradise for nature lovers, with a diverse mix of the same good stuff – puffing volcanoes, pristine beaches, lakes and lagoons, canopy zip lines and jungles exploding with wild creatures – just without the hordes of other people. 

Nicaragua is also far less commercialised (though infrastructure is improving) and comes without Costa Rica’s steepish price tag – expect to pay around a third less for food, accommodation and activities here. Must-sees include the graceful colonial cities of Granada and León, peaceful Ometepe Island, the empty Caribbean-lapped Corn Islands and the historic fortress of El Castillo. 

Don't miss the rainforest, lagoons and wetlands of Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, close to the Costa Rican border.

Look for turtles, caiman, howler and spider monkeys and an array of tropical birds...

4. Hokkaido, Japan

Fields of flowers in Biei, Hokkaido (Shutterstock)

Fields of flowers in Biei, Hokkaido (Shutterstock)

Explore the buzzy-but-less-busy north

We say: With the Rugby World Cup over and the Olympics on the horizon, there’s a palpable buzz around Japan right now. Tokyo will be the focus in 2020, but to enjoy the energy without the crowds, look a little further afield to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost isle.

Wild and remote, Hokkaido reveals a completely different side to the country – here, as well as Japanese classics such as volcanic onsen and excellent noodles, you’ll find a range of unspoilt national parks, fragrant lavender farms, brilliant birdwatching and world-class skiing – Finnair’s new direct flight from Helsinki to Sapporo (running 15 December 2019 to 27 March 2020) will provide easier access from Europe to the slopes. 

Also, the new Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park is set to open in April 2020, highlighting the culture of Hokkaido’s Ainu, who Japan only officially recognised as an indigenous people in 2019. The museum, by Lake Poroto, will provide insight into the culture of this long-ignored group via exhibitions and more experiential displays, including carving workshops, dance performances and Ainu food tastings.

Don't miss Japan’s Royal Express sightseeing train (which usually runs south of Tokyo).

In 2020, it'll be shipped up to Hokkaido for a limited number of luxe runs between Sapporo and east Hokkaido during the late-spring/summer.

5. Patagonia

Lenga forest in Tierra del Fuego National Park (Shutterstock)

Lenga forest in Tierra del Fuego National Park (Shutterstock)

Celebrate the 500th anniversary of its End-Of-The-World wilderness

We say: In 1520, en route to completing the first circumnavigation of the globe, Ferdinand Magellan and his Armada de Molucca discovered the stretch of water that slices through the southern tip of South America, linking the Atlantic and Pacific – the strait that now bears the explorer’s name.

Magellan found it a fierce, untamed place. And it remains so to this day, even if the ‘Pathagoni’ – the indigenous tribe of reported giants after which he named it – no longer exist. This is a landscape of calving glaciers, snow-spattered mountains, wild steppe and shores a-waddle with penguins; one of the planet’s most alluring, enduring wildernesses. 

This anniversary year, take a cruise in Magellan’s wake, maybe through the riddle of channels in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Trips runs from Chile’s Punta Arenas (where the Nao Victoria Museum is home to a replica of one of the carracks of Magellan’s fleet) to Ushuaia, via Cape Horn. 

Pop to Patagonia's north (around San Martín de los Andes & San Carlos de Bariloche), which will be one of the best places to see the total solar eclipse on 14 December.

Tie it in with a view of the Geminids meteor shower, which peaks at the same time.

6. Canada

First Nation dancers performing at the Victoria Aboriginal Cultural Festival (Shutterstock)

First Nation dancers performing at the Victoria Aboriginal Cultural Festival (Shutterstock)

A wealth of new opportunities for indigenous experiences

We say: Mighty mountains, uncountable lakes, endless forests and prairies – the reputation of Canada’s physical beauty has long drawn travellers. But increasingly the country’s cultural side is bringing them in, too, as visitors seek deeper, more authentic experiences.

Indeed, indigenous tourism is growing fast in Canada, rising 23% between 2014 and 2017, compared with a 14.5% increase in overall tourism in the same period. A 2018 report from Indigenous Tourism BC estimated that 7.2 million visitors would engage in indigenous experiences over the following two years. 

Alberta has recently launched Indigenous Tourism Alberta, an agency specifically focused on promoting First Nations tourism, while the province’s Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi Provincial Park, home to the largest collection of First Nation rock art on the North American Great Plains, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in July 2019. In 2020 the new Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is also set to open, showcasing a huge collection of more than 13,000 Inuit works. 

Don’t miss: Haida Gwaii, the mystical archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia, where you can engage with the indigenous Haida people.

7. Pakistan

Nanga Parbat peak, seen from Fairy Meadow (Shutterstock)

Nanga Parbat peak, seen from Fairy Meadow (Shutterstock)

It’s potentially travel’s next big thing

We say: Pakistan should be heaving with tourists. The country has it all: the most magnificent mountains, surprisingly good and undeveloped beaches, awesome ancient history, a remarkable mix of cultures, one of the world’s greatest road trips, and warm and welcoming people.

But it has also had a heap of security issues, which means this once-desirable destination – the darling of the 1960s and ’70s hippie trail – has been languishing on the FCO no-go list for many years. 

However, things are starting to look brighter. While several areas are still deemed off-limits, tourists are trickling back – visitor numbers have more than doubled since 2010.

Also, the arduous visa process has become simpler and cheaper – citizens of 175 nationalities, including Brits, can now apply online. And in June 2019, British Airways launched its first direct London-Islamabad flight for more than a decade. Pakistan has huge potential. In 2020, it just might start living up to it. 

In past years, travellers required a No Objection Certificate to visit parts of Pakistan.

Now mostly scrapped, Kashmir, Chitral & Gilgit-Baltistan, where you’ll find Hunza, one of Pakistan’s most beguiling regions, are opening up.

8. Galway, Ireland

A street performer in Galway (Shutterstock)

A street performer in Galway (Shutterstock)

12 months of creative craic

We say: “A year of extraordinary creativity and disruption” – that’s how the west-coast Irish city bills its tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2020. Galway is pretty artsy any time, its (many) pubs overspilling with live music, its streets jolly with buskers, its hefty student population lending a lively vibe.

But come 2020, the ante will be upped, with a full programme – focused on the themes of language, landscape and migration – structured around the old Celtic calendar: Imbolc (budding season, February to April), Bealtaine (summer, May to July), Lughnasa (harvest, August to October) and Samhain (winter, November to January). 

There will be 1,900 events in total, with highlights including giant light installations splashed across heaths and bogs; a version of Homer’s Odyssey touring the beaches; an International Women’s Day event attended by Margaret Atwood; the Cúirt International Festival and its celebration of Irish and European literature; country, blues, gospel, folk and bluegrass concerts; Project Baa Baa (a paean to sheep); and no fewer than 30 projects celebrating the Irish language. 

Don’t miss: A launch event (1 to 8 February) that will include festivities county-wide, culminating in a ceremony devised by the team behind the London 2012 Olympics opening.

9. Albania

A coastal port in Albania (Shutterstock)

A coastal port in Albania (Shutterstock)

Unspoilt Europe, with an adventurous edge

We say: Although Albania has been welcoming tourists for ages now – finally opening its doors after the fall of communism in 1991 – it’s taken a while for the country to catch the popular imagination. Which bemuses anyone who’s been, because the destination is a revelation.

Not as polished as Croatia maybe, Albania sees a fraction of the tourists, and is dirt cheap compared to its Mediterranean neighbours – entrance fees to attractions, food, buses and beer are all a bargain. 

It also has an appealingly gritty edge, an astonishingly undeveloped coast, wild national parks and mountains, an array of archaeological sites (including Apollonia and Butrint) and plenty of history- and culture-rich towns. The infrastructure is gradually improving too, with better roads, a trickle of more interesting hotels, and new airport developments that will likely see more low-costers flying in.

The 2,000km-long Via Dinarica trail has spiced up the Balkans’ hiking scene, now the TransDinarica is looking to do the same for cycling.

This cross-border route connects Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and planning to extend into Montenegro, Albania and beyond.

10. Zimbabwe

Painted dogs in Gonarezhou National Park (Shutterstock)

Painted dogs in Gonarezhou National Park (Shutterstock)

All hail the ‘New Zimbabwe’

We say: Off the travel map for many years, Zimbabwe – one of Africa’s greatest safari destinations, bulging at the seams with epic landscapes and iconic creatures – is firmly back on it.

It’s been a slow burn, but in 2019 the Minister for Environment, Tourism and Hospitality spoke of a “new Zimbabwe”, with an increased focus on reducing poaching and encouraging schemes to help people earn a living through wildlife. 

Now is a great time to go – while tourism is on the up, this massive country still sees relatively few visitors, offering a truly wild African experience, whether that’s floating down the mighty Zambezi River or exploring national parks such as huge, elephant-packed Hwange or the baobab plains and red sandstone cliffs of little-visited Gonarezhou. There are also many world-class safari camps and lodges, and a wealth of excellent guides. 

Zimbabwe is home to about 700 painted dogs, one of Africa’s most endangered species (7,000 remain).

Visit Mana Pools, where a pack was relocated in 2019. Guests at Chikwenya Camp will get the chance to see the dogs when they're released in 2020.

11. Kyrgyzstan

Kurgan stone near lost city of Balasagun in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Kurgan stone near lost city of Balasagun in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Lesser-known silk road strand, with terrific trails

We say: Following her 2018 TV series, Joanna Lumley seemed to single-handedly spark a desire for Silk Road exploration, helping to place Uzbekistan in particular – arguably home of the route’s most alluring cities – on the must-visit list. But if 2019 was about Uzbekistan, 2020 is when intrepid travellers should switch their attention to next-door Kyrgyzstan. 

This wild and largely undiscovered nation is around 95% mountains, and ripe for an array of hiking, biking, horse-riding and ski-touring adventures, as well as traditional yurt stays with steppe-roaming nomads.

It’s also great value – basic meals cost less than $2 (£1.60) and a bottle of vodka is nearly the same. No wonder the country features in the 2019 edition of budget-traveller bible The World’s Cheapest Destinations. 

Try hiking a section of the Issyk Köl trail network.

It comprises around 800km of disconnected paths between Kochkor and the eco-village of Jyrgalan, accessible from Lake Issyk Köl's southern shores.

12. Portugal

Medieval hilltop castle of Arraiolos in Alentejo (Shutterstock)

Medieval hilltop castle of Arraiolos in Alentejo (Shutterstock)

There’s still so much to discover

We say: Named the ‘World’s Leading Destination’ at the 2018 World Travel Awards, Portugal has been consistently gracing must-see hot lists for a few years now. And long is that likely to continue, as the country just keeps on delivering – on diversity, on quality and on being brilliant value for money. First you loved Lisbon; then you were intoxicated by Porto.

In 2020 it’s about going beyond those fine cities to the lesser-known regions, as travellers begin to realise how much more Portugal has to offer. Delve into the quiet, cork-cloaked hills of the Alentejo, which are edged by better (and less crowded) beaches than those in the Algarve. Explore the vineyards of the northern Minho, where you can stay in characterful manor houses on the cheap.

Or tour the varied Centro Region, a beneficiary of the country’s increased development of hiking and cycling routes. Here you’ll find plenty of well-marked trails, including the 600km Grand Route of Portugal’s Historical Villages and the Côa Valley Grand Route, which wends amid UNESCO-listed archaeological sites. 

Made a New Year resolution to challenge yourself more in 2020?

Then why not hit some or all of EuroVelo 1? It's a cycling trail that follows Portugal’s entire coast...

13. Rijeka, Croatia

Rijeka harbour (Shutterstock)

Rijeka harbour (Shutterstock)

Culture Capital status gives the city a chance to shine

We say: Croatia’s third-largest city, Rijeka has long sat in the shadow of Zagreb and Split.

But that’s set to change in 2020 when the Adriatic-side port shares European Capital of Culture status with Galway. Untouristy Rijeka combines modern grittiness with an ancient centre, and an authentically Croatian atmosphere with a multicultural twist – indeed, its theme for the year is the ‘Port of Diversity’, apt for a city that, over the past century, has changed countries seven times. 

A varied programme of events is planned, from art installations and gatherings around Kvarner Bay, to theatre, opera and dance performances and one of the continent’s most colourful carnivals. Also, don’t miss Rijeka’s perennial unsung attractions: the 14th-century Leaning Tower, the buzzy central market, nearby Trsat castle, the Croatian National Theatre and museums, art spaces, cool cafés and bars aplenty. 

Hop aboard Galeb, a navy ship that sank in 1944, was reconstructed in 1952 and subsequently used as the official yacht of Marshal Tito.

Now a museum, the vessel will host several cultural events.

14. Lebanon

The sea castle at Sidon (Shutterstock)

The sea castle at Sidon (Shutterstock)

It’s delicious, diverse, safe and exotic

We say: Lebanon’s negative image has lasted far too long: 2020 marks 30 years since the end of the ugly civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990, and the country is well and truly back open for business. Tourism numbers are on the up (figures suggest 40% more European travellers arrived in 2019 compared to 2010) and even Saga is launching holidays there. 

The fact is, it’s a safe and enlightening place to experience Arab culture and Middle Eastern history. As the country is compact, you can pack a lot into a trip, from the lively food, art and nightlife scene of bustling Beirut to the wild Qadisha Valley, Cedars of God forest, ancient sites such as Sidon, Baalbek and Byblos, world-class vineyards and the sparkling Mediterranean coast.

Though, if you have time, hit the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a 470km-long hiking path using shepherd tracks and Phoenician and Roman paths to span the country, top to bottom.

Lebanon serves some of the region’s finest food, and the past few years have seen its signature dishes and ingredients – from za’atar spice to manousheh flatbreads – go global.

Better to taste them at the source: try a Taste Lebanon foodie walking tour.

15. Belarus & Ukraine

An abandoned ferris wheel at Chernobyl (Shutterstock)

An abandoned ferris wheel at Chernobyl (Shutterstock)

The bleak past is bright for wildlife

We say: Dark tourism – visiting places made infamous by death and disaster – is on the rise. And destinations don’t come much darker than Chernobyl.

Pop culture has only increased the fascination: the number of visitors to the site of the nuclear catastrophe has risen since the eponymous HBO series aired this year, and the trend looks to continue, with the Ukrainian president announcing the creation of new walking trails within the exclusion zone. 

Such travel is not without controversy, but done responsibly, it can be enlightening and thought-provoking. There are opportunities to overnight in the area, visit the decaying school and fairground, and meet ‘self-settlers’ who’ve returned to live in the area.

You can also witness how nature has started to reclaim the abandoned landscape: with humans and domestic animals out of the way, many rare wild species have moved back in. The Palieski State Radioecological Reserve – the Belarusian section of the Chernobyl exclusion zone – is open for eco-tours, on which you can spot species such as lynx, wolves, bison, bear and Przewalski’s horses (released after the accident). 

Also in Belarus, Naliboki Forest has one of the highest densities of bison, elk, lynx and eagles on the planet.

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