The holy grail for avid travellers is a place that’s largely untouched. After all, getting somewhere ahead of the crowds often confers a more meaningful travel experience – not to mention the bragging rights. It’s also a way to be a more responsible traveller, by avoiding major cities that are increasingly struggling with overtourism.
While it’d be a stretch to say that all the following places are off the radar, they are compelling alternatives to the perennial favourites. And 2020 provides many of them with a special draw, be it milestone anniversaries, events or notable openings. From Central Asia to Western Europe, these destinations will spark your wanderlust in 2020.
One of the toughest asks in a geography spelling test, Kyrgyzstan offers real rewards for travellers who make it to this landlocked country between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many come to embrace the outdoors: unspoilt and rugged landscapes seemingly cover every type of terrain, from alpine lakes like Chatyr-Kul to glacier-capped mountains to desert canyons straight out of Arizona. But it’s also gratifying to spend time in the capital, Bishkek, where you can get a better feel for the nation and its people. The cultural scene includes the Museum of Fine Arts, indie galleries and the national opera and ballet theatre, while the Osh Bazaar is a fragrant labyrinth of stalls. Twenty parks provide ample green space for soaking up the warmth of summer. As you research the Silk Road region, you may be tempted to add on a few more ‘stans, in which case Golden Eagle Luxury Trains or G Adventures can oblige.
If you’re a fan of powdery snow, then Hokkaido likely needs no introduction, at least not in winter. The northern Japanese island has much to offer year-round; for instance, Niseko in the summer off-season now attracts bikers and hikers to its mountains. Sapporo is a charming and compact city with a brilliant food scene, especially at Nijo Market where donburi rice bowls heaped with local seafood make for one of life’s truly great culinary experiences. Upopoy, also known as the National Ainu Museum and Park, is slated to open in April 2020 in the seaside district of Shiraoi, a 40 minute drive from Sapporo’s Chitose airport. It sheds light on the cultural heritage of the indigenous Ainu people who have called Hokkaido home for millennia and proudly retain their own language, music, food and traditions.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay is rightly one of Vietnam’s most popular draws thanks to the thousands of jungly islands poking out of its waters. But have you considered Ninh Binh? This equally picturesque inland option hasn’t suffered from the overtourism issues of its better-known neighbour to the northeast. Striking limestone monoliths rise up from the countryside with rivers, caves and dense jungle surrounding them. The super-photogenic landscape inspires adventure, especially at spots including Tam Coc and Trang An, with their rice paddies, pagodas and gentle way of life. Ninh Binh is within 100 kilometres from Hanoi and can easily be reached by road or the country’s famed – if admittedly slow – Reunification Express train that lets you sit back and watch the country unfold.
These beautiful islands 90 minutes’ flight south of Manila have long been popular with in-the-know surfers. Lately, word is spreading about Siargao’s laid-back vibe, picture-perfect sunsets and big breaks. When not surfing, you can island hop on a bangka (a local bamboo boat), through idyllic lagoons and mangroves before kicking back over grilled seafood and cold beers. Take things up a notch in the evening with DJs, live music and other performances. The thriving local art scene features tattoo artists, sculptors, painters and more. Refreshingly, sustainability is taken seriously on Siargao: local NGO Sea Movement arranges regular coastal clean-ups so that visitors can ensure that they leave no trace of their own. Harana Surf Resort and Soul Tribe Beach Retreat are two notably eco-conscious places to stay.
In Fujian province, barely an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, Xiamen is a city of 3.5 million with art everywhere – and nowhere more so than in the fishing village of Aotou in the Xiang’an district. The array of art venues and programmes could make a bigger city jealous, especially with the 2018 additions of the Nordic Contemporary Art Centre and Chaokuang Art Museum. Works by dozens of Scandinavian artists abound in the former, while the sleek and modern Chaokuang champions local artists turned global stars such as Chen Wenling, famed for his oversize sculptures. When you add to the mix Red Dot Xiamen, a museum with its own design school that’s also in Essen, Germany, and Singapore, then it’s clear that this Fujianese powerhouse’s reputation as an art hub is only set to grow.
Germany’s former capital – the country moved its parliament from Bonn to Berlin in 1991 – celebrates its most famous son in 2020. The city is going all out to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, who composed masterpieces such as Ode to Joy and Für Elise. Dozens of homages to the man called ‘a 250-year-old pop star’ include those from German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who will stage Beethoven’s classic opera Fidelio, and electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk who will give an open-air concert in his honour. After extensive renovations, his home is reopening to the public as a museum, Beethoven-Haus. The composer, who went more than 20 years before he died, will also be celebrated in numerous other performances and concerts through the year.
The rugged and beautiful west coast of Ireland is where you’ll find the county and city of Galway, the 2020 European Capital of Culture. Twelve months of performances, projects and partnerships will result in a remarkable 1,900 events for visitors to choose from. Whether it’s world-class pyrotechnics, concerts, literary festivals – including a talk by The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood for International Women’s Day – or artistic installations in a 4,000-year-old peat bog, there’s clearly something for everyone. Galway is the third Irish city to hold the honour, following Dublin and Cork, and visitors can also expect much of the craic (or good times) that make Ireland such a beguiling destination.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
This picturesque 15th-century town about 130 kilometres from the capital, Sarajevo, tragically became synonymous with the destruction of the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. In 1993, Mostar’s Ottoman bridge – an architectural treasure known as Stari Most that had stood for 427 years across the Neretva river – was destroyed during the conflict. However, a post-war project to reconstruct it meant that the bridge was rebuilt and 2020 marks a quarter century of peace in the town. (For history with a dose of adrenaline, turn up in August when Red Bull hosts a cliff-diving event along the bridge). While Mostar can swell with visitors, including a growing cohort of Muslim travellers, there’s plenty of room for more across Bosnia and Herzegovina, where surpassing a million annual visitors was a recent milestone. Those who’ve been rave about the coffee culture, diverse heritage and sheer beauty of Sarajevo, best admired from atop Mount Trebević.
The seaside resort town of Rimini – located on the Adriatic coast in the Emilia-Romagna region – is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of filmmaker Federico Fellini, a native of the town. In preparation, the neoclassical Fulgor Cinema was restored to dazzling effect and reopened in 2018, as did the historic Teatro Amintore Galli opera house. Dozens of events are in the works, including a special Fellini exhibition at Castel Sismondo (through March 2020) and walking itineraries that chronicle the life of the man behind 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. At Rimini’s cemetery, you can pay respects to Fellini and his wife, Giulietta Masina. There’s plenty more to explore in lesser-visited Emilia-Romagna; drive two hours northwest, past Faenza (known for its ceramics) and Bologna, and you’ll reach Modena, where acclaimed chef Massimo Bottura has opened a guesthouse.
Although Maine is the biggest state in the New England region of the US, it’s arguably one of the least well-known and well-traversed. That should change in 2020 with the state’s headline-making bicentennial. What visitors to the city of Portland can expect to encounter is a thriving yet laid-back destination with outsize culinary talent. (US-based Bon Appetit magazine named Portland ‘restaurant city of the year’ in 2018, citing among the proof: The Shop by Island Creek Oysters, Drifters Wife and Little Giant, which happens to be owned by Ian and Kate Malin, who lived previously in Hong Kong.) Coffee roasters and craft brewers vie for business with bakers and restaurants, all making the most of stellar local produce. To mark the big birthday there will be festivals and exhibitions, including one celebrating 13,000 years of the indigenous Wabanaki people; concerts include a bicentennial gala by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Within the Caucasus region, where Europe and Asia meet, Georgia continues to win over adventurous travellers with its spectacular landscapes, natural wines and warm hospitality. The capital, Tbilisi, is an utterly charming mix of ancient churches, fortresses, museums and winding, vertiginous lanes. The architecture spans Art Nouveau, neoclassical, Stalinist and contemporary (case in point: the undulating steel-and-glass Bridge of Peace). As Georgia once stood on the Old Silk Road, its culture reflects influences including Asian, Persian, Arab and European. On the table, vast feasts of mezze-like dishes called supra are a revelation, especially as they feature the national dish, khachapuri, a sinful boat-shaped bread slathered in melted cheese and egg.