The world keeps getting bigger. Every serious traveler I know says their wish list grows longer, not shorter, every time they dip into a new region or hear about where someone else has been. And now, cities that were recently mere jumping-off points for safaris or beach vacations—or best ignored altogether—are coming into their own.So what’s worth more than a layover? What’s newly (or still) safe or newly uncovered? What’s hovering between chaos, charming sleepiness and overdeveloped soullessness? Which places will transform us?
I put those questions to experts at several high-end travel companies. These super-agents knows what they’re talking about, keeping their ears on their clients’ interests and their eyes on the adventures they themselves have in every corner of the world. Here’s what on their radar for this year.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
“Many travelers fly into Addis Ababa and then head straight out,” says Tom Marchant, the cofounder and owner of Black Tomato. “They’re missing out on all the vibrancy of this stunning African city.” Home to more than 80 nationalities, it’s a cultural epicenter and gateway to an ancient world. “Skipping out on the capital is akin to skipping out on the very fabric of Ethiopia.” The fascinating Ethnological Museum is one of Africa’s top museums, but the real hidden highlight of Addis is its late-night scene, which is hosted in atmospheric underground jazz clubs. “Close an evening with Ethio-jazz and discover a fusion of traditional music, Afro-funk and jazz.”
Don George, GeoEx’s Japan expert, recommends this city for its “rich mix of history and culture. In addition to having the poignant atomic bomb memorial, Nagasaki was one of two places where foreigners were allowed during Japan’s three-century isolationist period. The city was the place where the West was introduced to Japan.” Both compact and cosmopolitan, it has a rich range of historic sights and wonderful restaurants. “Super highly recommended!”
Puebla, a gorgeous Spanish-colonial city located two hours southeast of Mexico City, is poised to become one of the country’s most vibrant destinations, says Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley. The city is famous for its architecture—more than 365 churches in the city alone—superb food (this is the birthplace of mole) and exceptional pottery. “Puebla’s history is also fascinating: It is the only city in Mexico that was founded specifically for the Spanish colonialists, in 1531. As a result, the city has a distinctly European feel, with grand boulevards, Parisian-style arcades, imposing monuments and street-side cafes, but all with Mexican flair.” The new Rosewood Puebla ups the accommodation game.
“Proof that Malaysia is more than the powder-soft beaches of Langkawi and the lush tropical forests of Borneo, Malacca is Malaysia’s cultural beating heart,” says Marchant. “Centuries of colonial influence made for a city with remarkable character, and a decade on from its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s developing a real buzz.” Now the Dutch and Portuguese heritage is finding its way into a boutique hotels and restaurants, and the riverside has been regenerated with the emergence of trendy new outposts such as the Zheng He Duo Yun Zuan Gallery.
GeoEx’s senior director for Asia, Tina Liadis, recommends this city as a center for Javanese culture: traditional gamelan orchestras, classical Javanese dance, shadow puppet theater, batik textiles. “It’s a special administrative region and still has a sultan,” she notes, and there are sights related to the monarchy that can be visited, such as the kraton (sultan’s palace). And it has a very long history, as evidenced by the nearby Borobudur Temple (Buddhist from the 8th century) and Prambanan Temple (Hindu from the 9th century), among others.”
“Boasting Andean vistas and colonial splendor, Arequipa is a gem of a city that’s played a fundamental role in Peru’s gastronomic renaissance,” says Marchant. “Classic spicy dishes such as rocoto relleno (stuffed spicy red peppers), chupe de camarones (prawn chowder) and ocopa (boiled potato in a creamy, spicy sauce) all hail from here and are still best enjoyed in the city’s communal picantería restaurants.” It’s smaller and more navigable than Lima, yet it offers notable sights such as the gigantic cathedral, with the ethereal image of the El Misti volcano rising behind it. “The boutique bolthole Casa Andina is the perfect base for exploring the sites of the city, such as the world’s oldest mummy, Santa Catalina Monastery, and the Main Square and Cathedral.”
“Founded more than 4,000 years ago, Cairo is a fascinating city that offers a glimpse into the complexities of the modern Middle East, where a tug of war is being waged between modern and traditional Islam and the dichotomies of ancient and contemporary society play out,” says Biggs Bradley. “And with tourist numbers low right now, travelers will have the important ancient sites to themselves.” The new National Museum for Egyptian Civilization is home to more than 50,000 artifacts, and in Giza—an easy day trip from Cairo—the upcoming, sleek Grand Egyptian Museum is estimated to be the largest archeological museum in the world. And the luxury quotient will go up this year with the debut of the St. Regis Cairo.
Dubbed “The Paris of Africa,” Brazzaville is one of the safest cities in Africa, contends Marchant. “With the city centered around a peaceful riverside embankment and framed by a backdrop of striking architecture, it’s easy to see the resemblance.” And with a raft of trendy new eateries, it’s become much more than a stopover. “Days are spent strolling through the city’s clean and impeccably organized streets, taking in its bustling markets and marveling at its architecture. Be sure to check out Basilique Sainte-Anne, best seen at around 5pm each afternoon, when locals flood the church with vibrant color as they gather for mass.
The city is quickly becoming the tech capital of South America. “Trendy cafés, shops, breweries, artisan cooperatives and co-working spaces are popping up, and millennials are drawn by its allure as the former narco headquarters,” says Jennine Cohen, GeoEx’s managing director for the Americas. “It also happens to be Colombia’s cycling heart—this is, after all, where Nairo Quintana trained.” On Friday nights, local hipsters gather at the Modern Art Museum for free admission, free outdoor film screenings and food trucks galore. And there are great day trips to the vibrant colonial town of Guatape and to Antiqoquia, including hiking in Santa Elena and up the rock of Piedra de Penol for views of the surrounding verdant mountains.
“Only an hour from the Managua airport, the colonial city of Leon is a gorgeous vantage to soak up the natural assets of the country,” says Marchant. “More off the tourist trail than Granada, it offers a more authentic city experience.” The best way to discover Leon is by foot, as much of its charm lies in the narrow colonial streets, art galleries, museums, restaurants and architecture. The Hotel El Convento is one of Leon’s most elegant places to stay, rebuilt on the grounds of the San Francisco convent using the same Spanish colonial style. “Drive a few minutes out of the city center to smoldering volcanic peaks, where you can try a thrilling sport, volcano boarding—one of our favorites!”