CreditCredit…By Scott J. Ross
The 25 Travel Experiences You Must Have
A pair of internationally minded writers, a chef, an architect and a landscape photographer made a list of the most extraordinary adventures a person should seek out. Here are the results.
By Alwa Cooper, Ashlea Halpern, Debra Kamin, Aileen Kwun, Miguel Morales, Dan Piepenbring and Michael Snyder
Nov. 17, 2022
One July morning, a five-person jury — including the writers Pico Iyer and Aatish Taseer, the architect Toshiko Mori, the chef and food scientist David Zilber and the landscape photographer Victoria Sambunaris — gathered over Zoom to debate what, exactly, constitutes a “travel experience” and how some might rise above the rest. To get the conversation started, each panelist had nominated at least 10 selections in advance of the call; their job now was to slash that list from 55 to 25.
The participants were all polite, often deferring to whomever they deemed an expert on a particular subject: Zilber, who worked at Noma and co-authored the Copenhagen restaurant’s 2018 book about fermentation, on outstanding restaurants; Sambunaris, who traverses the country several months a year by car to capture her images, on the spectacular topography of the American West. They were also quick to sacrifice their own darlings, particularly if they felt they were too familiar (Petra, Machu Picchu), too obscure (Alvar Aalto’s Muuratsalo Experimental summer house in Säynätsalo, Finland — a Mori selection), too personal (driving the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan and China — something Taseer heard about from his father) or too commodified (a Nile River cruise, most hotel stays). As Iyer put it, “Hotels offer luxury and comfort, but they rarely touch my soul.”
Some panelists rescinded nominations for experiences they hadn’t had themselves, despite having dreamed for years about what it might be like to, say, hike through Japan’s remote Yakushima Island National Park, the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke”(1997). (“I feel like I don’t know if going there would destroy or enhance my fantasy,” Mori said.) Others opted to keep in the mix selections to which they couldn’t personally attest — proving how powerful our collective imagination can be. If something seemed too easy, they worried it might not be special enough. At the same time, not every experience chosen is rare or difficult to access: Sometimes it’s just a matter of opening your eyes (or mind) to whatever magic a place has to offer.
The panel considered safety, too, with some participants concluding that what might make a destination “dangerous” is largely, though not entirely, shaped by personal history and worldview. Others wanted to be sure readers were asked to conduct their own research before deciding whether or not to set out for a certain place, as situations on the ground can change rapidly. At the time of publication, the U.S. State Department had issued its strongest possible warning — Level 4: Do Not Travel — for four of the destinations on the following list; several others have been categorized as Level 3: Reconsider Travel. But most of the panelists agreed, time and again, to include politically, ethically and ideologically fraught locations. “War-torn countries and places in conflict right now haven’t always been and might not always be,” said Zilber. “I don’t think [their current status] should negate their inclusion.” (In the months between when this panel met — on July 20, 2022 — and the list’s publication, the world continued to shift: the Russian war with Ukraine deepened; Iran erupted in protests following the arrest and subsequent death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman accused by the country’s morality police of violating their hijab law; and Ethiopia and the Tigray Defense Forces, a paramilitary rebel group, agreed to a cease-fire after two years of ruinous civil war.)
The final lineup, which is grouped geographically but not ranked, includes experiences of art and architecture, food, history and religion. There’s something for every whim and every kind of traveler — even those who may never leave their armchairs. — Ashlea Halpern
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Ashlea Halpern: I’m curious to hear how each of you defined the word “experience” when you sat down to make your list.
Pico Iyer: I asked myself, “Which are the moments that most stay with me 30 years on in my life? Which are the most moving and also the most unexpected?” I wouldn’t include seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight, because most Times readers would be aware of that. So something slightly different, but something that still reverberates inside me half a lifetime later.
Victoria Sambunaris: I defined “experience” as a journey, because that’s what I do in my life: I’m on the road for months at a time, immersing myself in the landscape. I’m interacting with people and learning about the [local] culture, history, ecology and geography. No reservations anywhere, being spontaneous, camping under the stars — there’s a great sense of adventure.
Aatish Taseer: I veer toward man-made things — cultural and civilizational complications. When a natural experience leaves me with a sense of wonder that I didn’t expect, it breaks the mold. Everyone travels with a sense of what they’re going to see; no one is completely blank. Then, occasionally, there’s a real element of surprise. That’s what I looked for.
David Zilber: “Experience” is really broad; everything is an experience. Binge-watching Netflix while sick is an experience, though I can’t remember what I binge-watch when I’m bedridden at home. But I do remember my 45-minute drive through the mountains of Crete to eat at this man’s biodynamic farm with his kids running around — and I probably will when I’m 75.
Toshiko Mori: I thought of natural wonders, because we forget how small we are, and of being able to observe animal life in a habitat without interfering with it. With Instagram, everybody posts awesome images; [the depicted locations] become huge attractions and it’s destructive to the environment. Also, I thought of certain civilizations and places that have had challenging pasts — like Kurdistan after ISIS retreated. It’s essential for us to engage in experiences like this, because we are incredibly privileged and protected. I didn’t want to forget places that really need attention.
A.H.: Let’s start with Europe. Spain received four nominations from four different panelists — more than any other country on your initial longlists.
1. Taste Wood-Smoked Sorcery at Asador Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque Country
The chef Victor Arguinzoniz was raised amid the rolling green hills of Atxondo, a small village in Spain’s Basque country where, when he was a child, his family kitchen had neither electricity nor gas. Perhaps that’s why the open hearth can produce such magic for him. He has no professional training but for 30 years has overseen a temple to smoke and flame at the Michelin-starred Asador Etxebarri, a rustic restaurant minutes from his childhood home. Arriving there, with its view of cattle grazing in the foothills below, is like stopping time. But in the kitchen, the clock has inched slightly forward: The six custom-made grills, designed by Arguinzoniz and adjustable via pulleys, are tools of culinary alchemy. The chef prepares his own wood coals in special ovens that are cranked up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. For each protein, he pairs a fuel with the precision of a sommelier, selecting holm oak for delicate shellfish and turning to heartier vine wood for red meats. There’s only one service — at 1:30 p.m. — and one menu per day. The meal, served in 15 courses, is a symphony that builds, plate by smoke-kissed plate, to a crescendo: first the smoked goat butter with Périgord truffle; then the salted, home-cured anchovies on grilled bread; then the beef chop with its crisp black sear and lustrous purple center; and finally a coda of smoky-milk ice cream with an infusion of sweet beets. This is fine dining in its purest, most unpretentious form. — Debra Kamin
D.Z.: Meals are some of the stickiest memories around, and this is definitely in the top three of my lifetime. It goes without saying that the Basque Country of Spain revolutionized food in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the repercussions of that have been felt around the world. I started cooking in 2004, and all the techniques that I’ve learned came from that region. We can talk about Ferran Adrià and his El Bulli and all the progeny who are still cooking today in Barcelona and Madrid, but Etxebarri best encapsulates what this region is about and its deep connection to the land and its people. There’s no one who comes out of that restaurant who doesn’t leave deeply touched.
2. Search for Muslim Spain in Al-Andalus
Alhambra’s Tower of the Captive (Torre de la Cautiva) in Granada, Spain, as it appears after dark.Credit…Fernanado Maquieira
From the eighth to the 11th centuries, the Iberian Peninsula, then under Muslim rule, was one of the world’s most important intellectual and artistic hubs. In the region of southern Spain known as Andalusia — the name a Hispanicization of Al-Andalus, as Islamic Spain was known — that heritage remains visible everywhere: in the crimped vocalizations of flamenco music; in the elaborate geometric friezes of Seville’s Alcázar Palace; in the infinite recess of the red-and-white archways of the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba; and, above all, in Granada’s storied Alhambra, the last Moorish stronghold on the European continent, where it glitters in honeycomb muqarnas and moonlight-washed, waterway-threaded gardens. During the so-called Reconquista, as the centuries-long process through which Catholic kings gradually eroded territories accumulated by successive Muslim dynasties has been historically misnamed, the great cities of Andalusia became spectacular palimpsests of divergent faiths superimposed on top of each other. In Seville, the 15th-century cathedral — the largest Gothic-style building in Europe — stands on the footprint of an Almohad mosque whose graceful minaret was repurposed as a church tower, while in Córdoba, a Renaissance cathedral bursts from the austere, rhythmic heart of the mezquita, itself built atop the remains of a sixth-century Visigothic basilica. After experiencing these spaces, one finds that the influence of Islamic aesthetics throughout Spain — and, indeed, throughout the Americas, devastated and remade under Spanish colonial rule — reveals itself everywhere. Beyond its beauty, Andalusia is a tribute to the indelible marks that cultures and communities leave on one another across time and space. — Michael Snyder
A.T.: Nothing in the world prepares you for the strangeness of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba [Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba]. I’ve grown up in places where there are the mosques on the bones of temples on the bones of Buddhist viharas, but this business of church upon mosque upon church, where you walk in and see the remains of a Visigothic church but you’re in one of the most beautiful mosques in the world [and since the 13th century a church again], it’s like an act of reclamation — or historical revenge. Even the minaret is buried in the belfry of the church. It’s a theme that I love — layers upon layers of history — and just one of the reasons I thought it was absolutely marvelous.
P.I.: I was the one who suggested the Alhambra, so it comes down to whether we want a zoom lens or a wide angle. I chose the Alhambra for all the reasons that Aatish was mentioning: the overlapping of cultures, the historical significance and also the fact that the Alhambra is fairly well known. On nights when it’s open after dark, you’re getting a familiar place in a relatively unfamiliar context. So our question, really, is whether we want to introduce everyone to that entire region or just a microcosm of it.
A.T.: There’s a development I like in a broader trip, where you come to Seville, see the Giralda, which was originally built as the minaret of the old Almohad mosque, now part of this cathedral, and then you’ll journey a little farther and go to Córdoba and see this stunning mosque that has been turned into a church, and then finally it culminates in this last gasp of Islam in Spain, the Emirate of Granada, which then obviously results in the Catholic monarchs and the end of Muslim Spain. But Pico is absolutely right: The Alhambra is the epicenter — the Moors’ last sigh.
T.M.: I like this idea of a journey. This exposure to Muslim culture is so much more interesting than a single place.
3. Venture Into the Norwegian Night in Search of the Northern Lights
Spotting the aurora borealis, the elusive natural phenomenon colloquially known as the northern lights, involves careful coordination of time, place and, yes, luck. Like a digital rendering or laser beams projected above an after-hours rave, the unpredictable show illuminates the sky with dancing streaks of saturated yellow, pink, purple and green, a tangoing of solar gas and Earth’s magnetic field rendered in Technicolor. Locales roughly 66.5 degrees above the Equator, where the Arctic Circle begins, are considered prime viewing spots; cottage industries across Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia have sprung up to sell package tours and overnight accommodations to aurora hunters. Lofoten, an archipelago off Norway’s northwest coast, offers one of the most picturesque backdrops for witnessing this mercurial sight. There, a coastline framed by jagged peaks, sweeping fjords, sandy beaches and rorbu, old fishermen’s cabins painted cherry red and pine green, makes for a serene visit, day or night. Winters on the archipelago are long (November to April) and dark (for five weeks in December and January, the sun doesn’t even rise), so consider them a prime time to settle down on a north-facing beach (Unstad and Gimsøy are particularly beautiful) or sink into a hot tub at a heritage fishing lodge, neck craned skyward — and wait. The anticipation is half the fun. — Aileen Kwun
D.Z.: The northern lights are one of those earthly phenomena that don’t make sense — I don’t think that my brain could fully compute what it was like until I saw it in real life. And Lofoten is just extremely picturesque: It’s hard to get to but very rewarding once you’re there. But I don’t know. Maybe the northern lights are the Mona Lisa of the natural world?
A.H.: Anyone else seen the northern lights in Norway or elsewhere?
T.M.: Yeah, I have, because I’m in Maine and you can see it in northern Maine, but I don’t think it’s anything like what Dave is talking about. Lofoten is on my wish list.
A.T.: I saw them in Iceland but I’m 100 percent pinching David’s idea.
P.I.: I was really excited as soon as I saw this [on the list]. I’ve been up to Fairbanks, Alaska, to see the northern lights, and I know people go to Churchill in Manitoba. But the combination of the northern lights and this remote setting sounds irresistible.
4. Journey Across Two Continents and Eight Time Zones on the Trans-Siberian Railway
Traveling to Russia now, as its war with Ukraine continues, is virtually impossible: Nearly all international flights have been suspended, and the State Department has recommended that Americans steer clear of the country. How or whether Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world, not to mention its tourism industry — a frivolous concern compared to the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people — will recover remains to be seen. But in more peaceful times, riding the Trans-Siberian Railway and its shorter connecting lines is an unparalleled experience — a tour through the many and varied cultures that make up the largest country on Earth. The 5,772 miles of track from Moscow to Vladivostok, built at the turn of the 20th century at the behest of Emperor Alexander III, constitutes by itself the longest continuous railway in the world, and before the pandemic and then the war interrupted its international reach, sleeper cars could take you from most major Western European capitals to Moscow in two or three days. From there, you can make it to the other end nonstop in seven days, but arranging layovers along the way allows for a variety of side excursions: Hop off at Yekaterinburg to see the Soviet-era architecture of Russia’s fourth-largest city, for example, or Irkutsk to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Better yet, switch at Ulan Ude to the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which extends through the capital of Ulaanbaatar and into the Gobi Desert, ideal for fossil hunting and camel riding, before arriving in Beijing. — Alwa Cooper
V.S.: OK, I know Russia is controversial right now. But this is the longest [direct] train journey in the world. You’re going through ancient cities, deep forests, breathtaking mountains and Siberian outposts. You’re seeing a lot.
A.H.: How does the panel feel about including Russia?
A.T.: I feel absolutely fine. Russia existed before Putin, and Russia is going to exist after Putin. I mean, how could I, with a straight face, eliminate traveling through Russia and then go scurrying down to my Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? I have a firewall between this idea of Russia as a culturally rich nation and the political reality that one can speak critically of. Lots of nations that we love will come to be ruled by bad people.
P.I.: I agree with Aatish. Political complication, historical complexity and texture are really what make these places something more than sites.
5. Savor an Unforgettable Lunch at Ntounias in Western Crete
It takes a 45-minute drive from Chania, Crete, through the Greek island’s White Mountains to reach this mecca of homespun cooking in Drakona. Through scenic Therrisos Gorge, with occasional stops for sheep crossings, the journey is best made with the windows down, cooled by the hillside breeze and dazzled by the sun winking across limestone mountain caps. Expect a warm greeting upon arrival — the view from the terrace of the valley below will make up for any bumps in the rugged and twisty road — but don’t expect a menu. Along with his wife, Evmorfili, Stelios Trilyrakis, the chef, farmer, shepherd, butcher, owner and maître d’, takes care of all that. The daily bounty comes from an organic garden, part of the tavern Trilyrakis took over from his parents in 2004 after years of working as a chef in Chania. Guests are invited to tour the grounds and the nearby apiary as well as the wood stoves and ovens in the kitchen, though the meal rightfully remains the primary attraction. There might be a village salad (horiatiki), farm-baked bread and freshly churned butter, stuffed vegetables cooked in a traditional clay pot, potatoes fried in olive oil for close to an hour, goat sizzling in its own fat and house wine made on-site. In a country known for its cuisine, Ntounias stands apart. — Miguel Morales
D.Z.: This man used to be a chef in Chania and then seemed to think, as I did, that the world of restaurants is just not where it’s at. So he left and founded a little biodynamic farm. He has this plot of land that overlooks a verdant gorge, and he cooks everything on an open fire. You get snails, lamb stew, whatever is in season. It’s not complicated food; it’s never going to be in the Michelin Guide or on the “World’s 50 Best” list. But it’s the closest I’ve tasted to soul food.
T.M.: I love Crete. It’s a very beautiful place and it still has a certain authenticity about it. The roads sometimes dead-end, and when I was there, you needed at least three maps to figure out where you were. It’s a real physical landscape.
D.Z.: The island itself is one of the oldest continually inhabited civilizations in all of Europe. It has a crazy history, and just going there and eating this food, the way that he cooks it, it’s so honest.
6. Join the Faithful in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a Different Kind of White Christmas
There is no Santa Claus in Ethiopia, no halls decked with holly. Christmas, which in so much of the Western world is a commercialized affair, is an intensely spiritual day here, observed not with gifts but with community, incantation and candlelight. The majority of Ethiopians are Christian and most worship freely, despite a history of extremist attacks on churches across the country. The nation follows a solar calendar, and Christmas, known as Genna, is observed on Jan. 7. The holiday begins with fasting on Jan. 6, when, at dusk, devotees head into the streets. In bustling Addis Ababa, a hush falls as thousands of men, women and children, all dressed in white and many wrapped in the traditional cotton robes called netelas, file to church like slow-moving snowdrifts. Many will worship all night, traveling by foot, lit candles in hand, from one church to the next until the small hours of morning. Ethiopia is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Africa, all of which are filled to capacity on Christmas Eve. (Visitors are welcome to observe.) In the capital, these include the Medhane Alem Cathedral, with its turquoise domes and columnar facade, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, with its grand murals, jewel-toned stained glass windows and granite tombs in which Emperor Haile Selassie and his consort are interred. Some of the world’s oldest known human fossils have been unearthed from Ethiopian sands. On Christmas Eve, a nation that continues to endure famine and ethnic violence pauses for a prayer of peace. As worshipers pass one another and declare, “Melkam Genna!” — “Merry Christmas” in Amharic — the streets all but vibrate. — D.K.
P.I.: I seem to be haunted by places of spiritual intensity, from Lhasa to inner Australia. But I’ve seldom found anywhere to rival the power and magnetism of Ethiopia. It is, by some accounts, the oldest Christian country in the world, and when you drive through it, you feel like you’re going through the biblical books of Kings. But it comes to its culmination on Christmas Eve, when it seems like everyone in the capital is dressed in white, gathering around what look like mangers while these burning-eyed, bearded priests are rocking back and forth with little Bibles that fit in the palms of their hands. I’m not a Christian, but you look around and feel you could be in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus and that so little has changed in the past 2,000 years. Part of the poignancy is that life tends to be very difficult in Ethiopia, [teetering] between political uncertainty and impoverishment. So there’s this real sense that the religion and the moment mean even more than they might in Madrid or Paris. Although I was there 28 years ago, I’ll never forget walking through the night from church to church, seeing these people with tears in their eyes, gathered in the darkness, holding their candles and singing.
7. Traverse the Blossoming Oases and Ancient Desert Towns of Morocco’s Draa Valley
In precolonial Morocco, the imposing grandeur of the Atlas Mountains marked the boundary between the bilad el-makhzen — land under the rule of the Alaouite sultan — and the bilad el-siba, or “region of anarchy.” Today, to drive the circuitous route through the Atlases and into the Draa Valley is to exist on that line: It’s a liminal place where verdant gardens and soaring minarets open onto the vast barrens of the Sahara. Departing from Marrakesh, head southeast to Ouarzazate, or “the door of the desert,” and then onto M’Hamid, whose Dar Paru hotel exemplifies Berber architecture, with its rammed-earth walls and geometric parapets. From there, follow the N9 and N12 roads to hew close to the Draa, a river that runs along the Algerian border, nourishing a landscape of riotous color: The mountains’ ochers, umbers and emeralds cede to rippling oases of blue palms, olive groves, fields of golden barley and sun-baked adobe casbahs. Once home to a bustling trade route, the region bears the marks of Morocco’s imbricated faiths and folkways. Fragrant date palms, first grown by Arabs who arrived in the seventh century, freckle stretches of arable land hemmed in by sand dunes. Towns such as Tissint draw their influences from the Berbers, who have lived in North Africa for more than 4,000 years. (“Tissint” is the Berber word for salt, another early commodity.) Further southeast, in Akka, more than 300 miles from Marrakesh, are the remains of a community of Jewish merchants and silversmiths who plied their trade in the area as early as the second century. Their homes — made of mud brick and stucco, with walls now jagged or altogether missing — stand as monuments to the Draa’s rich, syncretic past and to the enthralling boundlessness of its present. — Dan Piepenbring
A.T.: I’d been to Marrakesh; I’d been to Tangier. Morocco, for me, was a known commodity. Then I did this journey south a couple of years ago. This is an Arabic place, and yet there’s this very profound other culture that’s always under the surface. The most startling moment came when I arrived in a town where there was an old Jewish quarter of silversmiths and we went into a house that felt like it had been abandoned yesterday. It was just one of those moments where suddenly all of the pieces fall into place and you get a window into another vein of culture or civilization and how it interacted with this Arabized Muslim state of Morocco. I also have to say, landscape-wise, it’s the only place other than Yemen where you’re driving through and you have these discrete, scarified mountains on either side, and every now and then there’ll be, like, a flowering tree against the desert. It’s stunning stuff.
8. Come Face to Face With a Rare Marine Mammal Off the Coast of Southern Mozambique
Sea pig, sea cow, sea camel — the dugong’s epithets aren’t particularly evocative, but its serene presence is the highlight of any dive trip. The 200 or so animals that scientists estimate live in the protected waters of Bazaruto Archipelago National Park constitute the largest remaining dugong population on the East African coast. To experience them, you must fly into the nearest international airport, in the town of Vilankulo, and then organize a helicopter or dhow ride to one of the archipelago’s many resorts and lodges. There are numerous diving and snorkeling spots along Bazaruto’s famed Two-Mile Reef, which offers unusually clear visibility and a thriving coral population. Found in the shallow coastal waters of as many as 40 countries, the large and placid dugong (imagine a manatee with a wider, shorter snout) is intensely shy, and its population is considered “vulnerable,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Its hearing is sharp but its vision is poor; moving in slowly, silently and respectfully is key. Even so, only the luckiest Bazaruto divers will ever spot a dugong — often from a distance of several meters — drifting alone or in pairs. — A.C.
A.T.: When I’m obliged to write about the natural world, I get kind of nervous because I think, “Oh, am I going to feel something? Am I going to know how to translate that feeling in my writing?”By April , I had become very scared of travel: the pandemic, the restrictions, the fear that you were going to be stuck somewhere and not allowed back. All of this was weighing on my mind, and I’d almost lost that sense of wonder, that willingness to leave home. And in this place, which is the basin of the Indian Ocean in that part of the world, the plane tilted and I saw the sand flats push through this ancient archipelago and I thought to myself, “Of course, this is why one leaves home!” I hadn’t scuba-dived in 15 years, and here I was with blacktip reef sharks and sea turtles swimming into the raking light with plankton. Dugongs are incredibly rare, but as we came up from this dive, we saw one. It was a kind of emotional state brought on by the pandemic — a fear of leaving home running smack into that total excitement to be out in the world again.
A.H.: Many other lists like this would probably include an African safari; it’s refreshing not to promote a more traditional safari experience.
T.M.: The African safari has a checkered history because it’s related to hunting animals. There’s a balance now between conservation and infringement, but how those animals are really protected or may not be … there’s a lot we don’t know. So I’m definitely sensitive about not recommending a safari as an experience.
THE MIDDLE EAST
9. Discover Paradise on Earth in the Secret Courtyard Gardens of Yazd, Iran
The very concept of paradise was born in Iran around 550 B.C., when Cyrus the Great, in the days of the Achaemenid Empire, oversaw the construction of a spectacular walled oasis called Parsargadae — a place of symmetry, flowering trees and calming waters — setting an example of how man might bend nature in pursuit of ultimate beauty. So deep do the Iranian roots of nirvana run that even the English word “paradise” comes from paridaida, the Old Persian term for walled garden. For those wishing to commune with Eden today, there’s perhaps no better place than Yazd, a 1,600-year-old Iranian desert town that was once a critical stop on the Silk Road. Here, the garden hotels of the city, which today is home to 530,000 people, pay homage to the Iranian legacy of paradise with their hidden courtyards. From the lush Kohan and the majestic Moshir Al Mamalek to the family-run Dad Hotel, the accommodations range from humble to luxurious. For guests who step through the door and out into the enclosed garden, hushed earthly delights of fountains and flowers — soft calla lilies, tulips and desert roses — await. — D.K.
P.I.: In all my traveling life, Iran is definitely the richest, most sophisticated, most surprising place I’ve been. And it’s the one I’m always urging my friends in California to go to — partly because I worry, as with Cuba or with other Middle Eastern places, that we’re reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes from afar. And I’m so keen for people to experience the human reality firsthand. Sometimes friends will ask me, “Is it safe to go?” Well, I’m sitting here near Los Angeles, which for most of the planet is a really scary place.
Before I went to Iran, I was told by people who had been there that you only have to worry about two things: Everywhere you go, you’re going to be swamped with more friendliness than you know what to do with, and everyone’s going to invite you to dinner. The only reason that didn’t always happen to me was that people took me for Iranian, so they weren’t as excited as if they’d seen a more visible foreigner.
A.T.: I loved Yazd. I have to say that I did run afoul of the authorities in Iran and was turfed out with 48 hours to leave and probably couldn’t go back, but I completely second what Pico said. Up until that point, I had been met with nothing but hospitality and friendship, and Yazd was one of the highlights of that trip.
10. Swim in a Desert Oasis in Oman
Many of Oman’s wadis, or desert valleys, dry up in the scorching summer months, but at Wadi Bani Khalid, wide pools of water glisten year-round. You drive through the desert and suddenly there it is: a cliché of a gleaming desert mirage. But this is no illusion. Above the pristine pools, date palms sway in the breeze, and the rocky white cliff sides of the Hajar Mountains reveal canyons and caves; if you hike into them, you can see shimmering waterfalls. Thousands of tiny garra fish flash beneath the surface of these pools, ready to nibble at the dead skin on your toes. Wadi Bani Khalid is a three-hour drive from Muscat, making it an ideal day trip, although there are lots of budget hotels and desert camps in the area. Many visitors stop first at the sandy outpost of Al Wasil for camel rides and an overnight stay in a Bedouin-style tent. From there, the mountain road winds through fishing villages until the vast expanse of Wadi Bani Khalid, with its nearly 12-mile stretch of water, appears on the horizon. Its natural beauty is as intact today as it was when Oman’s Bedouin tribes relied on it, and a visit here offers an instant connection to the region’s deep history. The Oman government has helped develop the site in recent years, too, bringing with it a paved parking lot, bridges and public restrooms. — D.K.
T.M.: I share Pico’s notions that people should travel to the Middle East. The geographical diversity is incredible, and Oman is a peaceful and stable place. It’s absolutely gorgeous, the air is clear, the food is great and the climate is wonderful. It’s so easy for people to go here, yet Dubai takes all the tourists.
P.I.: I’m so happy to see Oman on the list. I think of it as the Bhutan of the Middle East because it’s so tastefully developed and preserved.
11. Delve Into 6,000-Plus Years of History at Erbil Citadel in Iraq
The longest continuously inhabited settlement in the world, Erbil Citadel lies at the heart of the modern-day capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. To the north, the Zagros Mountains beckon. The Kurdistan Regional Government has been developing trails there to promote hiking across a range that rivals the Alps in size — an impressive backdrop for one of the cradles of civilization. The 6,000-year-old fort sits atop a tell, a 100-foot-high mound the size of 19 football fields made by generations of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities that built on top of one another. Courtyard homes constructed with oven-fired brick, said to be inspired by the ring of tents nomads once formed around their cattle, nestle inside the citadel walls. Their plain facades conceal branching floor plans that gave privacy to the extended families who once lived there. Visit the citadel with a guide in the late afternoon, when its brick walls turn the color of amber, and then drop by the bustling Qaysari Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world. Dating to the Ottoman era, it houses stalls of jewelry, textiles, crafts and sweets. Erbil and its citadel have withstood waves of conquest by Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Muslims, Timurids, Mongols and Ottomans. To repair and preserve the settlement, the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization was formed in 2007; the Kurdistan Regional Government has allocated more than $30 million to the undertaking. But just as the citadel was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, the rehab stalled temporarily owing to the rise of ISIS. Work has since resumed; the ancient tell remains open; and, despite centuries of conquest and long spells of neglect, the citadel stands: a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. — M.M.
T.M.: Kurds will say, “We have no friends but mountains.” This is one of the world’s largest stateless populaces and it’s constantly in danger, sandwiched between Turkey and Iran. The citadel is still going through reconstruction. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but it gives you a real sense of place and what it’s like to live in a region that has had to defend against ISIS attacks. It’s not a safe choice, but Kurdistan is a strong and resilient community that has survived ongoing and periodic attacks. There are prominent politically progressive women in the government and there are many untouched archaeological sites.
12. Marvel at the Threatened Mud-Brick Skyscrapers of Yemen
In an ancient Semitic world as yet undivided by modern faiths, long before the rise of Christianity or Islam, the cities of what we now call Yemen emerged from the desert as their inhabitants made their fortunes on frankincense and myrrh. As trade between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean flourished, beginning around the third century B.C., these new urban centers sprouted along the so-called Incense Route, their occupants developing, over time, ingenious systems of irrigation and urban planning that are as remarkable today as they were a thousand years ago. In the 2,500-year-old historic center of Sana’a, the capital of modern Yemen, residents adorned the ocher walls of their multistory homes with garlands of gypsum plaster, while in the town of Shibam, which emerged in its current form in the 16th century, rammed-earth towers rose as high as seven stories from a cliff’s edge overlooking the Wadi Hadhramaut, a vertiginous landscape that blurs the boundary between the natural and the man-made. For decades now, these ancient settlements and the people who reside within them have suffered crisis upon crisis — floods and famines and a years-long civil war that, since its beginning in 2014, has precipitated mass starvation, even as historic neighborhoods are shredded by U.S.-backed Saudi bombings. Among the most extraordinary human settlements on earth, the tower cities of Yemen — and, more important, the communities that have for millenniums called them home — are in grave danger of disappearing for good. — M.S.
A.T.: Singularly, without a doubt, this was the most incredible trip I’ve done in my life. This is a rare, stuck-in-the-past kind of country: Like pre-Islamic Arabia, it felt Semitic in the deepest sense. Yemen, for me, was that one place where there was no creeping globalization; it was unbelievably pure. There were some dangers then, too, but not like there are now. I hesitate to recommend it because of the safety situation.
P.I.: I was thrilled to see it on the list. And if we have to single out one element in Yemen, those skyscrapers would be the place to start: Anyone who’s seen them is never going to forget them. I think we shouldn’t worry about safety. It is one of the great countries on Earth and, as Aatish was saying, not like anywhere else.
V.S.: Yes, I agree. We should keep it. Just Aatish’s description — I’m ready to go.
13. Follow the Silk Road Through the Caravan Cities of Uzbekistan
Step back in time with a visit to three of the most important stops on the Silk Road, each city a distinctive meld of Greek, Turkish, Mongol, Muslim and Russian cultures. In the tiled expanse of the Registan, ancient Samarkand’s public square framed by three madrasas (Islamic schools), stand transfixed beneath the grand portals, patterned minarets and ornate cupolas. A little down the road to the west lies Gur-e-Amir, the resting place of the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane. Resplendent with intricate tile work and crowned by a heavenly blue dome, the mausoleum inspired the Mughal master craftspeople of the Taj Mahal. A leisurely walk northeast, past new developments and century-old buildings, calls for a stopover at Siyob Bazaar, where you can wander the food stalls selling pomegranates, dates, halvah, naan and more. A few hundred paces away is Bibi-Khanym: One of the largest mosques built in the 15th century, the structure was restored to much of its former glory in the latter half of the 20th, its grand azure dome and four minarets suspended against the backdrop of the iwan. There are no direct flights from Samarkand to Bukhara, so take the scenic route by train, past rippling red sands, the oases that punctuate the bleached-out plains of the Kyzylkum Desert and Poi-Kalyan, the sprawling mosque complex, where the baked brick of minaret, madrasa and mosque glow pink at sunset. And though all three cities have centuries-old caravansaries — the famed inns where Silk Road merchants stayed — Ichan-Kala, a remnant of the ancient Khiva oasis, checkered with medieval Islamic buildings, appears completely untouched by time. Countless others have walked these walls before, and now you have joined your steps to theirs, grounded together in the richness of the past. — M.M.
A.T.: I mean, unparalleled, the most wonderful Silk Road trip you can do. Stunning monuments, red desert, old Persianate culture mixing with the culture of the steppe and then, obviously, the Soviet empire. I would recommend it very highly.
14. Tour the Lofty Potala Palace in Lhasa, a Sacred Repository of Tibetan Artifacts
Rising out of a cliff face more than 12,000 feet above sea level, Tibet’s Potala Palace feels like a lavish retreat, a religious sanctuary and an impregnable fortress all in one. The climb to the top of the 13-story building is breathtaking in every sense of the word; make sure you’ve acclimated to the altitude before you attempt it. And the palace’s sloped red-and-white facade — repainted annually with a mixture of honey, milk, brown sugar and saffron — is as inviting as it is magisterial. (Frank Lloyd Wright found it so inspiring that he kept a photo of it in his drafting room.) Completed in 1649, the palace’s two divisions, one red and one white, together comprise at least one thousand rooms that encapsulate the vibrant multiplicity of Tibetan history. Guided tours, lit by traditional butter lamps, take you through rooms crowded with hundreds of murals, works of porcelain and jade, intricate carpets and Buddhist scriptures; the world’s longest scroll of Tibetan calligraphy, measuring 676 feet in length, has been housed here since 2014. Also on display are astonishing gilded stupas — wooden towers of concentric rings inlaid with jewels, each crowned with a sun and moon — containing the remains of eight Dalai Lamas. The Potala is a tribute to Buddhism and an embattled people; located on a mountaintop in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, or “place of gods,” it has survived numerous attempts at looting and destruction since Tibet was annexed by China in 1950. Its resilience is reason enough to go. — D.P.
P.I.: Tibet is a really important place for people to visit culturally and politically because it’s so imperiled. Ladakh is more beautiful and Bhutan is more protected. But Tibet, the center of this rich culture and religion, is being destroyed very quickly, and anyone who goes there suddenly feels deeply invested in its protection.
15. Explore the Architectural Syncretism in South India’s Deccan Plateau
The vast highlands stretching between the eastern and western coastal ranges of the peninsular subcontinent have seen the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, each of which has left behind architectural remains as proof of its former glory. Nowhere is that immense cultural wealth more evident than in the temple towns and former imperial capitals of northern Karnataka, near the Deccan Plateau’s semi-arid heart. Beginning in the sixth century, the Eastern Chalukya dynasty, a vast and culturally diverse empire, turned its successive capitals in the now-sleepy villages of Aihole and Badami and the ceremonial center of Pattadakal into hubs for experimentation in religious architecture, assembling free-standing temples from elaborately carved stone that drew influence from both North and South India and excavating and erecting sites of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist devotion. In the 14th century, the Muslim Bahmani kings introduced Persianate domes and crenellated walls at the fortress capital of Bidar, while in Bijapur, roughly six hours southwest, the skyline bristles with minarets and domes left behind by the Adil Shahi sultans, who ruled there in the 16th and 17th centuries. Farther south, the subcontinent’s last great Hindu empire blossomed in the city of Vijayanagar, built over the course of 200 years, then abandoned in 1565 after its defeat by the sultanates of the northern Deccan. Now known as Hampi, that great city marks the pinnacle of Dravidian architecture, with its soaring temple towers and colonnades. Taken together, these cities and towns, clustered in the northern districts of Karnataka state, represent a practically endless trove of architectural treasures at least as rich as the Mughal mosques and Rajput temples of North India’s well-trodden tourist circuit. More important, they speak to the long tradition of syncretism that has always defined India, a tradition that contemporary politics increasingly — and tragically — aims to erase. — M.S.
A.T.: I went to school in South India, and the Deccan is very far from the world of the Taj Mahal and North Indian Islamic architecture. It was this unbelievable trail with beautiful temples in Aihole and Badami. Then you come to Hampi, which was once the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, and it’s a site like Angkor Wat: absolutely stunning. Then you carry on to Bidar and Bijapur [Vijayapura] and you see mosques — it’s one of the most interesting, beautiful meeting points of Islam and Hinduism, but in the south of India as opposed to the north.
P.I.: I’ve been to India quite a few times and I’ve never heard about those wonders. It’s a fresh, eye-opening suggestion.
16. Hike Japan’s Lore-Steeped Kumano Kodo Trail
South of the ancient cities of Kyoto and Nara, Japan’s Kii Peninsula offers dramatic ocean vistas and dense old-growth cedar forests. Its flickering shadows, creeping mosses and shrouds of ethereal mist have enraptured pilgrims and seekers since antiquity, and the region’s awe-inspiring tranquillity has come to embody the long commingling of Shinto and Buddhist traditions. Every year, as many as 15 million people hike the Kumano Kodo, a network of trails more than a thousand years old and totaling more than 600 miles, whose cobblestone stairs and long wooden footbridges lead to three grand shrines: the Kumano Hongu Taisha, the Kumano Nachi Taisha and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, all prized for their ability to heal and purify. (That last one is said to date to A.D. 128, when it was built for gods who’d descended to Earth.) Comprising seven routes around the peninsula or through the heart of the Kii Mountains, the Kumano Kodo is so sprawling that no two journeys will ever be alike, though all are formidable; its Kohechi trail, a four-day, 43-mile hike over three mountain passes, includes vertiginous ascents of more than 3,200 feet and is renowned for its difficulty. Those who make the strenuous climb will find weathered milestones, natural hot springs and a hand-operated cable car suspended over a riverbank. Visitors can seek shelter for the night at designated campsites or at minshuku, guesthouses scattered along the route. Further on, at the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine, a stately three-tiered pagoda overlooks the 436-foot Nachi no Taki, Japan’s tallest single-drop waterfall, long considered a sacred entity, which has enveloped generations of travelers in its awesome roar. — D.P.
T.M.: I like the idea of Shinto mountain worship: It’s a challenging but incredibly cleansing experience — like the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
D.Z.: I know two people who’ve done it, both after their fathers died. They said it was transformative.
T.M.: It’s arduous, and that makes it a strange spiritual experience unlike anything else.
17. Spend the Day in the Womblike Emptiness of the Teshima Art Museum in Japan
Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of travelers visited the art islands of Japan, a collection of some 20 former fishing and industry isles turned art havens scattered across the Seto Inland Sea, just over an hourlong flight from Tokyo. They made the trek via a combination of train, ferry, car, bus and bicycle, some with visions of Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” (1994), a polka-dot yellow fiberglass pumpkin positioned at the end of a pier, in their heads. That sculpture was responsible for much of the foot traffic at the Benesse Art Site on Naoshima, a small island with several museums designed by Tadao Ando, until it was swept out to sea during a typhoon in 2021. (The work was eventually recovered, restored and, last month, put back on display.) As Japan slowly reopens, the Art Islands continue to attract pilgrims. Inujima, Shodoshima and Megijima host installations and art fairs in once-abandoned buildings, but it’s Teshima Island, home of the Teshima Art Museum, that travelers most need to experience. Designed by the Tokyo-based architect Ryue Nishizawa, the museum’s low-lying concrete shell is a feat of engineering and a work of art in itself. Inspired by the bulbous curve of a water droplet resting on a sheet of glass, it appears to emerge organically from a forested hillside overlooking the sea. Inside, two open-air oculi frame shifting scenes of water, sky and sunlight alongside the museum’s single permanent installation, 2010’s “Bokei” (Matrix), by the Hiroshima-based artist Rei Naito. The contemplative work features beads of water that emerge from, pool atop and are reabsorbed into pinholes perforating the floor. To enjoy a few hours in its engulfing silence, watching the light change with each passing hour, is to surrender to time itself. — A.K.
P.I.: I’ve been really impressed by the art project around Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea and how it has developed over the past 30 years. Though I would recommend the entire Naoshima project, the most piercing place is Teshima. You take a bus across a quiet island, end up on a hill and step into this vast empty space, which is the museum. There’s nothing there except two openings in the roof and drops of water being made to emerge from the ground. And somehow it’s transfixing — like a James Turrell Skyspace doubled and taken in an almost feminine direction. So many people, from billionaires to meditation teachers, have told me this is the single most moving place they have ever been.
18. Take the Ultimate Road Trip: Drive the Pan-American Highway from Argentina to Alaska
Roughly tracing the path that early man followed after crossing the land bridge over the Bering Strait, the Pan-American Highway runs at least 19,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia at the edge of Tierra del Fuego, a subantarctic territory split between Chile and Argentina. Crossing 14 countries and interrupted only by the ecologically fragile forests of the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia, the highway — really a collection of interconnected freeways splintered across various routes — traverses the tundra of western Canada and the peaks of the Rockies, the deserts of northern Mexico and the pampas of Patagonia. Options for detours along the way are almost endless. You might weave through the national parks of the American West. In Mexico, depending on which route you take, you might feast on roasted goat in Monterrey or raw seafood in coastal Mazatlán. You could wander colonial cities like Antigua, Guatemala, or Granada, Nicaragua, and bird-watch in the rainforests of Costa Rica. In the valleys between Colombia’s triplicate Cordilleras, you could sip coffee among green hills in the department of Quindío and salsa dance in the lowland city of Cali. Following the Andes south, you’ll gaze upon the gilded extravagance of Ecuador’s whitewashed capital, Quito, or hike in the highland planes below the snow-dusted dome of Cotopaxi, that country’s highest active volcano. You could deviate from the main road to lose yourself in the endless white expanse of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, then follow the spine of South America through regions of Argentina and Chile punctuated by vineyards and lakes. To drive the Pan-American Highway is to glimpse the immensity of the Americas and the unthinkable marvels of a world both ancient and irrepressibly new. — M.S.
V.S.: You’re driving through at least 14 countries including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. There’s surfing, jungles, swimming, birding, colonial towns, the history, the culture, glaciers, caves, blue lakes, beaches, hot springs in Mexico — it gives you everything.
19. Behold the Natural Wonders of Chile’s Atacama Desert
Ranging from the Pacific Coast to the Andean Altiplano and locked in the rain shadow of the world’s longest mountain range, the Atacama Desert, located mostly within northern Chile, is among the most alien landscapes on the planet. Pink flamingos gather at the edges of salt lakes the color of lapis or topaz or garnet. Perfectly conical volcanoes loom over salt flats and desolate plains where guanacos, elegantly proportioned cousins of llamas, and viscachas, which resemble long-tailed rabbits, drift through prickly wisps of ground-hugging vegetation. Jets of steam slip through the arid turf in some of the highest geyser fields, and rocky hills drop into the frigid blue waters of the Pacific. Uncontaminated by light or clouds or moisture, the night sky explodes with stars, recorded and studied by some of the most advanced telescopes on Earth. Covering a swath of 70,000 square miles and contiguous with similar biomes in neighboring corners of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, the Atacama is so extreme in its atmospheric conditions that NASA used it as a test site for its Mars rovers in 2017. Until civilian space travel becomes a reality, the Atacama, with its spectral beauty, will remain perhaps the closest one can get to an extraplanetary experience. — M.S.
V.S.: The Atacama is the driest nonpolar desert on Earth. And I love extremes, obviously. I felt that this would offer a remote and diverse experience with lunar landscapes, salt pools comparable to the Dead Sea, sand dunes, rock formations, hiking and incredible stargazing.
T.M.: You can have an amazing time looking at stars, and it’s incredibly dry, so the atmosphere is very different. A truly visceral experience.
20. Feast on the Cuisines of Oaxaca City, Mexico
The state of Oaxaca has long been a focal point of Mexican culinary identity. But in the past few years, the namesake capital’s limestone buildings and dazzling evening light have attracted unprecedented numbers of visitors, upending the equilibrium between its Indigenous identity and the constant demands of tourists for elegant restaurants and luxury hotels. Yet growing awareness of Oaxaca’s cultural wealth and diversity has also made it possible for chefs with local roots to open revelatory new businesses in spaces as simple as they are unforgettable. At Levadura de Olla, for instance, the chef Thalía Barrios García prepares food straight out of the remote hill country south of the city where she grew up. Bowls of black beans fragrant with wood smoke or, in season, tacos made with the brilliant crimson flowers of the pipe tree are the closest thing to country cooking you’re likely to find in any major city. Outside the center, the chef Jorge León has