Wondering where to go next? You’re not the only one. After a frenetic return to travel, many are asking how to enjoy the rush of discovery without the crush of crowds. Our annual list of 25 inspiring and less visited destinations for the year ahead encompasses places filled with wonder, rewarding to travelers of all ages, and supportive of local communities and ecosystems. Reported by our global editors and framed by five categories (Community, Adventure, Nature, Family, and Culture), these destinations are under the radar, ahead of the curve, and ready for you to start exploring.
Below are our picks for five places in 2023 that stand out for community-led conservation efforts; groundbreaking work in ecotourism, sustainability, and inclusive travel; and meaningful ways for travelers to give back. (Find the full Best of the World list here.)
Board a new train that makes the country’s wonders more accessible
The COVID-19 pandemic closed the borders of many tourism-dependent countries, such as Laos. But the Southeast Asian country known for its emerald-green vistas of the Upper Mekong River got a boost in domestic travel with the December 2021 inauguration of a Chinese-financed and -constructed bullet train christened the Lane Xang, an ancient Laotian name meaning Kingdom of a Million Elephants. The train’s route features a 260-mile segment within Laos, starting at the border town of Boten and running through 75 tunnels and across 167 bridges, before terminating in the capital, Vientiane.
The train’s promise? To expand tourism among the Lao themselves, who can now more easily explore their country’s multifaceted heritage, including the old imperial capital, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Since COVID, Luang Prabang depends on tourists from all over Laos, especially from Vientiane and southern Laos,” says Veomanee Douangdala, managing director and cofounder of Ock Pop Tok Cultural Center, a weaving collective focused on traditional Lao textiles.
Previously Laotian travelers endured a five-to-six-hour car trip from Vientiane to reach Luang Prabang. Zipping along at a hundred miles an hour, the rail journey takes just under two hours. “The train is faster,” says Douangdala, “with good scenery.”
Dodecanese Islands, Greece
See how this archipelago balances growing popularity with maintaining traditions
Will more visitors spoil the Dodecanese? Off the Turkish coast, these Greek islands cast an alluring spell conjured with their rocky beauty and feisty history. A cast of conquerors—Romans, Ottomans, and Italians—left their fingerprints on everything from the architecture to the food. Today’s invaders come not for fortune, but for selfies, at better known Dodecanese islands such as Leros, Patmos, and Kos.
Now less trafficked islands in the archipelago—like Karpathos, halfway between Crete and Rhodes—must balance the economic need for tourism with the environmental stresses it causes. In this arid, hilly land of milk and honey, many families keep bees and make their own butter and cheese. Karpathos’s lonely white churches, timeworn towns, and ancient traditions may draw adventurous visitors fleeing the more crowded Cycladic islands of Mykonos and Santorini, but the island’s scarcity of drinking water and limited capacity for recycling pose challenges.
An important aspect of sustainable tourism, says Evangelia Agapiou, founder of Ecotourism Karpathos, is to involve as many locals as possible, whether it’s through demonstrations of traditional winemaking or through night fishing excursions with fishermen.
“In English, the definition of ‘eco’ is more ‘ecological,’” Agapiou says. “‘Ecos’ in the Greek language means the home, the land, the community. So, this is ecotourism—to bring people together.”
Find roots of Black heritage in West Africa
With COVID restrictions relaxed, many travelers are saying “yes” to the invitation Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo had extended pre-pandemic to people with African heritage: to return to this West African country, explore their African roots, and connect with its citizens. The journeys, popularized by celebrity travelers such as Danny Glover and Chance the Rapper, were often emotional ones as visitors confronted the physical remnants of the slave trade along Ghana’s coast.
“More than a return, it’s a remembering,” says National Geographic photography fellow Melissa Bunni Elian, who journeyed to Ghana last spring. Elian notes that Ghana has a “strong pan-African spirit. You’ll hear Afrobeats everywhere, from the taxis to the grocery store, but also reggae, Haitian zouk, American hip-hop.”
For those interested in design, the capital of Accra is “the center of fashion for Ghana,” she says. “There’s always something bright or loud or colorful. [Ghanaians] have very distinct ways of putting things together.”
Experience why this is the Great Lakes city to watch
Wisconsin’s biggest and liveliest city combines a blue-collar, back-thumping energy with a close-knit creative community that’s turning heads beyond the Great Lakes. (Having a winning NBA team, the Bucks, doesn’t hurt either.)
Like the 450 motorcycles displayed inside its Harley-Davidson Museum, Milwaukee is revving its engines in 2023. Riverside promenades are being built along its three waterways (the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic, and Menomonee Rivers), and the buzzy Deer District rises from a former field of vacant lots, with hotels, concert venues, and the Bucks arena. Meanwhile traditional neighborhoods are getting fresh development projects, such as the planned arts and cultural center in Bronzeville focused on African American art.
Follow the locals and kayak down one of the rivers before disembarking to explore the Historic Third Ward, a former industrial neighborhood laced with bike lanes. At the Milwaukee Public Market, you can score a bag of cheese curds, as beloved as the local bratwursts; then follow the shore of Lake Michigan to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s sculptural pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Beer was the drink that made Milwaukee famous. Hit up a brewery—the city has dozens—to see how they’ve evolved. The stylish taprooms pouring crafted IPAs and porters are light-years removed from the clinky-clanky bottling plants where TV characters Laverne and Shirley toiled.
Follow the leader in Indigenous tourism
Alberta is celebrated for such natural wonders as the Athabasca Glacier and Banff National Park, both high in the Rocky Mountains; its wide-open prairie vistas; and the glass-and-steel modernity of cities like Calgary and Edmonton. But there are different perspectives to consider in this Canadian province, part of a rethinking about how Indigenous stories are told across all of North America.
“[Travelers] who seek us out want to reconnect and refocus,” says Brenda Holder, a Cree/Iroquois guide who leads visitors on walks and workshops in the woods near Sundre, Alberta, to examine the medicinal plants her people rely upon.
Alberta’s Aboriginal sites offer touchstones into the province’s pre-European past. Visitors to Elk Island National Park, located just east of Edmonton, encounter cultural history dating back 8,000 years through guided hikes, hands-on interpretive programs featuring prehistoric stone tools, and Cree crafting workshops.
They can also admire the visions and myths found in the rock carvings and paintings left on the sandstone formations and rock spires of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the high grassland prairies of Milk River Valley.
Written by Andrew Nelson from contributions by the global editors of National Geographic Travel with additional reporting and research by Karen Carmichael.