I visited more than 20 countries in a year of travelling for work. Here are the 5 most unforgettable places I saw, and exactly what you should do there to get off the standard tourist route.

  • A year ago I left New York to travel around the world as Business Insider’s international correspondent. Over that time I visited over 20 countries.
  • I decided it would be fun to pick my five favourite places I’ve visited over the past year.
  • My list includes: Bali, Indonesia; Almograve, Portugal; Inner Mongolia and Gansu, China; Arusha, Tanzania; and St. Petersburg, Russia.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I always felt like ranking countries to travel to is a hopeless exercise.

Everyone’s experience of a place is different, altered by dozens of factors from weather and season to the randomness of meeting a friendly local in a pub or bumping into someone on the street having a bad day.

When I first visited Vienna, I went out one night in early September and found it to be a lifeless museum of a city. When I returned two weeks later, I found the city electric with bumping clubs and late-night restaurants. The difference: The first time I came, the city was empty because all the students in the city were on vacation. I didn’t even know.

Over the past year, I have found myself in the middle of more adventures than I can remember. There’s been off-roading in the desert in Inner Mongolia, visiting one of the seven wonders of the world in Jordan, and partying all night in Seoul, to name a few.

With over 20 countries checked off on the trip, I decided it was time to pinpoint my favourite places I’ve visited this year and why. Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration for your next trip abroad.

Here’s what’s gone down so far:


1. Ubud, Bali

While most people know about the Indonesian island of Bali as a beach paradise, I found the interior jungle, and specifically the city of Ubud, to be a far more interesting place to explore.

Ubud has a bustling community of local Balinese, digital nomads working on startups, and vacationers exploring Ubud’s mix of rice terraces, temples, spiritual retreats, yoga and meditation classes, and villas set into the countryside.

Read more: Bali is buckling under swarms of tourists seeking its legendary white sand beaches, but after a week on the island I can tell you they’re missing the best part

Ubud would be easy to make fun of because of its proliferation of new agey seekers, vegan and raw-food establishments, and more, but instead, the positivity that permeates through the city makes it the kind of place you want to experience and return to.


2. Almograve, Portugal

Last year, Portugal was recognised as the hottest travel destination of 2018, in no small part because of the country’s spectacular beaches, which many say are the most beautiful in the world.

Most travel guides, however, will tell you that the best beaches are the touristy hot spots in the Algarve region. While those were certainly beautiful, I discovered beaches far more wild, beautiful, and remote just a couple of hours north in the Alentejo region and specifically near the town of Almograve.

Read more: Portugal is one of the hottest travel destinations for 2018, and my 6-day beach-hopping road trip showed me exactly why

The town of Almograve and its surrounding area feels lost in time a century ago, and the coastline teems with submerged black rocks and sea life. While the water is colder and the beaches more rugged than the Algarve, adventurers are rewarded for their persistence. Rarely did I find a beach with more than half a dozen people on it, and this was during peak season.

The area is where Portuguese families go for a quiet beach day away from the hordes of British tourists in the Algarve. If you go, don’t spoil the atmosphere.


3. Gansu and Inner Mongolia, China

While most people who visit China experience the bustling and crowded cities of Beijing and Shanghai, the country’s wild west is an even more rewarding experience.

Last April, I flew to Zhangye, a small city in Gansu province. Sitting on China’s ancient Silk Road, the area around the city is dotted with gorgeous Buddhist temples, snowcapped mountains, and China’s Rainbow Mountains, a geological formation of brightly coloured stripped hills.

For those willing to travel a few hours to the next province, Inner Mongolia, there is a whole world of adventure. Think a massive sand sea of rolling dunes and over 140 hidden lakes, waiting in the Badain Jaran desert. Just make sure you go with someone who knows the terrain.

I befriended a group of Chinese adrenaline junkies who were part of an off-roading club. They invited me to join them on a two-day tour through the desert. They’d already been driving for nearly a week, but they couldn’t get enough of racing over the massive sand dunes and camping in Mongolian camps in the middle of nowhere.

It was one of the wildest experiences I’ve ever had.


4. Northern Tanzania

If you crave getting out into untamed nature, there likely isn’t a better place to do it than Tanzania.

A full 28% of the East African country lies in 16 protected national parks, as well as game and forest reserves, and other protected areas. Not even that is enough land to fully protect or accommodate the migration patterns of its wildlife, from lions and leopards to cheetahs, zebra, and wildebeest.

For most, myself included, the easiest way to experience this gargantuan conservation effort is to take a safari through Tanzania’s northern circuit, a collection of parks close to Arusha, a small city in the mountains near Kenya.

Read more: I spent 5 days on a Tanzanian safari and saw wild lions, elephants, and rhinos – but it made me realise there are 2 factors that can make or break your trip

Those parks include Ngorongoro, a 3,202-square-mile conservation area with a volcanic crater filled with wildlife; Tarangire, a national park typically filled with thousands of migrating elephants; and the Serengeti, where 1.5 million wildebeest migrate annually on a nearly 2,000-mile cycle in search of new grass, fresh water, and a place to birth their calves.

After spending five days exploring the circuit, I saw the Great Wildebeest Migration – 1.5 million wildebeest travelling across Tanzania’s grasslands to give birth – as well as numerous lions, elephants, and giraffes. It was unforgettable.


5. St. Petersburg, Russia

While Moscow is Russia’s business capital, St. Petersburg is the beating heart of the country’s art and music scenes.

The city is littered with bars, art galleries, cafés, jazz clubs, nightclubs, and music venues scattered throughout majestic streets. Far from a sleepy city, all those places are constantly buzzing with an artsy and intellectual crowd.

And that’s without getting into the city’s history. Built as a display of Russia’s imperial power, the city is one of the most gorgeous architectural achievements in Europe. Every part of the city has baroque buildings that call back to the Imperial period and there are more palaces than you’ll ever be able to see in one visit, from The Hermitage, one of the greatest art museums in the world, to the Peterhof Palace outside the city, which rivals Versailles in opulence.

If you come during White Nights, a festival in June, as I did, you’ll be treated to an even more beautiful display: nearly 24 hours of sunlight every day.

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