Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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I’ve traveled to … a lot of places. That seems like a good way to put it.
I recently completed my goal of visiting every country in the world. As I got close to this goal, I was repeatedly asked about my favorite country or which countries I wanted to visit again after I finished.
While it’s impossible to choose 1 favorite country from my trips, here are 10 countries I have truly enjoyed and think you should consider for your next vacation. The reasons each made this list are not the same, which is part of the beauty of travel. Every location, people, food, and culture is unique.
Here’s a look at why each of these countries is among my favorites, even after visiting so many places around the world.
There’s something to be said about a country that calculates its value based on Gross National Happiness rather than gross national product or other economic factors. I remember being shocked by the amount of nature I saw in Bhutan, and there’s a reason for it: The constitution requires at least 60% of the country to be covered in forest. That’s made Bhutan the first country to be carbon-negative, and they’re proud of the clean air, clean water, and clean sidewalks you’ll encounter.
Bhutan’s king looked at Southeast Asia’s overcrowded tourist hotspots and decided to pursue a different path. Yes, that means visiting isn’t cheap. You’ll pay at least $200 per day as a visitor’s fee (not including your hotel or meals — just to be in the country), which funds local education and healthcare systems. In return, you won’t be tripping over other tourists or finding American fast food on every corner. Experiencing something so unlike anywhere else I’ve been was memorable — as were the sites. The food, friendliness, culture, and temples all deserved a longer return visit. If you’re looking for a place where you take a deep breath and think, “This is what clean air feels like,” Bhutan should be on your radar.Hot Tip:
The Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary near Paro, which you can book with World of Hyatt points, takes “all-inclusive” to another level. It includes meals, fitness regimens, massages, consultations with on-site traditional medicine practitioners, guided meditation, and more as part of your stay. I highly recommend a visit here.
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing stars like those National Geographic photos you’ve drooled over, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile did that for me. I’ll never forget looking up at the vast sky and seeing that picture-perfect starry night. Rather than paying for an expensive guided tour out of San Pedro de Atacama at night, my wife and I traveled with another couple and rented a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for a few days. With the SkyView app (iOS, Android) in hand, we simply drove out to the desert, found a dark spot, and looked up. Our minds were blown.Hot Tip:
Renting a car and making your own excursions from San Pedro de Atacama can save you hundreds of dollars in just a few days. Tours in this area are expensive, but you can reach any tourist site with a vehicle — especially if it’s 4-wheel drive.
But Chile had even more to offer. I loved the reliability of the metro system in Santiago, and the city’s long (read: loooooooong) underground tunnels to manage traffic flow were incredible. I also made my first-ever points redemption for a hotel in Santiago, which will always be memorable. Another highlight: Chiloé Island in the south of the country was incredible for whale watching, one of my wife’s favorite activities, and the nature there was rugged and beautiful.
Another country that I enjoyed for how different it is from anywhere I’ve lived was Cuba, and I loved its lack of familiar comforts. Rather than finding Walmart and Starbucks at every turn, I found independent shops and local restaurants to check out. Of course, the classic cars painted in bright colors stuck out, but my favorite memories of Cuba happened by accident. I turned down a small side street to find a stereotypical scene of men smoking cigars while playing dominos. In a courtyard not found on any tourist map, I found a band of musicians playing local music.
While reaching Havana is quite simple these days, my favorite location in Cuba was Trinidad. Much of the colonial architecture remains, with many of the original cobblestone streets. Looking for the upside-down anchor symbol to find guesthouses that rent to foreigners made the experience unique. The food was incredibly delicious and cheap. Just make sure to bring enough cash to cover your stay because you won’t be able to use the ATMs while in Cuba.
Indonesia has over 18,000 islands, and I’ve been to just a handful. While I’ve stayed at luxury properties in Bali and Jakarta, my favorite visit to Indonesia involved dilapidated buses on a patchy road on the island of Sumatra, spending several hours before reaching the town of Bukit Lawang. You can take guided nature hikes from here to find orangutans in the wild. A group tour will cost around $70 to $75 for 2 nights in the jungle with guides who even pack in your meals. All you have to do is walk. And it was no brown bag lunch, either. The massive spreads cooked over a campfire were impressive.
Of course, the highlight was the half-dozen times we saw orangutans in the wild, mostly in the trees above, but also an encounter with a mother and child who surprised us after coming around a curve. The trek to get here and the effort to reach Bukit Lawang were both worth it for this incredible experience. And you can find guesthouses in Bukit Lawang renting rooms for just a few dollars a night with a fan or with A/C for around $10 nightly. Not bad at all.
Part of travel is experiencing a location, people, and culture for yourself. I loved visiting Iran and having all of my preconceived notions shattered. Yes, there are some frustrations with not being able to use debit or credit cards, complications with booking hotels in advance, and the visa requirements for U.S. citizens aren’t simple. However, all of this effort is worth it to visit such a beautiful country with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
The moment people realized I was a foreigner, they made it their mission to ensure I enjoyed their country. Hospitality was endemic; it felt like they would’ve taken it as a personal insult if I didn’t enjoy a visit to their homeland. Beyond the tourist highlights and incredible food (eating Tahdig crispy rice for the first time was life-altering), the real highlight of the trip was the Iranians themselves. I visited Iran alone last year, and my wife and I are seriously looking at the calendar to figure out when we can visit together for a longer trip. Iran is calling if you’re looking to go somewhere with friendly locals who don’t hassle you to buy things you don’t want.
I remember learning about other countries in elementary school and having my mind blown by the pictures and stories about Japan. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to visit this place that seemed entirely different from my hometown in Ohio. The third time was the charm, after our visit to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was upended, and foreign spectators were barred from the make-up games in 2021.
Even though we spent 10 days in Japan, it felt like we only scratched the surface. The temples were fascinating, the food was incredible, and the bullet trains were better than expected. While I want to say the highlight was climbing Mt. Fuji, I think the real highlight was eating my weight in Japanese food during our stay. This is another country where my wife and I agreed that 1 visit was not remotely enough.
If you forced me to choose just 1 favorite country, this might be it. There’s so much to love about Mexico, and the variety of cultural experiences across different regions and states is one of the highlights. I simply find so many elements of Mexico’s multiple cultures beautiful. Whether it’s women’s traditional dresses in Oaxaca, the fantastic stories told in traditional music, or the Day of the Dead celebrations that vary by region, the more I visit Mexico, the more I love it.
If you haven’t been beyond the tourist zones of Cancún and Tijuana or the all-inclusive beach resorts, here are a few highlights I recommend. First, visit Mexico City and explore the countless museums. Many can be done independently, but I recommend a guide for the National History Museum in the Chapultepec Castle. I speak decent Spanish, but the lack of context for the placards next to exhibits left me a bit lost. A guide would provide the context for what you’re looking at.
Another recommendation: Visit for the final days of October and the first days of November for the Day of the Dead. Rather than a sad mourning of lost loved ones when we think about death, it’s a celebration of the life of those who are no longer physically with us. It’s one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve ever encountered, and my wife and I hope to make visits an annual tradition, though visiting different regions to see how their Day of the Dead festivities vary.
Poland has so much to offer, regardless of what activities you enjoy on a vacation. Want to see Christmas markets? Traditional, walled-in cities? History? Museums? Nature? Street art? Culinary experiences? Check, check, check.
The Market Square in Krakow, inside the old city walls, is one of the best places in the world for people-watching. Grab a seat at a café and just watch. Something interesting will happen. It’s also a great place for shopping. And if you’re into museums, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. There are also obvious sites, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau (getting a guide is worth the extra cost over the audio guide) and Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow. After multiple visits, I haven’t found a spot I didn’t like in Poland.
How does a country move forward after a horrendous genocide in 1994? For Rwanda, it was by looking inward and then moving forward. The country now has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, some of the fastest internet on the continent, and a booming tourism sector in the capital (Kigali) and in the abundant nature to look for gorillas and chimpanzees.
Kigali is easy to navigate as a first-time visitor, whether on foot or by flagging down someone with a motorcycle and jumping on the back. Another candidate for “one of the best museums in the world” is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which tells the story of the Rwandan Genocide, the lives lost, the lives affected, and how the country made reconciliation a key focus for moving forward in the wake of everything that happened.
And I can’t fail to mention the country’s incredible coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’re in for a treat.Hot Tip:
Türkiye has so much to offer. Istanbul has everything from super luxurious hotels to budget hostels, top-notch museums, incredible history, and food that is something to write home about. If you only have a few days to visit Türkiye, that’s where you should go. Istanbul was also the first place I ever encountered tourist police — a special police force dedicated to keeping tourists safe around the most visited sites.
But the best parts of Türkiye, if you’ve got extra time, are in the interior. Head to Cappadocia and take that hot air balloon ride on your bucket list. Rather than using your points for a stay at a chain hotel in the region, book one of the unique cave hotels you won’t find elsewhere in the world. Which one? You’ll be surprised how many there are, so choose any that strikes your fancy. And on mornings when you aren’t floating in your balloon, there’s a good chance you can simply step outside and see them passing over your hotel.Hot Tip:
My wife is afraid of heights and thought the balloon experience would be scary. The slow, gentle takeoff surprised her, and she’s convinced others with a fear of heights to take a balloon ride after our flight was so enjoyable.
I’ve been extremely privileged to travel as much as I have. Not many people have visited every country in their lifetime (around 300, according to Nomad Mania), which naturally leads to the question “What’s your favorite country?” when the topic comes up.
Every country is unique and has something interesting to share. However, I enjoyed some more than others. These 10 countries are the most memorable, incredible places I’ve visited. As you can see, the reasons each made the list aren’t the same. Whatever you’re looking for in your next holiday, there’s probably a place on this list that can offer it.
Featured Image Credit: Ryan Smith
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you visit every country in the world?
Yes, it is possible. Some are easier to access than others. While you may need a visa and mandatory tour guide for many visitors in places like Somalia and North Korea, others are visa-free and can be done independently. Safety concerns are an issue at some destinations, so always read up on the latest information.
How many countries are in the world?
The United Nations has 193 full member states. There are additional nations that are members of multiple U.N. committees but aren’t fully recognized member nations. Three are due to territorial disputes (Taiwan, Kosovo, and Palestine), and one is the Vatican (or Holy See), which hasn’t requested to join despite having diplomatic relations with most of the member nations in the U.N.
How long would it take to travel to every country in the world?
It depends on how much time you spend in every country and whether you can do it all in a single trip. The world record for the fastest time to visit all countries is 1 year 178 days. However, there are criticisms that people attempting to break this record simply step out of the airport, take a selfie, and get back on the next flight (in some destinations), which is debatable whether you’ve indeed visited that country. For most people, trying to visit every country is a years-long process of seeing a few nations every year.
How many years would it take to visit every place in the world?
It depends on how much or little time you want to spend at each destination. Barring world record attempts for “the fastest time to visit every country,” most people who complete their goal of visiting every country spend years on the task. Whether that’s a handful of years or decades depends on their available vacation time, family situation, finances, strength of passport, and other factors.
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About Ryan Smith
Ryan completed his goal of visiting every country in the world in December of 2023 and now plans to let his wife choose their destinations. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.
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