It’s a big world out there—so big that it can be daunting to decide what international destinations to visit in the course of a lifetime. From natural wonders to man-made masterpieces, from wildlife to cityscapes, the choices are seemingly endless. Don’t let indecision get you down, or worse, delay the planning of your next trip. We’ve whittled it down to twenty amazing places to see abroad before you die. Pick one or pick them all—you can’t go wrong.
By Jayme Moye
Rio de Janeiro
Known as the Cidade Maravilhosa, or the Marvelous City, Rio de Janeiro has more than 20 beaches and many dramatic landmarks, including the much-photographed Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. The thriving metropolitan area, with its exceptional architecture, museums, galleries, and restaurants, sits on the magnificent Guanabara Bay against a rugged backdrop of forested mountains, making for one of the most stunning settings in the world.
Insider Tip: Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival is world-famous, and it’s not just hype. Imagine two million people partying to samba music over five days of debauchery. But regardless of whether you visit during the festival, the spirit of the exuberant Carioca people is evident year-round.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rio de Janeiro Guide
The Lost City of the Incas is perched on the edge of a mountain high in the Andes, a location so remote that it remained hidden from ravaging conquistadors and untouched by the 20th century until it was “discovered” in 1911. Machu Picchu is a wonder on many levels, from its awe-inspiring natural splendor to its fascinating history. Visitors can do a multi-day trek to reach the site, or ride a bus up a winding road.
Insider Tip: Soaring more than 1,100 feet above Machu Picchu is a sharp mountain known as Wayna Picchu. The challenging one-hour walk up the steep summit—believed to be the former residence of the Incan high priest—affords a rare view of Machu Picchu from on high. Purchase an advance ticket and show up early; only 400 people are permitted on Wayna Picchu each day.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Macchu Picchu and the Inca Trail Guide
Located 575 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos archipelago and its surrounding waters are a national park, a biological marine preserve, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area’s raw beauty and abundance of unique species, like the giant tortoise, make it a nature lover’s dream. Charles Darwin conducted research here in the early 1830s that contributed to his theory of evolution and his groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species.
Insider Tip: Galápagos travel has traditionally taken place aboard small cruise ships that travel from island to island. In 2007, an outfitter named Red Mangrove built an eco-lodge on the island of Santa Cruz, and pioneered land-based tours. Since then, Red Mangrove has expanded to include the islands of Floreana and Isabela, offering multi-island Galápagos tours and eliminating the need to sleep on a boat.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Galápagos Islands Guide
Torres del Paine National Park
There are more sheep than people in the Magallanes Region of Chilean Patagonia—one of many factors that make Torres del Paine National Park so fascinating. Here, the granite spires of the Paine massif tower over emerald green valleys, churning rivers, glassy blue lakes, glaciers, and icebergs. Adding to the mystique, this dreamscape is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, with winds that can knock a grown man to the ground. Visit in January or February; the weather is too extreme any other time.
Insider Tip: While there are many trails in the park appropriate for day hikes, Torres del Paine was designed for multi-day circuit treks, with refugios—European-style cabins offering a bed, meals, and a hot shower—dotting the trails. The three-day ‘W’ route is one of the most spectacular hikes in the world.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Chile Guide
There’s simply no place else on earth like Iceland. From waterfalls to active volcanoes, from glaciers to hot springs, the Land of Fire and Ice is a study in extremes. The country is such a visual spectacle that it’s hard to decide where to begin. Fortunately, Iceland also knows how to cater to tourists. Base yourself out of Reykjavik, the quirky capital city, where a host of reputable outfitters like Arctic Adventures offer excursions ranging from scenic horseback rides to extreme ice climbing, and everything in between.
Insider Tip: Iceland straddles the spot where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. About an hour outside of Reykjavik lies Silfra, a glacier-fed fissure between the plates with a water temperature that hovers just above freezing. Intrepid travelers can don a dry suit and snorkel and swim across it. The water is believed to be among the clearest on the planet, with 50 meters of visibility.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Iceland Guide
The Eiffel Tower, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Louvre, Champs-Elysees, and Arc de Triomphe—Paris is like a living museum of architecture and history. Add in the world-class dining, gallery-hopping, and shopping, not to mention the je ne sais quoi of the Parisian personality, and the City of Lights is a simply mesmerizing cultural experience.
Insider Tip: Don’t even think about driving in Paris. The rapid transit system—the Métropolitain or Métro—is one of the densest on the planet with more than 300 stations. Plus, riding the Métro is an authentic Parisian experience, as much as visiting the city’s famous sites.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Paris Guide
Cities don’t get more epic than Rome. The Eternal City, founded in 753 B.C., is one of the oldest occupied cities in Europe and widely regarded as the birthplace of Western civilization. This is the center of Renaissance art and religious opulence. Sites like the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum are among the most visited tourist attractions on Earth. For most people it’s not a question of whether or not to visit Rome, but rather, when. The answer: as soon as you can.
Insider Tip: There will always be tourists in Rome. And as Italy’s capital and largest city, it’s never tranquil. Surprisingly, the crowds don’t detract from the spine-shivering wonder of the city’s magnificent sites. In fact, they seem to enhance it. Viva Roma!
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Guide
Perhaps the most exotic city on the planet, Marrakesh began as a trading post along the ancient caravan routes from Timbuktu. It remains a shopping mecca, and the city’s main square, Djemâa el Fna, is regarded as the busiest in Africa. The intoxicating experience of turbaned arts and craft sellers at every turn, careening donkey carts, and smiling snake charmers is unforgettable.
Insider Tip: At Medina, Marrakesh’s charmingly narrowed-alley commercial center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), vendors jack up prices for tourists by as much as two-thirds. A little good-natured haggling will go a long way.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Marrakesh Guide
Serengeti National Park
There are few wildlife experiences as awe-inspiring as the Great Migration, when 1.5 million wildebeests, accompanied by 400,000 gazelles and 200,000 zebra, move throughout the Serengeti ecosystem. There is no better time to go on a safari in Serengeti National Park, which also has the highest concentration of large mammals on the planet, particularly lions.
Insider Tip: The migration pattern isn’t complicated, the wildebeests move from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains in October and November, and then back north (and a bit west) after the long rains in April, May, and June. Still, it’s best to work with a safari outfitter who can ensure you don’t miss a thing, and will get you glimpses of the Big Five (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Tanzania Guide
Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya, its indigenous name meaning “smoke that thunders,” is neither the tallest nor the widest waterfall on the planet. But its combined height and width make it the largest—an enormous sheet of falling water twice the height of Niagara Falls. The falls can be viewed from either the Zambian or the Zimbabwean side, with the Zimbabwean regarded as the more picturesque.
Insider Tip: The Victoria Falls Bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe offers daredevils a thrill. Sign up with Victoria Falls Bungee to zip line across it, bungee jump from it, or leap off it attached to a rope that swings out over the Zambezi River.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Victoria Falls Guide
A large suburb of Cairo, Giza is the location of the Giza Plateau, better known as the home of the Giza Pyramids and the Great Sphinx—the most famous archeological sites in the world. The Great Pyramid, one of three main pyramids located at Giza, is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the only one that has survived to present day. It was built in the Fourth Dynasty (circa 2550 B.C.) and was the tallest building on earth until the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889.
Insider Tip: In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt isn’t the place for DIY travel. For the most comfortable experience, plan to visit as part of a tour group. Giza is typically done as part of a Cairo–Luxor–Aswan trip along the Nile River, which makes for spectacular sightseeing and hits the best of the ancient pyramids, temples, and tombs.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Cairo Guide
One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is also perhaps the most divine—literally. The three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—consider it holy. On the east end of town, the Old City is the religious and historic highlight. This walled area of cobblestone alleys is smaller than half a square mile, but packed with major sites like the Western Wall, Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as well as boutiques and markets representing the four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian.
Insider Tip: Jerusalem has a thriving art and culture scene, most notably the Israel Museum, a twenty-acre complex of exhibits and collections featuring Judaica, Israeli, and European art, plus archaeological findings. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the mid-twentieth century in caves near the Dead Sea, are housed here.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Jerusalem Guide
Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Petra means “rock” in Greek. Built in the first century B.C., the city appears to spring from the very cliffs that surround it, a marvel of rock-cut architecture and mystery. The ancient city did not even appear on Western maps until it was re-discovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveler. Today, tourists are free to stroll Petra’s boulevards and explore its mesmerizing tombs and archeological sites.
Insider Tip: The Jordanian Department of Antiquities restored an ancient flight of stairs cut into the rock that leads to the top of Jabal Madhbah, the “mount of the altar.” Besides the interesting remains at the summit (a Roman dining room and sacrificial altar), the site affords incredible views of Petra below.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Petra Guide
It’s hard to top Istanbul for history, culture, and lore. The city formerly known as Constantinople is located along the Silk Road and straddles two continents. It has hosted many great civilizations, serving as the capital of four empires: Roman (330–395), Byzantine (395–1204 and 1261–1453), Latin (1204–1261), and Ottoman (1453–1922). Today it’s a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis that juxtaposes old and new.
Insider Tip: With more than fourteen million residents and an area that spans both Europe and Asia for over 2,000 square miles, Istanbul is huge. You could spend a lifetime exploring the city and still only scratch the surface. Don’t miss Hagia Sophia: Once a church, then a mosque, and now a museum, this great architectural beauty is timeless, and a metaphor for the city itself.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Istanbul Guide
The awe-inspiring Taj Mahal is the world’s most famous monument in honor of love. The white marble mausoleum was built sometime in the mid-1600s by emperor Shah Jahan in remembrance of his wife Mumtaz, a Persian princess. Located just south of the city of Agra, the Taj Mahal remains one of the world’s finest examples of Mughal style—an elegant combination of Persian, Islamic, and Indian architecture. The interior is even more beautiful than the exterior, if that’s possible.
Insider Tip: The Taj Mahal is often mistaken as the domed building seen in photos. In reality, there’s an entire complex beyond the main domed building (which served as the tomb), with expansive gardens, a mosque, and several more mausoleums and buildings made of red sandstone.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Agra and Environs Guide
Everest Base Camp
The summit of Mt. Everest is an icon for adventurers. But you don’t need to conquer the 29,000-foot peak to experience the exhilaration, challenge, and culture of life in the high Himalayas. Everest Base Camp is located in the world’s highest national park, Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, and is open to tourists as well as to mountaineers.
Insider Tip: There are technically two base camps on Everest. North Base Camp sits on the Tibet side at 16,900 feet, and South Base Camp on the Nepal side at 17,598 feet. Outfitters lead visitors there by shuttle from the Tibet side, or by multi-day trek from the Nepal side. Bike Tours Direct offers a seventeen-day cycling journey from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Nepal Guide
The isolated Kingdom of Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, and quickly became more open and welcoming to travelers. The capital city of Thimphu will become a major pilgrimage center and a focal point for Buddhists all over the world when construction of the Buddha Dordenma, an enormous bronze Buddha statue overlooking the city, is complete. Bhutan makes our list not only for its untouched natural beauty, but also for a unique culture that measures progress in terms of Gross Domestic Happiness.
Insider Tip: Mountain biking in Bhutan is some of the best in the world. Both the 34-year-old king and his father (the former king and creator of Gross National Happiness) are said to be avid mountain bikers. And the sport is not only for the hard core. Bhutan has seemingly endless miles of easy trails through lush valleys, along rivers, up and over rolling hills, and connecting rural villages.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor’s Bhutan Guide
Great Wall of China
One of the most iconic man-made structures on Earth, the Great Wall of China is not one continuous wall, but rather a series of shorter walls. In their entirety, the walls span more than 5,500 miles and eight provinces along the southern edge of the Mongolian plain. Originally built to keep out nomads and invaders, the Great Wall winds along the crests of hills, providing a stunning vantage point of the rugged landscape.
Insider Tip: The most memorable experiences at the Great Wall are hikes along the top. The Jinshanling Great Wall, located 2.5 hours from Beijing, is lauded as the best-preserved section, and is a photographer’s dream. The six-mile stretch has five passes, 67 watchtowers, and two beacon towers.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s China Guide
The Great Barrier Reef
Located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is more than 1,400 miles long and the largest coral reef system on the planet. Dubbed the Blue Outback, the reef is a protected marine park and World Heritage Site comprised of 900 islands and 3,000 individual reefs. The marine life statistics are dizzying. To mention a few: 5,000 species of mollusk (including the giant clam); 1,500 fish species; 400 coral species, 215 bird species; 125 species of shark, stingray, skates, and chimaera; 30 species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises.
Insider Tip: You don’t have to be a scuba diver for an unforgettable experience. Snorkeling provides dazzling underwater sightseeing and plenty of exposure to marine life. Whether you’re looking to go deep, or skim the surface, there are close to 1,000 outfitters permitted to work in the Great Barrier Reef.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Australia Guide
The most remote place on the planet, Antarctica is located almost entirely within in the Antarctic Circle. There are no human residents here, thanks to a hostile climate of cold and wind. (The lowest recorded temperature is -129 °F.) But the absence of people means a pristine wilderness like none other, with colossal icebergs, giant whales, and tens of thousands of penguins.
Insider Tip: Antarctic cruises can be frustrating: You’re in the most remote spot on earth, and yet constantly surrounded by 80–150 other people. It’s worth the extra cost for an outfitter offering small-group voyages, like polar experts Natural Habitat Adventures, who take as few as eight travelers and also have a special permit for camping ashore far from research stations.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Antarctica News & Features Articles