travel // eat // live

30 Transformative Trips to Take Before You Die

30 Transformative Trips to Take Before You Die

The world is full of wondrous places to see, and the internet is chalk full of bucket lists and must-see compendiums that you could spend an eternity pining after. Those lists are fun, but I wanted to make something different. I wanted to make more than just another list of places you should see because they check off boxes of “Wonders of the World” or famous landmarks. This list is about destinations that will make you feel something – places where you are moved by people, nature and art. 

As I was putting this list together I wanted to give you (and myself) new reasons to travel and be inspired to explore the world near and far. And this isn’t just a list of exotic places that you need to spend a fortune to get to, there’s something to please every traveler’s tastes. From beach bums to foodies to thrill seekers to history buffs and everything in between, you’ll find your paradise here.

These 30 destinations are incredible places that will leave an indelible mark on your spirit and make your Instagram feed the envy of all those old friends you don’t talk to anymore (why do they still follow you though, right?). So grab your passport, and here’s hoping this list gives you as much to get excited about as it does for me!

1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Breathtaking beaches. Sultry samba rhythms. Fútbol fans.

Rio de Janeiro’s striking natural beauty and energy make it one of the most magnetic cities in the world. I was immediately overtaken by the music that seems to constantly pulsate through the streets. No matter the time or day you can find people dancing in the streets, just because. From the music to food and fashion you’ll immediately notice the region’s distinct culture, which has been influenced by Brazil’s African, European and Native roots. And of course, Copacabana and Ipanema beach will undoubtedly be calling your name. Don’t be shy, grab your briefs or teeny weenie bikini and let your bunda be free.

2. Cruise the Norwegian Fjords

Painted shiplap villages. Lush rolling canyons. Cascading waterfalls.

Norway is a remote, vast land that’s been shaped by eons of pounding tides and earth-shattering glaciers. The resplendent natural beauty left me in awe and made me feel a world away from the worries and pace of everyday life. You can come here to just be one with the earth. The fjords are nature’s own work of art, with their epic proportions and the countless coastal islands scarcely touched by civilization. The rugged, beautiful scenery evokes images of a Norway of old -– from the time of the last ice age meltdown to the era of Vikings to medieval farmers plotting along the craggy coast. A lot of this area lies within the Arctic Circle and provides an opportunity to experience polar nights, midnight sun and the Northern Lights.

3. Havana, Cuba

Old world charm. Rum and revolution. Elegant art deco architecture.

Havana is an intoxicating mixture of influences. There are classic American cars driving along streets lined by Spanish architecture while African and Caribbean beats echo through the neighborhood. Wherever you go there is something worth looking at. Some streets look straight off a movie set, while others seem covered in construction or disrepair. It’s not all perfect, yet its imperfections give it a rough and mysterious allure. Today, the city has an air of excitement as young Cubanos push the country forward. Come stroll on the great promenades to people-watch and admire the city’s kaleidoscope of culture, architecture and history.

4. Maldives

Cyan blue lagoons. Vibrant underwater gardens. Blissful relaxation.

The Maldives is an idyllic world of beauty, secluded decadence and vibrant colors – from overwater bungalows to swimming with whale sharks. And yet, the island is so much more. Sitting just a few feet above sea level, as oceans rise Maldivians are some of the first people to experience the effects of climate change. Being here you can appreciate both the powder white beaches and pristine blue waters, as well as our effect on the planet. You’ll feel inspired to preserve the endless miles of coral just off the coast that are teeming with marine life and save the land of the amazing people who call these coral islands home.

5. Road trip Across America

Long, open roads. Charming small towns. Perfect playlists.

There’s nothing more American than the road trip. Getting on the highway and hitting the open road with just your friends, your car and your music is an iconic experience. The country is expansive and diverse, bringing together an array of topographies and cultures to create one unique destination. From the beaches of the Pacific to the plains of the inland to the monuments of the East Coast. There’s dozens of routes to choose from: Pacific Coast Highway, Blue Ridge Parkway, Road to Hana or the legendary Route 66. And the road is filled with places to discover, so whether you’re stopping for hikes, panoramic views, authentic BBQ or just to tinkle there’s always an adventure around the corner.

6. Muscat, Oman

Geologically stunning. Luxuriant desert oases. Tradition-steeped culture.

Oman challenges your preconceived notions of what the Middle East looks like. This oft-overlooked gem gives you an opportunity to go beyond the super malls and stigmas to experience an authentic taste of Arabia. It’s a calm respite from traditional daily routines with its secluded pink beaches, stunning, golden desert landscapes, and jaw dropping, dramatic caves. With Muscat’s no-skyscraper policy and a history that dates back millennia, Oman retains its heart and soul. Visiting Muscat provides a window into Omani heritage and Islamic culture, allowing you to appreciate the love and hospitality that this nation and their faith is built on.

7. Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

Adriatic Sea. Ancient architecture. Island hopping.

It is the most stunning coastline in all of Europe: transparent turquoise waters, olive groves, vineyards, and hidden beaches and coves. If you really want to do it big, you gotta rent out a boat and cruise down the coast. But, if you’re on a budget (like me) rent a car and take the scenic route along the coast to experience the old-world splendor of Dalmatia’s countless gems. Hit the seafood paradise of Split then experience the unspoiled beauty of Mljet’s lush forests. Head south for Hvar where you’ll be serenaded with songs by the sea and finish off wandering Dubrovnik’s marble streets and soaking in its wealth of history.

8. New Orleans, USA

Jazz music. Creole cooking. Southern hospitality.

The city on the Mississippi is the party that never ends. Whether its jazz, blues, rock or hip-hop, live-music is played here on every corner, in any bar, every night of the week. Bourbon Street offers up round-the-clock nightlife, and of course if you are here for Mardi Gras the festivities will last all night and day.  All that partying will work up an appetite, and that’s where New Orleans really delivers. Jambalaya. Gumbo. Crawfish étouffée. Beignets. You seriously can’t go wrong with a meal in this city. Beyond just partying and eating, New Orleans is a culture powerhouse that played a central role in the building of the U.S. and has centuries of art, music and history waiting to be discovered.

9. Kandy, Sri Lanka

Elephant parades. Ancient shrines. Tropical rainforest.

Come to Kandy for the Esala Perahera Festival and understand all that is wonderful about the city. In Sri Lanka’s central highlands surrounded by green hills, tea gardens and cobalt blue skies the people celebrate the 400-year old arrival of the revered tooth of the Buddha. Over 10 days each summer the streets fill with elephant processions, drummers, Buddhist and Hindu worshipers, and acrobatic fire breathers. This stunning display is something you don’t want to miss. But, even if you can’t be here for this unforgettable festival Kandy’s vibrant cultural life and attractions more than justify a visit at any time of year.

10. Okavango Delta, Botswana

Zebras. Lions. Giraffes.

Experience the circle of life in one of the last places to see the Big Five of the traditional African safari: lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard. Each year the delta floods with waters from Angola, bringing great animal migrations to this oasis during the dry season. You must see the lush Okavango Delta from the comfort of a mokoro (dugout canoe). Gliding along the waters you’ll feel the rush as a flock of storks take off, hear the roar of hippos and see crocodiles eye to eye. If you love elephants – especially baby elephants Botswana will feel like paradise, I could have sat all day and watched as the elephants frolicked and played in the pools, and a newborn elephant clumsily tried to learn to use his trunk to cool himself off.

11. Taipei, Taiwan

Soup dumplings. Nonstop nightlife. Soaring skyscrapers.

With all the amazing destinations in Asia, it’s hard to know where to start. But I’ll let you in on a little secret…Taipei. The city is often overlooked for more popular destinations like Tokyo, Bangkok or Beijing but this bustling island truly has something for everyone. The thing I really love about Taipei is that it’s a crossroads of ancient and modern customs, with enough weirdness to rival Austin. In one moment you’re admiring ancient artifacts and the next you could be standing on a table singing karaoke. Now, if you love food, you’re going to flip for the night markets, where steamed dumplings, stinky tofu and bubble tea are ubiquitous. For nature lovers there’s e jungles, beaches, and mountains to explore all in one day with 3,000 miles of dedicated bike lanes. And culture buffs can soak up history with ancient Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples.

12. Diving in the Red Sea

Coral cays. Reef sharks. Spectacular diving.

The Red Sea is one of the best diving sites in the world, offering dozens of wow factors: coral gardens, wrecks, unparalleled views of millions of fish, manta rays, sharks and dolphins. You’re just a short journey away from incredible Egyptian historical landmarks, but the best vantage point is underwater among the spectacular collections of hard and soft corals and thousands of species of reef fish. Crabs, clown fish, sharks, turtles and sea anemone fight, swim and dance in the ocean swell. Come here to dive or snorkel and be treated to an eco-abundance unmatched by anything else in the world.

13. Río Urubamba Valley & Machu Picchu, Peru

Andian altitudes. Pillowy llama wool. Royal Incan estates.

I often feel like the Americas don’t have the depth of history that you can find in Asia, Europe of Africa, but Peru made me realize how very wrong I was. Rio Urubamba,The Sacred Valley, is a quiet expanse of country that is steeped in Andean history and culture. And, perched high above it stands Machu Picchu, a 550-year old citadel that was built by the Inca civilization in the 15th century. My visit brought to life the majesty of the real settlers of this land in this peaceful, enticing corner of the Andes. Take the time to slowly pass through the valley, get a glimpse into daily Peruvian life and observe the accomplishments and operation of the once-glorious Inca Empire. Plus the llamas are super cute!

14. Banff National Park, Canada

Unspoiled wilderness. Rugged mountains. Fresh white snow.

The views will take your breath away, that’s the only way I can describe Banff. It was downright unbelievable, I felt unprepared for this unreal natural beauty. The fall felt like the perfect time to go, but Banff National Park, nestled in the Canadian Rockies, is perfect for exploring year-round. Start the year right with alpine adventures in the deep powder, followed by a soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Spring brings hiking season and animal spotting of deer, elk and moose. Hit the summer art scene at the Banff Summer Arts Festival. Finally spend your fall days paddling across the azure glacial waters of Lake Louise.

15. Island Hop in the Greek Isles

Sugar cube villages. Blue domes and whitewashed facades. Mythical tales.

Sailing through the Greek Isles has always been my dream vacation. Imaging lazing on a hidden beach tucked beneath jagged cliffs…or visiting ancient Greek ruins with views of the Aegean Sea…or eating fresh seafood followed by a night of ouzo and partying. Whether you want nightlife, rustic outdoors or romantic, luxurious comforts the Greek islands will suit your tastes. There are 200 inhabited islands each with their own character and attractions. Plus you can have one all to yourself! Venture out to one of the remote islands where you can wander quiet, quaint tourist-free streets.

16. South Coast, Iceland

Northern lights. Ice caves. Viking voyages.

Looking for something out of the ordinary? Iceland is the answer. Nowhere else in the world looks like Iceland. Travel the Ring Road (Route 1) along the south coast where you’ll be surrounded by glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, geothermal pools, geysers and waterfalls. You’d think a place named Iceland would be dull and monotonous, but the environment here is anything but. We took a rental car out to visit the Skógafoss waterfall, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, and caught a glimpse of the unforgettable northern lights. The landscape of Iceland is completely singular and not to be missed.

17. New York, USA

Concrete jungle. Nothing too taboo. Crossroads of the world. 

What can be said about New York that hasn’t been said already. It’s the city that chews you up and spits you out, where the rent is too damn high and where dreams go to live and die. This city hits you like a whirlwind and overwhelms you with possibilities – if you only have a few days to spend here it’s impossible to narrow down your list because everything feels so revolutionary, exciting and necessary. I lived in New York for a year and realized that what this city lacks in charm it more than makes up for in character. I mean where else can you hear six languages being spoken simultaneously on the train, eat the best slice of pizza in your life and then catch a rooftop fashion show set to Caribbean soca rhythms? Only in New York.

18. Atacama Desert, Chile

Martian-like wilderness. Surreal salt lakes. Foraging pink flamingoes.

The environment here is so extreme and yet immensely tempting. I never thought that a desert, let alone the driest place on earth, could provide so many diverse and visually stunning landscapes. Coming here gives you chance to feel like a foreigner on your own planet. With its lunar-esque features, wind-sculpted canyons and salt lakes that are aching to be photographed (and posted on social media). Atacama is also one of the best places in the world to experience the glittering glory of the Milky Way because of its clear air and huge night skies. It’s a surreal destination where archaeological sites, dune surfing and pink flamingos meet to inspire and thrill you.

19. Marrakech, Morocco

Bustling souks. Ornate mosques. Tempting tagines.

Marrakech whisks you away on a magic carpet ride. Marrakech will pull you into a fury of sights and sounds and propel you on a ride that does not disappoint. Truly, this is among my favorite trips that I’ve ever taken and it holds a special place in my heart as the first stop on my RTW trip. As you wander the famous souks you’ll be enticed by a whirlwind of color and noise: the symphony of vendors and hagglers, pyramids of brightly colored spices, rows of Berber woven rugs and an unending supply of delicious mint tea. Check out Jemaa el-Fnaa, the busiest square in all of Africa, surrounded by the magnificent architecture of the city’s exquisite gardens and richly decorated mosques.

20. Bhutan

Spicy cuisine. Captured time-capsule. Harmonious happiness.

Bhutan is where you come for a fully immersive experience. Here you can escape home and be engulfed by Bhutanese culture. Centuries of isolation have preserved Bhutan’s indigenous culture, and the modern government make every effort to uphold the traditions of the past from architecture to daily dress. Bhutan’s major cities and towns all have their own dzongs, repositories of the country’s history, culture and religion. Their commitment to preservation is a reminder of the privilege and responsibility we have to honor our past as individuals, families and societies. One of the things I admire most about Bhutan is their Gross National Happiness index, which is a development philosophy based on Buddhist values that measure the quality of citizens’ lives based on spiritual and mental well-being instead of just material prosperity.

21. Tasmania, Australia

Rare rock formations. World-class wine. Cool and contemporary.

I think you could call this the most photogenic place in the world. It’s surely one of the most naturally beautiful places on the planet. Tasmania was once looked at like the ugly duckling sitting off the coast of mainland Australia – slow, raw and unruly. Today, that reputation still stands but for all the right reasons. The island offers a relaxed pace of life along with excellent wine and food. Now why would you pick to go to Tasmania, when the rest of Australia has so much to offer? I’m glad you asked. While everyone flocks to Sydney or Melbourne, visiting will give you a taste of Australia that not many tourists have. I mean, who doesn’t want to see a real life Tasmanian Devil or breathe the cleanest air in the world?

22. Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot air balloon rides. Underground cities. Cave hotels.

Cappadocia is like something out of a fairy tale – mushroom shaped rocks, towering cone pillars and fairy chimneys. Years of erosion molded the incredible topography and helped along by humans who carved chambers and tunnels into the rock to build entire hidden cities. Get a look inside by wandering the burrows or spending the night in a cave hotel. However, the best way to see Cappadocia is from the hot air balloons that take off every morning, flying high over the beautiful Anatolian plains. Even though you’ll need to be up before the sun, the views will be like a shot a caffeine for your soul.

23. Zanzibar, Tanzania

Spiced scents. Hand-crafted artifacts. Abundant tropical vegetation.

Zanzibar isn’t necessarily your typical south African destination. You don’t come here to see lions or leopards, instead this captivating destination takes you on a ride through art, history and religion. Ivory, tortoiseshell, spices and slaves are what enticed Arab traders to frequent these islands off the coast of Tanzania. The interaction of the Arabs and the Bantu-speaking Africans gave rise to the Swahili civilization, with Islam at its core and Kiswahili as its tongue. You can experience this rich history with a tour of the ancient ruins or a trip to the groves of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. And the influencers of African, Arab and Christian cultures permeate through each facet of their cuisine, fabrics, gorgeous artifacts and jewelry. And that is to say nothing of the pristine natural beauty that makes Zanzibar one of the most sought after seaside destinations in the world.

24. Bocas del Toro, Panama

Laid-back lifestyle. Wild waves. Caribbean breeze.

Tucked away off the northern coast of Panama are the idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro. If you want a Caribbean-like vacation in a locale not yet spoiled by hoards of tourists, come here. This laid back archipelago gives you the essence of island life. Set up base on Isla Bastimentos, Isla Colón or any one of the nine islands in Bocas. Visiting Bocas held special significance for me because it’s where my grandmother grew up. Stepping off the boat felt like a homecoming – familiar and welcoming. Bocas is made for sunbathing and languishing. But you’ll also be met with plenty of opportunities to indulge in untouched rain forests and mangrove inlets, fresh-caught lobster dinners and world-renowned surf.

25. Camping in Mongolia

Unspoiled beauty. Dinosaur fossils. Epic horse rides.

Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries, leaving must of the nation covered in thousands of miles of pristine, untouched wilderness. Without the trappings of modern life, Mongolia lets you truly live off the grid. You can sit in your yurt under a canvas of stars and just take in the world one breath at time. Whether you come via air or across the Trans-Siberian railway, the wildness of Mongolia is immediately apparent and immensely alluring. Its rich history goes back, way back, back into time. I’m talking back to the rule of Genghis Khan, who is still remembered as one of the country’s fiercest warriors, and back to dinosaurs, with prehistoric fossil beds found across the Gobi Desert. Just breathing the air here will feel like walking into a time warp.

26. Yellowstone National Park, USA

Gushing geysers. Alpine rivers. Grizzly bear cubs. 

I often forget how gorgeous my native land truly is. When I plan a vacation, my first instinct is to choose some exotic location abroad, but a couple years ago I decided I wanted to get to know the states a bit better. And, wow. I could honestly list just about any national park on here (they truly are “America’s best idea”) but I choose Yellowstone because it’s so iconic. The reason to preserve this beauty becomes instantly apparent. This. This is why Teddy Roosevelt created the National Park Service. Bison, wolves, elk, otters, bears and beavers. Old Faithful. The Grand Prismatic Spring. I was just about ready to burst into “Colors of the Wind” feeling so enamored by these natural riches.

27. Wadi Rum, Jordan 

Biblical lands. Sunset camel rides. Sandy dunes.

Enter Jordan and the centuries roll away. Each location I visit in the Middle East feels epoch-making because the land isn’t just ancient, it’s biblical. Today, nomads still wander the Wadi Rum desert with their goats and sheep, sleeping in Bedouin tents, living as they did in biblical times. The Lost City of Petra, carved into the sandstone transports you back millenea to 300 B.C., the age of the Nabataeans. You’ll feel a sense of time suspended while you float in the Dead Sea as the sun disappears over the waters edge and the lights of Jerusalem glitter on the other side of the sea.

28. Istanbul, Turkey

Unmatched street food. City of empires. Transcontinental metropolis.

Some of the most transformative moments I’ve experienced came about when I encountered an environment that felt absolutely foreign and resplendent. These places challenged my own notions of what makes something right and beautiful. Istanbul is one of those kinds of places. Without a doubt it is my favorite city in the world. The remnants of each empire (Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman) give this city a richness you can’t find elsewhere. And Turkish hospitality will make you want to settle down here and never go home. Shopping, amazing food, spectacular landmarks, nightlife, cats galore…there are too many things that make this city a place that always calls you to return.

29. Cape Town, South Africa

Bohemian vibes. Revolutionary leaders. Tribal ancestors.

Sailing out to Robben’s Island offers you a first-hand experience of the imprisoned history of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. The island stands as a symbol for freedom from discrimination and social tyranny. In today’s world, where many groups still struggle for their human rights, these leaders’ work stands out as both inspirational and instructive. Everything in Cape Town feels as if it rings out this message of unity. From the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean to the colorful streets of Bo-Kaap where Malay and African cultures intertwine, to the inescapable music which combines influences from hip hop, jazz, kwaito, rock, gospel and pop.

30. Bali, Indonesia

Looming volcanoes. Rice paddies. Spiritual serenity.

Bali is paradise. Without much effort you’ll see why it’s the land of love for Elisabeth in Eat. Pray. Love. The Indonesian island has luxury and beauty to spare, and a vibrant culture infused with spirituality and colorful customs. Its appeal is punctuated by the warmth and friendliness of the Balinese people who welcome visitors to their island with smiles and glowing hospitality. You never know where you’ll find your moment of peace. It could be while praying in a Hindu temple in Besakih or wadding in the terraced rice paddies of Ubud. But one way or another Bali is sure to bring you serenity.

Natasha co-hosts the No Foreign Lands podcast, and has yet to meet a carb she didn't like. She hails from the Pacific Northwest, a.k.a., home of the best seafood, the best apples and the best ode to booty ever. Natasha doesn't believe in snow or too much hot sauce. While she's usually too busy living inside a moment not taking pictures to save it, you can sometimes find her on the net @heynatashaboo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *