When it’s time to hit the road, you’ve got endless choices. There’s a great big world to see and plenty of travel destinations clamoring for your dollar. Still, even with literally all the options in the world, a certain few locales seem to pop up more often than others. Popular destinations are usually popular for very good reasons. That is… until mass tourism takes over and they get totally played out.
So which popular travel destinations are still worth your vacation time (and savings)? Which hyped towns and beloved beaches have weathered the storm of mass tourism?
We thought we’d ask our favorite traveler influencers and writers — people who are on the road right now — which hyped-up destinations actually deserve the buzz they get. There is a nuance here though. A lot of these spots are heavily touristed already and an influx of visitors can be hard on locals and ecosystems. That doesn’t mean you don’t get to go. Our advice is to travel wisely, think about the off-season (it’ll save you cash), and always ask yourself if “now” is the right time to see a certain place.
RACHEL RUDWALL (rachelroams) — MEXICO CITY
If you’ve heard anyone talking up Mexico City recently, there’s a reason — it’s a buzzy, fascinating, adventure-filled capital that has long been overlooked as a vacation destination. On the sidelines no longer, “D.F.” (short for “Distrito Federal” in local speak) is my dream date city. Why? It’s colorful, filled to the brim with delicious eats, home to hundreds of museums, and chock full of opportunities for cultural immersion.
Want to spend a night mezcal-tasting and eating some of the best food in the world? Neighborhoods Roma Norte and Polanco have you covered. Into historic buildings, like cathedrals that just happen to be surrounded by Aztec ruins and fine art museums? Hit the Zócalo and Centro Histórico. Prefer leafy boulevards, colonial homes, and a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum? Coyoacán’s your stop. If you’re burned out on city vibes, skip town for a day and explore the ancient Mesoamerican ruins at Teotihuacan.
Regardless of where you end up, you’re guaranteed an adventure in Mexico City.
MAX ST. ROMAIN (gastronautadf) — JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING
Some places are hugely famous in certain circles and completely unknown in others, and this tiny cowboy town is one of those. Jackson Hole is best known for having one of the top-rated ski resorts in the United States, but it has much more to offer than what meets the eye.
Surrounded by national parks and wildlife reserves, Jackson Hole is a paradise for outdoorsy people. The mountains and valleys are right out of a postcard, covered in green during part of the year, and in total white the rest of the year. Turns out this town gathers the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States, and where there’s wealth, there are choices. I found top-of-the-line restaurants, both in town and at the slopes, good museums, shops, great cafés and bakeries, craft cocktails, and even a big ol’ cowboy bar, if you’re into that.
I have a thing for hotels, and the three I stayed in — all at very different price points — were unique and memorable. So if you crave a small-town getaway with a few big-city comforts, this is the place for you.
KRYSTLE WRIGHT (krystlejwright) — NEW YORK CITY
Thinking of a location that’s worth the hype, over the years, I have slowly fallen in love with the urban jungle of New York City. Initially, I had my doubts and struggled to understand why people raved on about it, but as I came back time and time again, I found there’s so much going on all the time that you would be hard-pressed to not find something that grabs your interest.
Personally, I love being immersed in galleries and exhibitions and that’s always the first thing at the top of my list. I travel a lot for my work but if I can manage it, I keep going back to places like NYC — there are just so many layers to peel back.
FORREST GALANTE (forrest.galante) — AFRICAN SAFARI
The best “popular” vacation that everyone should experience is a real African Safari. Taking a glimpse into what the world was like thousands of years ago, with tons of megafauna roaming around and people living alongside wildlife instead of combating and fearing it, is a truly beautiful and moving thing.
Whether that’s in the Masai Mara of Kenya to watch a migration, the Serengeti of Tanzania to witness vast open spaces, the wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta or the lesser-known, but frankly most stunning, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. Any of these places hold a special key to our instinctual heart as creatures that are from nature, and everyone that gives that an organic shot of experience feels it.
To me, they are all incredible, but until you find that walking safari, where you can feel the earth rumble from elephants stampeding 150 feet away from you, see the hippos sparring in the river beside your canoe, and watch as the baboons teach their young how to be chefs of mischief you are only having part of the experience.
Find a walking safari, one without fences and air conditioning, one that connects you to Africa and allows you to physically be a part of the landscape and food chain, have the encounter with a wildlife animal, one on one, away from the Land Rover. That’s something that is truly worth the hype!
WES TAYLOR (wesleytaylor) — PARIS, FRANCE
For me, Paris is worth all the hype. Every corner is dripping with history and context, which makes for excellent photos but is also perfect to just appreciate empty-handed.
A visit to Paris forces to me to take a step back from the intensity of life in Chicago (and the U.S. in general) and enjoy the simple things in life — great food, good company, and an incredible glass of wine.
CHARLES THORP (charlesthorp) — GOLFO DULCE, COSTA RICA
There’s a good chance that if you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet, you are sick of hearing why you should go. Every word written and conversation had is about it being a fantasy land filled with unspoiled nature, beautiful people, and endless adventure. How could a country hope to still live up to this legend? How could a place leave such a lasting impression on so many people, leaving them speaking of a deeper connection with our environment after visiting?
I am happy to say: All the hype is well-deserved and true.
There’s a way to set your story aside from the others though, and that’s to go just a little bit further south to a place like the Playa Cativo Lodge. This stunning eco-lodge sits between the turquoise waters of the Golfo Dulce and the Piedras Blanca National Park, which means it’s able to offer every experience. The list of ways to spend your sunlight hours is long: Chasing dolphins, kayaking through mangroves, hiking in the rainforest, swimming under a waterfall, and more. When the sun sets, you retire to one of their modern open-air rooms to recharge for the next day of Costa Rica’s Pura Vida (“pure life”).
CHARLOTTE & NATALIE (ourtasteforlife) — BALI, INDONESIA
Rewind one-year and we would have never believed that this would be our answer. However, it undoubtedly has to be Bali. 12-months ago we thought the island was completely over-rated. Sure, it looked beautiful, but we felt like we’d already been there, what with the same locations repeatedly popping up on our Instagram feeds.
That was until an Above & Beyond event coaxed us to the aptly-named ‘Island of the Gods’. Considering we were going anyway, we figured we ought to spend some time exploring what Bali had to offer. What can I say, we fell in love. From the rugged coastlines and pristine beaches to magnificent mountains and captivating waterfalls, Bali’s nature utterly blew us away.
At the same time, we were shocked to find such a rich and diverse culture in what we consider a very touristic place. Unique Balinese architecture is all around the island, along with Hindu Temples and a general air of spirituality. You cannot help but feel in a total zen state of mind. All things considered, Bali is most definitely worth the hype!
Check out our 10-Day Bali Itinerary if you want help planing your trip.
DAVID DURAN (mrdavidduran) — VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Beginning with the monochromatic glass on the skyscrapers that line the shores of the city to the wilderness surrounding it, Vancouver is so much more than just a cruise port city, which is what brings a huge portion of their tourism traffic. There’s an allure to being in a large city yet somehow feeling as if you’re still in nature as you stroll down the clean streets enjoying all the first-class shopping options.
Spend a day on Granville Island exploring the public market, shops and restaurants. Vancouver also has the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path. The 17-mile stretch that includes the Stanley Park Seawall, which extends from the Vancouver Convention Centre to Spanish Banks Park — is perfect for a walk, cycle or jog, and is the most popular recreational spot in the city.
When it comes to hotels, Vancouver is blessed with three incredible Fairmont properties located in the city to choose from (and a 4th at the international airport). The posh Hotel Fairmont Pacific Rim is home to Botanist Bar, one of Canada’s best cocktail bars.
MELANIE SUTRATHADA (melaniesutra) — ICELAND
Iceland is 100% worth the hype! The country literally has something for everyone with the most unexpected surprises and moments of magic from glacier walks and the midnight sun to waterfalls and Icelandic horses.
One of my favorite travel memories was a night hike in the Icelandic mountains during a snowstorm. We trekked for an hour to a natural hot spring where we watched the northern lights dance above us for hours. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced and was truly unforgettable.
KARL WATSON (karlwatsondocs) — SANTORINI, GREECE
These days, I’m pretty sure “Santorini” is the Ancient Greek word for “Instagram.” You’ve already seen a million pictures of it, but it still doesn’t prepare you for how beautiful it really is there!
Top tip: Go on a yacht tour! Cruising around the island with the drinks flowing is pure bliss.
JUSTIN WALTER (atwjustin) — SOUTH AFRICA
Everyone raves about traveling to South Africa and after a two-week solo backpacking trip, I understand why. From Cape Town to Kruger National Park to the Garden Route, South Africa is one stunning outdoor adventure after the next.
I’ve never felt more connected and one with Mother Nature than I did during my time in South Africa. Being feet away from the “Big Five” during my first-ever safari at the Sabi Sabi Private Game reserve, cage diving with Great Whites in Mossel Bay, and bungy jumping off the world’s tallest bridge were all highlights!
ERIN ROSE BELAIR (roseblacque) — CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
Cartagena for me was totally worth the hype. It was colorful, fun, surprising, and had incredible food and boutique hotels.
The trick is to stay outside of the main walled city just a bit, in one of the smaller neighborhoods. You avoid the heavy tourism that way and you can always dip inside for a good dinner. I loved every second of it and I would go back in a heartbeat. If you’re looking for a good time, it’s worth it.
CAMERON LEE (thecameronlee) — THAILAND
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Phi Phi Island, Thailand is a true explosion of culture, food, and ultimate beach getaways. Every time someone asks me about where to visit in South East Asia, I always recommend Thailand, especially for first-timers. It is extremely tourist and budget-friendly, and you truly get to experience a different culture where the locals are welcoming and eager to help you experience their culture.
If you’re a foodie, you must make this a place to visit on your list. Skip the ultra-high-end restaurants at fancy hotels, you want the explore the streets and find the real Thai food at some random local mom and pop restaurant.
There are so many different regions to visit in Thailand that will satisfy any type of traveler. Visit all the temples in two days then head to a beach town to relax for the rest of your trip. It’s extremely budget-friendly making it easy to visit multiple areas of Thailand in one trip. I highly suggest going to Phi Phi Island and hike up the highest vantage point there. You get a sweeping view of the entire island. You won’t regret it!
EMILY HART (emilyventures) — YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
People frequently ask me what my favorite national parks are, or which I would visit again. There’s one park that despite being crowded is always in my top three: Yosemite. It is famously awe-inspiring — with the crowds to prove it. But it is also so worth it.
The first time you see Yosemite Valley your life will be forever changed. Seriously. It’s that beautiful. It’s like stepping into another world. One that you will never want to leave. So, while you may have to wait in line to get in, or to find a parking spot, you’ll do it with a smile on your face.
SOHEILA HAKIMI (isthatsoh) — LISBON, PORTUGAL
One destination that for the longest time had my Instagram feed filled with beautiful images was definitely Portugal. Lisbon, in particular, looked especially impressive with its ornate tiled buildings, charming yellow trams, and picturesque hilly cobblestone streets. Stories of it being a relatively inexpensive European destination to travel to also made it even more enticing and quickly bumped it up to the top of my list of ‘places I wanted to go’.
This past September, I managed to secure two plane tickets to Portugal for my boyfriend and me, and can you guess which city we decided to venture to first? It was honestly even better than the photos! Not just because it was pretty (which it was) or because of how seductive even the faintest whiff of Pastel de Nata (aka. Portuguese custard tarts) are, but because the city has so much to offer above and beyond these widely publicized highlights.
For one, Lisbon is a food-focused city. Although finding a food guide beyond ‘the best Piri Piri chicken and custard tarts in Lisbon’ can be challenging. Lisbon offers great dining options for reasonable prices. Further, the nightlife scene was very impressive. People pour out of restaurants and bars onto the streets and it’s not hard to find a cool place to hang out and drink all night long. Rooftop bars are abundant and offer great views of the city at sunset. Finding cheap accommodations isn’t hard either and one such hostel I came across offered live music in the evening with a singer that was reminiscent of Amy Winehouse. People gathered outside the doorway captivated by the singer’s incredible voice hoping someone would leave so they could snag a seat inside. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Lisbon is a destination that needs to not just be seen but experienced.
Beyond the beautiful photos you see all over your feed I am happy to report it undoubtedly lives up to its hype!
WRITER’S PICK: ZACH JOHNSTON (ztp_johnston) — ROME, ITALY
Ah, Roma. Rome has some serious real-world tourist attractions for architecture and history aficionados: The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, Trastevere, the Spanish Steeps … the list goes on. Some of those sites are walk-by affairs. Others will require a little pre-planning to get the full experience. If you don’t plan ahead, you could end up waiting in line for hours on end just to get into the Colosseum or Vatican. No one wants to waste precious hours of vacation time standing in line. My advice, book an expertly guided tour with City Wonders for the big sites. My tour guide for the Colosseum last time was a doctorate-level professor of archaeology at Sapienza Università di Roma. You’re not going to match that experience by winging it.
Then there’s the food and drink. Rome is basically my idea of what heaven is. The salumerias like Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and L’Antica Salumeria are cured meat, cheese, and wine havens. Little gelato hole-in-the-walls dot the city (try Giolitti). Then, there’s the Roman-style pizza or pizza al taglio. Those are huge, oblong pies with every combination of toppings imaginable (the mortadella with caramelized onions is mind-blowing). Hit up Pizzarium Bonci for the best options. There’s also a dope spot in the Termini train station in the food hall.
All of this and we haven’t even gotten to the pasta, pastries, cappuccinos, Negronis, the beer scene, wine, parks, clubs, art, museums, cinema, plaza life, swank hotels, and so much more. Just go. Dress well. Eat all the food. Fall in love with Campari in the afternoons. Finally, as a crescendo, have a passionate love affair with a beautiful Roman… You can thank me later.
EDITOR’S PICK: STEVE BRAMUCCI (stevebram) — SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
These fools took all mine. Rome! Thailand! Greece! Colombia! I thought about going Amsterdam, but I’d make the case that it’s actually under-hyped here in the US. So I’m going to stick closer to home: San Diego.
The thing is, I’ve spent a lot of time in San Diego. I went to college there and currently live right up the road. So when it would get pitched my way as one of the country’s best beach cities or beer cities or food cities, I used do an Arrested Development style “Her?”
As in, “Really?”
Yes, really. Especially after a recent trip showed me just how much the city has innovated and evolved since my college days. The beaches and surfing are as great as ever, but the food scene, nightlife, beer scene, and hotel options have all leveled up dramatically. No one who knows my levels of beach obsession will believe this but here’s my claim: San Diego would be one of the best travel destinations in the country even without the beach.
For hotels, I have two picks. The Pendry is the ultimate in upscale, stylized, downtown refinement for people who still like to party. Which is sort of an ornate way of saying: The rooms are sexy, the lobby is sexy, the bar is sexy, and you’ll probably have good sex here. If that’s not exactly the sort of thing you just want to take my word for, how about this: The hotel shares a building and owners with The Oxford Social Club — the nightclub of the moment in San Diego. The line gets long here and your hotel key gets you to the front of it. That means some of the best DJs in Southern California paired with serious bartenders and wide-open spaces to see and be seen.
Is this where Wiz Khalifa will be on Halloween? You’d better believe it.
I also love The Pearl on Rosecrans, in Point Loma. This is like the ultimate 60s-style roadside motel and a perfect base for getting downtown, to the harbor, and hitting the beaches. Plus with the craft cocktails and stylized Cali-modern foods at Charles and Dinorah, the hotel’s in-house restaurant, plus cool lounge areas, plenty of board games, and a pool, spending a day and night without leaving the property is practically a must.
For food, San Diego is one of the best cities for fast-casual dining on the planet — whether that means quick and easy taco stands by the beach or innovative spots like Barrio Dog in Barrio Logan (home to the best/spiciest hot dog I’ve ever tasted). If you want something more refined, head straight to Craft & Commerce for bone marrow and lamb sugo cavatelli before transitioning to the restaurant’s hidden tiki bar, False Idol.