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The Cool List: 16 for 2016

We’ve scoured the planet for this year’s must-see destinations and come up with an eclectic list of top spots for culture, cuisine, festive celebrations, pristine coastline... and places to go

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Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Image: AWL Images

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Image: AWL Images

01 Iran

New tours, a reopened UK embassy in Tehran and sanctions relief mean bright prospects for tourism to Iran. The country’s future as a tourist destination seemed bleak several years ago but since an accord was signed last July to curb Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, this desert flower looks set to blossom.

02 Costa Rica

You wait years for one direct flight to Costa Rica, and then two come along at once. Thomson started flying from Gatwick to Liberia in November and British Airways is hot on its heels, with twice-weekly flights from Gatwick to San José launching on 27 April. Rainforests, nature trails, belching volcanoes and deserted beaches mean UK visitor numbers have increased by 12% year on year.

Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image: 4Corners

Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image: 4Corners

03 Washington DC

Even when Trump, Clinton, Bush and company are slugging it out in the swing states, the political machine will continue to whir in Washington. It only takes a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to get a taste for the constant scheming, lobbying and pressuring that make the political heart of the US tick. The White House is glimpsed through iron gates, but the United States Capitol is surprisingly open to visitors.

04 Ireland

In 2014, Ireland spread its wings with the Wild Atlantic Way — a 1,550-mile trail touted as the world’s longest defined coastal touring route. Now it’s going back to its roots with an entire touring region: Ireland’s Ancient East. Think of it as heritage meets the here-and-now. Ireland may not do reliable weather, but it does have history, landscape and a population that knows about the art of conversation.

05 Cuba

The thaw in US-Cuban relations has been a game-changer for the Caribbean’s largest island. Cuba has been off-limits to US tourism for decades, and the resumption of diplomatic ties has sent that pent-up demand simmering. JetBlue is already flying direct from New York, and Carnival is launching cruises from May 2016.

Yaks, Lobuche, Everest Region, Nepal. Image: Getty

Yaks, Lobuche, Everest Region, Nepal. Image: Getty

06 Nepal

Tourist numbers to Nepal plummeted by 85% after the devastating earthquakes, but the country is once more open for business and safe to visit, with a new government-backed website providing official updates on affected areas. This is a nation that has long relied heavily on tourism, with many visitors lured by the chance to combine voluntourism with an adventure holiday in a stunning landscape.

07 Shanghai

Fancy a trip to see Disney’s largest ever theme park castle? What about checking into a Toy Story-themed hotel? The $5.5bn (£3.6bn) Shanghai Disney Resort opens this spring with a (possibly rather rash) promise from Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger to be ‘both authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese’. It’s just the latest attraction in a city that’s become an endless source of fascination to visitors.

Muani fishermen, Pangane, Mozambique. Image: Corbis

Muani fishermen, Pangane, Mozambique. Image: Corbis

08 Mozambique

Outside the main travel ‘circuit’, this is truly undiscovered Africa. What’s more, it’s set to stay that way, thanks to the government’s sustainable tourism plan. Since the Foreign Office lifted its travel warning for Sofala Province earlier this year, it’s been going from strength to strength. There’s much to see, from spectacular coral reefs to the white sand beaches of Tofo.

09 St Vincent and The Grenadines

This part of the Eastern Caribbean doesn’t want for palm trees and pristine beaches — but one thing it can disappoint visitors with is flight access. This year, however, could see the sun-speckled archipelago atone with the arrival of the $240m (£158m) Argyle International Airport. At present, making the journey is something of a schlep, but with the capacity for big jets it looks set to attract direct flights from Europe and the Americas.

10 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Two decades on from the end of the Bosnian War, and after tough economic and political times, the underdog of the Balkans is starting to shine again. At the fabled crossroads of East and West, Sarajevo is a sparkling city break destination with relatively few tourists, thanks to a lack of direct flights. With new hotels opening, this looks set to change.

Vicars’ Close, Wells, Somerset. Image: Getty

Vicars’ Close, Wells, Somerset. Image: Getty

11 Somerset

Somerset has seen a spate of recent openings, from boutique B&Bs such as Durslade Farmhouse to self-catering accommodation like Bath Mill Lodge Retreat, which reopened as a Hoseasons resort last summer. Its most famous town, Bath, is becoming hip again — the Gainsborough Bath Spa, a Grade II-listed building, combines a stellar hotel with spa facilities dating back to Roman times.

12 Rio de Janeiro

South America’s first Olympic Games meets one of the world’s top party cities — the 2016 Games is shaping up to be an unmissable global event. Around 10,000 athletes will descend on Rio from 5-21 August, with the Paralympics following from 7-18 September. The action will take place across the city and some of Rio’s most iconic sights will be recalibrated as Olympic venues.

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Image: 4Corners

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Image: 4Corners

13 Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s largest city and cultural capital is in the middle of a wave of regeneration — and it’s seeking a reputation as a city of sports. In 2011, Almaty hosted the Asian Winter Games. 2017 sees it as host city for the Winter Universiade, with £626m being poured into development. Kazakhstan is also enticing UK tourists with a visa waiver programme that’s set to last until the end of 2017.

14 Argentina

Argentina will have been independent for 200 years as of 9 July. Celebrations will centre on San Miguel de Tucumán, in the northeast, where the key documents were signed, and Buenos Aires — especially Avenida 9 de Julio. Join the revellers in traditional costume and follow the parades down the Avenida de Mayo towards the Casa Rosada.

Hamilton Island, Whitsunday Islands, Australia. Image: 4Corners

Hamilton Island, Whitsunday Islands, Australia. Image: 4Corners

15 San Sebastian

As European Capital of Culture 2016, San Sebastián is hosting an eclectic programme of events, ranging from film and puppetry festivals to an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, preceded by a banquet in the city’s largest park. There’s also an Anti-War Festival on the roster and, intriguingly, the launch of the San Juan — a recreation of a shipwrecked 16th-century Spanish whaler.

16 The Great Barrier Reef

The nature TV demigod David Attenborough first visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1957. He recently returned to spend a year shooting on the 1,600-mile reef, using special lenses and filming techniques to bring the tiny interplays of this vast, complex ecosystem to life. The results will be seen in David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef, a three-part series of hour-long films airing in early 2016.

Read the complete 2016 Cool List in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)