1. Sri Lanka
If any country offers a better all-round travel experience than Sri Lanka, then it’s hiding its light under a very sizable bushel. Beach lovers can pick from a host of picture-postcard spots on the Indian Ocean coast. If culture’s your thing, you’ll be falling over UNESCO-listed historical sites, from mound-like Buddhist stupas — or dagobas — dating back thousands of years, to royal capitals, cave temples and colonial fortresses. Time your visit with a Buddhist celebration, such as Vesak, and join festival crowds thronging streets decorated with lanterns.
New direct flights from Gatwick with Georgian Airways have made Georgia’s cool capital an easy weekend break. It’s definitely attracting hipsters — must-visit Fabrika is a hostel that’s a cross between a hotel, an artisan market and a nightlife hub. The arts scene is thriving too: Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art hosts everything from exhibitions to a fashion week, and Fotografia Gallery, opened recently, showcasing local photographers. Lessons can also be had with Eka Abuladze, one of Georgia’s most exciting young artists. Cafe Littera, meanwhile, is the heart of the lively book scene.
3. Buenos Aires
Until recently, Latin America was starved of direct flights from the UK, but it’s now far more accessible, thanks to BA’s new routes to Peru, Chile and Costa Rica. Next Valentine’s Day, Norwegian will be showing its love for the continent with the launch of the longest-ever nonstop route from Gatwick — to Buenos Aires. Bag a return ticket for just £600. And once you get there? Spend the money you’ve saved on wining and dining. Buenos Aires has started to serve up a lot more than grilled meats with its prized Malbecs. The city was designated Ibero-American Capital of Gastronomy 2017 for good reason.
If you’re keen to get away from it all, you may want to head to Namibia, where there are just over seven people for each square kilometre. It’s famous for its epic sand dunes and shipwreck-littered Skeleton Coast, but there’s much more to see here. Escape the travel crowds with trips to Fish River Canyon or Etosha National Park, go fatbiking, visit a rich array of rock art sites or track the planet’s largest free-roaming population of black rhino. Namibia has plans to scrap visa requirements for African passport holders, and 2018 is set to bring two new Zannier Hotels properties: a themed Shipwreck Lodge in Skeleton Coast Park and a new luxury adventure from Silverseas Cruises, in what it calls the ‘country of untold stories’. A desert flower is about to bloom.
The comeback kid? Greece never went away. Walking through Athens this autumn, I stopped outside a souvenir shop in Plaka, a touristy district trickling down the slopes of the Acropolis. My attention had been caught by the slogan on a canvas tote bag. ‘Keep Calm and F*** Crisis’, it read. It speaks volumes. Greece’s financial meltdown eviscerated salaries, tore open historical wounds and hobbled the nation. At one point, it seemed this ancient civilisation might collapse. Back in 2015, I visited the Ionian Islands with a load of cash in my backpack, unsure whether ATMs would work. But they did. Life went on. So did the Greek sense of humour, the heartfelt welcome, that intoxicatingly rich culture. Barely three years later, it feels like tourism is rebounding, stronger than ever.
Recent years have seen Portugal become the short-haul destination for travellers on a budget; as a result of its economic difficulties, it’s been rated the cheapest eurozone country to visit for the past two years according to the Post Office Travel Money Holiday Costs Barometer. National airline TAP Air Portugal offers free stopovers for up to five days in Lisbon and Porto for passengers on medium- and long-haul flights, which makes it even easier to squeeze in a city break while on a trip further afield. Hipsters from all over the world are pouring into Lisbon — and while gentrification isn’t welcomed by all locals, the city’s newfound popularity (after years of being a second-tier city break destination, it’s been tipped as ‘Europe’s coolest capital’ by CNN) is, at least, providing an uptick in the tourism economy.
It’s come a long way in two decades. Once a byword for tragedy, Rwanda has become a bucket list destination for wildlife lovers. This is the country of Gorillas in the Mist, and the number-one attraction (even despite a steep hike in tracking fees) remains the chance of a close encounter with a chest-beating silverback in Volcanoes National Park. The growth in Rwanda’s mountain gorilla population — from 250 in the 1980s to an estimated 600 today — is not the only good news story. A recent programme has seen the reintroduction of lions and black rhinos to Akagera National Park. And since RwandAir launched direct flights between Gatwick and Kigali in May (three a week) it’s never been easier to get there.
America isn’t exactly short on cities thinking they’re the country’s musical capital — but Nashville is indisputably the country music capital. But it’s not all cowboy boots and guitar twangs — the likes of Elvis and Roy Orbison recorded in the historic RCA Studio B, as have more recent upstarts such as Jack White and Kings of Leon. Like famous former resident Taylor Swift, Nashville has glossed itself up in recent years, with new museums devoted to Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, bolstering an already sizable roster of music-related attractions. The Tennessee State Museum should follow in Autumn 2018, while there’s also been a boom in new hotel openings. Last year, it was reported that 12,450 new hotel rooms were on the way for Nashville. British Airways, must sense Nashville is having a moment, as it’s launching a direct flight from Heathrow on 4 May.
Going direct to Perth isn’t the only bold move from Qantas — after a few years flirting with Dubai, the Australian airline is reinstalling Singapore as its Asian hub for flights from London to other Aussie cities. That switch takes place in March, but perhaps more interesting is who’s joined it. Norwegian Air Shuttle launched a direct route to the Southeast Asian city state from Gatwick in September — an interesting variation on its usual transatlantic focus. Next year promises to be a critical point in Singapore’s makeover from prissily dull stopover with too many laws about chewing gum to buzzing, top-drawer city break. The reopening of the Raffles Hotel in 2018, following a makeover, is symbolic for a place that’s realising the strength of what it has, and carefully reinventing it.
10. Flanders / Hauts-de-France
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And there are also several new museums and high-tech visitor centres that offer visitors a fresh insight on the Great War. The Thiepval Museum stands on the site where the Battle of the Somme was fought and tells its shocking story, while the Vimy Visitor Education Centre, 18 miles away, pays tribute to the Canadians who fought there. More quirky is the Cambrai Tank Museum; its centrepiece the wreck of a Mark IV tank nicknamed Deborah — unearthed a decade ago in a field near the museum. But war isn’t the only focus. From 2018-2020, Flanders will showcase the golden age of Flemish art with a series of events and exhibitions devoted to the likes of Bruegel, Rubens and van Dyck. And in May, DIVA Home of Diamonds will be unveiled in Antwerp, a museum displaying gems, jewellery and goldsmithery.
Is there a British city with a more indie spirit? From its lauded restaurants serving up local flavours to the break-beat heartbeat of its rudely healthy music scene, Bristol is an offbeat city ever on the rise. Its dockside regeneration — still artfully ongoing after 20 years — is currently one of Europe’s largest redevelopment projects. Yes, it’s still home to pretty Georgian terraces, the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge and Brunel’s SS Great Britain. But this is a city that’s gone from colonial-era industrial savvy to leftfield creativity. And nowhere is this more apparent than in its food scene. Bristol is being touted as the best place to eat outside London, with seven new entries in this year’s The Good Food Guide.
The City of Light remains as entrancing as always — with new openings and much-awaited renovations adding reasons to return in 2018. For starters, Ritz Paris reopened in 2016 after having pretty much everything renovated, except for the signature peach towels. Next up was Hôtel de Crillon, which reopened in July 2017 with a fresh facade, facelifted interiors and two new suites from Karl Lagerfeld. And then The Hoxton, Paris — the French outpost of the east London bastion of cool that’s slowly spreading across the globe — opened in August in an 18th-century building in the 2nd arrondissement, co-designed by the team behind Soho House properties.
Celebrating 50 years of independence on 12 March 2018, Mauritius offers all the fancy resorts and dramatic coastline of castaway Indian Ocean archipelagos such as the Maldives and Seychelles, but on a single island with surprising cultural diversity. Mauritius’s 400-year-old history of settlement encompasses British and French colonial eras, as well as Indian, Chinese, African and Arabic communities. It’s a mosaic nation where Diwali, Christmas and Chinese New Year are celebrated. You don’t have to take an expensive water taxi or seaplane to get from A to B. You can eat a Tamil curry one night, and feast on snap-fresh tuna sashimi the next.
On 24 March, British Airways launches direct flights from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to the Seychelles. It’s a tempting route — a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, flying twice weekly, with a 10-hour flight and four-hour time difference prompting tour operator Scott Dunn to talk of long weekends in the Indian Ocean. Dreamy though that sounds, we’d recommend a longer stay. If ever an island chain were made for Instagram, this is it — the Seychelles are a wish list of warm waters, dreamy beaches like Anse Source d’Argent, lush hills, otherworldly rock formations and excursion highlights ranging from jungle zip lines to giant tortoises.
Seventeen hours on a plane. Fancy that? Well, from 25 March, the opportunity is there, when Qantas launches its non-stop service from Heathrow to Perth. Until now, all trips to Australia have required a stopover somewhere in Asia or the Middle East. Heading Down Under has never been so easy. The ability to go direct could make Perth, sitting in glorious isolation on Australia’s west coast, the new Singapore or Dubai. And the connections to the likes of Exmouth — gateway to the Ningaloo Reef and whale sharks — and outback-meets-beach resort town Broome could make exploring the vast expanses of Western Australia an awful lot easier.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup will turn the spotlight on Russia from 14 June to 15 July, and for once it won’t just be the usual suspects of Moscow and St Petersburg getting all the attention. Matches will be played in 11 cities, from Kaliningrad — the Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania — to Yekaterinburg, straddling the border between Europe and Asia. If you have match tickets, you can even skip the normal bureaucratic Russian visa procedure by registering for a ‘fan ID’. Moscow is already getting spruced up for the final at the Luzhniki Stadium. In the city centre, pavements are being widened to make it more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, hotels are mushrooming — by kick-off, more than 80 will have been built since the tournament was announced.
17. Abu Dhabi
A cultural desert no longer: after the sort of wait that would challenge the patience of a saint, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi looks set to give a royal welcome to not one but five gleaming galleries including the Louvre and the Guggenheim. These two esteemed institutions are among several comprising the new Saadiyat Island cultural quarter, also home to the Zayed National Museum and the Zaha Hadid Performing Arts Centre. And these are no lip-service salons. The Louvre, for one, is the first branch of the gallery outside France, home to a permanent collection of over 600 pieces of art, set across 23 galleries, plus 300 masterpieces on loan from key French galleries taking in works by da Vinci, Monet, Van Gogh and Matisse.
Get beyond Amsterdam’s red light district and colourful roster of art galleries and the savvy traveller will discover a blossoming crop of cool cafes in the De Pijp district. They’ll find elegant canal-side townhouses home to a fast-changing hotel scene, plus an even faster-ripening foodie culture. Things don’t stop for the clock. After all, this is the city that pioneered the night mayor, an office that champions Amsterdam’s after-dark economy beyond hardcore clubbing. And by early 2018, all this will be accessible in under four hours from London following the long-awaited launch of Eurostar’s direct route, set to ramp up to full commercial service by Easter.
Read the complete Cool List 2018 in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)