Uncovering Lonely Planet’s Top Destinations of 2020

Asia

Takshang Monastery or Tiger's Nest, Paro Valley, Bhutan

Guide book giant Lonely Planet has unveiled its picks for the top destinations of 2020. Each year, the anticipated top 10 showcases outstanding destinations having their moment, including countries, cities, and regions of travel.

While we’d love to explore them all in detail, here’s our take on Lonely Planet’s #1 city, country, and region for globetrotting in 2020.

#1 Country – Bhutan

If you’ve heard of Bhutan, it might well have been in the kind of tone reserved for talking about ancient legends, fables, or places lost in myth.

Not only is Bhutan perfectly real, it’s Lonely Planet’s #1 country to visit in 2020. Foreigners have only been admitted to this remote Himalayan country since 1974, and less than 72,000 international tourists (from outside South Asia) visited in 2018. That’s a fairly small number discovering what is said to be the world’s happiest nation, and the only one to measure the Gross National Happiness of its citizens.

Around the size of Switzerland, Bhutan is home to an estimated 750,000 people, and while very welcoming, it is in no rush to let mass tourism overwhelm its way of life. Rather than impose a strict limit on the number of admitted tourists (as is popularly believed), Bhutan requires visitors to stick to an arranged itinerary with a registered Bhutanese tour operator. Tours must meet a minimum daily value, a portion of which goes toward providing locals with free education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation.

Tigers Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan
Tigers Nest Monastery in Paro, Bhutan

What to expect on such an itinerary varies. It can still be tailored to your interests, though this is definitely one destination where you’ll benefit from having a travel consultant take care of the details. Bhutan’s most famous structure, and one of the most famous monasteries in the world, is the Takshang Monastery, also known as “The Tiger’s Nest.” Built into a sheer cliff face above the Paro Valley, it protects a cave where the great saint, Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated.

Statue of Great Buddha Dordenma at Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan
Statue of Great Buddha Dordenma at Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan

While Takshang is an essential photo stop, Bhutan is also one of Asia’s richest cultural destinations with a national character entirely distinct from neighbouring Nepal, Tibet, and India. Given the country’s mysterious nature, having a guide makes all the difference as you explore museums, religious buildings, and handicraft centres in the capital, Thimphu. But Bhutan is also a country of staggering natural beauty. A hike through the Phobjikha/Gangteng Valley is rewarded with sightings of graceful black necked cranes, and the treks to several fortresses and temples take visitors through some of the Himalayas’ most gorgeous scenery.

Whether it’s for just a few days or an in-depth adventure, a trip to Bhutan brings you into a uniquely privileged group of travellers.

Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

#1 City – Salzburg, Austria

The hills are alive, though in fairness, they were never really quiet in Austria’s musical capital. The home of Mozart and more Sound of Music tours than we can count, Salzburg remains Austria’s most popular city outside of Vienna, and tops this year’s Lonely Planet list of must-visit cities for 2020. 2020 marks 100 years of the Salzburg Festival, a must-do for any opera, classical music, or theatre fan. You can find experiences and venues to sweep you up in the magic of music all over central Europe, but in Salzburg, it’s a part of the city’s essence.

Unless you really do have a problem with Maria, take The Sound of Music tour! A good tour will also give you a sense of Salzburg itself, making it worthwhile even if you’re only acquainted with the film in passing. Your guide can put landmarks such as Leopoldskron Castle, Nonnberg Abbey, Lake St. Wolfgang, and the Wedding Church Mondsee into their real-world context while indulging your inner Von Trapp. Looming over it all however is Hohensalzburg Fortress, an 11th century fortress built by Archbishop Gebhard von Helfenstein that is today the largest fully preserved castle in Europe. Those looking for something to do after their tour “brings them back to doe” can easily fill the rest of the day here. Salzburger Dom cathedral and its Old Town surrounds are highlights too, but many Sound of Music tours will cover this area.

Schloss Leopoldskron with Hohensalzburg Fortress in the background, Salzburg, Austria
Schloss Leopoldskron with Hohensalzburg Fortress in the background, Salzburg, Austria

Just as crucial to Salzburg’s identity are the salt mines that give the city its name. A trip into the surrounding Alps is essential while visiting Salzburg on a trip to Austria, but some would say the real excitement waits beneath the mountains. A tour of the 500 year old mines while dressed in traditional miner’s clothing is a highlight of any journey into this part of the Alps. One favourite part of the tour is sliding 100ft into the mines using the same slides the miners used to access this fascinating subterranean world.

From its snow-capped peaks to its hidden depths, Salzburg feels like something from a fairy tale, and absolutely belongs on your Central Europe vacation itinerary for 2020. Of course, devoted classical music fans might also want to add in #6 on Lonely Planet’s list, Bonn, Germany, as the city celebrates the 250th birthday of its favourite son, Beethoven.

Panoramic view of Salzburg with traditional horse-drawn Fiaker carriage and Hohensalzburg Fortress, Austria
Panoramic view of Salzburg with traditional horse-drawn Fiaker carriage and Hohensalzburg Fortress, Austria

#1 Region – The Silk Road, Central Asia

A journey into the “Stans” is no small undertaking for most western Globetrotters. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan frequently tantalize us on social media with evocative imagery guaranteed to inspire itchy feet. These are the lands connecting Europe to Asia, geographically, culturally, and in trade, dating back centuries.

It’s difficult to sum up Central Asia in one short article. No two countries in the region are alike, and travel here is riddled with apparent contradictions and culture shocks. Turkmenistan in particular, carries the legacy of its eccentric late dictator, Niyazov. Many of the structures and monuments in its capital, Ashgabat, must be seen to be believed for their grandeur and scope, despite often overlooking near empty streets. Yet this is also a country filled with small scale discoveries, often found in its ancient bazaars and long-standing traditions. What is indisputable is that a visit to Turkmenistan is one you’ll be talking about for years to come.

City of Ashgabat after sunset, Turkmenistan
City of Ashgabat after sunset, Turkmenistan

Bukhara, in neighbouring Uzbekistan, embodies the history and beauty of the Silk Road. The architectural innovation here dates back centuries, and traditions are fiercely protected in the shadow of spectacular structures like the Ark Citadel and Samanid Mausoleum. To the northwest, Khiva, at 1500 years of age, is packed with history and landmarks crucial to the story of the Silk Road. Samarkand, similarly, enchants with tales going back to its supposed founding in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, including conquest by Alexander the Great. Its many iconic structures and long history have earned it a UNESCO World Heritage listing. There are even communities in Uzbekistan where fire worship and shamanism still play a role in the local folklore, such as Shakhrisabz.

Registan, an old public square in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan, an old public square in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The road to Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, begins at Turkestan, an important nomad’s pilgrimage and part of the Silk Road route. Almaty itself is an architectural treasure trove, set at the foot of the awesome Alatau Mountains. Visit the Zenkov Cathedral, made entirely of wood, along with the wedding palace and central mosque. Its highlights aren’t quite as striking as the grandiose statements of Ashgabat, or the ancient beauty of Uzbekistan’s cities, but you might be too swept up in the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the delights of traditional Kazakh culture to care.

City of Almaty at sunset, Kazakhstan
City of Almaty at sunset, Kazakhstan