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2020 was the year that travel ground to a halt for most people. While most people didn’t travel at all this year, I feel extraordinarily lucky that I got to experience as much as I did.
How was I able to experience so much travel in 2020? I began the year in Cuba and was scheduled to be in Mexico until the end of March. COVID didn’t begin to impact day-to-day life in Mexico until mid-to-late March, and I stayed until April, then flew home to the States.
In June, Charlie and I were still banned from each other’s countries and decided to meet up in Serbia, as it looked like the Czechs were about to allow partners of Czech residents to return to the Czech Republic. We would spend time in Serbia until I got the clearance to return.
After a few weeks in Serbia, however, we got bad news and good news: only partners of Czech citizens would be allowed to return (Charlie is a permanent resident, not a citizen)…but Croatia was welcoming Americans with proper documentation.
It was a no-brainer. We crossed into Croatia and spent two months there waiting for updates. Then we moved on to Italy, who welcomed Americans who had spent the past 14 days in the EU (Croatia is the EU but not part of the Schengen Area). Then Charlie went back to Prague and I stayed in Italy. On September 21, the Czechs finally announced that partners of Czech residents could return.
I came back to Prague on September 26 and have been here since. I’ve only left the city limits to pick up my kitties at their foster home.
It was an unexpected year, and despite the challenges that our beloved industry is facing, I’m grateful for every minute of travel this year.
So what made the list of my favorite destinations?
In 2012, I chose places like Iceland, Montenegro, and South Africa.
In 2013, I chose places like Japan, Berlin, and the Scottish Highlands.
In 2014, I chose places like Sri Lanka, New Orleans, and Skellig Michael, Ireland.
In 2015, I chose places like Nicaragua, Albania, and Chicago.
In 2016, I chose places like Puerto Rico, Alsace, and Western Australia.
In 2017, I chose places like Ukraine, the Florida Keys, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
In 2018, I chose places like Antarctica, Hokkaido, and St. Croix.
In 2019, I chose places like Newfoundland, Georgia, and Lake Orta, Italy.
As a reminder, places I visited prior to 2020 will not be included — so that excludes places like Mérida (first visited in 2019), Ferrara (first visited in 2013), and Rovinj (first visited in 2012) from the list. With ONE exception, for an exceptional reason!
Here are my favorite new destinations of 2020.
Is Bacalar my favorite destination of 2020? I think it might be! While Mexico is a country with incredible diversity and so many fascinating places to visit, I feel like Bacalar is one of the most special places in the country.
Located in the far south of Quintana Roo state, close to the Belizean border, Bacalar is a small town on the edge of a massive freshwater lake — a Lake of Seven Colors, the shades of water changing from aquamarine to turquoise to cerulean to royal blue to ink. Bacalar is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, towns honored for their cultural impact.
You spend your days out on the water — taking a boat trip across the lake, swimming in nearby cenotes, floating down the river at Los Rapidos. It’s wonderfully chill and a great place to take it slow.
A lot of people say that Bacalar today is what Tulum used to be — a once-peaceful and quirky village that has now become bloated, expensive, and defined by “scene.” And honestly, I see the first signs that Bacalar is going to be moving in this direction as well.
We would be wise to visit Bacalar at this time, knowing that this precious place may change enormously in the future.
I should add that my trip to Bacalar took place with about a dozen of my friends in mid-February 2020. It’s my final travel memory of the “before times,” before we realized the impact COVID would have on the world. My memories of Bacalar are sweeter for that reason.
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Bacalar
Spend an afternoon at Los Rapidos. Los Rapidos is a day club next to a wild rushing river. It was insanely fun jumping in the river over and over, getting pulled downstream! Get lunch there, too — the margaritas are fabulous.
Spend a day out on the lagoon — privately if you can. One of the best parts of traveling to Bacalar with a big group of friends was getting our own boat and extending our trip for longer. If you’re not in a big group, just join one of the boat trips and you’ll probably make a ton of new friends!
Rent a stand-up paddle board or kayak. It’s a lake — so it’s smooth sailing. If you’re looking to try SUP, this is a great place to learn, as it’s a very benign environment. If you’re photography-focused, sunsets from a kayak are dreamy! (Don’t forget your dry bag!)
Where to Stay in Bacalar: Casa Chukum is a great mid-range property in the center of town with colorful rooms, a cute backyard, and a nice lounge area.
Read More: A Travel Guide to Bacalar, Mexico’s Lake of Seven Colors
If any destination shares the top position with Bacalar, it’s the island of Vis (pronounced VEES) in Croatia. I’ve been very lucky to visit lots of places in Croatia over the years, but Vis has been the island I’ve been dreaming of visiting ever since my first visit.
Vis is SO different from other Croatian islands. It’s the furthest island from the mainland, and as a military base, it was off-limits to visitors until 1989.
Because of this, Vis has an exclusive vibe. I found it so interesting how different the clientele was here compared to other islands. You could definitely tell that people had money from how they dressed and how they carried themselves. Many of them came in by sailboat.
It feels intentional. Who are the kind of people who choose the isolated, pricier, hard-to-get-to island with no huge obvious draws? You don’t get the tourists who are just looking for sun and a beach.
Every bit of Vis feels special. The beach where you need to swim in through cliffs to get to shore. The shimmering blue cave located off shore on Biševo Island. The upscale Kut neighborhood on the edge of Vis town, which manages to feel both lazy and high-end.
In Vis, I got to experience everything I loved about Croatia — but on a higher level. I’m already hoping we can return to Vis for a longer visit in 2021.
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Vis
Spend a day on the boat trip around the island. These boat tours take you to the Green Cave, then you swim through the cliffs into Stiniva Beach, then you grab lunch on Biševo island and visit the Blue Cave. It’s a fabulous way to enjoy the best of Vis in a day trip!
Explore the military tunnel complex. Get an official guide and you can explore the insides of the tunnels, occasionally breaking out to see gorgeous views of the island.
Relax by the seaside with cocktails. You’ll have no shortage of bars in Vis or Komiža.
Where to Stay in Vis: There are only three hotels on the island! We stayed at Hotel San Giorgio, a fantastic little boutique hotel in the Kut neighborhood of Vis town with a lovely, gregarious owner. Very highly recommended; book as far ahead as you can because in non-COVID years it books out quickly. (We paid a reduced media rate thanks to my boyfriend’s work connections.)
Read More: AK Monthly Recap: August 2020
Some destinations seem to exemplify the country, filled with everything you’ve dreamed of. You go to Munich and it’s BEER STEINS! LEDERHOSEN! CUCKOO CLOCKS! SUPER GERMANY! You go to Kyoto and it’s TEMPLES! SKYSCRAPERS! KAISEKI! SUPER JAPAN! You go to Sevilla and it’s FLAMENCO! BULLFIGHTS! ORANGE TREES! SUPER SPAIN!
Of course, there’s a lot of diversity in each of those countries, but Munich, Kyoto, and Sevilla tend to be so much like how you picture a country in your mind. And if you’re looking for a place in Mexico that has that same quality, it’s Oaxaca.
In Oaxaca you have strong Indigenous cultures, their crafts and patterns adding color to every blank edifice. You have cheap food markets and superb haute cuisine. You have ancient ruins, colonial churches, and just outside the city, outstanding natural wonders. Oaxaca is the land of mole and mezcal, and it’s one of the best places in the country to celebrate El Día de Muertos.
If you want to jump into Mexico headfirst, Oaxaca is a GREAT place to do it. I fell in love with Oaxaca fairly quickly, and it’s one of the places I’d be glad to spend a few months in Mexico. A great medium-sized city? Excellent weather year-round? Best food in the country? Sign me up.
Kate’s Top Recommendations in Oaxaca
Visit a Temezcal, also known as a sweat lodge. Ceviarem Temezcal gives you the full experience, hosted by a local Zapotec couple. It’s a great way to respectfully engage in an Indigenous experience, and Blanca and Joshave take great care of you as you squirt oranges on yourself (“like a turkey!”), cover yourself in chocolate and clay, and luxuriate in an herbal bath, all at a high temperature.
Go for a mezcal and mole tasting with a sommelier. One of my favorite activities in Oaxaca was a mole and mezcal pairing with an awesome sommelier named Daniel who taught us SO much! We had half a dozen moles, each paired to a perfect mezcal.
Splurge on one high-end meal. Most Mexicans agree that Oaxaca has the best food in the country. My personal favorite meal was at Origen, which was a superb experience. We also enjoyed Los Danzantes and Maguey y Maíz.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca: I don’t recommend where we stayed (it was REALLY cheap and a cockroach came out to greet us every night at 11:00 PM…) but location-wise, stick to the city center. It’s a bit hilly but very walkable.
Read More: AK Monthly Recap: March 2020
Novi Sad, Serbia
I’ve loved spending summers in the Balkans. But as much as I adore Croatia and Albania, North Macedonia and Slovenia, I’ve never felt as much love for Serbia as the other countries. Serbia is a bit of a tough sell, and once you leave Belgrade, you’re officially off the beaten path.
I didn’t love most of Serbia. But Novi Sad was wonderful.
Maybe it was that it felt more European; maybe it was the Hapsburg-era architecture. Maybe it was the fantastic and absurdly cheap apartment we rented. Maybe it was the plethora of cafes, each serving gorgeous flat whites, and actual sushi restaurants!
It was a beautiful place to visit, and just a bit rough around the edges. Novi Sad definitely falls into the “livability category” that I involuntarily assess everywhere I travel.
Charlie and I agreed that we could have stayed in Novi Sad for awhile — but between anti-government protests and rising COVID numbers, we decided it would be prudent to cross into Croatia while we could.
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Novi Sad
Walking around town and enjoying the cafes, sushi, and street life. That’s pretty much the bulk of what I did in Novi Sad. Fortunately, it’s a city that lends itself to wandering!
Check out Petrovaradin Fortress. Located on the opposite side of the river, this is a nice place to explore and enjoy views of the skyline.
Visit Fruška Gora National Park and trying some of the local wines. I didn’t have time to do this on my trip, but Fruška Gora is just outside Novi Sad and makes a beautiful day trip! They have wineries, too.
Where to Stay in Novi Sad: Please stay at this amazing apartment!! The best apartment I stayed all year. Super modern, tons of space, great location, comfortable furniture, wonderful owners, and just $30 a night! I wish more rentals were as nice as this one.
Read more: Traveling in Serbia — Takeaways from an Unexpected Trip
Korčula (Beyond Korčula Town), Croatia
Technically I first visited Korčula (KOR-chu-la) in 2012, on my Busabout backpacker sailing trip — a very fun trip, but I only spent about 24 hours in Korčula, all of it concentrated in the old town. This time, I spent a full week in Korčula and explored the island in depth.
While I thoroughly enjoyed myself on both Korčula trips, it was only on this year’s most recent trip that I gained an understanding of just how amazing Korčula is.
Korčula has so many of the attributes of other Croatian hotspots — gorgeous beaches, a beautiful protected old town, delicious seafood — but what sets it apart is the wine. Korčula is home to some outstanding varietals that are impossible to find elsewhere (the world-famous Grk) as well as other varietals like Pošip.
The single best town to visit besides Korčula town is Lumbarda. Just 10 minutes down the road, you’ll find a low-key seaside village where kids play in the water, grapevines grow wild, and locals wisely dine on the best seafood on the island.
Beyond that, an island day trip can take you to the viewpoint over Zavalatica, small family wineries in Smokvica and Pupnat, fun beaches in Pupnatska Luka and Bačva, and more.
Korčula has so much to offer that it really deserves a week of your time. I almost feel angry with myself for not realizing this back in 2012!
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Korčula
Go for a bike ride to a winery in Lumbarda. This might be my favorite activity I did in all of Croatia this summer! Lumbarda is a spectacular place for a bike ride, with green vineyards up against the bright turquoise ocean! And the Grk wine is special and unique.
Spend a day island-hopping the archipelago. There are a few small islands off the coast of Korčula and you can take a water taxi to Badija and Vrnik. You can relax, have lunch, swim in a beach, or explore the islands.
Check out the southern beaches. There are small coves on the southern edge of the island home to pebbly beaches. They require driving down a steep switchbacked road! Pupnatska Luka and Bačva Beach were two nice ones.
Where to Stay in Korčula: Hotel Korčula de la Ville in Korčula town is the kind of place I love — a snazzy boutique hotel in the heart of the action. It feels like a four-star, but because there’s no elevator, you get three-star prices. (This was a comped stay from my work with the Korčula tourism board.) Otherwise, if you want to stay in a rural village, we enjoyed this apartment in Žrnovo. Say hi to Bobby the cat!
Read More: A Travel Guide to Korčula, Croatia’s Coolest Island
I had high expectations for Havana, but the city didn’t do much for me. I found Havana to be stressful — the kind of place that saps your energy. Very unusual for me, as I usually thrive in cities.
Luckily, Viñales was much more my speed. A town in the rural western part of Cuba, home to verdant tobacco farms and towering mountains, Viñales was as unlike Havana as a place can be.
As you drive the winding roads into town, you pass endless green fields. Mountains in the distance look like the limestone karsts of southern Thailand.
You enter town and you see brightly painted homes, neon Cadillacs stationed along the side of the road. This is a place to sit in a rocking chair on your front porch and just take it all in. Whenever you’re not out hiking or horseback riding, that is.
You’ve got no decent internet here. That’s fantastic. In Viñales you’re meant to enjoy the outdoors.
Kate’s Top Recommendations in Viñales
Spend a day hiking out to the farm. A popular excursion in Viñales is to hike or drive out to a farm, where you can sample local rum and coffee, learn how to make cigars, and get to know the farm’s animals. Say hi to Montecristo the black kitty!
Go horseback riding. If you’re looking to go horseback riding while in Cuba, Viñales is the best place to do it. The scenery adds so much to the experience!
Have some piña coladas at 3 Jotas. This bar in the middle of the town lets you make your own piña coladas — and add as much rum as you’d like. Beware, the more rum you put in, the more undrinkable it gets!
Where to Stay in Viñales: In Cuba people stay at Casas Particulares, people’s homes that they rent out. Many of them can be booked on Airbnb. We stayed at this casa and loved it. Our wonderful hosts arranged everything that we needed, including our ride back to Havana.
Read more: Can Americans Travel to Cuba? I did in 2020.
Everyone wants to go to Croatia’s islands. But what about Pelješac (PEL-yeh-shatz)? This peninsula is located between Split and Dubrovnik. A lot of people end up driving through Pelješac, enjoying the most spectacular driving views in Croatia, but they don’t even stop to see what is around!
I hadn’t given much if any thought to the Pelješac peninsula beyond this year. And what I found was a treasure.
Pelješac is the kind of place where you show up at a local winery and the family is outside eating lunch together, but the young man says, No problem, please, let me pour you some of our wine. It’s the kind of place where you can stay at a donkey farm and dine on freshly made cheeses. Not to mention sip wine stored at the bottom of the ocean!
It’s quiet and it’s underdeveloped. Most of the tourism is low key. Almost all of the tourists here are European: Austrians and Poles and Germans and Slovenians. And a large number of them have road-tripped here with RVs in tow, enjoying the many campgrounds on the peninsula.
I feel like Pelješac is what Croatia’s popular islands were like before they became international hotspots. And that alone is a great reason to visit.
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Pelješac
Go try some oysters in Ston. Ston is home to some of the best oysters in Europe — briny and juicy with a satisfying firmness. You can try them at a restaurant in town with a view of the longest walls in Europe, or book a tour that takes you out to the water!
Taste all the wine. Dingač, a deep red similar to Zinfandel, is the best of what Pelješac has to offer! My personal favorite Dingač is from the small family-owned Bartulović Winery. Also, keep your eyes open for wine stored at the bottom of the sea.
Spend a morning at Divna Beach. I’m pretty sure this is my favorite beach in all of Croatia! It’s a good-sized stretch of gray pebble beach on the north side of the peninsula, and the water is some of the clearest and brightest I’ve ever seen.
Where to Stay in Pelješac: Orebić is a good, central base with lots of restaurants and shops. There aren’t a lot of quality hotels here — I recommend renting an apartment instead. We stayed in this lovely one-bedroom apartment. Say hi to the little gray kitty who lives nearby. We miss her.
Read more: AK Monthly Recap: August 2020
I visited Mexico City under the strangest of circumstances. We arrived on March 15, just as the impact of COVID began to reach Mexico. Right before we arrived, our Lucha Libre performance and Xochimilco boat trip were cancelled. Then everything happened at once.
We were in Mexico City for nearly a month. When we arrived, nobody was wearing masks; by the time we left, masks were required and only one household member was allowed in the grocery store at once. Because this was the early days of COVID, there was a lot of conflicting information out there and we didn’t know what to do.
But each day, we would take a long walk. And THAT is when I fell in love with Mexico City.
We stayed in La Condesa, one of the coolest neighborhoods I’ve ever experienced anywhere. It’s full of lush greenery, cool bars and cafes, and brightly colored buildings that made you smile just looking at them. And beyond that, neighborhoods like Roma and Polanco and Coyoacán were home to colorful buildings, interesting shops, and blooming purple jacaranda trees.
This is the kind of big city I adore.
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Mexico City
While we didn’t get to do as much as we had hoped, I do have a few recommendations.
Explore La Condesa and take lots of walks on the circular street of Avenida Amsterdam. La Condesa is one of the coolest neighborhoods I’ve ever visited. Its vibe actually reminds me of Paris! Enjoy every bar and cafe and breathe in the clean air from all the trees.
Spend a Saturday at Xochimilco. Charlie has done this and it’s a huge party with boats and music and lots of fun people. Too bad ours was cancelled!
Splurge on high-end dining. Mexico City is one of the best cities for world-renowned restaurants at affordable prices. We had to cancel our reservations at Pujol and Quintonil, but we did enjoy a delicious delivery meal from Contramar!
Where to Stay in Mexico City: La Condesa, hands down. This is the cool neighborhood. We stayed in this apartment, and the owner kindly kept extending our stay at a lower rate. However, it’s across the street from a loud nightclub; I probably wouldn’t stay there again for that reason. We were okay because the club shut down due to COVID. See more La Condesa rentals here.
This is one place where I am determined to return and do right.
Read more: Sheltering in Place in Mexico City
The Third Time Around Award: Venice
Yes, I’ve been to Venice twice before: in 2004 and 2006. But each of those visits was a day trip. This time, we decided to stay a week in Venice, which turned into twelve days.
And MY WORD. This Venice was SO much better than any Venice I had ever experienced.
It was absolutely magical. Venice is such an improbable place to begin with, a place that is miraculously still a functioning city today. How was this possible?! It nearly brought tears to my eyes.
You can’t get Venice in a day trip visit. You’ll be spending all your time among the crowds and barely getting to see what makes it special. Nighttime is when Venice is at its best.
And as soon as I learned this, my previous prejudices about Venice melted away. Too touristy? Nope. (Though it does help to go in the off-season in non-COVID times; I actually prefer Venice in the winter.) Bad food? Not at all. There’s a lot of good food in Venice. Expensive? More so than other destinations, but incredibly worth it.
Now, if anyone brings up Venice, I turn into a crazy person: “YOU BETTER STAY FOR AT LEAST THREE DAYS!”
Kate’s Top Recommendations for Venice
Eat all of the cicchetti. Cicchetti are Venetian bar snacks, which can range from cheap random fried items to gourmet collections of items on bread, almost like pintxos. Grab wine and cicchetti and keep ordering until you’re full! Two outstanding cicchetti places I recommend are Vino Vero in Cannaregio and Bar al’Arco near the Grand Canal.
Visit Murano and Burano for the day. Murano is the glass-blowing island, which has interesting demonstrations; Burano is filled with bright, colorful homes and handmade lace shops. Don’t miss my favorite gelato shop in Venice: Murano Gelateria Artiginale. The salty pistachio gelato was the best!
Get lost in the streets. You WILL get lost, because GPS will point you the wrong way frequently in Venice’s streets — but that’s part of its pleasure. Especially in residential areas, far from tourists.
Where to Stay in Venice: We stayed in this wonderful apartment in the Castello neighborhood, close to Arsenale. Two bedrooms, canal view, great workspaces, and LIGHTNING FAST INTERNET (which I used to upload all my course videos). The edges of Castello are a great neighborhood — about a 15-minute walk from the city center, which kept it nice and quiet. See more rentals in Castello here.
Where I Hope to Add in 2021
We don’t know what 2021 is going to look like — but I’m confident that by summer 2021 things will be turning around. By then, large segments of the population in developed countries will be vaccinated. Hardcore travelers who stayed home in 2020 will be back on the road once they’ve been vaccinated, and I think summer is going to be HUGE.
Right now I have zero travel plans. But here are some possibilities:
Naples, Italy. My only experience in Naples was taking the most terrifying cab ride of my life from the train station to the ferry dock to go to Capri in 2004. But I’d love to experience it for real, and Charlie is a huge Naples fan, so we’re hoping to go in the spring to enjoy all the pizza.
Karlovy Vary and Brno, Czech Republic. Wroclaw, Poland. Slovakian Tatras. These Central European destinations are high on my list for nearby getaways next year.
New places in Atlantic Canada. I adored my time in Atlantic Canada in 2019, got to know a lot of folks who work in tourism, and had been planning to return in 2020. I’m hoping in 2021 we can pick up where we left off — and enjoy the lobster, quirky towns, cliffs, and lovely people.
Nashville to New Orleans road trip. Charlie and I have been throwing out ideas of where to go in the US, and this excites us the most at the moment. We’d also visit Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, a region that has long intrigued me. All but New Orleans would be new.
Maybe, finally, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket?! As a Massachusetts native, it’s ridiculous that I haven’t been to either of these yet!! But with a family event down the Cape in September, maybe 2021 is finally the time.
Any new countries? I hope so, but I can’t even imagine where right now. There are so many factors. I have a friend who recently went to Egypt who had a fantastic time urged me to go while the tourist numbers are low. Maybe there.
Did you get to visit anywhere cool this year? Share away!