Where to travel, a reader bleg

R. asks me:

I’ve been reading your blog for years and it remains my favorite. I am an attorney planning to travel for 1-2 months in Eastern/Northern Asia and Europe this fall before starting work at a law firm. Since you are so widely traveled, I would love to read a post listing the most memorable places you’ve traveled or travel experiences you’ve had.

An answer to that could fill many books, but here is a simple rule to start: follow the per capita gdp.  Perhaps my favorite travel experience of all time is Tokyo, but more generally I say master the area lying between London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid, give or take.  There are so many high quality sights and experiences to be had there you can chunk it many different ways.

If you wish to visit the United States, specialize in the eastern seaboard, Chicago, but most of all southern Utah down to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, much better than the southern rim but book in advance.  That latter part of the country has perhaps the world’s most compelling natural beauty, plus a good look at real American culture along the way.  For all its fame, it remains oddly under-visited (thank goodness).  Toss in San Francisco for good measure, and then drive through some godforsaken parts for a few days, the worse the better.

For the emerging economies, I say Beijing and Mumbai are good places to start, how can you not wish to be introduced to a country of a billion people or more?  Mexico City is extremely underrated, especially if you live nearby in North America, just don’t expect English to be spoken.  By the way, it is safer than you might think.  Then spend some serious time in the countryside, almost any safe (or unsafe) emerging economy can serve this function.



@Tyler: For Europe - why is Western Europe preferred to Eastern? (beyond per capita gdp.)

Like Tyler said, EVERYTHING is in that quadrilateral. Nature, culture of all kinds, antiquities as old as mankind (and from other places too), beaches, mountains, everything can be found there.

And this is from a person who hates travel.

Also, its probably easier, language-wise.

It is definitely preferable to Eastern Europe.... I would say it is a combination of GDP per capita + Communist architecture. Unless you love vodka then go to Poland.

Outside of Italy, the Czech Republic probably has the highest density of beautiful small towns and cities per square mile. Historically Bohemia is of course not Eastern Europe, but I assume most Americans still see it that way. Austria probably has the best combination of architecture and breath-taking natural scenery in Europe, but does not fall in Tyler's grid. Germany is very interesting if you speak German or are interested in history but is not a country with a lot of charm for the average tourist. War damage wiped most of Germany's ancient charm off the map and it has never been replaced.

One area of Germany and the Czech Republic worth exploring is Dresden, Prague, and the land between them. Prague needs no introduction anymore. Dresden is beautiful, rebuilt with just enough still needing renovation to keep visual interest. There's the Saxon wine country in the area, the porcelain factory at Meissen, and a rugged area called by the locals "Saxon Switzerland."

The ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire are great, since aside from Austria, they all had a low period behind the iron curtain. So they are cheaper, while still having great 1850-1914 period architecture and culture. So Prague and Budapest are excellent, and then you can pop into Austria and from there either Italy or Bavaria (leaving Switzerland off the list as too expensive and a bit too prudent and boring - amazing scenery, but you can get your fix of the Alps in Austria and northern Italy).
I would say that Germany has plenty of ancient charm, especially in Bavarian areas that were generally spared bombing or Soviet occupation. The fairytale castles of Bavarian King Ludwig are incomparable (and rather ridiculous, in their own way...). As is Heidelberg and many of the towns on the Rhine river valley (which was outside of the allied thrusts across the Rhine)

"That latter part of the country has perhaps the world’s most compelling natural beauty"

Thanks to people who hate pillage and plunder for profit getting elected and blocking those who see profit in destroying natural beauty.

Thankfully economists who argue nature has no value have not gotten their way. Just saw Delong suggest, I think, the destruction of natural beauty to producing housing for low income workers. Unless he was calling for residential areas like where he lives being taken by government so 600 square foot apartments in 40 floor high rises can be built.

Do you have a reference for your claim re DeLong?

He has been criticizing zoning rules that limit urban density. Lifting those would unleash private enterprise and counter urban sprawl.

For authentic Chinese culture, friendly people, and a modern feel, try Taiwan.

Try road trips. Drive around Mexico, a very underrated country with amazing natural beauty and a true sense of freedom. It's much safer than you think. the toll roads are amazing. Like others say, drive around the western U.S. and try to get a job in California so you won't have to leave.

Tokyo is in a league of its own. Instead of a city, it's an astonishing civilization. Fly here first, even for a few days. The former British colonial cities in Asia are small but fun to visit. Mainland China is hard work but also mandatory to understand what's going on in the world. Note the contrast between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Australia and New Zealand are good to visit to understand the British empire and how the U.S. diverged after independence (Canada is still on my list). They are both very exotic in flora and fauna.

I loved visiting Indonesia but it's not easy to get around.

Brazil is great, but you have to devote enough time to visit several cities.

The ROC government inherited the art collection of the Imperial government, and when they evacuated to Taiwan they took it with them, possibly saving it from destruction in the Cultural Revolution.


The most fascinating travel I have had is to places with groups of people who are traditionally focused inward and not on outsiders. For example, Utah. Not only does it have great scenery, but the Mormon influence does make it culturally "feel" different from other states. Likewise, I've enjoyed visiting Amish communities in the midwest, and Buddhist monasteries in Asia.

Once you start a demanding job (double ditto when you start a family...), some destinations and experiences will be much harder -- do them now.

So I would skip major cities that are relatively close to the US -- London, Paris, etc. Especially if you're willing to do business class, you can go there for a great long weekend -- so save them for when a long weekend is about all the vacation you're going to get...

I would start with the most developed cities/countries in Asia Pacific - Japan, Australia, NZ, Singapore, Hong Kong, especially if you haven't done a lot of traveling - these places are easy to travel, especially solo. Take time to hang out -- don't just check off the top ten sights and move on -- definitely do some smaller towns.
In Europe I would focus on Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia -- don't be afraid to rent a car and do the countryside and smaller cities -- try some agro-turism stay.

State Highway 12 in southern Utah around Boulder, Utah is just nuts. There's a stretch of 2 or 3 miles where both sides of the road fall off a thousand feet straight down. I drove it at about five miles per hour.


I was expecting this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCAbZR6E3pY

Southern Utah, in general, is nuts-beautiful. It takes two cars, a deal with one of the river-rafting outfits, and strength to carry enough water, but transiting Canyonlands NP on foot is amazing. Or just come in from the east and do a circle. I would also highly recommend splurging on a small plane tour - there is an airport not too far north of Moab.

One of my favorite drives -- I GoPro'ed it so I can 'ride' it on the bike trainer in the winter. My brother wasn't so much of a fan (though he buy himself a a 'I survived Highway 12' T-shirt).

Skip the country, and anything that's out of the way. Yes those things are worth doing, eventually. But if you haven't traveled extensively, you're going to get a lot more out of major cities for your time and money. The out of the way sites are only worth it when you've hit the major destinations in the region, and would get diminishing utility from further time in the metropolises. For example if you're planning a trip to Scandinavia, the fjords are most likely at the top of your list. But getting to Flam is going to burn two days of travel time, to essentially see one site, with a lot of idle down time. If you've never been, there's probably a dozen additional sites you could see in Stockholm and many more varied experienced to be had in those 48 hours. You're also going to meet a lot more people and get a better sense of the local culture for the same amount of time.

Thanks for the suggestions. I now really want to visit Utah.

I get that R is basically asking for "as many amazing places to visit as possible, in the space of a few months, with a fair bit of cash in hand": a time constrained list versus a cost constrained one. Personally, I'd love to see a cost, but not time, constrained version of the same list.

Tokyo, Paris and London are certainly all amazing, but they're also really expensive. You could easily spend months travelling around India for what you might spend in a week in one of those cities. How about your recommendations for the best places to travel on twenty or thirty dollars a day? Would it just be "go against the per capita gdp"?

Southeast Asia, South America, Eastern Europe. In that order.

Africa bucks the GDP/per capita heuristic, because it actually takes a decent amount of funds to "do it right." Can't really speak for India because I've barely traveled there.

India and much of China (excluding Beijing, Shangai, HK, etc) can be done quite "right" on $200/day. I did Egypt, Turkey, W. China for my bar trip, and India for my post-clerkship trip. India had highlights, but overall wasn't that great. the tiger safari ($1200/day) and the two weeks I spent reading in a beer shack in Goa ($50/day) were my favorites. In both India and China, air travel is cheap (Walkup tickets to virtually any domestic location are <$150) and a much better option than wasting time on a train.

Don't try to travel too much. Pick one or a handful of countries and really savor them. I would put off W. Europe until you are vacationing with a girlfriend or spouse. (1) doing it "right" approaches $1k/day, and your signing bonus won't go that far, and (2) Art fatigue will set in quickly.

if you're traveling through the developing world and blowing through $200 a day, you're insane. are you buying faberge eggs to throw against the wall? and $1k a day in europe? jesus christ.

Even in the developing world, a four or five star hotel in a city of any size will run $100/night. $5 for breakfast, $5 for lunch, $25+ for dinner at a high-end restaurant, $25+/day for travel, $10/day miscellaneous. And travel to remote sites in taxis or 4WDs can be incredibly expensive. I'll note that the difference in hotel quality from $50/night to $100/night is often huge. But, as I said, one of my favorite things in India involved a $25/night military-clean hotel just off the beach in Goa, $5 breakfast, and $1 Kingfisher 40s.

Europe is much worse. $400-$700/night for luxury (but not over-the-top) hotel accomodations, $100+/head for dinner at a Michelin-recommended restaurants (up to one star; three-star restaurants tend to yield eye-poppinh bills), $25 for brunch (I tend to get a larger meal mid-morning, skip lunch, and enjoy dinner), $20/head for admission fees to sights and museums, and $50+/day for travel.

There is a wide-range between backpacking from hostel-to-hostel on 3rd class train cars and travelling in Western business-class comfort. I've travelled across the spectrum and, at this point in life, I prefer comfort (which is well-shy of the Four Seasons or a Taj hotel). No destruction of Faberge eggs involved.

By the way: $200/day yields a $6K/month burn, plus the cost of any long-range airfare. That's quite reasonable for a two-month bar trip, especially if you're starting at a major firm this fall. You'll have the money (or may already from your summer associate pay). You aren't likely to have the time again for a long while. Unless you do a repeat following a clerkship, which I highly recommend.

i think my philosophical aversion to that kind of travel stems mostly from the fact that once you reach a high enough price point you can have the same cultural experience anywhere in the world, with only variations in the scenery. everyone you interact with speaks passable english, the food is plop-and-drag 'modernist', the hotel is the hotel is the hotel. the less you spend, the more you have to rely on businesses geared for locals, the more you actually feel like you're somewhere else. blah blah blah, standard "tourist / traveler" argument. save the luxury travel for when you're honeymooning or a doddering retiree.

When I did my bar trip, I started off on the "travel cheaply and rely on businesses geared to locals" program. It was fine in Egypt and Turkey, but when I hit W. China, I quickly grew sick of the dark and dirty $50/night hotels geared toward Chinese businessmen. I realized that for the extra $50/night, I could have a clean, far more comfortable hotel with excellent service. Yes, the staff had folks who could speak English, which I appreciated - it meant that I was able to get recommendations about sights, restaurants, and interesting places to have a drink, then easily set up travel to same. I had plenty of contact with locals that I met in museums, bars, and on mass transit. And travelling via air was a much better use of my time than spending days bouncing on a crowded bus next to someone who wanted to "practice his English" for 8 hours straight. It really depends on where you travel. And western Europe is close enough to the U.S. that I don't think there is a practical ability to "experience the culture" in a short term visit outside of the restaurants, sights, bars, etc.

That's one way to spend the remainder of one's law school loans.

You say that travelling around India the "right" way requires spending $200 per day, but you also say that one of the best things you did there cost a quarter of that price. That's what I'm more interested in: bang-per-buck. You've told me Goa's a good suggestion. I've already been there, had a good time and spend a hell of a lot more on Kingfishers than I ever did on accommodation. Would you have any other recommendations?

Don't miss Monument Valley, it's on the border with Arizona, awesome beauty, one of John Ford's favorite places to shoot movies.

If you happen to be going anywhere known for its diving, get your Scuba license now. It's definitely some of my most memorable travel experiences, plus at the rate reefs and marine life are dying the opportunities might not be there in future.

I visited Tokyo once, in 2004, I was 20 and had a blast. Tokyo is great place to walk, eat and photograph. I’ve always been an avid amateur photographer who loved to shot random people in the streets and Tokyo is the perfect for that kind of photography (as I call, “urban safari”).

Sydney and Guangzhou are close to my heart too. I love beef and ranking cities according to the quality of their steak, Sydney came second to… Windhoek in Namibia.

In Europe, I recommend: Barcelona, Lisbon, Madrid, Bilbao, Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, London, Cologne, Berlin, Stockholm and Dublin.

In Africa, where I live (Luanda in Angola) many big cities are not “tourist friendly” due to lack of facilities and safety but if you get the chance to view first hand the struggles of an African big city grab it. However, Southern Africa has some great cities full of culture, history and great food (Windhoek, Gaborone, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Maputo, Bloemfontein) and the best off-road/wild life on offer in this world (Okavango delta, Kalahari desert, safari parks).

In Americas: Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte in Brazil, Havana, New York and San Francisco.

Agree on Maputo - was there for two or three days for work and it FAR exceeded my expectations Even the midnight "toll booth" on the coast road was reasonably entertaining. Best prawns I've ever had, decent waterfront hotels, and easy to get around.

Wow, I fundamentally disagree. The most important question would be here, what have the asker's previous travelling experiences been like?
- Has she ever been to a developing country? (if no, go)
- Has she ever been "backpacking"? (if no, try that)
- Has she ever really travelled or is she planning to do so in the future? This is important, as she should clarify whether to cover as much as possible or to travel slow. For a long journey, I would recommend one country per month. (This is on the slow side, but it's a good orientation to start).

You must consider visiting Australia: biologically it is "another planet".

You'll get a million chances to visit London or Paris later in life - so now visit Oxford, Edinburgh, Bruges, Amsterdam, Florence, Venice, the Italian lakes, .....

If you choose to limit yourself to two countries, choose Australia and Italy. If one, Italy.

Staying within Tyler's prescribed high income places, which presumes the traveler in question is reasonably well off financially (or will be soon in that new job), Singapore is another standout, very diverse and fascinating and culinarily top notch. And while Tokyo is indisputably fascinating and exciting, Kyoto has both the greater beauty and the better food.

Here's an idea. Find out where Chinese tourists usually go, and consider copying them. Naturally you'll want to exclude the pregnant ones who go to California.

I see Chinese tourists everywhere now--there were even some in Armenia!

I've never seen so much hate for Chinese people, until touring around Asia. Unfairly or not mainland Chinese are considered rude, pushy, cheap, loud and dirty. In Taiwan the guides give them the nickname "4-26" (four being a homonym for death, and 26 being a homonym for Mandarin).

What does it mean to master an area?

Tyler- it's called the Colorado Plateau! I was so prepared to be pissed after the GDP clause, but then you called out Southern Utah, also my favorite. Get a few area specific geology books ahead of time Here's the itenery I would recommend (in days) also providing relative rank-

Grand Canyon - 3 days
Zion - 4 days
Bryce - 1/2 day
Grand staircase Escalante - 4 days
Capitol Reef - 4 days
Goblin valley 1/2 day
arches - 3 days
canyon lands - 5 days
But you have to go in fall or spring!!!

Also Arches National Monument, although that is arguably more "eastern Utah" than southern.

israel. It is a lifetime of travel amazement in a small package. It has it all - rich history and diversity of culture, religion and geography. Every step is a beautiful and intriguing learning experience. The Red Sea to desert to Golan Heights. My family is a combination of Jewish (mild to intense), atheist (mild to intense) and Christian (mild to intense), and we all love it when we visit. Don't forget to side trip to Petra in Jordan. If you don't know about Petra, just look at images on the Internet.

Petra is hands down one of the most amazing sites on the planet. You can also get there visa free (no visa for Jordan) if you decide to go to the pyramids in Egypt and then go to Sinai ... the ferry trip from Sinai is the only way to get a visa on arrival in Jordan or you need extra planning. And if you're travelling solo and aren't visiting family in Israel you might need to plan many extra hours for the interrogation, so I'd recommend the pyramids to Sinai and Petra route over the Israel option any day.

I like Turkey because it combines a number of elements I look for: historically important with great sites, relatively cheap, weather usually quite good, amazing landscapes, creature comforts abound with adequate English, many parts are different enough from western culture that you can get a bit out of your comfort zone, very easy to get to.

What's on your shortlist outside of Istanbul?

Ephesus, Cappadocia, Konya, Kars/Ani, Ararat area. It is a good country for a longer holiday, I think, because there are 2 or probably 3 separate trips of at least a week you can do.

Thanks! Might be my next trip.

how can you not wish to be introduced to a country of a billion people or more?

This explains your mania for immigration, for which there is apparently no limiting principle. I'm puzzled though why you simultaneously chose not to have any offspring.

This is tacky, Anti-G. He has a step daughter.

Anyone care to offer an opinion on visiting Greece (for the first time) in the Fall?

I'd prioritize Italy, Spain or even Turkey if you haven't been to them. Athens itself is kind of a sh*thole (even before the financial crisis), and there's not really anything interesting there besides the ruins. The ruins around the country are incredible, but the other countries only slightly lag on this dimension. Greece also has beautiful islands, but again the other countries are almost just as good. After that in culture, food, entertainment, cities, nightlife, etc. Greece lags a ton. If you do go, make sure to wait until at least October, when both the weather and crowds die down. You don't want to be on Santorini when 15,000 people offload from the cruise boats.

It sounds like the real rule Tyler is actually espousing is "follow the GDP". He says "per capita" but then goes on to mention almost exclusively places with high populations and high population densities. If GDPPC were the real criterion, then high on the list would be places like Qatar, Bruei, and the Isle of Man, rather than New York, London and Tokyo.

Very helpful comments in this thread. Nice change from arguing about Krugman.

Mexico City is extremely underrated

Given how much hype I have encountered about MC, I'd say it's the opposite. Outside the neighborhoods of Roma, Polanco and La Condesa the city is mostly a dump. Was not too impressed with the area around the Zocalo, which came off as a cheap imitation of Spain. The nearby pyramids at Teotihuacan make a nice day trip, however, and I found the museum at the Chapultepec castle to be worth a visit.

Did you make it to the Anthropology Museum, Colin? Far mroe impressive than the one at Chapultepec, one of the world's greatest museums.

Actually that's a good point -- the anthropology museum was world class. Very well done.

Most of the replies leave out the advice for Europe/Asia destinations. My advice is to travel to the places that are changing most rapidly. That leaves out most of Europe and a lot of northern/eastern Asia. If one can extend the boundaries to SE Asia there's a lot more to see on an extended voyage. Visit HK and Singapore and then compare and contrast. The cities seem similar yet totally different. Some of the best food in the world.

The original question said East/North Asia and Europe, so I'd say Spain:

Barcelona and Madrid are very much European cities; Barcelona has more architectural/artistic interest. (Besides the Gaudí, see the Palau de Musica Catalana and other buildings by Domenech i Montaner, too.) Then visit southern Spain - Sevilla, Cordoba (the Mezquita is magnificent), Granada, etc. Southern Spain is architecturally and historically very distinct, and don't have quite the homogenized European flavor - they're a little more Middle Eastern without really being threateningly different.

I haven't been to Asia at all, so I'm not sure what to recommend there. The advice about doing somewhat more difficult travel sounds good - when I was 17, I traveled alone through Yugoslavia as part of a longer trip. That's something which would have been much harder with kids, and hard even with a partner. So if rural travel or adventure travel (mountain climbing, etc.) are at all interesting, do that now.

Although it may seem like it, 1-2 months is not much time at all if you want to see Eastern/Northern Asia and Europe as you say. You can very easily spend a month getting a feel for any western european country (of which I would recommend Italy, Spain, France, Germany, UK, and Benelux in roughly that order). Other great places to visit in Europe include the Alps, the former Yugoslavia, Czech Republic, and Riga in Latvia. And depending upon how much you've already experienced, I would recommend focusing on only one or two countries rather than skipping around trying to do it all. I second the suggestion by an earlier commenter to take this opportunity to go to some out-of-the way places; you'll have plenty of future opportunities to get to Paris, London or even Berlin and day trips from there. I don't know eastern/northern asia nearly as well as southeast asia, but I'm quite sure you can easily spend a month in Japan or China and just be scratching the surface.

If you're from the US and will be working there, it may be less appealing to visit there now as that will be an easier option in the future and is less exotic, but I'll second Tyler's recommendation for Southern Utah, really amazing, although I kind of wish he'd kept quiet about that little secret. The reality is that the US has some of the most spectacular scenery and interesting culture anywhere.

As for Tyler's per capita GDP theory of travel, I'd have to demur. My more exciting and interesting experiences have tended to be in places that are well off the beaten path and tend to be poorer regions of the world. and his recommendation of Mexico is a perfect example of this. Although of course it's true that much cultural heritage and history is concentrated in rich countries. And you may be better served by first getting your feet wet with these more accessible regions (excepting perhaps China) that have been recommended.

No mention of the American South. Great, just as I expected : /

I'd replace Rome by Sicily and then it's about right. With Rome as the southern border you miss the Amalfi Coast and Sicily.

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