If you’re bored of the usual European vacations to Spain or Italy, Slovakia would provide a welcome change. Steeped in history and offering some of the region’s most beautiful scenery, it’s an Eastern European fairytale. Whether you head to the east or west you’ll find incredible architecture by the truck load and some seriously impressive landscapes. Visit the capital Bratislava and take a walk through the striking Old Town to Bratislava Castle, or take in some Slovak modern art at the Nedbalka Gallery, which is located on one of the city’s oldest streets. To the east of the Old Town is The Church of St Elizabeth which is known as The Blue Church because of its distinctive blue painted exterior. Outside of the main city you’ll find some popular skiing destinations and natural parks that are popular with cyclists, hikers and climbers.
Bhutan might be one of the smallest countries in the world but if you’re prepared to put in the effort to get there, you won’t be disappointed. There’s no fewer than 169 festivals planned for 2017 so it’s a great year to visit! If you want a relaxing vacation, check out one of the many mediation and yoga retreats dotted throughout the country. As a buddhist country the retreats are usually attached to monasteries and temples. Or you could enjoy some hot spring therapy at the Gasa Tshachu in western Bhutan where you’ll likely share a pool with locals as well as tourists. You’ll have to trek for around 40 minutes to reach the spring, or go for a longer six-hour trek through bamboo forests and little villages. Once you’re energized, why not tackle one of the increasingly popular road bike routes, or travel by river on a kayak, or walk to the famous Tiger’s Nest temple? One of the many unique things about Bhutan are its rules for tourists. The Bhutan government asks that you book all travel in Bhutan with a licensed operator. There’s also a daily charge that goes towards transport, accommodation, food and a guide. All tourists have to pay US$200 (Dh735) per person per night in December to February, and June to August. It goes up to US$250 (Dh920) for the remaining months. If you’re traveling to Bhutan alone or in a group of two, there’s an extra US$40 (Dh145) or US$30 (Dh220) surcharge on top of that. If you choose a five-star hotel over a hostel, you’ll also have to pay more on top of your flat fee.
As well as being one of the best places in the world to the see the Northern Lights, Iceland has plenty going for it throughout the rest of the year too. The east of the island has some of the country’s biggest forests and fishing communities taking advantage of the plentiful seas. One of the best things to do in Iceland is in the south and involves taking to the (sometimes icy) roads! Rent a car and drive between Þingvellir National Park, the geysers at Haukadalur, and the Gulfoss waterfalls. If you stop along the way (we recommend you do!) set aside a good eight hours for the trip. It’s also worth checking the road conditions by downloading the Vegagerdin app to your phone. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is a fun cosmopolitan city with a great selection of museums, music venues, parks and shops. Check out The Living Art Museum if you want something a little different (and admission is free). Stay at the Hotel Borg, next to the country’s Parliament, which has some nice art deco features and photos of old Reykjavik.
This is another slightly off-the-beaten-track option for a vacation destination in 2017, but Albania is a fantastic place for culture vultures. In the south east of Europe, it has a climate to suit everyone and is often described as ‘unspoiled’. You could join a ski tour in the Albanian Alps and stay in a mountain hostel, or enjoy the warmer climes in the Albanian Riviera. Visit the Butrint National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains structures dating from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. The park is more than 94 square kilometers so there’s plenty to explore! From the park you could head along the coast where you’ll find lots of villages to stop and enjoy a glass of locally brewed raki or Albania’s version of kafe turk, a thick coffee. Ksamil is one of Albania’s best coastal towns and you can find a hotel room for under Dh100 – a bargain!
Now that diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba have been repaired, this Caribbean island is likely to become a much busier vacation destination. So if you want to get there before that happens, 2017 is the year to go! Fidel Castro’s recent death is unlikley to trigger any real changes in this fascinating and sometimes controversial country. You could stick to the capital city of Havana or head further west to Vinales, a valley rich in tobacco fields (which produce those famous Cuban cigars!). The capital Havana is where Ernest Hemingway spent his last days and there’s plenty there to celebrate this, including The Hemingway House in San Francisco de Paula and the Hemingway Museum in Finca Vigia. While you’re there, take advantage of the culture of paladares, where Cubans set up their homes as private restaurants and invite you in. Bear in mind rules for American passport holders are slightly different so check with your embassy before booking.
The scenery in Kyrgyzstan is one of contrasts – you’re either up a mountain breathing crisp air, or in a lush green valley. Eighty per cent of this landlocked country is made up of the Tian Shan mountain range, which borders with China, and provides some incredible, unspoilt scenery. The Issyk-Kul Lake is the country’s largest lake and the tenth biggest in the world. Why not try basing yourself in a yurt at the Ecotourism Centre Znaki at the lakeside and go hiking or horse riding in the mountains? If you want a city experience, in Bishek, the capital, there’s the Osh Market where you could buy almost every kind of dried fruits or vegetables you could imagine, as well as hand-sewn textiles or clothes. There’s also an opera and ballet theater which has performances most weekends and tickets start at Dh5!
If you want to experience some of the world’s best trekking or stunning temples, head to Nepal. It’s just over 5 hours flight time from Dubai so just about doable for a long weekend on a UAE public holiday. If you’re pushed for time and want to remain in Kathmandu, visit Swayambhunath, one of the oldest religious sites in the country. At the other end of the scale is Thamel, an area popular with backpackers who want to shop and party. Nepal’s tourist industry is quite established so it’s easy to book activities such as mountain biking, bungee jumping or nature walks. Read more: Want more inspiration for quick getaways from the UAE? Check out our guide to the top destinations under four hours away from Dubai.
Tourism in Montenegro is fairly undeveloped (but it’s growing) which means it’s a great place to visit in 2017. It sits on the Adriatic coast and competes on most fronts with any of the more popular Mediterranean destinations. The city of Kotor, with its distinctive red roofed buildings and ancient walls, is a perfect first stop on a vacation in Montenegro. The small cobbled streets that wind around the city will take you on a tour of little cafes, museums and restaurants. It’s especially pretty at night so step out and enjoy a bowl of japraci, a traditional dish of beef, rice and peppers. The St Tryphon Cathedral has an impressive collection of artefacts (some dating back to the 14th Century) and is one of the most beautiful religious sites on the Mediterranean coast.
There’s a reason why the production team on Planet Earth II chose Madagascar to film some of the show’s most exciting scenes. This huge island off the coast of Africa is home to hundreds of animal and plant species that don’t exist anywhere else. Find a cheap flight to Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo (visa on arrival) and be prepared to feel like you’re holidaying on another planet! The city, known as Tana, is a good base for your first few days while you explore the colonial buildings, shop in the local markets or eat some seriously fabulous food. The Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, about a three-hour drive from Tana, is a huge 155 square kilometer space. It has hundreds of bird species and holds the record for the biggest number of frog species! If that isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s also 5,000km of coastline, rainforests (home of the Planet Earth II lemurs!), trekking routes and even some desert to explore.
Now the Rio 2016 Olympics are over, Brazil can go back on your vacation bucket list! Due to its size and vast number of airports – an impressive 2,500 – you should choose what sort of holiday you want before you book. Do you want a relaxing beach vacation? If so, head to Fernando De Norohna, an archipelago of 21 islands with some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Popular ones include Sancho Bay and Praia do Leão. Love your coffee? Sign up for a tour of a coffee farm where you’ll be shown how they produce some of the world’s most popular coffees. Many of these take place a few hours’ drive of Sao Paolo so they make a good day trip. While you’re in the city, check out some of of the many art galleries showcasing works of up-and-coming South American talents. Two of the best are the Sao Paolo Museum of Art, which has a more traditional collection including European masters, and Choque Cultural, which is more plugged into Sao Paolo’s underground art culture.
It’s probably the fact that this former Soviet republic is just a 3.5 hour flight away from the UAE that makes Georgia such a popular destination for people wanting to get out for a long weekend. Sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea, it is a cultural melting pot. Combine this with the spectacular scenery and very affordable prices, it’s a brilliant option for a 2017 vacation. The capital, Tbilisi, is on the banks of the Kura River and was built in the 5th Century. The architecture has changed throughout the decades so it’s one of the most interesting cultural capitals. The Peace Bridge and the Concert Hall & Exhibition Centre at Rike Park are wonderful examples of brave modern architecture in a traditional setting. The number of cool restaurants, art galleries and friendly hotels has also increased in recent years, but there’s still plenty of ‘old’ to experience. You could visit 4th Century Narikala Fortress which sits above the city between the botanical gardens and sulphur baths. If you want to experience Georgia’s amazing landscapes, head to Stepantsminda, capital of the Kazbegi Municipality. It’s the perfect town to stay in while you explore the surrounding mountains on foot, horseback or bicycle. Book a room at the Rooms Hotel Kazebgi and have a drink on the long balcony while gazing at the Caucasus Mountains. Read more: Top 8 attractions and things to do in Georgia.
Portugal is a lovely European vacation spot and it’s easy to get away from the crowds. You could fly direct to Lisbon from the UAE and stay in the historic Solar Do Costelo hotel in the middle of the castle grounds. Lisbon a good city to walk around (in fact, it’s easier to walk than to travel by any other means) or you could hop on one the trams that manage to traverse some of the very narrow – and steep – hills. It’s also a great country to holiday with kids. Take them to see the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) in the medieval town of Sintra, or to Lisbon’s Oceanario de Lisboa (aquarium), and they’ll be very happy campers.
Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, is one of two European Capitals of Culture 2017 (the other is Pafos in Cyprus), making it the perfect 2017 vacation spot for lovers of culture. There’s a packed calendar of events across the region including the SPOR Festival of contemporary music and art. The Garden – End of Time, Beginning of Times is a special exhibition running throughout the year at a number of different venues and includes some wonderful modern art as well as classics from artists such as John Constable. Foodies should check out September’s Food Festival which attracts chefs and ingredients from across Denmark. There’s also lots of independent shops in Aarhus (again, thanks to the art scene) as well as some fantastic restaurants, including two with Michelin stars.
This is an oldie but a goodie, and chances are you haven’t explored everything there is to see. Skip Paris and head south west to the Cote d’Argent for the perfect summer family vacation destination. It’s the longest stretch of coast in Europe so becomes pretty popular in August. If you travel outside of this month it’ll be much quieter – and no doubt a lot cheaper. Behind the beach is the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park which has more than 40 small communes living in it. There’s loads of outdoor activities including horse riding, walking, birdwatching, and trail cycling.
Your money should go far in Morocco and in today’s world that’s definitely a good thing! You can experience a little taste of affordable luxury at one of the many riads in Marrakech. The pretty Riad Les Bougainvilliers has a roof terrace, library and spa, so would provide a welcome break after a day exploring the bazaars or the beautiful Palais be la Bahia. You can get a room there for around Dh200. If a good night’s sleep isn’t enough, go get an invigorating hammam, during which you’ll be scrubbed and cleaned to within an inch of your life! And it wouldn’t be right to visit Morocco and not have a traditional Moroccan mint tea, which can be found in almost every single cafe or shop. There’s lots of bazaars to shop at and plenty of day trips to head out into the desert.
16. United Kingdom
After a slightly tumultuous year, a vacation in the UK in 2017 will be gentle on your wallet. You could use the low value of the pound to spend more time exploring places further afield than London. Hop on a train and head up north to York, a Roman city that boasts one of the country’s most beautiful and biggest cathedrals, York Minster. There’s also lots of museums and if you like your gruesome history brought to life, visit York Dungeon. You’ll be split for choice of nice hotels and guesthouses but if you want to treat yourself a little book into a suite at The Grand Hotel & Spa York with his and hers sinks, double showers, Molton Brown toiletries and some fantastic views of York. If you wanted to go even further north, fly to Glasgow or Edinburgh and go mountain climbing at Cairn Gorm, or hire a bicycle and pedal around the nature reserves at Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish residency. Scotland is also one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights if you wanted a winter vacation. If you’re staying in London and looking for a cheap hotel, read our article on the best cheap hotels and hostels in London.
If you wanted to recover from the craziness of 2016, book yourself on a relaxing yoga or meditation retreat in India in 2017. At one end of the (very vast yoga) spectrum is the week-long silent yoga retreat at Shreyas in Bangalore. You’ll get a wellness consultation before you begin and a little book to keep note of your thoughts and communicate with staff. Even so, it’s not for the faint hearted. At the other end of the scale is the Bamboo Yoga Retreat in Goa, which takes a more laid back attitude to relaxation. There’s daily yoga and meditation classes, a vegetarian food menu, and a beach to watch the sun go down after a hard day’s stretching and toning.
Read more: check out our beginner’s guide to Mumbai, when to go and what to do to get you started!
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*Published December 2016. Prices and information correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability.