I’ve been to about sixty five countries to date, a respectable number, if far short of a number of people I’ve met on my travels who have been to more than a hundred. I have no interest in reaching that many. If I had I probably wouldn’t have gone to Australia more than twenty times. After six years of particularly frequent travel I reached saturation point, finding it increasing hard to get as excited and engaged by new places. Which makes it a good time to reflect back on the countries that did give me that feeling.
Below are in order are my favourite countries I’ve visited to date. Note that the UK and New Zealand are missing as they’ve been home for twenty eight years and ten years respectively, I have a different relationship to them than other countries I’ve visited.
An easy choice, though probably an unexpected one to many. Iran is home to some of the most incredible man made and natural sights, wonderful food, and hospitable people in the world. Don’t judge a country by it’s government, but by it’s people and the way they treat visitors, by which Iran is second to none. I visited the central spine of the country in 2017 and would love to return to explore the Caspian Sea, the mountains in the northwest, and the deserts of the east. Unfortunately that may not be possible for some time. I hope that there is a peaceful way forward, allowing many others to enjoy this phenomenal country.
There are many reasons why I’ve visited Australia so many times. It’s a huge, and hugely varied country. In terms of cities it has the wonderful Sydney and Melbourne, and the underrated Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. The best parts for me though are escaping into this vast country, through the staggering Kimberly, along the West Coast, around Tasmania, up north to Cairns, and through the red centre to Alice Springs. The landscapes and wildlife are like nowhere else, but it is safe, accessible and conveniently close to New Zealand (only 2,000km away!).
Home to the most surreal landscapes and cities I’ve visited, Bolivia made quite an impression on me. The salt flats are justifiably well known but there is so much more to this country, starting with Los Lipez, the Bolivian part of the Atacama Desert. I remember my brain struggling to process the sight of colourful lagoons, flamingos, and volcanoes at thousands of metres above sea level. Visiting Potosi is essential to understanding how the Spanish had such a vast empire, La Paz is one of the most memorable cities I’ve visited, home to cable cars and Witches Markets, and the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni have to be experienced to be believed.
4. Papua New Guinea
Little visited, in part due to it’s sadly deserved reputation for violence, but there are ways to manage this in order to visit one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. To me Papua New Guinea is as exotic and different as you can get, home to fascinating and hugely photogenic cultural festivals, friendly people, the historic Kokoda Track and other WW2 sites, and incredible nature.
One of the least visited countries for tourists thanks to a fairly dire and mostly undeserved reputation. I had an incredible time visiting the north west, within eye sight of the border with Afghanistan, on a road trip through the epic mountains of the Hindu Kush. The locals were friendly and welcoming, it is one of increasingly few places where it a novelty to be a visitor. Spending time with the Kalash gave a fascinating insight into a tiny ethnic group, while the mountain scenery was some of the best I’ve seen anywhere.
6 .Myanmar (Burma)
I really like South East Asia, it feels very different from the West but is relatively easy and safe to travel around. I’ve been to seven of the ten ASEAN countries and Myanmar (Burma) is my favourite. Yangon is one of the most eclectic cities in the region, Bagan is justifiably famous for it’s endless temples and hot air balloon rides, Mandalay is bustling and packed with historic sights, Kalaw offers a glimpse of mountain life, and Lake Inle is a photographers paradise. Everywhere you go are Buddhist temples and monasteries of impressive quality, variety and beauty.
Stunning mountain scenery, historic cities and churches, a fascinating history, good food, eye catching modern architecture, and relatively few tourists. Georgia has everything going for it and will only get more popular over time. It is a relatively stable gem in an often troubled region, between Russia and Turkey.
I didn’t particularly love Switzerland when I first visited it in 2014, spending most of my time in the cities. I walked through a small part of it in 2018 on the Tour du Mont Blanc, but got the full experience walking the phenomenal Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt in 2019. Travelling by foot through valleys and alpine villages was the best way to see this hugely scenic country.
An unexpected gem in the Balkans, of which I knew little before I visited in 2018. It turned out to be one of the most scenically beautiful, and historically interesting, parts of Europe. The Albanian Alps rival the actual Alps for alpine wonder, while Tirana and Shkoder were filled with history but had a modern buzz. The neighbouring Kosovo and Macedonia were almost a match for Albania, all three are wonderful places to visit.
One of my most visited countries, mainly due to multiple family holidays in the mid 2000s. Turkey has a special place in my memory as the first country I visited as a solo traveller, at the age of 24. I’ve managed to fit in a fair amount of travel in the fifteen years since. Just before Christmas 2004, over five snow bound and dark days, I was entranced by the magic of Istanbul, one of the great cities of the world. Eight years later I returned to see more of the city, and its two predecessor capitals of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne and Bursa, full of incredible buildings and history.
One of the most visually stunning countries in the world, home to amazing waterfalls, huge glaciers, unusual rock formations, particularly photogenic icebergs, geothermal activity, and a more fascinating history and culture than I expected. In the space of a century Iceland went from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in Europe. It is now also one of the most expensive countries to visit in Europe…
Often referred to as the ‘Magical Kingdom of Bhutan’ for good reason, as it is a special place, which has probably managed tourism and development better than almost any other country I know. I spent five weeks there, four weeks of which were spent walking the Lunana Snowman, one of the longest, hardest, and most remote treks in the Himalayas. It really was magical to arrive into an isolated village holding an archery tournament, or to camp at 5,200m above sea level by the wondrous Lake Tshorim.
An immensely varied and understandably popular country. In a packed fortnight I visited the atmospheric Amazon rainforest, vast Lake Titicaca, crowded Machu Picchu and more enjoyable quieter Inca sites in the Sacred Valley, historic Cusco, and hiked for a few days in the Andes. I’m keen to return sometime to explore the north of the country.
I can think of few countries as (ill) defined by one event as Ethiopia. Yes, there was a terrible famine there 35 years ago, inspiring Live Aid, but there is so much more to this historic, fascinating, and frequently quite beautiful country. The northern circuit is home to some of the oldest churches, and most spectacular scenery, in the world.
My second favourite country in South-East Asia, for avoiding the worst developments of it’s neighbours, and for it’s low key charms. It may not have the sights of Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam, but it doesn’t have the crowds either, and Luang Prabang is one of the most pleasant places in the region to spend time.
A final honorable mention of Syria, which was an incredible place to visit back in 2008 but is sadly not what it was after the devastation of civil war.