The Best Destinations for First-Time Travelers

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The Best Destinations for First-Time Travelers

As avid travelers, we occasionally lose sight of how intimidating it can be to propel ourselves to a faraway land, immerse ourselves in an unknown culture, and parse the logistics of a completely foreign infrastructure. Partly, this fish-out-of-water experience is what makes travel so exhilarating and illuminating. But we can’t kid ourselves – it can be daunting.

If you’re keen to embark on your first trip abroad, you might justifiably have some qualms. And you might want to dip your proverbial toes in the water to start – ease yourself into the idea of traveling with a relatively safe and accommodating destination.

We’re here to help. Whatever gets people out to see the wide world, Unbound Merino is here for it. We want to engage the next generation of travelers and human ambassadors. And to do that, we’ve cobbled together our list of the best destinations for first-time travelers.

We worked with four central criteria to devise the list below:

  • Safety: Your first destination should be somewhat worry-free. It’s impossible to find a wholly un-dangerous corner of the world. But we’ve consulted the Global Peace Index (GPI) to recommend countries mostly devoid of petty crime and disruption.
  • Language Barrier: This is a contentious one. We believe immersing yourself in different languages has intellectual merit. At the same time, we understand that being unable to communicate effectively is challenging for first-time (and even seasoned) journeyers. We've tried to include a mix of English-receptive places and destinations that do an amicable job of accommodating several foreign language speakers.
  • Tourist Infrastructure: Some countries are better prepared than others to receive tourists. They might have ample hotels, direct incoming flights, tourist-centric activities, signposts and wayfinding materials, and transportation workers versed in helping tourists get around. We’ve elected to highlight destinations with robust tourist infrastructures.
  • Allure: Finally, a travel destination has to have pull. It has to be exciting, engaging and fun. The destinations below fit this all-important criterion.

Pack your most comfortable travel clothing, and let’s hit the skies. Here are some prime candidates for your first travel destination.

Ireland

Ireland has it all for the first-time traveler. It’s one of the safest countries in the world; its residents speak English (although you’ll need to pay attention to keep up with the brogue); Ireland is easy to traverse by rail and inner-city public transport; it has a rich, expressive historical culture, and a modern flair as well. Ireland’s rocky coast is evocative and picturesque, and its cities crackle with energy. It’s an ideal country to scratch that first travel bug itch.  

Places to Visit

You’ll probably land in Dublin, the capital city of Ireland. Stay a while. The city’s pubs brim with cheer and music – an infectious way to partake in the local culture. And its many museums, libraries and galleries form a fantastic introduction to Ireland’s long, sometimes-harrowing history.

From Dublin, head to Killarney National Park for a mix of old stone castles and rugged landscapes. Or check out Galway for a bohemian, artsy and thoroughly charming slice of Irish life.

Iceland

What can we say about Europe’s northernmost country? It’s very safe, and it’s highly amenable to foreign travelers. But that’s not why you want to go to Iceland. You go to Iceland because it’s like being transported to a new planet – one with sprawling glacial fields, warped landscapes, geysers, volcanos and fjords.

Places to Visit

Your plane lands in the capital, Reykjavik, which is more than just a gateway to the Icelandic countryside. It’s a fun city to explore, with friendly citizens, good museums, great shopping, an excellent panoramic view of the mountains, whale-watching tours, lively bars and more.

From Reykjavik, charter a bus (or rent a car) toward Thingvellir National Park, a stunning section of the Atlantic Ocean Ridge, featuring waterfalls, geysers, fjords, ravines and (in the winter) the aurora borealis. Further afield, check out the less touristy Westfjords region for hot springs, fjords (of course) and even more geological magic. The entire ring road encircling Iceland recently made our list of the most photogenic travel destinations.

Greece

Greece has been welcoming tourists since ancient times, so it has some experience. Tourists tend to direct their attention to the capital and islands; for your first trip, you might choose to do the same. You’ll be greeted by picturesque white-and-blue stucco towns, impossibly pristine swimming beaches and exquisite fire-grilled food. It’s a rare destination that mixes luxury and relaxation with stimulating historical and cultural immersion.

Places to Visit

Many consider Athens to be the forerunner of European civilization. It's one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, wearing its age with dignity and beauty. Unlike some other destinations, the tourist attractions here are genuinely impressive – like the Acropolis, Parthenon and Ancient Archaeology Museum.

If it's beachy vibes you want, head to any of the numerous Greek Islands. Honestly, you can't go wrong. If you want islands with deeply ingrained tourist infrastructures, we can recommend Corfu and Mykonos. Just be sure to grab a pack of women's merino shirts and lightweight travel pants for women; their blend of casual sophistication and sweat-wicking breathability suits the Mediterranean experience perfectly.

Portugal

Spain gets most of the love when people consider the Iberian Peninsula, but don’t sleep on Portugal. The socially progressive, super-safe country is ideal for first-time travelers. Getting around via rail or bus is a cinch. If most citizens don’t speak perfect English, at least they aren’t annoyed by English (looking at you, Paris). And the mixture of great food, great wine, stellar nightlife and gorgeous scenery is an easy pill to swallow.

Places to Visit

Lisbon has a lot going for it. The 8th-century Saõ Jorge castle overlooking the city is an awesome way to spend an afternoon. The city is home to several Fado bars (a kind of interactive music and dance traditionally associated with bar culture). And the Time Out Market, a collection of small restaurants and wine bars, serves up a delicious array of Portuguese cuisine in one convenient setting.

We also recommend checking out the old city of Porto, where you can take a boat ride down the Douro River and tour the local port wineries. And for a beach destination with antique charm, you can’t miss Tavira.

2-A-view-of-Lisbon-from-the-Sao-Jorge-castle

Credit: los Via Freepik

Japan

Europe isn’t the only continent with a stronghold on easy first-time travel. Asia also packs a formidable punch in this arena, especially in terms of safety, cleanliness and tourist-friendliness. Leading the pack is Japan, which is an anomaly among travel destinations: It’s a total culture shock, but it’s also effortless to travel. The rapid transit, abundant signage, meticulous urban organization and robust hospitality culture make it super simple to be a tourist in Japan. And the food’s pretty good too!

Places to Visit

You have to see Tokyo to believe it. The 40-million-plus megalopolis is a fireworks display of energy, culture and nature. The city encompasses frenetic districts, like Shibuya and Shinjuku, that burst with neon lights and partygoers; tech-forward districts like Akihabara; swanky areas like Ginza, and everything in between. But it’s also home to lush gardens, reverent shrines and temples, and important historical sites. Give yourself a week here to scratch the surface.

To dial down the energy (slightly) and dial up the culture, visit Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. And to partake in the onsen culture (geothermal bathing), visit the hot-spring resort town of Kusatsu.

Taiwan

Taiwan is a fascinating country. It still bears the influence of its Japanese occupation on the local food and customs. And, as the preeminent destination for fleeing Chinese republicans during the Mao era, it melds together various Chinese regional cultures. More than that, Taiwan is a heady mix of big-city swagger and rustic backcountry appeal. It’s also very safe and tourist-friendly.

Places to Visit

We realize it’s becoming a trend in this list to recommend the capital city. But you do have to visit Taipei. It’s too cool to miss. And the night markets have to be one of the world’s great culinary experiences. If you have a spare afternoon, take the elevator to the top of Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings.

Taichung is another hip and happening Taiwanese city that receives far fewer tourists than the capital. And Taroko National Park is your go-to destination in Taiwan for scenic nature and dramatic gorges.

Thailand

Thailand is no stranger to tourists. “Doing Thailand” is practically a rite of passage among some younger tourist cohorts. And while some people use it as an excuse to party hard and misbehave, most people see Thailand for what it is: rich culture, stunning beaches, amazing food, kind people, and much more. Of our destinations on this list, it ranks the second-lowest by GPI (at 103rd among countries). But to put it into perspective, the USA ranks 129th. Keep your head up, your temper checked, and your valuables close, and you’ll be just fine.

Places to Visit

The Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is an intoxicating combination of mountain scenery, intricate palaces/temples and delicious food. Eat everything you can get your hands on, and then walk off your meals by touring the numerous temples. If you can swing it, book a tour of the surrounding misty mountains and cave complexes.

Your plane will probably (though not always) touch down in Bangkok, which is a good thing; the Thai capital is the country’s epicentre of nightlife, food markets and palatial attractions. Most visitors head south after Bangkok, sticking their beach umbrellas in destinations like Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi and Phuket, each stunning. If you’re heading to Thailand for sun and sand, read our comprehensive rundown on packing for a beach vacation

New Zealand

We arrive again in the English-speaking world, in perhaps the closest cognate of North American culture anywhere in the world. (Which shouldn’t diminish New Zealand’s uniqueness in any way – the country is very much its own thing). New Zealand’s natural beauty, clean cities and friendly people make it simple for first-time travelers, provided you can stomach the long-haul flight. And if you know your way around a surfboard, you’ll get even more mileage from your flight.

Places to Visit

The big city of Auckland is an exciting place to start. Its museums offer insights into the country’s history and indigenous Māori culture. Auckland is also a fantastic launchpad for exploring the nearby Bay of Islands, an enclave of subtropical islands, unspoilt beaches and waterfalls.

Next, head to Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, for hiking, bungee jumping, jet boating and just about every other high-thrill activity. Then cap your trip off with a relaxing stop in Coromandel, a laid-back beach destination on the North Island.

3-A-traveler-in-merino-clothes-for-women-stands-atop-a-cliff-in-New-Zealand-

Credit: wirestock Via Freepik

Canada

O, Canada, where to start? The world’s second-largest country is too diverse to summarize. It has towering mountain ranges, dense forests, rocky shores, laid-back beaches, sprawling wheat fields, and everything in between. Its citizens are (notoriously) kind-hearted. And it’s safe, clean and brimming with activities.

Places to Visit

For a slice of Europe in North America, we recommend visiting Montreal, the largest city in Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province. The food here is rich and soul-satisfying, earning it an easy spot on our list of the world’s best food cities. The cafés and bars bristle with intellectual conversations. And the various basilicas, botanical gardens, parks and museums quickly fill an itinerary.

Heading west, we recommend Vancouver, a city surrounded by natural beauty in the form of temperate rainforests, mountains and Pacific Ocean. If you’re visiting in the winter, lean into the cold with a trip to Banff, probably the world’s greatest ski destination. Just be sure to pack some light travel hoodies for an insulating middle layer.

Colombia

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Colombia ranks fairly low on the GPI, and most governments recommend that tourists exercise caution when visiting the South American country. Does that make it a bad country for first-time travelers? We don’t think so. There are safe areas in Colombia that are welcoming to tourists, easy to get around and affordable. Absolutely “exercise caution” in Colombia, but don’t remove it from your travel list.  

Places to Visit

Safe cities like Cartagena and Medellin also happen to be some of the country’s most gorgeous. The former boasts a picturesque walled Old Town surrounded by Caribbean beaches. And the latter is an artistic, lively, architecturally fascinating expression of Colombian culture.

To soak in some of Colombia’s rainforest-y nature, check out Tayrona National Park, a symphony of palm-lined coves, lagoons, jungle, mountains and beaches.

With any luck, this article proves that there’s an abundance of safe, exciting locations worldwide. If you’re a novice traveler looking for an equal mix of adventure and ease, we recommend the locations above. But as always, feel free to strike off on your own path. The beauty of traveling is that it’s a personal journey of internal and external exploration. If you’re inclined, let us know in the comments where your first travel destination was – or where you want it to be.

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