“How do I get started as a traveler?”
That’s the question I am often asked when I participate in travel talks or podcasts. It’s a good question because the number of choices is staggering and kind of intimidating. So I’ve selected the following seven places that are easy to maneuver for first-time travelers.
1. Reykjavík, Iceland
Most people speak English in Iceland. Although I was on my own when I visited, I found it easy to book day trips all over the country. I took a great walking tour of Reykjavík, found good restaurants, and even bought tickets to the Reykjavík International Film Festival.
Must-Try Restaurants: Dill And Bæjarins Beztu Pyslur
For a blowout meal, sample the fare at Dill, which, in 2017, became the first restaurant to receive a Michelin star in Iceland. Try the reindeer tartare (and, yes, there are vegetarian options).
For cheaper fare, jump in the long line at the most iconic hot dog stand in the city, Bæjarins Beztu Pyslur (“The Best Dog in Town”). A dog with “the works” includes fried and raw onion, ketchup, and a sauce made of mayonnaise and mustard relish.
Hotel Recommendations: Alda Hotel And Kex Hostel
The sleek and spotless Alda Hotel offers guests a free Android phone for their stay. Even better, the phone is preloaded with apps to help you explore the city.
The hip Kex Hostel is a less expensive choice, with 16-person dorm rooms as well as single guest rooms.
Reykjavíc Tours Not To Miss
Elding Adventure at Sea is the company that ferried me to see the northern lights at night (and it offers whale watching, puffin watching, and fishing trips, as well). Elding graciously changed the date for my tickets so I could see the shimmering and dramatic light show on a clear night.
2. Rome, Italy
Rome can seem overwhelming. The phrase “Rome, one lifetime is not enough,” was first written by Italian journalist and essayist Silvio Negro and remains a common (and often unsourced) quote today. In Italian: “Roma, non basta una vita.”
You’ll find that the Eternal City has a staggering number of restaurants, ancient sites, sophisticated shops, and gelato, gelato, gelato. I’ll help you narrow it down.
Must-Try Restaurant: Rimessa Roscioli
A local favorite, Rimessa Roscioli offers everything from plates of ethereal pasta to wine tastings, wine tours, cooking classes, and the Roscioli Food Tour. Reservations are absolutely necessary.
Essential Gelato: Gelateria Valentina And Come Il Late
Anywhere you go in Rome, you’ll find gelato to die for. Everyone has favorites, but the Gelateria Valentino near the Trevi Fountain or Come il Latte near the Villa Borghese are two that are highly recommended.
Hotel Recommendation: Hotel Santa Maria
Escape the cacophony of the city at the Hotel Santa Maria, a 19-room boutique hotel housed in a renovated 16th-century cloister in charming Trastevere. While you’re there, you can book a food tour of the neighborhood with Eating Europe: the Twilight Trastevere Rome Food Tour. Or just wander over to Da Enzo Al 29, a small and classic trattoria nearby, for authentic Roman food. Try the fried artichoke.
Rome Tours Not To Miss
Free walking tours will take you all over Rome (don’t forget to tip). However, it might be smart to pay for a tour that enables you to skip the lines at the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel. Or try an early access tour to St. Peter’s Basilica.
If you’re a film fan, you can download the free walking tour that follows the path of Princess Anne (Audrey Hepburn) in the iconic 1953 film Roman Holiday.
3. London, England
British writer Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” You can check out a play at Shakespeare’s Globe theater or wander the cobbled streets of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Explore Abbey Road of Beatles fame or visit Harry Potter’s train platform at King’s Cross station. London is simply a wonderland of history, literature, and the arts.
Must-Try Restaurant: Dishoom
There are some 40,000 restaurants in London, with great eats from every continent. My favorite is the Dishoom chain, which pays homage to the traditions of Bombay (with restaurants in Kensington, Covent Garden, King’s Cross, Carnaby, and Shoreditch — my hangout). Reservations are available only for groups of six or more.
Essential British Dining
For actual British food, first-timers would do well to frequent a local pub or a high-end pub like The Harp in Covent Garden, The Royal Oak in Southwark, or Prospect of Whitby in Wapping.
And don’t forget the glorious high teas at the venerable Savoy or the Ritz; you will remember it when you are old and gray.
Hotel Recommendations: The Montague And Batty Langley’s
Check in to the Montague on the Gardens in Bloomsbury for a charming and traditional boutique hotel housed within a converted row of Georgian townhouses. You’ll be steps away from the homes of some of the greatest British authors, as well as from the British Museum. Try the Montague’s afternoon tea, as well.
For less tradition and more “dark decadence,” follow the trendsetters to Batty Langley’s hotel in Shoreditch, near Old Spitalfields Market. Make sure you check out the throne toilets and marble baths.
London Tours Not To Miss
Tours by Foot offers free walking tours (I loved the South Bank one), paid bus tours (including some great theme tours to see Beatles lore, Harry Potter filming locations, and more), and private tours.
You can also visit 26 free museums in London, and all of them are easily reachable by public transportation — just use your Oyster card to ride.
4. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
First-time travelers will find Amsterdam a revelation — crowded (especially with bikes), full of life, and with some of the best museums in the world.
Must-Try Restaurants: Max Restaurant And Albert Kuypmarkt
Indonesian food has been popular in the Netherlands since the Dutch East Indies were colonized in the 1600s. Try the upscale Max Restaurant in the Jordaan neighborhood to taste the best of Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), with scores of small dishes of delectable food.
A great alternative to pricey Amsterdam restaurants is the Albert Kuypmarkt in the De Pijp neighborhood, with over 250 food stalls.
Hotel Recommendations: Asile Flottant And The Hoxton
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience — and a great treat for kids — stay on a boat. The Asile Flottant is a collection of six boats (which each sleep six people comfortably) docked on a Dutch canal.
For a land-based stay, The Hoxton is highly recommended. Located near museums, shops, and restaurants — and not far from the train station — the Hoxton is busy, hip, and they offer free bikes to guests.
Amsterdam Tours Not To Miss
There are many classic boat tours on the Dutch canals, but Those Dam Boat Guys have knowledgeable and personable guides.
Sandemans New Europe offers a free 3-hour walking tour (with tips happily accepted), as well as paid bike tours in the Dutch countryside.
Singapore is called the “melting pot of Asia,” and the island country is fabulously diverse — in its people, its architecture, its neighborhoods, and its foods.
Must-Try Restaurants: Hill Street Tai Hwa Port Noodle And Cé La Vi
Eat like the locals at one of the more than 100 food centers. Hawker stalls here will serve up Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, and Indian food to crowds of Singaporeans and visitors.
There is only one hawker stall currently on the Michelin list in Singapore — Hill Street Tai Hwa Port Noodle on Crawford Lane. The stall is known for bak chor mee, and you can feast for $5 on the delicious bowl of noodles, fried fish, minced and sliced pork, and dumplings. Be prepared for long lines.
Or for another kind of Singapore experience, have dinner or drinks at the Cé La Vi at Marina Bay Sands, featured in the film Crazy Rich Asians. The hotel is the site of the world’s highest and longest infinity pool. It is a once-in-a-lifetime perch and view.
Hotel Recommendation: Raffles Hotel
Try the famous Singapore Sling cocktail at the iconic Raffles Hotel, where they were first created. I stayed at Raffles on my first trip to Singapore many years ago — pricey, but worth it.
The Singapore Tour Not To Miss
After you visit the gorgeous gardens, parks, and high-rise behemoths of hyper-modern Singapore, take a walking tour of graves, guns, and battles to better understand the island nation’s challenging past.
6. Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca was named the world’s best city by Travel + Leisure in 2022. And the city — along with the Monte Albán archaeological zone nearby — was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The state and city (same name!) offer travelers an amazing bonanza of history, nature, lively festivals, warm local people, amazing architecture, vibrant markets, and food, food, food.
Must-Try Restaurant: Las Quince Letras
Oaxaca is considered by many to be the gastronomic capital of Mexico, especially known for its many varieties of mole, that complex and delicious sauce that is often served with chicken. And chef Celia Florian at Las Quince Letras serves fabulous Oaxacan food, with recipes passed down from her grandmother.
Hotel Recommendation: Casa De Siete Balcones
Casa de Siete Balcones, located in Oaxaca’s historic center, is a special place. Each of the seven elegant and air-conditioned rooms in this 18th-century building has a charming balcony and lots of light.
Oaxaca Tours Not To Miss
I was incredibly fortunate to find Suzanne Barbezat of Discover Oaxaca Tours on my first trip to Oaxaca years ago. Suzanne fell in love with Oaxaca (and with her tour guide to Monte Albán, who she married). Now she and her husband, Benito Hernández, share their love and knowledge of the culture and traditions of Oaxaca.
7. Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown is a simply gorgeous place. The majestic mountains known as The Remarkables are just 45 minutes away, at the southeast end of Lake Wakitipu. The city is known as New Zealand’s adventure base, with visitors setting out for jet boating, bungee jumping, skiing, paragliding, and skydiving. Or you can sit in a hot tub overlooking the lake, happily doing nothing.
Must-Try Restaurants: Rata And Fergburger
Rata is a restaurant that celebrates New Zealand food, and here you’ll find the freshest produce and locally sourced organic ingredients. For carnivores, there are also the iconic hamburgers at Fergburger. Be prepared for lines.
Hotel Recommendation: Eichart’s
If you like the idea of staying downtown near all the action but wouldn’t say no to a calm paradise on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, head to Eichart’s. Besides the best views in town, you can visit the Grille or hang out at Eichardt’s Bar.
Queenstown Tours Not To Miss
Around the Basin Bike Queenstown offers a half-day or full-day self-guided bicycle tour to some of the best wineries in the Queenstown region. Alternatively, you can choose to visit other wineries on your own.
For a splurge, take the Lord of the Rings and Glacier Helicopter Tour. Note: The company will change flight dates if the weather prevents glacier or snow landings. These tours are wheelchair accessible.
This Is Just The Beginning
Every city offers its own unique culture, sights, and experiences. I’m betting that once you take the initial leap, you will develop the confidence and inspiration to venture out into the world again and again.
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