Wondering where to go next? You’re not the only one. After a frenetic return to travel, many are asking how to enjoy the rush of discovery without the crush of crowds. Our annual list of 25 inspiring and less visited destinations for the year ahead encompasses places filled with wonder, rewarding to travelers of all ages, and supportive of local communities and ecosystems. Reported by our global editors and framed by five categories (Family, Adventure, Culture, Nature, and Community), these destinations are under the radar, ahead of the curve, and ready for you to start exploring.
Below are the five best destinations in 2023 for family trips that educate and illuminate. (Find the full Best of the World list here.)
Get onboard a rail network ideal for families
On any given day, Switzerland’s transit network carries 6.6 million riders in a country of only 8.7 million people. Vacationing families are tempted with unique trips on its famously punctual trains featuring spectacular mountains, classic cookies, and even a Wonka-esque chocolate tour.
The Gotthard Panorama Express route begins on a steamboat crossing the city of Lucerne’s famous lake before boarding a train in Flüelen for a trip to Switzerland’s Italian-influenced south. Multilingual guides point out landmarks like the 18th-century Wassen church, which can be seen from three angles along the route’s ascending spiral loops. A special train car with open windows allows photographers to capture wide-angle views of landscapes like the Reuss Valley.
A cookie train from Berne to Lucerne stops for a nibble at the Kambly bakery where kids can bake their own treats and design a biscuit tin to take home. A chocolate train departing from Montreux starts with chocolate croissants and hot cocoa served onboard, stops in Gruyères for its medieval old town and world-famous cheese, and winds up in Broc for a tour of the Maison Cailler chocolate factory.
(Here are the best North American railroad trips for families.)
Making it all sweeter is the Swiss Family Card, a rail pass that allows anyone under the age of 16 to ride either free or at a 50 percent discount. “The pass is convenient, and it allows for exploration on a whim,” says National Geographic family travel expert Heather Greenwood Davis. “Long-journey trains often offer a family car—essentially a full playground on board—and family zones where tables have built-in games to keep the fun going.”
Come winter the Swiss transit network delivers visitors to ski resorts like sustainability-minded Laax, where families can take snowboarding lessons together.
Be enchanted by this birding paradise in South America
Colombia’s boisterous birdlife is as colorful and melodic as Encanto, the hit Disney animated film set in this biodiverse South American country. More than 1,900 different birds (almost 20 percent of the world’s avian species) live here, making Colombia the richest roost for birdlife on the planet.
Where can families flock with them? The Northern Colombia Birding Trail, for birders both extreme and casual, explores the country’s range of habitats. Tours with the National Audubon Society use 4×4 vehicles to visit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the planet’s highest coastal mountain range; the less explored Perijá Mountains; and beach-blessed Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean coast. Visitors can spot species like the crested quetzal, Santa Marta parakeet, and the sickle-winged guan. Colombians and Wayuu Indigenous peoples work along the route as bird guides.
(Use these tips to help your family start exploring the world of birds.)
“Birdwatching, wildlife watching, and nature tourism in general can play a big role in conserving Colombia’s biodiversity and also in supporting the communities who live nearby,” says biologist and National Geographic Explorer Federico Pardo. “Wildlife tourism not only brings dollars to the economy, it also increases the appreciation for our plants, animals, and ecosystems.”
Go with Nat Geo: Discover the coastal treasures, vibrant villages, and wildlife-rich jungles of Colombia.
San Francisco, California
Explore a crosstown trail and a new playground-with-a-view
In San Francisco, city kids can learn that becoming a trail hiker doesn’t necessarily mean a trip into the wild. The recently completed Crosstown Trail meanders across the city diagonally, from its southeastern corner at Candlestick Point to its northwestern tip at Lands End, winding through gardens, up hills, and across urban streets for nearly 17 miles.
The path is “the fruit of volunteers’ labor—ordinary San Franciscans coming together to define its route and, in some places, physically clearing paths in order to connect segments of existing trails,” writes Chaney Kwak, who has walked the entire length of the Crosstown Trail. “You might run into neighbors bragging about their fruit trees, and plucking pink apples to share.”
(Learn about the revolutionary idea behind America’s urban trails.)
Along the way, the trail skirts the Presidio. This 1,491-acre military post turned national park offers stunning Golden Gate Bridge views; in July it celebrated the opening of the 14-acre Presidio Tunnel Tops. Designed by the same firm behind Manhattan’s High Line, the new recreation site is set atop concrete freeway tunnels and buzzes with a plastic-free nature play space, food trucks, and campfire talks. At the Field Station, adventure guides lead hands-on nature activities, including identifying local plants, learning about the urban coyote population, and sampling water from San Francisco’s last free-flowing creek.
Manchester, United Kingdom
Get a kick out of this sporty and arts-friendly British city
In 2023 Manchester, home to the renowned Manchester United Football Club, launches a number of attractions abetting its post-pandemic revival. The year’s centerpiece is the summer opening of Factory International, a new $225 million downtown cultural space designed by Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm. Named partly after the local record label that made hometown bands Joy Division and New Order globally famous, the Factory will become the permanent home of the Manchester International Festival. The city’s biennial, cutting-edge arts jam showcases the best in theater, performance, and music for all ages.
The year also marks the reopening of the reimagined Manchester Museum, which features new galleries focused on Chinese, South Asian, and British Asian culture and an inclusive, family-focused “Belonging Gallery” that showcases how humans, plants, and animals thrive together. Also coming into its own is the National Trust’s new “sky park” on the Castlefield Viaduct, a walkable Victorian-era railroad bridge.
And while it can be difficult to secure tickets for a United match in Old Trafford, the team’s legendary stadium, fans can visit the nearby Manchester United Museum, which displays memorabilia and includes a tour of the stadium itself.
Trinidad and Tobago
Help nurture a top haven for sea turtles
Sea turtles survived the dinosaurs, but might not survive this century. Kids eager to help save the turtles—and encounter hundreds of them as well—can head to Trinidad and Tobago. With loggerheads, greens, leatherbacks, hawksbills, and olive ridleys—five of the seven species of sea turtles—swimming off its shores, this Caribbean nation is a mecca for turtle tourism.
Nesting sites are found on both islands, with leatherbacks the most numerous. During the nesting season from March to August, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 turtles amass on the country’s shores. Trinidad’s Grande Riviere beach, on the island’s north coast, is the densest leatherback nesting ground in the world. “After 32 years, I’m still in awe of this gentle, magnificent creature,” says Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste, managing director of Nature Seekers, a community-based organization that is dedicated to leatherback conservation and leads turtle-watching tours.
(Here’s how turtle-watching tours actually help conservation.)
Turtle-watching programs led by approved guides generate revenue to help save these creatures, which are under assault from climate change, habitat loss, and plastic pollution. Travelers can even volunteer to perform field work such as keeping nesting areas clear of debris, scanning and tagging nesting turtles, and tracking the size and numbers of turtles and their nests.
(Discover Nat Geo’s 20 other Best of the World destinations.)
Written by Andrew Nelson from contributions by the global editors of National Geographic Travel with additional reporting and research by Karen Carmichael.