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Travelers on a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

January Trip Ideas: Traveler Reviews to Inspire You

The wide array of places that are great in January may surprise you.  If that’s your time frame for a trip, take inspiration from your fellow travelers’ reviews of their favorite January trips—to locales as varied as Italy (even including Sicily), Scandinavia for the northern lights, Belize for a more affordable Caribbean vacation, Colombia for a sunny getaway for food lovers, Australia (where January is the height of summer), and the list goes on.

These travelers all booked their trips the WOW way: Their trips were optimized for the month of January by the local fixers on our WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts (and those whom we are testing for The WOW List).  You’ll find even more ideas in the January installment of our Where to Go When series, and you’ll find more traveler reviews here.

Unsure where to go in January? Click the black button below for our help.

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Italy for art and history in the cultural capitals

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

To avoid crowds (and take advantage of post-holiday sales) in Florence, go in January. Photo: Shutterstock

“My husband and I had an amazing trip to Italy in January! Jennifer had everything so well planned out it was one of the most stress-free and special trips we have taken. We spent two weeks in Italy, splitting our time in Florence, Milan, and Rome. We specifically chose January because the crowds would be less, and they were. It was the perfect time to go for us. Not hot or crowded.

She gave us ideas of things to see we were not aware of, such as touring the outside of the cathedral in Milan from the top. Touring the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Lunch at the special winery on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Pompeii. And touring a private museum in Florence where we saw original drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci and the cartoon by Raphael he did for the School of Athens painting.” —Kim and Kevin Cronin

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Portugal for beautiful landscapes and seascapes (yes, in January!)

Wanchee Lowe

Sunset at the Pousada de Sagres on Portugal’s Algarve coast in January. Photo: Traveler Benjamin Lowe

“My husband and I went to Portugal for a week in mid-January, spending two nights in Cascais (near Lisbon), then four nights in Sagres in the Algarve, and the last night in Lisbon. Gonçalo gave us good suggestions of where to go. We told him we were interested in photographing land and seascapes, especially during sunrise and sunsets.

Patricia on Goncalo’s team booked pousadas for us because we like the historic nature of the accommodations and our rooms overlooked the ocean and we could see sunsets from our rooms in Cascais and Sagres. Free breakfasts were included in all our lodgings. She arranged a rental car and accommodated our request for a hybrid car. She also booked a full day of palace and castle tours in Sintra with a private driver and guide. In Lisbon we also did a private half-day walking/food tour, which she arranged.” —Wanchee Lowe

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Costa Rica for a combo of relaxation and outdoor adventure (and cooking lessons!)

Travelers at the cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys, Costa Rica.

Geralyn, Elise, and Rob Westervelt loved their cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys.

“My husband and I, both in our 60s, wanted a vacation that combined relaxation with outdoor activities, culture, nature, adventure, and eco-friendly accommodations. We began planning with Irene who asked many questions to customize our trip. Mid-way through planning, we added our 26-year-old daughter to the trip and Irene seamlessly made the adjustments.

We visited three locations during our 8 night stay. This pace allowed just enough time in each location. Our guide, Pablo, and driver, Jenkins, met us at the airport and brought us to our first location, the Arenal Volcano area. Our activities here included a sloth visit, hike up the volcano, and our two favorite experiences, a cooking class with Dona Mara and a cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys. These are not to be missed!

Irene arranged for transport to our next location, the Senda Monteverde Hotel. We had a night walk and hanging bridges tour. With each activity, we were impressed by the vast knowledge of the guides. My daughter is in her last year of veterinarian school and she had in depth conversations about animals and ecology with many of them. We were also very pleased that every transport was punctual and safe! Our final destination was the beautiful Manuel Antonio area. The plan was to relax here, but we found ourselves hiking, zip lining, and taking a sunset tour of the property!” —Geralyn Westervelt

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Colombia for “a beautiful climate” and a peaceful vibe that’s “far from the world’s chaos”

You’ll find serenity at Hacienda Bambusa in Colombia’s coffee country. Photo: Ryan Damm

“We traveled to Colombia as two couples who were well-traveled and anxious to learn, visit, and immerse ourselves into a new destination. It was snowing here in New York, and Colombia has a beautiful climate. Boris and his team planned us a wonderful trip. We started in Medellin for three nights, where we saw great street art and learned about cacao and the complicated past of this country. We also visited a magnificent orchid and hydrangea farm. From there we moved on to the coffee area, which is lush and peaceful. Bambusa is a small, quaint hacienda where we felt far from the world’s chaos.

On to coastal Cartagena, and the pace quickened with lively streets and great restaurants. We ended in Bogota, where we could have used another two days. Bogota is cosmopolitan and rich in history, art, and great restaurants. We really saw a huge cross-section of Colombia, and the hotels were all different and well-chosen. We felt very safe and educated during our stay, and I would highly recommend Boris to any traveler with a thirst to explore and learn.” —Bobbi Malzman

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Paris for having museums (and chefs and fashion designers) to yourself

Louvre Museum at night, Paris, France

The Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: EdiNugraha/Pixabay

“Our trip to Paris was for our daughter’s college graduation. She was interested in fashion, food, and the Louvre. Jennifer, our trip planner, did a great job planning our tours and making our dining reservations! We were very impressed with each tour guide: Our private half-day tour of the Louvre could not have been better! We loved our croissant-making class and our chef was fabulous. We were pleasantly surprised with our tour of the Dior museum—so unexpected and maybe one of our most favorite things. We had the museum to ourselves and our guide was fantastic!

Jennifer secured a fashion expert who took us to neighborhood boutiques featuring up-and-coming Parisian designers, and this was a real treat! We loved meeting the shop owners, and we felt like locals shopping for the afternoon.” —Kim Brown

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Antarctica for otherworldly adventure but with all the creature comforts

Travelers celebrated their arrival in Antarctica with champagne.

Barbara and Larry Schoenfeld celebrated their arrival in Antarctica with champagne.

“We told Ashton that we wanted a small ship with top-notch scientific experts on board. I was hyper-focused on the potential for unpleasantness crossing the Drake Passage. Comfortable cabins and good food wouldn’t hurt. And, we were not very flexible with travel dates.

Ashton quickly produced a short list of recommendations, despite the availability constraints due to the surge in demand for travel to Antarctica. We sailed on the Seabourn Pursuit. It is a luxurious new ship and is outfitted with stabilizers, which softened the rocky ride across the Drake. While in Antarctica, there were two excursions via Zodiacs daily—usually involving a hike on land or an island. They included walking among penguins and seals, floating among jaw-droppingly beautiful sculptural icebergs, traversing the rim of a caldera, and seeing ruins of former explorers and whalers.” —Barbara Schoenfeld

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Belize for a Caribbean vacation that combines jungle, beach, and culture

Our travelers Salena and Allen Kern with WOW Lister Patricia Johnson in Belize.

Travelers Salena and Allen Kern during lunch with their WOW List trip-planning expert Patricia Johnson

“My criteria was a direct flight from Newark, warmth, a place we’d never been to with lots to do if we wished, and a Wendy Perrin advisor. It took about a minute to find Belize and Patricia. And we were off…. Patricia recommended a few places to stay, and two of the resorts (one in the jungle and the other on the beach) were owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Who knew? Not I, for sure. Well, my husband was an extra in Apocalypse Now many years ago and that was that. He was thrilled to be seeing what Coppola had created in Belize. Both resorts were beautiful but Blancaneaux Lodge was one of the nicest places I have stayed in my life.

We climbed ruins, rafted through a cave that should have been a cathedral, and visited an entrepreneurial coffee ‘factory’ amongst other things. Most important to me, however, was that we got to know something about the current economy of this young country and much about its varied cultures.

On our first full day, we were surprised by our WOW Moment. At this most beautiful site, overlooking a series of waterfalls, we were served lunch by a local family (now, Patricia did know that I am a bit of a foodie) who served us a traditional Mayan lunch, nouvelle-style. The family has a catering company called U Janal Masewal, Ancient Recipes for a Modern World. That sort of sums up my worldview too. And Patricia met us there for lunch.

This lunch opened our eyes to what was happening in the local communities. The Mayan culture isn’t stuck in the past or lost, as it is in Chiapas, Mexico, where I visited last year. The Belizeans are creating a wonderful and mixed culture ripe for all sorts of tourism.” —Salena Kern

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Tahiti and Bora Bora for a boat charter and the ultimate beach resort

Hammock in a beach in Tikehau, Tahiti

French Polynesia is great for snorkeling, diving, birding, or just relaxing in a hammock. Photo: Shutterstock

“Our family of six adult children and a four-year-old grandchild recently returned from a trip to Tahiti (December 29 to January 12) organized by Kleon. Kleon did such a good job getting quotes for various options from chartering a boat to picking out the best resort for our family for the week stay. The Conrad Bora Bora Nui was perfect for this holiday adventure with the entire family. My husband and I added a five-night stay at The Brando, which was an incredible resort, especially for the privacy, the beautiful units, and numerous activities offered there. The most unique travel experience was observing 80 or more baby turtles being released twice during our stay at The Brando.” —Carol Powell

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Peru for adventures at Machu Picchu and in the Amazon

The view of the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The Sacred Valley in Peru. Photo: Shutterstock

“My granddaughter and I just returned from our third New Year’s adventure organized by Allie. This trip’s primary objective was the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Our base in the Sacred Valley was the Sol y Luna Hotel. Could not have asked for better accommodations. We visited many Inca sites. We also had a day of whitewater rafting. The Urubamba market is open twice a week, so we took the opportunity to shop with the locals. Being the new year, the flowers were aplenty, yellow, a color of note to the Peruvians at New Year. The highlight of the trip was Machu Picchu citadel. Pictures do not do it justice. The vastness of the site in the clouds and the river far below. It was beautiful!

On New Year’s Eve we had good intentions on staying up to ring in the new year, but Allie had other plans, gratefully and thankfully. The next morning we returned very early to the citadel. Allie was able to obtain tickets for Huayna Picchu. Tickets are in a limited number. We were very fortunate, as many people are disappointed when they find out tickets are not available. Allie had procured ours well in advance. My granddaughter climbed Huayna Picchu, also known as ‘the stairs of death,’ an experience she will never forget.

We returned to Cusco for a day, then it was off to the Amazon. Our flight was followed by a 45-minute powered canoe ride to the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, an eco lodge and our home for the next three days. We had a riverside cabana on the Madre del Dias River. In the mornings, we could hear howler monkeys and other unknown critters. It was the rainy season, so we had rain and thunderstorms daily. The weather did not hamper our activities, actually the weather was part of the experience. Although we had a twilight boat excursion and jungle canopy walks, our highlight was fishing on Lake Valencia. We went piranha fishing, followed by a shore lunch.” —Jim Stock

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Dubai for perfect weather for desert safaris

Bernirene Ramos

Bernirene Ramos and friends in Dubai’s Heritage Desert.

“Our group chat was called, ‘Dubai, Here We Are!’ Nick planned my ‘ladies’ trip,’ from accommodation to our daily itinerary. January was the perfect time. It was sunny, low-mid 80s during the day and low 70s in the evening. It was Dubai’s winter season, therefore popular sites were not crowded. We were able to capture great photos without being blocked by others.

We were in Dubai for 7 days and we made every day count. The itinerary was well coordinated to cover all the amazing ‘must-sees’ and still allowed for daily free time. We had to switch our visit to Abu Dhabi to a different day because of a last-minute intel of a private event at the Qasr A Watan. And, we wanted to add a couple of ‘must-sees and photo-ops’ during our trip. Nick was able to rearrange our schedule and coordinate with our tour guides seamlessly. It worked out perfectly. He was accessible 24/7. We were taken care of from the time we disembarked the plane at arrival to the time we departed Dubai. Our drivers were great, tour guides were knowledgeable, friendly and fun to be around. We did the Heritage Safari Desert trip on our last day. It was the perfect ending to an amazing trip! Thank you Nick!” —Bernirene Ramos

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Norway for the northern lights (plus dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saunas)

View of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway.

Alta, Norway, is one of the best places for spotting the northern lights in January. Photo: Shutterstock

“Truly a trip of a lifetime. My family of 4 (me, my husband and two adult boys) went to Alta where we went dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saw the northern lights. In Oslo we went on a very interesting architecture tour. The highlight was relaxing in the lodge sauna after a day spent snowmobiling and getting called by the lodge staff to come outside to watch the northern lights!

The staff at all of the places Torunn and Mari sent us to were exceptional and would go out of their way to provide assistance. We can’t wait to go back sometime in the summer now and see the same location again.” —Neha Vyas

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Panama for the legendary Canal and an “amazing” private-island resort

Bungalow of a private resport in Panama.

An eco-friendly private-island resort, Isla Palenque is located on Panama’s Pacific coast. Photo: Isla Palenque

Pierre organized a great trip to Panama for us—two 60-plus-year-olds who were looking for some cultural moments as well as some serious relaxation. We started in Panama City and with Pierre’s guidance organized our vacation dates around a fascinating partial transit tour of the Panama Canal, which is only available a few days each week. We also enjoyed our visit to the Embera indigenous village, especially the boat ride to the waterfalls. I was worried that this might be exploitative, but the tours are run by the Embera themselves. Lunch of fish and plantains in a palm leaf was delicious.

Our city tour the next day was hindered by the fact that it was a national holiday, but Pierre’s team came through and organized a hike to the top of Ancon Hill for great views over the city and a visit to the fish market, with lunch. Our hotel, La Compania, in the old city was amazing, and Pierre wisely booked us a courtyard room to avoid the street noise. We loved being in the old city with its restaurants, bars and ambiance.

We then enjoyed the relaxation part of the trip, six nights at the amazing Isla Palenque. This very small resort where everybody knows your name was everything we wanted: peaceful, beautiful, great food and drinks. When we felt the urge to move a bit we went hiking in the rainforest, kayaking and did an island-hopping trip with snorkeling and lunch on a deserted beach that was wonderful.” —Christine Zufelt

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Australia for Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef

The Bengtzen family on a private yacht at Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

The Bengtzen family spent a day snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef from a private yacht.

“New Year’s in Australia had been a dream of mine since I was 14. We began in Sydney, where we stayed at the Shangri-La hotel. It gave us an amazing view for the fireworks, which were absolutely incredible. It was perfect for us and our adult kids to watch and not have to fight the crowds.

From Sydney we went to Hayman Island in the Whitsundays islands. This was a one-of -a-kind experience. From here we were able to have a private snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef—both the inner and outer reefs. Restaurants on the island were fantastic, and the beach is heaven. From Hayman we went to Noosa, where we had an incredible experience kayaking on the ocean. The shopping and food were wonderful and gave us a great end to our trip.

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t found Wendy Perrin and her referral of Stuart. Stuart and Jacki then took our dates, our family info, and planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us. I cannot recommend them enough.” —Keri Bengtzen

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Sicily for meeting “wonderful people” over archaeology hikes and culinary experiences

Mt. Etna, Sicily.

Mt. Etna stands out from a dusting of snow in winter. Photo: Pixabay

“While January might not be the ideal time to visit Sicily (with the weather less than cooperative!), we saw, learned, engaged, and met wonderful people all along the way—from Palermo and surrounding towns Monreale, Castelbuono, Cefalu to Villa Romana del Casale, Agrigento, Testa dell’Acqua, Noto, Siracusa/Ortigia to Mt Etna. More than anything, getting to know Sicilians—over good conversations, culinary experiences, archaeology hikes, tours, food and wine—was the highlight of the entire trip. Marcello’s selection of guides and hosts was superb.

Perhaps the highlight of many highlights was the final day at Mt. Etna guided by Salvo (a volcanologist) followed by our visit to the Santa Maria La Nave Winery for a tour, wine tasting, and lunch hosted by Vera and Carmello. They epitomized the warmth, welcome and pride of purpose we found every day during this first visit to Sicily. We look forward to returning soon to this stunning, fascinating, history-filled island.” —Barbara Gross

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Sri Lanka for an exotic (yet affordable) island with welcoming people and delicious cuisine

Travelers surrounded by village kids on their Tea Trail hike in Sri Lanka.

Jan Heininger and husband Jamie Reuter meeting village kids on a Tea Trail hike.

“We had a three-week trip to Sri Lanka planned by Miguel. This very interesting trip covered almost the entire country from the Cultural Triangle with its archaeological ruins, cave temples and Buddhist sacred sites, its historic capitals of Anuradhapura and Kandy, its largest national park (Yala) famed for its leopards, its gorgeous Indian Ocean beaches, its colonial past displayed in the Galle Fort, and its myriad of agricultural products, especially tea and cinnamon.

Miguel ensured that we had a flexible schedule. Our driver, Thissa, could say, ‘Let’s stop and see that bird,’ or we could stop and taste a Golden coconut or visit a local market where we were introduced to many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits that are essential elements of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Miguel had us stay in wonderful places, including two Aman resorts on the south coast. At Amanwella, we took one of the best cooking classes we’ve ever had with the Executive Chef. At Amangalla in Galle Fort, we went for a bike ride in the countryside (beware of heat exhaustion), toured the Fort with a terrific local guide, and had a workshop making and painting traditional Sri Lankan masks. Miguel also booked us into Castlereagh, a five-room, former tea plantation manager’s bungalow. We were told to treat it like our home—just tell them what we wanted to eat and when.

Miguel set up wonderful experiences including the cooking class, a mask carving and painting workshop and visits to a cinnamon plantation and to a tea factory. He had us hike a segment of the Tea Trail where we interacted with women tea pickers and with kids and villagers we encountered along the way. The mask my husband carved from a block of balsa wood and the two we painted are off being framed right now and will always be physical reminders of our time in Sri Lanka.” —Jan Heininger

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Chile for Patagonia’s unique nature and wildlife

Travelers on a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

Bill Livingood, Lynn Woodhouse, Sandra Quinn, and Stephen Thomas walk through a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

“My husband, two friends and I have just returned from our trip to Chilean Patagonia, and once again, we were in the expert hands of Maita and her team. We began with a 3-night stay at the Singular Patagonia, outside of Puerto Natales. What a stunning and unique small hotel in a gorgeous setting overlooking a fjord. One wall of our room was a window onto the fjord and the activity of so many birds. We loved our bird-watching excursion there. With our great guide, we spent literally the entire day hiking through forest, pampa and the wetlands, spotting 41 species of birds. When we got to the end, and were pretty spent, our guide and driver served wine, water, tea, lentil soup and cheese, sausages and crackers. That certainly refreshed us. We enjoyed an afternoon empanada class and an interesting trek to three different caves. The Singular is definitely worth the stay.

From there, we drove to Tierra Patagonia, just outside Torres del Paine National Park. Magnificent view from our huge window in our room!!! We seized the opportunity for multiple excursions, as well as enjoying massages in the spa, taking a swim, and braving the wind for the outdoor hot tub. We saw lots of wildlife, wildflowers, stunning sunsets, and on our last morning, the entire dining room was abuzz when we saw a puma saunter across the property in front of us.

We spent our last night in the Singular Santiago, our second stay there, and it is a lovely hotel in a great location. Before our departure for the US, we had an extraordinary WOW Moment: Maita and team had arranged a cooking class and dinner with Tatan, a chef who hosted us at his home overlooking the city and mountains. He was gracious, interesting, and charming. We began with luscious appetizers on the balcony, and moved to the kitchen where he had organized work stations and assignments for each of us as we made ceviche and pisco sours. In addition to having fun, we learned new cooking skills. Gary, our escort to the airport, had to drag us away as we enjoyed our meal and delicious cheesecake on the balcony. With Tatan and Gary, we learned more about life in Santiago and Chile. By the end of the evening, we had begun questioning whether this trip, our third to Chile, would be our last, as we learned more about other places and things to do.” —Sandra Quinn

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Finland for the northern lights and other Arctic adventures (ice fishing, dogsledding…)

The cozy and warm Glass House Suite at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel in Finland.

Between outdoor adventures, Michael Ruma warmed up in his Glass House Suite. Photo: Traveler Michael Ruma

“My wife said she’d like to see the aurora borealis and, with Wendy’s help, we were quickly introduced to Leigh, who created a delightful week of fun in Finland.

We hopped an easy flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, which lies directly on the latitude of the Arctic Circle. An efficient, private transfer brought us to the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Met with warm blueberry juice, we checked into our Glass House suite. Our room had a centrally located living room with an enclosed wood-burning stove along with two bathrooms, one of which had our very own dry sauna.

Advised to download the Aurora app, we learned about the KP index which predicts the probability of witnessing the northern lights. Fortunately, after dinner at the hotel, a notification from the app informed us at 9pm the chance was high! Intent on seeing the natural phenomenon, we bundled up and hiked up a trail to a 50-foot observation tower specifically designed for viewing the lights. Finnish myths say the lights are caused when a fox runs across the Arctic landscape whipping up snow from its tail, sparking the lights in the night sky.

Regardless of the cause, we were blessed by an hour display of a gray hazy line emerging in the distance and evolving into a bright green glow right in front of our eyes. As we watched and photographed the sky, the lights blew around us along our walk back to our room.

Our next two days were filled with other Arctic adventures which included an exciting jaunt by snowmobile to learn how to ice fish on a frozen lake and then dog sledding on a snowy day in the beautiful and vast northern Finnish countryside. We concluded our trip with a train ride from Rovaniemi back to Helsinki. On our last day in Helsinki, we splurged and dined at Restaurant Savoy.

We would happily come back to Finland for a future visit either in the winter to take in the unique night sky, but this time much further north, or during the summer to take in the lively and sunny long days in Helsinki filled with so much to see, taste, and do. Delighted by its vast country, small polite population, and compact capital, its seasonally focused food, and its matter-of-fact and kind people. We had such fun in Finland.” —Michael Ruma

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Vietnam and Cambodia for blow-your-mind history, street food, and Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat

It requires careful planning to have Angkor Wat to yourself like this. Photo: Traveler David Wertheimer

“Our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam from January 21st to February 6th was spectacular. We started in Phnom Penh, and traveled from there to Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat temple complex, Saigon, Cu Chi, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Sopisith prepared our itinerary and arranged for personal guides at each of our stops. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly, and provided both historical information and personal stories that placed the horrors of the eras of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the U.S. military activities in Vietnam within the context of our visit and our understanding of current life in both nations. Our guides also provided us with street food tours that allowed us to sample some of the most unusual dishes we’ve ever eaten. (The sand worm pancakes were delicious!) There were multiple ‘wow,’ bucket-list moments, including Angkor Wat at sunrise (get there early!) and Ha Long Bay, to name just two of them.” —David Wertheimer

This trip was arranged by a WOW List candidate. Here’s what that means.

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A village street of Santorini is bright white and blue, with pops of pink bougainvillea flowers

Portugal, Iceland, Greece Will Not Open to U.S. Travelers Just Yet

A few weeks ago, we published this story with the news that three European countries—Portugal, Iceland, and Greece—would be opening their borders to U.S. travelers in June. Then one by one, each of the three countries reneged on those plans, citing safety concerns. As it stands today, U.S. travelers are not yet able to travel to Portugal, Greece, or Iceland. We will continue to watch and update as details develop.

Please note that the CDC still advises against all non-essential travel and the U.S. State Department maintains a global level 4 “do not travel” alert.

Greece

Until July 1, open to EU citizens and residents only. For dates beyond July 1, the Greek government has not yet decided which countries’ travelers will be admitted and under what restrictions. 

For more information, check with the U.S. Embassy in Greece and Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Portugal

Open to EU and Schengen state citizens and residents only. U.S. arrivals were originally supposed to be welcome starting June 6, but that date has been postponed, possibly to July 1. 

Continental Portugal: No quarantine required

Madeira: 14-day quarantine required

Azores: arrivals have choice of showing proof of negative test within past 72 hours, taking a test upon arrival and quarantining until a negative result is returned, or a 14-day quarantine.

If you were able to land in Portugal now, you’d see that certain safety measures and restrictions are in place across the country. Face masks and six-foot social distancing will be mandatory, and restaurant payment must be contactless, but museums, monuments, palaces, churches, bookshops, libraries, and beauty salons will all be open, along with restaurants, cafés, patisseries, esplanades, and shopping centers that are smaller than 4,300 square feet. Beaches are with restrictions. Taxis and rental cars will be available (as well as some public transportation options).

Look for the national tourism board’s “Clean & Safe” certification at hotels and tourist sites. To earn the validation, a company must sign a Declaration of Commitment to certain hygiene and cleaning processes informed by the country’s Directorate-General of Health. Participation is free and optional, and Turismo de Portugal will carry out audits of those who opt in.

Flights:

TAP Air Portugal, a Star Alliance airline, is running nonstop flights from Newark to Lisbon; later in July, flights to Lisbon from Boston, Miami, and Toronto are due to start up again. In an optimistic turn, the airline also plans to launch new flights later this summer from Boston and Toronto to the Azores, and from Montreal to Lisbon.

Iceland

Open to EU and Schengen state citizens and residents only.

Testing upon arrival or 14-day self-quarantine

Thanks to its small population (the lowest population density in Europe), Iceland was able to keep its COVID-19 count in check. As a result, Prime Minister KatrÍn Jakobsdóttir recently announced that the country reopened to travelers from with the Schengen area on June 15—with some rules in place:

Before arrival, travelers must fill out a pre-registration form, which includes a declaration of health, recent travel history, personal details, in-country contact info, and coronavirus status and possible exposure. At arrival, they can choose between 14-day quarantine and a covid test (no tests are required for children born in 2005 or earlier). Starting July 1, the test will cost each traveler ISK 15,000 (about $115), but in the two weeks before that they will be free.

Results from the test will be delivered in about 24 hours.  If a traveler tests positive, they will be required to self-quarantine; if they do not have a place to do so, the government will provide a location at no cost. The government will also cover medical examination and treatment. There is one big question that is still unanswered: how many tests will be available each day. Early reports suggest it may be as low as 500.

Flights:

Icelandair will resume its flights from the U.S. No other airline is flying to Iceland from the U.S. this year.

This article was originally published on May 29. It has been updated.

Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

tourist selfie in St. Peters Square Vatican City Rome

Traveling through Europe as the Coronavirus Spread: A Family’s Experience

PLEASE NOTE: Our ongoing efforts to check in with travelers who are currently overseas, in accordance with our promise to monitor their trips, does not mean we advocate travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.  On March 11, the U.S. State Department advised U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad, and non-U.S. citizens were banned from flying from Europe to the U.S. for at least 30 days.  Public health officials advise older adults and people with underlying health conditions to abstain from travel entirely. They also recommend “social distancing” for everyone, which means keeping about six feet of space between yourself and others, which is hard to do on planes or trains and in airports. For any travelers returning from a country with a widespread outbreak, the CDC is advising self-quarantines

In our continuing effort to touch base with those who are traveling internationally now, we are interviewing readers who are currently overseas.  Although we are speaking with them at the moment they are abroad and publishing as quickly as possible, we realize that the situations in those locations and around the world are changing quickly, and therefore travel alerts, health advisories, and even these travelers’ opinions may soon be different.

We’re thankful to Janette Gill and her family for sharing their story, and for continuing to share as world events and travel rules have changed over the past few weeks. We have added updates from Mrs. Gill throughout her trip.

The Gills’ travel timeline (Rome–Norway–Barcelona–Porto–Lisbon):

Mrs. Gill’s travels began on February 26, when she flew to Italy to spend time with her college-age daughter, who was studying in Rome this semester. After a mother-daughter jaunt to Norway, their plan was to return to Rome and meet up with the rest of the family—Mrs. Gill’s husband and younger daughter—for an Italian spring break planned by Andrea Grisdale, one of Wendy’s WOW List trip-planning specialists based in Italy.

Then Italy’s coronavirus count exploded. The day before Mrs. Gill arrived in Rome, 11 towns in Lombardy went on lockdown, and Milan closed its schools, the Duomo Cathedral, and the La Scala opera house after the reported cases surged from five to more than 150. Mrs. Gill and her daughter were much farther south, touring Rome and monitoring the situation. By the time they flew to Norway on February 28, the number of Italian cases had hit 800 and the CDC and State Department gave Italy a Level 3 travel alert (reconsider travel). The very next day, northern Italy was bumped up to Level 4 (do not travel). The Gill family had to rethink their trip.

Instead of scrapping their vacation, they changed their destination.  While in Norway, Mrs. Gill and her older daughter researched their options and decided on Spain and Portugal, where the viral infections were much lower (at that time, fewer than 400 in Spain and only nine in Portugal) and the travel alerts were not prohibitive (level 1 in Portugal; Spain is still at level 2 for political unrest in October 2019).  Of course, the pandemic continued to spread, and on March 11, President Trump announced a travel ban, prohibiting non-citizens from 26 European countries from entering the U.S.; Portugal and Spain are on that list.

The first time we interviewed Mrs. Gill, she was in Norway on March 3. We talked about her experiences, thoughts, and decisions about traveling during the coronavirus outbreak. We emailed with her again when she and her older daughter landed in Spain on March 6 to meet up with her husband and younger daughter. We spoke again on the phone on March 10 after they had driven from Porto to Lisbon. On March 13, she emailed us again from Lisbon with a final update, as she and her family prepared to board a flight home from Portugal (their regularly scheduled flight).

Update March 13, from Lisbon:

Via email: “Since we were not able to change our flights to travel home a day earlier yesterday, we decided to make the most of being in Portugal by being outdoors (still lots of hand washing and sanitizer). There were still a handful of tourists visiting the quaint seaside town of Sintra and driving along the beautiful coastline near Lisbon. Locals were out shopping, eating in cafes, and playing at the beach since school had been canceled.

Our tour guide this morning told us that the Prime Minister of Portugal “has now invited everyone to a volunteer quarantine,” and I’m hopeful that the locals can get back to their normal lives very soon.

In order to be a good citizen to my neighbors and family, I plan on self-quarantining when we arrive home, to help prevent the possible spread of this virus.

Even though the past 2 1/2 weeks of traveling through several countries in Europe has sometimes been challenging, with schedule changes and the unknown of what the next day would bring, I must say that the locals have done their best to accommodate us by adjusting our itinerary. I know their economy will suffer from the decrease in foreign tourists, but I have no doubt that they will bounce back in time even stronger.

Kudos go out to Andrea Grisdale and her team for postponing our trip to Italy until next year.”

Lisbon's Praca do Comercio

The Gill family with their guide in Lisbon’s Praca do Comercio. Photo courtesy of the Gill family

Update March 10, from Lisbon:

When we spoke on the phone with Mrs. Gill on March 10, she and her family had just driven from Porto to Lisbon. She noted that when she flew from Rome to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Porto, neither airport was checking temperatures. “It surprised us,” she said. She also said that the airplanes were about three-quarters full and the airports seemed busy.

Despite the coronavirus seeming to take over news here, they were enjoying themselves. On Monday, they had toured the Douro Valley with a guide and ran into some other American travelers. “On our little gondola ride across the water, there were a group of three Syracuse students that were studying in London and were on their spring break. They said they had to be careful where they traveled to because the university told them not to travel to certain countries. A couple from New York was there and they were having a great time.”

Mrs. Gill has had a few experiences that reflect the uptick in coronavirus concerns. When she contacted a guide to schedule a day trip from Lisbon to Sintra, the guide declined, saying she is ten weeks pregnant and her doctor advised her not to lead tours right now. And when the family checked into their Airbnb in Lisbon, their host contacted them to say she would not be meeting them in person because of the virus. “So there were two incidents when the locals were keeping themselves safe,” Mrs. Gill said. Still, she added, “I’ve only seen a handful of masks, and people don’t seem to really be talking about it.”  This morning, she said, they’d walked down to the port and around the harbor, and then visited the popular Livraria Lello, the bookstore that inspired J.K. Rowling’s vision of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. As usual, it was busy to get in. “There was a line, but they had hand sanitizer at the door.”

We asked her if her feeling about traveling, or letting her daughter travel, had changed at all. She answered,  “I don’t think it’s really changed. I think it’s just that we need to stay informed before my daughter travels. She needs to stay informed of what’s going on and which areas she shouldn’t travel to. She will have been two weeks from Rome by the time she gets home. If she came back with us she would have to self quarantine. But she’ll be in Dublin for a week so she won’t have to; it’s from the day you leave the country.”

Update March 6, from Barcelona:

Mrs. Gill landed in Barcelona on March 5, after transiting through Rome, and she emailed us March 6 with an update. Much had changed in the short time she was away from Italy; the number of cases was now more than 4,000.  “I must say that I can now see how this is affecting the Italians,” she wrote. On the flight over, the Alitalia staff member who checked her in expressed concern that the company might go under because of the virus. She said: “Also, I sat next to a young Italian woman who lives in Barcelona who had been visiting her family outside of Rome. She mentioned that taxis that day in Rome were begging for passengers, restaurants they ate in were deserted, and roads were empty (which never happens). It’s all very sad for their people and economy.” Mrs. Gill added that she was surprised that no one at the Barcelona airport took her temperature when she arrived. And she included a photo, taken by her husband, of his empty flight from Newark to Rome, where he and their younger daughter flew before their connection to Barcelona.

empty flight from Newark airport to Rome on March 6

Mr. Gill’s empty flight from Newark airport to Rome on March 6. Photo courtesy of the Gill Family.

The Gills took this video of the line at Parc Guell in Barcelona on March 7:

Original interview on March 3, from Norway, after Rome:

tourists walking in Rome in front of St Peters Basilica

The streets in Rome were still full of tourists on the last weekend of February, and not many were wearing masks.

Q: Your main concern was not getting sick but getting stuck?

A:  Yes, my husband didn’t want to get stuck. He said, I don’t want to be quarantined if we come back from Italy and they’ve raised all of Italy to Level 4.

And, just as my oldest daughter and I were headed to Norway, she got an email from her university that they were canceling the semester in Rome and they would do all their classes online. So now our family is planning to meet in Barcelona [on March 6] for a few nights and then go on to Portugal [March 8–13].

Q: You spent time in Rome February 26–28. What was that like?

A: I spent two nights in Rome with my daughter, and we felt perfectly safe. I washed my hands a lot and did what you normally do when you travel so you don’t get sick. I’d brought extra sanitizer and wipes and things like that to wipe down the airplane seat and tray. But other than that, we felt safe in Italy.

Q: How did the virus situation affect what you did in Italy?

A: It was fine. There were very few people with masks on. We went to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. We made sure to wash our hands a lot. But other than that it was business as usual. My daughter thought the lines to get into the Vatican were less crowded than usual, but there were still lines. They weren’t wrapped around the building anymore, but there were lines. We met up with some of her roommates for dinner, and the restaurant scene was packed. To me, I wouldn’t have noticed anything going on, and the Italians that we spoke with didn’t seem too concerned.

Then we went to the airport. There wasn’t a fear. It was just that if someone coughed, you stepped away. There was hand sanitizer at the baggage claim and desk, but I don’t know if that’s always there. When I’d arrived at the Rome airport from the U.S., they were screening for temperatures. When we took a train from the Rome apartment to the airport to fly to Norway, there were signs up at the train station and on the train. There were also signs in the Norway airport.

tourist with pizza maker in Rome Italy

Mrs. Gill said her trip to Rome and Norway felt “the same as other trips, but with more hand sanitizer.” Photo courtesy of the Gill Family.

Q: You’ll need to transit through Rome so your daughter can get her stuff there. Are you concerned?

A: I wasn’t fearful to be in Rome; my only fear was returning to the U.S. and what the U.S. government would impose on us. At my daughter’s [home] university, it’s mandated that students traveling back from the Rome program must self-quarantine for two weeks before they go back to campus. Seeing that come from the university, my husband said, ‘I don’t want to go to Italy because when we come back I don’t want to be self-quarantined for two weeks.’ [Update: When Mrs. Gill and her daughter flew back to Rome after Norway, she remained in the airport in order to avoid being subject to self-quarantine in the United States; her daughter would be traveling through Europe for a few more weeks and therefore would no longer be required to self-quarantine.]

Q: How expensive or difficult was it to cancel your Italy trip?

A: Andrea Grisdale was fabulous: She worked with us and enabled us to postpone our trip and save almost all of our money. We will come back to Italy before the end of the year; we’re just not sure when. Andrea has also been good about sharing information on how many people in Italy who got the virus have already recovered. It gave me a sense of comfort to know that a lot of the people who were affected have already been cleared.

Q: What does it feel like in Norway? How are they addressing the coronavirus for travelers?

A: At the last two hotels we stayed at, there was lots of hand sanitizer everywhere, and we did see a few signs. Every restaurant has hand sanitizer when you walk in. I don’t know if that’s normal, but I did see it.

Norwegian language sign warning people about coronavirus in Kirkenes Airport Norway

Signs were posted in Kirkenes Airport in Norway, as well as on trains in that country and in Italy. Photo courtesy of the Gill Family.

Q: Your Norway arrangements were made by another WOW List trip designer. What have you been doing in Norway?

A: We spent three nights in Tromso and did this fabulous experience: Vulkana. It’s an old whaling boat that they have remodeled into a spa. On top is the hot tub, a sauna on the second level, and a steam room on the third. And they serve this beautiful lunch and my crazy college daughter, she and everyone on the boat did the polar plunge except me. Not me, no thanks. We saw lots of cruise lines and ships coming in. It seems like they were traveling as usual. I brought masks—just in case we got sick, I didn’t want to get anyone else sick.

We also went on a crab safari. They drive you out to a fjord and they take a snowmobile sled out on the ice and they have drilled a big hole into the thick ice and they just pull the crab baskets out. Then you come back to the house and they cook it, and it was the most amazing crab I’ve ever tasted in my life. Tonight we’re going out to look for the Northern Lights. [Editor’s update: They saw them.]

northern lights from a dog sled in Norway, with dogs in foreground and green lights in the sky

After we spoke, the Gills went on a sled trip hoping to catch the Northern Lights. They found them. Photo courtesy of the Gill Family.

Q: Why Spain and Portugal?

A: We’ve never been to Portugal, it’s not on any travel alert lists, and we like to drink wine. And if you can’t go to Italy…. We thought what the heck. Now, would I go to China? No, because I don’t think they’re as advanced in some of their hygiene and in some of the cities.

Q: How does this trip differ from other trips you’ve taken?

A: It’s the same as other trips, but with more hand sanitizer. We’re not in the at-risk groups. If I was 70 years old or had a compromised immune system, I probably wouldn’t travel—just like if there was an outbreak of flu in my community. But because we’re not in that risk group, I just think life is too short. Before we left, several of our friends said, you’re still going?  But the odds of dying on the way to the airport are much higher than me contracting the coronavirus. [Laughs.] That’s how I roll.

View of the pool and sea from the bar deck at the Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort, Portugal

Portugal: Plan Your Trip!

Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort in the Algarve. Photo: Billie Cohen
Pastéis de nata (custard tarts) from Manteigaria bakery at the Time Out Market in Lisbon.
Cabrita Wines vineyard in the Algarve
Sardines from a market in Portugal
The seaside village of Azenhas do Mar, near Sintra
Sintra's Park and Palace of Monserrate
Sintra's Park and Palace of Monserrate
Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Pixabay
Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: cristinamacia/Pixabay
Lisbon tram
Lisbon street art
The Pena Palace in Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Park Eduardo VII, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Lisbon Tourism Board
Park Eduardo VII, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Lisbon Tourism Board
Praca do Comercio, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Lisbon Tourism Board
Praca do Comercio at night, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Lisbon Tourism Board

 

Your Trip to Portugal Begins Here

This Mediterranean country has seen change in recent years—namely, an influx of new hotels, restaurants, and river ships on the Douro—yet much of the country’s allure is how, in so many ways, it hasn’t changed a bit. You don’t come for world-class museums or enormous palaces but, rather, for the tiny villages in the middle of nowhere—and the old lady there who will check to make sure you’re not lost. But Portugal’s surging popularity can mean crowds, lines, and a tourist infrastructure stretched thin. You’ll need a local fixer to score a room with a view in Lisbon’s hottest hotel, or enjoy crowd-free iconic landmarks after-hours when they are closed to the public, or (rather than being trapped on a boring cruise with 160 strangers) sail up the Douro on a small eco-yacht, sleeping in boutique waterfront wineries and seeing the most scenic parts of the river in just two days rather than seven.

We can point you to a Portugal specialist who delivers private, custom, WOW trips that take you away from the crowds and connect you to insider experiences you could never find or access on your own. But be prepared to spend a minimum of $500 per day for two travelers. If that’s doable, click below and complete the questionnaire. Your information is kept private.

Pricing tip: For a WOW Portugal trip, expect to spend $500 to $1,000 per day for two travelers, depending on level of accommodations, degree of special access, caliber of private guides, and whether you prefer to rent a car or hire a driver.

 

Start your Portugal trip here

Vineyards in the Valley of the River Douro, Portugal

WOW Moment: Port and the People Who Make It in Portugal

Often the most memorable parts of a trip are not the places you see but the people you meet. That’s what made Tom and Linda Uhler’s WOW Moment in Portugal so memorable. “We saw four distinct areas of Portugal and liked them all,” Linda told us over the phone when we recently interviewed the couple about their fall trip. But what really stood out to her was “the people—how nice they were, and how happy they were to have us there.”  Since this was their third qualifying trip using Wendy’s WOW List, the Uhlers had earned a WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is, of course, an exclusive insider experience added to your itinerary by Wendy and orchestrated by one of her Trusted Travel Experts—in this case, Portugal specialist Gonçalo Correia. When we spoke to the Uhlers (who are based in Sanibel Island, Florida), they shared how their WOW Moment gave them a taste not only of the Douro Valley’s famed wine but also of its people.

A peek behind the scenes, where the port is made.

Q: WOW Moments usually build on the traveler’s interests. What do you think inspired your WOW Moment?

Tom:  Wendy’s recommended people are very diligent about getting to know what our interests are. Gonçalo understood there were things I wanted to learn about, including cork manufacturing and harvesting (because I collect antique corkscrews), wine in general, and port. He arranged for us to visit a port house, Quinta do Vesuvio, that is not open to the public. The estate is actually the private summer home of the Symington port wine family. And our guide that day was honest-to-god port royalty: the daughter of a famous local winemaker in the region. She was the real thing—she grew up in the business.

Touring the port house

Q: How did your WOW Moment unfold?

Linda: Our driver said, “Let’s go see more of the Douro Valley.” We had no idea where we were going.

Tom: He drove us around all these back roads, down the river, and eventually onto this property—which was quite dramatic—and introduced us to our guide. One of the things that impressed us was how hospitable everyone is in Portugal. Our guide’s English was excellent. She had this depth of knowledge, so as someone who asks a ton of questions, as I do, could not stump her. She was amazing. And then she gave us a tour of the property, including the place where they dump the grapes for stomping. Then we went to the mansion on the property, and onto their porch with a view across the water, and we had a delicious lunch with port.

Linda: We started out with a drink that we had read a lot about: white port and tonic. And I think they had homemade sausage and almonds to go with it. Then we sat down with a melon and a dish they called duck rice—a casserole that is a very traditional meal. It was filled with duck and blood sausage, which I had never had, and it was delicious.

Q: Did the experience give you a feel for the local culture?

Linda: It was like we were part of their family, like we were friends they had invited to lunch. It was just us two, plus our host and the housekeeper. And there was this magnificent view. I can still picture us sitting there. It’s a great memory.

Tom: I was interested in learning the family relationships. There are only a handful of families that control the port industry. Our host’s knowledge was just extremely deep, and she was willing to share her story. I asked her some questions I thought not everybody would know—and she knew. This is what we have trouble explaining to people about our trips arranged through Wendy’s List. They say, You did what? For example, in Sicily, when we were on Mount Etna, our guide was a licensed volcanologist with a degree in volcanology; for two days, our guides were archaeologists who could reach down and pick up potshards. It’s amazing.

Linda: We could never have gotten into this place on our own because it’s not open to the public. And when we got to Porto and told people where’d we’d been, they were like, Wow, how did you get in?

The view from lunch.

Q: How else has The WOW List improved your travels?

Tom: When we want to stay in really nice places…how do you sort through all the junk that’s on the Internet?

Linda: You probably could, but it takes time. Reading the reviews is one thing, but having someone say, “I’ve been to that room where you’re going to stay, and this is what it’s about”—that’s different.  In fact, we thought we wanted to stay in one wing of a property, but Gonçalo said, “No no no, you want to stay in this other one.” We could have booked it by ourselves, but we would not have had the same experience. Also, we had our first driver for six days, and we bonded with him and learned a lot about what life is like for an average Portuguese citizen.

Tom: That’s another of the takeaways from the trips we’ve done with Wendy’s people:  The drivers and guides—especially the drivers, and especially if you have them for more time—are anxious to please you. They go out of their way. I collect antique corks, and we’d had very poor luck finding them. But our driver dropped us off at one of the markets and, while he was gone, he went and bought me a traditional rooster corkscrew from that area. People just go out of their way to be hospitable. That’s one of the intangibles you get.

 

Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

View of the pool and sea from the bar deck at the Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve Resort, Portugal

Portugal is Suddenly Hugely Popular. This Is Why.

If it feels like everyone you know is suddenly interested in traveling to Portugal—or has recently been—you’re not imagining it. Tourism in Europe’s westernmost country has been soaring: Portugal was named the World’s Leading Destination at the 2018 World Travel Awards, the number of tourists visiting has continued to increase every year since 2014, and Madonna recently bought a house there. In fact, the country keeps beating its own tourism records, bringing in more people and generating more revenue all the time.

These days, the food and culture scenes are booming, and cities, beach towns, wine country, and idyllic villages are all benefitting from beautiful new hotels and improved tourist access, thanks to TAP Air Portugal’s increase in flights from the U.S. and its free stopover program, which lets travelers spend up to five nights in either Porto or Lisbon, depending on their route.

But of course, it’s not just numbers and logistics that make a travel destination worth the hype. It’s much more. Here are a few reasons why Portugal is suddenly getting so much buzz—and worth the praise.

stacks of Portuguese egg tarts on display at a bakery in Lisbon Portugal
Pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg tarts) are the signature Portuguese dessert, and my favorites come fresh out of the oven every few minutes at Manteigaria's bakery, at the Time Out market in Lisbon. Photo: Billie Cohen
pool at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort in Portugal
The updated Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort has a pretty pool and a golf course and is just a few minutes from the beach too. Photo: Minor Hotels
The menu at Anantara Vilamoura's Emo restaurant is inspired by the region's wine. Photo: Minor Hotels
wine bottles from several different Portuguese regions
The master class at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort introduced us to wines from several different Portuguese regions. Photo: Billie Cohen
beach with turquoise water in the Algarve Portugal
The water at the beaches in the Algarve is bright blue. Photo: Billie Cohen
Cabrita Wines is one of many vineyards in the Algarve
And the vineyards, including these at Cabrita Wines, are not far away. Photo: Billie Cohen
Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, the Algarve, Portugal
View from the bar deck at Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, the Algarve, Portugal. Photo: Billie Cohen
The Sky Bar at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade has a great view over Lisbon
The Sky Bar at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade has a great view over Lisbon. Photo: Minor Hotels
The lobby of the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisbon Portugal
The inside is pretty cool too. Photo: Minor Hotels
blue and white old tile Lisbon Portugal
Everywhere you look in Lisbon, you'll find beautiful tiles, both with a historical feel…
green tile building Lisbon Portugal
…and modern.
Saint Anthony Festival Lisbon Portugal
During June, Lisbon is lit up with festivals for St. Anthony and St. John, and locals grill sardines outside every evening.
The passionfruit dessert at Bairro do Avillez, in Lisbon, is served in a chocolate "coconut."
The passionfruit dessert at Bairro do Avillez, in Lisbon, is served in a chocolate "coconut." Photo: Billie Cohen
brass carver atthe Museum of Decorative Arts in Lisbon, Portugal.
This brass carver was just one of the traditional artisans I got to meet on a tour of the workshops at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Lisbon. Photo: Billie Cohen
tile street art in Lisbon Portugal
Even outside the museums, Lisbon is a city full of beautiful, colorful street art. Photo: Billie Cohen
I was able to paint my own tiles at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts;
I was able to paint my own tiles at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts; they were not as pretty as the real ones. Photo: Billie Cohen
horse carriage outside the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais Sintra Portugal hotell
The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais hotel in Sintra used to be a palace, built in 1787 by the former Dutch Consul in Portugal. Photo: Minor Hotels
Tivoli Palacio de Seteais suite, Sintra Portugal
If it looks like a place for royalty, it is: Brad Pitt, David Bowie, Maria Callas, and Agatha Christie have all stayed here. Photo: Minor Hotels
The pool at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais in Sintra Portugal
The pool at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais in Sintra looks over the whole valley. Photo: Minor Hotels
seaside cliff village of Azenhas do Mar in Portugal
At seafood restaurant Azenhas do Mar Restaurante Piscinas (it's that rounded bank of windows down on the beach), you can pick your own fish and preferred cooking method Photo: Billie Cohen
The Pena Palace, in Sintra, Portugal,
The bright colors and the myriad tile designs of the Pena Palace, in Sintra, are stunning. Photo: Billie Cohen
view of Porto Portugal and Dom Luís I Bridge
Walk across the top level of Porto's Dom Luís I Bridge to snap this view of the city. I got to visit thanks to a free stopover with TAP Air Portugal on a trip to Rome with my mom. Photo: Billie Cohen
Palácio da Bolsa interior Porto Portugal
My mom and I took a private, after-hours tour of Porto’s most visited attraction, the Palácio da Bolsa. It was empty! Photo: Billie Cohen
business-class seats on TAP Air Portugal
The window business-class seats on TAP Air Portugal are roomy private nooks. Photo: Billie Cohen
The amenities kit is packed in an adorable oversized sardine can designed by a local artist. Photo: Billie Cohen
sardine cookies at Ria restaurant in Anantara Vilamoura Algarve hotel Portugal
Sardines are so popular in Portugal, even the cookies look them (but thankfully, they don't taste like them). Photo: Billie Cohen

 

It’s a good deal.

Portugal is inexpensive compared to a lot of Europe. The currency is the same euro, but your money goes farther—on food, drink, transportation. One simple example: The metro in Lisbon costs €1.45 per ride. In Paris, it’s €1.90. In London, it’s a whopping £4.90 (about € 5.50). In fact, the UK’s 2018 Holiday Money Report put the Algarve at the second-cheapest holiday destination worldwide (after Bulgaria). The annual report compares the cost of eight tourist items in countries around the world, including dinner for two with wine, a range of drinks, sunscreen and insect repellent.

It’s close.

From NYC, Lisbon is 6 hours 45 minutes nonstop. That’s about the same as the flight to London, but you’ll land in a place with much more sunshine and much cheaper everything. It’s also a shorter trip than to Barcelona, Paris, or Italy.

Airfare is low and stopovers are free.

Thanks to the rapid expansion of TAP Air Portugal, there are now many flights from New York, Boston, and Miami—and they are reasonably priced, without the no-frills corner-cutting of a low-cost airline. I’ve flown TAP in both coach and business class, long-haul and short (both on my own dime and on a press trip where TAP covered the flights), and I was pleased with the friendly service and how new and sleek the cabin looked. Even better, TAP offers a free stopover in Lisbon or Porto on its long-haul flights—so if you’re going to Europe, Africa, or even Brazil, you can tack on a one- to five- night stay in either Lisbon or Porto. Of course, Portugal definitely deserves its own trip—there’s enough to see. (One note: Getting through passport and customs control at Lisbon airport can be a slog—on two occasions, it’s taken me more than an hour. Make sure you leave enough time between any connecting flights.)

You can do city, seaside, and riverside village all in one trip.

Like most European countries, Portugal is not big—and that is a good thing. It means you can explore more ground in a short amount of time. And while you could spend weeks in each of Portugal’s different landscapes and not get bored, you can also hit several of them quickly and easily in one vacation. You’ll find turquoise water and soft-sand beaches in the Algarve, a cool green microclimate in Sintra (complete with lush, fanciful botanic gardens Monserrate and Quinta da Regaleira), olive and grape farms in the Alentejo, coastline cliffs in the southwest, and wine everywhere.

New hotels are emerging (and renovating) to meet the increased demand.

Over the past two years, more than 60 hotels have opened or been renovated, many in Lisbon and Porto, including new arrivals from Minor Hotels, a successful Asia-based brand that, tellingly, chose Portugal for its first European location. Its M.O. here has been to take over longstanding, beloved properties and update them to meet today’s culinary, design, and service standards

A few of its standouts include the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa, which recently emerged from a stylish refresh: Its public spaces and guest rooms have a cool Art Deco sheen, its new seafood restaurant is fashionable but unstuffy, and the rooftop Sky Bar is worth a visit even if you don’t stay at the hotel. Its view of the city is gorgeous, the people-watching is fantastic, the walls and the waitresses wear striking designs by local artists, and the drinks are creative (including several mocktails).

Sintra’s Tivoli Palacio de Seteais is at the other end of the design spectrum: an 18th-century palace estate with a regal feel—think wallpapered banquet rooms, beautiful antiques, and a hedge maze. Guests can wander the formal garden, linger over a meal on the terrace, or sip lemonade (made from the hotel’s own lemon trees) while gazing at long, green views of the Sintra mountains. To complete the royal treatment, they’ll even arrange a horse-and-carriage ride to some of the area’s gardens.

In the south, the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort is a newly revived base for seaside escapes: sunbathe by the palm-tree-lined pool, head to the area’s nearby beaches, go out for the night by the bustling Vilamoura marina, explore the region’s nature reserves and farmers’ markets, dine on fresh seafood at notable onsite restaurants Emo and Ria, and of course drink plenty of wine.

The food and restaurants are top-notch.

It is easy to eat well in Portugal: seafood, cheese, vegetables, fruit—you can sample local, fresh varieties everywhere. The warm bread and local olive oil served with most meals are worth the trip alone, as are the famous Portuguese egg tarts, pastéis de nata.

For a quick and informal sampling of some of Lisbon’s hottest eateries, go hungry to the Time Out Market; the outpost of Manteigaria bakery here churns out some of the best egg tarts in the country (I think they’re better than the more well-known ones made by monks out in Belem, for which tourists line up for hours). Of course before you have dessert, you should eat all your supper, and there are delicious options no matter where you travel. Select your own fresh-from-the-ocean fish at Azenhas do Mar Restaurante Piscinas, which is right on a dramatic beach near Sintra. In Lisbon, don’t miss the lively, indoor-piazza setting of Bairro do Avillez, one of Michelin-starred chef José Avillez’s restaurants (save room for the “passion fruit” dessert with coconut sorbet—it has a fun, creative presentation). No matter where you go, you will be able to try some form of the national dish, sardines; but for the classic preparation, visit Lisbon in June during the Feast of St. Anthony, when locals gather on the streets every night to grill sardines and enjoy festivals and concerts across the city.

As for drinks, the Portuguese are the world’s biggest consumers of wine, so you can trust that they know what they’re doing when it comes to indigenous wines and ports. Learn all about the country’s varied terroir at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort’s master class, taught by onsite guru António Lopes, who was named Portugal’s best sommelier in 2014. Then follow your tasting with a meal at the hotel’s wine-centric restaurant, Emo, where Lopes and the chef collaborated on the food and wine menus to ensure an ideal match.

Beyond the walls of restaurants and bars, there are plenty of other ways for food lovers to immerse themselves in the country’s culinary culture: For example, Virginia Irurita can hook you up with a fisherman in the Algarve. The region is famous for oysters and clams, and you’ll spend the day learning how to gather mollusks—and tasting them, of course.

History and creativity are on display everywhere you look.

Buildings and train stations (especially in Lisbon and Porto) are famously clad in colorful tile called azulejo, which recall the city’s time under Moorish rule in the Middle Ages. You can learn all about the tiles at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or even paint your own at Lisbon’s Museum of Decorative Arts.  More modern artistic endeavors adorn city streets too, in the form of gorgeous murals (painted and mosaic) and stunning architecture (both modern like Santiago Calatrava’s Oriente train station in Lisbon, and historic like Sintra’s Pena Palace). There are plenty of official cultural institutions as well, offering something to match every interest, whether it’s history, arts, music, performance, sports or culinary. The right trip designer can get you behind-the-scenes or after-hours access to some of these places, so be sure to ask. For instance, you can get a private guided tour of the workshops at the Foundation Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva; I met several of the bookbinding, furniture-making, and brass-carving artisans who are keeping Portugal’s craft traditions alive (it was one of the highlights of my 2017 travels). And Gonçalo Correia arranged an after-hours private visit to Porto’s most visited attraction, the Palácio da Bolsa.

Disclosure: Minor Hotels and TAP Air Portugal provided me with a complimentary five-day trip. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on either sponsor’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. You can read the signed agreement here. If you go: Ask Wendy to put you in touch with just the right travel planner for the trip you have in mind.

 

 

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Billie’s Travel Highlights from 2017

Whether I’m traveling solo or with family or friends, my favorite travel memories are always about the people I meet. I was really fortunate to have had so many of those in 2017—made possible through a combination of travel planners who had deep roots in the places I was visiting, excellent local guides who knew how to remove that often-awkward barrier between the visitor and the visited, and my own tendency to strike up conversations with anyone and everyone around me. Below are just a few of the special moments I got to experience in 2017. Here’s hoping that my trips inspire ideas for your own adventures in the coming year. I worked with a few of our WOW Listers to plan parts of these trips, so contact us through Ask Wendy if you want more information on how to make them happen for yourself.

Meeting camel traders in Pushkar, India

traders buy a camel at the Pushkar Camel Fair in India

These men were shopping for camels.

The Pushkar Camel Fair was the reason I wanted to go to India. I ended up loving the amazing history and sights, not to mention all that delicious vegetarian food, but India wasn’t high on my list until I learned about Pushkar from Sanjay Saxena at last year’s Wendy Perrin Global Travel Summit (btw, we’re doing the summit on social media this year so that you can all be involved—stay tuned for more info on #WOWWeek soon!). Anyway, the Pushkar Camel Fair is an annual trade market for camels and horses that draws Indian farmers from around the country, but it’s also a festival with a sprawling outdoor market, a sandy fairground where families set up tents and hobble their camels and horses, and a big arena that hosts an opening-night flag ceremony and various competitions. But the best part is simply being able to wander around the fairground and watch as the families (many of whom have traveled far distances to be here) tend to their tents, cook their daily meals, and buy or sell their camels.

The trading was the most fascinating part of the festivals. But it was pretty subtle: just a bunch of men standing around talking about a camel or a horse, not all that different from groups of men standing around talking about the weather. Our guide, Kapil, however, had a keen eye for this and would discreetly direct us near sales meetings. One evening, we watched a duo of potential buyers size up some animals and then walk away. Thinking that the show was over, my friend and I quickly got distracted with other sights and photo ops, while Kapil strolled off to look at something else—we thought. Next thing we know, he’d made friends with the would-be buyers and all three of them were strolling back to us. The conversation that followed was such a natural interaction; it didn’t feel forced or voyeuristic the way some tourist-meets-local moments can, and that was all down to our guide’s natural ease and experience. He knew we wanted to learn more about the camel culture and he helped us learn about it, not through a “tour” or scripted guide-bookish lectures, but by nonchalantly making friends and then making those friends our friends. The men explained that they determine the value of a camel by patting its flanks and humps and counting number of teeth to determine age (young animals are more desirable but also more expensive). They had liked what they saw, but wanted to shop around a bit more before buying the two camels we’d seen them with before.

Making gelato in Foligno

Just look at all those flavors—and this was only a quarter of the options.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Hats are part of the uniform at Amandola Gelateria, and we got our own!
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Ricardo shows us how he makes the base for all his gelato flavors (except the sorbet, which don't have cream).
Amandola Gelateria
These are the three flavors we made: Nutella with candied almond crunch, natural pistachio, and clementine.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
This is what the frozen gelato looked like before we added the flavorings.
clementine oranges Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
We used real clementines to make our clementine gelato.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
My mom and I were very proud of our creations.
We also cooked delicious full meals during our trip. At Tony's house in Pompeii, he and my mom got serious about meatball construction.
We pressed and filled fresh ravioli with Giuseppe at his agriturismo in Montefalco.
Ettore and Lorella made us feel like part of the family as we prepared dinner and then feasted together at their farmhouse near Spoleto.
These were the crostata, little lemon-dough pies filled with homemade peach and blackberry preserves from Lorella's garden. My mom and I made them for Thanksgiving dinner when we got home from our trip.
But in the end, our handmade gelato at Amandola Gelateria was still my favorite dessert.

 

This might have been the best day of my life. My mom and I learned to make gelato, from scratch, at Amandola Gelateria—and then chef-owner Ricardo let us try every flavor in the shop. Ricardo is a pastry chef who used to work at a high-end restaurant, but he left to open his own gelato shop in 2017 and so far seemed to be quite happy with his choice. From the minute we walked in, he and every one of his staff was smiling ear to ear (though who could be unhappy in an ice cream store) and happy to show us every aspect of their set-up. This immediate warmth was not at all unusual for our ten-day cooking trip through Umbria. When I asked Maria Landers to plan a culinary vacation for me and my mom, the ideas she came up with were way more than what we expected. Case in point: We didn’t step foot in any cooking school the entire trip. Instead we met local families and cooked with them in their homes. Tony grew up in Pompeii and is a guide at the ruins; we made fresh pasta with him and his daughter. Giuseppe runs an agriturismo and together we made ravioli, vegetable flan, nut bread, and molten chocolate cakes; and we spent the evening with organic farmers Ettore and Lorella, who live in a farmhouse near Spoleto that has been in Ettore’s family for centuries. In a beautiful old-fashioned kitchen, we whipped up gnocchi, a local chickpea dish, and my favorite new dessert, mini lemon-crusted pies called crostata. In all of these situations we were so warmly welcomed that we felt like we were part of the family as soon as we stepped through the doors. But while I loved all of the cooking experiences, this gelato night was a highlight for its sheer Willy Wonka-esque delight factor. Once we handmade three flavors of our own choosing in the back kitchen, Ricardo led us up front, picked up the container of tasting spoons, pointed at the case of more than 30 flavors, and said, “What would you like to try?” I could have hugged him right there. Actually, forget Willy Wonka, everyone needs a Ricardo in their life. His gelato is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. No joke: you should all get on a plane and get to Foligno right now.

Watching my mom bond with goats in Montefalco, Italy

In addition to all the cooking experiences, our Italy trip included private tours of small artisanal businesses, including an olive mill (where we met locals who’d brought in their own just-picked olives to be pressed into oil) and a small-batch, biodynamic wine-and-goat-cheese farm, Calcabrina, run by two brothers. We toured their wine facility and cheese cave, and then got to meet the goats that make it all happen. Turns out, my mom is a goat magnet. When she walked into the field and started petting one friendly goat, I thought, awww isn’t that cute. Then another one ambled over for a nuzzle. And then two more. Next thing we knew, my mom was surrounded by adoring goat fans. Yes we had delicious pasta, cheese, wine, and chocolate on this trip, but absolutely nothing could have made it better than seeing my mom laughing so hard. Just watch the video above.

Meeting the last of the Cohens in Cochin, India

Two women talking in Cochin India

Sarah was reading a prayer book in Hebrew when I came in. I know a few prayers so we sang one together.

This November, I met one of the last living Jews in Cochin, India. Her name is Sarah Cohen and she’s 95. Her eyes lit up when she heard that I was a Cohen too, and then we sang the sh’ma prayer together. It was pretty amazing…especially considering I’d started the day at Catholic mass. Catholics are the majority in the state of Kerala, but they’re not the only religion. I knew there was some out-of-the-way Jewish history here—it was one of the reasons Cochin made it onto my itinerary, rather than the more-popular beach destination of Goa. Turns out, though, no one really knows exactly when the first Jews arrived here. What we do know for sure is that the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was built in 1598 by European Jews who’d convinced the king of Cochin to let them stay, and that a few—a very few—Jewish families still live in town to this day. I hardly expected to meet any of them, but as we walked the narrow lane leading up to the synagogue (called, I kid you not, Jew Street, in the neighborhood of Jew Town), our walking-tour guide pointed out two houses where those families still reside. When we got to Sarah’s Embroidery Shop, he saw that she was inside, and offered to make an introduction. What happened next is something I’ll kvell about for years to come. You can read all about it—and see video of Sarah and me singing together—here.

Breaking my phone in Valle Bavona, Ticino, Switzerland

Valle Bavona stone village Ticino Switzerland

The valleys of Switzerland’s southern Ticino region are dotted with ancient stone villages still in use today.

I have only one photo from my best day in Switzerland, and that’s because I dropped my phone right as it started. The ground all around me was carpeted in soft grass, but I found the one sharp rock to crack my screen on. The upside was that I got the rare-for-me experience of seeing a place solely through my eyes and not through my screen and note-taking app. Being forced to unplug was particularly poetic because the place I was visiting, the Valle Bavona outside the city of Locarno in southern Switzerland, is dotted with centuries-old stone villages where the residents still refuse to use electricity. My guide, Anna, spends summer weekends in a home like the ones we were seeing, so she was able to explain how the otherwise modern homesteaders accomplish daily tasks like laundry, gardening, and cooking, and how those who live high up the steep mountains use pulley systems to load in their supplies. Later we hiked an off-road trail dotted with ancient cave grottos still used by area residents to store cheese and wine. It was a gorgeous day in an out-of-time valley, each rustic village more beautiful than the next. I have no photographic reminders of most of it, but I will certainly never forget it.

Going behind the scenes in Lisbon

Museu De Artes Decorativas Portuguesas

This brass carver was just one of the artisans I got to meet on my private behind-the-scenes tour of the workshops.

There are a ton of reasons to visit Lisbon, but in my opinion two of the biggest are the delicious local cuisine and the beautiful artisan craftwork. But instead of staying on the outside of the Lisbon experience—i.e., sitting down at any old tourist-trap restaurant and then meandering through the streets snapping pictures of the colorful building tiles—I spent a day going behind the scenes. My morning was all about food. I spent it with a hip private chef, hanging out in her stylish boho apartment learning to make vegetarian versions of traditional local dishes while we chatted over snacks and music. My favorite: tomato rice with a sous vide egg—so good. My afternoon was all about the arts, for which I headed to the Foundation Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva. Silva was a wealthy lover of the arts who donated his Azurara Palace and a chunk of his private collection to create the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1953, and founded a related school to preserve Portuguese craftsmanship. Today there is a building full of workshops adjacent to the museum, where skilled brass carvers, bookbinders, furniture makers, textile weavers, and tile makers hone their crafts, restore historic objects from around the country, and pretty much preserve a national legacy. And, lucky me, I got a private behind-the-scenes tour of those ateliers. In one particularly cool moment, I watched up close as an artist carved the decorative metal leaves that would adorn a piece of furniture I’d just seen in another room. Merely walking around Lisbon—a city with such visible history—is a treat in itself, but meeting the people who are still practicing those traditions elevates the entire experience. Plus, I got to try my hand at painting my own tiles. They don’t belong in a museum or on a building, but they look great in my apartment.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.