Photographing the Northern Lights tops many travel bucket lists. // (c) 2013 Thinkstock
A great trip is the sum of its parts, but when you think back on your last great adventure, it is likely that one key moment comes to mind. The following list highlights 50 special experiences everyone would be lucky to have, as approved by a well-traveled group of TravelAge West staff and contributors.
Some of the items might be new considerations for you or your clients’ bucket lists, while others are indisputable and iconic. They are the rites of passage for any traveler seeking to understand the world — its natural phenomena and its people — through first-hand experience. Most importantly, the list highlights how to engage with each destination in a way that captures its one-of-a-kind essence.
Each of our bucket list items can serve as a launching point for a more comprehensive and personalized trip itinerary. And, in the hands of an expert travel professional, each pick can help set the foundation for an unforgettable journey.
TravelAge West’s 50 Bucket List Travel ExperiencesEurope
- It is exciting to revisit La Sagrada Familia every few years, as workers get closer to achieving Antoni Gaudi’s epic plan for the one-of-a-kind Catalan cathedral. But Gaudi’s inimitable modernist style is best enjoyed at Park Guell, where smart design, tiled mosaics and fantastical, nature-inspired structures turn an outdoor space with Barcelona’s best view into a whimsical setting for a morning stroll. — M.P.
- Cologne, Germany, has not one, but eight storybook Christmas markets, including one that takes place on a boat. Enchanting toys and ornaments, a carousel and a puppet theater are nearly outdone by the food and drink you can smell from yards away. Feast on hot mulled cider, gingerbread, hot chocolate almost lost in whipped cream, crepes, waffles, roast meat and cookies, against a backdrop of half-timbered houses and choral music pouring out of the Cologne Cathedral. — Marilyn Green
- Every golfer dreams of teeing off in Scotland, where the game began. The ultimate prize is a round at St. Andrews Links, where people have been golfing since 1552. Another great option is to play one of Ireland’s famous links courses. — Kenneth Shapiro
- Perhaps one of the most charming places to take a walk is in Paris. Say you want to museum-hop from the Louvre to the Centre Pompidou — one route hugs the Seine River, another weaves through gardens and, at night, the looming Eiffel Tower sparkles over the city. Aesthetic beauty aside, nearly any route can include people watching at cafes over noisettes and quick stops at the corner boulangerie for flaky croissants and pastel-colored macaroons. — M.P.
- Photographing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is a dream for many, though it is not the only way to experience the world’s best natural light show. View them from a hot spring in Fairbanks, Alaska, or while on a snowmobile journey to the border of Sweden, Finland and Norway. — M.P.
- Judging from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s lively performances, it is unlikely that William Shakespeare ever intended that his plays become dreaded high school reading. In addition to the bard’s birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon, England offers several fitting locations for catching performances, including the Globe Theater at the south bank of the River Thames in London. — M.P.
- Bring your camera to Munich’s Oktoberfest. After drinking multiple steins of strong Bavarian beer — that cause you to link arms with strangers and sing German folk songs — you’ll want to have a memory of what transpired. — Skye Mayring
- Taste-comparing several years of Vino Nobile wine at a vintner’s centuries-old hilltop home in Siena, Tuscany, is not a bad way to get to know Italy’s storied food culture. Olives harvested from the surrounding silver trees and pecorino cheese, made from the hills’ grazing sheep, round out the remarkable culinary experience. — M.P.
- Many tourists complain that Rome is too loud and chaotic for them. Embrace the city’s energy by renting a Vespa or motor scooter. There is a reason why this mode of transportation is so associated with Rome: It’s a great way to zip around from sight to sight like a local. Frequent stops for espresso help as well. — K.S.
- Dining al fresco on a cliff jutting over the bright blue Aegean Sea is made even better by the surrounding white-washed walls and blue-domed buildings made of volcanic stone. And it’s not just visual indulgence: Completing the memory of Santorini, Greece, is the taste of generous chunks of salty feta cheese and local wines that have been produced for more than 6,000 years. — M.P.
- While skydiving, paragliding and canyoning through the Swiss Alps are popular activities around the area, one of the more unique options is bungee jumping from a fire truck-red gondola suspended over the pristine mountain-lake Stocksee. Thrill-seekers plunge nearly 450 feet toward the water before being lowered into a boat and paddled ashore, where they can wait for others to take the leap. — Michael Lowe
Central America and South America
- The trust of the animals in the Galapagos Islands is heart-wrenching. Everyone is told not to touch the baby seals, since a human scent could cause adults to reject them, but nobody told the seals — some of the little ones try to rub against the legs of visitors like canine pups. — M.G.
- Visit Machu Picchu just before the park closes at night and just before it opens the next day. Seeing the iconic, mysterious Inca site — with only a few other visitors — is unforgettable. — K.S.
- Standing amidst the hundreds of moai — Easter Island’s famed enormous stone statues — engages even the most experienced travelers. Why the Rapa Nui people undertook the immense task of creating and hauling these monuments across the island remains unknown. — Megan Brickwood
- Home to more than 1,500 wineries, the vineyards of Argentina’s Mendoza region produce the lion’s share of South America’s wine. The high-altitude hills bask in sun 300 days per year on average, and grapes here have the longest hang time, resulting in richer flavors. Revel in Malbec and Bonarda on a day-long wine-tasting tour, or linger at wineries such as Andeluna Cellars and Bodega Ruca Malen, where guests can enjoy an al fresco meal with wine pairings while taking in the snowcapped Andes in the distance. — Chelsee Lowe
- The Amazon River symbolizes adventure, but an unexpected delight is trading with the tribal people along the river, who exchange beaded necklaces and woven string bags for hair ornaments and other Western goods, using gentle smiles and sign language. — M.G.
- Iguazu Falls marks the border between Brazil and Argentina, and it is protected by national parks in both countries. To experience the full impact of this extraordinary landmark, it is essential to visit the falls on both the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side. Brazil offers the best panoramic views and photo ops of Devil’s Throat, so named for the roaring sound of the water that crashes down, emitting a cloud of spray overhead and, hopefully, a rainbow. — M.B.
- Visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is also famous for being the largest structure built by living organisms, the greatest concentration of life on the planet and one of the world’s best diving locations. To call it one “location,” however, seems inaccurate, since the natural wonder offers divers and snorkelers a whopping 135,000 square miles of gorgeous reefs, islands and coral cays to explore off the coast of Queensland, Australia. — Cody Geib
- New Zealand claims some of the world’s most gorgeous natural surroundings, but perhaps the most surreal spot is the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. What appears to be a ceiling covered in tiny stars is really the work of thousands of glowworms illuminating the cave, setting the scene for a magical boat ride. — M.P.
- Staying in a Bora Bora overwater bungalow is nearly every honeymooner’s dream. The most coveted bungalows face west (for sunset views) and come equipped with plunge pools that overlook the majestic Mount Otemanu. Most offer a glass-bottom feature that showcases the bounty of the lagoon (octopuses, sting rays and reef sharks — oh my!). — S.M.
- Whether at dawn, dusk or daytime, climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge provides the thrill of scaling one of the world’s icons. The panoramic view of the city in motion is extraordinary. — M.P.
- Owning your own tropical private island is the stuff of fantasy — a fantasy that visitors can play out at some of the world’s best private island resorts. At Fiji’s 3,000-acre, 25-villa Laucala Resort, guests arrive by the resort’s private plane, enjoy their own pool and relish the fact that someone else is tending to the coconut groves, watersports center, golf course and spa. — M.P.
- For thousands of years, polar bears have prowled along the coast of Canada’s Hudson Bay in late autumn, waiting for the sea ice to form. Venturing onto the tundra from the comfort and safety of a tundra vehicle near Churchill, Manitoba, provides the opportunity to be a casual observer in the kingdom of the ice bear. — Debbie Olsen
- The whale shark — the largest fish at sea — is human-friendly and gentle, migrating to Cancun between May and September every year. Swimming side-by-side with the massive creature offers a rare connection for even the most seasoned traveler. — Jimmy Im
- There are lots of amazing ruins in Mexico and Guatemala, but there is a good reason why Chichen Itza remains the most well-known: It’s one of those wonders of the world that actually lives up to the hype. If possible, go during the spring equinox to really be in awe of those past civilizations. — K.S.
- With its vast diversity of landscapes, Hawaii Island amazes adventurous travelers. Zipline over tropical rainforests and waterfalls; snorkel at night with mysterious manta rays; hike past steaming volcanic terrain; dig your toes into warm white, black and green sand; and stargaze atop the world’s tallest sea mountain in the company of powerful international observatories. — Marty Wentzel
- The key to a great drive is to get off the interstate and explore. Some of the top U.S. road trips include the Pacific Coast Highway (California), the Blue Ridge Parkway (Virginia/North Carolina), Hana Highway (Maui) and the Turquoise Trail (New Mexico). — K.S.
- Drag queens in sequined ball gowns, Native American chiefs in full headdresses, marching bands that seem to come out of nowhere and tourists who will do almost anything for a strand of plastic beads: Expect the unexpected at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration, which attracts 1 million revelers each year. — S.M.
- Kayaking among the icebergs in front of Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska, is one of the few places where visitors can get close to hissing glaciers that tower 10 stories above them. With thousands of smaller icebergs floating all around, the tidal current pulls paddlers into the maze of ice that cracks, snaps or, at times, is ghostly quiet. — Christopher Batin
- Whether you glide beside it on a snorkel cruise or fly over it on a helicopter ride, the Na Pali Coast — inaccessible by car — dazzles with waterfalls, sea caves, unspoiled beaches and 4,000-foot-high fluted cliffs hugging Kauai’s northwest shore. If you are game for the ultimate outdoor challenge, hike its rugged 11-mile Kalalau Trail to a heavenly seaside campground. — M.W.
- It would be difficult to list all the movies that depict Christmastime in New York City — and the real thing is even better. The holiday offerings — such as The Christmas tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Center, seeing “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center, outdoor ice skating in Central Park and the elaborate department store window displays — are each a part of our shared American heritage. — K.S.
- Perched on a hill and framed by snow-capped mountains, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is a majestic symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. The inspiring landscape and handsome claret-and-white architecture are part of the appeal, but the real pleasure resides in ascending the steep stairwells and entering inside to see the hundreds of murals, painted scrolls and burial stupas of the former winter palace of the Dalai Lama. — Gary Bowerman
- Called the River of Nine Dragons for its nine distributaries or “tails,” the Mekong is a source of life for some 60 million Cambodians and Vietnamese who call the riverbanks home. From shopping at floating markets and touring modest villages to receiving a blessing at a Buddhist temple, the experiences to be had along the Mekong River are both humbling and inspiring. — S.M.
- Riding the cable car to the top of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China would be cheating — part of the experience is feeling the burn in your legs as you climb the more than 1,400 stairs that make up the footpath alongside the fortification. Climbers are rewarded with sweeping views of the forested surroundings and a reminder of the magnificent capabilities of humankind. — C.L.
- Angkor Archaeological Park spans 154 square miles of ancient temples and overgrown forests. The word “Angkor” translates to “City of the King,” and the park is home to the world-famous Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom — most commonly known as the “Tomb Raider” temple for its appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name. — S.M.
- Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Get there at dawn for the full experience and be sure to have a breakfast of sashimi and ramen soup at one of the stalls just outside of the market. — K.S.
- Cuddling a baby panda for a donation that helps further efforts to help the endangered species is the ultimate feel-good activity. Visit China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding when it opens at 8 a.m. to take part. — M.P.
- Want to throw brightly colored paint on someone and not get in trouble? India’s Holi Festival is a playful — and colorful — celebration that takes place in Northern India at the end of the winter season to mark the beginning of spring. Don’t wear white. — S.M.
- Get a unique perspective on the beauty of Bagan, Myanmar’s 2,200 majestic temples and pagodas while floating high above them at dawn in a hot air balloon. — Deborah Dimond
- One of the world’s best street food scenes, the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan, stretches the length of several streets, offering seemingly endless opportunities to taste deep-fried foods in the name of cultural immersion. If you can get past the colorful diversions — crowds, shopping and carnival games — conquer the stinky tofu, try the oyster omelet, challenge yourself with something exotic (chicken butts on a stick?) and treat yourself to matcha shave ice and candied crab apples. — M.P.
- High in the foothills of the Himalayas, the picturesque town of Leh is a treasure trove of Buddhist architecture, from the ruins of the Leh Palace to the Thiksey Monastery. For adventure seekers, Leh is an excellent starting point for the Khardung La drive which takes travelers up to one of the highest mountain passes in the world. — D.D.
- The gateway to the Himalayas at the banks of the Ganges River, Rishikesh, India, is the birthplace of yoga and a mecca for seekers. The ashram-filled hilltops became famous in 1968, when The Beatles visited to learn Transcendental Meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. — M.P.
- Israel is full of holy locations, but a focused, spiritual energy is especially palpable in Jerusalem’s preserved Old City. This is most apparent at the Western Wall, where a solemn tone prevails as visitors look inward, wedging written wishes into the crevices of the wall. — M.P.
- Recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the impressive ancient city of Petra, Jordan, dates back more than 2,000 years. After passing through the Siq — a narrow, mile-long passageway between the mountain’s cavernous walls — visitors to Petra can marvel at the stunning architecture of the site’s dusty, rose-colored buildings, which the ancient Nabataeans carved into the steep sandstone cliff faces. — C.G.
- Sailing the Nile River by day is awesome, and you are always aware of the weight of 5,000 years of human history. But at night, when the moon rises over the pyramids, time seems to slip away and the focus shifts to the present moment. — M.G.
- There is no doubt that the natural world is changing and our ecosystems are more fragile than ever. That is one reason why a big-game safari seems utterly miraculous these days. The experience of getting so close to such a wide range of wild animals is precious indeed. Whether in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania or elsewhere, this is a must-do while it is still possible. — K.S.
- With barely 900 left in the wild, mountain gorillas are one of Africa’s most endangered species, and tracking them in the rainforests of eastern Rwanda is one of Africa’s unparalleled wildlife experiences. With a qualified tour company handling the logistics, it is easy to free your mind to experience this adventure of a lifetime. — Bob Demyan
- Known to a local tribe as “the smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls flows from the Zambezi River and plunges into surrounding gorges on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. During the dry season, visitors can take a raft tour to the base of the falls and — if they dare — swim in the Devil’s Pool, an area at the edge of the waterfall’s sheer drop where naturally formed rock creates a protective eddy. — C.G.
- When visiting other countries, the attention is typically on history, the Bible, art, archeology or shopping. In Cuba, the focus is exclusively on the people — not just the Cubans, but also the visitors. Socializing with the people is what makes the visit life changing. We see what life would be without the ‘comfort of life’ elements we have in the U.S., but we also recognize the quality of life one can achieve in spite of so many hardships. — Ronen Paldi
- Life where you would never expect it to flourish is one of the amazing aspects of Antarctica. When you hear — and feel — the beautiful Weddell seals, their catlike faces singing like synthesizers below the ice, you realize that there is a whole other world beneath your feet. — M.G.