The first step is always the hardest. This little nugget of wisdom is applicable to so much of life, but it’s also a helpful way to think about traveling abroad for the first time. Here at Oyster.com, we firmly believe that international travel is crucial toward broadening one’s world view and enjoying life. Understandably, though, if you’ve never traveled abroad, it can be a bit daunting. What if you can’t speak the language? How do you get around? What’s the food like? All of these questions are enough to make anyone a little nervous. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best places to get your feet wet when it comes to cultural, immersive international travel (so we're skipping the all-inclusive resorts in Cancun). Each of these destinations practically guarantees that you’ll return home unscathed and armed with great memories that will last a lifetime.
To put it bluntly, there is nowhere like Barcelona. In many ways, it encapsulates the best of Europe: there’s culture in spades and just enough rough-around-the-edges charm to keep things interesting. Barcelona is also one of the most tourist-friendly cities in the world, and you’re likely to hear nearly every language spoken here. There’s also a glut of cheap, chic hotels. Even better? A bottle of wine can cost as little as €2.
This is to say nothing of the scenery. Barcelona is home to ancient neighborhoods like Barri Gotic and El Born, which date back to the 13th century. However, its more modern gems might be more well-known, and Catalan Modernist Antoni Gaudí’s creations are one of this city’s biggest delights. They include the stunning Sagrada Familia, which has been under construction for over 100 years, and the whimsical rooftop of La Pedrera. He’s not the only artistic icon represented here, though, as Barcelona is also home to both the Picasso Museum and MACBA, which mounts cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions.
With a dizzying array of indie boutiques and designer stores, plus a food scene that covers everything from traditional tapas to Michelin-star dining, there’s never a lack of things to do. If you run out of steam — though we doubt you will — simply head to the beach to recharge.
Hotel Pick: So many nights in Spain can be spent sampling the nation’s amazing wine, so why not bed-down in a wine-themed hotel like Hotel Praktik Vinoteca. Don’t worry — the style here is chic and minimalistic, which nicely balances the oenophile leanings. It’s also only a 10-minute walk from Plaza Catalunya and Las Ramblas.
The Iberian Peninsula is packed with traveler-friendly cities, including Madrid, Porto, Sevilla, Valencia, and — of course — Barcelona. However, Lisbon is currently one of the most popular cities for travelers to Europe, and with good reason. The city has an infectiously laid-back way of life that leaves most travelers green with envy when they have to return home.
Packed tightly over seven steep hills, nearly all of the streets in Lisbon are lined with Portugal’s iconic cobblestones, and we promise you’ll be snapping a picture every time you turn a corner. Beaches are only a 40-minute train ride away, and the town of Belem — a 10-minute ride from downtown — is home to the world’s most famous “pasteis de nata,” a UNESCO-designated monastery, and two exciting art museums.
Sampling a city’s nightlife is one of the more memorable parts of a first trip abroad, and Lisbon might just take the cake. Those seeking tamer evenings can snag a table in any of the “fado” joints in the hillside Alfama neighborhood. Boozing it up in the streets is legal, and those looking to partake should traipse down the narrow lanes of Bairro Alto around midnight.
For daytime activity, there are buzzing plazas, pastry shops, outdoor markets, and a stunning riverfront that’s made for a romantic stroll. The easy-on-the-wallet cost of hotel rooms, food, and drinks only sweeten the deal, and plenty of the people you meet will speak at least some English. It’s also perfectly acceptable to sleep in here, as the city doesn’t get going until 9 a.m. on most days — which is perfect for a vacation, if you ask us.
Hotel Pick: Brown’s Downtown has it all — loads of handsome style, boutique hotel intimacy, and rooms that are packed with modern technology. It’s also right in the heart of the city, and everything from Bairro Alto nightlife to Alfama charm are within no more than 15 minutes on foot.
Let’s face it: The fear of not being able to speak the local language is a huge roadblock to many would-be international travelers. We get it. What if something goes wrong and you need to communicate? What if you get lost? What if you just want to strike up a conversation with a cute local? The ability to communicate is crucial to being able to enjoy yourself abroad.
Thankfully, the people of Copenhagen are a little more enlightened than many of us anglophones, and supplement their Danish with near fluency in English as well. But that’s only part of Copenhagen’s appeal. The city’s cuisine is the stuff of legend. While world-renowned Noma is soon to close (it’ll reopen in a new, undisclosed location), you can start your day with a “morgenmad” — a series of tiny, delicious plates — and follow it up with “smorrebrod” (open-faced sandwiches) for lunch.
Burning off those calories by strolling the eminently walkable streets is a first-time traveler’s delight as well. Nyvahn is the oft-photographed canal lined with brightly colored houses and sidewalk cafes, while Vesterbro is packed with all things hip. The metro gets travelers to the airport in 15 minutes, and an extensive network of train lines make getting around in even the coldest weather easy.
Hotel Pick: We think it’s worth staying in buzz-worth Vesterbro to really feel like a local. Bertrams Hotel Guldsmeden combines simple Scandinavian style with touches of Asian and historic details to create a charmingly cozy property. Kids aren’t allowed, but it’s within a five-minute walk of great cafes and shopping on Istedgade.
4. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
Asia isn’t the easiest destination for a first-time international traveler to ace, but hear us out. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s tourist capital, and rightfully so. It’s the closest civilization to the jaw-dropping temples of Angkor, some of which date back to the ninth century, and include Angkor Wat. The town itself caters to international travelers in a big way. There’s delicious street food for a dollar or less; quaint restaurants selling international fare; German bakeries; trendy boutiques; bustling markets selling bargain souvenirs; and more bars than you’ll be able to count along rowdy Pub Street.
An extended stay in Siem Reap might not be for everyone, and travelers generally head there from either Phnom Penh or Bangkok. We think the former makes a great introduction to Asian city life as well. It’s home to a diverse array of international cultures and expats, but is flush with authentic Khmer culture, too. Bespoke Western-style cafes, hipster boutiques, and swish fine dining sit side-by-side with Buddhist pagodas, endless street food stalls, and buzzing markets. High-end hotels come cheap in these two cities, and Phnom Penh is packed with sharp boutique hotels that’ll make you feel like you’re living the high life. And getting around town by tuk-tuk is easy and cheap, with rides often costing around $1. Plus, U.S. travelers will appreciate not even having to change currency, as U.S. dollars are widely accepted, and even preferred by many vendors over the Cambodian riel.
Hotel Pick: For upscale style within a 10-minute walk of lively downtown Siem Reap, the Shinta Mani Club is hard to beat. Interiors are done in a fresh, contemporary style that blends urban minimalism with a few colorful local flourishes, and there’s a tranquil garden pool (crucial in Siem Reap’s heat).
It’s true that Melbourne has lots of artsy appeal, but we just can’t help loving Sydney a little bit more. To be fair, if you haven’t been abroad, the trip to Australia can be long — expect a 24-hour journey from the east coast of the U.S. And once there, you’ll have to be prepared for a bit of sticker shock, as food and activities in Sydney aren’t cheap.
Those inconveniences aside, Sydney is a fascinating melting pot that’s equally refined and gritty. The star of the show are its glittering urban beaches — the most famous of which are in Manly and Bondi. There are also tourist-friendly neighborhoods like The Rocks, where converted historic buildings house foodie destinations galore. If you’re willing to explore a bit farther, locals-only spots line the streets of Darlinghurst, and there’s great shopping near bar-heavy Oxford Street. Given its hilly geography and the way its arranged around a stunning harbor, the arrangement of the city makes it hard not to feel like a local. If you ask us, there’s no better takeaway from a first trip abroad than that.
Hotel Pick: For something sharp and simple near the local haunts in Darlinghurst, check out the Kirketon Hotel Sydney, which is less than a 10-minute walk to busy Oxford Street.
Almost every bucket list includes this most beautiful of cities. With the mighty Seine cutting its way through intimate Arrondissements packed with Belle Epoque architecture, and with some of the world’s most revered cuisine, there’s a reason why Paris is the world’s most visited city. It has a pace that rivals New York and London, but there’s a certain casual elegance to it all that’s matched by famous museums like the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.
You should try to get a handle on basic French expressions, as there’s no guarantee that servers or hotel workers will speak to you in English. But for those willing to invest a few hours with DuoLingo, the payoff is huge. Paris is an excellent choice for first-time travelers because there’s no chance of being bored or underwhelmed. The city has limitless shopping, dining, drinking opportunities, and the neighborhoods range from party-hard Bastille to romantic Montmartre or Saint-Germain. Additionally, its extensive metro system also makes getting around relatively easy.
Hotel Pick: Paris is expensive, but for travelers willing to sacrifice frills, there are still chances to be close to the action. Hotel Esmeralda sits just across the Seine from Notre Dame and some rooms have cathedral views. Those with a little more cash to spend should consider the Hotel Design Secret de Paris, which has tons of style and extras like a spa and fitness room.
Alright — you caught us. Costa Rica is most definitely not a city, but this compact nation has been luring tourists from across the Western Hemisphere for decades now. The oft-heard motto here is “pura vida,” which translates to “pure life.” In fact, you just might be tempted to join the herd of visitors who’ve gotten this phrase tattooed on their bodies, but we’ll leave that part up to you. Costa Rica is one of the most consistently stable nations in Central America, and its tourist infrastructure is almost unmatched in the region. With topography that ranges from towering mountains and cloud forests to sandy beaches fringed by palm trees, there’s a lot of nature to explore here. Most of the action concentrates around two poles: Arenal — the massive volcano in the center of the country — and the nation’s Pacific Coast beaches. You will have to figure some by-road travel time if you plan on doing both. From Arenal, it will take anywhere from three to five hours by car to reach the beaches in Guanacaste province or the lush rainforested shores of Manuel Antonio.
Hotel Pick: We think Hotel Punta Islita is one of the most romantic spots in Costa Rica, with its excellent restaurant, rustic rooms, and stunning setting overlooking the shores of remote Punta Islita. If travel is about getting away from it all, this spot might take the cake — and that infinity pool doesn’t hurt, either.
Spain is so nice that we’ve mentioned it twice. Like Sydney and Melbourne, or New York and Los Angeles, the rivalry between this country’s two biggest cities goes way back. Barcelona is the more ostentatiously touristy of the two, but Madrid is many a traveler’s favorite. As it’s Europe’s third-largest city, there are more than enough locals to absorb the massive number of tourists that flock here year round. That’s a good thing, as it means no matter where you land in Madrid, you’re able to find a corner that feels authentically Spanish.
In the morning, residents pack cafes to start their days with pastries and coffee, while the evenings are hours-long affairs, with groups of friends jumping from one old-school tapas bar to the next. There’s out-and-proud gay life in Chueca and hipsters galore in Malasaña, plus a wild antique fair on Sundays called El Rastro. In between, get your fill of culture, from museums like the Prado and Reina Sofía to the indie galleries in Lavapies. You can even have churros and chocolate — the city’s iconic dessert — 24/7 at the famous San Gines Chocolateria.
All of this, coupled with the Madrid’s walkability and low hotel rates make it a first-time international traveler’s dream. It also has an extensive metro system, and its airport is a breeze to get to by bus or train.
Hotel Pick: The Room Mate chain is one of our favorite standbys. The Room Mate Alicia in Madrid is no exception, with its funky interiors, boutique charm, bargain rates, and lovely terrace with a plunge pool. The location in Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras, near Madrid’s three major museums, is also hard to beat.
Museums? Check. Delicious local cuisine? Check. Wild nightlife? Check. Peaceful parks? Check. An intense art scene? Check. With so much to offer, there are very few boxes that Mexico City doesn’t tick for any traveler, especially those heading abroad for the first time.
The neighboring neighborhoods of Zona Rosa, Roma, and La Condesa form the heart of the action for many coming to Mexico City. They each have distinct personalities — Condesa is known for its leafy avenues and trendy cafes; Roma for its bars and boutique shopping; and Zona Rosa for its nightlife. Travelers wanting to experience the posh side of Mexico City might head to the upmarket Polanco neighborhood instead, or spend a day in historic Coyoacan (home to Frida Kahlo’s house). All of these areas are prime for wandering and exploring day and night.
To be clear: Mexico City is massive, and while it’s far safer than many cities throughout the country, there are certainly pockets that should be avoided by those from out of town. Still, during the day, areas like the Zocalo are thronged with a mix of locals and tourists, all out enjoying the wild blend of cultures, sounds, and sights.
Hotel Pick: If you have the cash to spare — and you might since so much in Mexico City is cheap — stay at Las Alcobas. This luxury property takes design consciousness to its limit, with a mix of cutting-edge contemporary style and rustic, artsy touches. It also includes two gourmet restaurants, and has a posh location in Polanco.
Latin America can be tricky destination for those who are going abroad for the first time. Its cities aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly, and violent and petty crime aren’t unheard of (in fact, many cities — like Rio de Janeiro — can be downright dangerous). Lima is the gateway to Peru for many and has an unrivaled dining scene plus picture-perfect beaches. However, Cusco is the most tourist-friendly of Peru’s cities, and will likely figure on any itinerary to the country.
The city itself is worth exploring for a few days. Its history can be traced back to the 10th century, and it was the seat of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th centuries. After that, the Spanish erected colonial buildings left and right, and the city is now a wild fusion of architectural styles and ethnic influences. You’ll find all types of artisans in town, as well as a wide array of cuisines plus hotels that range from quaint and humble to jaw-dropping luxury. Keep in mind that you’ll need to acclimatize to the altitude here, and most hotels offer oxygen to help with that. However, the compact historic core and artsy San Blas neighborhood mean that its eminently navigable and user-friendly, which is a boon to any first-time international traveler.
Hotel Pick: We think it’s best to keep it simple on a first international trip and, instead, use your money to see the sights (and eat, and drink, and…). The Amaru Hostal is a simple, compact little place with loads of authentic charm. It serves a free breakfast, and there are views of the Andes in the distance. It’s one of the most reasonably priced hotels within a five-minute walk of Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square.
Don’t start your international travels with that carry-on you took to Disney in 2003. Bring along the best of the best on the market, featuring 360 degree spinning wheels, a TSA-approved lock, a USB port (yes, you can charge your phone), and a super sturdy exterior shell.
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