My ranking of 20 countries I have backpacked in.

17 Jun

Every country has unique things to offer for a traveler, but it is impossible for a frequent traveler not to choose some favorites. In this list, I have ranked the 20 countries I have spent more than a day in as a solo backpacker (besides the US, my home). As a tourist, it can be hard to make these sort of lists. There really is beauty in every country, even if it’s not at first apparent.

But screw that sappy feel-good sugarcoating. Here’s my list, from favorite to least favorite.

 

Italy: Italy is my favorite country for several reasons: There are great natural wonders, great small towns, but most importantly, there’s simply so many sights! In addition, Italian cuisine is my favorite in Europe. Another very interesting thing about Italy is how different the regions are, in their food, architecture, sights, and landscapes. There’s North Italy, with its big mountains, flat plains, and Venice. There’s central Italy, with its sightseeing and gorgeous architecture. Then there’s south Italy, with its famous cuisine, laid-back pace of life and rugged terrain. But even within those three areas there are many subregions, from the Amalfi Coast in the South to the Dolomites up North. The best thing about Italy is that theres so much to do, and so many places to go.

Austria: Austria is my second favorite country in Europe, since it packs so many things to do into such a small space. It has an efficient, extensive transit system, great food, and incredible natural beauty. The cute alpine villages are not just the stuff of tourist brochures and movies, they really do look like that! I love it all, but Innsbruck was what convinced me that this was one of my favorite countries.

Armenia: Armenia is my third favorite country, due to the sense of adventure it provides for a western tourist. Few tourists go there, but its sights are spectacular, and the scenery around them even more so. Add one of the Former USSR’s best cuisines, a fascinating history, and (actual), to this day, cheap eastern European prices, and you’ve got a small country with a lot to offer. My favorite places were Yerevan, Gerhard Monastery, and the Dilijan area.

Japan: Japan is a great country. If it wasn’t so expensive, it would be higher on my list for sure. No matter how much sushi you ate or anime you watched back home, nothing can prepare you for touching-down in this fascinating country. From the moment you get off the plane, you’ll get a sense of how Japan is still impacted by being one of only five countries that never had a western colonial government. The trains are efficient, the food is exquisite, and the landscapes are dramatic. Many cities may at first seem like they are full of power wires, and buildings that resemble slabs of concrete, but if you dig deeper and see the temples and shrines, you’ll find that the only thing more fascinating than Japan’s long history is its super-rich culture, with a vast array of different customs and traditions. Japan also has one of the world’s best cuisines, with far more than just sushi.

South Korea: The only reason I put it behind Japan is that it has less big-name sights. Other than that, it’s an amazing country for first-time tourists to East Asia. It has big cities, beautiful national parks, and an amazing cuisine with more budget-friendly dining than Japan. Like Japan, its cities can appear soulless at first, and to be fair, there isn’t much to do in certain cities such as Daegu. But if you know where to go, the urban experience is as amazing as anywhere else, with a blend of old temples and a pulsating urban atmosphere, the vibe that can be felt nowhere but East Asia. The public transportation here is easy to use. My favorite places in this country include Jeju Island, Gyoengju, and Seoul.

France: So far I’ve only seen Paris, but I loved what I saw. The city really is impossible not to fall in love with, as a tourist. Not only is it such a big city with great food and so much to do, but it can retain a small town feel in parts. I hear the countryside is gorgeous, which is why I’m going back to France this summer.

Spain: Spain is amazing! The food is great (if a bit salty and dry), the weather is amazing, and the historic sites are nothing short of spectacular. My favorite places in Spain were Barcelona, Madrid, and Cordoba. The architecture is gorgeous and varies from region-to-region. The landscapes are gorgeous too. Looking from the window of an AVE train, a traveler can see fields, hills, and mountains in the distance in most parts of the train ride.

Iceland: Iceland is incredible for its stunning natural beauty. Though the country is expensive, it’s worth it. The public transport services are few and far between, but the tour-based travel infrastructure is very well-run and well-organized.

The Netherlands: More than just Amsterdam and its infamous red light district, the Netherlands is a great country to visit. It has stunning architecture, great art, and is a very cosmopolitan country overall. The public transport is superb and so are the uniquely abundant bike paths. The country has a unique landscape, since it is very flat and there are a lot of canals.

Poland: Poland is one of my favorite former USSR territories. It is developed and easy to travel in, but still retains the gritty, “eastern” feel in many places. The sad history is evident in its former concentration camps and imposing soviet blocs, but you wouldn’t guess what this country’s been through by looking at an old town street in Krakow today. Today, Poland is prosperous and thriving. The country is big and has more to do than you might expect. The best towns are Krakow, Wroclaw and Warsaw, but the country can hold its own in outdoor activities, in the Tatra mountains and the lakes of the Northeast. The meaty cuisine isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it was better than i expected and cheaper than the international cuisines, especially outside of the biggest cities.

Russia: Russia is a great place to visit. St. Petersburg is my favorite city in Eastern Europe. Moscow is amazing too. The problem with Russia is that it takes a long time to get around, and visa regulations are anything but easy to navigate. Tourist visas to Russia only allow 30 days in the country, which is not nearly enough time to see the natural beauty and provincial cities outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. Still, even in a bit of a hurry, the Trans-Siberian railway is a fantastic experience.

England: England is great. It has a lot of history, multicultural cities, beautiful countryside, and great service (thanks, Americanization!). But falls short in some key places from a travel perspective. First of all, it is expensive. While the museums are free, the special exhibitions are rip-offs. The British Cuisine isn’t as bad as people think, but international food is usually a far better option. Finally, the trains get delayed more than in other western European countries.

Greece: I love Greece. The landscapes are incredible, the people are laid-back and friendly, and the ruins are really that amazing. The Peloponnese and Crete are some of my favorite places in the world. But Greece falls short of its Western European counterparts in some key areas which mean it is lower on this list than it could have been. Its capital is a sprawling mess, the country is expensive, and transit is lackluster. And it isn’t the only country with great Ancient ruins. For these reasons I prefer the other Western European countries.. But Greece is great.

Latvia: Latvia was my favorite of the Baltic Countries. Riga is a beautiful, fascinating, and clean city with a lot of culture. Russians and Latvians don’t always mix, and neither do tourists and the national cuisine. It has a lot of great museums and sights though. For a fun, quick trip that’s off-the-beaten-track, Latvia is a superb choice.

Estonia: Estonia is a great introduction to Eastern Europe. Tallinn’s Old Town is my favorite in Europe and the history is very interesting. I highly recommend doing the tour of the tunnels underneath the city. Outside of Tallinn, there are islands and forests, but there isn’t anything uniquely special about the countryside overall. Still, it’s a great country for first-timers in the region, with great bang-for-the-buck.

Hungary: Hungary is a great place to go, but its not as cheap as you may expect. The food is overrated and the people aren’t the friendliest around, but there is a lot of natural beauty in the North, and Budapest is a gorgeous capital.

Finland: Finland has some great places to visit, such as the Lapland, as well as trendy towns like Helsinki and Turku. The coffee in Finland is superb, but like everything in the country, it is very expensive. Estonia and Latvia have a lot more bang for the buck, and are quicker to get around.

Lithuania: I didn’t have a major problem with Lithuania, except for its lackluster transit. Many of its most famous attractions, such as the Curonian Spit, the Hill of Crosses, and the Trakai Castle, are in rural areas and hard to access without a car. From an urban-oriented perspective, I preferred Riga and Tallinn to Vilnius. There is a bigger variety of sights in the other two Baltic capitals. I will say one thing however: the national museum of Lithuania is superb.

The Czech Republic: I’ll say one thing in praise of this country: Prague is beautiful. It truly is. But my main problem with the city, and the country as a whole, is that it doesn’t absorb tourists evenly enough throughout its territory. Many tourists cluster in the central neighborhood of the central city, and it gets very crowded. But who can blame them? Outside of Prague, Kutna Hora and Cesky Krumlov, there really isn’t much to do. I would love if they expanded their tourist scene and built more museums outside of Prague, but for now, I have little desire to go back.

Scotland: Ugh. I wanted to love Scotland. I really did. It was the first solo trip I ever took outside of the US. The hills are massive, and a lot is packed into its small area. But I just couldn’t get into it. The weather and the buildings are too drab and dull. The food is boring, there are not as many interesting historic sites as there are in England, and the people were not as friendly as I expected.

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