The Rough Guide to 2021: kickoff

Helen Fanthorpe

written by
Helen Fanthorpe

updated 09.07.2021

It’s no secret that 2020 was a tough year for the world, shaken to its bones by the coronavirus pandemic. But as the vaccine roll out continues, our dreams for travel in 2021 look closer to becoming a reality. Yes, things have changed, and travel in 2021 won’t look exactly like it did – but all that time spent at home has done much to deepen our appreciation and fuel our wanderlust. 

Adventurers across the globe have had time to pause and reflect on how they want to travel in the future, and might be looking for a cleaner, greener trip in 2021. With health in mind, travellers would be wise to invest in ways to Covid-proof their trip (comprehensive insurance, for a start), and may plump for off-grid destinations to escape the crowds. Throughout 2021, Rough Guides will be helping people make the most of their time on Earth with a selection of great experiences, deals and how tos. The Rough Guide to 2021: kickoff will be followed by a selection of inspirational and practical content specially designed to keep you travelling – safely and ethically – over the coming year! 

As light appears at the end of the tunnel, there’s still a world out there waiting to be discovered. Here’s the Rough Guide to 2021: bringing you our pick of the year’s top ten places and experiences on Earth. Where are you dreaming of travelling to in 2021? Connect with Rough Guides on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and share your dream destination for next year.  And check out the first ever Rough Guides magazine printed - the Rough Guide to summer 2021.

1. Livin’ the pura-vida in Costa Rica

Panthera onca in Costa Rica © Pedro Helder Pinheiro/Shutterstock

Jaguar in Costa Rica © Pedro Helder Pinheiro/Shutterstock

Best for: Wildlife lovers and active travellers

Top experiences: Hiking, zip-lining, archeological sites and wildlife watching

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): Costa Rica remains open to all, making this a viable holiday destination from the start of 2021. Visitors are required to complete a health form before travel.

UK residents are currently required to stay at home under current restrictions; you must not travel domestically or abroad.

Rough Guides trip recommendation: Book onto or modify Rough Guides’ From the Cloud Forest to the Beaches itinerary to experience some of the country’s most mesmerizing landscapes. 

With its inspiring pura-vida (pure-life) ethos and commitment to becoming carbon neutral for 2021, army-less Costa Rica is the ultimate destination for adventurous nature-lovers and environmentally minded travellers. 

Despite only taking up 0.03 percent of the planet, Costa Rica contains a staggering five percent of the world’s biodiversity, with 52 hummingbird species (making it the hummingbird capital of the world) and more than nine hundred bird species in total, including the aptly named resplendent quetzal. Costa Rica’s mammalian diversity is exceptional too, with national parks protecting the habitats of everything from sloths, anteaters and armadillos to peccaries, tapirs and howler monkeys, and elusive ocelots, pumas and jaguars. 

Adventurers will love zip-lining the Monteverde Cloud Forest, surfing the Pacific Coast and hiking the awe-inspiring Arenal Volcano National Park, while culture-vultures will adore the country’s ancient archeological sites, among them Turrialba’s Guayabo National Monument, the largest pre-Columbian ruins discovered in Costa Rica to date. 

Ready to book your trip? Check out our 11 tips for travelling in Costa Rica

2. Gorilla trekking in the Virunga Mountains

Gorilla in Congo ©

Gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo ©

Best for: Wildlife lovers and adventurous souls

Top experiences: Hiking, gorilla trekking and bubbling volcanoes

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): These three nations are all open to travellers, though you do require a negative coronavirus test to visit Uganda; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you’ll need a negative test result to travel between regions, and there is currently a nationwide curfew in place. In Rwanda, movements are prohibited between 7pm and 4am, and travellers will need a negative Covid test result to move between Kigali and other provinces. Rwanda is one of the only “green list” destinations for many other countries. 

UK residents are currently required to stay at home under current restrictions; you must not travel domestically or abroad.

Rough Guides trip recommendation: Book onto or modify Rough Guides’ Gorillas, Big 5 & Zanzibar trip to visit Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania for an East African adventure to remember. 

Bubbling lava lakes, towering bamboo cathedrals and tangled rainforests are just some of the landscapes protected in the Virunga Mountains, a staggeringly beautiful string of nine freestanding volcanoes that rises to 4507 metres on the border of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Among the Virgungas’ unique draws is the fact that they are home to more than half the world’s mountain gorillas. Staring into the deep brown eyes of one of these gentle giants – no taller than the average human, but twice as bulky – ranks among the world’s most exhilarating and emotionally charged wildlife encounters. 

Other wildlife includes secretive buffaloes and elephants, bamboo-guzzling golden monkeys, and dozens of colourful highland bird species. For fit and energetic travellers, the steep volcanic slopes incorporate some stupendous hiking goals: be it the 4507-metre peak of Karisimbi, the fire-spitting cauldron of lava enclosed by the 3470-metre rim of Nyiragongo, or the gorgeous crater lake that caps the 3711-metre Bisoke.

There’s more to Rwanda than just wildlife, of course. Here are 10 reasons to see more of Rwanda than just gorillas

3. Pondering Pembrokeshire’s history, Wales

Strumble Head Lighthouse, near Goodwick, Pembrokeshire, Wales © steved_np3/Shutterstock

Strumble Head Lighthouse, near Goodwick in Pembrokeshire, Wales © steved_np3/Shutterstock

Best for: Fans of wild landscapes and ancient history

Top experiences: Hiking, prehistoric sites and birdwatching

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): UK residents are currently required to stay at home under current restrictions; you must not travel domestically or abroad. This means travel to Wales is not possible at this time, as movement is only allowed for essential travel.

Rough Guides trip recommendation: Why not visit Wales as part of Rough Guides’ Great British Road Trip? Our local experts will happily incorporate Pemrbokeshire into the medley, with the added advantage that travelling by car is one of the safest ways to go during coronavirus. 

Surrounded by the Atlantic on three sides, and nestled in Wales’ most southwesterly corner, picturesque Pembrokeshire makes the cut as a place of wild wonder, ancient history and contemporary vitality. 

Pembrokeshire’s beaches are truly topnotch, from Caribbean-esque Barafundle Bay to the sand dune-backed surfing hotspot of Freshwater East. Then there’s the internationally renowned Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Trail that undulates through spectacular scenery and offers walkers sightings of seals and dolphins, as well as stunning geological formations such as Stack Rocks. It’s the perfect place to explore on your own two feet – hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a real bucket-list adventure. 

Pembrokeshire’s coastline is dappled with distinctive islands, among them Skomer, which is home to half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters, and the nesting site of thousands of puffins. It’s a veritable bird-watcher’s paradise. Accessed from the vibrant harbour town of Tenby, culturally unique Caldey Island is home to a Cistercian monk community whose recorded history stretches back 1500 years. The country is also rich in castles and prehistoric sites, among them the mighty Pentre Ifan dolmen. What’s not to love?

4. Kicking back in Lamu, Kenya

In the distance is the Riyadha Mosque in Lamu, Kenya © Shutterstock

Riyadha Mosque in Lamu, Kenya © Jen Watson/Shutterstock

Best for: Architecture lovers and culture vultures 

Top experiences: An atmospheric wander, awesome architecture and relaxing beachside

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): There’s no international travel ban in Kenya, though a negative test must be presented on arrival; arrivals from certain countries will need to undergo a quarantine period. There is currently a nationwide curfew in place, lasting until at least 12 March 2021.

UK residents are currently required to stay at home under current restrictions; you must not travel domestically or abroad. 

Rough Guides trip recommendation: Rough Guides’ Bush to Beach Safari trip takes in the big-game drives that Kenya is famous for, as well as some blissful beaches. Everything is easy to modify: speak to our local experts and add Lamu to the itinerary as an excursion from Mombasa. 

An important centre of maritime trade since medieval times, the island-bound port-town of Lamu makes it onto our list for 2021 for its rich sense of history, captivating architectural heritage and vibrant cultural identity unmatched by any other settlement along the Swahili Coast of East Africa. While your days away exploring the Old Town – comprising a labyrinth of whitewashed traditional two- and three-storey buildings – which rises in isolation from the surrounding coastal scrub. Private homes, hotels, restaurants, mosques and shops jostle for space along shady, cobbled alleys, where children play unsupervised, old men sit gossiping, veiled women look out from carved wooden doorways, and donkeys – the islands main form of transport – plod past, occasionally shattering the peace with a heartfelt bray. The atmosphere is intoxicating. 

Beach lovers and fans of underwater wildlife will want to explore the surrounding archipelago, which offers plenty of worthwhile excursions, be it a gentle waterfront stroll to idyllic Shela Beach, snorkelling the reefs from a local dhow, or the adventurous crossing to Pate Island, whose trio of absorbingly time-warped small towns – Faza, Situ and Pate itself – make Lamu seem positively urbane.

If you need any more convincing, read Rough Guides writer Harriet Constable’s piece on why it’s time to return to Lamu

5. Salsa in Santiago de Cuba

Basilica view in Santiago de Cuba © Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

Basilica view in Santiago de Cuba © Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

Best for: Anyone mad about music or curious about Communism

Top experiences: Salsa dancing, live music and soaking up the city’s revolutionary history

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): Cuba is currently open to all travellers, but local restrictions may vary between provinces. A negative PCR test is required upon arrival, as well as a sanitary declaration and proof of travel health insurance. 

UK residents are currently required to stay at home under current restrictions; you must not travel domestically or abroad. 

Rough Guides trip recommendation: The Complete Cuba trip is the one to book; as well as Santiago de Cuba, you’ll take in the sights of the captivating capital, Havana, and Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Cayo Coco and Camaguey. Of course, you can modify the itinerary to suit your preferences. 

From its perch at the eastern reaches of the forest-clad Sierra Maestra, Cuba’s largest mountain range, Santiago de Cuba serenades its guests with the sweet sounds of tres guitars, maracas, bongos and tropical voices from moody little hideouts all over the city. The country’s second city is, musically speaking, its first, the birthplace of almost all the traditional styles that have made the country a global musical phenomenon. Enjoying a renaissance set in motion by its 500th anniversary in 2015, the bustling centre is brimming with brilliantly renovated neo-colonial hotels, many of them dotted along the newly pedestrianized, pulsating main street, cascading fourteen pastel-painted blocks down to the bay. With an evocative new rum museum in the bayside factory once run by the Bacardi family, a name synonymous with the city’s history, and a clutch of sights commemorating key events of the Cuban Revolution from which the Bacardis fled, Santiago is an intoxicating blend of old and new. 

If you can’t wait to hit Cuban shores, check out Rough Guides’ full travel guide for all your pre-trip needs. 

6. Swim with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Whale shark in Ningaloo Reef, Australia © Sean Steininger/Shutterstock

Whale shark on the Ningaloo Reef, Australia © Sean Steininger/Shutterstock

Best for: Wildlife lovers and adrenaline junkies

Top experiences: Snorkelling, diving and taking to the air

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): Australia will likely be closed to international visitors (bar New Zealand citizens) for most of 2021, so this is one for our Aussie friends. The rest of us can keep dreaming…

Rough Guides trip recommendation: The Cross Western Australia to Darwin itinerary can easily be modified to include some snorkelling on the Ningaloo Coast. Pair it with a number of superlative outback experiences: there’s no place like Oz. 

The dazzling underwater world of the Ningaloo Reef catapults it into our top 10 destinations for 2021. With bronzed deserts, turquoise shores, rainbow reefs and a posse of creatures big and small, the Ningaloo Coast heralds an alien landscape that gives the Great Barrier Reef a run for its money. As a fringing coral reef, you can swim to the warm and welcoming waters of Ningaloo Reef directly from the beach. 

As well as playing host to a whopping five hundred species of fish, three hundred types of coral, dugongs, manta rays, humpback whales and dolphins, this is the best place in Australia – and perhaps the most ethical in the world – to swim with whale sharks. These gentle, intricately patterned giants (the size of a car) frequent the area from March to July – witnessing one emerging through the depths is a heart-racing and humbling experience that can’t be matched. Opt to soar above the water in a helicopter or microlight and you’ll be rewarded – and mesmerized – by the kaleidoscopic colours and textures of the seascape below and the weird and wonderful life that inhabits it.  

7. Star-struck in Palm Springs, USA

Palm Springs resident district © sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Palm Springs resident district, USA © sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Best for: Cutting-edge architecture and a slice of the good life

Top experiences: Hiking, cycling, marvelling at modernist architecture and eating your heart out

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): Only open to the US domestic travellers for the time being

Popularized in the 1950s by studio-owned movie stars whose contracts kept them within two hours of Hollywood, showbiz glamorous still flows effortlessly around the delightful small city of Palm Springs in California. Progressive architects and forward-thinking designers created cutting-edge modernist homes and offices, leaving a unique collection of dynamic mid-twentieth century buildings. The climate is perfect for outdoor living almost year-round, and travellers can indulge in open-air concerts, alfresco dining, cycling, trail hiking and almost every recreation activity ever invented. Grab a margarita and watch the world go by, or plump for a more active pursuit. Glimpses of snow-covered mountains, framed by clear blue skies, are visible through the palm trees on a winter’s day. Mount San Jacinto State Park can be reached by cable car, giving stunning views along the entire Coachella Valley. Across the valley, meanwhile, is Joshua Tree National Park, a vast protected area of pristine desert, weathered granite rock formations and abandoned gold mines. The area’s pioneering spirit continues today – pretty much anything goes in this laid-back LGBTQ-friendly Californian hotspot. 

8. Inuit culture in Greenland

Northern lights in Greenland © Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

Northern Lights over Greenland © Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

Best for: Pretty-in-white landscapes and rich Inuit culture

Top experiences: Kayaking, dog sledding and spying the Northern Lights

Current covid restrictions (as of Febuary 2021): Between 1 January and 18 April 2021, all entry to Greenland is off-limits. After this time, Greenland will follow Denmark's guidelines for travel. Hopefully, towards the end of 2021, a trip to Greenland could be an option for us all. 

Despite its name, the Danish territory of Greenland is not the place to come for lush forests or woodland frolics. What it lacks in greenery, the world’s largest island makes up for in sublime wintry beauty. Its towering icebergs and glaciers are bewitching, their stark white hardness edged by soft blue wisps. You’ll instantly be awed by these once-in-a-lifetime icescapes.

Greenland is the ideal destination to tick a cluster of winter adventures off your bucket list, from seeing the Northern Lights emblazoned across the sky to being tugged along on a dogsled, basking in the Scandinavian midnight sun or kayaking among the fjords. In cities like Nuuk and Qaqortoq, brightly coloured houses look like Lego blocks strewn across the hillside, set against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks and icebergs. But Greenland’s top draw is its Inuit history and culture. The majority of the population today are Greenlandic Inuit; old turf huts give a sense of how their hardy ancestors made do with very little in the harshest of conditions, while museums are packed with Norse settle artefacts. For a local delicacy, try muktuk – which makes it onto Rough Guides’ 16 weird foods of the world

9. Spectating the Tokyo Olympics, Japan

Senso-ji Buddhist temple at dusk in Asakusa, Tokyo © FenlioQ/Shutterstock

Senso-ji Buddhist temple at dusk in Asakusa, Tokyo © FenlioQ/Shutterstock

Best for: Adventurous travellers and sports enthusiasts

Top experiences: Watching the Olympics, hiking, dining

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): Most countries around the world are currently subject to an entry ban for Japan. Exceptions include Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. This is one to watch in the second half of 2021. 

Treading the tightrope between old and new, weird and wonderful, Tokyo is like nowhere else on Earth. And with the 2020 Olympics postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the eyes of the world remain firmly on the Japanese capital. Tokyo is the largest city to ever host the games, so visitors will have plenty to do and see between events, from sushi to sumo, geisha to gardens, neon to noodles. 

Even if the games don’t go ahead in 2021, there’s plenty to see in Tokyo and the rest of the country. Besides Tokyo, big-hitters like Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka are obvious choices, but visiting Japan’s lesser-known gems can be even more rewarding. Travel to more off-the-beaten track spots – our recommendations include Soya Hokkaido, Setouchi, Enoshima and Aomori – and you’ll discover spellbinding worlds that you’ll have all to yourself. Enchanting landscapes, inventive cuisine, traditional towns and spiritual sites await. 

10. Hiking the Canadian Rockies, Canada

Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies Mountains, Alberta, Canada © Elena_Suvorova/Shutterstock

Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies Mountains, Canada © Elena_Suvorova/Shutterstock

Best for: Outdoors adventurers

Top experiences: Hiking, canoeing and wildlife viewing

Current covid restrictions (as of February 2021): International travel restrictions remain in place; until then, domestic travellers won’t have to share the Rockies’ empty trails. 

While its jagged peaks have graced many a screensaver, nothing can prepare you for the raw beauty of the Canadian Rockies. As the Canadian segment of the North American Rocky Mountains, this area – weaving through the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia – is home to a tremendous landscape of mountains and lakes, and one of the most dramatic road trips in the world: the Icefields Parkway.

The region is one to check out in 2021 for its outdoor activities, blow-you-away views and diverse wildlife. Black and brown bears cause frequent traffic jams, canoeing on turquoise lakes makes for a serene pastime and impressive sights are easily accessible, from Athabasca Glacier to Johnston Canyon. While popular bases Lake Louise and Banff are certainly worth a visit, the real draw of the Canadian Rockies is in quiet contemplation on its lonely hiking trails, enveloped by the scent of pine, where social distancing is a breeze. 

If you’re itching to explore, book a tailor-made trip with Rough Guides today – all our itineraries are totally customizable to match your preferences. In addition, our experts will be in the know about all local coronavirus restrictions, so you can travel with total peace of mind. If you don’t see your own dream destination for 2021 on our list, share it with us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. We’d love to hear from you! 

Top image: Senso-ji Buddhist temple at dusk in Asakusa, Tokyo © FenlioQ/Shutterstock

Helen Fanthorpe

written by
Helen Fanthorpe

updated 09.07.2021

Helen worked as a Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and Insight Guides, based in the London office. Among her favourite projects to work on are inspirational guides like Make the most of your time on Earth, the ultimate travel bucket list.

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