For some people, the notion of the perfect vacation is simply two weeks in the sun, doing absolutely nothing. Others see a vacation as a prime opportunity to immerse themselves in a new culture and experience a different way of life.
“Culture” is a broad concept, of course—it refers to the customs, language, cuisine, art, and shared history of a particular group. In addition, culture is everywhere; there’s nowhere you can go that doesn’t have a culture. Still, in some places, the culture just seems more tangible and alive. Here are a few of these destinations.
1. Paro, Bhutan
Bhutan is a landlocked kingdom sitting atop the mighty Himalayan range, which renders it accessible only to a fortunate few. Combining colorful religious festivals with spectacular natural surroundings, this land of fluttering prayer flags, red-robed monks, and vast monasteries perched on cliffs harks back to a long-forgotten era, and a much slower, calmer pace of life.
The Paro valley stretches from the confluence of the Wang Chhu and Paro Chhu rivers at Chuzom, to Mount Jomolhari on the Tibetan border. One of the widest valleys in Bhutan, Paro is swathed in fertile rice fields, with elegant traditional houses dotting the valley and surrounding hillsides. The idyllic scene is dissected by a crystalline, meandering river.
Paro town’s central plaza is adorned with a small amphitheater that hosts events throughout the year. With more than 155 monasteries and temples in the region, some dating back to the 14th century, Paro is an excellent place to see Bhutan’s history.
The region is also home to one of the country’s most iconic sites. High above the oak and rhododendron forests perches Taktsang Monastery. Known as the Tiger’s Nest, this extraordinary temple is a sacred shrine dedicated to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
2. Tikal, Guatemala
Many regard Tikal as the world’s most impressive Mayan site, despite the fact that just a small proportion has been excavated from the thick jungle that surrounds it. Comprising some 3,000 ancient buildings, including a palace, dwellings, tombs, altars, and an impressive nine-story pyramid, Tikal once formed the heart of the Mayan Empire. Today it sits in its own national park, having been assigned UNESCO World Heritage Site status. In its heyday, the site is believed to have been home to almost 100,000 people, making it one of the most important cities of its time.
The Mayans performed ritual human sacrifices at Tikal. This archaeological wonder was also used for farming as far back as 1000 BC. No one knows for sure what caused the city’s demise, but many researchers attribute its abandonment to deforestation and drought.
3. Bilbao, Spain
From the early 1900s, Bilbao was one of the most important cities in Basque Country. Despite its cultural development and expansion being interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, the city quickly recovered its capacity to generate wealth, attracting immigrants from far and wide with its flourishing industry.
Following years of economic growth, the region’s steel and iron industry fell into a deep crisis toward the end of the 20th century. City officials were forced to reimagine the foundations of its economic development.
After years of financial uncertainty, Bilbao reclaimed its reputation as one of Europe’s most dynamic cities. It is brimming with amenities and focused on urban and environmental regeneration. Today, it is home to the Euskalduna Palace and Guggenheim Museum, the latter being one of the most iconic and praised works of contemporary architecture. These buildings have become icons of this vibrant metropolis.
4. Florence, Italy
Florence is the most enchanting city in Tuscany, if not the whole of Italy or Europe. Internationally renowned as the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is home to the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, which houses works by both Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. If you have the means, you should visit Florence at least once in your life.
Other unmissable attractions include the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza del Duomo, and Boboli Gardens. Although it is a city, Florence retains a small-town charm and a slower, calmer pace of life. The city center is flooded with pedestrians rather than cars, idly strolling or sitting in piazzas, watching the world go by.
5. Abu Dhabi, UAE
The United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates in total, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two that most Westerners are familiar with. Both are modern, cosmopolitan cities, but Dubai is flashier and fast-paced, while Abu Dhabi is often described as a bit lower-key and more representative of traditional culture in the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque is the largest mosque in the whole of the UAE. Both a place of worship and an icon of Islamic culture, it is widely praised as Abu Dhabi’s most beautiful building. Covering almost 30 acres and capable of accommodating more than 40,000 people, Sheikh Zayed Mosque is also one of the largest places of worship in the world. The construction took more than a decade to complete and combines traditional and modern architecture.