The Places I Went in 2019, Ranked from Best to Worst

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I went to a lot of places this year and I enjoyed visiting all of them. No surprise there — I love traveling and I’m (usually) pretty good at picking destinations I like. But how do they stack up? If I could only recommend a few, which ones would rise to the top?

Well folks, I’m here to answer the question that no one was asking. What was the best place I went this year? And which was the worst?

The Best Destination from 2019 was…Harbin, China

harbin ice festival panorama
Overlooking Harbin Ice and Snow World

Harbin was both the first and best place I visited this year.

This lesser-known city is home to the world’s largest ice festival — which is every bit as magical as you want it to be — but the city itself is incredible, too. I loved the food and I loved the playful spirit that the locals kept even when it was bitterly cold outside.

I’m already thinking about taking a group in January 2021 (interested? leave a comment below).

#2: Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Hell's Gate National Park Kenya
Cycling through Hell’s Gate National Park (Naivasha, Kenya)

All of Kenya was fabulous, but Naivasha was best of all. There’s nowhere to game drive here, so a lot of people skip it, but there are animals galore and most of them are easy to spot at close distances!

If you want to see giraffes, zebras, water bucks, wildebeest, buffalo, baboons, colobus monkeys, or hippos, this is the spot for you.

This is also the best spot if you want to get out of the Jeep for more active exploration: there is no big game here (like lions), so it’s safe to walk around and even try a cycling “safari”!.

#3: Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota

custer state park south dakota
Beautiful scenery in South Dakota

No one saw this one coming!

My husband and I spent five days in this region of South Dakota, taking scenic drives, hikes, bike rides, and watching all the animals we could find (and that was a lot). South Dakota might not seem glamorous, but it’s gosh-darn beautiful.

#4: Tasmania, Australia

wallaby while on tasmania holidays
Imagine watching wallaby out your window while drinking a hot cup of tea. This is Tasmania.

G’day kangaroos, wallabies, tasmanian devils, platypi (platypuses?), wallabies, and other critters!

Tasmania is all about nature and wildlife, so it was right up my alley. Although we road-tripped a decent amount, my absolute favorite spot was taking a ferry to Maria Island, followed by exploring the city of Hobart (this was a definite surprise compared to my expectations).

#5: The Rest of my Kenya Safari

elephants in tsavo east national park
Elephants in Tsavo East National Park

In addition to Lake Naivasha, I spent five days scooting through Tsavo East National Park, Tsavo West National Park, Taita Hills Game Reserve, and Amboseli National Park. I was really hesitant in advance that five days would be too much safari, but it worked out well because we moved around a lot (I think five days in just one or two places would drive me bonkers, though).

Some of the highlights from our safari were finding a huge pride of lionesses, watching elephants wrestle in a watering hole, realizing how HUGE Somali ostriches are, and tackling some pretty extreme roads. All with spectacular scenery in the background.

#6: El Paso, TX

franklin mountains in el paso
Gorgeous El Paso, TX

Oh my goodness, a lot went wrong on my El Paso trip. I fought with norovirus, a flat tire, a broken down bus, long waits at the Mexican border, and very chilly mornings.

But I also got to take great hikes and see other-worldly deserts. This city in Texas is totally overlooked by travelers, despite being an awesome base camp for adventures and day trips. Since I was sick for a bit, I missed out on a lot of my scheduled activities, so I have to plan a return visit in the future.

#7: Gulf Shores, AL

caribe resort lazy river orange beach girls getaway
Living it up in Alabama!

Uhhh…if I could just fly back to the Alabama coast to eat, I would. I stuffed myself silly with spicy crawfish, royal red shrimp, every fish imaginable, and then some pretty gluttonous sides and desserts. Plus, Gulf Shores knows how to put you in a state of relaxation like nowhere else can.

You wouldn’t think that spending a few days on the beach while it was pouring rain would make it this high on my list, but I had a fabulous time (I knew I would, since this was my second visit). The sun did come out just in time to see dolphins on my final day.

#8: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

north dakota badlands
Theodore Roosevelt National Park at sunrise

In all honesty, I went to North Dakota just to check it off on my list of states visited. I didn’t expect to actually like it there. And maybe that surprise is one of the reasons I liked it so well.

This national park outside the teeny town of Medora is worth a visit even if you don’t care about hitting all 50 states. You just might enjoy the landscapes that waffle between grasslands and rolling hills and Badlands.

#9: Puerto Rico

Playa flamenco beach scene
Playa Flamenco, the most famous beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico

If you had asked me at the beginning of the year where Puerto Rico would fall on this list, I would’ve guessed higher up. I had a great time and have zero complaints about the trip or the destination in general, but it was just slightly less fabulous than everywhere else.

If you haven’t been, make sure to have dinner at Marmalade in Old San Juan (it’s not cheap, but it’s delicious) and do the biobay kayak in Vieques. Those two things alone will be enough to ensure a great trip!

#10: Nanjing, China

great hall usnisa palace nanjing
Inside Usnisa Palace in Nanjing, China

No one goes to Nanjing, even though it’s only an hour from Shanghai by bullet train. It’s not a place where you could spend a week, but it captured my attention for two days, mostly because I loved the Usnisa Palace just south of the city center.

It’s worth a visit, ideally overnight, but a day trip from Shanghai will do if that’s all you have time for. In my opinion, Nanjing is far more interesting than Shanghai anyway — you’ll read more about that farther below.

#11: Nairobi, Kenya

nairobi music
Great night out in Nairobi

I didn’t think I’d like Nairobi, so like most travelers, I just used it as a starting and ending base for my trip. What I found was a pulsing international city with great restaurants, craft markets, live music, breweries and a great mix of locals and expats.

I wish I had spent longer here and if/when I return to Kenya, I’d purposely plan on including 2-3 full days to dive into things. And oh yeah — I skipped all the city’s main tourist attractions and don’t regret that one bit. There’s too much going on to spend all day in a museum.

#12: Sydney, Australia

sydney selfie

I think I did Sydney wrong; I should’ve liked it more. And there were things about Sydney that I definitely enjoyed, particularly our coastal walk in Watsons Bay (which I thought was better than the famous Bondi-Coogee walk).

However, we spent a lot of our time just seeing Sydney Harbour from every possible angle: from the bridge, from the water, from our hotel rooftop, from the Royal Botanic Gardens… it’s pretty, but that can’t be the only thing to see in the city! If I go back, I’m going to need all your creative ideas.

#13: Newfoundland, Canada

boat in front of two newfoundland icebergs

I wanted to love Newfoundland with all my heart, but turns out I merely “liked” it. The puffins were great, as were the icebergs, and they have some lovely coastal trails. But I am an incredibly fortunate traveler and Newfoundland reminded me of lots of places I’ve been before all smashed together into one province — Alaska, Maine, Swedish Lapland…

If you’ve never been to anywhere like Newfoundland, I think you’ll love it. You get a lot of bang for your buck with today’s exchange rate. For anyone else, set your expectations accordingly.

#14: Boston, MA

Inside the Boston Public Library
Inside the Boston Public Library

I’ve been to Boston a bunch of times before and frankly didn’t think there was anything too new or exciting to check out this time. So I relaxed, stopped expecting anything, and ended up finding a lot to enjoy! I even had the best lobster roll of my life at Yankee Lobster (move over, Maine!).

I spent most of my free time in the Brookline neighborhood, an area I had never heard of before. It’s a cute part of town that’s great to walk around, with nice restaurants, cafes, and shops.

#15: Shanghai, China

shanghai skyline at night
Shanghai Skyline

I spent a few days in Shanghai, checking off a bunch of traveler favorites: the Bund, the French Concession, Nanjing Road, a day trip to Suzhou, etc. My first impressions were that it was almost too western to feel Chinese, something I can hardly complain about when you stick to tourist hotspots.

I’m sure there’s more to Shanghai — I started enjoying myself when I made it to the Hongkou district and I liked day-tripping to Suzhou — but it wasn’t my favorite city ever. To future visitors, definitely still go: I liked walking in, around, and up the skyscrapers of Pudong, but I’d spend a day or two and then move on. There’s so much more of China to see.

#16: Diani Beach, Kenya

Sunset on Diani Beach
Diani Beach, Kenya

Diani is an “award-winning beach”, and I’m sure it’s the best in Kenya, although it’s not worth flying halfway around the world for. If you’re in the neighborhood anyway, the water is warm, the sand is soft, and it’s apparently an awesome spot for wind-surfing and kitesurfing. Unfortunately, we were there too early for whale sharks (February is peak).

What bugged me, though, was the distinct separation between tourism and local life. There wasn’t a lot of intermingling and you had to go out of your way to find it…kinda like Mexico’s Riviera Maya resorts, if you’ve ever been there. Just a bit too isolationist for me.

#17: Cleveland, OH

cleveland arcade
Inside the very photogenic Cleveland arcade

Oh hey there Cleveland! I’d been talking about visiting for awhile — rumor has it, the city is revitalizing at rapid pace. Once I moved to Buffalo and was just three hours away, I had no excuse not to make the trip. I bundled up and went off for a couple days of mostly eating and drinking (what else are you supposed to do in February?).

My take: Cleveland has awesome eateries and I could point you to a cocktail bar or two. It would be a fun stop on a roadtrip for a day and now that I know there are summer concerts in cemeteries (?!), I’ll have to go back. But if you’re looking for a good rust belt city to visit, my favorites remain Detroit and Pittsburgh.

#18: Melbourne, Australia

melbourne australia

I know Melbourne has a lot of die-hard fans, but I’m not one of them. It’s a city that I just couldn’t figure out. There are museums and a major art scene and so many restaurants (but oooof, pack your credit cards! $$$$), but nothing jived with my own interests.

As always, I managed to find a few diamonds in the rough anyway. Outside of town, we visited St. Kilda to see the penguins in the evening and we biked and biked and biked (okay, it was only 26 miles but it felt farther!) past the Brighton Bathing Boxes, Half Moon Bay, and Red Bluff Cliffs.

If I find myself in Melbourne again, I’m high-tailing it out of town to the Mornington Peninsula or Phillip Island, which seem more my style.

#19: Billings, MT

last chance cider in billings, mt
Cider in Montana? Why not?!

I had high hopes for Billings; I’ve been to other parts of Montana before that I truly enjoyed. But Billings, I’m sorry, you made the bottom of the list. The city itself isn’t very picturesque and like many cities in the west, most activities marketed as “Billings” are actually a lengthy drive from downtown.

If you find yourself in Billings — after all, it makes a great launching point for the Beartooth Mountains, Bighorn Canyon, and even Yellowstone — have a cider at Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill and then get a tri-tip sandwich with fries at Uberbrew. They’re very much worth the calories.

What an Incredible Year!

No doubt about it, this was an incredible year and one with travel memories I’ll always cherish. But if you’re looking to steal ideas about where to go next, the ones you’ll hear me chatting up a storm about are Harbin, China; basically all of Kenya; and my roadtrip through the Dakotas.

And as for 2020…you better believe it will be amazing in it’s own way.

What was your best trip of the year? Inspire my next destination!

9 thoughts on “The Places I Went in 2019, Ranked from Best to Worst”

  1. Hi Becky,
    In prior years I spent time in Hong Kong (under the British) and Taiwan (where my son lives) but never mainland China. And never Australia. So your list gives me some inspiration for 2020!

    We’re currently in Los Ayala, Nayarit, Mexico until the end of January. Then three months in Jordan on a short term contract with USAID – will plan to visit Petra, Mount Nebo, etc. Do you have any suggestions for Jordan?

    For 2019, we spent most of our time in Egypt and Mexico. In Egypt, I highly recommend sailing up the Nile (Luxor to Aswan) in a dahabiya- the classic wooden sail boats reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” (Do NOT take one of the multitude of big cruise ships – yuck, gag me with a spoon!) Wait before going for the new museum to open – it is behind schedule but should finally open in 2020. Spend at least a day exploring Khan el-Khalili, the ancient souq in the center of ancient Cairo.

    For Mexico, I highly recommend the Zicatela Beach area of Puerto Escondido. We stayed two weeks each at two different AirBnB places, Casita de Fe and Casa Naranja, but there are many similar rental apartments. Zicatela has fantastic beaches and world class surfing, lots of really good restaurants and it is all very inexpensive.

    1. @Steve, All of your thoughts and details make me wish I was heading to the Mexico coast. Sounds like so much to see and do there. Great tips on Egypt, also — I went in 2015 and I’m itching to return someday.

      Unfortunately I can’t help you on Jordan; I haven’t been yet. It’s somewhere that sounds absolutely incredible and based on the other places you like, I imagine it will be right up your alley. I’d look at the Dana Biosphere Reserve also, if you have more time. Some great scenery there (based on photos) and you don’t have to stay at whatever fancy hotel is there (can’t remember the name); there are some smaller guesthouses and such as well.

    2. For Jordan, I’d recommend Petra at Night as well. While touristy, it is quite beautiful.
      In addition to swimming in the Dead Sea if you haven’t, head down to Wadi Rum. Those are the most stars I’ve ever seen! So beautiful!

      Happy 2020 travels! Currently in Dubai and will be in Cairo on Sunday. I’m solo, so let me know if either of you have any more tips! 🙂

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