1. Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo may look straight out of a sci-fi film, thanks to its neon-lit skyscrapers and cutting-edge architecture. But it hasn’t forsaken tradition in its quest to push technological boundaries. In the space of a morning, you can stare down at the city from the tallest tower in the world, the Tokyo Skytree, and then visit one of Japan’s most popular shrines: Meiji Jingu, nestled in a wooded park.
Hotel prices have dropped 4% year over year, Hotels.com finds, while airfare has fallen 5%, according to Kayak—making Tokyo the best value around.
One place where Japan’s respect for tradition fuses with its artisan culture: the food. Japan’s cuisine has a place on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage, and Tokyo itself has more Michelin stars than any other city. You can go all out and pay big bucks for the best sushi experience of your life, but you could just as easily find major flavor for ¥800—less than $8. “Even a simple bowl of noodles at a modest restaurant can rival any you’ll find elsewhere,” says Laura Crawford, destination editor for Lonely Planet. For Michelin-starred tempura, she says, try Tempura Kondo—or go to Kyubey restaurant at lunchtime for excellent sushi at a good value. Tsukiji Market, the city’s largest fish market, moves to a new site in October; go now to enjoy offerings from its many vendors—offal stew at Kitsuneya, for instance, or ramen at Chuka Soba Inoue. End your culinary tour at one of the many izakayas in the Golden Gai; Shinsuke is one of the city’s most storied, Crawford says.
2. Rome, Italy
One of the world’s most awe-inspiring cities, Rome tops many travelers’ bucket lists for its classic sites, a mix of ancient ruins and artistic masterpieces. But go beyond the historic landmarks and you may find the Italian capital’s energy derives more from the here and now, with streets that teem with pedestrians and buzz with Vespas.
“A trip to Rome is as much about lapping up the dolce vita lifestyle as gorging on art and culture,” says Lonely Planet’s Anna Tyler. Dotted with outdoor cafes and scene-stealing piazzas, Rome’s winding lanes reveal why Rome has been inspiring greats—from Michelangelo to Fellini—for generations. Not that you should skip Rome’s most famous attractions, like the Colosseum ($15 for adults) or the Vatican Museums ($21 for adults).
Getting to the Eternal City has gotten much more affordable. Kayak estimates airfares to Rome are down almost 19% over a year earlier. To keep your budget in check, skip expensive taxis and Ubers (which start at “black car” pricing) and tackle the surprisingly compact city by foot or on Rome’s relatively inexpensive public transit system. A ride on the city’s trains, buses, and trams costs just €1.5 a ticket, less than $2.
Rome’s food culture can also help keep you on a budget. The city’s mouth-watering street food includes arancini (rice balls), focaccia, and the ubiquitous square slices of pizza al taglio. Meals at eateries likePanella and Sbanco will only set you back between $8 and $20.
3. Mérida, Mexico
Skip the busy cruise ship ports of Cancún and Cozumel and experience the Yucatán Peninsula from its cultural capital: Mérida. This colonial city features broad central plazas where you’ll find locals catching up and playing music, historic churches such as the San Ildefonso Cathedral and homes that hide behind pastel-colored facades. It also boasts an impressive art scene. The Popular Art Museum showcases objects from around Mexico and the Museum of Anthropology and History, located in a Beaux Arts mansion, displays Mayan artifacts.
Don’t limit your visit to the city’s limits. Mérida is a perfect base for excursions into the region’s UNESCO-listed archaeological sites. Drive east and you’ll find Chichén Itzá, one of Mexico’s best-known ruins, where the 98-foot-high step pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan dominates the skyline. An hour south, see ornate stone carvings and the rounded sides of the towering Pyramid of the Magician at the less crowded site of Uxmal.
Be sure to swim in one of the area’s 6,000 freshwater sinkholes, known as cenotes, which were used as sacred wells by the Maya. Some can be found in another of the region’s gems: the Reserva de la Biósfera Ría Celestún, a 146,000-acre wildlife reserve that shelters mangrove forests, a huge flamingo colony, and sea turtles. If you’re lucky you might also catch a glimpse of an ocelot, jaguar, or spider monkey.
4. Xi’an, China
For millennia, China’s former capital city of Xi’an—once the endpoint for the Silk Road—has blended successive waves of cultures and flavors. “This long history of mixing has resulted in a roaring, modern city,” says Lonely Planet editor Megan Eaves.
Catch one such juxtaposition near the city’s 40-foot-tall Ming-era walls, which cast shadows on the 21st-century cafés and boutique hotels nearby. Rent a bike near the South (“Yongning”) Gate and spend an afternoon riding along the 600-year-old structure. You can also taste the sour soups and hand-pulled Biangbiang noodles found at street vendors and cafes throughout Xi’an.
A trip to Xi’an would not be complete without visiting the famous Terra-Cotta Army. A museum just outside the city center ($22 for adults in high season) walks visitors through the history of these 8,000 statues, as well as the 1974 excavation that unearthed them after 2,000 years.
To get here, fly into Xi’an Xianyang International Airport; Hopper says you can find good deals for around $631. Hotels in the city are, on average, far cheaper than the $157 a night found in Shanghai.
5. London, England
London dares you to be bored. “It is a financial and political center, a cultural icon, a food-lover’s paradise, a shopper’s heaven and a history-lover’s dream,” says Cliff Wilkinson, Lonely Planetdestination editor. And, of course, you can’t forget that legendary pub culture.
Never cheap, London does offer some savings for visitors this year: Hotel costs are down 3% year over year, Hotels.com found, and airfare has fallen a whopping 19%, according to Kayak. To pinch pounds during your trip, take full advantage of the city’s broad slate of free attractions. Visit the British Museum, National Gallery, Kensington Gardens, Victoria & Albert, Tate Modern, and more than a dozen other institutions for nothing. And you can avoid a pricey ride on the London Eye by taking in the free 360-degree city and Thames views at the Sky Garden, a glass-enclosed three-story-tall public garden (with terrace) at the top of a skyscraper the Brits call “the walkie-talkie.”
Two sites that are worth the cost of admission—at least for history buffs—are the Tower of London(about $30 for adults) which holds an infamous prison as well as the British crown jewels, and the Churchill War Rooms ($26 for adults). Tour the latter’s underground bunker to see where the Allied victory was plotted during World War II.
No trip to London would be complete without a stop at a local pub; have a pint (or four) while watching a game of “footy” or rugby. One historic option is the charmingly gloomy Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: Rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, its one of the city’s most famous pubs, having nourished Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. Wine drinkers can take in history at Gordon’s Wine Bar, thought to be London’s oldest wine bar. For more modern tipples, visit inventive cocktail bars Nightjar and Callooh Callay, or the 1940s Tube-themed bar, Cahoots.
6. Jeju Island, South Korea
South Koreans have been vacationing on Jeju for decades, but the wider world has only recently started to explore this volcanic island. The timing is right: hotel prices have tumbled by about 8%, reports Hotels.com, while flight costs (via stops in Seoul, Shanghai or other regional hubs) dropped almost 19% over the past year, according to Kayak.
Located 60 miles off South Korea’s southern coast, Jeju offers outdoor wonders, says Lonely Planet’s Megan Eaves. At the center of the island, Hallasan mountain soars above the surrounding national park(free admission). It’s the country’s highest peak, with six hiking trails that let you explore its walls. To the north is another remnant of the island’s geological past: Manjanggul Lava Tube, a 5-mile-long cavern littered with volcanic stalactites, shelves and bridges.
Jeju island’s relatively small size—it’s only about 20 miles wide—means the ocean is never far away, so fresh, local seafood is abundant. Some of that harvest is caught by the Haenyeo, traditional female divers who reach depths of more than 90 feet, often just holding their breath.
7. Mallorca, Spain
Famed largely for its beach clubs and nightlife, this Spanish island also offers sheltered beach coves and peaceful hill towns. “Even among the tourist swarms of mid-August you can find pockets of silence,” says Tom Stainer, a Lonely Planet destination editor. To get to the island, fly into the chic city of Palma, and spend some time exploring. Take in the imposing Catedral de Mallorca, then have lunch at Marc Fosh—the Michelin-starred chef’s namesake restaurant. A three-course meal of weekly specials, such as salmon and coffee panna cotta, will set you back less than $40.
Then go beyond the city limits: Stainer recommends visiting the nearby coves, trekking to hilltop monasteries, or cycling through the surrounding villages.
8. Tbilisi, Georgia
Sandwiched between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, Georgia sits at an ancient crossroads connecting Asia to Europe. Its capital, Tbilisi, beguiles travelers with its blend of medieval and modern: Colorful balconied houses and handsome churches perch on the the banks of the Mtkvari River, while the remains of the ancient Narikala fortress tower overhead. Stay in the Rooms Hotel ($208 on average), located in a former publishing house in the Vera neighborhood, to immerse yourself in the city’s blend of eras.
Outside the capital, explore the country’s long history of winemaking in the province of Kakheti, where vineyards abound. “This is a place where guests are considered blessings and hospitality is the very stuff of life,” says Lonely Planet’s Gemma Graham.
Singapore’s history and geography have created a cultural mashup: Mosques sit shoulder to shoulder with Hindu and Taoist temples; the island is home to four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil); and hawker food centers offer diverse, delicious options. Yet Singapore does have one unifying focus: Since the city-state started its “greening” campaign in 1963, it has made huge strides in turning what was once a concrete jungle back into a living tropical ecosystem. Take the Southern Ridges walk, a partially elevated trail, for views of Singapore’s blend of nature and skyscrapers. Or visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens, an extensive retreat that’s home to 1,000 different orchid species. You may recognize the Gardens by the Bay from Instagram: The park’s supertrees—tall structures that function as vertical gardens—light up at night, play music, and attract millions of visitors each year.
10. Granada, Nicaragua
With a central square dominated by its bright yellow cathedral, this colonial town offers picturesque cobbled streets, rainbow-colored houses with red-tile roofs, and views of the shores of Lake Nicaragua.Just offshore, meanwhile, lie the Islets of Granada: 365 small islands where you can kayak past monkeys and diverse birdlife. A couple miles west, the Laguna de Apoyo is another must-see: Its turquoise waters and laid-back lodges offer a “splendid natural respite,” says Lonely Planet‘s Alicia Johnson. More adventurous travelers should climb or ride up the 4,600-foot Volcán Mombacho, home to coffee plantations, walking trails, a butterfly sanctuary and hot springs.
With additional reporting by Sergei Klebnikov
This story has been updated to replace an out-of-date photo of Oklahoma City.