As 2012 winds down, I thought I would take a look back at some of the most memorable places I visited over the last year. From ancient castles and ruined churches to mountain villages and charming cities, my favorite destinations had a little of everything – and were each unique in their own way. Some may already be on your lists of favorites or must-see, while others may not even be on your radar. Either way, I consider them to be some of the top travel destinations.
Here we go – in chronological order:
Most of the ten days I spent in Warsaw were in 2011, but I did ring in 2012 in the Polish capital so figured I could include it on the list. Despite popular opinion insisting I should skip Warsaw and move on to Krakow, I was glad I stayed. I know it’s not really “old” since it was destroyed in World War II, but I still found Warsaw’s Old Town to be quaint and charming. The city was easy to navigate, the people were friendly and I was able to develop a much better understanding of the history of the war and its impact on the Polish people.
2. Grodno, Belarus
After visiting Grodno, I wrote about it being the cutest little town in Belarus. I only spent two days there, but I found myself continuously walking around thinking “omigosh, that’s so cute.” Close to the borders with Poland and Lithuania, Grodno feels a bit Polish and little Soviet influence remains. From its 12th century church to its sprawling parks, everything about Grodno charmed me.
3. Kamyanets Podilsky, Ukraine
Whenever I asked someone in Kiev where I should go when I headed to western Ukraine, the small town of Kamyanets Podilsky was always at the top of the list – and for good reason. Its setting is truly unique, with the old town perched high on a plateau overlooking the Smotrych River. The highlight, of course, is the city’s ancient castle, which dates back to the mid 14th century. Despite visiting in mid-February with temperatures below freezing, I had a great time wandering through the town and the castle. I would love to go back in the summer to explore some more.
4. Tbilisi, Georgia
How much did I love Tbilisi? Enough that I visited five separate times in 2012! Sure, some of those visits were short as I was passing through on my way to or from Armenia, but I grew very comfortable there. Of any city I visited in 2012, I could see myself living in Tbilisi. Like everywhere in Georgia, the food is amazing and the people are incredibly friendly. The city has a ton of character, with a cute old town, historic churches and a very attractive tree-lined main drag in Rustaveli Avenue. It is also convenient for seeing a lot of Georgia – I did easy day trips to Georgia’s first capital, Mtskheta, the cave monastery at Davet Gareja, the cave city of Uplistiskhe and Stalin’s hometown of Gori.
I spent six weeks in Armenia altogether and, despite a rough start, really fell in love with the country. I am sure it helped that I was volunteering in the capital city of Yerevan, so I had a chance to really get to know people and explore the country more in-depth than most tourists would. Through the Armenian Volunteer Corps, I was able to take weekend excursions to the beautiful Lake Sevan, the earthquake-ravaged town of Gyumri, and southern Armenia, where we visited the historic Tatev Monastery, stayed with families in the village of Tandzatap and stopped to see incredible rock formations in the town of Goris. I also made trips on my own to several of Armenia’s historic churches and monasteries – evidence of the fact that it was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion back in the early 4th century.
6. Amasya, Turkey
After a week in Istanbul, my first stop heading east toward Georgia was the town of Amasya. I think it is fair to say that this picturesque town set in a valley along the Yesilirmak River is not on the agenda for most first-time visitors to Turkey and that’s a shame – sort of. After the craziness of Istanbul, it was a relief to wander the streets of Amasya in peace. I saw no other tourists and was able to walk without the constant buzz of touts pushing me to buy something. Walking up to the ancient castle overlooking the city was a treat as the ruins were in far better condition than I expected and I had free reign to explore as much as I wanted. And while the weather didn’t quite cooperate when I went to visit the rock tombs built into a cliff above Amasya, they were pretty amazing as well.
7. Ani, Turkey
Having spent so much time in Armenia before visiting Turkey, Ani was at the top of my list of places to see when I got there. Ani was the ancient capital of Armenia – eastern Turkey today was once western Armenia. It was an easy day trip from the city of Kars and, while a bit expensive, was well worth it. Visiting Ani was like visiting an open air museum, but in Ani’s case, everything is still sitting in its original location. Few buildings have been restored – where walls have collapsed, piles of brick and stone still sit. Overall, it leaves a strong impression.
8. Shing, Tajikistan
Shing is a small village nestled among the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan, about 42 kilometers from Penjikent, the nearest major city. I lived with a family for two weeks, teaching English to twelve family members, ranging in age from 10 to 36. I spent my weekends hiking in the nearby mountains, enjoying some of the most dramatic scenery I had ever seen and getting to bond with some of the teenagers who accompanied me. While I definitely had my struggles, I got a true taste of village life and I’ll never forget the serene setting and how much the family embraced me.
Like Armenia, there was so much that was so amazing about Turkmenistan that I had to include the whole country on this list. From visiting the remote Yangykala Canyon to exploring the ruins of ancient Misrian to camping near the Darvaza Gas Crater, pretty much everything I did in Turkmenistan was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The country itself is far off the tourist trail, but I ventured even further off the beaten path, seeing places that most Turkmen will never visit and that some don’t even know exist. Add in the surreal capital city of Ashgabat and I was pretty much in awe for the entire ten days I was there.
10. Almaty, Kazakhstan
Arriving in Almaty after nearly a month in smaller towns and villages in Central Asia, I almost felt like I was back n Western Europe. It felt so clean and modern and had a vibe that kind of reminded me of my adopted hometown of Chicago. Tree-lined streets, a plethora of street food vendors and a fun pedestrian mall area were all highlights in a city that didn’t really have a ton of “must-sees.” Once the capital of Kazakhstan (until it was moved to Astana in recent years), Almaty was a great city to just wander aimlessly. It was also a great place to get a real American burger for the first in months!
11. Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Located on the far end of Lake Issyk Kul (but not actually on the shores), Karakol ended up being the town where I spent most of my time in Kyrgyzstan. It isn’t particularly attractive (although some of the wooden houses reminded me of the ones I saw in Irkutsk, Russia). But it has a lot of character and the location, with easy access to hiking in the nearby mountains, is superb. I spent time hiking in nearby Jeti Oghuz, meandering through the Sunday animal market and drinking vodka with the locals and had a blast the entire time. Ideally, I would have made it to Karakol a few weeks earlier as the weather was starting to get rainy and chilly in mid-September, but hey, that gives me a reason to go back!
12. Barcelona, Spain
And finally – Barcelona! I stopped in Barcelona on my way back to the United States at the end of my trip. It was my first visit there since 2003 and I had high expectations. The weather didn’t totally cooperate, but I did get to enjoy my fair share of tapas, take a delicious chocolate tour, learn more about Gaudi and Barcelona’s fascinating architecture and finally see the inside of La Sagrada Familia.
Where did you go in 2012? What was your favorite destination?