Best Life-Changing Trips
When you bump into giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies while strolling the sand, it’s no ordinary beach vacation. And the extraordinary is what visiting the Galapagos is all about. Spot unique species, snorkel with sea lions, hike a volcano—life as you know it seems very far away.
Transformative trips like following in Darwin’s footsteps expand your global perspective and prompt you to reevaluate what really matters. Some life-changing trips are about visiting an iconic place in person. Others make their impact through authentic experiences, local connections, and cultural insights.
“A person cannot have a trip of a lifetime unless they open their mind,” says Thomas Stanley, COO of luxury trip planner Cox & Kings, The Americas. “The most thrilling locations can fall flat without the willingness to be spontaneous. It is exceptional moments—seeing a cheetah being born, a true lifetime friendship being established across languages and cultures—that make travel great.”
On Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, for instance, you can base yourself at a working vineyard, indulge in ice cream topped with shaved truffles, meet with local winemakers, and learn how to properly taste olive oil—with the help of bespoke tour operator Tasteful Croatian Journeys. Travel companies can be instrumental in getting you insider access, but the right attitude toward the new and unknown is at least as important.
Katrina Garnett, a California-based entrepreneur who, with her family, has traveled to many of the spots on our list, adds that grand, once-in-a-lifetime trips “allow us to stretch, go beyond limits and face fears—or conquer them.” During one South American journey, one of her children faced his fear of heights during an Amazon ziplining experience—“and came back with a big grin, and no more fear of heights! Families that travel together develop lifelong bonds that don’t easily happen any other way.”
No matter what your reasons for traveling, our slideshow is sure to inspire at least one life-changing journey. Just bring your camera—and a willingness to let go.
Thrills Under and Above Cappadocia
Central Turkey’s Cappadocia region is known for mushroom- and anthill-shaped towers (“fairy chimneys”) and cave cities that housed ancient settlers. Visitors can approximate that experience by staying in a cave hotel; antique expert Omer Tosun filled the 30 converted-cave suites of his Museum Hotel with artifacts and flourishes like stone fireplaces. Marvel at painted medieval cave churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum, wander the passageways of the Kaymakli Underground City, and rise above it all on a hot-air balloon ride. Most include hotel pickup, a serene float over villages and vineyards, and a champagne toast.
Machu Picchu, Peru
By now, the idea of being inspired by Machu Picchu is practically cliché. But the reality is that this ancient site, improbably balanced on a green-carpeted ridge, still imbues a sense of wonder. No longer the overgrown lost city that explorer Hiram Bingham located a century ago this year, the ruins now draw visitors in droves by bus, train, and foot. Trekkers on the Inca Trail pass through the Intipunku (the Sun Gate) at sunrise, but head there when it clears out by late morning and you’ll be able to enjoy the landscape in peace. Get more insider advice for demystifying Machu Picchu.
Pedaling Through Provence
You can explore France’s wine and cheese hubs with a little less guilt—and a little more knowledge— by taking a gourmet biking tour of the countryside. Itineraries are available for both leisurely riders and budding Tour de Francers. Gourmet Cycling Travel leads a six-day journey through Provence that takes bikers over 2,000-year-old Roman bridges and through fields of lavender and thyme, with stops for wine and chocolate tastings, local market visits, and private château cooking classes.
Ruins and Renewal in Jordan
Important ruins and religious sites, Dead Sea healing spas, and desert landscapes can all be found in Jordan. And thanks to the country’s compact size, visitors can easily fit all these experiences into one trip. From the eco-chic Evason Ma’In Resort & Spa (next to healing hot springs in use since the time of King Herod), you can explore the pink-hued ruins at Petra, float among the minerals of the Dead Sea, ride a camel through Lawrence of Arabia’s old stomping ground—and even overnight in a bedouin tent.
The Rocky Mountains by Train
Mix cushy train travel, gourmet food, and sweeping views of the majestic Rockies, and you’ve got an experience that’s topped many travel industry “best of” lists. On trips that last anywhere from 2 to 25 days, Rocky Mountaineer trains—with glass-domed coaches and white-glove service—chug along past the glaciers, lakes, and limestone mountains of the Canadian Rockies. At night, you’ll unpack in spots like Vancouver, Kamloops, and Jasper National Park.
Mysteries Deep in the Amazon
Small-ship Amazon cruises allow for a closer look at the diverse ecology of the world’s second-largest river, which winds its way through parts of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Many offer the chance to kayak, hike in the jungle, and spot wildlife, and some are even staffed by naturalists and environmental experts. Aqua Expeditions offers three-, four-, and seven-night sailings that include visits to estuaries, backwater lakes, and hidden villages.
Wine Tasting in Napa Valley, CA
Even though every state in the U.S. produces wine, California’s iconic grape-growing valley remains the ne plus ultra for travelers in search of rustic-luxe hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, and cult wineries. Arrive during the fall harvest or in early spring for fewer crowds. Fuel up with brioches at Bouchon Bakery and then start your tastings at Gargiulo Vineyards. Check out master sommelier Gilles de Chambure’s top picks for the ultimate Napa itinerary.
Sailing Past the Pharaohs’ Greatest Sites
Egypt’s political structure may be evolving, but the allure of its ancient civilization remains constant. Start in Giza at the Great Pyramids, then catch a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan to hit the Valley of the Kings (site of King Tut’s tomb), the Temple of Edfu, and the twin temple at Kom Ombo. Oberoi’s seven-night Zahra luxury cruise features talks by Egyptologists and private temple tours, while Gap Adventures’ affordable eight-day trip includes the major sites, plus unforgettable cultural experiences such as dinner in a Nubian village and sails on a felucca.
Local Flavors on Cape Breton Island
Irish, Acadian, Scottish, African, and native Mi’Kmaq cultures come together on this island off the tip of Nova Scotia. Settle into one of the houses that dot the headlands: stone cottages, restored schoolhouses, or Munroe Point Lighthouse, a former home that comes with its own private (nonfunctioning) lighthouse. During the day, hike the forests, chill on the beach, or drive the coastal Cabot Trail; at night, tuck into seafood chowder or fresh lobster, then head to a ceilidh—a music and dance gathering—at Rollie’s Wharf in the port of North Sydney.
Pioneering Adventures in Mongolia
Few places feel more far-flung than Mongolia; after all, this central Asian country borders Siberia, which is pretty much shorthand for “edge of the world.” Travelers can climb to petroglyphs in the Gobi Desert, visit the spot where the first dinosaur eggs were discovered, photograph reindeer, and meet with Kazakh hunters and their magnificent golden eagles. Nomadic Expeditions puts together both adventure- and culture-focused itineraries for northern, central, and western Mongolia, as well as the Gobi, that often include overnights in their award-winning eco-lodge.
Game Viewing in Tanzania and Kenya
In Hemingway’s day, safaris followed game across the terrain, setting up camps along the way. Today’s mobile safaris channel that same spirit: Micato Safaris plans some of the best tours, including a Tanzania and Kenya trip that travels from the rhino-filled foothills of Mount Kenya to the grasslands of the Masai Mara, where giraffes parade through the savannah and balloon rides soar above. Check out five more safari experiences.
Creatures and Comforts on an Antarctica Cruise
Antarctica’s fragile icebergs and breathtaking wildlife put the destination on many a life list. But new environmental rules have limited the number of cruise ships, making your choice trickier than ever. One of the newest vessels on the market, Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal impresses intellectuals keen on creatures—and creature comforts. Renowned mammal biologist Larry Hobbs leads the handpicked expedition crew. Here are three more of the best Antarctica cruise options.
Mosaic Masterpieces in Ravenna, Italy
Once you’ve relived the Renaissance at the Uffizi, scoped out the various Davids, and paid homage to the Last Supper, it’s time to hunt down lesser-known masterpieces. In Ravenna, a city filled with the world’s most exquisite mosaics, the fifth-century mausoleum stands out. Sunlight streaming through alabaster windows illuminates a golden cascade of early-Christian images, including bowls of blue water sipped by white doves. Check out eight more Italian art discoveries, from north to south.
Royal Treatment in Rajasthan
The Maharajas’ Express, one of the newest luxury trains to enter India’s market, includes sightseeing in Udaipur, tiger-spotting in Ranthambore National Park, and a visit to the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges. Along the way, sip Indian wines in The Rajah Club car and watch village life pass by. Cox & Kings, which operates the train, also offers add-ons like journeys to the beaches and temples of South India, or entire themed itineraries dedicated to exploring textiles or regional cuisine.
Beach Adventure in Tasmania, Australia
In a country bounded by 31,000 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise that beaches are the ace in Oz’s deck. For nature lovers, the beach to visit is Wineglass Bay, Tasmania, where you can go in search of Tasmanian devils and wallabies in their natural habitat. Unpack at the Saffire Freycinet resort; athletic guides will lead you on a two-hour hike to the bay. Check out five top Australian beaches, from far-flung hideaways to see-and-be-seen spots.
48 Hours in Old-Meets-New Beijing
Beijing may have evolved into a glittering symbol of China’s outsize ambitions, but pockets of authenticity remain. Seek out places like Courtyard, where you can dine in a Ch’ing dynasty courtyard house, and then visit the nearby Donghuamen night market for a glimpse into Beijing’s grittier side. “You’ll find stalls selling roasted cicadas and fried scorpions,” says activist turned novelist Lijia Zhang. She designed a two-day Beijing tour of her top picks.
An Artisanal Feast Around Istria
With the same Mediterranean climate as parts of Italy and France—but relatively less developed and more wallet-friendly—Croatia’s Istria peninsula is attracting winemakers and chefs who aren’t afraid of taking chances. Base yourself at a vineyard like that of upscale producer Meneghetti, and set out to try lush red Terans and fruity Malvasia whites and indulge in everything from pasta to ice cream topped with shaved truffles. NYC-based Wanda Radetti of Tasteful Croatian Journeys plans itineraries that might include meetings with winemakers, a slow-food meal in a converted olive press, visits to hilltop towns, and a personal driver and guide.
Wildlife Expeditions in the Galapagos
Snorkel with sea lions and get up-close with blue-footed boobies in this protected eco-paradise. A small-ship cruise like Country Walker’s 10-day journey aboard the 32-passenger M/V Evolution makes it easy to visit hidden beaches and coves, hike a dormant volcano, and search out penguins and marine iguanas. Or try the company’s unique weeklong land-based trip; guests overnight on three different islands and have more flexibility to explore the natural wonders and local communities.
Three Perspectives on Victoria Falls
You may have spotted big game on an African safari, but their power pales in comparison with roaring Victoria Falls, the largest in the world. You can begin your day by admiring the view from The Royal Livingstone hotel along the banks of the Zambezi River within Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Approach the site on foot—the hotel is just a short stroll from the park’s entrance—and finally get a true sense of its scope by taking an unforgettable helicopter ride. You’ll appreciate why locals described the falls as “smoke that thunders.”
Soaking Up Argentina’s Lake District
In northwestern Patagonia, Blue Parallel coordinates custom trips that both highlight the Lake District’s natural bounty and bring its culture to life. Combine heady experiences like chef- and sommelier-led picnics overlooking the Argentine steppe, private outdoor concerts, hiking in the forests around Bariloche, “floating cocktails” by kayak, and a visit to the studio of artist Juan Lascano—who draws inspiration from the area’s waterfalls, pine forests, and snowy peaks.