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Lonely Planet Writer

Best in Travel 2016: top 10 countries

Roll up, roll up – we're ready to pull back the curtain on our top 10 must-see countries for 2016. Make these irresistible places part of your travel plans next year as they take a turn in the limelight.

A boat trip in the Okavango Delta, Botswana © PlusONE / Shutterstock
A boat trip in the Okavango Delta, Botswana © PlusONE / Shutterstock

1. Botswana

Democratic, progressive, enlightened – but above all, invigoratingly wild. The story of Botswana’s journey from poverty to become one of Africa’s most stable, thriving societies is inspirational; the country celebrates 50 years of independence in 2016 and there’s a lot for it to shout about, not least the way it has balanced economic growth with protecting its natural riches. Prepare for a severe case of slack-jawed-with-awe syndrome when you visit.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan © Pigprox / Shutterstock
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan © Pigprox / Shutterstock

2. Japan

Japan. It might be number two in this year’s rankings, but it’s always number one for travellers in search of an otherworldly experience. Nowhere else on earth exemplifies that dog-eared ‘modern yet ancient’ cliche like the land of the rising sun. Tokyo’s successful bid to host the Olympics in 2020 has raised the temperature of a feverish city amid a blur of new development, but beyond the suburbs Japan remains as elegant and enticing as its graceful wooden temples.

The Grand Prismatic Spring in America's Yellowstone National Park © Lorcel / Shutterstock
The Grand Prismatic Spring in America's Yellowstone National Park © Lorcel / Shutterstock

3. USA

The ‘best idea’ America ever had turns 100 next year – the National Park Service, which oversees the country’s 59 national parks and hundreds of historic landmarks, celebrates a centenary of safeguarding Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, Zion, and the rest. So lace up your hiking boots and set foot in the miraculously well-managed 340,000 sq km network of surreal and spectacular landscapes it defends, from earth-rending canyons to alligator-infested swamplands to belching geysers. It’s a national triumph.

The Republic of Palau's famous Jellyfish Lake © BlueOrange Studio / Shutterstock
The Republic of Palau's famous Jellyfish Lake © BlueOrange Studio / Shutterstock

4. Palau

Palau is unquestionably one of the most magical diving and snorkelling destinations in the world – and it’s fighting to stay that way. This far-flung Pacific archipelago has turned 100% of its marine territory into a sanctuary in a bid to protect what has been dubbed a ‘Serengeti’ of the sea. Excessive face mask-wearing might leave you with a temporary red mark, but the fish, coral and other critters in these nutrient-rich waters will leave you truly goggle-eyed.

Medieval buildings in old Riga city, Latvia © Sergel / Shutterstock
Medieval buildings in old Riga city, Latvia © Sergel / Shutterstock

5. Latvia

It’s taken Latvia 25 years to shrug off the fetters of Communism, but this Baltic treasure looks ready to shine for its silver anniversary. The country is resuscitating ancient traditions, restoring crumbling castles and manor houses hidden in its pine forests, and transforming its once stodgy cuisine into cutting-edge New Nordic fare. Seductive Riga, meanwhile, has built on its reign as a European Capital of Culture with improved infrastructure and a round of renovations as its population continues to grow.

Aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef © atiger / Shutterstock
Aerial view of Australia's Great Barrier Reef © atiger / Shutterstock

6. Australia

The strength of the Aussie dollar over recent years has made a trip to Australia a tough proposition for travellers on a budget. But with the currency faltering and petrol prices also on the slide, 2016 could be the perfect time for a road trip. You’ll want to gawp at the mega sights, naturally, including the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania’s pristine wilderness, both of which face growing environmental threats. See them now before compromises are made.

A panoramic view of Wroclaw, Poland © joyfull / Shutterstock
A panoramic view of Wroclaw, Poland © joyfull / Shutterstock

7. Poland

Recession-defying Poland has superpowers – while the rest of Europe descended into the doldrums, visitor numbers here climbed and there’s no end to the boom in sight as Wrocław prepares for a stint as European Capital of Culture 2016. Kraków will have a turn in the limelight too when the Pope arrives to celebrate World Youth Day, and new air routes to Kraków, Szczecin, Katowice, and Gdańsk means this is a destination on the rise.

A sculpture on the beach in Punta del Este, Maldonado, Uruguay © Ksenia Ragarina / Shutterstock
A sculpture on the beach in Punta del Este, Maldonado, Uruguay © Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock

8. Uruguay

An estimated three million foreign visitors will arrive in Uruguay next year – but it’s a wonder it isn’t more when you grasp what the ‘Switzerland of America’ has to offer. Sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has unfussily become a progressive society that boasts a small but perfectly formed capital in Montevideo, pampas where you can act out a gaucho (cowboy) fantasy, and nightlife on sea amid the glamour of Punta del Este. Expect that three million to rise.

A tourist admiring wonderful views of Qeqertarsuaq, a small town in Greenland © Yongyut Kumsri / Shutterstock
A tourist admiring wonderful views of Qeqertarsuaq, a small town in Greenland © Yongyut Kumsri / Shutterstock

9. Greenland

Greenland has the world’s lowest population density, but those that brave this chilly chunk of the planet are not short of diversions: see the midnight sun glimmer on glaciers, sail among breaching whales, dogsled the tundra, watch the Northern Lights dance across the ice sheet... In March 2016, Greenland will host the Arctic Winter Games, the largest event of its kind ever, along with a festival of song, food and dance. What better time to visit this Arctic wonderland?

A wooden jetty extending to the tropical seas of Fiji ©  Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock
A wooden jetty extending to the tropical seas of Fiji ©  Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock

10. Fiji

Listen up: the route to paradise just became a little easier. Pleasure-loving Fiji has recovered its equilibrium at last after a coup and constitutional crisis, and travellers will soon benefit from an upgrade to the country’s Nadi International Airport. So what will it be, then? Idle at an upscale resort, try the latest extreme sport, or focus on the classic pursuits of diving, sailing and angling as you soak up what this tropical archipelago has to offer.

Now find out which cities and regions made Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2016 list – or see our most recent recommendations.