We take to the classic trails that still inspire travel novices and grizzled veterans to hit the road.

1. Istanbul to Cairo, Middle East

İstanbul has a foot on two continents, making it an ideal launch pad for the Middle East. This route works its way down through Turkey and into Syria, with an evocative bazaar at Aleppo and the spectacular city of Damascus. Head down to Jordan, pausing to admire the ruins of Petra and to float in the Dead Sea. Regardless of your faith, detouring to Jerusalem makes for a religious experience, then chill out with some Red Sea snorkelling. You'll need the relaxation to prepare for crowded Cairo, where a trip out to the pyramids is a requirement.

2. East Coast Australia

Many backpackers kick this trip off in Sydney, with its glammed up beaches and iconic bridge drawing their attention. Some might meander as far south as Melbourne, the so-called Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, with its cosmopolitan culture and European weather (its grey winter is infamous). But the more beaten-track trips north of Sydney, through hippy haven Byron Bay, which has awesome surf breaks. If you're collecting capitals stop off at Brisbane, but most continue to tropical Cairns, a jumping-off point for cruising the Great Barrier Reef, the coral-jewelled necklace that makes the most stunning adornment to this coast.

3. Banana Pancake Trail

Most Southeast Asia trips start in Bangkok's backpacker epicentre, Khao Sanh Rd, but hordes wander to the beaches of Ko Pha-Ngan or up-market Phuket. Many young travellers head to Cambodia's Siem Reap to gape at the ancient civilisations of Angkor Wat, before heading to Ho Chi Minh City and working their way north along Vietnam's coast to the majestic rock formations of Halong Bay. To get off the trail a little more head inland to Laos' capital, Vientiane, or elephant trek in Khao Yai National Park. Bangkok and Singapore are both hubs for airlines so there are often cheap flights out of these cities to many other places in Asia.

4. North Island to South Island, New Zealand

The trail begins in Auckland, where plenty of backpackers enjoy the party life, then heads down to Rotorua for the volcanic sights and hangi (traditional Maori feasting and performance). The route winds on through Lake Taupo, a good spot for skydiving and water sports. Then make for windy Wellington with its cafe culture and kooky Beehive (national parliament). From here you can hop across to the South Island for whale-watching in Kaikoura before heading for Queenstown, the base for exploring spectacular Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, or tearing up the scenic waterways in a jet-boat.

5. Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia

Once the route of the tsars, this 9289km stretch of track is becoming a backpacker must-do. The classic route starts on the coast in Vladivostok, rattling along to Moscow by way of the world's deepest lake, Baikal, or stopping at Yekaterinburg, where the Romanov line of tsars came to a bloody end. The railway ends at magnificent Moscow with its gold-domed churches and austere Red Square, though it's possible to go on to St Petersburg. For an alternative route, take the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing and explore the steppes of Mongolia before meeting the mainline just near Lake Baikal - in fact many Western travellers use this route given the awkwardness of reaching Vladivostok from most points. Or, if you're looking for a slightly quieter route to Beijing, there's the Trans-Manchurian line, which turns south east of Mongolia.

6. Route 66, USA

Few roads say Americana like this legendary gravel. While the name ceased to be used in 1985, young adventurers still pick up its path to see the best of the USA. It begins in Chicago, where you can catch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field; further on, see legendary blues in St Louis. Put your foot on the gas to hit Kansas, in the heartland of long flat plains. The road cuts through the Lone Star State of Texas, marking the halfway point with an epic junkyard sculpture. There's more cow poking in New Mexico then it's on to Arizona, boasting the longest uninterrupted stretch of the original route. California builds to the oasis of Los Angeles, with Hollywood and Rodeo Drive the climax of the trip.

7. Cape Town to Cairo

Ewan McGregor rode a motorbike north to south over most of this course to discover it was a Long Way Down, but this intrepid journey can begin or end in Cape Town. If starting at the bottom, head north into Botswana, where you can cruise the rivers to spot elephants in the Chobe National Park. Bear up into Tanzania, known for catch-it-while-you-can snowcapped Mt Kilimanjaro, or listen to the thundering of wildebeest across Serengeti National Park. Enjoy the serenity now – some of Africa's most difficult country lies ahead: Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan are all struggling with conflict. At the journey's end, Cairo promises the pyramids and a bustling city.

8. Gringo Trail, Peru

This popular loop links the country's biggest attractions. From upbeat capital Lima the trail traces the coast south to Paracas, where an excursion out to Islas Ballestas to spot penguins and sea lions is ideal. Toast Ica, Peru's wine and pisco (grape liquor) capital, then move on to Nazca to fly over the enigmatic Nazca lines. You can ascend to Arequipa, the 'white city' of colonial architecture, and continue to Puno, Peru's port on Lake Titicaca. Hop on a bus to Cuzco for the archaeological mecca of South America, then walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – or cheat and catch a train from Cuzco. From late May until early September, Machu Picchu's high season, 2500 people arrive at the site per day – the maximum number allowed.

9. Europe by music festival

Don't see Europe, hear it. Backpackers soak up the summer sun and sounds by driving a Kombi between their favourite gigs. The granddaddy of them all is the UK's Glastonbury, which has hosted big name rock acts plus comedy, circus and theatre since 1971. Another old-timer is Denmark's Roskilde, with a heavy-rocking slant, or get folked-up at Baltica, the international folk festival held in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Finland's World Air Guitar Championships always stuns. The sweet End of the Road Festival, also in the UK, is a low-key wind down with country-folk featuring strongly.

10. Silk Road

For centuries merchants have woven roads back and forth between China and Europe, each with their own secret path to transport silk, spices and other goods to markets faster. The modern road usually starts in China's Xi'an, home to the Terracotta Army of the Qin dynasty. It heads on to Urumqi, in China's wild west Xinjiang province, before splitting in two: one branch heading west into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and another heading south to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. In northwestern China, Dunhuang is an essential stop on the Silk Road and is known for the Mogao Caves, which hold religious artefacts from all along the ancient trading route.

This article was updated in Jan 2012.

For more inspiration from around the globe, check out Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences.

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