It’s funny how there are countries in the world that seem to tick (almost) everyone’s boxes and draw crowds every year. The World Tourism Organization released a report based on pre-COVID-19 pandemic statistics and revealed that the world’s 10 most visited countries received 40% of arrivals globally.
On top ? France. But there are other interesting and perhaps surprising contenders in the top 10 spots.
I had the chance to visit all the major countries listed in the report (PDF), and even lived in three of them. Here I want to look at the three most popular sites from each country, tracking the number of visitors posted, but also adding my own suggestions – starting with country number one and working down to number 10.
France is well ahead of other countries with some 89 million annual visitors, but that’s hardly surprising, as France seems to be one of those places that almost everyone loves. After all, there are incredible coastlines, snow-capped mountains, wine, food, ancient history, countless castles and, of course, Paris. Top 3 must-haves? In my mind, it’s Paris, still in the running with London for the title of the most visited city in Europe; Provence with its soft hues, cozy countryside and Mediterranean atmosphere; and the Loire with its magnificent castles.
Pro Tip: France, like Italy, is a perfect country to explore on a road trip. Settle into Paris and drive, north, south, west, and don’t forget the east – a car is a great way to see the little sites along the way.
Spain, with 83 million visitors, comes second, making them two European countries in the top two places. Spain, much like France, offers a range of landscapes, from long beaches to mountain ranges, big cities and lots of amazing history. The number one tourist spot is in what is probably my favorite Spanish city, Barcelona. This is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, which after 150 odd years is still unfinished, but is getting more and more magnificent every year. Second is the fabulous La Alhambra in Granada and, if you love art, there is of course the Prado in Madrid. But personally, I would choose the Guggenheim in the charming Basque town of Bilbao because it offers a great little vacation package.
Pro Tip: One of the big attractions is Spain’s many fiestas, but plan carefully because, although a parade or fireworks display always adds to the holiday, shops and attractions often remain closed for days during and around the holidays. festive periods.
3. United States of America
The United States follows in third place with 80 million international visitors per year. According to my favorite destination in the United States, New York, the most visited public tourist site in the United States is Times Square, which receives an incredible 50 million visitors each year. The next most visited site is not too far away, in Central Park. But while there are so many natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon and other national parks, the third most visited destination in the United States is actually Las Vegas, even beating the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California. . You can’t argue with the stats, but one of the sites I most want to see is The Wave in Arizona.
Pro Tip: The United States is another country that lends itself to epic and iconic road trips, taking your time and exploring off the beaten path.
There is a sharp drop in numbers between third and fourth place, with China receiving “only” 63 million annual visitors. And for such a large country, it’s hard to choose what to see first. My personal favorites of sites I’ve seen before, like the Great Wall, coincide with the statistics, as does my second favorite, the Forbidden City in Beijing. But I still haven’t managed to join the Terracotta Army in Xian. My next favorite place is Hong Kong. Is it China? Officially, yes, but I still consider it a separate entity. Either way, if you’re in China, missing out on the thrill of Hong Kong would be a shame.
Pro Tip: When visiting China, take a long trip and see as much as you can in one go, or use transit visa options for brief layovers and small bites of China.
Back in Europe, and with 62 million visitors, Italy comes in fifth place, something that surprises me quite a bit, because what’s not to love about Italy? The countryside, the history, the language and the gastronomy? Tuscany, Venice and Rome? All perfection, in my mind. To be a little more precise, the Colosseum in Rome, the Duomo in Florence and the Grand Canal in Venice occupy the first places of the sites to see in Italy. I can’t argue with these amazing sights, but what I love most about Italy is road tripping through Tuscany, preferably in a convertible, stopping at small villages, tasting local wine and eating too much pasta – enjoying the little things rather than the big sights.
Pro tips: Italy is an ideal country for an extended stay on a small budget. Come out of season, early September is perfect, and stay in a villa in Tuscany, or slightly less expensive Umbria. Rent a tiny Italian car and explore the surroundings. Food and wine are cheap, the sun is free, so what more could you ask for?
It is quite surprising that Turkey receives “only” 46 million visitors per year because it is such a versatile country. The beaches are hugely popular with Europeans and Istanbul is quite simply one of the greatest cities in the world when it comes to history, architecture and stunning natural surroundings. Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s most visited site is in Istanbul, the charming Hagia Sophia. However, it is sadly now without the resident cat, Gli, who has entertained visitors for years. The ancient Roman city of Ephesus, south of Izmir, is a close second, while magical Cappadocia, with its White Mountains best viewed from a hot air balloon, is also a must visit.
Mexico is very similar to Turkey in that there is a decision to be made about whether you go for historical tours or beach vacations. If you look at the most searched phrases on Google, “beach breaks” seem to be the top favorites, with searches for “all-inclusive resorts” and “Cancun” reaching the top spots. Personally, I like a mix of the two and loved a visit to the always popular Cancun, as well as visits to Chichen Itza and other nearby temples. But first place? About 41 million annual tourists love the Teotihuacan Pyramids, which are so easily accessible from the bustling capital.
Pro Tip: Despite a rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, the toilets marked with a M threw me first. It means womenas in women, it is not M for men. Good to know if you’re ever in a hurry.
Germany is another very diverse country, with mountainous Bavaria to the south, and a more water-oriented north. The most visited attraction is the Rhine Valley, where river cruises pass the many castles and vineyards along the way. Some 39 million tourists explore Germany each year, closely followed by the bustling capital of Berlin and its attractions. Being from Hamburg in the north, I always recommend a visit to the port city, but I also recommend a visit to the many fairy tale towns, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which never disappoint.
Pro Tip: Don’t worry too much about getting your tongue around the German language. The vast majority of Germans speak excellent English.
The second Asian competitor in the top 10 is Thailand, with 38 million visitors. The top rated tourist spots in Thailand include the temples of Bangkok, Chiang Mai in the north and, of course, the fabulous beaches, such as those in Krabi Province or on the many islands.
Pro Tip: Thailand is a definite contender for a multi-stop vacation. Bangkok airport is the main hub to fly to, so might as well stay a few days to look around. Then, continue on internal jumps to the north and end on a southern beach to let all the cultural impressions soak in as you please.
10. United Kingdom
The UK only slips into the top 10, welcoming 36 million visitors a year, although this is 53 million less than France. Must-sees include London, because you’ll probably get there anyway. Then the main sights become more country related, exploring the Cotswolds and the Roman spa town of Bath, Stonehenge ranking first, heading north into Scotland and passing through Yorkshire en route.
Pro Tip: If other countries lend themselves to road trips, the UK practically claims it. Picturesque and quintessentially English villages are found only off the main roads and outside the main towns. There are a plethora of routes to choose from.