With its idyllic beaches, postcard-worthy sunsets, and incredible turquoise waters filled with abundant marine life, French Polynesia’s Society Islands (most notably Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Taha’a) attract the majority of the region’s visitors. Yet there’s all this – and more – to discover in these halcyon isles.
Scattered like dabs of possibility on an adventurer’s palette, the Bahamas are ready-made for exploration. Just ask Christopher Columbus, he bumped against these limestone landscapes in 1492 and changed the course of history.
Brazil, a vast South American country, stretches from the Amazon Basin in the north to vineyards and massive Iguaçu Falls in the south. Rio de Janeiro, symbolized by its 38m Christ the Redeemer statue atop Mount Corcovado, is famed for its busy Copacabana and Ipanema beaches as well as its enormous, raucous Carnaval festival, featuring parade floats, flamboyant costumes and samba music and dance.
The United Arab Emirates is an Arabian Peninsula nation settled mainly along the Persian Gulf that was formed from 7 sheikhdoms. Dubai is the site of ultramodern Burj Khalifa tower, enormous shopping centers and extravagant attractions, such as the indoor Ski Dubai. Abu Dhabi, the island capital, is home to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with crystal chandeliers and room for 41,000 worshipers.
Sweden is a Scandinavian nation of thousands of coastal islands, inland lakes, forests and mountains. Its principal cities, eastern capital Stockholm and southwestern Gothenburg and Malmö, are all on the sea. Stockholm is home to royal palaces, parkland and museums such as open-air Skansen. Its 13th-century old town, Gamla Stan, is set on islands joined by bridges and ferries.
Switzerland is a mountainous Central European country, home to numerous lakes, villages and the high peaks of the Alps. Old Towns within its cities contain medieval landmarks like capital Bern’s Zytglogge clock tower and Cathedral of Bern. The country is also a destination for its ski resorts and hiking trails. Banking and finance are key industries, and Swiss watches and chocolate are renowned.
The Czech Republic, in Central Europe, is known for its ornate castles, native beers and long history – from the Celtic and Germanic tribes of its founding to the Protestant Reformation and Communism. Prague, the capital, is home to a 9th-century castle, preserved medieval Old Town and statue-lined Charles Bridge. Ceský Krumlov is a living gallery of Renaissance-era buildings housing restaurants and shops.
Spain, on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, is really 17 autonomous regions, each with its own geography and culture. The capital, Madrid, is home to the Royal Palace and singular Prado museum, housing works by European masters, and Segovia to the north has a fairy-tale medieval castle and Roman aqueduct. Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona, is defined by Antoni Gaudí’s quirky modernist architecture, including the Sagrada Família basilica.
France, in Western Europe, encompasses medieval and port cities, tranquil villages, mountains and Mediterranean beaches. Paris, its capital, is known worldwide for its couture fashion houses, classical art museums including the Louvre and monuments like the Eiffel Tower. The country is also renowned for its sophisticated cuisine and its wines. Lascaux’s ancient cave drawings, Lyon’s Roman theater and the immense Palace of Versailles are testaments to its long history.
Finland is a Northern European nation bordering Sweden and Russia. Its capital, Helsinki, sits on a peninsula and coastal islands in the Baltic Sea, and is home to the 18th-century fortress Suomenlinna, the Seurasaari open-air museum and a neoclassical cathedral. The Northern Lights can be seen from its Arctic Lapland province, also home to the country’s main ski resorts
Denmark is a country comprising the Jutland peninsula and its offshore islands, linking Northern Europe and Scandinavia via the Öresund bridge. On Zealand, the capital, Copenhagen is home to the rococo Frederiksstaden district and its royal palaces, Tivoli pleasure gardens and the “Little Mermaid” statue. On neighboring Funen is Odense, storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown, with a medieval core of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses.
Germany is a Western European country with a terrain of vast forests, rivers and mountain ranges, and 2 millennia of history. Berlin, its capital, is home to thriving art and nightlife scenes, iconic Brandenburg Gate and many sites relating to WWII. Munich is known for its Oktoberfest and cavernous beer halls, including 16th-century Hofbräuhaus. Frankfurt, with its skyscrapers, houses the European Central Bank.
The Netherlands, a country in northwestern Europe, is known for its flat landscape, canals, tulip fields, windmills and cycling routes. Amsterdam, the capital, is home to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, the house where Jewish diarist Anne Frank hid during WWII and a red light district. Canalside mansions and a trove of works from artists including Rembrandt and Vermeer remain from the 17th-century "Golden Age."
Iceland, a Nordic island nation, is defined by its dramatic volcanic landscape of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and black-sand beaches. The capital, Reykjavik, home to the majority of the population, runs on geothermal power and offers a renowned nightlife scene as well as Viking history museums. The glaciers in Vatnajökull and Snæfellsnes national parks are popular for ice climbing, hiking and snowmobiling.
Italy, commanding a long Mediterranean coastline, has left a powerful mark on Western culture and cuisine. Its capital, Rome, is home to the Vatican as well as landmark art and ancient ruins. Other major cities include Florence, with Renaissance treasures such as Michelangelo’s "David" and its leather and paper artisans; Venice, the sinking city of canals; and Milan, Italy’s fashion capital.