Where in the world should two best friends go on vacation?
January 24, 2014 9:59 PM   Subscribe

Two women in our mid-20's with some international travel experience. No specific budget or length of time designated yet - more info on that inside. Multi-country or multi-city definitely an option. History, art, and food are of interest.

I am willing to put up about $2k in funds but am not sure about her yet. I will pay for her airfare, at the very least. I'd like to get a little more bang for my buck and be able to see and do a lot rather than see an expensive location on a shoestring budget.

We are in the very early stages of planning but are looking at going maybe late this year or sometime next year in the spring or summer. Timeframe is also not solid, but for the sake of scale, say we're looking at 5-10 days. We are both currently located in Houston, TX.

We are fairly streetwise, but safety is still an overall concern. Locations with poor treatment of women or that would just be downright risky are out.

We are not interested in outdoorsy type vacations (walking around and sightseeing outdoors is fine; camping, skiing, surfing, and so on are not high interest), beach-centric vacations, or cruises.

Almost the whole world is open for consideration, but international travel that we may be less likely to be able to do in the future than going somewhere in the continental US or Mexico is of higher interest. Despite really excellently meeting the art/history/food interests, Italy & France are out.

We both speak some Spanish already, but would be willing to pick up some other basic language skills if necessary.

So MeFites: Where should we go? Anywhere (non-obvious) we should avoid?
posted by jorlyfish to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Buenos Aires
posted by superfille at 10:15 PM on January 24, 2014

Belize is beautiful and has tons of natural beauty and cultural experiences, though I'm not super familiar with the art scene there. It's relatively untouristy for Central America, and felt incredibly safe (I was there with my mom and aunt when I was in my 20's).
posted by guster4lovers at 10:16 PM on January 24, 2014

Best answer: Austria/Germany/Czech Republic/Hungary is one of the best options that comes to mind.

I also highly recommend South Korea.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:32 PM on January 24, 2014

Best answer: Buenos Aires only if you're interested in dressing up every moment. It's one of the dressiest places on the planet, and you'll feel really out of place in casual ware.

Strong recommendation for Seville, with a side trip to Grenada to see the Al Hambra (I'm not usually one for touristy destinations, but the Al Hambra is something you'll never forget). Seville is urban enough to be jam packed with great walking, eating, culture, but small enough to be very low crime and hassle. Tapas each afternoon with cocktails, dovetailing into late dinner. Super laid back. Really feels like "Spain" - in fact, sections are pretty untouched since Medieval times. Warm and sunny. Food is absolutely incredible (the locals have no patience for mediocre food), and cheap (so long as you don't opt for luxe, which is a small and little-discussed part of the dining scene). Check out this site to get in the mood.

Finally, Spanish is spoken more slowly there (this is the south; everything's slow) than Caribbean and South American, so you're more likely to understand.

Negative is Spanish machismo (this is the south), but it should be less of an issue here than in Italy and South America. Nothing dangerous, just potentially pestery, but you know about that.

Me-mail me if you want more specific tips/info (I've been there a lot). I'll try to check back here as well.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:47 PM on January 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was going to say Barcelona, but Quisp Lover makes a damn good case for Seville.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:51 PM on January 24, 2014

Seoul, Taipei, or Kyoto & Osaka might be nice.
posted by wintersweet at 10:54 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pretentious, have you been to Barcelona lately? It's become Cancun for 20-year-olds. Overrun by American kids with loud partying and techno music, while the locals grimly cringe their way through the economic crisis. Not pretty, and I speak as someone who's considered Barcelona my second home for decades.

It was a great town if you were open to Catalan culture (and in-your-face Catalan nationalism). But Seville really feels like SPAIN (and not one Catalan I know would argue that!).
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:16 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry for another posting, but I think this is useful (to OP and to others who may find this thread).

One downside of Seville is that you'd have to fly into Madrid, which is quite far. There is a cool high-speed train, but it's a complicated and sweaty series of connections to get between the train and the airport in Madrid.


Seville has a small airport that doesn't receive flights from the US, but feeds to much of Europe via some super low-budget airlines. So you can easily tack on a side flight to Tangiers, London, or anywhere for a very small amount of money....and then go home from there.

The wave of low-budget carriers at smaller airports makes smaller cities like Seville particularly attractive destinations.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:27 PM on January 24, 2014

(P. S. For 5-10 days you don't need to know any Korean/Chinese/Japanese if you choose Korea, Taiwan, or Japan. Before I studied Japanese we did a nearly month-long honeymoon in Japan with only travel guide phrases, and I went to Korea in September not speaking any non-food-Korean. It was fine, though I did wind up speaking Japanese once during an awkward moment...)
posted by wintersweet at 12:31 AM on January 25, 2014

As an American woman living in Seville, I think it hits all your requirements: the highlights of the city revolve around eating, visiting museums, eating, visiting old buildings, and eating. (Added bonus if you like good red wine, watery beer, or ham.) Also, from Seville you have easy access to Córdoba, Granada, and the rest of Andalucía. 5-10 days sounds like the perfect amount of time to spend in southern Spain.

It's very safe, and the only time I've been pestered on the street has been during Semana Santa, when all the drunk tourists (and those who hope to prey upon the drunk tourists) descend on the city like locusts. (And even then, it was just random dudes trying to speak English with me -- in contrast with Madrid, where I get cat-called on a regular basis.) There's a super-developed tourism infrastructure, but if you already speak some Spanish, it'll be even easier! Seville's main drawback is its awful summer heat, but if you're coming from Texas, you should be fine. However, your $2K will probably be eaten up with the cost of transatlantic airfare for two in the spring/summer. If you're not interested in a "shoestring" budget, I'd recommend budgeting more money or choosing somewhere closer in South America.

One downside of Seville is that you'd have to fly into Madrid, which is quite far. There is a cool high-speed train, but it's a complicated and sweaty series of connections to get between the train and the airport in Madrid.

There are two direct connections between Barajas airport and Atocha train station (where the high-speed AVE train departs): you can catch the yellow airport shuttle for 5€ or take a local commuter cercanías train for 2.50€. Both take about 30-40 minutes. The AVE train itself takes two and a half hours to reach Seville and is extremely nice.

(Other places I'd recommend: I speak no German, but I love going to Germany; Berlin and Munich are amazing, amazing cities full of awesome architecture, beautiful parks, and wonderful beer.)
posted by cabezadevaca at 3:00 AM on January 25, 2014

$2000 for round trip flights for two people is going to take up 100% of your budget if you're flying to Europe or Asia.

You can stretch a lot further if you fly to central or South America, I think. Unfortunately, travel anywhere there requires a certain amount of risk. Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Ecuador or Peru seem like the best options based on your restrictions, but if you're willing to be a little more adventurous, Guatemala or Nicaragua.
posted by empath at 3:34 AM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Its funny - Spain and Japan are I think the two places in the world that absolutely crush your requirements and that's where people are pointing you. I think given your budget Spain is a better choice. Madrid and Andalucia (incl Sevilla) - go before June. Just great combinations of history art and food. Especially if France and Italy are out.

Japan once you get there (especially with the Yen weakness) isn't much more expensive than the US - the issue is airfare
posted by JPD at 3:41 AM on January 25, 2014

I second (or third) Spain, but I'm partial to the upper half of the country - start in Madrid, move on to Barcelona, wrap things up in San Sebastian. If you choose this option, let me know and I'll offer up an itinerary complete with hotel, restaurant, and sightseeing suggestions!

(As for getting from the Madrid airport to the train station for a trip south to Seville ... you could just take a cab from one place to the other and avoid the "complicated and sweaty series of connections" mentioned above.)

[Here's another idea: England-Scotland-Wales?]
posted by tmharris65 at 3:41 AM on January 25, 2014

realistically you should be able to tag on round trip flights anywhere in Spain onto your trip for a nominal fee. Ironically once you are one stopping somewhere it is a much more competitive market.

Like right now its 130 bucks roundtrip more to go to Sevilla through Madrid vs 150 EUR to take the train - not including the cost of the transfer.
posted by JPD at 8:14 AM on January 25, 2014

I was going to say Korea, but there's no way you'll get two round trip tickets on your budget. :(
posted by kathrynm at 8:17 AM on January 25, 2014

I said:
One downside of Seville is that you'd have to fly into Madrid, which is quite far. There is a cool high-speed train, but it's a complicated and sweaty series of connections to get between the train and the airport in Madrid.

cabezadevaca said:
There are two direct connections between Barajas airport and Atocha train station (where the high-speed AVE train departs): you can catch the yellow airport shuttle for 5€ or take a local commuter cercanías train for 2.50€. Both take about 30-40 minutes. The AVE train itself takes two and a half hours to reach Seville and is extremely nice.

"Two direct connections" sounds like a brisk fingersnap of a trip. I'm a smart traveler, speak fluent Spanish, have been to Spain 25 times (I used to travel there for work), know Madrid's airport and subway system well, and need to put myself into a state of high alert to navigate this with luggage. With jet lag, I actively dislike it. And with any sort of tight connection times, I would never attempt it.

It's not impossible. It's doable if you're clear-headed and can stay relaxed and don't mind two or three heart-sinking "Oh, man, what do we do NOW?" moments with busy, bored locals streaming all around you and echoey inaudible announcements the whole way. There's absolutely no supporting signage getting you from AVE (the Seville train) to/from airport; you're traveling through a massive subway system and connecting to an even more massive regional transit system both with quirky ticket systems and absolute focus on serving locals and commuters rather than guiding foreign tourists. If you go expecting it to be a snap, you will find it a stressful undertaking. Heed my warning on this.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:01 AM on January 25, 2014

Quisp lover is correct- me and my friend managed to complete that Barajas to atocha trip and it was stressful- and she is a seasoned traveller who speaks fluent Spanish. I just stood around waiting for her to figure it all out.

But on that trip we did Barcelona and had a super time.
posted by misspony at 12:23 PM on January 25, 2014

Best answer: I'm not based in the States so I'm not sure if your budget will stretch to it when it comes to flights, but I visited Jordan with a female friend a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. Amman and Petra are amazing - Petra is by far the most impressive archeological site I have ever seen - and spending a couple of days sleeping in the desert at Wadi Rum (not camping! We stayed in a cabin) was a huge highlight. We finished with a weekend of relaxation beside the Dead Sea but you could really skip that, or just visit for an hour or two and float for a while. (note: do NOT do this after getting roughed up on a camel trek, it stiiiiings!)

It's actually very cheap to hire someone to drive you around the country for a day or two if you don't want to hire a car (ours doubled as an excellent tour guide) but there is also an excellent air conditioned bus system between major cities.

I visited before the current unrest in Syria but I'm told that unless you travel north of Amman near the border it's extremely safe. It was by far the friendliest country I've visited (or heard about) in the Middle East, and I think a good choice to experience the culture of that part of the world without experiencing some of the hassle you can encounter in neighbouring countries as an "unaccompanied" woman. We had no hassle at all, and were told that it was very common for someone who was seen to be bothering a woman to be actively and angrily challenged by passers-by.

Of course, it is majority Islamic so it is expected that your dress is respectful, which really means no shorts and tank tops but we found no issue with this. Men are also expected to dress in long pants. You won't be challenged if you don't conform (unlike in many other Middle Eastern countries) but it will be viewed similarly to walking down the street in a bikini in western countries.

Food is mostly excellent - a lot of lamb and spiced meats, mostly barbecue in Beduin areas. Many variations of fresh (delicious) hummus. Some extremely affordable top class restaurants in Amman.

It's a holiday you'll need to do plenty of research for to the get the most out of it, but it's definitely worth it!
posted by unbearablylight at 1:32 PM on January 25, 2014

Response by poster: Will definitely look into Spain and other suggestions! I am open to extending the budget (As I said, I am not sure yet how much my friend will be able to contribute) but perhaps 3.5-4k is a more accurate representation of budget.

Does anyone have thoughts on Vietnam, Malaysia, or Iceland? I have seen these on "good places to travel solo" lists.

I would love to go to Palau and see jellyfish lake, but have no idea what else would be available in that area of the world.
posted by jorlyfish at 1:38 PM on January 25, 2014

One note on "extending the budget". I've traveled cheap and I've traveled luxe, and enjoyed both, but they're different. It seems obvious that more money would buy a better experience, but here are downsides:

1. You'll buy your way around problems, whereas craftily overcoming challenges are (more than) half the fun of travel

2. If you're broke, you'll be compelled to rely on the kindness of strangers. That's the best way to have rich travel experiences. Rich dentists staying at nice hotels have trouble connecting.

3. Traveling with some extra money puts you into a bubble. There are a million reasons this is so, and you may need to take my word for it. But if you want to really experience stuff, money actually insulates you from that (the way a Camry insulates you from the experience of driving). This is also true when not traveling, fwiw.

4. Money mostly buys comfort (that's part of the insulation, per #3). You're 20-something. Save comfort for when you're old; this is a time for adventure and rich experience.

If I were you (and I've BEEN you), I'd rough it. Go on a shoestring. Underfund everything and have a ball.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:00 PM on January 25, 2014

Also, my sister traveled solo through the Arabic world and, even though she's not particularly pretty, and always dressed conservatively, she found the macho pestering unbearable. And she's someone who loved Italy, which is about as macho pestery a place as most tourists have experienced.

One workaround would be to hire a (male) guide. Offer him $X to simply accompany you and make light conversation (help him practice English!), and not try to actually lead you anywhere (which is always a scam, all about kickbacks). Tell him if he's good about not directing you, you'll give him $X more at the end of the day. His mere presence with you will totally curtail all pestering. And it shouldn't cost much.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:04 PM on January 25, 2014

Response by poster: Quisp, totally with you on that re: comfort vs experience. Just don't want to rule out locations completely just because of basics (flight, food, etc) being slightly over what I had originally stated as budget.

I'm not sure the Arabic world in general is high on the list, though unbearablylight made a good case for Jordan. Good idea on the semi-guide/companion though - will definitely keep that in mind. I spent a month in Italy a few years ago (thus the crossing it off the list for right now) and the pestering by the guys was irritating.... Not sure I want a more intense version of that.
posted by jorlyfish at 10:21 PM on January 25, 2014

The problem is the guide will want to still guide, and could hit on you excessively, too. In which case, just keep reminding him (with a smile on your face, so dignity is maintained) about the agreement...and the deal.

I'll say this....the people you meet in Jordan will astound you with their kindness and generosity.

I'll say this, too: if you look even slightly Jewish, there will be people who glare at you from afar. I don't look flamingly Jewish (people often ask me what my background is), but when I hang with Palestinians (I dated one once, and I love the food and culture), there's often one or two folks at the periphery sending steely vibes. Doesn't mean there's danger. But those fixated on such things will KNOW.

Same is true, though, in e.g. rural Louisiana (including the kindness and generosity if the majority) if you're urban, northern, non-Christian, etc.; the people smelling for it smell it instantly.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:44 AM on January 26, 2014

You asked about Malaysia. I've been to Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), and I really liked it, but, in terms of your criteria I don't think it's a viable choice. In the way of art and culture, I had to really really hunt to find places along the lines of museums and stuff. I did find some, but, they were tough to get to. Right now it's all about shopping malls and new buildings. Also, Malaysia is vast-- really vast. It's not just one land mass. It's a peninsula, and then there's Malaysia Borneo. There are lots of cool things to in each respective side, but even on the west side, you will need to travel quite a way outside KL to do it. Even the airport (and grand prix track) is about 40 minutes away from KL proper. And it's tough to get around, it's primarily taxis, and traffic is crazy. But I would recommend KL in particular for those who want a good shopping/relaxation holiday. Guys (depending on ethnicity) can be a little leery though, but they don't pester. If you want cool things to do and see, Singapore is probably more fun --there are a bunch of museums and things, and an amazing zoo and night zoo and bird park. It's super easy to get around, and it's very safe. However, costs might be a concern.

I would recommend Japan. I've been twice and I loved it both times. It's a wonderful eclectic mix of old and new. The second time I focused on the west coast of the main island a little more, and I recommend you go there and skip Tokyo. (I like Tokyo, a lot, but in terms of art and culture, I find its just easier to see things near Osaka etc because everything is closer). Kyoto is tourist friendly and it was super easy to get the bullet train from Osaka to Kyoto. Osaka is great too, but the hidden gem in that area (imo) is Kobe. The diplomats houses are awesome and interesting. I did 5 days in Osaka and 5 in Kyoto, and 1 in Kobe. I would have altered that to at least 2-3 in Kobe in hindsight because it's a little tough to navigate (no rail system, its all hills and buses) and there's a lot to do and see (museum, garden, Chinatown). But I mean, theres a lot to see in all of those areas. Off the top of my head, in Osaka you have -- Osaka Castle/Park, Osaka Aquarium, Osaka Museum, Shittenoji, Sumiyoshi-taisha in Kyoto there's Nijo castle, Kinkakuji temple (the one covered in gold), Gion, etc. And Nara is just a day trip away.

Money wise -- you can find a lot of super cheap and good food. Not just Japanese food if you don't feel like it. Salvatore Cuomo has the best pizza I have ever had outside Italy. You can get yummy breads for 1-2 dollars for breakfast at the many bakeries there. I find that the hotels have great rates per night, and awesome service. We didn't spend half as much as we thought we would over there-- the biggest thing was the airfare. If you wanna eat Kobe beef it'll cost a lot, but you can make 1 dollar ramen in your hotel room the next night, and get a coke from a vending machine and you have a meal. We did that, and in that way some nights we indulged and some nights we saved money. It worked out pretty well.

Language barrier was less of a problem in Tokyo and Kyoto. The more remote you go, the harder it tends to become. The rail system (in major cities) is amazing-- I found it extremely easy to understand-- and there's a lot of sites that can help you with routes and things, one in particular is extremely good. We had access to it on my netbook and I worked out the itinerary in the morning, and it never failed me. It is also very very safe. I was with my brother, but I often went out at night to the combini stores by myself with no problems or even any worries.

The only downside is they haven't translated a lot of the museum notes sometimes (they're sparsely translated), but, there are always guide groups you can probably get into. It's also tough to get free-wifi anywhere, make sure you get a good roaming plan.

So really, I do recommend it.
posted by Dimes at 11:02 PM on January 29, 2014

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