One of the most common questions I get as a traveler and journalist is about my favorite places. And to be honest, it’s very difficult to come up with a simple answer.
Selecting favorite spots makes me evaluate most of my adult life as I know it. The inquisitor patiently waits as my mind whizzes through all the places I lived, worked, explored, written about or vacationed at. Their eyes glaze over as I run through cities, countries and cultures, having hoped for a snap response like Greece or Costa Rica. But it’s just not that easy.
At the time of writing, I’ve been 52 countries and over 40 US states. I’ve lived in both the US (Chicago, Tucson, Manhattan) and Spain, and spend significant time (months at a time) in Southeast Asia and Italy. But picking a favorite destination can be just as hard for someone who’s only traveled to a few key spots.
I started traveling internationally in my twenties. Until then, I’d been only to Mexico until I landed in Spain for the first time to study abroad. My parents never took me to exotic destinations, and family getaways were to grandparents’ house in New Orleans and road trips to the Smoky Mountains. Still, I’ve always found it hard to pick favorite spots. So many places are wonderful for so many different things, and I find it much easier to categorize, so without further ado, here are the very drawn-out and complicated answers to what seemingly feels like a simple, yet loaded question: What is your favorite destination?
Favorite lifestyle: Spain
Clearly Spain has to come up in my list of favorites, and it’s a fascinating country. More so now than ever after seeing how my country of birth (the US) has handled a global pandemic, I’m incredibly grateful that somehow, someway, I was able to pick the country I plan to live in forever, a privilege that is not usually awarded to most.
I love the energy of my home city, Madrid, and the joy that socializing and being outdoors brings to Madrileños. I can no longer live without the siestas and the long dinners that end at 2:00 am.
I adore that the sun sets at 10:00 pm in the summer, and that on any given day I am just a short walk away from some of the world’s most famous art and architectural masterpieces (did somebody say Picasso?), the world’s most regal park (the Retiro) and the unadulterated joy in that an afternoon glass of wine is not socially acceptable, but encouraged. Spanish people are passionate, beautiful and blunt with no apparent rush to get anything done. It’s frustrating, it’s beautiful and I strive to be one of them.
And how could I forget mountains, the beaches, the flamenco, the tapas and the incredible wine (not just Rioja and Ribera but there’s Monastrell, Bierzo, Toro and more). Spain is home, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Favorite city: Bangkok
Bangkok is sizzling with raw, unbridled energy. The juxtaposition between the hidden streets lined with two-story Thai houses and the high rise luxury buildings lined with fruit peddlers and street food vendors is intoxicating.
The river’s breeze provides relief from the steamy streets, but there’s nothing better than a hot night eating street food on the corner.
Ordering a plate of $1 curry so spicy you can barely breath and eating on the street is a humbling experience. Delightfully low-brow, I could spend endless hours wandering night markets, watching tourists in elephant pants get $5 massages and barter with smiling locals selling tank tops, phone covers and the likes. Pair it will the fancy rooftop bars and the luxury hotels to be had for $90 a night side-by-side with the tranquil Buddhist temples and I’m sold. I’d happily sweat in Bangkok any day given the chance.
Favorite culture: Italy
I come from Italian roots. My dad’s family comes from the Bari area, and my mom’s, Calabria. I feel a strong connection to Italy that is unexplainable — the only conclusion I can think of is that I feel deeply Italian. Although my language skills are weak at most, I’m fascinated by Italy — the landscapes, the music of the spoken world, the history, the people, all of it.
I tend to opt for the underdogs when it comes to Italy. I prefer Milan to Rome, Naples to Florence and Sicily is a dream come true.
I spent a summer living in Alghero to work on my Italian, and I love the way Italian people summer. They summer hard. Sun, fun, sun, fun and more sun. Their rolling notes streaming through piazzas, their deeply bronzed skin and their aloras and their cosas…Italy is electrifying, it’s buzzing, it’s amore and it’s pizza and they, those bronzed, beautiful Italians, they are my people.
Favorite energy: Cuba
I’m not allowed to go to Cuba, which is precisely why I love it so much. Cuba is danger and sexy and illegal, but it’s actually none of those things. It’s salsa and it’s mojitos and it’s colors — the vibrance of Cuba is alive and well and full of well, confusion.
Cuban people are poor. They live with a lot of rules. They can’t leave. But they’re so, so happy. They smile and they laugh and the hug and yes, they don’t have Colgate toothpaste and plane tickets, but they do have free healthcare, and everyone can read.
I never really understand who’s fault it all is…which propaganda is right, or wrong, and who are the oppressed. Is it me? Is it them? Who knows.
But what I do know is that I love that country. I love the crumbling, broken-down buildings in Havana. Everyone knows how to salsa, young and old. There isn’t a soul in Cuba that can’t wiggle their hips and jive to the music.
Walking along the Malecon oceanfront in Havana at sunset is dreamy, I feel like I’m living in a fantasy world of haze, where I float past crashing waves, old men playing dominos and smoking cigars, lovers’ holding hands all to the strums of Cuban guitars.
Trinidad feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Horses and donkeys pull wagons, motorcycles boast side cards. Everything feels vintage and dusty. Nearby beaches have white, unspoilt sand and roads are cracked and, bumpy. Vendors stand along on the side of the highway, as my taxi rolls to a stop. Bump, bump, bump. The air is hot and heavy, there’s no AC. I buy a mango and some mani, and deliciously savor them…Cuba’s fragrant delights make my senses feel truly alive.
It’s Complicated, Though
I feel like I still have a lot to say about countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Guatemala and Colombia. It’s so hard to pick even just a few. Perhaps there will be a follow-up post!
What is your favorite destination? Is it an easy pick, or a complicated, muddling mess of nostalgic emotions? Feel free to share.