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Michael's Five Favorite Travel Destinations!
Counting down my best nomad experiences — and one that wasn't so great.
I’ve visited forty-six countries in my life. As digital nomads, Brent and I have lived in twelve of these countries for at least a month.
Not all of my nomad experiences were equally good, of course, though I don’t really “regret” any of them.
But of the places we lived, which five were the very best? And which one was the absolute worst?
Counting down from number five to numero uno, here are my choices!
And next week, look for Brent’s top five.
5) Bansko, Bulgaria
When we left America in early 2018 to become digital nomads, I imagined our living in London. And Paris. And Rome.
I sure as heck never imagined we’d end up in Bulgaria. As in, formerly-Communist-behind-the-Iron-Curtain Bulgaria.
And that I would love it.
Why? Because as a child of the Cold War, everything behind the Iron Curtain had been shrouded in mystery and propaganda, until the U.S.S.R collapsed. For years after that, everything was chaos, and revolution, and war.
At no point did I ever see a glossy advertising campaign declaring, Come see the Balkans! You’ll love it!
Even after things calmed down in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was such minor player on the world stage that I hardly knew anything about it beyond it except…they produced a lot of big, hairy wrestlers?
But as Brent and I explored Western Europe, we quickly learned about something called the Schengen Zone (which strictly limits the amount of time Americans can stay in the entire 26-country zone, which makes up most of Western Europe).
We literally had no choice but to go somewhere outside the zone. So we chose Bansko, Bulgaria, a small mountain town we kept hearing about that was somehow becoming a very popular digital nomad hub — thanks to a very industrious German and Austrian duo who had a vision.
In winter, Bansko has long been a popular ski resort. But it had almost no summer tourism. Which meant housing then was even cheaper than usual in the shoulder and summer seasons.
As in, $300-a-month-for-a-nice-two-bedroom-apartment cheap.
Because there were very few “tourists” per se, it also had a sleepy, peaceful vibe I loved. My “commute” to our co-working space was along cobblestone streets with no cars — but occasionally a wagon pulled by a horse.
Bansko is nestled at the base of the Pirin Mountains, which offers some incredible hiking. The “old town” is ridiculously charming, with lovely plazas and winding, streets — one with a stream running right down the middle. And I’m not religious, but I loved the modest wooden Greek Orthodox church complete with a massive stork nest atop the bell tower.
And who knew Bulgarian food would be so varied and tasty? (It helps to like red peppers and meat, though.)
But a big part of why I loved Bansko is also that thriving digital nomad community. We quickly made a tight circle of nomadic friends who are still part of our lives to this day.
4) American National Parks (Specifically: Olympic, Rainier, Arches, Canyonland, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone)
Hold on! I can hear you saying. What are six U.S. national parks doing on your list of favorite digital nomad destinations?
I admit this is an out-of-the-box choice. But when Covid forced Brent and I back to the U.S. in April of 2020, we had no choice but to nomad around America for a while. After all, we no longer owned a home or rented an apartment.
The result was a mix of staying with friends, Airbnbs, and housesitting. Over the course of seven months, we ended up in six different states.
(All very safely, of course. We quarantined, didn’t fly, wore masks, and interacted with very few people.)
We also happened to find ourselves near six national parks.
And all six parks were freaking amazing.
It was a nice reminder than while America’s politics are toxic, and there are plenty of other things I don’t like about living there, there are still some wonderful things in my home country.
I won’t soon forget any of these parks — and how much time Brent and I spent hiking and biking and climbing and exploring the natural world to our heart’s content. Honestly, I think being able to spend so much time outdoors during part of the pandemic is what kept me sane over the long-haul.
All of the parks had something wonderful about them, but I think it was Arches National Park — in Moab, Utah — that truly stole my heart.
There’s something truly epic and timeless about those weird red rock formations. My favorite thing was to get up early, long before Brent, then drive into the park to watch the sun come up. There was usually no one else present but me and the wind and the rocks. Watching the sun’s first rays turn the stunning formations into blazing beacons of red felt a little bit like witnessing the start of the world.
But each park is absolutely something to be treasured.
3) Mexico City, Mexico
I’m embarrassed to say I was almost as ignorant of Mexico City as I was Bulgaria. I want to chalk it up to the fact that America and Mexico are next door neighbors, so I never paid it much mind because it I knew it would always be there.
The truth is, I think I was influenced by decades of American stereotypes — and, no doubt, racism — about Mexico being a gang-ridden, drug-infested, poverty-stricken hellhole.
But many of our nomad friends told us Mexico City was great, and when a few picked that as their next destination, we decided to go along.
And I am so glad we did.
Mexico City is simply a world-class city, along the lines of, yes, London, Paris, and Rome. It has beautiful neighborhoods, fantastic restaurants, lovely people, stunning architecture, and sooooo much history. Why didn’t it occur to me before that Mexico City’s ancient history is almost as old — and just as rich — as Rome or Athens?
The city is absolutely bursting with museums, but my absolute favorite was Museo Nacional de Antropología, in Bosque de Chapultepec (or Chapultepec Park), which remains one of the most outstanding museums I’ve ever seen anywhere.
By landmass, Mexico is the fourteenth largest country in the world. Most people have heard about the amazing Aztec and the Mayan civilizations that arose there. Lesser well-known are the Toltecs, the Olmecs, and the Teotihuacans — this last one we know almost nothing about. And Museo Nacional de Antropología has an amazing collection of artifacts from all these civilizations, including the Aztec sun stone and a jaw-dropping replica of an Aztec temple.
But when I think of Mexico City, what stands out the most is the city’s endless parks, plazas, and oh-so-pedestrian-friendly streets. Brent and I love to walk, and our neighborhood of Roma Norte was somehow bustling and vibrant — right in the thick of things — but also intimate and accessible on foot. I loved the twenty-minute walk from our apartment to Coffice, our coworking spot, which took me along tree-lined Amsterdam Avenue, almost as peaceful as my “commute” in Bulgaria.
And I haven’t even mentioned Mexico City’s incredible street food.
As for safety, in most of the central neighborhoods, I felt as comfortable as in any large American city — maybe safer, since I was less worried about a mass shooting. (I also wasn’t worried about getting sick and sucked into America’s insane health care system.)
Make no mistake: Mexico City has its downsides. It has a population of more than twenty million people, and in summer, the air quality can be quite bad. There are also areas of shocking poverty and there is definitely crime. Due diligence is required (though this is also true of most American cities).
But very few cities anywhere in the world also have Mexico City’s glorious charms.
2) Istanbul, Turkey
Those of you who have subscribed to our newsletter for a while already know about my complicated relationship with Turkey.
So what’s it doing on this list?
While I loathe Turkey’s authoritarian government and the homophobic Islamic leaders with which it’s aligned, Istanbul is still an amazing city with a history even richer than that of Mexico City.
Can you tell that I love history?
First the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Ottomans ruled, as the city’s name changed from Byzantium to Constantinople to Stamboul to Istanbul. But whatever the name, it has sat at the crossroads of history for almost its entire existence.
And that history is literally everywhere you turn.
You see it in the faded Greek murals; the Roman walls still ringing the city; 1,500-year old Hagia Sophia mosque; and the merely 650-year-old Galata Tower standing watch over the eternal Golden Horn.
You find history in the crumbling French-inspired buildings of Beyoglu; as well as Tünel, the second subway line in the world; and, of course, in the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars in the world.
Some people say it was the world’s first shopping mall.
And that’s just scratching the the surface of Istanbul’s past.
Brent and I also met so many wonderful people in Istanbul, like Resul, who ran the bakery next to our apartment; Duman who helped us find that apartment; and a dozen other Turks, nomads, and expats.
But what I loved best?
The sheer magnitude of it all — everything mixing together to create the spicy, utterly unique mélange that is Istanbul. The endless warren of streets I explored; the elegant decay of the crumbling buildings; the dazzling street art; a feeling that is somehow both exotic and familiar; not to mention the mad energy of the city’s twenty million inhabitants.
Istanbul is the most complicated place I’ve ever lived. And, yes, I really loved it despite its flaws.
1) Grimentz, Switzerland
I grew up in Colorado, spending time hiking, fishing, camping, and skiing in the Rocky Mountains. But I truly came of age and started down my current path in life while living next to the ocean in Sydney, Australia.
So most of my adult life if asked whether I was a mountain or ocean person, I adamantly declared, “I am an ocean person, of course!”
Then came our month living in Switzerland.
I’d always wanted to visit Switzerland, to see Geneva, and the Swiss Alps, and all those bell-wearing cows for myself.
Truth be told, I hadn’t expected that Switzerland could possibly live up to the image in my mind of snowcapped mountains, and valleys filled with chalets, and, yes, Julie Andrews singing, “The hills are alive!”
(Before you message me, yes, I know The Sound of Music is set in Austria. But it does involves the Alps, and this is my newsletter, so there.)
And I definitely hadn’t expected my time there to dramatically alter my perception of myself.
However, as we rode a bright yellow bus up the mountain, Brent and I bobbed and swayed in our seats as the driver navigated some ridiculously tight turns.
And with each new turn, I felt something inside me shifting too. It really did feel like something special was about to happen.
When we arrived at our destination, I looked up at the surrounding mountain peaks, and I felt them beckoning me to explore.
Something long forgotten inside me stirred to life.
And each day, as I hiked the surrounding forests, and as I wandered through Grimentz’s charming streets, that forgotten part of me that loved the mountains continued to wake.
Then one day, Brent and I took the gondola up to Corne de Sorebois, which overlooked the hanging valley where we were living. We crossed the summit toward the Val d'Anniviers, where the peaks of the Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, and Dent Blanche beckoned us forward. (And just out of sight was the Matterhorn.)
And as I strode toward those majestic peaks, I realized there was a lot more of that Colorado boy in me than I had realized.
But that moment reminded me of something else: I was a digital nomad now. I didn’t have to be a mountain or an ocean person. I didn’t have to choose one or the other, mountains or ocean.
I could have both.
Which meant what I really am is one lucky son of a bitch.
And my LEAST Favorite Destination is…
…Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
I know a lot of folks love Puerto Vallarta, and it does have some charming elements: the Malecon ocean-front boardwalk, which is long and lovely and filled with remarkable sculptures. The food is a lot better that you’d expect in a tourist town. Plus Puerto Vallarta surely has some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.
And as a place to hole up for seven months during a pandemic, Puerto Vallarta was fantastic, especially given the incredible view from our cliff-side villa.
But as a digital nomad destination?
Not my cup of té.
Let’s face it: Puerto Vallarta exists almost primarily for tourists — American and Canadian tourists, to be exact.
I dearly love my American and Canadian friends, but I didn’t leave the U.S. to be around a bunch of tourists from home.
Worse, the city now feels like an extension of southern California. There is a Wal-Mart, a Sam’s Club, a Costco. And McDonald’s, Starbucks, Senor Frogs, Domino’s, and, well, you get the picture.
So sorry, PVR. You were great for the pandemic but if I never see you again, that will be just fine by me.
There you have it! Let me know what you think of my choices and let me know what your favorite places to visit are!
And check in next week for Brent’s list.
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed reading about our travels, we would truly appreciate it if you helped spread the word. Feel free to forward this column to a friend you think might be interested.