19 destinations that defined 2019

After years of construction and repairs, the Washington Monument reopens to the public.

Posted: Dec 19, 2019 3:50 AM
Updated: Dec 19, 2019 3:50 AM

A cathedral in flames is a heart-stopping sight. A son following in his mother's footsteps is a heartwarming one.

Places evoke all kinds of emotions as they experience growth, improvement, renewal and sometimes devastating setbacks.

Tenacity stands out as a defining characteristic for many of the places that spoke to us this year in travel. And there's always space for dreaming big and embracing fantasy.

Here are 19 destinations worth looking back on as 2019 draws to a close:

Rural Italy

Daydreaming about what it would be like to live in this or that place is one of travel's chief delights, and a handful of towns in Italy have engaged those dreams in a big way.

Rural towns from the snowy Alps to sunny Sicily and Sardinia have been offloading ramshackle homes for the bargain price of about $1.

That's the initial outlay, of course. Taxes, fees and extensive renovations not included.

The gorgeous Sicilian town of Sambuca earned global headlines in 2019 with its €1 offer, generating so much demand that the town ended up auctioning properties for sums closer to $25,000.

Still, the real estate trend may be a win, win: Tiny towns with dwindling populations get new residents and refurbishment and foreign visitors fulfill their fantasies of living in the Italian countryside.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Florida and California

Disney has delivered on a different kind of fantasy with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

The new immersive lands at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California are drawing Star Wars fans with the kind of nuanced detail and storytelling befitting the beloved franchise.

Case in point: The Rise of the Resistance ride (which opened at Disney World this month and will debut at Disneyland in January) is an epic, roughly 18-minute mission that involves escaping a Star Destroyer.

Or you can pilot the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy on the other key ride -- Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.

Or build your own lightsaber for a lasting, take-home memory of your role in the Resistance.

Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore

On the other side of the world, the main airport in Singapore is as close as the world has come to pulling off an air travel fantasy land.

The world's tallest indoor waterfall, surrounded by terraced gardens, is at the center of Jewel Changi Airport -- a new multiuse complex designed to connect three of Changi Airport's four terminals.

An IMAX theater, more than 280 retail and food/beverage outlets, walking trails and more have turned this airport into an aviation oasis.

Changi -- the "world's best" airport -- has dominated Skytrax airport rankings for the past seven years. The addition of the eye-catching new facility is likely to secure that distinction for the foreseeable future.

LaGuardia Airport, New York

World's most improved airport? A case could be made for New York's LaGuardia Airport.

The outdated New York hub, which President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have both referred to as a "third world" facility, took a big step forward in October when a new Delta Air Lines concourse was unveiled.

It's one piece of a planned $8 billion airport overhaul.

The concourse is the first phase of Delta's new $3.9 billion terminal at LaGuardia. It offers views of Citi Field, home of the Mets, as well as practical new amenities such as a nursing room and a relief room for dogs.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Shiny glass-and-steel structures may offer modern convenience, but they're no replacement for icons of hand-carved artistry and religious devotion.

So the world watched in horror on April 15, 2019, as flames tore through the wooden roof of Paris' beloved Notre Dame Cathedral, toppling its elaborate spire.

The ravaging of the building -- a masterpiece of Gothic architecture -- seemed to cut straight to the bone, eliciting a global gasp in a world grown numb to daily headlines of unconscionable human violence.

France has vowed to rebuild, with passionate debate about the best way forward.

The cathedral took more than 180 years to complete, so patience will likely be essential to seeing the restoration through.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Barcelona's Sagrada Familia church knows a thing or two about patience -- and tenacity. In 2019, this ambitious project finally received a building permit, 137 years after the cornerstone was laid in 1882.

Architect Antoni Gaudí, a master of Catalan Modernism, was hired in 1883, and he was buried in the crypt after he passed away in 1926.

But his vision for the Roman Catholic basilica soldiers on. Construction is expected to be complete by 2026.

Sagrada Familia's curious honeycombed towers are a symbol of Barcelona and a magnet for millions of tourists the world over.

Washington Monument, Washington, DC

The Washington Monument is no exception when it comes to the allure of towering monuments.

The 555-foot obelisk in the US capital reopened in September 2019 after nearly three years of renovation and repairs to the 1884 structure.

The improved monument facility features a new blast-proof, glass and steel security screening building and a new elevator. The renovations followed another long period of repair after a 2011 magnitude 5.8 earthquake caused extensive damage to the structure.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Man-made monuments are impressive, but they're really no match for Mother Nature.

A magnificent cut in the natural landscape, the Grand Canyon is so big -- 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep -- that it's hard to imagine it's under any sort of threat.

Yet the land now known as Grand Canyon National Park, which celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2019, faces the possibility of development along its borders, hundreds of daily helicopter rides from tourists, uranium drilling and more.

Videographer Pete McBride -- who hiked the entire canyon -- encourages visitors to cultivate a deeper appreciation of the fragile landscape, the profound silence, the starry night sky and the sounds of nature.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Not every national park is as massive or established as Grand Canyon National Park, so new parkland is good news.

Tucked into 15 miles of Lake Michigan's southern shoreline, Indiana Dunes became Indiana's first national park in February 2019.

The 15,000-acre park, which is already the most visited site in the state, offers beaches along Lake Michigan, birdwatching, dunes to hike and marshland to explore.

It's about an hour's drive from South Bend, Indiana, and two hours from Chicago O'Hare International Airport.


Flights to Australia, which are a pretty long haul for pretty much everyone, may be getting a little less grueling thanks to direct flights that could cut travel times by several hours.

A November test flight from London to Sydney by Australian airline Qantas became the world's longest passenger flight by a commercial airline both for distance, at 17,800 kilometers (about 11,060 miles), and for duration in the air, at 19 hours and 19 minutes.

Qantas hopes to make the ultra long haul journey part of its regular schedule by 2022 or 2023, if regulators agree.

Australia is currently experiencing unprecedented high temperatures and raging wildfires -- underlining tension the world over between seeing the world and saving it.

Area 51, Nevada

Is the place mysterious and unattainable? People are probably eager to see it.

Such is the case with Area 51, a highly classified US Air Force facility located at Groom Lake in southern Nevada.

The site has long captured the imagination of conspiracy theorists and paranormal enthusiasts. They believe the US government stores and hides alien bodies and UFOs there.

Over the summer, a Facebook event titled "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us" caught the world's attention, with more than 2 million people saying they would attend a raid of Area 51 to "see them aliens."

Authorities were not amused and discouraged the "raid." That mostly worked. About 3,000 or so people showed up on the designated date in September, but there was no storming and just a handful of arrests.


Following in the footsteps of someone we've lost is a particularly poignant way to experience the world.

And the world was certainly watching when Prince Harry put on protective gear in September and walked through a partially cleared minefield in Dirico, Angola, echoing his late mother's visit 22 years earlier.

Princess Diana walked a minefield in Huambo, Angola, in 1997 to raise awareness of the dangers of mines around the globe.

Prince Harry was "humbled to be visiting a place and a community that was so special to his mother, and to recognise her tireless mission as an advocate for all those she felt needed her voice the most," according to a post on his official Instagram account.

The Bahamas

Places, like people, suffer unforeseen tragedy, and sometimes the best thing you can do is support them with your presence.

Hurricane Dorian devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama islands at Category 5 intensity in September but most of the Bahamas' 700 islands and cays were unharmed.

"The majority of our country remains beautiful and palm-fringed, with unspoiled beaches in several shades of white and pink," said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

Grand Bahama has started to welcome cruise ship and hotel visitors again, and the international airport reopened in November.

Want to help the Bahamas right now? Visit.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Curiosity is a natural byproduct of tragedy, and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is no exception. The site of a horrific 1986 nuclear explosion has been increasingly popular with tourists as global interest in dark tourism has grown.

While parts of the site have been open to visitors since 2011, Ukraine designated the plant an official tourist attraction in July.

"Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine's brand. It's time to change it," President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the time.

The launch of HBO series "Chernobyl" in May also intensified interest in the disaster zone, which is undergoing updates to better accommodate visitors.

United Kingdom

Whether it's the population or the government that's in flux, local uncertainty can mean an unexpected windfall for visitors.

The chaos surrounding the UK's impending exit from the European Union raises questions for travelers, but one thing that seems to be lower is prices.

Air fares from international destinations to the UK were down by as much as 49% year on year for November, according to data commissioned by CNN from travel app Hopper.

No one knows quite what will happen if Britain meets its current goal of exiting the EU at the end of January. Before uncertainty sets in, now may be just the time for a last-minute visit.


Hosting is nice. Winning while hosting is better.

Japan had an impressive winning streak as host of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, logging upsets against Ireland and Scotland before losing to champion South Africa in the quarter final.

The nation known for its flawless hospitality would no doubt like to take that winning streak forward -- and then some -- during the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Japan's tourism industry is certainly likely to be a winner and preparations are well under way for the games.

The "Olympics effect" is expected to bring approximately an extra 10 million visitors to the country in 2020, the government estimates.

Hong Kong

It's been a tumultuous year in the world's most visited city.

Anti-government protests have been going on in Hong Kong for more than six months.

What started in June as peaceful opposition to a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China has become increasingly violent and unpredictable.

Flare ups have unnerved tourists and made transit difficult at times.

Despite the unrest, Hong Kong was the world's most visited destination in 2019 with 26 million international tourist visits, according to UK-based market research company Euromonitor International.


Another incredibly popular international travel destination, Amsterdam is actually hoping to slow the wave of visitors locals complain have overrun the city.

To combat overtourism, an increasingly pressing concern in many corners of the globe, Netherlands officials have decided to shift gears to focus on "destination management" rather than "destination promotion."

Some of the country's lesser-known areas may still be promoted, hopefully siphoning some interest away from overcrowded Amsterdam.

The word is out, though, about Amsterdam's charming canals, its bicycle culture and world-class museums and attractions.

Turquoise Coast, Turkey

Fewer travelers outside Europe know about Turkey's spectacular Turquoise Coast, 600 miles of shoreline extending from the province of Antalya in the south to the Cesme Peninsula in the north.

But that's changing quickly, as global travelers seek out lesser-known spots with fascinating local culture and all the usual tranquility that comes with sand and surf.

After a roller coaster 2019, we could all use a bit sun-splashed rest and relaxation.

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