18 Bucket List Experiences Everyone Should Try
Let me preface this monster of a post by saying that no, this is not an exhaustive list. Yes, there are cooler things to do around the world, I just haven’t done them. As an independent blogger and not someone writing listicles for a magazine, I can only go from my personal experiences. Perhaps I should have titled this post “18 Experiences I’ve Done That I Think You Should Do Too,” but I didn’t, hence the preface. Now that we have that out of the way, I was editing some photos from past trips recently and it dawned on me (not for the first time) just how enormous the world is and how many incredible experiences there are in every corner of it. I’ve been very privileged to have enjoyed some fairly remarkable experiences during my travels but, naturally, some have been more fun than others. Today I want to share some of those experiences in the hopes of sparking some interest, maybe the germ of an idea to get out there and see more of the world for yourself. I started with 18, but I think I should probably keep this list updated from now on. So, in NO particular order…
Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
It’s no exaggeration to say that Circular Quay and the landmarks that surround it are amongst the most recognizable on the planet and from my own experience there’s no better way to see them than by taking on the legendary Harbour Bridge climb. Even considered a bucket list activity by Australians, the climb is one of those over the top (literally) activities that everyone really should experience at least once. Visitors ascend the mighty bridge in small groups, carefully harnessed to the steel rails at all times and from the top you’ll enjoy amazing views of Sydney’s famous landmarks. I’m not a fan of heights but not even I was bothered, that’s how well done the safety and overall experience really is. Treat yourself on your next trip to Sydney, you won’t regret it.
This epic drive was near the top of my bucket list for years, and the actual experience of tackling Route 66 was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Steinbeck once called it The Mother Road and from the Dust Bowl to the American Renaissance in the 1950s, this road has held a special place not only in the hearts of Americans, but of people around the world. It hearkens back to an era when anything seemed possible, when taking to the open road was an adventure and the fun truly was in the getting there. While Route 66 technically doesn’t exist anymore, it’s still possible of course to drive huge parts of it as you meander from Chicago to the pier in Santa Monica, California. Along the way are quirky roadside attractions, strange motels and national wonders that rank amongst the top in the world. Yes, I wanted to see and experience all of those things but I also wanted to reconnect with my own country, one I love dearly and of which I am fiercely proud. Just as people did in the 1950s and 60s, I wanted to experience a great American road trip and to discover aspects to the American experience that I never knew existed.
Safari in Tanzania
Going on safari is one of those special travel experiences everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives. Thanks to a few trips visiting sub-Saharan Africa, I have been on several safaris but nothing prepared me for the luxury safari in Tanzania I enjoyed with Abercrombie & Kent. A&K literally invented the concepts of luxury safari and experiential travel, so I knew I was in good hands as we toured the amazing national parks of Tanzania. Whether it was sneaking up on a herd of elephants, or admiring the power of the Great Migration, I know I will always treasure the memories from this luxury safari experience.
Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico
I love wildlife experiences and swimming with whale sharks in Mexico was one of my all-time favorites. I call this a luxury adventure travel experience not because of cost or even accessibility, but because of how remarkable it is. There I was in the water as hundreds of whale sharks swam by, feeding upon the flotsam and jetsam of the sea as they did so. Their size was immense, that of a car and I felt instantly and incredibly small as these graceful giants lumbered past. Even though I knew they were harmless, I couldn’t help but feel anxious as the gaping maws barreled straight for me. It was an extraordinary moment that every adventure traveler should try at least once.
Going Inside a Pyramid
Located close to modern day Cairo, the massive pyramids of Egypt have been amazing visitors since the moment they were first built, popping up even in Ancient Greek and Roman travel guides of the day. Standing immediately in front of them it was hard to mentally reconcile the fact that I was actually there. Even better though was the opportunity to go inside one of the massive monuments. Crouched down, gingerly navigating the steep ramp taking me down into the bowels of the ancient tomb I couldn’t help but again appreciate what early archeologists must have felt when they first entered these tombs. The anticipation, the fear, the excitement and the uncertainty, I felt all of those things and I knew exactly what was waiting for me inside – nothing at all. No, these tombs were looted millennia ago, the preserved body of the pharaoh and his treasures stolen before even the emergence of true Western civilization. After descending one shaft and climbing up another I was there, in the middle of the pyramid with millions of tons of stone blocks hanging over me. Inside the pyramid. Those words hung with me for a moment and a smile slowly crept onto my face. I’d done it. I’d fulfilled a lifelong dream and the best thing is, I realized it.
Spending the Night in a German Fairy Tale
Even if you don’t travel along Germany’s Fairy Tale Route, there are a number of opportunities to spend the night in castles that look as if they was plucked out of one of those famous legends. One though impressed me above all the others, the Sleeping Beauty Castle – Sababurg. My first experience sleeping in a real German castle happened at this pastoral retreat not far from the city of Kassel along the German Fairy Tale Route. Recently celebrating its 682nd birthday, Sababurg was in a state of ruin for centuries, overrun by plants and trees and, most importantly, a high thorn bush. This bush would become important in the life of Sababurg, defining it into the 21st century. The famous Brothers Grimm lived not far away from Sababurg in the city of Kassel, and it was well known that they used the surrounding forests, countryside and castles as a physical basis for many of the stories they chronicled. So it was locals in the 19th century, along with early tourists, who started scouting out the rolling hills of the region trying to match stories with their real-life counterparts. When they chanced upon Sababurg, practically enclosed by thick brush and that famous thorn bush it seemed too perfect – this had to be the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Today it’s been thoughtfully and painstakingly remodeled into a beautiful 16-room luxury hotel, all paying homage to the story of Sleeping Beauty. I loved my evening spent sleeping in one of the turret rooms, imagining myself in an era long gone amongst luxury amenities and comfort. With pastoral calm and beauty and an amazing staff, this is a not to miss hotel along the German Fairy Tale Route.
Cruising French Polynesia
The South Pacific has been on my own personal travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Those crystal-clear waters and verdant green mountains called to me in the same way as the fictional Bali Hai called out in “South Pacific.” I braced myself for disappointment, to have my dreams dashed but that never happened. No, if anything Tahiti surpassed even my own lofty expectations. But Tahiti is Tahiti for a reason, and I realized that almost immediately upon arriving into Papeete. Over the course of a week while on a luxurious Windstar Cruise my appreciation of how just idyllic and perfect the islands are grew, and the experiences I enjoyed there really were a dream come true.
Meeting Santa Claus in Finland
It’s impossible to visit Rovaniemi, the de facto capital of Finnish Lapland, and not realize immediately that it is the hometown of Santa Claus. From the airport when you first arrive to even hotels bearing his name, this town is all about Santa. Literally straddling the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus Village is a 365-day Christmas extravaganza; a place where the holiday spirit is alive every day of the year. Walking into the middle of the village, it was only 3:30pm but the winter sun had already begun to set and soon I found myself in the middle of the village, night having fallen and the sound of carols in the air. Christmas had already been over for a couple of weeks and while the rest of the world was dealing with the January doldrums, Santa Claus Village really did feel cheerful. Of course the focal point of any visit is meeting Santa Claus, who is always ready to greet new visitors. The visit with Santa is free of charge, but the photos taken come with a small fee. After chatting with Santa – everyone gets some alone time – head to one of the most popular post offices in the world, Santa Claus’ Main Post Office. This real post office on the Arctic Circle handles all of Santa’s worldwide mail traffic and since 1985, more than 17 million letters have been sent to the post office all addressed to Santa from nearly every corner of the world. I’m not normally a fan of hokey tourist experiences, but this one was fun – a lot of fun actually and I quickly understood why hundreds of thousands of people make the trek to the Village every year. The Christmas spirit is a special feeling, and this is the only place in the world where it never ends.
Walking the Great Wall of China
There are a few experiences around the world that surely must be on everyone’s travel bucket lists, including the Great Wall of China. Although my time in Beijing was brief I knew there was no way I could conclude my first visit to China without tackling the mighty Great Wall of China. Given its size, there are a number of different points easily accessible to tourists, including a few near Beijing itself. I decided to visit the Mutianyu section due to its “classic” look and the fact that not as many tourists visit. Don’t get me wrong, it was busy, but not nearly as busy as some of the other sections can be. Away from the main entrance, most of the crowd seemed to disappear immediately and I was left with what I had dreamed of for so very long, the Great Wall of China. At the Mutianyu section at least, the Wall has been restored to a beautiful condition and its location among the rolling hills and mountains is exactly the kind of landscape we all imagine. It’s important to get out there and experience the Great Wall of China not just for its importance in Chinese history, but in world history and of course to admire its inherent beauty. Walking across the Great Wall of China is just one of those special and iconic travel moments everyone should try to do at least once in their lives.
Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand
One important reason why I decided to visit Chiang Mai in the first place was to spend the day at a very special facility about an hour or so outside of town. The Elephant Nature Park was created in order to rescue elephants horribly mistreated in the tourism and logging industries. It’s a place where they can be slowly rehabilitated and given the life that all elephants deserve. Sadly, many tourists don’t understand that riding elephants, watching them in circuses, painting or so on involves significant abuse to the elephant. When talking about responsible tourism, it’s important to know that if you see an animal doing something that isn’t natural for them, then it took severe treatment to get them to that point. In the case of elephants, they undergo a horrible ritual known as the Crush, which destroys their resolve and will to live through slow torture. Add to that the pain endured during the activities themselves, and you hopefully begin to understand why elephant tourism is so incredibly harmful to these beautiful animals. At the ENP, these elephants are rescued and a team of professionals and volunteers start the long process of helping them enjoy life again. I visited as a day guest, one of many, there to learn more about the sanctuary as well as interact with the rescued elephants through feedings, bathings and more. It was the first activity I booked when planning my trip and it was everything I had hoped it would be.
Eating on the Ocean Floor
Burntcoat Head Park is an unlikely pilgrimage spot in Nova Scotia. Not really located close to anything, the entrance is quietly set amongst rolling farmland and pastoral landscapes. But it’s here where the most extreme tidal differences in the world were recorded, it’s here where its entry into the records books was secured and it’s here where those extremes on the Bay of Fundy happen every single day. It’s also the location for one of the most extraordinary dining experiences I’ve ever had the great pleasure to enjoy. A few years ago, the creative minds at the Flying Apron Inn came up with an audacious idea, to take advantage of those tidal extremes and to offer a fine-dining experience on the ocean floor. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, it’s so much more than just a dinner, it’s an experience. With pre-dinner snacks and drinks, guided tours of the Bay and local experts providing an insight into the region, it’s a robust experience with Fundy at its center. Naturally though, the highlight was the incredible meal itself, created by the Flying Apron’s Chef Velden and paired with local wines and beers. The afternoon and evening was fun in every meaning of the word, but it was much more than that. It was an immersive way to learn more about Fundy and to experience it in a very personal way. This is without a doubt one of the most creative meals I’ve ever enjoyed and one that I know I’ll never forget.
Sleeping in an Ice hotel
This may not interest everyone, but sleeping inside an ice hotel had been on my to-do list for a long time, which is why I was so happy to visit the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in northern Norway. In 2000, the family who owned outdoor guiding services around the facility known as Sorrisniva decided to try something different. Sure, their position along the Alta River meant plenty of summer tourists and in the winter months they organized snowmobile tours, but the owner decided to go down a new path and built the first igloo hotel. Otherwise known as an ice hotel, the complex ice structure has been built, allowed to melt and then rebuilt every year since. True to their promise, absolutely everything in the igloo hotel is made from ice, from the bar and chairs to the beds themselves. It’s strange really, walking through a structure made entirely of ice. The temperature inside is kept between minus 4-7 degrees Celsius, in order to preserve the walls of the hotel itself. So it’s chilly, but not as bad as one would otherwise think. But for some reason the hotel had an odd stillness to it, a place devoid of color and life, I felt like Superman entering his Fortress of Solitude. Curled up in warm reindeer-skin blankets, I slept the best I had in months that evening. The light inside never changes, there’s a complete absence of noise and a kind of eerie frozen in time element that made my rest in the igloo so complete and satisfying. I’m not sure if I need to sleep in an ice hotel again, but I’m still thrilled I had that one chance to fulfill a travel dream.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef
One of the primary reasons why I wanted to visit Queensland was to experience the Great Barrier Reef. It’s long been on my own travel bucket list, and even though I’d visited Australia a couple of times before, I never made it to the Reef. Luckily, the years of anticipation were worth it and seeing one of the world’s truly great natural wonders was everything it promised to be and more. I experienced the reef in a few different ways several times throughout my trip, it’s just that big, but my favorite way to enjoy the mighty reef was through a scuba dive. This wasn’t just any scuba dive though, it was my first attempt and I was pretty nervous. I love snorkeling, but the thought of breathing underwater freaked me out to be honest. It was a mental hang-up and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to shake it. But there I was, at the Great Barrier Reef and I figured if I was going to try it anywhere, that was the place. And I’m so glad I set aside my fears and gave it a chance. I traveled out to the Reef with the company Cruise Whitsundays, and their team of expert divers were all used to first-timers like me and showed more patience than I’ve seen any tour operator show in recent memory. It was thanks to their insistence and instruction that I was able to literally take the plunge, my fears instantly vanishing as soon as I was underwater. I’ve snorkeled all over the world, but the Great Barrier Reef is without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen. The sheer abundance of fish and coral in every color of the rainbow was extraordinary and I could’ve spent hours exploring it to new depths while scuba diving. This is just one of those once in a lifetime experiences that aren’t only nice to do, I think they are important to do.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
Let me just say straight up that no, I didn’t do the four-day Inca Trail hike. I have massive problems with both my knees and spending four days in pain and suffering was not high on my to-do list. No, instead I visited the famous ancient city like thousands of others, by taking the luxury train to the weird mountain town of Aguas Calientes and then a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu itself. This new world wonder surprised me in a lot of ways, most notably how beautiful almost every part of it is in person. All we tend to see is that ONE iconic photo overlooking the long forgotten mountain outpost of the Inca, but there’s so much more to it than that one angle. Spending a few hours exploring it I developed an appreciation not only of how it looked, but the skill it took to design and build. There are many fantastic Inca sites to explore in Peru, but it’s really only at Machu Picchu that you begin to understand the true genius of this sadly long lost civilization.
Diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa
One of the main draws in this part of South Africa, Hermanus is a cute beachside town with great shops and restaurants and during the season is one of the best places in the world to watch whales, either on a boat or right from the shore. For something a little different though, head half an hour south to Gansbaai, home of another iconic South African adventure activity – diving with Great White Sharks. Now, this is where you have to be careful. Not all tour operators are created equal and in order to help preserve the species it’s vital you choose one that is ethical and contributes to the well being of the sharks. The best one out there in my own opinion is Marine Dynamics. The leader in shark dives, they’re also a leader in the conservation movement and frequently work with institutions around the world to study the sharks’ unique behavior in the waters just off the coast. Join Marine Dynamics for a Great White Shark dive experience and boat out close to the famous Shark Alley where the sharks have been known to breach the water as they hunt seals. There is nothing like getting into the water with these beautiful animals and I still count it as one of my favorite experiences of all time.
Many people travel to Iceland in order to enjoy the incredible natural beauty that is almost too good to be true. This is a country of elves and legends, glaciers and black sand beaches and, most notably, waterfalls. Iceland has no shortage of waterfalls, of that there can be no doubt. Almost everywhere you drive around the country you’ll find them in all sizes and shapes, each one with its own legends and mythologies surrounding it. But some are something special, something different and several of these must-visit waterfalls are found along the Ring Road. Seljalandsfoss is popular in large part because you can see it from the road, making a stop a foregone conclusion. But that’s not the only reason, as I learned while investigating the natural wonder. The waterfall itself drops about 60 meters, but the most interesting aspect of Seljalandsfoss is the fact that visitors can walk behind it, offering a different perspective and plenty of chances to spot a rainbow. Further up Route 1 is another popular waterfall, Skógafoss. This is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country, at a width of 82 feet and a drop of 200 feet. The spray from the waterfall is incredible, but it’s thanks to it that rainbows are also easy to see here. Next to Skógafoss is a hiking trail up to the top of the waterfall, offering amazing views down below.
If any continent lures travelers with the promise of special moments, it’s Antarctica. Hard to reach, hard to travel around it’s one of the last few truly adventurous trips still available to us in the modern era. And my own trip to Antarctica did indeed deliver those unique moments in spades. Aside from the impossibly cute (and slightly dirty) penguins though, it’s the seemingly impenetrable landscapes that impressed me the most. After hiking up a snowy switchback path to the top of a hill, I was met with one of the most impressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The icy waters extended into the horizon and all I could see were vast quantities of rock, ice and water. It seemed to go on forever and I have never felt smaller in my entire life. Standing there on the bottom of the world, it was an important moment to help quantify the immensity of the planet. It’s a fact that we modern travelers tend to forget. In an age when I can hop on a nonstop flight and be in Hong Kong tomorrow, it seems as if the world has never been smaller. But we forget just how massive this beautiful planet is and how many unique experiences there are to be had.
It’s impossible to talk about bucket lists without mentioning Petra in Jordan. This ancient city is the top tourist site in the country and the reason why many people visit in the first place. And it’s all deserved. Spending a few days exploring this massive red stone city is an experience you will always remember. It starts with a walk through the kilometer long Siq, a slot canyon that shielded the city from prying eyes for centuries. It was also how ancient traders first entered Petra, a way to impress visitors with the wealth and power of the city. The first glimpse every visitor has of the city is the famous Treasury building, highlighted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Petra is a lot more than just one building, numerous hiking paths allow guests to discover the full width and breadth of this beautiful complex, from the hilltop Monastery built into raw stone to the perfectly straight Roman road still guiding travelers along the way. Just be sure to plan enough time here, you don’t want to miss out on truly enjoying this once in a lifetime opportunity.
What would you add to this list?