It is funny how there are some countries in the world that seem to tick (nearly) everybody’s boxes and draw crowds every year. The World Tourism Organization published a report based on pre-COVID-19 pandemic stats and revealed that the top 10 most visited countries in the world received a staggering 40 percent of worldwide arrivals.
At the very top? France. But there are some other interesting and maybe surprising contenders in the top 10 spots.
I have been lucky enough to have visited all the top countries listed in the report (PDF), and even lived in three of them. Here, I want to look at the three most popular sights in each country, following published visitor numbers, but also adding my own suggestions — starting with the number one country and working my way down to the number 10 spot.
France is way ahead of the other countries with some 89 million annual visitors, but that is not really surprising, as France seems to be one of those places that pretty much everybody loves. After all, there are amazing coastlines, snowy mountains, wine, food, ancient history, countless chateaux, and, of course, Paris. Top three must-sees? In my mind, they are Paris, forever vying with London for the accolade of most visited city in Europe; Provence with is soft hues, hushed countryside and Mediterranean vibe; and the Loire with its stunning castles.
Pro Tip: France, like Italy, is a perfect country to explore on a road trip. Base yourself in Paris and drive, north, south, west, and don’t forget the east — a car is a great way of seeing the smaller sights along the way.
Spain, with 83 million visitors, comes in second place, making it two European countries in the top two slots. Spain, not unlike France, offers a range of landscapes, from long beaches to mountain ranges, great cities, and plenty of stunning history. The number one tourism site can be found in what is probably my favorite Spanish city, Barcelona. It is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, which, after 150 odd years, is still not finished, but is growing more stunning every year. In second place lies the fabulous La Alhambra in Granada and, if you like art, there is of course the Prado in Madrid. But personally, I would choose the Guggenheim in the lovely Basque city of Bilbao, because it offers such a great little vacation package.
Pro Tip: One of the big attractions is Spain’s many fiestas, but do plan carefully because, while a parade or firework always adds to a vacation, often the shops and attractions stay closed for days on end during and around fiesta times.
3. United States Of America
The U.S. follows in third place with 80 million international visitors per annum. In line with my personal favorite destination in the U.S., New York City, the most visited public tourist site in the States is Times Square, receiving an incredible 50 million visitors each year. The next most visited sight is not too far away, at Central Park. But while there are so many natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon and other national parks, the third most visited destination within the U.S. is in fact Las Vegas, even beating the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California. You can’t argue with statistics, but one of the sights I am longing to see the most is The Wave in Arizona.
Pro Tip: The U.S. is another country that lends itself to epic and iconic road trips, taking your time and exploring off the beaten path.
There is a large drop in numbers between the third and fourth spots, with China “only” receiving 63 million annual visitors. And for such a large country, it is difficult to choose what to see first. My personal favorites of sights I have already seen, such as the Great Wall, coincides with the statistics, as does my second favorite, the Forbidden City in Beijing. But I have still not managed to get to the Terracotta Army in Xian. My next favorite place is Hong Kong. Is it China? Officially, yes, but I still think of it as a separate entity. Either way, if you are in China, missing out on the thrill of Hong Kong would be a shame.
Pro Tip: When visiting China, either go for an extended trip and see as much of it as possible in one go, or use the transit visa options for brief stopovers and small bites of China.
Back to Europe, and with 62 million visitors, Italy comes in fifth place, something that quite surprises me, because what’s not to love about Italy? The countryside, history, language, and food? Tuscany, Venice, and Rome? All perfection, in my mind. Being somewhat more specific, the Colosseum in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and the Grand Canal of Venice take the top spots of sights to see in Italy. I can’t argue with those amazing sights, but what I like best about Italy is taking a road trip through Tuscany, preferably in a cabriolet, stopping off at the tiny villages, sampling the local wine, and eating too much pasta — enjoying the little things rather than the grand sights.
Pro Tips: Italy is a great country for an extended stay on a low budget. Come out of season, early September is perfect, and stay in a villa in Tuscany, or the slightly cheaper Umbria. Rent a tiny little Italian car, and explore locally. Food and wine are cheap, the sun is free, so what more could you ask for?
It is quite surprising that Turkey “only” gets 46 million visitors per year because it is such a versatile country. The beaches are very popular with Europeans and Istanbul is simply one of the greatest cities in the world when it comes to history, architecture, and superb natural setting. Not surprisingly, the most visited site in Turkey is in Istanbul, the lovely Hagia Sophia. Although, it’s sadly now without the resident cat, Gli, which has amused visitors for years. The ancient Roman city of Ephesus, south of Izmir, is a close second, while magical Cappadocia, with its white mountains best seen from a hot air balloon, is also a must-visit.
Mexico is very similar to Turkey in that there is a decision to be made as to whether you opt for historic sightseeing or a beach vacay. If you look at the most searched phrases on Google, “beach stays” seem to be very much the front runners, with searches for “all-inclusive resorts” and “Cancun” hitting the top spots. Personally, I like a mix of both, and loved a visit to the ever-popular Cancun together with visits to Chichen Itza and other temples nearby. But the top spot? Around 41 million annual tourists love the pyramids of Teotihuacan, which are so easy to reach from the bustling capital.
Pro Tip: Despite having rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, the toilets marked with an M threw me at first. It stands for mujeres, as in women, it’s not M for male. Good to know if you are ever in a rush.
Germany is another very varied country, with the mountainous Bavaria in the south, and a more water-oriented north. The most visited attraction is the Rhine Valley, where river cruises take in the numerous castles and vineyards along the way. Some 39 million tourists explore Germany each year, with the vibrant capital city of Berlin and its attractions a close second. Being from Hamburg in the north, I always recommend a visit to the harbor city, but equally recommend a visit to the many fairytale towns, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, that never disappoint.
Pro Tip: Don’t worry too much about getting your tongue around the German language. The vast majority of Germans speak excellent English.
The second Asian contender in the top 10 is Thailand, with 38 million visitors. The top-rated sights within Thailand include Bangkok’s temples, Chiang Mai in the north, and, of course, the fabulous beaches, such as those in Krabi province or on the numerous islands.
Pro Tip: Thailand is a definite contender for a multi-stop stay. Bangkok’s airport is the main hub to fly into, so you might as well stay a couple of days to look around. Then go on internal hops north, and end on a southern beach to let all the cultural impressions sink in at your leisure.
10. United Kingdom
Just sneaking into the top 10 is the UK, welcoming an impressive 36 million visitors a year, even if it is 53 million less than France. Must-sees definitely include London, as you will most likely fly into there anyway. Then, the top sights become more countryside-related, exploring the Cotswolds and the Roman Spa city of Bath, Stonehenge ranking high, heading north to Scotland, and taking in Yorkshire along the way.
Pro Tip: If other countries lend themselves to road trips, the UK is practically demanding it. The quaint and quintessentially English villages can only be found off the main roads and outside the main cities. There are a plethora of itineraries to choose from.