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AFAR's 13 Top Picks For Places To Go In 2013

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At AFAR, we believe that (nearly) anywhere in the world could be a place to go in 2013. Maybe it's because we subscribe to the choose-your-own-adventure approach to travel. That said, the following 13 places really stand out for us this year. Some are emerging destinations just coming onto the radar for travelers; others are countries you may have visited before, but now's the time for a return visit to enjoy new and noteworthy hotels or upcoming events. All offer travelers the real thing: authentic experiences of place, culture, and people.

This list doesn't include any destinations in the United States, only because we're saving those for special treatment in our upcoming March/April issue. Check back here later in the month, when we'll publish recommendations of where to go next from contributing writers, ambassadors, and our Travel Advisory Council. And let us know what's on your list: Where are you going in 2013?

Sri Lanka
Since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war four years ago, travelers have started trickling in to explore this island nation just off the southeast coast of India. The hodgepodge of colonial influences--Portuguese, Dutch, and English--is most evident in the capital city, Colombo. Architecture aficionados can visit Geoffrey Bawa's modernist buildings, and travelers interested in archaeology should venture outside the capital to see at least one of the country's eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Today in Chile, travelers have a plethora of memorable experiences to choose from: the thriving food and art scenes in Santiago and Valparaíso; adventure in Patagonia and San Pedro de Atacama; and the mystery and solitude of Chiloé Island and Easter Island, to name just a few. Several new hotels (Singular Patagonia, Tierra Patagonia, and Refugia Chiloé) have raised the country's profile for travelers accustomed to beautiful design, authentic experiences, and top-notch service.

The picturesque colonial city of Cartagena isn't the only destination worth a look in Colombia. In recent years, Bogotá--a model of smart urban planning and efficient public transit--and Medellín have grown in popularity. Third-wave coffee junkies can visit the many farms that dot the countryside beyond the big cities; salsa dancers can head to Cali to shake their tail feathers. Small eco hotels on the remote Pacific coast offer travelers opportunities to go hiking, surfing, and birding.

Oslo, Norway
Yes, Oslo is expensive. Some might say outrageously so. But the city--surrounded by forest and fjord has natural beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and heaps of culture. In 2013, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Art will reopen. Noteworthy neighborhoods to check out include Thief Island, recently designated as an arts district, and Grünerløkka, a gentrifying area with buzzy bars and shops. The Nobel Peace Center is another draw, and foodies should book a table at Maaemo, the Nordic restaurant that was awarded two Michelin stars in 2012.

Isolated for nearly 50 years by a military regime, newly accessible Burma is now blossoming. Go to discover the ancient royal capital, Bagan--26 square miles of temples and shrines on the banks of the Irrawaddy River--as well as the bustling metropolis of Yangon, where you'll find bowls of fragrant mohinga noodle soup and vibrant markets. Head north from Yangon into the countryside to see Inle Lake, home to fishing villages where inhabitants practice an athletic leg-powered rowing style. The outfitter Geographic Expeditions offers a trip called "Kipling's Burma," that includes a cruise along the Irrawaddy and more.

Tiny Estonia offers something for everyone, as exemplified by the capital, Tallinn, with its traditional cobblestoned old town, bustling cultural scene, lively nightlife, and expanding tech sector. Get out of the city--try one of the bicycling tours into the lush countryside and along the coast. On the islands of Muhumaa and Saaremaa you'll find gorgeous natural scenery, extensive medieval remains, and bucolic country towns. Tartu, a city along the banks of the Emajõgi River, is known as Estonia's spiritual capital.

Travelers to Israel encounter a vibrant mix of modernity and antiquity, with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern philosophies and practices side by side. In Jerusalem's old city, modern hotels like the Mamilla envelop travelers in comfort. Tel Aviv has a thriving design and fashion scene, and the city recently launched a citywide bike program similar to those in Paris and London, known as Tel-O-Fun. Go off the beaten path to see the ruins of Masada in the Judaean Desert--the citadel, perched on a rocky plateau, fell to the Romans after a grisly siege in 73 C.E.

Lisbon is Portugal's architecturally stunning, vibrant center of culture. But it's the beautiful Douro Valley that's getting all the buzz these days, emerging as the next great wine destination--and not just for the country's namesake Port. At the mouth of the Douro sits the beautiful city of Oporto, dating from the Roman period and offering diversions both modern (fresh new boutique hotels) and ancient (the baroque Torre dos Clérigos bell tower). And in the rural Alentejo region to the south, hotels like Villa Extramuros offer visitors home-away-from-home style and comfort.

This is definitely the year to visit this friendly, canal-ringed city. Its sprawling plaza, the Museumplein, abounds in art fetes: The stately Rijksmuseum reopens after a 10-year renovation; the new wing of the Stedelijk Museum will be unveiled, housing a collection of modern and contemporary art; and the Van Gogh Museum celebrates its namesake's 160th birthday this spring. But don't go just for the museums: Go for the beer, the leisurely bicycling, the strangely slanting buildings, and the canalside cafés and restaurants. Extreme style rules in such hotels as the new Hôtel Droog and the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht, which hosts a site called designed to connect guests and locals with cultural insiders.

In October, Namibia proudly displays its diverse landscape--as well as its deep commitment to conservation and environmental management--when the country welcomes the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit. Situated on southern Africa's wild Atlantic coast, the country often surprises first-time visitors with its dramatic white salt plains and spectacular stretches of beach along the Skeleton Coast. On safari, expect to spot endangered black rhinos, giraffes, lions, and flamingos in Etosha National Park. Extraordinary Journeys offers four unique safari itineraries that include stops at some of the country's most luxurious tent camps; REI Adventures introduced its first 10-day safari this year.

All eyes are on Brazil as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016. Foodies should head to São Paulo. Long known for the global range of its dining scene, the city now boasts top tables proudly focused on Brazilian cuisine. Must-stops include D.O.M. Restaurante, where star chef Alex Atala champions enticing Amazonian ingredients (think pirarucu fish and manioc), and Rodrigo Olivera's soon-to-open Mocotó Café. The new luxury property Botanique lures travelers beyond the city and into the Mantiqueira Mountains with its garden-to-table restaurant, obsessively curated collections of cachaça and Brazilian wines, and miles of trails for hiking and biking. Meanwhile, travelers looking for an alternative to the Amazon now have easier access to the Pantanal, home of the densest collection of wildlife in the Americas, thanks to new tours from such operators as Cox & Kings and Country Walkers.

The AFAR offices are abuzz over Australia right now as we plan our third AFAR Experiences event, set for Sydney this May. We love Sydney's iconic beaches, wonderful restaurant scene, and fabulous art, design, and culture. But we also love the fact that it's the perfect jumping-off point to explore the rest of the country. On our radar: the wine regions of Barossa Valley and Margaret River; the art and local food scene in Tasmania; the flashy new hotels (Hilton Surfer's Paradise and Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat) along the Gold Coast; and amazing properties such as Arkaba Station that make perfect bases for exploring the Outback.

Puerto Rico
A new crop of hotels has put Puerto Rico back on the Caribbean radar. For a low-key getaway this winter, book one of the 15 rooms at the new O:live Boutique Hotel near Condado Lagoon. Want to be closer to the action? Check out the newly renovated San Juan Water Beach Club and its popular restaurant Zest, which is gaining a following for its modern riffs on Puerto Rican food. Big luxury chains are introducing travelers to new parts of the island and attracting food lovers with restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs. The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort nestles at the foot of El Yunque National Forest, and a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property opened last month on secluded Dorado Beach, 30 miles west of San Juan. See the complete story here.

-- AFAR Editor in Chief, Julia Cosgrove

Photo by Petrina Tinslay.