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1. Milan, Italy
A revitalized city welcomes the world.
Sure, Italy is rich with romantic cities like Florence, Venice and Rome — but its most vibrant might just be Milan. And this is the year for tourists to explore its charms, as it hosts the 2015 World Expo.
Twenty million visitors are expected to visit the city for the Expo, a mammoth event that runs from May through October and involves more than 130 participating nations and organizations sponsoring more than 60 pavilions. The Expo’s theme focuses on food, nutrition and sustainability practices — a fitting choice for a city steeped in Italian culinary traditions. Highlights will include the Future Food District, a space to explore technological advances affecting the global food chain, and the Lake Arena, an Expo centerpiece with a mirrorlike pond and fountain fed by water from the city’s canals.
The Expo coincides with the completion of a number of urban renewal projects that are infusing new life into overlooked quarters, like La Darsena, a formerly dilapidated harbor that will feature tree-lined promenades, bike paths and piazzas. Historical attractions have also been spruced up, from the gleaming facade of the majestic Duomo to the restored canals of the charming Navigli district.
And Milanese restaurants are earning acclaim for their increased focus on diverse regional cuisines from across the Italian peninsula. You can sample everything from farinata and pesto-slathered Genovese specialties at U Barba to traditional Neapolitan pizza at Lievito Madre al Duomo, an outpost of Gino Sorbillo’s famous pizzeria that opened here last fall. New luxury hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental Milan slated to open this year, promise to dress up an already fashionable city that may just have it all. INGRID K. WILLIAMS
Related: “36 Hours: What To Do in Milan“
As relations warm, a Caribbean island is within reach.
Cuba has long been the forbidden island, a tropical bastion of communism whose mystique was amplified by the fact it was largely off limits to Americans. Now, as part of the détente between the United States and Cuba, Americans wishing to go there will face fewer restrictions, provided their visit is "purposeful" (strictly sun-and-sand holidays are still prohibited). The opening comes as life on the island is gradually changing — not fast enough for many Cubans, but slowly enough that those wanting to glimpse a crumbling socialist system, see the miles of undeveloped, glittering coastline and strike up a conversation in the back of a battered Oldsmobile still have time. While the issue of travel there is still politically polarizing in the United States, the travel industry is embracing this potential new Caribbean destination with full force. The good news, for Cubans and their visitors, is that the economic reforms — however limited — have created a constellation of privately-run restaurants and bars in Havana and provincial towns, many of them in beautiful, restored homes. An effort by the government to reinject life into Havana’s cultural scene has spawned vibrant new venues like the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, where the young, hip and better-off line up on weekends. Given the sharp rise expected in the number of Americans visiting, travelers should book early if they want somewhere to sleep during the 12th Havana Biennial, May 22 to June 22, an event that — as if to prove Cuba still operates at its own pace — rarely happens at two year intervals. VICTORIA BURNETT
The making of an urban outdoor oasis.
A series of projects has transformed Philadelphia into a hive of outdoor urban activity. Dilworth Park, formerly a hideous slab of concrete adjoining City Hall, reopened this past autumn as a green, pedestrian-friendly public space with a winter ice-skating rink (and a cafe by the indefatigable chef Jose Garces). Public art installations, mini "parklets" and open-air beer gardens have become common sights. The Delaware River waterfront was reworked for summer 2014 with the Spruce Street Harbor Park (complete with hammocks, lanterns and floating bar) becoming a new fixture, following the renovation of the Race Street Pier, completed in 2011, and offers free yoga classes on a bi-level strip of high-design decking and grass. The city’s other river, the Schuylkill, has its own new boardwalk. To top it off, this spring, Philadelphia will get its first bike share program, making this mostly flat city even more friendly for those on two wheels. NELL MCSHANE WULFHART
4. Yellowstone National Park
The nation’s first national park offers new lodging.
Yellowstone National Park will get a major lodging upgrade with the $70 million redesign of the largest accommodation complex in the park, Canyon Lodge and Cabins, with more than 500 rooms. Near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, five new sustainably built lodges, three of which will open in spring, will replace outdated cabins, and new walking and biking paths will link the village with the park’s North Rim Drive. If you’re heading to the park this winter, before those open, you can explore the frosty, untrafficked landscape with the nonprofit Yellowstone Association, which is offering two-day/three-night cross-country ski and wildlife-watching trips. And for the first time since 2003, park managers will allow self-guided snowmobile tours, by permit only. ELAINE GLUSAC
5. Elqui Valley, Chile
Stargaze — while you can — in Northern Chile.
The deserts of northern Chile, whose dry, clear skies and high altitude make for unmatched stargazing, have long been home to some of the world’s largest research telescopes. Those stunning starscapes, as well as more down-to-earth charms, have lately proved a draw for travelers, too. The heart of the astrotourism boom is the Elqui Valley, a 100-mile strip of vineyards and orchards on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, dotted with colonial towns and pisco distilleries. At least a half-dozen small observatories now cater to stargazers, while family-run hotels offer special domed and glass-ceilinged suites and in-room telescopes. But visit soon: Light pollution from new tourist infrastructure has already begun to dim Elqui’s magnificent skies. REMY SCALZA
It’s a year-long birthday party, and the world is invited.
Singapore is turning 50 in 2015, and the ambitious little city-state is pulling out all the stops to celebrate. Festivities began on New Year’s Eve with a huge fireworks display set to music over Marina Bay. That will be followed by the riotous Chingay Parade in February, featuring thousands of colorfully dressed performers. In the fall, a five-mile historic public art trail called the Jubilee Walk will be inaugurated, and the National Gallery Singapore opens in the grand former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, where it will house one of the largest collections of Southeast Asian art in the world. The showcase event will be the National Day parade at the site where Singapore’s independence was declared in 1965. JUSTIN BERGMAN
7. Durban, South Africa
A third city finds its place in the spotlight.
No one has bad things to say about Durban, per se; they will agree that its beachfront promenade is lovely and the weather is pleasant year round. And yet Durbs, as it is affectionately called, is often scoffed at by Capetonians and Joburgers for being a touch gauche. Well, enough of that. The city’s creative set is staking its claim on a hefty share of the country’s cool quotient. The reinvention of Rivertown kicked things off: The city enclave is now home to a popular market, beer hall and, coming soon, a raft of boutiques showcasing proudly local brands (Dirty Indigo T-shirts; Spine men’s wear). The beloved but dated Durban beachfront is also getting a serious upgrade, courtesy of new dining spots like Afro’s Chicken, California Dreaming and Surf Rider’s Cafe. Not sure where to start exploring? Order a bunny chow, the quintessential Indian-South African fast food (Durban is home to one of the world’s largest Indian communities), and join a city walk led by Beset Durban. SARAH KHAN
Finally stable and opening up to the world.
Bolivia’s days of relentless transportation strikes and roadblocks are mostly behind it. And travelers who try out the now tourism-friendly infrastructure will be rewarded with new attractions once they arrive. Claus Meyer’s two-year-old fine-dining restaurant, Gustu, and the Melting Pot Foundation are helping set a new culinary tone around the country by starting Suma Phayata, an official street food tour in La Paz, and renewing interest in high-altitude wine routes in the Tarija region. Adventure excursions also abound, from luxe tent camp trips led by the Chilean operator Explora across the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, to community tourism projects on coffee farms in the Yungas region, where a new road to Caranavi, expected to open this year will cut the travel time drastically from La Paz. NICHOLAS GILL