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The past 1.5 years have been life-changing, to say the least. If you’re one of the people looking to travel more once it’s safe to do so, including taking your first solo trip, this post is for you! I have compiled a list of 15 best destinations for the first time solo traveller. I took into consideration a couple of criteria, for your first solo trip to go as smoothly as possible. I imagine you wouldn’t want to deal with rental car insurance, major language barriers, corruption and other difficulties the first time you travel solo.
The criteria for inclusion:
- safety from major crime
- little to no petty crime against tourists
- non-judgmental societies towards independent women
- well connected international airports
- good public transportation (especially from the airport to the city centre)
- you don’t need to rent a car
- interesting things to see and do
- friendly locals who speak English
- helpful public servants (such as the police)
- free of corruption
These cities are all great and are not listed in any particular order.
1. Copenhagen, Denmark
If your budget allows and you’re just about to dip your feet into solo travel, go to Copenhagen. I lived there for one year and I never felt unsafe. The city is fairly small and compact and most attractions are within waking distance from each other. It is very easy to navigate and get around Copenhagen on bike, and there is good public transit. To get from the airport to the city centre you have the option of: metro, train, bus, or taxi. Personally I prefer the metro or the train (depending on where in the city you’re staying). Most locals speak great English and are very friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re lost or unsure of how many zones you should purchase with your train ticket.
Copenhagen has a lot of history and great architecture. In addition, there are many things to see and do, both free and paid. The city itself is quite expensive, but the locals have large salaries and enjoy a great quality of life. As a result, there are countless cafés, bars, bistros, and restaurants. The quality of the food is great, even fast foods are much better than in North America. A downside is that opportunistic criminals tend to visit this rich city to steal wallets and whatever else they can. So beware of your surroundings, zip your bags, and if you’re on a bike, tie your bag to the bike. That’s it. If you do that you have nothing else to worry about.
2. Oslo, Stokholm, Helsinki
The other neighbouring capitals are also interesting and safe options for first time solo travellers. However, these options may be even more expensive than Copenhagen and are not as easy to navigate on bicycle. However, they have great public transit options. Just like Copenhagen, these three cities offer plenty of free and paid things to do and see. They all have lively bar and restaurant scenes, with large selections of international cuisines to choose from.
Fun fact: From my travels, I observed that Scandinavians really like sushi. You can find it everywhere. And with these countries being around three seas, there is no shortage of fresh fish, particularly salmon.
These four Nordic cities are lively but calm. So if you are an anxious traveller, I recommend starting with one of them.
3. Berlin, Germany
An alternative to Nordic capitals for those with smaller budgets. Berlin is multicultural and affordable. The city is artist-friendly and there are many free things to do and see. And if you are a history fan, you will live, walk, and breathe countless experiences in Berlin. It is a very vibrant, youthful city and many solo travellers pay Berlin a visit every year. There is also a great party scene, so if you’re looking to have fun and meet new friends on your first solo trip, Berlin might be the place for you.
Berlin is a large city, significantly larger than the Nordic capitals, so be prepared to take public transit. But fear not, the metro system is very well developed and easy to navigate. English is widely spoken, particularly by the younger generations.
As a large, highly populated city, Berlin has its fair share of petty theft, so exercise common sense when you are in large crowds (such as the metro). Another thing to be mindful of is jaywalking. While you could get away with it in some places, DON’T DO IT in Berlin. Not only is it illegal, but there is a lot of traffic and you could be seriously injured. Also, older people will scold you for breaking the rules. Germans always follow the law.
4. Zurich, Switzerland
Zurich is great for those looking for a quiet city with a side of nature. Some may say it is quite boring, and maybe it is compared to Berlin (or other large cities). However, if you’re a very nervous traveller and you’re looking to embark on your first solo trip, Zurich might be the perfect start for you. You get to build and practice all the necessary travel skills such as: getting from the airport to the city, taking public transit, checking into the hotel, eating alone at the restaurant, reading maps and navigating the city, and more. But you don’t have to worry about anyone trying to take advantage of you while you’re wandering around looking all bewildered.
Having said that, don’t worry about boredom because there are many attraction in Zurich. There are free walking tours, plenty of museums, gorgeous buildings, and fun clubs. Walking around the city is easy and safe (including at night), and there are also efficient public transit alternatives, and bikes for rent. There is a great shopping and dining scene. As an international finance hub, most people in Zurich speak excellent English. Similarly to the Germans, Swiss people are law abiding. So make sure you’re no jaywalking! Otherwise, you don’t have to worry about much while in Zurich. Even petty crimes are very rare.
5. Vienna, Austria
Another German-speaking city, Vienna is famous for its imperial culture and traditions. There are countless well-preserved historic buildings and monuments, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, museums, and grand café and restaurants. Some of the cafés and restaurants (such as Café Frauenhuber) date back a few hundred years! Vienna is the perfect first destination for those who admire art and history.
You can easily get around the city by walking. However there are also bike lanes, and efficient public transit. Vienna is another city with a youthful atmosphere and a large student population, so most people will be fluent in English. When it comes to safety, Vienna is the safest city you’ll find for its size.
6. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
You may have heard a lot of wild stories about Amsterdam, but don’t let that intimidate you. The city is just as safe (and tame) as the other cities mentioned above. Depending on where you’re coming from, Amsterdam is perhaps one of the easiest cities on this list to get to, thanks to its large international airport. You can get direct flights from most cities in Canada, which you don’t get with other European cities (particularly if you come from Western Canada). And once you’re in Amsterdam, you can easily reach the city centre by taking a train from the airport.
Similarly to Copenhagen, Amsterdam is extremely bike friendly, making it a great form of transportation and sightseeing. In addition, there are multiple free and low cost activities you can participate in such as: free walking tours, strolling along the canals, people watching at a café, visiting the flower market, and more. And of course, if you are into recreational smoking, you can do that too in Amsterdam. There are also museums for those who enjoy both classical and contemporary art. The city is quite compact and it offers something for every taste and age, making it a great first solo trip destination.
7. Lisbon, Portugal
Sunshine, wine, delicious foods, great architecture and a relaxed way of life are some of the main things you’ll find in Lisbon. You can easily get around the city on foot, but in this case I also recommend taking the tram and metro as the city has a lot of steep hills. The moment you set foot in the city, Lisbon gives you such a slow, old-school ambiance, that you almost feel like you stepped back in time.
There are many things to do and see, including impromptu music and dance performances in the city’s squares. There are plenty of gorgeous, brightly-coloured buildings, museums, castles, and monuments to discover in Lisbon. In addition, the food scene is fantastic! There are numerous restaurants, cafés, small bistros, and food markets. And if you are willing to travel 45 minutes out of the city by train, you can visit the majestic Sintra castles and grounds. Lisbon is such a great city with all the necessities at affordable prices that many foreigners choose to retire here. The city offers a very peaceful atmosphere and crimes are very rare, so you don’t have to worry about your safety. But make sure to wear appropriate footwear so you don’t slip while going up or down the hill.
8. Nice, France
For those looking for a beach destination, Nice is the city for you! Similarly to Lisbon, Nice has a calm, relaxed ambiance with an old-school charm. But don’t be fooled, it is also one of the largest cities in France. It feels like a bustling, sleepy city. I know that sounds silly, but you got to live it to believe it. Nice has nice weather year-round and countless activities you can do, many of which are free. Stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, climb up the Castle Hill and get a panorama of the whole city, cool down in the old town, visit a food market, have a picnic on the beach at sunset, are some of the few things you can do. Nice is different from other beach cities because the beach is right in the most bustling part of town, so you don’t actually leave the city to go to the beach. In addition, Nice has some great museums for art lovers.
There are great transportation options, including a tram that takes you straight from the airport to the city centre. Nice has a large international airport, making it easy to reach from many countries. The city is generally safe, however it is a popular tourist destination and there may be some petty thieves, so watch your wallets. If Nice is too large of a city fo you, there is the option to catch a train to Menton. A smaller city, near the border of Italy, Menton hosts a lovely lemon festival in February. A must if you love lemons like me (I know I’m weird).
9. Montreal, Canada
My favourite city in Canada, Montreal has both European and North American influences. This is a great option for the North American traveler looking for a taste of France, without spending a fortune on flights and without the uncomfortable language barrier. The French history is still very much alive and thriving in Montreal. From the French-inspired buildings, the cuisine and bakery scene, to the slower pace of life, you can find French influences everywhere. In Montreal you can get by very easily with English only, unlike France (even in the large and multicultural city that Paris is you’ll have difficulties if you don’t speak any French).
From my experience, I find Montreal to have the best public transit in all of Canada, so getting around will be easy. There are great things to see and do, both outdoors and indoors (it gets cold in the winter). In addition to museums, landmarks, great food markets, there are also many interesting tours you can take in Montreal, including a chocolate tour (where you visit chocolatiers and taste their products). The city is very safe, with little crimes. However, it gets extremely cold in the winter time. MAKE SURE to bundle up; the risk of frostbite is very real!
10. Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver is an ideal first destination for the solo traveler who prefers nature, but doesn’t want to deal with car rentals. You can absolutely rent a car in Vancouver, but you really don’t need to. There are shuttles and public transit options that reach popular destinations such as Capilano Suspension Bridge or Grouse Mountain. In addition, there are many parks and gardens in the city, including the gorgeous Stanley Park. During your trip to Vancouver you can also catch a boat from Granville Island or Waterfront to go whale watching, visit the aquarium, or learn about native culture. And if you get hungry after all the adventures, Vancouver has some fantastic dining options.
The weather is decent year-round. It can get a bit rainy (as with any coastal city), but it doesn’t get too cold in the winter. There is an easy-to-use skytrain that takes you around the city, and to the neighbouring municipalities. With the exception of Gastown and Waterfront during the hight of tourist season, I’ve never seen Vancouver bustling; I even went shopping during Black Friday and it wasn’t too busy. So if you don’t like crowds, Vancouver is an option for you.
11. New York City, USA
My favourite city to visit, I will never turn down a trip to NYC. There is so much to do and see that despite going several times, I always feel like I’m visiting for the first time. If you’re not intimidated by crowds and navigating a big city, I wholeheartedly recommend taking your first solo trip to New York City. There is something for everyone! New York has four equal season, and there’s never a bad time to visit. That being said, summers can get quite hot and winters pretty cold (with a lot of snow sometimes). But don’t let that intimidate you. There are over 80 museums, and multiple indoor landmarks (such the the New York Library and Grand Central Station) you can visit. When weather is nice, you can explore Central Park, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, or go on a harbour tour. And if you want something to eat afterwards, NYC offers some amazing restaurants and eateries.
When it comes to transportation, you can get around the city very quickly and easily by taking the metro, which is very extensive. As the city has a large diversity of people, you won’t stand out as a tourist; unless you walk around with a gigantic paper map. There is a bit of crime in NYC (as with any major city), however, you are safe from getting pickpocketed; as long as you exercise common sense and you zip up your pockets. I always felt safe in NYC and navigating the crowds was not intimidating; not even in Times Square.
If you’re about to go to Asia for the first time, and you’re doing it solo, Singapore is a great option. It is an expensive destination, but you’re exposed to Asian culture with the comforts of Western cultures. Compared to most cities in Asia, Singapore has orderly traffic, so you don’t have to pray and hope for the best while trying to cross a street. The city is incredibly safe, with very good public transit. As an international finance hub, English is widely spoken.
As a result of all that financial activity, Singapore is a fantastic destination for some retail therapy. And if shopping is not your thing, there are many other things to do from visiting food markets and landmarks, to adventure parks and gardens. For the history and architecture lovers, there are some gorgeous colonial buildings that are well preserved. Singapore also offers fantastic nightlife with great bars, perfect for meeting new friends. And if you’re looking to get away from the city you can take a river cruise or go to nearby Sentosa Island. Wether you’re looking for a relaxing nature holiday or a bustling city experience, Singapore has something for everyone.
13. Tokyo, Japan
A great destination for those of you who are looking for a culture shock. Japan is a Westernized country in many ways, but it still retains a lot of its heritage. That being said, you won’t be able to read any signs, and navigation will take you a bit of getting used to. But if you are an adventurous person you’ll enjoy Tokyo.
In Tokyo you can do anything from singing karaoke in a futuristic bar to visiting an ancient temple. And if you like coffee (or tea) and animals you can visit all sorts of cafés from hedgehog cafés to owl cafés. Notorious for being expensive, traveling to Tokyo isn’t as expensive as you’d imagine. There are all sorts of inexpensive types of accommodation such as capsule hotels. There are also single person hotel rooms with lower fares than a typical hotel room, making it a perfect choice to save money while travelling solo but also enjoying a high level of comfort. And if you’re anxious about eating alone at a restaurant, Tokyo is the capital of dining alone.
Japanese culture is built on respect, so if you need any help with directions, people will be very friendly and do their best to help you. Tokyo sees a lot of foreign visitors (and workers) so you don’t have to worry about anyone staring at you for looking differently. In addition, some Japanese street styles are quite eccentric, so being different is not judged. In general Tokyo is a very safe city. It is one of the very few large metropolitan cities where you don’t have to worry about pickpocketing. However, not many people speak English. Young people know some English, but the middle aged and older generations don’t.
14. Seoul, South Korea
Another safe large metropolitan, Seoul offers a nice mix of ancient and contemporary culture. It is also a capital for new and moderns design (both in terms of fashion and architecture). In Seoul you can do almost anything from visiting temples, an abandoned amusement park or a poop museum. And if you want to do some shopping, you can shop all night at one of the many shops open 24 hours. Korean people tend to be a bit louder than Japanese people (while out in public), so Seoul is better suited for the extroverted traveller.
Seoul is very walkable, but also very large. Public transit is very good, but you should plan an itinerary in advance. Make sure to stay in an area close to most attractions you’re interested in visiting otherwise you’ll be spending too much time on the bus/ metro and not enough exploring. Like Tokyo, most people in Seoul don’t speak very good English, so be prepared for some challenges with communication. Another thing to keep in mind is that Korean people dress impeccably. So make sure your clothes have no tears or loose buttons. Other than that, Seoul is a very safe first solo destination for the extroverted adventurous traveller.
15. Wellington, New Zealand
For the traveller who is fine with very long haul flights, Wellington makes a great first solo trip. It is a colourful, compact city with lots of free and paid attractions. In fact, Wellington was named the “Coolest Little Capital in the World” by Lonely Planet. There are a couple of museums (many with free entry), hiking and walking paths, seals napping on rocks, very interesting street art, a cable car, Lord of the Rings tours, food markets, and more.
Wellington is a very walkable city, but if you need to use the public transit there are buses. The city is extremely safe, you don’t have to worry about anything. Except for the wind. Wellington is the windiest city in the world, so make sure you’re prepared for that. There are also some earthquakes from time to time.
These have been my top 15 destinations for the first time solo traveller. Note: I did not include some popular destinations such as London, Paris or Barcelona. The reason being these cities tend to have quite a few pickpockets. I also did not include small towns or rural areas as you cannot easily reach them without a car.