How do you decide where to travel? I have an ever-evolving Wanderlust List where I keep every destination I want to visit. I then explore those ideas further, using some or all of these 14 ways to find out more about a place. You don't need to leave home to do these, so even if now isn't the time for you to travel, you can still have fun and learn about a new place! Check it out!

Use a Wanderlust List to keep track of your ideal travel destinations

How do you decide on your travel destinations? Me, I spend a lot of time daydreaming when I have downtime, making additions to my Wanderlust list (I also call it a Wonderlust list). Dreaming is free, as an old song goes, and it also doesn’t carry any risks of Covid exposure. So, while we’re having a little collective timeout, let’s add to our list and explore a little more about where we want to go.

Then explore your travel destinations—without leaving your home

I’ve come up with a list of 14 ways to explore your travel destinations (without leaving home) that will help you learn and refine your ideas. Have fun with them!

At this stage of travel planning, the world is your oyster. You don’t need to consult your bank account or your vacation schedule to do any of this. It also puts you in excellent shape when you’re ready to do so.

Wanderlust List

Travel when you can

Sitting outside in my old backyard under the grape arbor one summer evening, my old neighbor took a sip of wine and said, “Anytime you have a chance to travel, just go.”

We were watching the big jets fly over East Somerville, as they did each evening. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so just go.” He looked back up at the sky wistfully; he had not travelled for some time.

I used my Wanderlust List to help me do just that

Later that week, I booked a trip to Lisbon. I’d added it to my Wanderlust List a couple of days before that after a friend messaged me when I’d pinned a couple of images of Lisbon to my travel Pinterest board, asking me if I was planning a trip. He had places to recommend if I was. “Not right now, I’d answered. Just dreaming. But I’ll take the recommendations.”

I had a feeling after talking with my neighbor, and when an email came through from Scott’s Cheap Flights with details about a reasonable ticket to Lisbon a couple of days later, I booked the flight. Five weeks later, I landed in Lisbon and had a most lovely short holiday there.

Wanderlust List travel destinations: Lisbon
Boys skateboarding on Lisbon's "Pink Street"

You never know what’s going to happen

Two months after that trip, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I didn’t travel the next year, except on business, saving my vacation time to be with her. Thankfully, treatment worked, and she’s still cancer-free five years later, but I still didn’t take off again on adventure for over a year after my Lisbon trip.

I think of my old neighbor’s words often these days. I’m glad that I took adventures when I could before, and I’m really excited to do so again. I’ve been making really good use of my Wanderlust List. And, I’ve also been taking little adventures by learning more about my desired destinations.

Wanderlust List
My Wanderlust List (it goes on and on)

Wanderlust Lists

There’s a little magic in writing something down, I think. Writing something down helps us to remember, and, I think also starts making something possible. So, writing down a place you’d like to visit, however unlikely it would be for you to actually get there anytime soon, is a step in helping to make it happen. This isn’t about how you’ll get there (though if you don’t have a strategy for helping you afford to travel, now is a good time to start). This phase of travel planning is all about

So, with that in mind, let’s get to it!

Start your own Wanderlust List

Money, time, Covid, and other practical matters aside, where do you want to go? Just start writing places down. My Wanderlust list originated in Google Keep, which I like, because it’s always with me for the adding. Whenever someone talks about a trip that sounds fascinating, I say, “I’ll add it to my list.” I meant it literally.

Don’t think about how you’ll get there. If you want to go there, add it to the list.

You could use  a notebook, or a regular document (a spreadsheet would probably work nicely) for your Wanderlust List. Just make sure to keep it with you, so that you can always add to it.

Wanderlust List travel destinations: Buenos Aires La Boca
The bright colors of Caminito, Buenos Aires

Example: Buenos Aires

I added Buenos Aires to my Wanderlust List during a Netflix binge of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown when I had a nasty sinus infection. For some reason, the episode grabbed me. If you’ve seen it, that might sound strange—Bourdain went in summer, a bad time to visit Buenos Aires (it’s very hot), but something about his experience of the city made me need to go there.

In my sick state, I immediately searched for “solo female travel Buenos Aires,” and then started looking at restaurants and where I might stay. I went on a Buenos Aires frenzy on my travel board on Pinterest.

Flights to Buenos Aires are very expensive, more than I could realistically afford without finding a bargain. I didn’t worry about that at all during my ideation stage. I just decided that I would go and that there would be a way to get there. It took me a while to get a flight I could reasonably afford (and that took me to Santiago first), but as I looked for flights, I kept looking into what I’d do once I got there. And it started with a spark and a list.

Refer to your Wanderlust List regularly

Every few months or so (or every day, if you’re like me at this stage of the pandemic), refer to your Wanderlust List. Maybe you want to move things up and down on it? Maybe there’s something you forgot to add, or maybe you’re no longer interested in something (I’d advise against deleting, as you never know, but you might move it to the bottom).

Wanderlust List travel destinations: Retro Longos Bufe
Waiting in line for the famous Lángos at Retro Lángos bufe in Budapest

14 ways to explore your travel destinations from your Wanderlust List (without leaving home)

When you’re looking at it, does anything really stand out to you? Vietnam and Cambodia have been at the top of my list for three years now, and the Balkans are close behind. I’ve been exploring ideas for those places for ages, and a friend and I are talking about going to Vietnam together.

But there’s also Beirut, Japan, Quito, Tanzania, Marrakech, and the list goes on (and on). I’ve never been to Ireland or Scotland, and I’m finding myself more interested in those than I used to be.

Exploring potential travel destinations is wicked fun, as we say in New England, especially if you aren’t thinking about practical matters. These activities are things you can do without leaving home, so you can get started now!

1. Film and TV

Check out films and television shows from your “destination.” Go high- and lowbrow. The combination will help familiarize you with the culture. This is easier with some destinations than others, but there’s often something out there. Plus, it might help you pick up some of the language, if you watch with subtitles.

Maybe make some food from the region (see below) and take a pretend vacation in your pjs?

Wanderlust List travel destinations: Reading Neurda in Santiago
Reading Neruda in Santiago, Chile

2. Literature

Get your hands on a book or two, and read them. This will help you to delve deeper into the culture. Poetry helps here, too. I brought my copy of Neruda’s Love Poems with me to Chile and read them in the evening, sipping wine in front of a window open to the Forestal Park below.

For my Vietnam trip, I’ll be getting at least one book from this list.

3. Music

The music of a place will help you to feel it in your bones. When I went to Budapest, I stayed right around the corner from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (I seriously regret missing concerts there, but I did happen to catch a practice session walking by an open window). But I also got to hear some snippets of some really priceless Soviet era pop at the Retro Design Center in Szentendre.

Interested in Portugal? Maybe check out some Fado. France? Try some French pop music. Fill your home with the sounds of your “destination.” It’ll be fun.

Wanderlust list travel destinations: street art, buenos aires
Political street art in Buenos Aires, Argentina

4. Art

Look up artists from the places you want to visit. What are the movements? How do artists express themselves? Is there a vibrant street art scene? If you’re really interested, you could get a book (those are often expensive), but there are usually good online sources for important art of a destination.

Note museums you might want to visit as well. When it gets closer to time to travel, check out exhibitions.

5. History and current events

Learning a bit about the history and current events of your “destination” can help you get better context for why things are the way they are. You don’t need to do a ton of research, but a little bit would certainly benefit you. Knowing about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution gave context to the damaged buildings in the neighborhood I stayed in, and the Jewish Quarter was not always a party place.

Wanderlust list travel destinations : Don Julio in Buenos Aires
One of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Don Julio, in Buenos Aires
Wanderlust list travel destinations: Gelato at Tufic
Midnight Gelato at Tufic

6. Cooking and exploring local restaurants

If you want to find out about a people, find out about their food. If you’re feeling adventurous, get a cookbook and make food from your “destination.” What’s the famous dish? Maybe there’s a restaurant in your area (I’m planning on heading over to Cicada Coffee Bar just as soon as it seems reasonably safe to do so (and also visiting my favorite Pho places in Boston). I’ve also gotten myself a phin from Nguyen Coffee Supply to make my own.

I’ve traveled some in my kitchen over the course of writing this blog. Last year’s post on Voisilmäpulla (Finnish Butter Eye Buns) was about re-creating a travel experience.

7. Where are you going to eat when you get there?

Restaurants are a highlight of many of my trips, so I always take a ton of time looking up where I’m going to splurge on a fancy dinner. However, I also take a lot of time figuring out what street foods I simply must try, too. In Buenos Aires, I dined at Don Julio, a parrilla that’s one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Afterwards, I got gelato down the street at Tufic, well after midnight with the locals.

8. Travel literature

Read up on your travel destination from people who’ve visited there. Use Pinterest to find them by searching for your destination.

You can also pick up a travel guide, if you wish (these are helpful for the highlights, but also search for things off the beaten path).

Wanderlust List travel destinations: children's railway budapest
The delightfully quirky Children's Railway in Budapest

9. Travel shows

Find some episodes of travel shows dedicated to your destination. Years ago, I found the Children’s Railway in Budapest because I watched the episode of Travel Man (on the recommendation of a friend. FYI: If you haven’t seen it Travel Man is hilarious, but Richard Ayoade is the worst traveler).

10. Local arts, culture, and food websites

Check out local blogs and websites to find out what’s going on with arts, food, music, and the like from people who know. If they aren’t in your language, just use your browser’s translation and get yourself in the know!

11. Instagram

Instagram is great for finding out more about a place. You can look up your destination and just start following some accounts (this works great for street art, too). Look for the untranslated name of a place when you’re following it.

12. Pinterest

Pinterest is one of my first stops when I’m looking into new travel destinations. This is a great place to find and store your ideas. Create a board dedicated to your destination and pin your websites to it. By the way, are we Pinterest friends?

13. Street View on Google Maps

Check out your travel destinations on Google Maps. Street view can be a great way to get a taste of what things will look like when you get there. “Wander” around a neighborhood, check out the high street, see some sights. When you get closer to your trip, make sure to use this to help you get to your destination the first time. A few landmarks can help with orientation. In the meantime, just have some fun with it!

14. Language

If your destination speaks a different language from yours, then pick up a few phrases. Duolingo can help some, but also look up some traveler’s phrases.

Bring it together

Hopefully after exploring your ideal travel destinations you are simply chomping at the bit to get there already. However, maybe your exploration revealed something that gives you pause. That’s great—it worked. Just deprioritize the travel destination and start with a new one.

If you’re raring to go, then it’s time to start on the logistics. We’ll cover that another time. For now, we’re just dreaming.

Do you have a Wanderlust List?

Do you have a Wanderlust List of travel destinations? I’d love to see it (I always need ideas!). What do you do to explore your possibilities? Let me know in the comments!