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10 Favorite Travel Destinations of 2020 (Ranked by Awesomeness) – A Year in Review

The definitive list of the most awesome destinations I visited in 2020 - and why you need to visit these in 2021.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Needless to say, I didn’t do much traveling in 2020. A couple of short trips before the pandemic hit full stride and one epic five-week road trip during the lull. But despite the lack of travel, I visited some really amazing destinations. Trying to figure out my ten favorites was no easy task, but here is the ranked list to inspire some travel in 2021.

A Year in Review

2020 has (thankfully) come to an end. It’s that time to have a Year in Review. I have rounded up my favorite travel photography, destinations I visited, travel experiences, and most popular travel articles of the year.

No. 10

Yellow Springs, OH

“You have to visit Yellow Springs,” Melody told me. I trusted her – she’s half of the writing team at Wherever I May Roam – but there was something extra in the excitement of her voice that made me pay double attention. After spending a couple days in Dayton, I made a half-day pit stop in Yellow Springs – and discovered one of my favorite destinations of the year.

U.S. Highway 68 – locally called Xenia Avenue – cut through “downtown” Yellow Springs. On either side of the road, quaint retail shops, coffee shops, and restaurants lined the road. Wide, clean sidewalks connected the pedestrian traffic through town that usually moved faster than the vehicles on the two-lane road. It would have taken only ten minutes to walk the length of town – but ended up taking much longer after hopping inside almost every shop along the way.

Clothing stores were plentiful, but my favorite local shop was Dark Star Books. Used books jammed onto simple wooden shelves filled the back half of the eclectic shop. Comic books, board games, and quirky puzzles were tempting, but I managed to walk out with just a few used books.

I got lunch at Ye Olde Trail Tavern. It was an old restaurant, but still served fantastic food. Thick steak fries with a delicious dipping sauce and a wonderful cheeseburger were a perfect way of starting a day in the small town. Across the street, I ended the day with a mocha latte to go at Dino’s Cappuccinos, a little whole in the wall coffee shop. Just as I was about to get in the car and hit the road, I stopped one last time to admire the cute town buzzing with activity. A pair of trash cans on the other side of the street caught my attention. They were the most artful public trash cans I had ever seen.

No. 9

Chagrin Falls, OH

The town of Chagrin Falls was built around – and overtop of – a gorgeous waterfall on the river of the same name. A staircase descended to a viewing platform at the base of the waterfall – and remnants of a much older stone staircase led to the river’s edge. The sky was a dull gray and rain pelted the top of my head but standing at the base of the waterfall I realized this was one of my favorite travel moments of the year and I had to return on a better day.

I returned just a few days later. It was mid-afternoon – I spent the first half of the day at the nearby national park – when I rolled back into town. Of course, the local used bookstore, Fireside Book Shop, was my first stop but hardly my last. I descended the stairs to the base of the waterfall – where I found a family portrait shoot spread across the smooth rocks – and spent half an hour capturing silky smooth photos of the waterfall.

I strolled around town for a few hours, visiting the local retail shops, capturing photos of ducks on the weir dam, and enjoying the peacefulness of the town. There was an energy in the air that rejuvenated my travel spirit – and a pang in my heart in realizing I could not spend the night. After a fantastic dinner at Flip Side Burger and dessert at their sister restaurant, Bell & Flower, I left Chagrin Falls behind with a vow to return someday for at least a weekend. I suspect I might stay longer.

No. 8

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I knew nothing about Cuyahoga Valley National Park before I arrived, and that left me with a thrilling sensation like falling on a rollercoaster. The first thing I learned was that locally the park was called “Urban National Park” because – unlike almost any other national park in the country – this park’s boundaries often blurred with the surrounding urban neighborhoods of Cleveland and Akron.

Since it was my first visit, I gave myself three days to explore the park. I chose a hotel in Macedonia – hoping it was near the middle of the park – and started each day at a different end of the park. The plan worked perfectly, although I quickly realized it would take much more than three days to fully explore the park.

The Ledges was one of my favorite travel experiences of the year – although a different experience at the national park made my year in review list. The Ledges is a geologically beautiful area with a parking lot on a small plateau and a trail that wraps around the edge, revealing exposed ledges of bedrock. During my first visit, I met a local couple with a passion in photography. During my second visit two days later, I returned with a tripod so I could capture better photos – and one of my favorite photos of the year.

Hiking and biking trails, a few hours at the Beaver Marsh, and a couple of waterfalls made my first visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park memorable to say the least. It was one of my favorite travel destinations of the year!

No. 7

Thomasville, GA

When I received an invitation to attend the inaugural Southern Traveler’s Explore conference, I jumped at the chance. Hosted in Thomasville, Georgia, the three-day conference was delightfully small and wonderfully organized. My favorite part, though, was arriving a day early and staying two days later.

Located in southwest Georgia, Thomasville was a pleasant small town with an interesting history: it used to be called the Winter Resort of the South. In the late 1800s, wealthy northerners discovered the town at the very end of the railway. They started buying defunct agricultural plantations and converted them into hunting plantations for visiting friends and family. It was the perfect place to spend the winter!

Today, the town thrives as a tourism destination. Pebble Hill Plantation is the only plantation open to the public and offers guided tours of the historic plantation house – that house has nothing to do with slavery. Downtown Thomasville – with wide brick streets – is filled with great local retail shops and restaurants. It was a great place to spend a long weekend and I hope to visit again when the new boutique hotel opens downtown!

No. 6

Blacksburg, VA

One of my favorite travel experiences of the year was spending three nights at the Inn at Virginia Tech – and that led to exploring one of favorite destinations of the year. Blacksburg, Virginia has always had a special place in my heart. Growing up just two hours away, I spent many weekends of my childhood walking across the Drill Field at Virginia Tech and spent my first year of college in those gorgeous stone buildings.

Returning to Blacksburg for the first time in about six years, I found downtown had changed, but the people had not. They were still just as friendly as I remember and eager to help as I explored the town.

The Virginia Tech campus occupied a great deal of time. I took a walk around the Drill Field – a large field in the middle of campus used by the Corps of Cadets for drills – and explored several adjacent paths. I’m not alone in thinking it’s one of the most beautiful campuses in the country and I took advantage of the approaching autumn colors to capture a few photos to showcase the grand architecture.

Off campus, I explored the small downtown area where I noticed the greatest change. Entire blocks had been rebuilt in the past decade with retail shops on the ground level and swanky condos above. I explored the coffee scene – and had to take most of it to go with no indoor seating – while hopping inside the Campus Emporium to load up on Hokies t-shirts and décor.

My favorite dinner in town was a delicious brick oven pizza from The Cellar Restaurant – a staple of downtown Blacksburg for decades. A close second was the fantastic pulled pork lunch at Bottom of the Stairs at the edge of campus. I think I could have spent an entire weekend just discovering the food and beer scene in Blacksburg!

Driving away, I felt a pang in my heart. It was the first time I had spent a night in Blacksburg since I was a college student living in Miles Hall. Walking that campus again I felt the energy of the Hokie spirit and started wondering…what if I had managed to graduate there? That “what if” will stick with me for awhile.

No. 5

Toledo, OH

Toledo was not only one of my favorite destinations I visited in 2020 – it was also the most surprising destination. I don’t know why Toledo has a dull reputation as a tourism destination – maybe it hit a lull long before I visited – but I found the city to be exciting.

Exploring the Toledo Museum of Art was one of my favorite travel experiences of the year. Room after room of gorgeous artwork from around the world in one of the most impressive museum buildings I had ever explored!

The National Museum of the Great Lakes offered the chance to climb aboard a massive cargo vessel and learn about life on the Great Lakes. Nearby Maumee Bay State Park – about a twenty-minute drive from downtown – was the first time I had ever seen a Great Lake. The food scene is Toledo was booming with places like Maumee Bay Brewing Company, Ye Olde Durty Bird, and the delicious creations by Chef Aaron Lawson at Fowl and Fodder.

Downtown was quiet, even on the weekends. Broken windows and constructions cranes dominated several blocks. The city is in the midst of a revival with public works projects and private sector improvements guaranteed to make Toledo a destination. I’m excited to see the end result in a couple of years, and I’m certain I’ll visit again soon because it was an amazing place to spend a weekend.

This is a destination I’ll be writing about throughout Spring 2021 during the epic series “Road Tripping Across Ohio.” You don’t want to miss that. You should subscribe to my email newsletter and follow me on social media.

No. 4

Savannah, GA

It’s easy to say Savannah was one of my favorite destinations of any year, but in 2020 it was a special reason. I visited Savannah for three days with a specific goal in mind: ride the hop-on, hop-off Old Town Trolley while exploring all the historic squares and writing a travel guide. It was an exciting time in Savannah!

It was one of the projects I wasn’t able to finish before the end of the year – but you’ll see this travel guide soon in 2021. While exploring the squares I found fantastic coffee shops, local shopping, met interesting people, and toured the American Prohibition Museum – the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the story of the worst constitutional amendment.

No. 3

Columbus, OH

On my quest to visit the capital city of every state in the country, I think Columbus ranks near the very top of favorite visits so far. It’s a big city – population almost one million – with dozens of neighborhoods to explore around the core downtown area. I knew it would be too much to do with a three-day visit, so I decided to focus on specific areas instead.

German Village occupied an entire day of exploration. I began with a guided walking tour with John Clark of German Village Tours. During the two-hour tour I learned about the fascinating history and architecture of the area settled by Germans before Columbus was formally founded. I browsed through almost three dozen rooms of books at The Book Loft and took a few books home with me. Dinner one night was at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Restaurant where I had a fantastic Weiner schnitzel, and the next night at Plank’s Bier Garden where I had a long overdue pierogi dinner.

The Scioto Mile Promenade was a gorgeous waterfront park through downtown Columbus. I walked through the park – maybe about a mile – enjoying gorgeous views of the city’s skyline and gargantuan Center of Science and Industry across the river. I visited the National Veterans Memorial and Museum – the only one like it in the country – and loved reading the stories of veterans during and after their service.

One of the most exciting things I did in Columbus was explore the Coffee Trail. With an app on my phone and special codes at each coffee shop, I needed to visit 4 stops to collect a t-shirt and all 17 for a coffee mug. I tried my best – I basically drank coffee morning, noon, and evening for three days – but only managed to visit 10 of the stops on the list.

This is a destination I’ll be writing about throughout Spring 2021 during the epic series “Road Tripping Across Ohio.” You don’t want to miss that. You should subscribe to my email newsletter and follow me on social media.

No. 2

Cincinnati, OH

2020 was my year for exploring Ohio, and Cincinnati was my favorite city in the state. As with all travel, I had done some research ahead of time to know what to expect when I arrived. But nothing could have prepared me for just how awesome it was to explore that city.

I quickly learned not much of anything happens downtown. There are a few shops, and I visited a bookstore with really old books, but for the most part everything exciting to do happened around the city. One of my first adventures was a trip to Findlay Market – the local farmer’s market in an old neighborhood. That’s where I met someone who told me about Taft’s Ale House – a local brewery and restaurant where I enjoy a fantastic dinner.

I checked another National Park Service site off my list after visiting the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. The park ranger told me about the Taft Museum of Art located inside the old house of the president’s brother, and it was an awesome place to visit. I captured one of my favorite photos of the year at the Cincinnati Art Museum and later that day enjoyed the stunning view the Spencer Overlook.

My favorite experience in Cincinnati – even better than having my first Five Way Chili at Camp Washington Chili – was walking across the Roebling Bridge. Built by the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge as an early test, the “Singing Bridge” creates a wonderful harmony as cars travel along the steel girders. That was my last memory of Cincinnati before heading back to the hotel and leaving the next morning.

This is a destination I’ll be writing about throughout Spring 2021 during the epic series “Road Tripping Across Ohio.” You don’t want to miss that. You should subscribe to my email newsletter and follow me on social media.

No. 1

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Although it might seem obvious to list the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as my favorite destination of 2020, this year it is because I visited for a very specific reason. In August, I spent three days exploring every mile of the Foothills Parkway – a little known section of the national park – with the intent to write a travel guide. That travel guide was the most popular blog article of the year!

The 38.6-mile Foothills Parkway was started in 1944, but funding has kept he majority of the scenic driving route from ever being completed. In 2018, a 10-mile section opened – the first new section in nearly 60 years – and it brought attention to the parkway again. However, two years later the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s own maps still did not list the new section, none of the scenic overlooks were named or marked, and information was scarce.

I spent three nights in Townsend – my favorite place to stay while exploring the national park – and spent each day driving the Foothills Parkway between Wears Valley and U.S. Highway 129. I drove the parkway end-to-end 6 times during those three days. I stopped at every scenic overlook, captured photos, used the Peak Finder app on my iPhone to identify the tallest peak viewable from each overlook, and even gave the overlooks names.

I wrote a good portion of the travel guide on my iPad Pro while sitting at each overlook. It was the best way to get all the sights, sounds, and feelings into words. From beginning to end – with the satisfaction of the guide’s popularity – this was my favorite travel destination of the year.

2 Responses

  1. What wonderful adventures. So much information, I cannot wait to see parts of Ohio it really is an overlooked state. Thanks for sharing, so glad I searched for Road Trips in the USA and found your Facebook page. Looking forward to many more adventures to follow.

    1. WOW! You searched for road trips in the USA and found ME? That’s epic. Be sure to bookmark my website – and you already follow me on Facebook – because for three months this spring I’ll be publishing LOADS of stories about my Ohio road trip!

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.

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