If you’re ready to get a jump start on summer travel, here are our picks for the ultimate May trip, whether you want to lounge beachside, experience natural beauty, chow down during a food festival, or meander through medieval city centers.
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Looking for a Memorial Day trip or inspiration for a late spring break? May is the best time to take advantage of shoulder season in historic cities such as Stockholm, or if you prefer, to avoid rainy season and enjoy sunny days in Cuzco. Here are the 10 best places to travel.
May is good for: history buffs
The Swedish capital is made up of 14 islands linked by more than 50 bridges, and it is full of charms for people of all ages. May is one of the best months to go—temperatures are mild and days are long, but the high-season prices haven’t hit yet. If you arrive as early as May 1, you’ll experience May Day, when festivals and parades abound.
Get a sense of Stockholm’s medieval history by wandering the cobbled alleyways of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) and its many historical buildings and sites. Here, you’ll find the Storkyrkan, the city’s main cathedral, and the Museum of Medieval Stockholm, which tells the city’s tale during the age of nobility and knights. Catch the pomp of the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace (12:15 p.m. on weekdays and 1:15 p.m. on Sundays).
A favorite city retreat is Hagaparken, a large royal park just north of the city center. It has lawns, lakes, and woodland, not to mention three regal residences and the Butterfly House with its 700 butterflies flitting about. A great end-point from a long walk is Koppartälten (the Copper Tents), three copper structures painted bright blue and gold that resemble something straight out of a Narnia novel. Constructed in 1787 and once used as royal stables, they were designed by King Gustav III’s theater architect. Today, one of the faux tents houses a café.
Another popular city center oasis is Djurgården, where you can experience rolling Swedish countryside a short bus ride away. Besides being a lovely place for locals to picnic and take summertime walks, the island is home to many historical sites and museums like the Abba Museum, the Spirits Museum (liquor, not ghosts), the maritime Vasa Museum, and more. —AFAR Editors
May is good for: sea lovers, whale watchers
Located on California’s central coast about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, Monterey Bay spans 40 miles from Santa Cruz in the north to Pacific Grove; it is teeming with sea creatures, thanks in part to Monterey Canyon, a submarine canyon descending 6,000 feet below sea level. Visitors can witness the migration of different whales year-round, but in May there are opportunities to spot killer, humpback, and blue whales, which migrate through December. Music lovers can also appreciate the increasingly popular music festival, California Roots Music & Arts Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend.
Ranked among the world’s greatest marine museums, Monterey Bay Aquarium is the area’s main tourist draw and welcomes 2 million guests a year. Floor-to-ceiling glass viewing walls allow visitors full views of underwater ecosystems, like the Kelp Forest (where leopard sharks roam) and Open Sea (home to sea turtles and huge schools of sardines). Morning feedings of the African penguin colony and the always-playful sea otters are crowd-pleasing delights.
Active travelers of all levels will find a suitable land or sea adventure in Monterey. To truly immerse yourself in the local lifestyle, grab a kayak, get out on the ocean, and watch the clouds and coastline drift by. Gliding across the waters of Monterey Bay in near silence can be a humbling and serene experience, or it can turn into a bucket-list encounter with playful schools of dolphins or breaching whales. —AFAR Editors
May is good for: booze hounds, equestrians of all levels
The Kentucky Derby captures international headlines on the first Saturday in May, with mint juleps, elaborate hats, and edge-of-your-seat horse racing, but it’s the Kentucky Derby Festival that puts on the real show. Although there are events as early as November, the festival ramps up during the two weeks prior to the Derby, and pretty much anything goes: a steamboat race, hot air balloon chase, marathon, and concerts with big-name acts.
The horse race isn’t the only reason to visit Kentucky in May. Cocktail connoisseurs will appreciate the city’s reputation as the center of the bourbon-making universe, with most of the world’s supply coming from the city and its surroundings. In downtown, the elixir bubbles forth from gleaming copper stills at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Family friendly exhibits take you back to 1783, when bourbon making began, while production tours show how it’s done today. A few blocks away, elegant Angel’s Envy offers tours and tastings of its slightly sweet, port-cask-finished whiskey.
To visit the distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, you’ll have to road-trip into the surrounding countryside. Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail provides itineraries for 19 small craft distilleries or 18 big-name ones, and visitors can get a passport stamp to show that they’ve visited (and opportunities for prizes). If you decide to take the double trail tour, plan on at least a week to visit all 37 distilleries. —AFAR Editors
May is good for: adventurous spirits, hikers
The Andean city of Cuzco was once the heart of the Inca Empire. Situated 11,000 feet above sea level, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most visited cities in Peru. Although May is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s also the beginning of the dry season and hasn’t quite hit high season for crowds yet. The area is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and stunning swaths of the Amazon Basin, as well as Machu Picchu.
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Set in a remote, achingly beautiful corner of the Andes—all emerald peaks, snaking mists, endemic orchids, and meandering llamas—the most famous Inca citadel has the rare power to induce one of life’s pinch-me moments. To work around the crowds, consider a hiking adventure that puts you at the ruins before daybreak. The classic Inca Trail takes you from the outskirts of Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate over the course of three nights and four days. Though the trek isn’t easy—the Inca era was clearly the golden age of comically steep mountain staircases—there’s an embarrassment of riches along the way: the ever-shifting terrain, microclimates, flora, fauna, and plenty of Instagram-worthy views (hello, snowcapped Vilcanota Range), to say nothing of the Inca ruins sprinkled throughout. Another way to work around the crowds? Opt for a conservation trip with AFAR Travelers’ Choice Award–winner REI Adventures to help preserve Machu Picchu’s archaeological heritage.
Other amazing ruins to see include the terraced circles at Moray, believed to be an agricultural complex (but no one knows for sure); the stronghold at Ollantaytambo, which served as the base for the Incas’ Spanish resistance; and the underrated house complexes at Winay Wayna along the Inca Trail. All are near Machu Picchu, although some are harder to get to than others. —AFAR Editors
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
May is good for: active travelers, road-trippers
Melting snow and blooming trees mark the beginning of spring in British Columbia. Bears come out of hibernation, orcas and humpbacks start their migration north, and restaurants brim with spring seafood (salmon, halibut, spot prawns) and foraged treats (spruce tips, fiddlehead ferns). May 1 marks the start of hiking season on the renowned West Coast Trail.
Vancouver Island—which has the capital city, Victoria, and the wood-shingled surf town Tofino—packs a lot into its 12,000 square miles. Come 2020, there are even more ways to explore. In Tofino, where travelers can surf and kayak, there are new additions to the town’s flourishing culinary scene, such as the Tofino Distillery and the vegan restaurant Bravocados, and new suites at the Pacific Sands Resort. The reigning queen of Tofino hospitality is still the Wickaninnish Inn, however. Its renovated Pointe Restaurant and On the Rocks bar—all wood and ocean-view windows, with a bar fashioned from local marble—will open a new wine cellar and event space in time for World Oceans Day (June 8). A new, nearly 15-mile multiuse trail that stretches from Tofino to its coastal neighbor, Ucluelet, is in the works. Travelers can book cycling tours with Pacific Rim Eco Tours in Ucluelet. The island is also home to 50 First Nations communities, with many offering immersive ways for travelers to connect with Native traditions. Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours is slated to run three trips along the island’s northern coast that highlight various aspects of the Homalco culture.
By the way, Vancouver Island is about 70 miles west of Vancouver. A road trip is one of the best ways to connect with the land and sea: Travelers can rent a car in Vancouver and take the 95-minute ferry to Victoria, or they can take a roughly 30-minute flight from Vancouver and rent a car from Victoria’s International Airport. It takes 5.5 hours to drive the island from end to end. A more enjoyable experience? Opting for the Oceanside Route, which parallels the water as it leads through quaint towns on the island’s east coast. —Serena Renner, as seen in the January/February 2020 issue
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
May is good for: stargazers
The world’s largest salt desert, located in Bolivia’s high-altitude plateau, is becoming a luxury outpost. And May—the tail end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season—is an ideal month to visit: The flats, located in southwest Bolivia, are more accessible, and thanks to the mix of sunny and rainy days, travelers may be able to see the salt flats both dry and when they are flooded, which creates the surreal mirror effect captured in countless photos.
In May 2019, the Swiss outfitter Amazing Escapes partnered with Bolivia’s indigenous Jirira community to open Kachi Lodge, the region’s first permanent luxury lodge. The highly sustainable camp, located at the foot of the Tunupa volcano, comprises six solar-powered geodesic domes with wood-pellet stoves, bay windows, and incinerating toilets. Reclaimed wood furniture, traditional bayeta textiles, and artwork from Gastón Ugalde (considered the Andean Andy Warhol) decorate the lodge. Claus Meyer, the Michelin-starred chef behind the destination restaurant Gustu in La Paz, oversees the menu, and dishes are made from native Bolivian ingredients. Guests can stargaze through the onsite telescope, take culinary classes, get an art lesson from Ugalde, or explore with a private guide part of the otherworldly terrain that spans over 4,000 square miles.
—Nora Walsh, as seen in the January/February 2020 issue
British Virgin Islands
May is good for: snorkelers
Skip hurricane season (June through November) and visit this Travelers’ Choice Award–winner in spring, when the weather is balmy and underwater visibility is high, revealing colorful reefs and historic shipwrecks.
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Besides, with the reopening of several major resorts in 2020, this is the year the British Virgin Islands fully rebound from the devastating 2017 hurricane season. Richard Branson’s Necker Island reopened after multimillion-dollar renovations in late 2018, unveiling additional accommodations and wind turbines that produce almost all of the resort’s energy. Over on Virgin Gorda, Rosewood Little Dix Bay reopened in January 2020 with midcentury modern interiors that hark back to when the resort first opened in 1964. As for the Willy T, the beloved floating bar and restaurant destroyed in Hurricane Irma? A newer, larger replacement serves up rum-soaked fun just off Norman Island, believed to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
There are no direct flights to the islands from the U.S. mainland, but several airlines connect to Tortola via San Juan, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean hubs. Travelers who fly to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands can ride the ferry to Tortola—part of the local ferry network that makes island-hopping easy and scenic. Those who prefer to plot their own course between turquoise coves and pirate caves will find crewed yachts and catamarans ready to charter. —Kristina Malsberger and Lyndsey Matthews, as seen in the January/February 2020 issue
May is good for: nature nuts
Many consider mid-April to late May in Puerto Rico the sweet spot: Winter crowds clear, prices drop, and official hurricane season (June through November) has yet to begin. Travelers who want to experience the bioluminescent glow of Mosquito Bay (off the island of Vieques) should plan a trip over Memorial Day weekend to coincide with a new moon.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has rebuilt itself better and stronger. With renewed pride and increased self-sufficiency, the island offers a flurry of new enticements. They include new and refreshed hotels: in the Condado district, La Concha, dating back to 1958, has unveiled a $15 million renovation; and El Conquistador in Fajardo, on the eastern end of the island, will fully reopen this year. On the culinary front, Puerto Rico’s most famous restaurant, José Enrique, which features locally sourced ingredients, recently reopened closer to the beach in San Juan. There’s Spoon Food Tours’ modern chinchorreo, a party bus that makes culinary stops throughout the countryside, and the new Ron de Barrillito Visitor Center in Bayamón, where guests can enjoy tours and tastings and fill their own bottles with Puerto Rico’s oldest rum. In the capital, the recently opened entertainment complex El Distrito San Juan lures visitors with a concert arena, restaurants, bars, a dance club, and Puerto Rico’s first urban zip line. And while there’s no zip line in El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. national forest system, visitors will find fascinating species—including the Puerto Rican screech owl and the indigenous coquí frog—that have weathered the storms. —K.M.
May is good for: chocolate fans, food lovers
Though Zurich might evoke images of a city full of financiers in business suits, the historic lakeside city in northeastern Switzerland is also a lovely summer stop for travelers. And May is the perfect time to visit: Peak season has yet to strike, the weather is mild, and some noteworthy flavors are on display. First up is Food Zurich, an 11-day culinary fete that offers more than 100 food-centric events: Attendees get to taste both traditional Swiss fare and experimental dishes, take part in cooking workshops, watch talks and demonstrations by lauded chefs (kitchen battles, anyone?), and more. Then, from May 8 to June 7, the seventh annual Street Food Festival will take place. Sushi! Cupcakes! Dumplings! Tacos! And musical entertainment is on tap for eaters, too.
But perhaps the most thrilling event in May isn’t a food festival at all, but a building opening—the Lindt Home of Chocolate in Kilchberg, about 25 minutes outside Zurich by public transit. This May, the 65,000-square-foot complex will open, containing the world’s largest Lindt shop, as well as interactive exhibits on cacao and Switzerland’s chocolate pioneers, a “Chocolateria” where up to 60 participants can learn the art of chocolate making, plus a nearly 30-foot-high chocolate fountain. —Sara Button
May is good for: all types of travelers
“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,” British novelist E.M. Forster once wrote. “One comes for life.” Indeed, May is a great time of year for a trip to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, just west of Calabria, the tip of the Italian boot. May still counts as shoulder season; warm days mean the water is comfortable enough to take a dip but the weather is not as toasty as it gets in summer. Starting May 20, 2020, a new seasonal United flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Palermo Airport is opening up the beautiful isle to American flyers with the only daily nonstop option.
Even better? The gem of an island has something for every type of traveler. Love food? Snack on the freshest of seafood (think super fresh prawns and stuffed sardines) or arancini (bites of breaded, deep-fried risotto) or sweet ricotta-filled cannoli. Hiking more your style? Join a guided hiking tour to summit Mount Etna, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Europe’s highest volcano (budding volcanologists, take note: it’s active). Is “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” your theme song? Every May, San Vito Lo Capo, a seaside town with white sand beaches and turquoise waters, hosts an international kite festival. Have an ardent love of arias? Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s opera house, is Italy’s largest and reportedly has perfect acoustics; in May, catch The Merry Wives of Windsor. Consider yourself a flower child? During the Infiorata di Noto on the third Sunday of May, master florists cover a main street in the baroque town of Noto with designs composed entirely of flowers.
We could go on, but you should just book the ticket and let us know what your favorite part was. —Sara Button
This story originally appeared on February 20, 2019. It was updated on February 11, 2020, to include current information.