Last year we asked you, the Lonely Planet community, to nominate the destinations that you believed were using travel as a force for good in the areas of sustainability, community and diversity. You did not disappoint. 

Here are the winners of the Readers’ Choice Awards for Best in Travel 2021 — as selected by you.

Diversity winner: Toronto, Canada

There it is, carved into Toronto's coat of arms like a sailor’s tattoo: “Diversity Our Strength”. By the oft-unattainable standards of a city’s tagline, Toronto’s stands true: the Ontario capital is home to 250 ethnicities, who speak more than 170 languages, creating an invigorating verve in its enthic enclaves — there are two Little Italys here, three Chinatowns, countless others — and forming rich bouts of nouveau creativity where customs commonly collide.

The Toronto skyline at dusk, with a tall needle-like building dominating the shot. Lights are reflected on the water.
Toronto is the winner of the Readers' Choice Award for diversity © Mihai_Andritoiu / Shutterstock

From Poland to India to Malta to Greece to just about anywhere pointable on a map, the city offers travelers a metaphorical mezze of global experiences. You can sashay your snake hips at a salsa class, savor sarde a beccafico (stuffed sardines) made by a Sicilian chef, and then sip hot sake in a Japanese rockabilly cocktail bar, for little more than the price of a citywide PRESTO travel card.

Our readers nominated Toronto for its “rich indigenous heritage,” waxed lyrical over email about its “beautiful mix of history and people,” and described the city as “inclusive and welcoming.” Indeed, Canada’s largest city is a progressive and affable place, one that recognizes it was built upon the traditional territories of the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Wendat people. 

A parade of people. They are carrying rainbow-coloured balloons that spell out PRIDE
Lonely Planet readers love Toronto's inclusivity © Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock

With a growing population of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, a dedicated tourism organization has been created to help visitors experience authentic interactions with indigenous cultures: powwows; traditional fishing excursions; customary culinary delights.

“From an LGBTQI+ perspective, the city is one of the most gay-friendly and multiculturally diverse cities in the world,” says local blogger Ryan Thomas Woods, who runs Out With Ryan. “It's a city where you can be authentically you, hold hands, and kiss on the street almost anywhere.” 

A path, made up of a series of wide stone steps, weaves through dense forest
Follow ancient trails through Wakayama's primeval forests © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Sustainability winner: Wakayama, Japan

The wealth of natural beauty amassed across Wakayama prefecture — thundering silver cascades, marble-white limestone shores, deep primeval forests — feels like it’s worth more to the nation than the Three Sacred Treasures of the Emperor’s Imperial Regalia. 

Here, the Great Outdoors works as the Great Healer: natural hot springs soak heavy shoulders; slow pilgrimage routes cut through minds like they do rainforests; and meditative hikes across unspoiled mountains help calm the soul. No wonder our readers nominated it as their favorite sustainable destination.

A red pagoda stands among thick green woodland, with a thin waterfall cascading down a rockface
Tourism in Wakayama is managed sustainably © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

At its heart, sustainability is a form of preservation — an apparatus designed to alleviate the environmental, economic and sociocultural pressures tourism places on a destination. But our readers see Wakayama as more than that: “[It’s a] place where the mind is healed,” one emerging Matsuo Bashō reasoned poetically. “The experience of returning to nature [is] irreplaceable,” emailed another. Nearly all of the nominations that we received spoke eloquently about Wakayama’s access to the natural world and its pride in its ongoing upkeep.

“There is nothing contrived about Wakayama's strengths as an incredible destination for sustainability,” says photojournalist James Gabriel Martin who last visited in 2017. “With such unspoilt nature on offer, managing the prefecture and tourism in this way just makes sense.” 

There are opportunities for travelers to partake in rural Japanese life here by living off the land through WWOOFing at farms like Jugemu, or by eating sustainably at Villa AiDA, a restaurant that only uses ingredients grown in its garden. The idea is to educate people on how they can reconnect with nature.

A stone Buddha with a red ribbon around its neck. It is set in forest with beams of sunlight shining between the trees.
The monks at Kōya-san in Wakayama make use of the world as it is © Neale Cousland / Shutterstock

In fact, conservancy is the organic continuation of what has long existed here. Before organized religion existed in Japan, locals worshipped these forests and mountains, and it was considered a sacred act to walk amongst the tall thickets of the Kii Peninsula. The Kumano Kodō pilgrimage routes, which wind across the prefecture, are the same ancient trails that samurai and Emperors covered hundreds of years ago.

Martin believes that by allowing visitors to stay with Buddhist monks at Kōya-san, where you wake early to meditate and eat local, sustainable vegetarian food, and managing the diving amongst the coral of Kushimoto and Shirahama in a sustainable way, Wakayama makes use of the world as it is. “Here life has another rhythm,” he says, “and the beauty of nature reigns supreme.”

A hilltop village surrounded by vineyards
The Readers' Choice community prize goes to Istria, Croatia, for its many rich experiences © Lucertolone / Shutterstock

Community winner: Istria, Croatia

If you’re heading to Croatia, there are few undiscovered secrets left along the Istrian coast, the western landmass that plunges into the Adriatic like a protective heraldic shield. From pastel-powdered houses with envious sea views in Rovinj to a carefully-preserved Roman amphitheater in Pula, the region’s aesthetic appeal could feed the Instagram furnace for weeks on its own, but many of Istria’s true joys are found beyond the frame.

The readers who nominated it for the community prize alerted us to the rich experiences found inland, particularly homestays on farms and the laid-back local atmosphere of tiny hilltop villages. “The people living here are genuine and welcoming,” one reader told us. “Istria offers authentic and unforgettable experiences... each of which gives back to the local communities,” explained another. We also had one message from a reader unable to stop thinking about the coastal town of Novigrad, plus plenty of others fawning over the good wine, hearty food and a welcome lack of crowds.

A woman pours wine in a glass at an outside table of an agroturismo
Istria has incredible wineries, olive oil producers and farmstays, all contributing to their local communities © Daniel Alford / Lonely Planet

Tastings at artisan producers are among the most authentic, local experiences a traveler can have here: a small number of family farms have built tasting rooms so visitors can try silky golden olive oils, pungent truffles or crisp award-winning wines.

“Istria realised many years ago what a goldmine it was sitting on, and developed an excellent infrastructure for active and gourmet holidays,” says travel writer Mary Novakovich. “You'll find routes throughout the peninsula for walking and cycling that take in the region's wineries, olive oil producers and some friendly farmstays — known as agroturizam.” 

Novakovich recommends travelers check out Motovun, where an old railway track has become a panoramic trail. “The small towns and villages around here, including the artists' colony of Grožnjan and Buzet, are part of a network of agroturizam where you can try local truffles, white malvasija wine, red teran wine and the Croatian version of prosciutto, pršut,” she says.

See the rest of our Best in Travel 2021 winners here.

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