Oh, autumn—the rapidly fading beach tans; the cool, cloudy days; the return of scarves and real shoes; the hopeless search for somewhere still sunny. Deep breaths. We have ten distractingly beautiful destinations to help you make that transition. Trade Sunday football for a fly rod, and your power grip on pumpkin spice for a whiff of Caribbean nutmeg, and you’ll find yourself falling in love with fall again in no time.
Parched from a long, hot summer? Botswana's lions are thirsty too. And the best time to see them in the Okavango Delta is September through October, when prides cluster to marsh habitats for a cool drink. Autumn safaris to the world’s largest inland delta system provide easy viewing of thirsty buffalo, antelope, hippos, and elephants. Cool off afterward at Victoria Falls, which—at a mile wide—is the world's largest. If you plan to visit during the full moons of September 25, October 24, or November 23, you’ll be able to see the fall’s rare lunar rainbow, or “moonbow,” a phenomenon exclusive to the world’s most powerful (and least light-polluted) waterfalls.
September through November is Patagonia's spring, a less-crowded season of warm days with chilly nights best spent gazing at the snowy Andes from Tierra Patagonia’s heated indoor pool. The Chilean hotel and spa, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, is known for its one-of-a-kind experiences (horseback riding, asado barbecues, glacier kayaking, hiking in Torres del Paine), for its sustainability initiatives (LED lighting, an on-site garden, thoughtful reforestation), and for its stunning architecture (the wind-inspired work of Chilean architect Cazú Zegers). Whether at the hotel, or out on an excursion, keep an eye out for armadillos, pumas, guanacos, and indigenous ñandú ostriches.
Held in late September, the festival of La Mercè is Barcelona’s largest street party, now in its 116th year. While the gigantes and human tower castells are a must-see, the festival's brightest moment is the correfoc fire run. Over 80,000 fireworks ignite as costumed devils, dragons, and beasts parade down major thoroughfare Via Laietana. When the streets get too wild, drift one block away to the panoramic rooftop restaurant of the plastic-free Barcelona EDITION hotel. The mirror-glazed newbie opened just this September and is only a five-minute walk from El Quatro Gats, Gaudí’s Palau Güell, and the Picasso Museum, keeper of over 4,000 Picasso originals including sketches, ceramics, and Blue Period paintings.
80 different performers will be singing from the sands of Leopards Bay this September during Lake Malawi’s three-day Lake of Stars arts festival. Generating an estimated $1.8 million for Malawi's economy, the festival brings in local and international guests with music ranging from Malawian folk to the electronic dance music trio Major Lazer (this year’s headliner). At the end of the event, wood from the stages and festival site will be recycled into desks for local schools. Additional area activities include freshwater scuba diving, big-five safaris in local wildlife reserves, and the Stone-Age Congoni Rock-Art Area. Camping (and glamping) are encouraged.
Tunisia is a radiant autumn destination for every type of traveler. The sea is still warm enough for kitesurfing off of bohemian, history-rich Djerba Island. Cooler temperatures allow for pleasant inland tours around the country’s ancient archaeological sites, like the massive third-century Roman amphitheater ruins in El Jem. Shoppers tunnel past tooled silver trinkets and colorful lamps in the Medina of Tunis. Nature lovers flock to lakeside Ichkeul National Park, one of Tunisia’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and home to an abundance of fauna from storks to seahorses to a migrating flamboyance of pink flamingoes. And cyclists breeze through cork oak forests in the lush Khroumirie Mountains.
No city throws festivals quite like Germany's jazzy, pyrotechnic capital. Lucky for you, the top two on the bucket list can be scratched off in one fell, admission-free swoop: Berlin’s Festival of Lights (October 5-14) perfectly overlaps the city’s month-long Oktoberfest. Enjoy a nightly boat, balloon, or electro-carriage ride to see dynamic lights and videos illuminate every nook and cranny of over 70 locations, including Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Cathedral. After a night of lightseeing, celebrate Oktoberfest with live brass bands, traditional yodeling, and bumper cars. Then sneak off to a row boat or a picnic table at Café am Neuen See—a charming final stop for lake-side pretzels and beer. Prost!
The Japanese have been perfecting sake for over 1,000 years, and you can try 1,000 different samples at Saijō’s Sake Matsuri Festival, held every year on the second weekend of October. Situated just 53 miles southeast of Hiroshima, the festival celebrates the rice wine brewing season with brewery hopping, pop-up izakaya pubs, sake hot pots, live music, and dance. Make time for a ryokan mineral soak, hike through nearby Mount Ishizuchi’s dramatic fall foliage, or stick around for Saijō’s mid-October Danjiri Festival to see over 100 massive lantern-lit floats drift down the Kamo River.
Just outside the hurricane belt dangles the “Isle of Spice” known as Grenada—the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg, and a Caribbean paradise of rainforest waterfall hikes, steel pan bands, swooping palm trees, and sea turtle beaches. At Belmont Estate in St. Patrick, guests can experience organic nutmeg groves and a “Bean to Bar Chocolate Tour.” The tiny archipelago also boasts restored snorkeling reefs with underwater sculptures, a national masterplan for “blue growth,” and a recent government ban on Styrofoam. Locals suggest paddling to a dinghy concert, a floating, water-top jam only attended by boat. The floating bands change regularly and one song of each concert is always dedicated to Grenada.
Every autumn, Chiang Mai, Thailand, celebrates the ancient Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festivals with glittering light parades, Buddhist ceremonies, lanna dance performances, a massive late-night lantern festival, and a quiet sendoff of flower-filled baskets (called krathongs) into the nearby Ping River. Environmentalists urge attendees to only make krathongs from biodegradable materials, an appropriate request considering the baskets are traditionally offered to honor Phrae Mae Khongkha, the goddess of water. Only one mile from the river, the orchid-covered Golden Wells Residence offers a healthy breakfast and six clean and friendly suites. A fifty-minute drive west from the hotel up Doi Suthep mountain leads to 14th-century Buddhist monastery Wat Phra That—a gleaming golden-spired backdrop for releasing paper lanterns.
Lauded as the “cinnamon-silvertip Rocky Mountains,” by poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril, this western U.S. mountain range has no shortage of golden fall foliage. One of the best ways to see the leaves ablaze is in fishing waders. “Cooler water temperatures lure lake trout into the rivers to spawn, and blue winged olive mayflies are hatching—a perfect opportunity to catch bigger fish,” says Rocky Mountain Anglers guide, Ben Goss. Goss especially recommends Rocky Mountain National Park’s Big Thompson River, “a beautiful spot in the fall where you can find yourself fishing just a hundred yards away from herds of bugling elk.”
Cait Etherton is a Virginia-based writer and frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow her journey on Twitter @caitweeting.