Conveying scale accurately can be tricky in 2D games. There are other ways of conveying that "go this way to reach this objective" feeling, but you have to think about it within the medium itself, instead of trying to translate 3D methods into a 2D world.
A 2D view gives you a better awareness of all nearby objects than a 3D one - you don't need a mountain in the distance for the player to orient themselves when they spin the camera around, because they can see around themselves at all times. Instead, you'll want to scatter smaller environmental clues around them to let them know that they are going the right way.
Many open-world adventure games divide the world into "crossroads" and "paths". At the crossroads, place a clue that can help the player identify what they will find in each direction. For example, let's say there's a crossroads, and one path leads to the town, one leads to a lake, and one leads to a forest. Put a tree or two near the forest path, have a river leading toward the lake, and a paved road leading into town, and make sure they are all visible from the same screen. Each "path" can be more variable, but once the player has chosen a path they will usually keep walking that way unless there are obvious clues that they are going the wrong way.
One tried-and-true method that works in both 2D and 3D is to scatter "breadcrumb trails" leading toward interesting locations. This can include small pickups like coins, but there are other, more subtle methods - anything that the player will want to check out can help guide them, without feeling as restrictive as a walled-off path. One tactic I like using to help players find their way through towns (which usually allow the player to wander in any direction) is to always have at least one new NPC (or other obvious "object of interest") visible from every other NPC location. Even if the player can walk anywhere, until they get the "lay of the land" they will tend to follow the "trail" of NPCs in an attempt to check everything out. (This also lets you reveal information to them "in order" without being explicit about it - the player feels like they are wandering freely and talking to people at random, but they really aren't).
Landmarks are key. It's better to have a smaller world where every single screen has an interesting object or formation than a sprawling world where everything looks the same. This is true in all adventure games, but doubly so in 2D where the only clues the player has to their location are nearby objects.
If the destination is towards an enemy stronghold, you can place stronger enemies as they get closer. This not only helps the player find their way, it also keeps weaker players from traveling too far until they become stronger, without explicitly locking them out of high-level areas, and creates a feeling of progress and accomplishment when they have grown strong enough to survive in the more dangerous regions.
Finally, if you want to create the same feeling of "awe" you get when walking toward a vast mountain/castle/etc in a 3D game, create "lookout points" such as cliffs or the top of towers where the destination is in the background, using parallax and lighting effects to create a sense of distance - this is where you focus on those artsy single images. The use of this will restrict the orientation of your world somewhat - for top-down Zelda-esque games, you can pretty much only have lookouts showing objects to the north - but generally in games like these, mountains and castles are approached from the south anyway.