Currently, I am totally in love with the PyBoard, available form AdaFruit in the US. The PyBoard is the reference implementaiton of MicroPython, which is Python 3.x ported to microcontrollers. Very nice implementation of Python -- a (very) few differences from CPython because you are running on a limited amount of physical memory on bare metal, but a very, very nice version of Python. I am telling all my robot-building friends about it every chance I get.
That said, the Arduino has a huge community by virtue of having been around a long, long time. You can get a RedBoard (my favorite Arduino clone) from SparkFun for lunch money, so if you toast one, who cares? I recently did a real, live, paying contract using an Arduino Micro, which uses a Mega 324, which a much more capable processor than the Mega328 that is on the basic Arduino boards. SparkFun has a "SparkFun Inventor's Kit" around the RedBoard that gives you a selection of sensors and actuators to plug in, and a project guide. You might like that as a way to get started.
Also... about blowing things up.... don't fear the magic smoke. As a youth I was deathly afraid of toasting my components. That probably had to do with my limited allowance :/ I would have accomplished more had I simply forged ahead, seeing the occasional dead component for what it is: the cost of tuition. The great thing about being able to buy a whole computer for the cost of a burrito and beer is that fear of magic smoke is no longer a thing.