With winter on its way out, it’s time to book your getaways for the year. There’s never been a better time to head east, with adventure tourism, sophisticated city breaks, architectural excursions and stunning landscapes on offer throughout the region. Here’s our guide to the hottest tickets of 2018.
Situated in the Republic of Karelia in North-West Russia, Rusakeala Mountain Park consists of several marble canyons submerged under crystal clear water. The region is situated on the Russian border with Finland and features unique Nordic nature with hills, boulders, pine forests and waterfalls that look as amazing in winter, when they are sprinkled with snow, as in the summer, when the dark green foliage offers plenty of natural shade. The canyon was operational from the 17th century until late 1990s, and the marble mined here was widely used to decorate the royal palaces and cathedrals in and around St Petersburg. Now it’s been turned into a tourist attraction: you can rent a boat or go diving in the submerged canyons — since the water is so clear you will be able to see the marble several metres underwater — or go hiking in the park, where there is also a 400-metre zipline over the lake and the rocky shores for those who like adrenaline rushes. You can also visit the underground lake where walking platforms were built over water surrounded by intricately lit marble caves that will guarantee the best Instagram snaps.
Usually described as a “cheerful, charming, seedy and hedonistic port city”, Odessa is a seaside town in southern Ukraine. It’s most well-known for its beaches and the famous stairs leading down to the waterfront that were featured in a scene in Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin. The town also boasts 19th-century architecture, having been founded at the end of the 18th century by Catherine the Great, who envisaged it as the seaside capital of the Russian empire. You’ll get to enjoy intricate moulding and lavish gilded interiors if you visit the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet or the Passage hotel. Located underneath the city is what is reputed to be one of the longest networks of catacombs in the world, originally meant for limestone mining, now shrouded with legends of vanished people and criminal mysteries. There are several companies offering “wild” (meaning not officially sanctioned) tours of the catacombs. But you can have fun in the city without putting yourself at risk of a claustrophobic episode, as it has several popular beaches, waterside promenades lined with clubs and bars and pedestrian streets with cafes and restaurants. Odessa experts recommend going on a walking tour of the town’s backyards, which resemble Old Tbilisi in their homely atmosphere and architecture, and visiting the flea market adjacent to the Starokonniy market in the Moldovanka district — this is still sometimes considered a bit too seedy for tourists, so if you don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian try bringing a local with you just in case.
Sevan is the largest lake not only in Armenia but all of the Caucasus, surrounded by a national park and featuring a 9th-century monastery. The lake is most well-known for the iconic modernist Writers’ Resort, built in Soviet times by architects Gevorg Kochar and Mikael Mazmanyan on the shore not far away from the monastery, which now functions as an inn and still attracts tourists and architecture enthusiasts to this day. While summers typically get very hot in Armenia, Sevan’s location 1,900 metres above sea level, as well as the cool waters of the lake provide a comfortable environment. Seafood is another attraction in the area — freshly caught in the lake, fish is grilled over an open fire and served with herbs and Armenian flatbread. The Sevanank monastery, built in 874, is a short but intensive hike from the Writers’ Resort up a hill. The climb is worth it as the views that open from the top will be a source of some extreme FOMO for everyone you know. If you visit in winter, many of the villages on the shores of the lake offer winter sport opportunities, and as the temperatures drop pretty low you will get to enjoy the sight of beautiful snow-covered mountains over the frozen lake.
Situated on the coast of the Baltic Sea in northern Poland, Gdańsk is considered one of the most beautiful and historically rich Baltic cities. Previously known as Danzig, Gdańsk has also played a big part in European politics: dispute over the control of the city was one of the issues that sparked the Second World War, and it is also known as the cradle of the Solidarność movement that played a major role in bringing down Communist rule in Poland. The main part of the city is the historical old town, largely reconstructed to its 17th-century appearance, which also features Gdańsk’s most famous building, the Crane Gate that now houses the National Maritime Museum. Gdańsk is also home to one of Europe’s biggest street fairs, St Dominic’s Fair, which rivals German Christmas markets and Oktoberfest. The fair dates back to the 13th century. Because Gdańsk is a port city, merchants from all over Europe came to the event to take part in what was essentially a trade fair. Now the fair lasts up to three weeks and is a combination of a funfair, farmers’ market and street food festival. If you’re visiting, don’t miss the opportunity to try local foods, from the classic pirogi and dill pickles to grilled meats and local craft beer.
Chișinău might not be known as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities — it’s the grey concrete of the Brutalist architecture that draws modernist enthusiasts here. Over the course of the 20th century Chișinău was destroyed several times — by earthquakes as well as wars. After the establishment of Soviet rule after the Second World War, the architect Alexey Schusev, who was born in Chișinău and is most famous for building Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square, was left in charge of developing a plan for rebuilding the city. There are many notable buildings, so if you’re going on a walking tour of Moldovan concrete it might be safer to set aside two days. There is a useful Google map that details the most notable Soviet buildings in Chișinău — some of the most important include the Romanita Collective Housing Tower, situated a bit out of the city centre, the National Bank of Moldova and the disused Chișinău State Circus. If and when you get tired of concrete, venture out into the city’s suburbs for a visit to the local botanical garden, that more resembles a park with only some prim and tended areas amidst sprawling meadows — perfect for getting lost on a sunny day, less so for learning about plants. A foodie might also consider visiting the central market to try fresh fruit (especially grapes — Moldova is known for its vineyards in the New East) and the local brine cheese bryndza, perfectly salty and tangy and an excellent accompaniment to local wines.
Even though Krasnoyarsk is only the third biggest city in Siberia, it is considered by many, including the author Anton Chekhov, to be the most beautiful town in the region. This reputation is mostly due to its location on the Yenisey, one of the world’s longest rivers, and the surrounding nature of mountains and forests. The landscape is also how Krasnoyarsk attracts tourists: just outside of the city in the eastern Sayan mountains is the Stolby (Pillars) nature reserve. The park is named after the pillar-shaped rocks and cliffs that are the main attraction here, many of which have been given affectionate names like Grandpa, Grandma and Granddaughter. People come to the park to rock-climb or hike. You can also stay in the park’s small hotel, where there are wooden cabins for rent in the reserve’s “village” and you can hire a tour guide to show you around the Siberian fir taiga. The Yenisey River is another major attraction, and while you can enjoy some views of it from the city’s two park-covered islands, a trip out to the city’s hydroelectric dam, nestled between forest-covered mountain slopes in Divnogorsk, a town which name literally means ‘magic mountain’, is definitely worth the time. Or, if you're up for a longer journey, Sayano-Shushenskaya dam is the largest in Russia and the ninth biggest in the world. The sight of it is especially impressive and eerie when you imagine the sheer force of nature that it is containing. It is situated several hours’ drive to the south of Krasnoyarsk. The best way to get here is driving to the nearest town, Cheremushky, where most of the staff working at the dam live, before getting on a free Soviet tram that takes what is often called the most scenic tram route in Russia — on the way you will be able to see the Yenisey on one side and the Sayan mountains on the other.
Since Tbilisi is slowly turning into a new tourist hotspot, escape the crowds and satisfy your craving for Georgian food and wine in the quieter seaside resort town of Batumi. It was one of the Soviet Union’s main resorts, but lost most of its glamour in the 90s before heavy investment and restoration in recent years earned it the label of the Las Vegas of the Black Sea. Nestled between the sea and the Caucasus mountains, Batumi’s architecture itself is evidence of the town’s heritage, boasting a historic old town, a Gothic cathedral, an Ottoman-era mosque and a Roman fortress just 15 kilometres out of town. A new addition is the restored seaside promenade, complete with resort classics like a ferris wheel and nightclubs and casinos. The coast stretches for kilometres, so it might be a good idea to rent a bike. One of the main benefits of visiting Batumi, apart from the sea, is of course the food. The town is situated in Adjara, an autonomous republic that you have probably heard of because it’s home to the famous Adjarian khachapuri: a boat-shaped pie filled with melted cheese and butter and topped with an egg, the undisputed hit of any Georgian restaurant. Also available in pretty much unlimited supply is local wine (there are many wineries just outside of town that you can tour), walnuts and all the fresh produce that you can imagine, since almost everything grows in this subtropical climate. To walk all of that off is no easy feat but you can attempt it at the local Botanical Garden situated to the north of the town on a cliff hanging over the sea — its so large you might want to plan to spend at least half of the day here as you wander through nine different “zones”.
Karakol is the former training base for the Soviet ski team and now functions as a resort. Recommended as the most developed of ski resorts in Kyrgyzstan, the slopes at Karakol are good for both beginners and more advanced skiers, with the base located just 20 minutes out of town. Another short drive away from Karakol are the shores of Issyk Kul, the second largest saltwater lake in the world after the Caspian Sea, and the second largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca. You can visit it during the winter — the water in the lake is so warm it never freezes — and there are beaches on its shores if you visit in the summer. If you don’t ski, a visit during the summer months allows for a variety of road trips – for example to the Jeti-Ögüz protected geological area that is home to tall red cliffs and the Barskoon waterfall. The so-called Fairy Tale (Skazka) Canyon is also a short drive to the west of Karakol, and owes its name to its weird orange and red rock formations, which could be stage decorations for a sci-fi film about Martian civilisation. You will most probably also have to visit the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in order to get to Karakol, so while you’re there you can also explore the city and go on a tour of Soviet Bishkek with the SHTAB collective.
The Ćiro Trail is a new cycle route that stretches from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast. It follows the picturesque route of the old Austro-Hungarian railway line that ran between 1901 and 1975 through mountains and along the sea. Apart from breathtaking views of the surroundings you can expect to encounter old abandoned station buildings and charming small towns. The route is often called an “open air museum” and not for nothing: along the way make sure to stop and enjoy some UNESCO-protected views like the Old Bridge in Mostar, the Old Town in Dubrovnik, the nature park of Hutovo Blato in Bosnia, the famous Popovo and Konavle plains and the Vjetrenica cave, the Roman ruins of Mogorjelo and the old town of Počitelj. The cycling route isn’t an easy one, with a few relatively steep hills that casual cyclists might find difficult to tackle, and in the summer the sun is relentless, so bring your highest SPF. Unless you’re a pro cyclist, you might want to split the journey into at least two days and book a hotel stay in one of the towns along the way — although some enthusiasts prefer to bring a tent and camp along the way, which is legal in Bosnia although not advised as you might encounter an old landmine. In Croatia wild camping is prohibited, but the stretch of land that you cycle in the country is relatively short anyway as you arrive in Dubrovnik pretty soon after crossing the border.
Text: Sasha Raspopina
Images from top: Aleksander Kaasik, Alex Levitsky and Dmitry Shamatazhi, Marcin Konsek, Diego Delso, Willy Blanchard, Fakhraziev Alfir Magafuryanovich, Wojciech Biegun, Peretz Partensky, Bjoertvedt under CC licences
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Buckle up to discover ancient ruins and stunning vistas in the southeast Balkans