Whether you’ve vowed to travel more in 2018 or you just need a break from those post-Christmas blues, January is the perfect time to wrap up warm and explore some of New East’s most beguiling destinations. Stray a little off the well-worn tourist route and uncover some of the world’s up-and-coming ski resorts, towns brimming with UNESCO world heritage sites, hidden Cold War mysteries and the best of eastern European nightlife.
Here’s our list of top New Year getaways to celebrate the start of 2018.
Karakol and Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan
There’s plenty of great skiing to be had in Kyrgyzstan, but the most developed resort remains Karakol: a former training base for the Soviet Olympic ski team. Located on the southern banks of Lake Issyk-Kul, there is always plenty of fresh powder on the slopes and enough challenges for even the most experienced skiiers. It’s also an easy trip to Jyrgalan, a former mining village famous for mountain treks and great backcountry skiing. Plenty of local people are happy to act as guides, but check out Kasadin Musaev of Kyrgyz Tours. If you’re going with a group, it’s even possible to rent a fully catered yurt with 40 Tribes.
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
Quieter than Slovenia’s iconic Lake Bled, the Bohinj valley still boasts the same stunning alpine views and natural beauty. The lake itself is usually frozen in January, transforming the area into an open-air ice rink. If you don’t feel like hitting the ice, there are plenty of other winter sports on offer: the Triglav National Park is the perfect place to try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, with plenty of trails well off the beaten track. Nearby, Mount Vogel is one of Slovenia’s premier ski resorts, with breathtaking views from the summit across the Alps and Lake Bohinj below. If you need a place to relax — or just to warm up — then try the Bohinj Vodni Park, opposite Hotel Tripič. As well as water slides and a pool-side climbing wall, you’ll find massage rooms, a gym, and plenty of space in the sauna.
An alluring mix of old and new, Brasov is the perfect base for visiting Romanian Transylvania. The city’s Old Town has a tangible German influence, captured in the spires of its impressive Gothic cathedral. January means that the nearby Carpathian mountains will be covered by snow, providing the perfect backdrop for a visit to Bran Castle: the real-life inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you’re tempted to take a winter hike through the forests, head to the peak of Tâmpa mountain on foot or by cable car. At the top, you’ll find a panoramic view of Brasov and the local area, nestled in its own snowy blanket.
Famous for its cobbled streets and limestone buildings and perched on a mountainside, Gjirokastra is Albania’s city of stone. It’s grand castle hides secrets from the country’s socialist past: underneath the thick walls lies a Communist-era tunnel, designed to protect the local government in case war broke out, and the remains of a US spy plane lie in the grounds: a trophy recovered by the Albanian government after it crashed in 1957. Once you’ve explored the castle, head down to the bazaar, where you’ll be able to find a cluster of grand houses dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of them were built by wealthy Ottoman merchants, who made their fortune in this corner of Albania.
Today, it’s still the perfect spot to find some hand-crafted souvenirs, or taste the local cuisine: warming pasha qofte soup with egg yolk and lemon, or an oshaf dessert with dried figs, sheep’s milk and sugar.
With more than a million tourists crowding the streets of Dubrovnik each year, more and more travellers are skipping the queues by visiting off-season. The gentle climate — average January temperature doesn’t fall below 9C — means you’ll still be able to see Dubrovnik’s best outdoor attractions: whether that’s walking the famous city walls, climbing the Sokol Tower, or visiting filming locations for blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones. If you get bored of the main tourist haunts, then head to a theatre: the Dubrovnik cultural calendar continues in full-swing throughout the winter, gearing up for the Carnival of St Barnabas at the start of February.
Macedonia’s highest town, Kruševo is an up-and-coming winter sport resort with a romantic, old-school feel. A wide range of beginners’ ski runs means it’s a great place to test your skills for a fraction of the price you’d pay at western Europe’s busy resorts. And, if you need to take a break from the pistes, then the town’s picturesque 19th century architecture is a beautiful accompaniment to a winter stroll. For an Instagram shot with a difference, head to the Kruševo Makedonium at the top of Gumenja Hill. This modernist monument, dedicated to the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 against the Ottoman Empire, is one of a series of concrete abstractions, or spomeniks, built across the former Yugoslavia. Don’t forget to visit the nearby sculpture installation, The Breaking of the Chains, while you’re up there.
A gentle layer of snow is the perfect way to soften Belgrade’s sharp edges. The Kalemegdan Fortress is especially striking at this time of year, rising from the winter fog in the heart of the city. When you’ve finished sightseeing, head to the bohemian Skadarlija quarter, where traditional Serbian bars and taverns will be on hand with open fires and live folk music to chase away the winter chills. Don’t expect an early night: the city’s social scene hits new heights at Christmas and New Year, and doesn’t start to slow again until the end of January. Skip the pubs and clubs close to river, which tend to empty out at this time of year, and head to the basement party venues in the city centre.
For more inspiration of where to travel download our New East Travel Guide app. For recommendation on where to stay in Russia and beyond, check out our edit of amazing hotels and hostels across the New East.