After announcing visa-free travel for citizens of 80 countries two years ago, Belarus has recently extended its visa-free stay period to 30 days, so now there are no reasons left to avoid visiting the concrete heaven that is its capital. Walk the broad avenues and admire their grand Stalinist buildings, ride the elaborately decorated metro where many stations are listed historical landmarks, glimpse the poetic rows of high rises, or chill out in the various parks and ponds that make up the city’s Green Diameter. For a traditional meal go to one of the numerous Belarusian restaurants in the city centre — for example, the kitschy Talaka — the food is delicious and comforting, as Belarusian fare is meant to be. Potatoes are the crucial ingredient here, so indulge in the thick fried draniki (latkes) served with sour cream, the meat-stuffed potato cakes called kolduni, fried potatoes with lardons, or the mashed potato bake gulbishnik.
The western city of Lviv is one of Ukraine’s hottest tourist destinations, often described as the most beautiful and “European” city in the country. Situated just 70 km from the Ukrainian-Polish border, it is famous for its multicultural history, beautiful old town, and bustling bar scene. Walk the historical city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful Baroque, Neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings. Wandering around and peeking into churches, museums, shops, and old buildings is the best way to get to know the city. If you’re visiting in the summer take some time to walk around the leafy Lychakiv Cemetery and admire the intricate headstones whose varied styles represent the city’s layered history, or climb Castle Hill, which provides scenic views over the city. There are also lots of themed cafes and restaurants, and as corny as it might sound, visiting them is a must. There is a partisan-themed coffee shop situated in an underground bunker and another one that is styled after a mine, with tiny minecarts delivering beans; there are cafes themed around the history of kerosene lamps (which apparently originated in Lviv) and freemasonry, as well as a restaurant where you get served sculptures carved out of lard and a surprisingly SFW BDSM-themed cafe (turns out Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born here), outfitted with handcuffs and whips.
If you’re after unusual experiences, come and see the polar night and its ‘midnight sun’ in the Arctic Circle’s largest city — just don’t forget your warm jacket. Murmansk, which sits on a fjord, is just over 100 years old, making it officially the last city founded in the Russian Empire. The city isn’t exactly popular among Russians: urbanists, journalists, bloggers, and even locals often proclaim it unlivable because of the harsh climate, poor infrastructure, and challenging ecology. But the wonders of the harsh far Northern nature are still Murmansk’s biggest tourist attraction. The polar night in the city lasts 40 days from December to mid-January; during this time the only light the city gets are a few hours of twilight around midday. If you go towards the end of the polar night you’ll be able to participate in the First Dawn — a celebration where people gather outside to watch the sun rise for the first time after over a month of darkness. Tourists also come here to admire the Northern Lights between September and March. To make sure you increase your chances of actually seeing the Lights, refer to online how-to’s, consult a local guide or a travel company (they often work with research institutes who consult them on the chances of the lights appearing in the sky in any given period), and (crucially), get out of the city.
Saranda is one of the main destinations on the Albanian riviera, and the perfect place if you’re craving a heavenly Mediterranean getaway. Situated on the Ionian coast just 14 km away from Corfu, it boasts a beautiful coastline with white sand, lush vegetation, and crystal clear sea, as well as a lively nightlife and all the usual resort town staples. It’s so close to Greece that it makes more sense to fly to Corfu and take a boat to Saranda, as a bus from the Albanian capital Tirana will take about five hours. It gets quite busy during the summer, so if you can come slightly out of season, for example in September, you’ll still be able to reap the benefits without having to brave the crowds. There are enough day-trips and activities to keep you busy if you’re not the type to spend your entire holiday on a beach with a book. Visit the Lëkurësi Castle that overlooks the town; the interior, converted into a restaurant, might be disappointing, but the views are worth the hike up the hill. Butrint National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, features archaeological sites and ruins and breathtaking nature with many lakes, islands, and marshes. On the way there (you can get a bus from Saranda) stop off at Ksamil, a tiny village with beautiful beaches and islands, and Ali Pasha’s castle, a 17th-century castle in a slightly surreal setting on an island, which you can only reach by boat.
Constanța, on the Black Sea coast, is the oldest city in Romania and the country’s main seaside destination. Apart from the beaches in the city centre, Constanța has a resort district called Mamaia to the north of the centre, situated on a short strip of land between the sea and Lake Siutghiol. The white sandy beaches in Mamaia can get very busy, and partying in the clubs continues into the early hours. There’s sightseeing to go with the sun and the sea: hop on the Mamaia cable car to enjoy panoramic views, or head back to Constanța and check out the Casino, an intricately detailed art nouveau building on the city’s boardwalk. Built in early 20th century, it was once considered Romania’s Monte Carlo and hosted the season’s lavish launches. Now the building is disused, but you can still admire the architecture. Also worth a visit is the saltwater lake Techirghiol, to the south of the city and separated from the sea by a thin strip of land. This is a popular spa destination: mud baths are rumoured to improve your skin and overall health.
Frolic in alpine meadows, woods, and glaciers, and marvel at the bright blue waters of the Big Almaty lake in Ile-Altau National Park, situated just a short drive to the south of Almaty. It’s best to visit as a day trip from the city — you can get a taxi or guided tour, and the road to the park, passing through mountain ranges, is a remarkable experience in itself. There are strict rules within the park itself — for example, you’re not allowed to go near the water by the lake, or enter other protected areas — so make sure to go with someone who can read the signs. The nature in the area is extremely diverse, with alpine flowers, waterfalls, pine forests, and snow-covered mountain peaks. Bring a packed lunch as there is not much infrastructure, or consult with your guide — there might be an option to buy shashlik (grilled meat skewers) from local vendors. Going in the winter can be unpredictable as the roads get icy and dangerous. In this case, make the best of a bad situation and visit Almaty’s iconic Medeu ice rink, situated in the mountains nearby. It is one of the highest rinks in the world, and the clear mountain water and crisp air guarantee the best ice you’ve ever skated on.
Nestled between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa near the Macedonian-Albanian border, Galicica National Park is ideal for hiking, lake swimming, and exploring. You can stay overnight in the park: there are several villages strewn along the shore of Lake Ohrid with hotels, guest houses, and campsites. Stay in Elsani if you’re interested in mountain walks and climbing, as an extensive network of paths begins there. Go to Gradiste to see the Bay of Bones museum, situated on a tiny island and accessible by boat. The museum is a reconstruction of a settlement of pile dwellers who literally lived on top of the water, on a platform supported by up to 10,000 wooden piles anchored to the lake bed, the remains of which were found in the area. Those interested in seeing the underwater excavations for themselves can go on a diving tour from the nearby Amfora diving centre. There are also some old churches for icon spotting, and the Sv Naum monastery offers the option to stay in dormitories on its grounds.
Situated on the shore of the Baltic Sea a short train ride out of Riga, Jūrmala is a charming town filled with chic and shabby historic Art Nouveau villas and a 31 km sprawling beach with white sand and pines. The town has always been a resort and spa destination for wealthy Latvian and Russian families, and in Soviet times it was one of the most prestigious resorts for party officials. The town has a great number of hotels and B&Bs for every price range and the central pedestrianised Jomas Street is the heart of tourist life, with many cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops. The nearby Kemeri National Park, which is mostly a bog with wooden walkways built over it, is great for birdwatching, and the Dzintari Forest Park is populated with 200-year-old pines, a skate park, children’s playgrounds, and a watch tower. For those interested in architecture and public health a must-see is the Kemeri Sanatorium, a 300-bed hotel built in the 1930s with public funds. The building is now disused but can be admired from outside.
Images from top: Igors Jefimovs, Nigel’s Europe and beyond, Petar Milošević, artistidov, Z thomas, IonutDragu, ru:User:Rise2Rise, Ptahhotep under CC licences