The Most-Breathtaking Balkan Peninsula Cities

A large swath of Europe’s landscape is occupied by the Balkan Peninsula, one of the continent’s oldest and largest settlements. Natural wonders and historic landmarks dot the territory, merging with unique culture, making it a popular destination with people from around the globe. From untainted beaches to towering mountains, luxurious resorts to ancient buildings, tempting dishes to homemade brews–the Balkans will draw you in, surprise you, excite you, and ante up abounding and unforgettable hospitality. From Albania to Macedonia and breathtaking Serbia, a journey across the Balkans offers a unique angle on Europe.

9. Bitola | Macedonia

Bitola is the second largest city in Macedonia yet the atmosphere feels so much more small-town than anything large. Sophisticated and charming, central Bitola is an easy place to get around, the food is fresh, uncomplicated, and tasty, and the locals have an easy, friendly way about them. Bitola has a handful of attractions to engage you easily for a few days. Sirok Sokak Street is the main artery, a lively backdrop of bars, restaurants, and shops lining the pedestrian-only, broad lane. Café culture is full-blown, creating endless opportunity for people-watching. Macedonian’s, along with the rest of the Balkans, love chatting over coffee, showcasing a social and relaxed way of life. Historical sites also abound, from fetching mosques to the imminent Clock Tower visible from all across the center of the city. The 15th century enclosed Bazaar, imposing Church of Sveti Dimitrij, and views from Bitola’s towering position at the base of Pelister Peak, the city is filled with appeal.

8. Belgrade | Serbia

Belgrade is Serbia’s most celebrated capital where layers of history, abundant cultural points, and a party almost each and every night has given the city an appealing reputation. Proud, outspoken, and adventurous, Belgrade is one of Europe’s most lively capitals, and though it’s more gritty than pretty, the rolling city hills showcase immense charm. Slowly, things are changing from good to better with plenty of gentrification happening citywide, seamlessly pairing with Hapsburg leftovers, art nouveau mastery, and socialist quarters, all dramatically contrasting with relics from the Ottoman empire. In Belgrade, the renowned Danube meets the Sava River where parkland unfolds alongside chaotic urban sprawl. A new world is evolving while keeping the old within its clutches. Quirky sidewalk kiosks, magnificent coffeehouses, and restaurants passed through generations flank Knez Mihailova, a vibrant pedestrian avenue lined by historic buildings leading to Kalemegdan Citadel, the city’s crown jewel.

7. Kotor | Montenegro

Magic seems to carve through every crevice of Kotor, Montenegro on the stunning Adriatic Coast. Enfolded in the Bay of Kotor’s south side, the city is enveloped by panoramic mountain scenery. Charm and authenticity are more than evident here, even with swaths of people spilling into the city during the later summer months, flocking to Kotor’s medieval and divine Old Town. Tucked between Kotor’s unpredictable bay and lofty mountains, the town of Kotor is ideally at one with its comely backdrop. History here began in the 9th century, evident in old buildings wedged together in one perfect assembly. At night, Kotor’s walls are spectacularly illuminated, seemingly protecting the treasures within–labyrinthine lanes of marble, small family-run shops, drool-worthy restaurants, and animated bars set around clandestine colonnades. Marina’s are crowded with the yachts of the super elite in warm weather but there’s no real downside–decent swimming conditions are lacking–any true history, romance, or architectural enthusiasts will have a hard time finding the heart to leave.

6. Split | Croatia

Croatia’s second biggest city, Split is one of the most profound of all European cities showcasing abounding ancient ruins. Traditionally one of the main ports for visiting the Dalmatian Islands, it’s become more of a destination than merely a gateway. Split has blossomed, and beautifully so, offering very much to fill the curious mind. Planning in the city has been fruitful with plenty of new, elegant hotels and trendy restaurants and with Krka National Park and the Mosor Mountains close by, the list of possible endeavors is plentiful. As the Riva (seafront) gets an old look updated by marble, the journey into Split is even more impressive and the atmosphere along the old walls immeasurable. Authentic Dalmatian life is at its best here, and always lively, it perfectly balances tradition with vicissitude. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most dramatic of Roman testaments and more than enough to wow even those who have “seen it all.”

5. Ohrid | Republic of Macedonia

Ohrid is one of those must-see places, a traveling cliche but a truth nonetheless. If in Macedonia, it is the place to go. Sitting on the sidelines of dramatic Lake Ohrid, Europe’s deepest, oldest, and most endearing lakes, it’s one of the Balkans’ most prominent summer resorts. Glorious Ohrid is Macedonia’s crowning jewel, stunning historic churches lining a rolling hill in the ethereal Old Quarter topped by ancient St. Jovan Kaneo, and with close by Gali_ica National Park and the not-so-distant and fairly isolated beaches on the lake’s east side, there’s not much to complain about. Most of Macedonia seems to make their way to the lake between mid-July and mid-August. From that point, nightlife is utterly chaotic and prices skyrocket–best to visit outside of the festive season. May and June, or late summer and early Fall are excellent, and far more quiet, times to visit.

4. Plovdiv | Bulgaria

Plovdiv is an explorer’s utopia–smaller than Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia but just as interesting. Delve into the ancient Philippopolis amphitheater–this Roman relic is a 2nd century marvel, only stumbled upon in 1968. Plovdiv is considered one of the oldest cities in Europe to have been constantly inhabited–the enormity of this fact is hard to swallow until a walk through the gorgeous amphitheater. The center is entirely charming, with cloisters of houses each topped with unique roof lines and architectural details so pleasing to observe and with just the perfect amount of eye-catching steeples for a small town. Cobblestone streets wind through Plovdiv, diverting to beatnik cafes, high caliber museums, and art galleries, captivating until the sun sets and another kind of entertainment comes alive. The nightlife in Plovdiv is excellent with a good choice of lively bars and clubs catering to the university town that also boasts some of the best Bulgarian, Thracian, Byzantine, and Roman antiquities in Europe.

3. Prizren | Kosovo

Prizren is Kosovo’s cultural capital and a top choice to strike out and explore one of the world’s most newly formed nations. Under the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was thriving, and today, architectural details remain from the Ottoman period. Scenic Prizren is a shining star with plenty of infectious post-independence elation and eagerness. In August, Dokufest sees the city come entirely alive and fill up with film-industry people from around the world. The international short film and documentary festival takes over the town with parties, exhibitions, and screenings. When on route from Albania to Pristina, the enchanting mosque and church-laden old town deserves a few hours of your time. The old town is one of the most impressively preserved in the Balkans, with a horde of buildings dating back to the 14th century. Check out an art exhibit in the old Pristzen hammam, explore the remains of the Serbian Quarter, see a panoramic view of Prizren from Roman-era city castle, and don’t miss the Shadervan, the city’s old stone piazza and social gathering point.

2. Bled | Slovenia

Lake Bled steals the show in Slovenia with seemingly glowing aquamarine water, waterfront homes nestled along the riverbanks, and a 17th century castle smack dab in the middle of it all on its very own island. Idyllic it is, scenic and relaxing, and on almost every postcard you’ll find in the country. Blue skies seem to crack open above the lake, shining down on calm waters and illuminating all that’s naturally perfect in the surrounding area. Walk the two-kilometer path encircling Lake Bled and you’ll what it means to take the “perfect walk.” If romance is in the cards, Lake Bled is a great choice but it’s also an exciting destination for canyoneering, cycling, hiking, and boating so bring your adventurous side along. As with any fantastic lake, Bled is swarming with tourists come summer–they come from far and wide. A fall or spring visit is just as picturesque and although the water temperature isn’t quite as soothing all of Lake Bled’s finest points stay strong.

1. Tirana | Albania

A possibly unforeseen addition to the list, Tirana makes the cut as a quirky and vibrant portal into Albania and a city with some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches. One of the most unusual capitals on the continent, Albania’s isolation from the rest of the globe for more than 50 years has created a city unlike any other. Spirited and dynamic, Tirana is Albania’s thumping heart, this diminutive part of the country has high aspirations that have coalesced into an animated scene of unabashed fun and bold consumerism. Since its communist period, Tirana has undergone an evolution of massive proportions, with a transformed city center and bold, vibrantly painted buildings, pedestrian-only boulevards, and public piazzas. Sweeping avenues are flanked with Ottoman empire relics and pieces of its communist and Italian past, from flagrant socialist murals to exquisite cupolas while traffic congests the streets in a stifling way, meeting headlong with pedestrians in a kind of controlled chaos that’s dazzling to watch.

10 Tourist Attractions That Really are THAT GOOD

Everyone has talked about how great it is, you have been planning and looking forward to it, you can’t wait to finally see it and then it happens. You get to the greatest tourist attraction the world has ever known, you take a look around, scratch your head and wonder what the big deal is. We have all been there, standing in line to get into some place only to wish we had skipped it. Although there are plenty of places that might disappoint, we have compiled a list of tourist attractions that live up to the hype and are totally worth visiting.

10. The Alhambra -Granada, Spain

The Alhambra fortress and palace complex in Granada is one of Spain’s main tourist attractions and well worth the visit. Construction began in the 9th century with a small fort but it was the years between 1333-1391 that the Alhambra was expanded and is what much of what visitors can admire today. The Patio of Lions is probably the most famous place at the Alhambra. Aptly named for the twelve lions around the fountain. The white marble fountain sits in the middle of the patio which is rectangular and surrounded by a gallery supported by 124 white marble columns. The Alcazaba, a fortress, is the oldest part of the Alhambra and one of the places with the best views of the city can be found in the gardens near the entrance. The number of visitors is limited daily with certain time slots given to you to visit some of the palaces. Even if you have a ticket you should plan to arrive early. One thing is for certain, you won’t regret having visited.

VLADJ55 / Shutterstock.com
VLADJ55 / Shutterstock.com

9. Palace of Versailles, France

From the time of Louis XIV to Louis XVI Versailles was the principal residence of the French King. The opulent castle has 250 acres of manicured lawns, gardens and fountains. The hall of mirrors, containing over 300 mirrors, reflect the gardens through the 17 arched windows. You can walk the halls where French history’s famous and infamous once lived, partied and ruled the country. People like Madame Pompadour, mistress and confidant of King Louis XV, Madame Du Barry, Marie Antoinette and even Napoleon. The palace has five chapels, over 1,200 fireplaces and 67 staircases. Created in the 17th century Versailles contains Europe’s largest palace garden, an impressive site in itself with trees, flowers, status, fountains and walking paths. For a glimpse of France during the ages of Kings, courts and extravagance Versailles is certainly the place and won’t disappoint.

Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock.com
Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock.com

8. Sơn Doòng Cave, Vietnam

If you are willing to walk 10 km through a dense forest on a small path then ascend down a cliff you can be one of the few people in modern times to have ever seen the largest cave in the world. Formed over a million years ago, the cave was discovered in modern times by a local man in 1990. The path through the jungle was so dense he could not remember how to find it again until he rediscovered it in 2008. Since that time the cave has been partially explored and discovered to be over five kilometers long with sections reaching 200 meters high and contains waterfalls, flowing rivers and an abundance of wildlife. Explorers attempted to measure a lake inside the cave but the rope they used only extended 200 meters so a final depth could not be determined. A five day, four night tour will set you back around $4,000 and be led by experienced cave experts.

Photo by: Travelled Paths
Photo by: Travelled Paths

7. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History -Washington DC, USA

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of several museums that make up what is known as The Smithsonian. Opened in 1910 the museum houses over 125 million natural science specimens and artifacts. An estimated 7 million people visit the museum each year. The main building contains 325,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. Exhibitions include meteorites and fossils, animal specimens, some extinct like the Tasmanian Tiger, stone figures from Easter Island and so much more. You have heard of the Hope Diamond? Well it is on display here as well. The blue diamond has a storied history and owners have included King George IV of England and King Louis XIV of France. The museum is open 364 days a year only closing on Christmas day and the best part is admission is free.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Washington

6. Vatican City -Rome, Italy

Vatican City is a city state surrounded by Rome and the headquarters of the Catholic Church. You don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to appreciate all this city has to offer. At just over 100 acres Vatican City attracts millions of visitors and religious pilgrims each year. Visitors to Vatican City enter through St Peters Square and line up to visit the Vatican museums. Visitors can view the Raphael Rooms where Raphael painted frescoes covering four rooms, St Peters Basilica, Greek and Roman antiquities and of course the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar frescoes and painting from other masters have been restored and now visitors can see the masterpieces better than before. There are many tour companies offering guided tours but the best way to visit is to take a personal tour. A personal tour guide give you a more personalized experience and deviate from the tour schedule so you can see things when the other tours aren’t there yet.

Vatican City Sunset

5. Ohrid, Macedonia

Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes and sits on the border of Macedonia and Albania in the Balkan peninsula . The lake, almost 19 miles long and over 9 miles wide, is a favorite destination in the region and home of the Ohrid trout. The Macedonian side of the lake has several towns along a 20 mile stretch of road worth visiting and spending a few days or even a week at. The town of Ohrid itself is a fabulous place to visit.  The city of Ohrid traces its roots to the pre – Slavic period and attracts people from all over the world. Known as the Balkan Jerusalem, at one time Ohrid had 365 churches and was the religious center of Macedonia. One of the best examples is the St John Kaneo Church which is one of the most photographed churches in the world. The Tsar Samuels Fortress sits prominently on a hill overlooking the town where cobble stone streets wind through the city. Small shops, sidewalk cafés nearby archeological excavations and the monastery of St Naum are worth visiting also.

St John Kaneo Church Ohrid Macedonia

4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is considered the largest religious monument in the world. Built in the first half of the 12th century it took an estimated 30 years to construct. Angkor Wat is actually one monument within the Angkor group of temples. There are 41 monuments and temples within the complex with Angkor Wat being the most famous and important. Angkor Wat covers 500 acres and has a moat with a long sandstone causeway crossing it. Galleries consisting of Bas reliefs and pavilions stretching over the temple make it an imposing site. Visitors to Angkor Wat are never underwhelmed by the site and the entire archeological site of Angkor, stretching over 400 km, can take days to fully explore and appreciate the wonders. A major cultural, religious and historical site, Angkor Wat should be on your list of places to visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

3. Koyasan, Japan

Listed as a World Heritage Site, Koyasan is an active center of Shingon Buddhism. Located 2 hours by train from Tokyo, at the top of Mount Koya, the area is a complex of Buddhist temples, halls and pagodas. More than 100 temples form this religious city. Visitors enter the city through the magnificent 25 meter high Dai-mon Gate where two statues of guardian gods stand on either side. Each morning the chief priest and monks of the temple hold services, chanting Buddhist sutras. Visitors to the area can stay at over 50 of the temples where monks will prepare your room and serve vegetarian dishes. Temple lodging, known as Shukubo, is popular in Japan and Koyasan is the best place to get the entire experience. During your stay you can rent one of the 25 bicycles available to explore the city.

Koyasan, Japan
cowardlion / Shutterstock.com

2. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The largest living structure on the planet stretching 2300 km, The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space. If that doesn’t impress you then you are really hard to please. Consisting of 600 types of corals, over 1600 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and manta rays and over 30 species of whales and dolphins, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the worlds most treasured eco systems. Visitors to the reef can enjoy scuba diving and snorkeling to get up close to the corals and marine life or take a cruise along the most scenic parts of the reef. Other activities include hot air balloon tours and helicopter tours of the area. The nearby Daintree Rainforest is a popular attractions as well as white water rafting on the Russel and Barron Rivers. Whether you want to lay on a sandy beach and go swimming, get up close to the marine life, do something adventurous on the rivers or learn to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef has it all.

great barrier Reef turtle

1. Disney World -Orlando, Florida

What? Disney World you say? Absolutely. What once was thought of as a kids theme park has evolved into a mecca of family and adult fun. Let’s look at some facts about Disney World. Disney World Resorts is actually several parks consisting of The Magic Kingdom, Epcot World, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. At over 30,000 acres it is about the size of San Francisco. Over 48 million people visit the resort each year. It’s not just for kids. The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival features celebrity chefs, mixology seminars, craft beers and wines from around the world. Some of the resorts run by Disney are geared more for adults than others with upscale dining, spas and gold courses. Stay at the Disney Yacht Club where you can dine on mouthwatering steaks at the Yachtsman Steak House and take a boat ride to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. With everything to offer it is possible to spend a couple of weeks and still not come close to doing everything.

Photo by: Vii Know
Photo by: Vii Knowstate-flori

The Cheapest Cities for Expats to Live Around the World

With so many reports and studies on the world’s most expensive or most livable cities, we have a refreshing new take on the subject with the least expensive places to live in, housing costs and all. This list is intriguing for adventure travelers and expatriates looking for a nice place to spend a year abroad or to settle down in one of the cheapest places to retire. Some places are affordable and nice through circumstances beyond their control, others are inexpensive because they are lousy places to change planes on a layover, let alone spend time living in. But some of the following are diamonds in the rough that you may not have heard of and you’ll definitely want to find out more about. So here is the list of the cheapest cities for expats to live around in the world.

10. Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi is an obscure place off the beaten path, but not for much longer. It’s said to be the next must-see wine destination. The winemaking tradition here goes back about 4000 years. Strikingly set on cliffs, bisected by a river, the architecture and cuisine of Tbilisi is a crazy, critically-acclaimed fusion of East, West, Russian and Near Eastern. The old city is a beautiful rabbit-warren of narrow streets and alleys. Instead of Starbucks coffee shops, there are wine bars on every corner. The beautiful wine route through stunning scenery is largely unknown – for now. A little apartment just outside town is barely $200 a month. It is a shockingly poor country. Sixty per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. There are signs of better days ahead but still, Tbilisi will remain a memorable place to visit or live at any price.

Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

9. Managua, Nicaragua

Managua is one of those old, down at the heels, completely charming Latin American cities that resembles that past as if time simply stopped moving back in 1962. According to Numbeo, three bedroom apartments downtown can still be had for $466 a month. Or as the legendary Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians sang in a 1946 recording, “Managua, Nicaragua is a beautiful town/You buy a hacienda for a few pesos down”. Actually real estate prices are on the rise as it becomes more popular as a retirement destination and a place for expats to chill for a spell. Always warm, a cultural and financial center and a university town, it has cheap fine-dining, crazy markets, insane traffic, occasional garbage collection, and proximity to some impressive natural beauty. Guidebooks warn about wearing flashy jewelry at night, but the same be said of Cleveland.

Managua, Nicaragua

8. Cape Town, South Africa

A heavenly alignment of the economic planets for expats as the South African Rand is hitting fifteen year lows with no letup in sight, making one of the world’s great destinations ridiculously affordable. It’s no accident that more people visit Cape Town than the Great Pyramids. The one-bedroom downtown apartment is $600 and a meal at McDonald’s is $3.80. That’s not to suggest you should eat there all the time or even at all, but it is an uncannily accurate reflection of the cost of living. Yes there is crime and the tragic sadness of the Apartheid townships. But they should remind you how far this country has come and that you are truly blessed to see Table Top Mountain as you leave your flat every day. It’s also a great treat to be able to make a quick drive to some of the world’s best vineyards and feel the presence of greatness in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island.

Cape Town South Africa

7. Minsk, Belarus

Poor Minsk needs a little travel lovin’. Its battered economy sinks deeper every day with that of its biggest customer while Russia disintegrates with the effects of sanctions for invading Ukraine and the disappearing price of oil. But even 40 years ago, in his 1975 comedy Love and Death, Woody Allen uses Minsk as the setting for The Village Idiots Convention. It does have its cosmopolitan side but still, it is a virtual police state run by Alexander Lukashenko, a poor man’s Vladimir Putin whose views seem locked in a Cold War era time warp. They make great beer but seriously, when one of the 10 Best Tourist Attractions is the one time home of convicted Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, it makes you think twice about hanging here for long.

Minsk, Belarus
Grisha Bruev / Shutterstock.com

6. Banjul, Gambia

Banjul is a little jewel on an island in the Gambia River in The Gambia of which it is the capital. It has a wonderful market, a charming if decrepit old town and only 43,000 people. Stunning beaches. The languorous pace of life that agrarian societies have. Lonely Planet calls it “urban Africa at its best”.  Its main economic staple is the growing and processing of peanuts, which is apt since that’s what its currency is worth. The annual per capita Gross Domestic Product is $1700 USD which puts it down there with the likes of North Korea and South Sudan. It can be a nice place, maybe even idyllic, but sometimes abject poverty and the persecution of innocent minorities can take the shine away. A small cost can sometimes come at a high price which might be why the expat community is on the small side here.

Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

5. Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje is a cheap place to live looking at all the comparisons. A pound of chicken is $2.31 and the three-bedroom downtown apartment is $422. Walmart can’t match these prices. Plus it’s just been given a modern facelift though it still has an ancient fortress dating back to the fifth century, a fantastic old bazaar second only to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and breathtaking mountain lakes and canyons nearby. Lonely Planet says it has some of the most affordable dining in Europe. It is two hours and 47 minutes by car to the renowned beaches and nightlife of Thessaloniki in Greece. It does have an unemployment rate of 27%, but this is a travel site you won’t find advertised online. Talk about a hidden gem!

Andrei Tudoran / Shutterstock.com
Andrei Tudoran / Shutterstock.com

4. Tunis, Tunisia

Recent terrorist attacks, responsibility for which has been claimed by Islamic State militants will wreak havoc on the country’s already fragile economy. At least half a million jobs depend on a tourism sector worth over $20 billion and that should be in past tense. The wonderful beaches and the sublime combination of Arab, French and African influences will be cheaper to experience but expats, especially Westerners, will need an amazing reason to settle there. The U.S. State Department advises “U.S. citizens in Tunisia maintain a high level of vigilance, as terrorism remains a significant concern”. It doesn’t really sound like now is the time or place to look for bargains here, now does it?

Tunis, Tunisia

3. Karachi, Pakistan

It sounds fantastic with a wealthy industrial, commercial, artistic and financial hub, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Called the City of Lights for its nonstop nightlife. Close to fabulous beaches on the Arabian Sea. Less than $400 for a three bedroom place in the city. What’s not to like? You can’t help but wonder why it is so cheap. Unfortunately, it is not ideal in terms of deadly heat waves, unsustainable power accessibility and high rates of crime. So, if you can look past these headlines, it’s one of the cheapest places to travel in the world.

Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com
Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com

2. Windhoek, Namibia

Windhoek is the capital of Namibia and largest city in the country. It has a westernized appearance and wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in North America. Well, except for north of the Tree Line. It is clean, relatively safe, with a stable and occasionally corrupt government it is magically placed in one of the world’s most biodiverse and scenic nations. Numbeo.com says a one-bedroom apartment is $491 a month. Most expats can find work in the booming tourism business or the uranium and diamond mining companies. Main courses at the best African cuisine restaurants start at $8. Talk about a cheap date! Those who have traveled here rave about the ecotourism and safaris throughout gorgeous orange deserts. The New York Times put it at #6 of world’s destinations to see. Decent wine at $4.83? What are we waiting for -grab a wine glass and go!

Grobler du Preez / Shutterstock.com
Grobler du Preez / Shutterstock.com

1. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

At 63 Kyrgyzstani Som to the dollar, a gin and tonic sets you back about a buck and a half while dinner will be five to 10 dollars. If you must, Marlboro’s are 86 cents a pack. According to the Expatistan cost of living chart, the rent for a two bedroom apartment in the expensive part of town is $763 USD. That’s about one-ninth the cost for a similar place in the survey’s most expensive city, Luanda, Angola. Many of the expats who travel here work the gold mines or teach English to students. It’s not the safest place to travel, but when visiting here be sure to take a tour along the legendary Silk Road.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

THE Top 20 Places to Be in 2015

Early in 2015, the venerable New York Times published its list of ’52  Places To Go To This Year’. Its reasoning rested on the observation that “Untrammeled oases beckon, once-avoided destinations become must-sees and familiar cities offer new reasons to visit.” Its philosophy seems to be that it’s time to stop fighting our way into the overcrowded, stratospherically expensive established sites. Most of the list that follows features three qualities: great food, novelty and at least one United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site defined as “places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity”. There are 1007 UNESCO sites in all as of this writing and the places below contain almost 200 of them. Provence and Tuscany? How about Georgia with terrific wine, breathtaking scenery and enough history for a bus full of PhDs. Tired of the prices and lineups in Greece? There’s this little fishing village on the Turkish Riviera. It’s a great idea. Let’s change it up a bit here people. Do something original.  How about a feast of muskox on a sub-Arctic speck of rock in the North Atlantic? Beyond that there are some tourism plain Janes who have suddenly let down their hair and are proving to be quite fetching. And there’s a promising crop of the shunned or unavailable who are opening up their unseen treasures. The war in Sri Lanka, with its seven World Heritage Sites is over. The pariah state of Zimbabwe with its incredible wildlife, savannahs, is behaving. So, in the spirit of the Times, here are the best of the best. Twenty totally fresh ways to seriously renovate your travel itinerary:

20. Kas, Turkey

Less expensive than Greece, far less overrun than other places in the region, Kas is a happening place. This little fishing village on the Turkish Riviera, the Turquoise Coast is one of those ever-dwindling number of getaways where you can still get away. It has all the active seaside things you’d want: kayaking, trekking and serious diving (with wrecks and underwater sculpture). One Times reader called it “a must for nature lovers”. To firm up both the mind and the thighs, there are hikes along the Lycian Way to see tombs from the pre-Roman Empire. The elaborate ones carved into the mountainsides are extremely impressive and the best ones are a 45 minute drive away in Xanthos. Pronounced “Cash”, it won’t take a lot of yours to enjoy quality down time without the partying hordes.

Kas, Turkey

19. Baku, Azerbaijan

Begin with the walled city dating from the 12th century. UNESCO calls the 15th century Shuirvinshaj’s palace “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture which reflects evidence of Zoroastrian, Sasanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian presence”. Looming over the ancient streets is the gaudy modernity of the Flames Towers, a pair of 600 foot buildings, flame shaped, with thousands of LED lights whose ‘flames’ can be seen for miles. It works as an elegant combination of very old and very new as oil money brings the Mercedes, caviar crowd onto the medieval streets.

Ramil Aliyev / Shutterstock.com
Ramil Aliyev / Shutterstock.com

18. Cáceres, Spain

A phenomenal place that has everything but a beach. History, art, architecture, excellent wine and renowned kitchens. In fact, it is designated as Spain’s Gastronomic Capital for 2015 so there’s a huge buzz about this city of 100,000 near the Portuguese border. The buzz began with the opening of Atrio a striking futuristic hotel-restaurant in the prestigious Relais and Chateau chain with a pair of coveted Michelin Stars. It’s located in the ancient walled city, on UNESCO’s list.  The city was captured by the Moors in the 8th century and not retaken by Christians until 1229. Its towers reflect its Roman, Muslim, Visigoth and Christian rulers. Gothic and Renaissance building abound. Much of the city’s once prominent Jewish quarter survives. The UNESCO citation calls it “Outstanding universal value”. A fairy tale place occupied through history by military powers, though the occupying force today consists of brilliant, creative chefs.

Cáceres, Spain

17. Chengdu, China

Chengdu eminently qualifies for the off the beaten track status, being near Tibet, 1200 miles inland from the coastal colossus of Shanghai. But there are direct international flights sprouting and it’s the panda capital of the world. The Giant Panda Research Base houses about 200 of the much loved bears. It is also the capital of Sichuan cuisine, luring foodies with spicy palates just to eat the tongue tingling cuisine. There is a Chinese saying “the best cuisine is from China, while the richest flavor is from Chengdu”. There are over 60,000 restaurants and another 62,000 caterers. The city isn’t much to look at but it is one of only eight cities in the world with a UNESCO City of Gastronomy Designation.

Chengdu, China

16. Danang, Vietnam

Danang has long been known as a good place to stop over on the way to somewhere else, most notably, the UNESCO heritage sites nearby. The old Imperial city of Hue and the ancient town of Hoi An are short trips away. But a modern skyline is taking shape and the city between the Marble Mountains and the gorgeous beaches on the South China Sea is becoming worthy of a stay on its own. China Beach was a favorite place of GI’s for R&R during the Vietnam War. Beachside luxury resorts are going up, and keep in mind, the exchange rate for the Vietnamese Dong is well over 20,000 to the US$ and Euro making those hotels and signature banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches pretty affordable.

Lauren Ava / Shutterstock.com
Lauren Ava / Shutterstock.com

15. Alentejo, Portugal

It’s something that makes North Americans shake their heads. The beaches of Alantejo (the best in Europe says The Guardian) are relatively unknown because they are remote, a whole two hours from Lisbon. Two hours?  That’s a daily commute in the New World. But all the better for non-Europeans who have no qualms about spending chunks of their lives in cars. Beaches aside there are Roman ruins to be found. Visigoth ruins in fact. Evora is another UNESCO site, an impeccably preserved medieval town. The winemakers produce delicious rich, fruity reds yet Alantejo remains one of the poorest regions of Europe. The crash of the ocean waves, the melodies of the Fado singer in the square, the sense of looking back through time at a disappearing way of life make it a most compelling destination. But hurry, because Michelin stars and oenophile hotels are sprouting already.

Alentejo, Portugal

14. Shikoku, Japan

It’s called the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Eighty eight temples along a 750-mile trail begun in 815 A.D. to honor the much revered monk Kobo Daishi. It is considered a path to spiritual enlightenment. Modern pilgrims can forego the quest for perfection and choose from the many places on Japan’s smallest island that demand a visit. Pick and choose which of the many sites that demand a visit. Matsuyama is the largest city with an imposing castle, ancient hot springs and seven sacred temples. Up in the inland mountains is the Iya Valley; lush, isolated with heart-stopping gorges and vine bridges for the brave. The many hot springs will soothe your mortal coil after a day of incredible hiking or white water rafting.

Matsuyama Japan

13. Papua New Guinea

It’s a good news, bad news kind of story. One of the most remote, exotic places in the world is opening up to tourism. The not so good part is monster cruise ships are just beginning their intrusion on a pristine island country. The beaten track is barely visible from PNG. There won’t be much chilling by the hotel pool here. Because there aren’t a lot of hotel pools, as tourism is still a fledgling industry. There’s a whole new rich ecosystem here wit tribal cultures to experience and timeless beauty in jungles almost lost to time. The 60 mile long Kokoda Track takes hardy trekkers through native villages. Madang in the north is getting famous for diving and PNG as a whole is a birders paradise. Do keep in mind that the capital, Port Moresby has often been rated among the Least Livable Cities in the world. Nobody’s perfect.

Papua New Guinea

12. Greenland

There are still the breathtaking fjords to be cruised, whales to be watched and sunning at midnight to be done. Chalk one up for climate change, Greenland is getting greener (we joke). The amazing UNESCO Heritage Site the enormous Ilulissat Icefjord is at its noisiest and most active during summer sunshine when icebergs the size of mountains heave and crack. It’s a memorable day trip from Ilulissat, the third largest city and there are boat trips out into Disko Bay to get up close and icicle with the massive bergs. As with other northern countries, there’s a movement to modernize traditional cooking, focusing on local ingredients and freshness. Seafood to die for and game, especially muskox are favorites. The Greenland website reassures diners about the taste of muskox “The taste of muskox surpasses that of domestic livestock and, it melts in your mouth bursting with flavor”. Get more acquainted with native culture at the Qasigiannguit Museum with exhibits from the Stone Age to today.

Greenland Hot Springs

11. Georgia

The Georgian word for wine is ‘ghvino’, claimed to be the origin to the English ‘wine’, Italian ‘vino’. They have been making wine here for 7000 years and they are pulling the cork on what the Times calls the next great wine destination. The pleasant capital Tbilisi has a wine bar on just about every corner and there are wine tours of Kakheti, the main producing region. Surprisingly rich in natural beauty, situated between Russia and Turkey, many empires have left their mark on it. There are fabulous old churches, Black Sea resorts and alpine beauty. But it’s the vino attracting the attention now. The Georgian description of a good wine is one that could make a pheasant cry. So an American who came to visit, stayed, and started a vineyard whose wines bear the name “Pheasant’s Tears.”

Kakheti Georgia

10. Sri Lanka

A long deadly civil war made this an island that people only wanted desperately to get out of. Now, a tourism industry is being built where there were battlefields not long ago. The peace has allowed the small island nation to show off its considerable assets. Beaches that go on forever. Eight World Heritage sights. Cuisine to please the pickiest foodie. Sri Lanka is a world tea superpower. Plantations and tea museums are popular. There are safari camps here too, especially in the lush Sinharaja rain forest. Find a treetop yoga studio or luxury spa. At Dam bulla, temples have been carved out of sheer rock and filled with stunning centuries-old Buddhist artworks and artifacts. And last but certainly by no means least, the perfection of the Maldives, a thousand or so islands off the southern coast in the Indian Ocean. It is on the short list for best beach in the world. And if it’s not it, it sure is close.

Sinharaja (Sri Lanka)

9. Oman

­Thoughts of rugged fjords bring forth images of icy Scandinavian inlets with bone chilling cold and sheer granite cliffs. Well, welcome to the Norway of Arabia where the heat can melt your bridgework. Here in the isolated Musandam Peninsula the fjords are called khors. The scene is so other-worldly the BBC compared it to “the shores of a Martian Sea.” Adding to the spice is its location on the Strait of Hormuz, one of the top three places where WW3 is likely to start. Nearby are little-known but spectacular coral reefs making for great diving. Oman is the last part of the Arab world that hasn’t been paved and skyscraperred with oil money. The capital Muscat is a lovely low-key feast of Muslim architecture, old Portuguese forts and bazaars. Its geography ranges from incredible mountainscapes to ancient desert to pristine beaches, but the cranes are becoming more common on the skyline and names like Radisson, Kempinski, Four Seasons and Fairmont are now setting up shop.

Muscat, Oman

8. The North Coast of Peru

A number of places on the list are familiar destinations opening up­ new alternative tourist attractions. The medieval Incan capital of Cusco and the mysterious, celestial Macchu Picchu need no promotion and may even have too many visitors for their own good. The North Coast is remote, as in 22 hours from Cusco. Its Macchu Picchu rival is the fort at Kuélap, a stone city at 10,000 feet. Built by the Chachapoyas, or ‘People of the Clouds’ around the first Millennium, its sophisticated design required more stone to build than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Eco-friendly hotels and sites abound. The Andean spectacled bear is nearly extinct, but can be found in numbers at the Chipparri Reserve. Surfers will like the waves and vibes in the village of Mancora. For whale watchers and serious fishing types, there is Cabo Blanco, once a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. It’s like a whole new world in Peru’s North Coast, still unspoiled relatively undeveloped and still inexpensive.

Kuélap Peru

7. Tanzania

Home of the timeless, magical Serengeti with its breathtaking scenes and staggering annual migration of more than two million mammals, wildebeests, gazelles and zebras. The Times says “the real new treasure here is unprecedented access to sparsely trafficked regions.” The Selous Game Reserve in the south is home to large populations of elephants and leopards. The landscape in the relatively unknown Arangire National Park unique in the region and is home to climbing lions and giraffe. Trek as far up Africa’s highest mountain in Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, and when you done following the herds and conquering mountain tops, Zanzibar awaits with its rich history, wonderful beaches and newly upgraded creature comforts.

Moshi, Tanzania Serengeti National Park

6. Zimbabwe

Long run by one of the world’s most despicable despots, Zimbabwe is slowly emerging from pariah status with political stability unseen in years. With the currency next to worthless, a window of tremendous opportunity has opened on a country whose natural beauty cannot be overstated. Infrastructure and travel companies are making visiting easier than ever. There are five UNESCO Sites including the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, said to be the home of the Queen of Sheba. There is the legendary Mosi-oa-Tunya or Victoria Falls the largest curtain waterfall on earth. Stability looks good on the capital Harare, one of the nicest on the sub content, but it’s still the big game safaris that are the biggest draw on open savannahs or in numerous National Parks. It’s truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

5. Medellin, Colombia

Urban renewal with innovative architecture and design. Not long ago the name Medellin was synonymous with drug lords and corruption. It is now becoming known for one of the most ambitious urban transformations in the world. The renewal is epitomized by the futuristic Metrocables, cable cars that unlocked the impoverished people in the surrounding hills from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods integrating them with the urban renewal below. Similarly, another slum was transformed by the stunning Avant Garde architecture of the Biblioteca Espana. Revel in the night life with the beautiful people at the Parque Llera and enjoy the gentle climate in the place known as City of Eternal Spring.

dubes sonego / Shutterstock.com
dubes sonego / Shutterstock.com

4. Macedonia

According to the Times, this is THE next Balkan destination. The first good sign: there are no McDonalds. All closed. God bless them. The capital Skopje was recently rated one of the 10 least expensive cities in the world. Once one of the great crossroads of history, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and much later Communist empires held sway and left their cultural, architectural and culinary influences. Skopje is a vibrant melting pot of all of them. A surprising treasure trove of natural beauty, there is much to sight-see or for the more active to climb, hike or ride. It is landlocked but the beaches of Lake Ohrid are renowned as are the vineyards are a mere three hour drive across the Greek border.

Macedonia

3. The Faroe Islands

The Faroes are a scattering of rocky islands 150 miles due north of Scotland in the north Atlantic. It has a famously ornery climate and a brooding sub-Arctic other-worldly beauty that traditionally drew bird-watchers, naturalists and trekkers. It is one of the world capitals for those adorable puffins, which also show up on local menus. Its current celebrity is based on a unique new cuisine as set out in The New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto that is traditional Scandinavian food meets The Iron Chef. Not much grows in that climate so they forage for herbs, harvest seaweed and pair them with locally grown mutton and the superb deep-sea Faroe Bank cod and mussels and serve them with wild angelica on driftwood plates, all washed down with schnapps followed by local beer and cheese. An unforgettable feast after an unforgettable day trekking up the highest mountain at Slættaratindur. It is tucked away off the beaten track but as part of Denmark, it’s a short flight from Copenhagen.

Faroe Islands

2. Bolivia

A definite hint  that things are happening here: the culinary genius behind the world’s # 1 rated restaurant for three consecutive years in Copenhagen has opened a place in La Paz. Another South American bad boy turning it around drawing investors and interest in its unsurpassed scenery and cities. It has become a destination for foodies, trekkers wine snobs and adventure seekers. Who knew Bolivia made wine, let alone having an acclaimed wine route?  From the exuberance of La Paz to an array of sublime World Heritage sites to spectacular settings to hike, ski, mountain bike and exhaust yourself to your heart’s content. You can follow Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid south to Tupiza, but lay off the train robbing and your visit will end much happier than theirs.

Potosi, Bolivia

1. Durban, South Africa

Long overshadowed by its two bigger, siblings, Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa’s third largest city is stepping into the limelight. ‘Durbs’ as it’s known is undergoing a serious reno and upgrade, thanks in part to facilities from the 2010 Worlds Cup. The beachside Rivertown neighborhood of warehouses and Art Deco buildings is being transformed into a happening ‘hood of galleries, restaurants and skateboard installations to jumpstart its rather tranquil night life. Durban is also home to a large ethnic Indian community and the influence is unmistakable. It was here that a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi settled in 1883 and began his legendary life as activist and leader.

lcswart / Shutterstock.com
lcswart / Shutterstock.com

The Top 10 Countries to Visit in 2014!

If you’re in the mood to do some international traveling, there are many exciting countries worth visiting. The world is always changing, and some destinations are especially appealing right now. According to Lonely Planet, the following are the ten best countries to visit in 2014.

10. Malaysia

Malaysia has one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia. Aside from its many historic and natural attractions, the nation has recently opened some notable new sites. These include Legoland Malaysia and Melaka, a bird park that contains hundreds of species of birds. This is a great year to visit Malaysia, especially as you can now find reasonable fares by airlines such as AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines.

Malaysia

9. Macedonia

This Balkan nation is not yet as popular as its neighbor Greece, but it’s rapidly establishing itself as an international destination of note.  Macedonia has a wealth of history to explore, yet it’s also a very modern country as well, and currently has a thriving entertainment scene that features lots of restaurants, clubs, bistros and ski resorts.

Macedonia

8. Belgium

Belgium is a European country that some tourists tend to overlook, but this is quickly changing. It features several amazing cities, such as Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp, the heart of the Flemish region. Famous for its chocolate and beer, Belgium is also expecting to receive lots of visitors as it prepares to celebrate a four year festival commemorating World War l.

Belgium

7. Seychelles

These beautiful islands, set off in a remote area of the Indian Ocean, are known for being a destination for the ultra wealthy. Fortunately, there are now some economical alternatives to the exclusive hotels and resorts of the Seychelles. You can find more affordable guest houses and B & B’s that allow you to enjoy the islands’ unique scenery and incomparable beaches at a reasonable price. This is the ideal beach hideaway for people who want to avoid the crowds.

Seychelles

6. Mexico

Mexico has long been a favorite destination for travelers seeking warmth, beaches and an exotic culture that is right on the border of the U.S. This is a nation that has something to offer travelers of all tastes, whether one prefers lounging on the beach with a cocktail, visiting museums or exploring Mayan ruins. Adventure loving visitors will want to experience the new zipline overlooking Copper Canyon.

Mexico

5. Malawi

If you’ve ever dreamed of taking an African safari, Malawi is the place to do this in 2014. At places such as the Majete Wildlife Reserve, you can experience incredible animals up close without the constant buzz of four-wheel drives passing you by, as is the case in many other African national parks. Malawi is a country where you can enjoy the Big Five -elephants, buffalo, rhinos, leopards and lions- in a low key manner.

Malawi

4. Sweden

Sweden is one of the most fascinating destinations in Northern Europe right now. In addition to the distinctive Scandanavian landscape, you will find all kinds of cultural attractions in cities such as Stockholm and Umea, which was named the European Capital of Culture for 2014. Sweden’s cities are full of lively clubs, museums and cafes. You can also enjoy the nation’s distinctively fresh cuisine, which includes local cheeses, produce, game and seafood.

Sweden

3. Scotland

Scotland is always a memorable place to visit, but in 2014 it is especially exciting. Over the summer, you can catch the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow if you are in town. There are also a myriad of other events and festivals, including the Spirit of Speyside Whiskey Festival in the spring and the government sponsored Year of Homecoming festival. The nation has also recently upgraded its transportation system and opened some new sports venues to make it even more visitor friendly.

Scotland

2. Antarctica

The world’s coldest and least populated continent has a lot to offer adventurous travelers. While not necessarily a country – it is a destination travelers should consider for 2014. Antarctica is one of the few regions where you can appreciate the stark beauty of nature with hardly any distractions. There is the fascinating wildlife, such as leopard seals, killer whales, seabirds and, of course, penguins. You can also experience the grandeur of glaciers, giant icebergs and mountain ranges that have never been scaled. An Antarctic cruise is a travel experience unlike any other, and is worth putting on your bucket list for 2014.

Antarctica

1. Brazil

There are many good reasons to visit Brazil in 2014, starting with the FIFA World Cup. Even if you’re not a sports fan, however, this growing country has a great deal to offer. It features some of the world’s most beautiful beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema, as well as an always exuberant nightlife. If you go early in the year you can also experience the world’s biggest Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil