Get away from the norm with a stay in the cities that tourists ignore, says Stuart Watkins.
If you enjoy hearing your friends say “where?” when you tell them your travel plans, then head to Minsk in Belarus, says Lonely Planet magazine, which ranks it first in its league of “offbeat” cities. The “spirit of the Soviet era lives on” there, yet Minsk is also increasingly cosmopolitan – it’s “no surprise to find sushi bars amid the Stalinist architecture”.
The nine-mile-long Independence Avenue is the city’s centrepiece, and a proposed World Heritage site. It runs from the Lenin statue in front of the imposing Belarusian government building near the avenue’s southwest end to the alien-looking, 26-sided National Library at the other. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, a tribute to the suffering and heroism of Belarusians during World War II
(War.Museum.by/en), is also particularly worth a visit.
The Hotel Monastyrski (Monastyrski.by), a former Benedictine monastery, is a good place to stay.
Hammans and mountains
Another city that you “never thought to visit but really should” is Skopje in Macedonia, says The Daily Telegraph. Its “grand hammams, tangle of cobbled streets and atmospheric food markets” make for “a European city break with a difference”. From the hubbub of the Old Bazaar, the largest in the Balkans, take an uphill walk to the fragrant rose garden of the elegant 15th-century Mustafa Pasha Mosque, said to be Macedonia’s most beautiful, says Sara Evans in the same paper. Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and a museum in the city commemorates her life. Also worth a visit is the “beautiful Lake Matka in the mountains, just under eight miles away”, where you can rent boats and explore to find ancient churches.
If you “want to do Skopje in style”, opt for the “glamorous” Stonebridge hotel (Stonebridge-hotel.com), which has a mix of Ottoman and contemporary décor and a Turkish bath.
Spoilt for choice in Romania
Sibiu is an important cultural centre in the south of Transylvania, says Georgeta Gheorghe in Business Review. The city’s historic centre is “one of the best preserved in the country”: its ancient fortified walls are still standing in places, the medieval streets are covered in cobble stone, and “the squares and towers will make you feel like you took a trip back in time”. There is also an abundance of museums. The Brukenthal, established in 1817, is one of Romania’s oldest, and its “eclectic” art collections feature more than 1,200 paintings by masters of European art. Nature lovers are spoilt for choice: mountain walks in the largely pristine countryside offer “picturesque vistas, fresh air and the opportunity to spot Romania’s amazing wildlife”.
MoneyWeek recommends a stay with the friendly people at SecretTransylvania.co.uk. The Inn on Balaban (GoBtF.com/innonbalaban/Home.html), a short drive away and close to Dracula’s castle, is also well worth a visit.
… and one further afield
When the nuclear bomb struck in Hiroshima near the end of World War II, it was assumed that nothing would grow within the bleak 1.6km blast zone for 75 years, says Becky Alexis-Martin in The Guardian. But today, Hiroshima is flourishing. Surrounding prefectures donated trees and they rapidly took root. The population is now back over one million, and there is a burgeoning gourmet scene, luxury shopping centres and a trendy nightlife. It is a city of vibrant green boulevards and open spaces, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is a lush and emotive focal point.
Lonely Planet recommends Sera Bekkan, which is a ten-minute walk from the park, and which offers authentic Japanese-style accommodation as well as hot public baths, a peaceful garden and good local cuisine (SeraBekkan.jp/english/).