Get away from the tourist crowds and discover some of Europe’s best nightlife as well as stunning sights and surprising beaches with our insider’s guide to Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Slovakia.
Misconception: Hostile nation locked in the past.
The reality: Serbia is overturning its bad-boy image to emerge as one of the most exciting countries of the former Yugoslavia. Every year, more and more foreign revellers are drawn to one of the country’s big noisy music festivals: EXIT at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad or the Dragacevo Trumpet Festival at Guca in central Serbia.
For city slickers: It is no secret that Belgrade has the best nightlife in southeast Europe – weekends tend to last about six days here, with streets busy until the early hours. For a stylish city-centre base, try the recently restored Hotel Moscow, an art nouveau icon. For nightlife with a twist, check out the floating clubs that line the banks of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Outside the capital: There are wine routes to explore in eastern Serbia and the Fruska Gora hills north of Belgrade, and hiking and winter skiing in the mountains to the south. Many of the countryside’s sleepy valleys are home to half-hidden, fresco-filled Orthodox monasteries. Although much smaller than the capital, the second city of Novi Sad is also pretty lively, with numerous outdoor cafés crowding its elegant pedestrian zone.
Getting there: The Polish budget airline, Wizzair, is to run a service four times a week between London Luton and Belgrade from summer 2010. Return flights start at around £50.
Insider tip: Strahinjica bana, sometimes known as ‘Silicone Valley’, is the café-lined street where Belgrade’s young, rich and beautiful hang out, while tourists and the older set tend to congregate at the traditional restaurants of Skadarlija. Kalemegdan Park, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, undoubtedly the most romantic spot in the city, is for anyone who enjoys a great view.
Misconception: Serbia in miniature by the sea.
The reality: Montenegro may be pint-sized but it packs an awful lot into a small territory. The coast is just as gorgeous as the Croatian Adriatic to the north, while the mountains of the interior are as wild as anything you’ll find in the Balkans.
For city slickers: Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, is fairly uninspiring and it is probably better to move on. A better base is the coastal resort of Budva, which has an old walled town, a lively summer scene and good beaches nearby. The island of Sveti Stefan, close to Budva, is an exclusive resort owned by the Amanresorts group. Currently closed for restoration, there will be a grand reopening in September 2010. The beaches north and south of the island are open to the public.
Outside the capital: Montenegro’s coastline offers a range of options. Bar may be a little on the brash side but UNESCO-listed Kotor is a jewel of a walled medieval city that compares favourably with tourist-crowded Dubrovnik. Located at the head of Europe’s most southerly fjord, Kotor is a delight in summer when its narrow cobbled streets are lined with cafés and improvised bars. History and museum buffs might also be drawn inland to Cetinje, the country’s tiny former capital.
Getting there: Return flights cost about £215 with JAT via Belgrade. Alternatively, return flights from London Gatwick to nearby Dubrovnik start at just £55 with easyJet.
Insider tip: For those wishing to combine Montenegro with Serbia, the Bar-Belgrade railway is one of the most scenic routes in Europe. Be sure to make the trip in daylight hours.
Misconception: War-shattered country of broken dreams.
The reality: A green land of forested hills and fast-flowing rivers. Rather like Croatia without the tourists, Bosnia has more than its fair share of historic sites and pristine countrysides to explore.
For city slickers: Sarajevo has risen like a phoenix to emerge as a dynamic youthful city with a vibrant café culture. Sightseeing highlights include mosques, synagogues and churches of all denominations and the Ottoman bazaar district of Bascarsija. Hotel Michele is a rather special, yet reasonably priced, boutique hotel right in the centre that includes the likes of Bono and Richard Gere amongst its admirers.
Outside the capital: Mostar, southwest of Sarajevo, a medieval town straddling the gorge of the blue-green Neretva River, is home to one of the world’s most beautiful bridges. Destroyed in the hostilities of the 1990s, this Ottoman masterpiece has now been fully restored to its former glory.
Getting there: German Wings fly between London Stansted and Sarajevo, via Cologne, for around £170 return. The Hungarian airline, Malev, has flights via Budapest that start at about £220 return.
Insider tip: The cevapi (small grilled sausages) in Sarajevo are widely considered to be the best in the whole Balkan region. The most atmospheric place to sample these is at an outside table in Sarajevo’s Bascarsija district.
Misconception: The Czech Republic’s poor country cousin.
The reality: Much of the country is classic Eastern Europe with haystacks, horse carts and gaggles of geese – a land of vineyards, timeless villages and architecturally rich towns and cities.
For city slickers: Beyond the industry that surrounds the capital Bratislava lies a compact Old Town reminiscent of a smaller, less-crowded Prague. Pension Chez David is a small cosy hotel with a decent restaurant that is conveniently located between the Old Town and Bratislava Castle.
Outside the capital: The Slovakian countryside is littered with impressive castles. Close to Bratislava, Devin towers above the River Danube and the Austrian border, while Spissky hrad, probably the most impressive of all, is found in the east of the country near the walled town of Lovaca.
Getting there: Ryanair offers direct flights to Bratislava from London Stansted starting from £55 return.
Insider tip: Bratislava’s café scene is impressive enough to give Vienna a run for its money. The Slovakian capital is sufficiently close to Vienna to use as a base for day trips to the Austrian capital.