Top 10 countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago
Turbo boost your passport by venturing to these recently minted destinations, as highlighted in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2011. It’s also a good chance to increase your collection of miniature national flags.
Following Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Czech Republic and Slovakia finally sealed their Velvet Divorce in 1993. Less than 20 years on, Prague neighbourhoods like elegant Vinohrady and energetic Žižkov are buzzing, and a country full of emerging microbreweries proves there’s more to Czech beer than Pilsner Urquell or Budvar.
Add virtue to these delicious liquid vices by cycling and hiking through the idiosyncratic landscapes of Bohemian Switzerland or the Český ráj region. Away from bustling Prague, discover quieter provincial gems like Olomouc, Telč and Loket, all still retaining the essence of Bohemian and Moravian culture.
The 21st-century’s newest nation finally achieved independence in 2002, 27 strife-torn and tragic years after initially declaring independence from Indonesia in 1975. Look forward to basic roads and infrastructure, but be rewarded with an intensely warm welcome from the locals.
The easygoing capital Dili is a hub for thirsty UN and NGO staff looking for new drinking buddies, and across on sleepy Atauro Island, a fledgling ecotourism scene supports hiking and diving. Explore East Timor’s Portuguese heritage amid the faded colonial architecture of Baucau, and check travel advisories on the country’s security situation before leaving home.
A 30-day travel permit (US$30) is issued to most nationalities on arrival at Dili airport. See the Immigration Department of Timor-Leste for the latest.
How far would you go for a really, really good coffee? What if it was a superb macchiato served in an art deco cafe in an exotic country in the Horn of Africa? An addictive combination of sleepy African vibes and an Italian colonial past also showcases cubist, expressionist and futurist architecture in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
In nearby Massawa, centuries-old Islamic buildings linger in narrow, labyrinthine streets, and the port is the departure point to diving amid Red Sea corals in the Dahlak Archipelago.
Tensions are still rife between Eritrea and Ethiopia – and for now, the border between the two countries is closed – so be sure to check current travel advisories carefully. Visas are required by all visitors and should be obtained in advance from an Eritrean embassy or consulate before entering Asmara.
In a region crammed with dramatic castles, Slovakia‘s Spiš Castle trumps most with an audacious hilltop location and craggy towers and gloomy dungeons straight from a Hammer horror flick. Visit in summer for a full program of events including concerts and mock battles.
Following Slovakia’s independence in 1993, Bratislava seems in no hurry to become a bustling Central European metropolis, and the cool cafes and bars of the Slovakian capital’s beautifully preserved old town are still largely tourist free – take that Prague! Look forward also to being continuously surprised by the funky street art lurking around every corner.
How many jellyfish is just enough? How about 10 million, especially when you’re swimming with them in Palau‘s renowned Jellyfish Lake? (Don’t worry, the local species have evolved with an absence of stingers).
With a population of just 20,000, one of the world’s newest countries is also one of the smallest. The tiny island nation of Palau showcases some of the Pacific’s best diving opportunities with more than 60 vertical drop-offs punctuating locations like Blue Corner, Shark City and Turtle Cove. In 2001, the Palau Shark Sanctuary was established to further protect Palau’s sharks from the Asian shark-fin industry.
As Palau only achieved independence from United States trusteeship in 1994, you’ll need to come equipped with US dollars.
Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia from 1990, Serbia has been less open to travellers than neighbouring Croatia or nearby Slovenia. Now Belgrade‘s gritty cityscape and Europe’s most energetic nightlife scene are attracting a vanguard of curious expat residents and intrepid visitors. It’s probably your best chance to experience what Prague was like following the fall of communism in 1989.
Other essential musical thrills include the annual Exit Festival – recent acts have included the Chemical Brothers, Patti Smith and Kraftwerk – and the wildly frantic Guca Festival, drawing 600,000 visitors annually for the best in manic Roma (gypsy) trumpet playing.
Check out the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club for the latest expat-informed lowdown on the Serbian capital.
Bosnia & Hercegovina
For centuries Sarajevo was on the fault line of religion, culture and history, and in today’s capital of Bosnia & Hercegovina, mosques, churches and synagogues all huddle beside each other and the Neretva River. The city has emerged from the dark days of the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 as an inclusive and collaborative centre for the arts.
The annual summer festival Nights of Bascarsija showcases music, art and dance in Sarajevo’s compact Ottoman quarter, and the Sarajevo Film Festival is one of Europe’s most important. Poignant memories of the Balkan Wars include Mostar’s reconstructed bridge.
Bosnia & Hercegovina is an emerging adventure-tourism destination, with excellent whitewater rafting on the Una and Neretva rivers.
Was the inaccurate depiction of Kazakhstan by Borat a few years ago a blessing or a curse? The film certainly lifted brand awareness for the Central Asian republic made independent from Moscow in December 1991, but the planet’s ninth-largest country remains a mystery to most.
Fuelled by revenues from copious oil and gas reserves, Almaty and Astana have emerged as modern-day boomtowns from the Central Asian steppe, but Kazakhs’ nomadic roots are still celebrated with one of the world’s more…er…interesting cuisines. How does beshbarmak (an offal stew) and horsemeat sausage washed down with a shot of vodka sound?
Celebrate the coming of spring with dancing, Kazakh food and equestrian events at the festival of Nauryz in late March.
The denouement of the inevitable dissolution of Yugoslavia came in June 2006 when the citizens of tiny Montenegro voted to separate from the federation of Serbia & Montenegro. Despite Montenegro being the smallest piece of the Balkans jigsaw, the rugged country packs in a geography textbook of natural features and spectacles.
The country’s eponymous ‘Black Mountains’ cradle the perfect medieval town at Kotor, and the pine-scented Tara River is Europe’s deepest canyon and a growing location for river rafting. The tiny island of Sveti Stefan, irredeemably picturesque and joined to the mainland by a slender isthmus, is rapidly regaining its pre-Balkan Wars status as one of Europe’s most exclusive destinations.
Passionate twitchers (birdwatchers) should pack their high-powered binoculars for Lake Skadar, one of Europe’s most important bird sanctuaries.
Consider the evidence. Kosovo declared unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008, but Kosovo’s closest neighbour refuses to accept the declaration. China and Russia agree with Serbia, but almost 70 other nations including the US, Germany and the UK accept Kosovo as an independent state. Membership of the World Bank and the IMF are a given, but UN membership remains elusive due to the veto-trumping machinations of the Security Council. The presence of the UN and NGOs keeps accommodation prices relatively high, so this is definitely one for the true country collectors out there.
In the Kosovar capital of Pristina, visit Bill Clinton Blvd, complete with a giant billboard of the former US president.