Essentially two cities in one – Buda and Pest – Hungary’s magnificent capital is now firmly established as one of Europe’s most enticing destinations. Its dramatic setting astride the Danube is reason enough to visit, but the city packs in a multitude of things to see and do.

First and foremost, no visitor to Budapest should pass up the opportunity to experience one of its many spas; elsewhere, you can admire Baroque churches, wander amongst Communist dictators, or head through the hills on a narrow gauge.

Add to the mix the city’s famous ruin bars, grand coffee houses and now a burgeoning gastronomic scene, and you’ve pretty much got everything covered. Oh, and to boot, it stages one of Europe’s biggest and best rock festivals.

What should I see?

For conventional sightseeing, take the Siklo (funicular) up to the Vár, or Castle District, where you can easily spend a day poring over fabulous Baroque architecture. Over in Pest, the revitalized Jewish quarter is jam-packed with sights, most obviously in the shape of the magnificent Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world.

A little-known gem is the Southeast Asian Gold Museum, featuring a sumptuous collection of secular and religious artwork, ninety percent of which is gold. Beyond here, in leafy City Park, lies Budapest Zoo, as renowned for its Art Nouveau enclosures as it is for its inhabitants.

For some respite from the often brutal summer heat, take to the Buda Hills, home to the Railway Circuit, comprising the 3km-long Cogwheel Railway, and the Children’s Railway, an 11km-long narrow gauge built by Communist youth brigades after World War II.

There’s more Communist-era nostalgia at the Memento Park, a remarkable assemblage of oversized statues of former Communist dictators like Stalin and Lenin. Lastly, take a ride on Tram #2, which runs the length of the Pest Embankment, affording superlative views of the Castle District opposite.

Why should I go to the spa?

Budapest lies on more than a hundred thermal springs, so it’d be remiss not to indulge in one of the city’s many fabulous spas (furdo). Take a dip in Art Nouveau splendour at the Gellért Baths, the evocative, Ottoman-era Rudas Baths, or the enormous sixteen-pool Széchenyi Baths, where the sight of old fellas playing chess on the water is a wonderfully surreal spectacle.

For an alternative bathing experience, make for one of the night-time pool parties, which variously put on music, film and laser discos.

What is there for foodies?

Budapest is hardly renowned for its culinary prowess, but this is changing, and fast. Of the city’s four Michelin-starred restaurants, Borkonyha is the most appealing, with dishes like quail breast with lavender and buttered green peas, complemented by one of the finest wine lists in the city.

Child-friendly Zeller Bistro is no less snazzy, with beef cheek and goose liver among those dishes rated highly. But for something more old-fashioned, try Café Bouchon, a charming little French outfit with gorgeous Art Deco furnishings and fine food to match. For picnic supplies, make for one of the city’s many indoor markets, the biggest and brashest of which is the Great Market Hall.

Which is the best coffee house?

Like Vienna, Budapest has long been synonymous with great coffee houses: your first stop should be Centrál Kávéház, erstwhile retreat of writers and intellectuals around the turn of the nineteenth century, and still a thoroughly grand place to sip an espresso. Though the diminutive Ruszwurm patisserie, up in the Castle District, arguably does better pastries.

Leading the charge of the new, so-called “third-wave” coffee bars is Tamp & Pull, closely followed by Espresso Embassy – both these boast award-winning baristas.

Where’s the party?

That’s easy: Pest’s seventh district. Here you’ll find the city’s heaviest concentration of ruin bars, so-named as they occupy formerly abandoned – and in many cases still ramshackle and graffiti-strewn – buildings and courtyards.

The pick of these include Instant – comprising some twenty, differently themed rooms – Kuplung (an old motorcycle repair shop – the name means “clutch”), and Rácskert, the newest member on the scene. At any of these places expect a consistently brilliant roster of happenings, from live music (jazz, folk, rock) to film screenings and literary readings.

Elsewhere, the riverside bars lining the Danube and the open-air venues on Margit-Sziget do cracking trade in the summer months.

Hungarian wine is superb, though still little appreciated. However, its growing popularity is reflected in the number of wine bars popping up all over the city. For starters, try Doblo, a buzzy, brick-vaulted bar in the Jewish quarter where you can sip wine by the glass alongside a meat and cheese platter.

Where should I stay?

If you can afford it, then the spanking brand new Aria Hotel is top dog; dazzling, musically themed rooms are complemented by a Turkish spa and a stunning glass-covered courtyard. Similarly cool, but more realistically priced, Baltazár offers artfully-designed rooms inspired by the likes of Warhol and Haring.

Home Made Hostel is a sweet and welcoming abode whose small, cleverly-conceived dorms – refreshingly, no bunks – are furnished with random cast-offs culled from homes around the city, such as rugs, trunks and typewriters.

Photo credit: Aria Hotel Budapest

Are there any great festivals?

The undisputed king of Budapest’s summer events is the Sziget Festival, a monster week-long gathering starring the very biggest names in rock, pop and world music – this year, Kasabian and Kings of Leon are among those on the bill.

Elsewhere, the Jewish Summer Festival is a rousing week of classical, jazz and klezmer, and if you’re here on August 20 (St Stephen’s Day, named in honour of Hungary’s national saint and founder), you’re unlikely to miss the fireworks spectacular on the Danube.

Explore more of Budapest with The Rough Guide to BudapestCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

“Little Big City” proclaims the sign on the side of Bratislava’s trams. It’s certainly right about the first, Slovakia’s capital is dinky compared with its neighbours on the Danube – Vienna, the grand old dame of European capitals, ninety minutes to the west by boat, and exuberant Budapest, three hours to the southeast by train.

But as one of Europe’s newer capitals, right at the heart of the continent, Bratislava has a cosmopolitan charm, albeit in a low-key way. While it’s perfectly possible to devote a weekend to people-watching from one of the pavement cafés, supping on an exotically flavoured fresh lemonade that’s all the rage here – lavender, perhaps? – or a glass of local white, there’s more to discover. Here are a couple of very gentle itineraries to inspire your wanderings.

Exploring the Old Town

Bounded by a few fragments of old wall, and focused on a couple of attractive squares, the pedestrianized Old Town can be covered in half a day.

Start at Hviezdoslavovo námestie, the long tree-shaded square with the magnificent silver-roofed Slovak National Theatre at one end and cooling fountains dotted along, before turning up to Panská, a fine boulevard of old palaces and new cafés. Pause at Koun at no.13, the city’s best purveyor of ice cream, who offer just a few homemade flavours which change each day – sublime fig and ricotta, addictive salted caramel – making a return visit almost obligatory.

staré mesto via photopin (license)

Around the main square (Hlavné námestie) the architectural highlights are the prettily mismatched styles of the Town Hall and, just beyond, the Primate’s Palace.

From here head up to the last remaining city gate, St Michael’s, and clamber up the spiral stairs past the museum of armour for a view over the city – perhaps not the most dramatic vista but the immediacy of the Old Town, looking over the red roofs and across to the blue spire of the cathedral of St Martin, helps you get your bearings.

Up to the castle

Cut off from the Old Town by the New Bridge’s approach road – a particularly insensitive piece of communist planning that bulldozed the old synagogue (there’s a memorial to it just south of the cathedral) – Bratislava’s castle stands majestically above the Old Town.

Walk round to the north side of the cathedral and up some steps through a small section of the old ramparts and you can cross a pedestrian bridge over to the castle side. Follow the steps and path up to reach the sturdy, four-towered white castle, largely rebuilt in the 1950s.

From here you can see three countries: over the Old Town in one direction, Slovakian power stacks looming in the distance with Hungary somewhere beyond, and to Austrian wind turbines in the other direction, the wide Danube wending its way in front of you, with swathes of green lining the riverbanks right into the city.

On your way back down, if you’re ready for a coffee break, make a left just before the bridge and, just by the trams at Skalná 1, you’ll find Kava.Bar – part-hipster hangout, part Viennese coffee house, complete with lengthy coffee menu, quirky decor and vintage cups and saucers.

Art Nouveau Bratislava

One of the most intriguing buildings in the city, Bratislava’s “Blue church” was designed by the founder of the Hungarian Secession, Ödön Lechner, in 1911, whose style combined the organic forms of Art Nouveau with what he saw as Hungarian flourishes – influenced by folk art and Eastern decoration.

Dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary, with St Therese “Little Flower” also honoured – a double whammy of floral iconography – the result is a chocolate box of pastels and flower motifs. The flamboyant custard-coloured school next door dates from the same period.

On your way back into the centre duck down Štúrova, a street of fabulously decorative Art Nouveau façades, some pristine, like the Tulip House hotel, others whose grandeur is of the faded variety – though the street is slowly being restored.

Time for lunch? A couple of blocks east from the Blue Church on Grösslingova  U Kubistu is a stylish, friendly café, serving zinging fresh lemonades, great coffees and a veggie-friendly menu, including their famous homemade chickpea bread.

Space-age city

The road through the Old Town might be brutal, but the communist contributions to the city are not all so crass. Not least the UFO, which rises at the southern end of Novy Most (New Bridge), a futuristic statement tower and proudly the littlest member of the World Federation of Great Towers.

For €6.50 you can speed up the juddering elevator to the open-air viewing platform perched precariously at the top, before descending into the actual “UFO” disc for an aperitif in the bar – at €3–4 for a glass of wine it’s pricy by Bratislava’s standards, but it helps sooth the nerves from the disconcerting rumbles as traffic roars beneath.

Visible from here are the housing projects from the 1970s and 80s: vast communist-style designs for living – the biggest, Petržalka, houses over 100,000 people, nearly a quarter of the city’s population.

With large parts of the neighbourhood renovated and painted in candy tones, the effect is not quite so austere as you might imagine. A guided tour by Authentic Slovakia in a clapped-out Cold War Skoda – “the crappiest vehicle in Slovakia” – is one idiosyncratic way to see some of Bratislava’s twentieth-century landmarks.

The tour includes a visit to the site of one of the chain of bunkers on the border with Austria, built to defend Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, now nestled in undergrowth along a bucolic lane mere minutes’ drive from the centre of town.

Culinary explorations

With the national dish, Bryndzové halušky, a large plate of gnocchi-like potato dumplings smothered in sheep’s cheese, the dairy richness cut through with a sprinkling of fried bacon fat, you might not be expecting a city of culinary inventiveness. But Bratislava is packed with hip cafés, good restaurants and wine bars.

A photo posted by Anne M (@cucumbersarnies) on

Perhaps not surprisingly for a small capital of a largely rural country, local produce is much in evidence.

To sample some visit the delightful Saturday morning market in the nineteenth-century market hall Stará tržnica on Námestie SNP. It still feels like an impromptu gathering of producers, with fruit and veg stalls, local cheeses, and wines from the vineyards of the Small Carpathians, which start on the hillsides just beyond the city – not to mention bakers selling divine, pitch-black poppyseed strudel.

Slovakia is more known for wine than beer, but the city boasts a few good microbreweries, producing unpasteurized, unfiltered brews.

The relaxed beer garden of Starosloviensky Pivovar, Vysoká 15, just northeast the centre, feels like little more a friend’s backyard. Under the old German name for the city, Pressburg, they produce a fine selection of beers – around nine at any time – just the thing to wash down some Slovak sheep’s cheese.

Explore more of Slovakia with The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Of Slovenia’s many show caves, none has quite the pulling power of Postojna, located in the heart of the country’s beguiling Karst region. And, at more than 20km long, it is Europe’s most expansive cave system.

Writing about Postojna in the seventeenth century, the great Slovene polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor remarked: “in some places you see terrifying heights, elsewhere everything is in columns so strangely shaped as to seem like some creepy-crawly, snake or other animal in front of one”, an apt description for this immense grotto – a jungle of impossibly shaped stalactites and stalagmites, gothic columns and translucent stone draperies, all the result of millions of years of erosion of the permeable limestone surface by rainwater.

Although Postojna has been Slovenia’s most emblematic tourist draw since Emperor Franz Josef I set foot here in 1819, the smudged signatures etched into the craggy walls suggest an earlier human presence in the caves, possibly as far back as the thirteenth century.

Visiting the cave first entails a 2km-long ride through narrow tunnels on the open-topped cave train – a somewhat more sophisticated version of the hand-pushed wagons used in the nineteenth century – before you emerge into vast chambers of formations and colours.

Among them are the Beautiful Cave, which takes its name from the many lustrous features on display; the Spaghetti Hall, so-called because of its thousands of dripping, needle-like formations; and the Winter Chamber, which is home to a beast of a stalagmite called “Brilliant”, on account of its dazzling snow-white colour.

As these pictures show, there are few other caves that can match Postojna’s scale and wonder.

photo credit: Postojna Cave via photopin (license)

photo credit: Jonathan Smith (c) Dorling Kindersley

photo credit: Jonathan Smith (c) Dorling Kindersley

photo credit: Postojna Cave via photopin (license)

photo credit: Souvenir shop inside the cave via photopin (license)

photo credit: 2011_07_07_Postojna-Cave_044 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Postojna Cave Park via photopin (license)

photo credit: Postojna Cave via photopin (license)

photo credit: Postojnska Jama 2 via photopin (license)

photo credit: The Concert Hall via photopin (license)

photo credit: Linda Whitwam (c) Dorling Kindersley

photo credit: Postojna Cave via photopin (license)

Discover more unforgettable experiences around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

You’ve booked your flight to Italy, now where to stay? Whatever kind of trip you’re planning, co-author of the Rough Guide Natasha Foges has the lowdown on the best area to stay in Rome.

Best for romance: the Centro Storico

The Centro Storico (historic centre) is what most people dream of for their Roman holiday: a maze of cobbled streets and atmospheric alleys crammed with Renaissance palazzi, Baroque churches and stately piazzas. The area harbours many of the big sights, not least the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and most of the places you’ll want to see are within walking distance. The downside? It used to be pricey – the hotels here tend to be boutique rather than budget – but with the advent of websites such as Airbnb, even a pauper can stay in a historic palazzo for a few days, especially out of season. If you have your heart set on a fabulous hotel room (on a not-so-fabulous budget), though, you’ll get more for your money elsewhere.

Cash-strapped: Navona Loft
Feeling flush: Hotel Raphael

Best for atmosphere: Campo de’ Fiori and the Ghetto

Technically part of the Centro Storico, but less chaotic thanks to a lack of big-ticket sights, the warren of streets around café-lined Campo de’ Fiori make up one of the city’s most picturesque quarters, full of independent boutiques, wine bars and trattorias. Southeast of here is the old Jewish Ghetto, a thriving, atmospheric neighbourhood with some great restaurants; rent an apartment in one of the Ghetto’s backstreets to live like a Roman for a few days.

Cash-strapped: Domus Ester
Feeling flush: DOM Hotel

Best for die-hard shoppers: Tridente

The northern section of Rome’s centre – sometimes known as the Tridente because of the shape formed by the three roads that extend from landmark Piazza del Popolo – is the domain of designer boutiques, chichi bars and pricey restaurants. The core of the area is Piazza di Spagna, once an essential stop on the Grand Tour and still a big draw: tourists gravitate towards the fabled Spanish Steps to people-watch, chat and flirt. Accommodation tends to be small-scale and ultra-luxurious (think pillow menus and fancy in-room entertainment systems), to meet the demands of a well-heeled international clientele.

Cash-strapped: Hotel Panda
Feeling flush: Portrait Roma

Best for five-star pampering: Via Veneto and Villa Borghese

In need of some TLC? Via Veneto’s grand hotels have all the uniformed doormen, marble floors and swanky spas you could wish for (at a price). This street used to be the beating heart of Dolce Vita-era Rome, an impossibly fashionable film-star hangout; these days it trades on its history somewhat – the restaurants and bars here are tourist traps, so you’re better off dining elsewhere. Via Veneto snakes up to leafy Villa Borghese, around which cluster more luxurious hotels, though you’re a bus or taxi ride from the centre here.

Cash-strapped: Daphne
Feeling flush: Splendide Royal

Best for a villagey vibe: Monti and the Celian Hill

The red light district in ancient Roman times, Monti is now a hip (but not off-puttingly so) neighbourhood of cool bars, one-off boutiques and great restaurants. Just a short walk from the Colosseum, it’s well-placed for sightseeing too. Southeast of here, the Celian Hill can’t summon up the same buzz, but it has its own low-key local bustle and some good local restaurants.

Cash-strapped: Hotel Rosetta
Feeling flush: Palazzo Manfredi

Best for feeding body and soul: Testaccio and the Aventine Hill

Colosseum, what Colosseum? If food is your main consideration, you could do worse than base yourself in Testaccio. An unpretentious, workaday district that grew around the old slaughterhouse, it’s now renowned for its authentic trattorias. Testaccio is also home to Rome’s main produce market – a great place to pick up gourmet souvenirs – as well as the lion’s share of the city’s clubs. A few streets north, but worlds away in atmosphere, the tranquil Aventine Hill is one of Rome’s most exclusive enclaves. Largely residential, it harbours a few hotels, offering peace and quiet within walking distance of the ancient Roman sights.

Cash-strapped: Seven Suites
Feeling flush: Hotel Sant’Anselmo

Best for night owls: Trastevere

Traditionally a working-class quarter but now gentrified and well on the tourist map, pretty Trastevere is one big photo op, all ivy-draped buildings, cobbled lanes and pint-sized piazzas. Located over the river, it’s within strolling distance of the Vatican and Centro Storico. Another plus is that this is one of the best areas for an evening out, its narrow streets lined with excellent trattorias and bars; stay on the district’s quieter eastern side if you want to escape the crowds.

Cash-strapped: Hotel Trastevere
Feeling flush: Hotel Santa Maria

Best for early-morning trains: Termini

There’s really no other reason to stay in the vicinity of Termini station: it’s not the city’s most attractive corner, it’s too far to walk to the major sights, and returning here after a day immersed in the glories of Rome would bring you quickly back down to earth. The area is full of cheap hotels, but even if you’re on a budget, staying in the Termini area should be a last resort.

Cash-strapped: The Beehive
Feeling flush: Boscolo Exedra Roma

Best for sophisticates: Prati

Unless you’re a pilgrim, there’s not much appeal to staying in the Vatican area. The neighbourhood north of the Vatican, Borgo Pio, has a few decent hotels, but it’s quiet and a little dull after dark, its restaurants lacking the sparkle of those of the historic centre. Prati, further north, holds more promise – a well-heeled district whose wide boulevards hold numerous cocktail bars and swish restaurants. As it’s a little removed from the centre, there’s a smattering of affordable hotels here too.

Cash-strapped: Hearth Hotel
Feeling flush: Hotel Farnese

Explore more of this city with the Rough Guide to RomeCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with here. All recommendations are editorially independent.

Forget Paris. Lyon is currently where it’s at, and whilst it’s reputation as France’s culinary capital is fully justified – twenty-two Michelin stars and counting – there’s a great deal more to this colourful city than gluttony.

A flourish of fabulous new accommodation, cultural sights galore, and a raft of exciting festivals will keep you royally entertained; whether it’s discovering the revamped Confluence district, ambling around the cobbled streets of Vieux-Lyon, or sipping coffee in the bohemian hangouts of Croix-Rousse, Lyon has it all.

And best of all, it’s now easier than ever to get there, thanks to the new, direct Eurostar link with London, which means you can be in the city in just five hours.

photo credit: Old Lyon via photopin (license) / brightened

What should I see?

The city’s showstopper is unquestionably the spanking new Musée des Confluences, which has nothing to with the confluence at all. Its exhibits are as dazzling as the building itself, for example a Peruvian mummy, some moon rock and Cockcroft & Walton’s particle accelerator.

Make sure you also take a stroll around Vieux-Lyon, with its dense lattice of narrow streets, fantastic Renaissance-inspired architecture and hidden traboules (tunnelled passageways that served as shelter for silk-weavers as they moved their delicate pieces from one area to another), then hop aboard the funicular to Fourvière and the Basilica Notre-Dame – if vertigo isn’t a problem, partake in a rooftop tour for superlative views of the city and, on a clear day, the Alps.

Film buffs won’t want to miss the engrossing Institut Lumière, which documents the pioneering work of cinematographers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Don’t miss, either, the Musée Garnier, named after the eponymous urban planner; it’s not a museum as such but rather an open-air exhibition of murals painted on the ends of apartment blocks. 

photo credit: Seeing the Alps from Lyon via photopin (license)

Where can I go gourmet?

Things don’t get much more refined in Lyon than the two-Michelin star La Mère Brazier, whose signature poached Bresse chicken with black truffles has been ever-present on the menu since Eugénie Brazier – the first woman to attain three stars – opened the restaurant back in 1921.

Lyon is also home to the bouchon, homely, idiosyncratic establishments that tend to specialize in the type of grub that your granny might prepare, and some she might not, like andouillette (hot cooked tripe sausage) and lambs feet.

Two of the most enjoyable bouchons are Daniel et Denise, whose gregarious chef, Joseph Viola, rustles up a sensational paté en croute (crusty foie gras and sweetbread paté), and the all-female run Les Bouchons des Filles, whose house speciality is a mouth-watering Croustille de Bodin aux Pommes (black pudding with apple and herbs wrapped in pastry).

Coffee lovers should head for Mokxa, on a sunny little square in Croix-Rousse; while, for something cooler, Terre Adélice, in the Old Town, offers some 150 differently-flavoured ices and sorbets, including exotic concoctions like honey and rosemary, and salted caramel cream.

photo credit: 2012-09-01 via photopin (license)

Where’s the party?

At the moment it’s Le Sucre, whose industrial aesthetic owes much to the fact that it occupies a former sugar factory; the focal point here is a banging rooftop bar. Elsewhere, Ninkasi ( is a collective of some half a dozen bars scattered around the city, then there’s Sirius (, a rocking (quite literally) boat bar on the Rhône with a consistently exciting roster of DJs and live bands. Sophisticates, meanwhile, should pay a visit to L’Antiquaire, a polished but thoroughly unpretentious cocktail bar.

Anywhere cool to stay?

The rather splendid concept at the super-cool Okko Hotel (doubles €90) is Le Club, a kitchen-cum-lounge where guests can avail themselves of unlimited (non-alcoholic) drinks and snacks all day long, before savouring a glass of wine and more munchies at sundown.

Mama has also arrived in Lyon, courtesy of Mama Shelter, whose snappy, Starck-designed rooms are sure to raise a wry smile (doubles from €69).

Image courtesy of Mama Shelter

Budget-busters, meanwhile, should make haste for the Slo Hostel, whose all-white dorms (bed €25) and communal areas, and sun-trap patio, are a delight.

What should I buy?

Lyon was once a major centre of the silk-weaving industry, so make a beeline for the Croix-Rousse district where you can purchase gorgeous silk wares from Soierie Vivante, a still-functioning silk-worker’s atelier.

It’d be remiss to leave Lyon without some foodie treats, so pay a visit to Les Halles des Lyon Paul Bocuse, named in honour of the city’s most celebrated chef; drool your way around stalls piled high with sumptuous goodies like saucisson, cheeses and truffles – then stock up, but be warned, it ain’t cheap.

photo credit: Lyon Les Halles Paul Bocuse via photopin (license)

What’s going on right now?

Festival-wise, Lyon punches well above its weight all year-round, but you know that summer has truly arrived when Nuits de Fourvières slips effortlessly into gear come June; a two-month jamboree of drama, film and music (this year including Florence and the Machine and Joan Baez), it takes place in the splendid surrounds of Lyon’s two Gallo-Roman theatres, pitched high up on Fourvière hill.

How do I get there?

There are currently between three and five London–Lyon services a week on Eurostar, which can be booked with European rail experts Lyon Airport has good connections to the rest of mainland Europe and the UK.

Explore more of France with the Rough Guide to FranceCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Albania’s capital used to regularly top lists for Europe’s worst city. Decades of Stalinist rule left Tirana grey and grim, lacking in both infrastructure and services. The collapse of communism in 1992 only worsened the situation, as chaos engulfed the city and crime started to rise.

All that has now changed. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city, and the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania. Home to a rapidly-growing population of nearly one million (Albania’s total population stands at around just three million), Tirana has a buzz you won’t find anywhere else in this beguiling nation.

Here are 10 reasons to make a beeline for the Albanian capital.

1. To enjoy Albanian hospitality

Being invited for a coffee or a rakija (a plum brandy) is a local custom and you’ll find Albanians friendly towards foreign visitors. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the twentieth century, many are curious about the influx of travellers.

2. For the local colour

As it’s a small city, you can easily cover Tirana’s central area in a day. But as well as a leisurely exploration of the handful of museums, monuments, historic buildings and parks, make some time to marvel at the city’s concrete housing estates. Yes, really. Painted in rainbow colours, they add brightness to what was once a rather monochrome cityscape.

photo credit: dsc_8858_v2 via photopin (license) / brightened

3. For the café culture

Albania might not be famed for its cuisine, but that’s no reason not to make food a focus. Look out for the excellent coffee and beer (Islam is the predominant religion but it is practised in a very tolerant way), as well as decent pastries and good gelato. Cafés are the perfect place for people-watching, too, set to a soundtrack of Albanian- and Euro-pop.

4. For a history lesson in Skanderbeg Square

Tirana’s centre is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who briefly ensured Albania was independent of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. There is a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback (imagine Alexander The Great meets Thor) in the middle of the square, and the Et’hem Bey Mosque, one of the nation’s most treasured buildings that dates back to the late eighteenth century, sits in the southeast corner. Also situated here are the nation’s major museums, including The National Historic Museum adorned with a huge socialist mural of victorious partisans.

5. To see a not-so-ancient pyramid

You’ll find Tirana’s concrete pyramid, Piramida, a short walk from Skanderbeg Square. Built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha (who tyrannically ruled Albania from 1944–85) as a museum to her father, it now sits derelict, stripped of the tiles that once covered it and splattered with graffiti. There is talk of demolishing it, but some argue that it should be kept intact as an apt monument to Stalinism’s ugly spirit.

 photo credit: dsc_8850_v2 via photopin (license)

6. To observe Albania’s elite at play

Blloku, The Block, is where Enver Hoxha lived and was once off limits to all but the Communist party’s inner circle. Now it’s the epicentre for Tirana’s beautiful people. Today you’ll find expensive hotels, designer cafés, restaurants and shops. Take in the contemporary glitz from Sky Club, a rotating bar high in the air offering 360-degree views across the city.

7. For the nightlife

Tirana’s nightlife scene moves up a notch each year and the city’s clubs, largely situated around Blloku, vary greatly in theme and atmosphere. They are best visited with a local who knows which ones to attend (and which to avoid). Be mindful, however, that Albania is still a traditional society.

photo credit: dsc_8929_v2 via photopin (license)

8. To relax in Parku i Madh (Grand Park)

This large, wooded park is where many of Tirana’s citizens head for a bit of time out, whether it’s fishing in the artificial lake, picnicking on the lawns or kicking-back in one of the many café-bars. Considering how oppressive Tirana’s traffic can get, this park allows the city’s Mediterranean ambience to shine.

9. To visit Mount Dajti National Park

If you want a break from the city centre, head to Mount Dajti National Park, popular with Tirana’s residents for fresh air and countryside walks. You can either take an Austrian-built cable car (expensive) or the city bus (cheap) and once there you’ll find hotels, guest-houses and restaurants if you feel like staying overnight.

10. For day-trips to the seaside

The historic city of Durrësi on the Adriatic Sea was, for decades, where the powerful in Tirana went to relax (both Enver Hoxha and King Zog had holiday homes here). These days it’s largely Kosovar tourists who make use of the plentiful cheap hotels and restaurants along the seafront. Things are rough and ready, but Durrësi is lively, inexpensive and easily accessible.

Explore more of Albania with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Kiki Deere, co-author of the Rough Guide to the Philippines, heads off the tourist trail to Batanes. This cluster of islands, located almost 150km off the northernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines, sees just thirty or so foreign visitors a year.

“Batanes? Batanes? Up there?” was the reaction of most Filipinos when I told them I was catching a plane north to the remotest province of the country. This was coupled with a puzzled expression, followed by a long “Oooooooh”.

Only 190km south of Taiwan, the islands of Batanes are closer to the Taiwanese coast than to the Philippine mainland. The archipelago was created following a series of volcanic activities when Mount Iraya erupted around 325 BC – today a dormant volcano that stands 1517m above sea level.

The province comprises ten islands of which only three are inhabited: Batan Island, the largest in the group; peaceful Sabtang Island; and the less accessible Itbayat. Their isolation has resulted in a unique culture and distinct traditions; the language, cuisine and climate have little in common with the rest of the country.

Image by Kiki Deere

Rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs

Our little six-seater plane rocked back and forth as we struggled to land on wind-swept Batan Island, whose capital, Basco, is named after Governor José Basco y Vargas who brought the islands under the Spanish Crown in 1782.

Below us stretched verdant rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs rising 70m above sea level. The topography of the islands varies dramatically from the mainland – with grazing cows, undulating hills and strong winds. I felt I could have easily been in Ireland, not in the tropical Philippine archipelago I had extensively travelled, with its powdery, white-sand beaches shaded by coconut trees.

“Today we will visit Marlboro County, and then on to Sabtang Island” my guide announced as soon as I’d settled into Fundación Pacita, the former home of artist Pacita Abad today a surprisingly upmarket hotel. His voice was calm and composed; he spoke in musical tones, rolling his “r” in a pleasant lilt.

Like Filipino, the Ivatan language is peppered with pidgin Spanish words. The Ivatan are the native inhabitants of these islands, and trace their roots back to Formosan (Taiwanese) immigrants as well as Spaniards who travelled here in the sixteenth century.

Image by Kiki Deere

A testament to the trusting nature of the locals

We drove up and down the island’s many hills, the engine of our little car calling out as it climbed a slope, letting out a groaning sigh of relief as we reached the top and zoomed down the other side, only to grate again as we clambered up the next.

As we came over the brow of the first hill, there before us were green pastures being grazed by horses and bulls, with Mount Iraya and the roaring Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

Locals make a living by raising goats and cows, and plant root crops that are able to cope with the islands’ harsh environment, including yam, garlic, sweet potato and onion. Fish, livestock and root vegetables form the mainstay of the islands’ cuisine. During most of the year provisions are flown in or shipped over from the mainland, but during typhoon season ships and planes are often unable to reach the islands.

We continued south along the coastal road to the Honesty Café, an unmanned coffee shop selling t-shirts, beverages and snacks where customers drop payment in designated boxes, serving as a testament to the trusting nature of the island’s inhabitants.

Image by Kiki Deere

Life has changed little over the last few centuries

A rocky thirty-minute boat ride across the treacherous waters of the Balintang Channel took us to Sabtang Island, home to steep mountains and deep canyons where life has changed little over the last few centuries.

This peaceful island is peppered with Ivatan stone villages, and the picture-perfect town of Chavayan is home to some of the best-preserved traditional homes in the Philippines. Unlike in the rest of the country where nipa huts are a common sight, the houses in Batanes are made of limestone to withstand the destructive force of typhoons that so often strike the islands.

I strolled along the town’s streets, my guide encouraging me to occasionally pop my head into the stone houses, whose wooden floors are traditionally polished with banana leaves. Their cogon-thatched roofs are sturdily built, lasting up to two or three decades. Street names are chiselled in stone plaques.

At the Sabtang Weavers’ Association, women sold small artefacts and offered me homemade biscuits that they had lovingly prepared in their humble homes. Intrigued and surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they questioned me as to my provenance, proudly showing me the small trinkets they had painstakingly made.

Image by Kiki Deere

An elderly lady with a mustard yellow cardigan wore a rain cape called vakul, traditional Ivatan headgear made from stripped leaves of voyavoy palm to protect her from the strong sun and frequent rainstorms that so often hit the islands. Her coarse hands fingered a small hand-woven souvenir that she encouraged me to buy.

When I flew back to the province of Luzon a few days later, where thick jungles and bustling beach resorts justifiably attract their fair share of tourists, the far-flung islands of Batanes, with their thirty or so foreign visitors a year, suddenly seemed like a distant dream.

Explore more of the Philippines with the Rough Guide to the PhilippinesCompare flightsbook hostels or hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.  

‘Mini-break’ and ‘Minsk’ don’t trip off the tongue. And if you’ve never considered a visit to the Belarusian capital, you aren’t alone. Anita Isalska explores why the city makes for an interesting trip. 

Firstly, there’s the popular perception of Minsk as a grey, post-Soviet megalopolis. Another disincentive is the Belarusian visa, a requirement for visitors from the US, Australia and many European countries including the UK. Finally, some travellers avoid Minsk on point of principle. Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus for an eyebrow-raising two decades, has attracted opprobrium – and sanctions – for numerous human rights violations by him and his officials.

Should you explore a place whose politics you abhor? That’s for each individual traveller to figure out. But with remarkable history, impressive architecture and some intriguing flavours and handicrafts, tired stereotypes don’t do Minsk justice. If you’re curious about the capital of the so-called ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, here’s a primer to get you started…

Soviet stylings and epic monuments

It’s not just Belarusian politics that whiff of Soviet nostalgia: this city of nearly three million people is decorated with Soviet style murals at metro stations and on tower blocks.

But the architecture here doesn’t suffer from Soviet uniformity. Many of Minsk’s monuments create a weirdly wonderful skyline. Among the most neck-craning is the obelisk in central Victory Square; beneath it lies a memorial hall that glows with amber light.

A 15-minute walk west from here to the Svislach River and the Island of Tears – a memorial to those who fell in the ten-year war with Afghanistan – comes into view. Reachable by a narrow footbridge, this lonely monument broods with veiled statues and weeping angels.

There are more uplifting buildings to enliven this sprawling city, too: like scarlet Church of Saints Simon and Helena off Independence Square and the neoclassical National Opera and Ballet of Belarus.

After ambling around Minsk’s old town, admiring the twin bell towers of its Orthodox Church and stopping in quaint taverns, you could almost mistake Minsk for any other charming Eastern European city. Until you notice that the old town isn’t old at all. Historic buildings don’t exist in a city that had to be almost entirely rebuilt from smouldering rubble.

Border shifts and bombardments

The city has undergone seismic shifts in ownership, language and culture over the centuries. Historians pinpoint the city’s founding as 1067. Minsk grew in prosperity as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the thirteenth century, before becoming a capital of the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth. Then came Russian rule, occupation by the Swedes, followed by the return of Russian rule – but the twentieth century would be the bloodiest period yet.

After enduring the World War I as a battlefront city, Minsk made a grab at heading a new Belarusian People’s Republic in March 1918. Only months later the Red Army marched in and Minsk became the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic instead.

In World War II, not even one-tenth of Minsk’s buildings escaped bombing. The city became host to one of WWII’s largest ghettos imprisoning around 100,000 Jews, most of whom would be murdered in camps. Starvation and disease were also rampant outside the ghetto; Minsk’s pre-war population of 300,000 was 50,000 by 1944.

When the Soviet Army took over, Minsk ballooned with swift industrialisation and a population boom. Meanwhile, the city was rebuilt from the rubble with vast Stalinist boulevards and stark angular buildings taking shape, most of which you still see today.

The rise of modern Minsk

For the best vantage point over modern Minsk, you need to get high. To the top of the National Library of Belarus, that is. At the top floor of this space-age-style building, which rather resembles a huge indigo diamond, is an open-air viewing deck with the best views of the city.

Expect a thrilling, rather than classically beautiful, panorama. The skyline is a forest of cranes, skyscrapers and bulldozers. Construction workers, tiny as ants, scuttle in building sites below. Skyscrapers proudly bearing Soviet style murals thrust towards the clouds. You can see the city growing before your eyes. Head to the vintage-themed Graf Cafe on the same floor as the viewing deck for excellent coffee.

There’s also detailed English-language explanation in Minsk’s most expansive museum, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Another sci-fi edifice, the museum’s enormous wartime dioramas and hallways crammed with tanks and missile launchers all take place beneath a metallic dome.

The surprising ease of exploring Minsk continues across the city. The metro, itself jazzed up with amber lighting and statues galore, is simple to navigate. English-language menus abound in restaurants. And locals are exceedingly patient when foreigners fumble their currency as they buy brightly coloured matryoshka (Russian dolls) and intricate straw handicrafts. Presently there are more than 15,400 Belarusian rubles to the Euro – expect to feel like a millionaire as you buy those souvenirs.

Drinking and dining, Belarusian style

With souvenirs bartered for, space-age architecture admired and museums thoroughly perused, you’ll be in need of refreshment. And while many Western Europeans imagine Minsk as dull and staid, you can have one heck of a blow-out here.

Even the most gluttonous traveller will plead to skip dessert at a Belarusian restaurant. Slurp on lip-smackingly sour solyanka soup at Vasilki (Independence Ave 89), a casual eatery with all Belarus’ classic dishes. Minsk’s top choice is Kamyanitsa (Pervomayskaya St 18), where plates arrive piled high with mushroom-stuffed pork and gravy-dipped pancakes (known as draniki). As the evening rolls on, Minsk’s young and beautiful pile into German-style beer taverns. U Ratushi (ul Gertsena) in the old town has live music and generous grills while Rakovsky Brovar is hop-head heaven (Vitebskaya 10).

And somewhere amid the city lights, astonishing architecture and haze of home brew, you’ll never think about Belarus in the same way again…

Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Rwanda’s capital is often described as a city that sleeps, rather than one that doesn’t. Rwandans are, by nature, more reserved than Kenyans, or other Africans. Loud music isn’t tolerated after 8pm and bars tend to close early. Some may call it boring, but Kigali’s residents embrace the city’s quiet calm. Yet, the oldest part of Kigali defies this stereotype.

In the southwest corner of the city in the multi-cultural neighbourhood of Nyamirambo you’ll experience a history and a vibe difficult to find anywhere else. Home to a mixed population, including much of the city’s working class and Muslim population, as well as bars, boutiques and hair salons, the area is an interesting juxtaposition of cultures.

At Nyamirambo’s heart is the Women’s Centre (NWC). The group began in 2007, with 18 women who came together to support each other, discussing issues like health, family, education and unemployment. It has since expanded to include a sewing cooperative and provides practical training and skills for disadvantaged women.

The NWC has also evolved to tap tourism as a revenue stream. They employ locals to lead tours, providing them with an income, while offering tourists an insider’s view of a proud neighbourhood that has repeatedly resisted redevelopment and modernization.

Different aspects of the area illustrate the diversity that makes Nyamirambo special, and the NWC tour weaves a trail from the spiritual soul of the historic Green Mosque to Nyamirambo’s creative hubs. These are a few of the highlights.

Morning at the milk bar

Milk bars are where Rwandans get their equivalent of a morning latte. Nyamirambo is home to more than fifty of the small shops filled with little more than a vat of fresh cow milk. Glasses of hot, steamed fresh milk are served straight up, with cocoa powder, honey or tea.

Recently, the government has promoted milk bars in a push to nourish more of the population, particularly those on a low income, encouraging a healthy start to the day. For many Rwandans, a fresh glass of milk and a banana, is breakfast.

Image by Amy Guttman

Made to measure

The streets of Nyamirambo are among the most colourful in the city, brightened by the sight of women in kitenge (waxed cotton) dresses, sarongs, and wrapped around their waist, babies slung around their backs.

Swarms of people gather around a platform in the center of Nyamirambo to bid on Levi’s jeans, River Island shirts, and other labels at the second-hand clothing auction, while at the fabric market, women sift through the vividly patterned kitenge, before taking their purchases to Rwandan, Senegalese and Congolese tailors, known for their fine dressmaking skills. From small kiosks, surrounded by spools of thread in every colour, they sew made-to-measure garments.

Women also sew next door to the NWC boutique where the tour begins, selling their hand-made childrens’ clothes, home accessories and handbags, all in a kaleidoscope of kitenge.

Image by Amy Guttman

Nyamirambo’s spiritual side

The Green Mosque, nick-named for its green and white minarets, has been a fixture in Nyamirambo since the Muslim community first came to Rwanda as traders in the 1930s. Kigali’s Muslims set up shops in Nyamirambo, and continue their tradition as merchants today, opening their shops well past sunset, adding to the area’s nighttime buzz.

The oldest mosque in Kigali, the Green Mosque is a symbol of peace, with a history as a safe haven for many Rwandans during the genocide: Nyamirambo is said to have escaped some of the worst atrocities of the 90s, largely due to its Muslim population. Many opened their homes and mosques to shelter Tutsis. Their acts of righteousness, along with a loss of faith in Catholic and Protestant leaders, resulted in high conversion rates and Rwanda’s Muslim community has doubled since the genocide.

The rising stars

As lively as it is during daylight, Nyamirambo really heats up after dark. Muslim-owned shops, in typical Arabic tradition, are open late, and an underground music scene fuels Kigali’s best nightlife.

Hip hop and reggae are the most popular, with young, emerging artists, as well established Rwandan rappers like Lil G playing at recording studios, radio stations and bars. Choice Motel, open nightly to tourists and locals, is one of the top spots for live music.

Image by Amy Guttman

Eat like a local

Rounding off the NWC tour is a cooking lesson at a local woman’s home. After exploring the daily fresh produce market, where you can see women grinding cassava root with giant pestle and mortars, you’ll be taught to cook some traditional Rwandan cuisine. Irish potatoes – named because the original crop came from Europe – sugar cane, and a stew of green beans, tomatoes, and onions, make up lunch at the end of the morning.

Amy Stayed at the Hotel des Milles CollinesCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

We asked the Rough Guides team to name the most beautiful places in England. After much deliberation, here are the results.

The Lake District

Travel Editor Greg chose this area of natural beauty, and in particular Kirkstone Pass, as one of the most beautiful places he’s been in England. The highest mountain pass in the country, Kirkstone is a beautiful drive or cycle. There are incredible views and great hikes to be had, while the Kirkstone Pass Inn, an old coaching house dating back to the fifteenth century, is a great base for exploring the area. Some believe it’s haunted by travellers who used to pass through.

Bath, Somerset

Our Senior Web Developer Latn picked Bath as one of the most beautiful places in England. With its elegant Georgian architecture and that famous crescent set on a hill overlooking the Royal Victoria park, it has enchanted many a visitor – the city sees over two million tourists per year. The perfect way to unwind after all that sightseeing? A visit to the Thermae Bath Spa to soak in some of the naturally warm water that bubbles beneath the city.

The South Downs National Park, Sussex

Our Junior Product Manager Jon chose the South Downs National Park for its 1600 square kilometres of incredible views. “It’s the countryside that says “England” to me the most.” There’s perhaps nothing more striking than the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters rising out of the deep blue ocean on England’s South Coast.

The Peak District

Inspiration for the likes of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, the rugged Peak District has been charming Brits for centuries with its undulating hills, windswept crags and imposing country houses. Senior Web Editor Eleanor reckons it’s one of the most beautiful places in the country, with spectacular views, excellent walking trails (including the Pennine Way) and the regal Chatsworth House among its many draws.

Salcombe, Devon

Travel Editor Emma chose this genteel, pastel-coloured seaside town for its proximity to some of Devon’s unspoiled, quiet sandy coves. The town describes itself as Devon’s sailing capital, and there’s no better way to see the colourful seafront than from the open blue waters of the English Channel.

Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset

Managing Editor Andy loves Kimmeridge Bay. Perhaps it’s the views over the ocean, or maybe the millions of years of history that lay immortalized as fossils in the cliffs of this stretch of the Jurassic Coast. Whatever it is, if you can bag yourself a stay at the Landmark Trust’s Clavell Tower you’ll have the best view over the bay.

Hampstead Heath, London

As she recently moved to London from the countryside, the capital was an obvious choice for Assistant Web Editor Lottie. Hampstead Heath in particular gets her vote, as it’s probably the only place in central London where you truly feel like you could be a hundred miles away. Plus The Spaniards Inn pub at the northern edge is one of London’s best – dating back to 1585 – and both Keats and Dickens allegedly used to drink here.

Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire

This historic fishing village, staggered down a steep hill to the sea, was once a haven for smugglers. For Senior Editor Rachel, it’s hard to beat eating fish and chips by the (often wind-swept) sea here, overlooking England’s “dinosaur coast”.

West Cornwall

It’s easy to understand why our Travel Editor Rebecca chose west Cornwall: long before Poldark started brooding on cliff tops, in-the-know travellers were heading to Cornwall’s stunning western reaches. The list of its merits is impressive: renowned surf, dramatic cliffs, ancient fishing villages, abandoned tin mines, mystical stone circles, windswept moorland… Some of the more attractive spots include Minack, with its open-air theatre carved out of the cliff face, and Botallack, ruined tin mines perched precariously above a raging sea.

Dartmouth, Devon

Dartmouth in Devon was picked by our Editorial Assistant Freya. She says: “standing on the coastal walkway in Dartmouth looking out over the River Dart and watching the old steam train pull into Kingswear above the many different-coloured boats moored in the harbour… It will always remind me of childhood holidays, it’s beautiful.”

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month