In recent months, you may have seen an article (or three) asking “Is Belgrade the new Berlin?” And though the capitals are radically different, the Berlin baptism is, in a way, a sign that the Serbian city is hitting its stride. Though conflict remains recent within its history, Belgrade has re-emerged as a buzzy Balkan city, known for wild nightlife (think late-night parties on houseboats known as splavovi) and a booming art and design scene. Head to the Savamala district for the newest galleries: At its heart is Mikser House, an industrial space that exhibits the latest in Serbian design; 15 minutes away is Belgrade Design District, an abandoned shopping mall turned creative hub. Though the temporarily shuttered Museum of Contemporary Art still collects dust, there’s plenty of art to see elsewhere: The newly opened Drina gallery in the city center; Macura, a cube shaped museum on the city’s outskirts; and the Zepter Museum, a 1920s bank converted into a private art space. For pause, take a stroll through Belgrade’s ancient fortress, Beogradska Tvrđava, which sits at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers—in a city that’s confidently looking ahead, you’ll be reminded of its long and resilient history, too.
Go for: Hanging ten in Africa
The city—a Franco–West African mashup with an innovative music scene, excellent textile shopping, and lively beaches (think: similar to Rio or Venice Beach for their families, surfers, and body builders)—has been one of the safest and most politically stable in the region for decades. Head to Ngor Island for world-class waves made famous in the seminal 1966 surf film The Endless Summer, or get your toes wet at the sandy, calm Yoff Beach, 30 minutes by car from the capital. Departing from the East Coast, you could be in Africa in the time it takes to get to Paris, eating a spicy fish mafé with a cold La Gazelle beer and listening to mbalax at a beachfront café. Surf’s up.
Go for: History, culture, and cosmopolitan energy
A single day in Azerbaijan’s capital, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, can feel like a trip around the world: You’ll see ultra-shiny skyscrapers that wouldn’t be out of place in Dubai; Beaux-Arts facades and cobblestone squares reminiscent of Paris; sand-colored mosques and wide seaside promenades that will make you feel like you are in Oman, 1,200 miles away. Thanks to direct flights from New York-JFK on Azerbaijan Airlines and a new (as of June 2016) e-visa process that replaces an otherwise bureaucratic nightmare, it’s easier than ever to go to Azerbaijan—a place that for a long time has been, like Timbuktu, synonymous with the far away and remote. Tourists are still a novelty, so much so that when you enter the immaculately maintained walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it can feel like you have the 15th-century Shirvanshahs’ Palace and its surrounding, winding alleyways all to yourself.
Stepantsminda, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
Go for: A long walk along the border of east and west
After decades spent out of sight and out of mind for most travelers, due in part to shoddy infrastructure and intermittent conflict with neighboring Russia, this former Soviet republic is now investing in its tourism industry and attracting travelers tired of crowded mountain trails in the Alps or reservation-only vineyards in France. The best way to witness the diversity of this small country’s terrain is on its hiking trails, which wind through the Greater Caucasus mountain range dividing Europe from Asia. Make the valley town of Stepantsminda your base, and start your hiking vacation with a walk up to the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church, which at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape, especially the towering Mount Kazbegi.
Panama City, Panama
Go for: Cobblestoned colonial quarters
Following the 2014 opening of the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo (and the 100th anniversary of that famous canal), Panama City has only shot up in stature. Today, the oceanside capital has emerged as a financial hub with a glittering skyline of glass-and-steel towers to rival Miami’s. For a glimpse of the city’s turnaround, look to the still-gritty but relentlessly atmospheric Casco Viejo, a pastel-hued, colonial-era quarter less than two miles from the canal that evokes by turns Old San Juan, New Orleans, and stylish corners of Mexico City like Juárez or Roma. Don’t miss dinners at the 16-seat Donde José; rum cocktails at the Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar; and late-night shows at Danilo’s Jazz Club.
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