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Tom Coote breaks down five countries far off the backpacker trail.

Not long ago Albania was strictly off limits for independent travel; the only way to visit was through a costly organized tour. Sailors from nearby Corfu were terrified of being forced to land along the Albanian coast, in case they were arrested as foreign spies and carted off to some kind of gulag.

It was considered to be the last great bastion of European hard-line communism.

That’s all over now. Westerners no longer need a visa, and hostels and budget accommodation are starting to sprout up all over the place.

Albania is still great value and offers everything from elegant Ottoman mansions in snow capped mountains, to ancient Greek ruins and near-deserted Mediterranean beaches. The last couple of years have seen dramatic improvements in the capital city of Tirana, as the once notoriously potholed streets have been repaired.

The country still retains its flavour and remains several steps removed from most of Eastern Europe. McDonalds and KFC have yet to invade, although you can find a “MacDonalds” — golden arches and all — and a kebab version of the colonel.

Photo: albatros11


During the ten-year civil war — in which around 100,000 Algerians were killed — Algeria was strictly off limits for tourism. Even until very recently you could only visit if you went on an expensive tour escorted by an official guide.

It might be an exaggeration to say everything has now changed and all of Algeria is completely safe, but independent travel is now possible.

You need to have a booking with a hotel and provide plenty of support evidence to get a tourist visa, but it can be done. The easiest and cheapest option is probably to get a cheap flight into Tunisia and then cross over from there — the border with Morocco is closed.

Algeria is a vast country with everything from ancient Roman ruins and undeveloped Mediterranean beaches, to colonial architecture and the emptiness of the Saharan desert. Sooner or later, the people in power are going to realise that tourism could earn them a lot of money and greatly contribute to solving their chronic unemployment problems.

For more details on backpacking independently in Algeria, read my article To Camels from Cows — Algeria Overland.

Photo: Pudpuduk


You can find medieval walled cities, great lakes, and lots of architecturally distinct churches and monasteries in Macedeonia.

The people are friendly and even popular tourist destinations such as Lake Ohrid are incredibly cheap for Europe (ten euros a night for a pleasant double room with cable TV).

It’s easy enough to travel overland into Macedonia from Kosovo or Albania, but the lack of cheap international flights means it can only practically be visited as part of a longer trip through other parts of Eastern Europe.


Oman is becoming increasingly popular as a stopover between Europe and Asia.

Photo: Panorama

Even if you’re laying over in Dubai, it’s easy to get a bus down to Oman’s capital, Muscat — Western nationals can get an inexpensive visa at the Omani border.

If you’re flying to somewhere else with Oman airlines, you could also pay a small surcharge to stop in Muscat for a few days. Muscat may not be as well set up for tourism as Dubai, but I think it’s cheaper, friendlier, and more interesting.

As well as the usual desert and rocky mountain scenery, Oman has castles, mosques, and heaving, atmospheric bazaars. There’s not yet much in the way of budget accommodation, but sooner or later somebody will decide to open up a backpackers hostel.


Unlike in Russia or Belarus, Western nationals no longer need a visa to visit Ukraine. You can get a cheap“>EasyJet flight into Krakow, Poland, and then get the train to the nearby Ukranian border. From there it’s a short bus ride to Ukraine’s third largest — and arguably most popular — city, Lviv. You could also get EasyJet flights into Budapest and then hop the overnight train.

Photo: MariyaZ

Ukraine still seems very “Soviet.” The cities have state-sponsored circuses and puppet shows in crumbling but permanent buildings. Outside of the cities, many people grow their own turnips in their front gardens. Headscarves are the norm for the aging ladies and the apparently bad dye jobs for the middle aged.

The young people are different, though — more like the teens in Poland or Hungary. It’s the differences, however, that make Ukraine worth visiting. As with Macedonia, there’s still a lack of cheap, direct flights, and language can be a problem, but Ukraine has something different to offer the curious traveler.

Given that it’s so close to the more popular parts of Eastern Europe and that decent hostels can easily be booked online, its popularity is bound to rise.


For another far-off-the-beaten-track idea, don’t miss How to Travel to Socotra, Yemen.



About The Author

Tom Coote

I am currently living in Krabi in Thailand but will soon attempt to travel overland between Thailand and Turkey along 'The Silk Road'. If all goes according to plan I should have visited over a hundred countries by the time I return to England in June, 2010.

  • Heather Carreiro

    Oh so jealous of your Algeria trip. I lived in Morocco from 03 to 04, and Americans couldn’t get visas at that time. Once I took a taxi to the border at Oujda just to look into Algeria; the driver freaked out and turned around before we even reached the checkpoint! I got one photo of the border as the taxi made its haste retreat…

  • Abbie

    Just added 5 countries to my list…

  • JoAnna

    Great list! I’ve always wanted to check out Ukraine … and now apparently I have four other places to consider traveling to as well!

  • Jeffrey

    Wow! The Balkans/East Europe seem to be really opening up as of late, bet there is lots to do and people to meet! Cool!

  • Rachel

    I can tell a lot of thought went into this list. You didn’t just randomly pull 5 popular destinations out a hat like some others have done recently… *cough, lonely planet, cough*

    For more Destination lists visit
    the latest is the Top 10 Hippie Backpacker Destinations
    check it out

  • Pres

    Wonderful article, Tom! It’s a journey through five countries with great history. I’m from Bulgaria, so if you ever want to learn more about it, please contact me.

  • Dritan Lika

    I am from albania and i like to thank you the person that wrote for albania.I suggest you to visit albania for many other reasons ……!

  • Stephen

    Great list. Actually some originals here. Not like the usual lists…

  • Luana

    Macedonia and then should include Servia, both country have some similiarities including the language not the same but both can understand each other, I am planning my first trip to Macedonia this year and I can’t wait, people indeed are very friendly, I have worked with people from there and they are very proud of their history always stating that Alexander the great was from Macedonia not Greece.

  • Maxine Sheppard

    Great list! I’d really love to visit Oman. I would just add that if you want to get to Lviv from Krakow, you don’t need to get a train to the Ukrainian border and then get a bus, you can get an overnight direct train all the way from Krakow. I went from Warsaw to Lviv last year, changing in Krakow.

    As far as I can recall the train leaves Krakow in the late evening and gets to Lviv at around 6am. You can book a two person sleeper carriage with sink, seats and pull-down beds, which is certainly a lot more comfortable and worth the extra bit of cash if you have it. Be aware that you will get woken at the border by guards who will come in and rifle through everything, including all your (provided) bedding. A little bit of Polish or Ukrainian will go a long way…

    Getting off the train in Lviv is like stepping back in time. You’ll leave the station to the strains of patriotic music and as you walk down the cobbled main street away from the station, old women in headscarves sweep the dust off the streets in preparation for the day ahead. Lviv is an absolutely beautiful and atmospheric place – best coffee I’ve had anywhere in Europe – and I really hope it doesn’t become the next city of choice for stag weekends and the like. It’s probably ok for now, as it still requires a little bit of effort to get there.

    It’s also easy to get from Lviv to Kiev by direct train (around 6 hrs). Very, very different to Lviv. Far more brash and manic, with grand wide streets and iconic churches. As the author says, feels very ‘Soviet’ here – less so in Lviv, which was under Polish rule for most of its existence. Really interesting country, not always easy – that’s what makes it interesting I guess. I have a few photos here if anyone’s interested

  • Margitravelling

    Hi Tom,
    Great article, and I can say that any time someone offers me a choice between Dubai and Oman, I’ll take Oman – I was lucky enough while working as a travel agent to go on a sponsored trip to Oman (and to Dubai) and while Dubai is great if you’re looking for shopping and a very western feel, Oman is the place to be if you really want to experience something of the Middle East.
    Well worth a day trip to Nizwa in the interior on a Friday for the traditional Bedouin livestock markets too – great place to take photo’s – the locals dress in everything from traditional clothing to modern gear and theres the fort (especially with a clear & deep blue sky) as well as all the oases along the road.
    People are friendly and helpful and the country is unspoiled, partly due to the rulings by the Sultan which protect traditional architecture and prohibits buildings over a certain hight.
    Even though they have a Sultan, he is advised by an elected cabinet which includes women.
    If anyone is thinking of visiting I can recommend that you get out and book a ticket – this is a great destination where you can really sense the culture.

  • Rigo Campos

    Hi…I just love the post, the content of the post is really fresh and very innovative,
    Albania is really an awesome place,I will definitely visit here soon, Keep posting good stuff always:-)

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