The New Europe Decoder

From secluded beaches to hip café culture, enchanting Eastern Europe packs off-the-beaten-track experiences for travelers.

Once locked behind the Iron Curtain, these five countries offer fresh takes on the Old World.

> Adventure Capital: Albania

Not long ago the very model of seclusion, Albania these days tops the list for adventure seekers and those looking to go off the beaten track.

Trekkers head north of the energetic capital, Tirana, to hike the rugged “Accursed Mountains.”

To the south, the curvy coastal road from Vlorë to Sarandë unspools between steep mountain passes and the blue Adriatic Sea.

> Nature Playground: Lithuania

The lures of Lithuania—its pristine forests and lakes, and a long majestic strip of sand dunes along the Baltic—don’t immediately jump out.

Simona Dambauskas, a fashion accessories designer, says local life revolves around simple pleasures, such as strolling through capital Vilnius‘s baroque cityscape or picking mushrooms in the woods.

Lithuania adopted the euro at the beginning of 2015.

> Great Wine Country: Moldova

Europe’s least visited country (about 12,000 visitors per year) produces some of Europe’s best wines east of Italy.

Popular varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the sunny south, but look out for local grapes such as crisp red Rara Neagă or light white Fetească Albă.

Stop by old wineries such as Mileștii Mici and Cricova, where wine is stored in vast limestone cellars.

> Caffeinated Culture: Serbia

Serbia’s rebellious spirit hasn’t always served it well, but nowadays the country is aiming for European Union membership.

The capital, Belgrade, exudes big-city glam, and clubs and coffee bars are the best in the Balkans. Fun-loving Strahinjića Bana street enlivens the trendy Dorćol quarter.

More scenic and lower key: the Zemun waterfront, on the opposite riverbank from Belgrade.

> Beauty Queen: Slovenia

From the old Venetian port of Piran with its terra-cotta roofs, to the blue-green waters of the Soča River, to the shores of Lake Bled backdropped by the snowcapped Alps, tiny Slovenia may well be Europe’s prettiest place.

Bled-based Domen Kalajžič says his country is simply blessed with natural beauty: “Get lost in the great outdoors and you’ll find the way back to happy spirits.”

This piece, which ran in the August/September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler, was adapted from a story that first appeared in the magazine’s UK edition