It’s fair to say that the very definition of the word ‘travel’ has undergone tremendous change over the last two, pandemic-exacerbated years of our lives. Lugging around a sheaf of documentation—be they assorted COVID-19-related tests, vaccination certificates and health declarations or increased premium travel insurance policies and quarantine hotel bookings—is almost de rigueur for us by now.
Now, add to that the already cumbersome visa woes. Only this time round, with tremendous paperwork (there we go again!) and excruciatingly long processing timelines. That is, IF one is able to secure an almost impossible to get appointment slot. Enough for even the most seasoned travellers amongst us to throw in the proverbial towel and give up on the very idea of travelling out of the country...well, almost.
Sure, there have always been countries like Indonesia, Thailand, The Maldives, Sri Lanka and good old Nepal that have zero to minimal visa requirements for us Indians. But then adjectives like clichéd, predictable and dare-I-say, boring come into the fray. Making us seek out greener pastures (pun intended!).
Thankfully, we have just the exotic quartet lined up for you. From Tunisia in North Africa, Serbia and Albania in South-eastern Europe to the uncharted locales of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, we’ve curated a list of four, relatively unknown countries, to us Indians at least, that offer 100 per cent visa-free entry for Indian passport holders. Each loaded with a promise of an impromptu vacation that puts the fun back into travel.
Slowly emerging from the mighty shadows cast by its more prolific regional neighbours like Morocco and Egypt, Tunisia—that is part of the Maghreb region of North Africa has a lot to offer the intrepid traveller. And more so the new Indian traveller who wants something different, albeit with a similar flavour of the aforementioned Egypt and Morocco. Here, tiny Tunisia steps in as the only country in North Africa to offer visa free travel to us Indians.
Tunis, its bustling seaside capital along the Mediterranean Sea is reachable from India via connecting flights from Dubai, Sharjah and Cairo alike. Centred around the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the Medina, Tunis has plenty to see and do in. From its frankincense-perfumed souk to the Bardo Museum—which is Africa’s second largest museum, the traveller seeking culture is rewarded handsomely.
A short detour from the main city is the suburb that holds forth a true slice of ancient history. After a day in Tunis, start your second day visiting Carthage, Hannibal’s ancient capital. From Tunis, you can take the train or a cab, it takes around 20 minutes to get there. You can do everything on foot, or you can hire a cab or rent bicycles.
Here, you can make your way to the Antonine Baths and the well-appointed Byrsa Museum before heading towards Sidi Bou Said. Undoubtedly Tunisia’s most picturesque village, make sure to visit the Arabic and Mediterranean Music Center and the Dar El-Annabi, both housed in traditional buildings.
No trip to this fascinating country is complete without a stopover at El Jem which a half-day excursion from Sousse in the central part of the country. As one of the most visited spots in all of Tunisia, this magnificent amphitheatre is breath-taking, and considered to be the third largest ever built, after the Colosseum in Rome and an amphitheatre that was destroyed in Capua, Italy. A true ‘gem’, this!
Imbued with that East-meets-West je ne sais quoi quality that a country like Turkiye has, but at much more affordable prices, the once Ottoman-ruled Balkan country of Serbia is a great option for a fuss-free and cost-effective vacation. It also helps that Serbia is perhaps one of the only countries in continental Europe to offer visa free entry to Indians. This has meant that this former part of Yugoslavia has been seeing an increased number of visitors since it opened its borders to tourists way back in mid-2020. In fact, quite a few Bollywood movies and OTT shows have been filmed here recently.
Reachable via connecting flights from Dubai, Sharjah and Zurich, Belgrade, Serbia’s capital is a great orientation spot for one’s travels around the landlocked country. Ask anyone about the city’s number one attraction and chances are that they will guide you to the Kalemegdan, or Belgrade Fortress. Built in 279 CE, this landmark is located in the heart of the city in a park of the ‘white city’ neighbourhood. Free of charge and open 24/7, this is the place to enjoy free music and dance lessons in summer. Other Belgrade attractions around this area include Belgrade’s Military Museum, the Roman underground tunnels and the Ruzica Church. This is considered to be the oldest church of Belgrade and can be found at the side of the Kalemegdan fortress. For science geeks, the Nikolai Tesla museum is a must-visit, especially seeing the ‘hair-raising’ Tesla Coil Demonstration.
Moving a bit out of Belgrade can also be rewarding, with places like Novi Sad and Subotica giving you a great insight into the country that is Serbia. The former is Serbia’s second-largest city and capital of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, making Novi Sad is the perfect introduction to Northern Serbia. Novi Sad has a classic European appearance thanks to its Hapsburg-era architecture and outdoor café culture. It also helps that the Danube runs through the heart of the city, giving it a distinctly Budapest-like vibe.
Located an hour north of Novi Sad, very close to the Hungarian border, Subotica is famous for its cache of Art Nouveau architecture buildings. The most famous of all is the Raichle Palace, a private residence built in 1904. This is also the perfect base to head out for a day trip to Palic Lake in the late afternoon to enjoy a picturesque sunset that’s magical in Autumn.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about this other Balkan country tucked way in South-eastern Europe on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, with Greece to its south. Closed to the world until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and nicknamed ‘the land of the eagle’ thanks to its double headed eagle flag, Albania is one of the most recent countries to offer visa free entry to Indians, till the end of 2022 (which may be extended further). Though one still needs to get to Tirana, Albania’s capital city via Dubai, Sharjah or Kuwait as there are no direct flights from India.
Once in Tirana, check out the city’s sights and historic monuments, such as Hem Bey mosque and the clock tower, communist architecture and the central Skanderberg Square. Special mention must be made of the city’s Blloku District. This upmarket and trendy area is home to not just numerous cafes and restaurants, but also the house of Enver Hoxha, the former Albanian dictator and communist leader.
After a day or two exploring Tirana, one can then move on to the country’s other top heritage sites by hiring a car. Like Durres, whose ancient walls have stood for around 2,000 years. Continuing by road to Berat, one can check out the city’s architectural style that is so unique, that it has been recognised by UNESCO. As one of the best-preserved Ottoman towns in the Mediterranean, Gjirokaster is another must-see. From here one can take in Blue Eye Spring and admire the history of Butrint.
Other places to not miss are the Ottoman homes of Elbasan and the prehistoric Bay of Bones Museum along the way. Take a detour to Lake Ohrid where you can absorb all that the area has to offer, including the cave churches of Saint Archangel Michael and Saint Atanasij, as well as the Holy Mother of God Monastery complex. End your Albanian trip only after checking out the beauty of the Llogara National Park and after you’ve seen the magnificent Ali Pasha Castle in Apollonia.
Since the days of the silk route trade, this elusive, exotically uncharted former USSR republic of Central Asia, has always held tremendous sway for the adventurous traveller as a destination with a difference. Mainly, because it is so way off the beaten track that not many have even heard of it, leave aside travelled to it. It is also the newest country, as of mid-July 2022, to offer a 14-day visa free entry to Indians. As well as being connected to India with a direct flight from New Delhi to Almaty.
Extending West from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains in the East, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, and the second landlocked country on this list. Planning an itinerary for Kazakhstan is interesting given its size and diverse geography. One that includes everything from arid plains and endless steppes to lush valleys, snow-capped mountains, and almost futuristic looking cities, like its political capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and the main tourist base of Almaty which was the country’s capital till 1997. Speaking of which, it’s safe to say that one can easily ignore the flashy shine of Nur-Sultan for a day in Almaty before exploring the rest of the country. In Almaty, check out sights like the central mosque, the Kazakhstan Museum Of Arts and the Kazakh Museum Of Folk Musical Instruments in the fecund Panfilov Park.
Then head up to Tobe Hill, located in the central part of the city. One needs to ride the cable car from the Republic Palace to take you to the top of Kok Tobe from where the vistas of Almaty and the many vineyards below nothing are short of breath-taking.
A short drive of a little more than two hours from Almaty is where you can find Tamgaly Tas, a UNESCO world heritage site filled with ancient petroglyphs. One can also find many symbols depicting Lord Buddha, again thanks to the silk route trade.
Known as one of the “Pearls of Tien Shan Mountain” for its almost alpine-like beauty, Kolsay Lakes National Park in the south-eastern part of the country is where one can indulge one’s sporty side by either hiking or by horseback riding along the scenic trails here. Take a day trip to another natural wonder which is Charyn Canyon. Considered the largest canyon in the world after the famous American Grand Canyon.
Said to be the place where Noah’s ark is said to have settled after the biblical flood, Kazygurt Mount close to Shymkent city in the south is another must visit place. But in our opinion, the most unique place in all of Kazakhstan has got to the former seaport of Aralsk in the south-western part of the country. Once a bustling city, it is now a supremely picturesque, but sad ship graveyard due to the retreating waters of the Aral Sea.