When someone mentions Eastern Europe, what images does that conjure up in your mind? Communist regimes? A long, tumultuous history? Gray people, gray buildings, gray landscapes? Well, you would be partially right if we were in 1981. Modern-day Eastern Europe will take you by surprise. It is a thriving, contemporary, elegant, exciting corner of the world. It is also the place to be if you like culture, medieval architecture, beautiful countryside, spectacular coastlines, eclectic cuisine, exciting art scene and fantastic nightlife. Eastern Europe is no longer a hidden, difficult to reach gem of Europe. It has come unto its own and is now popular more than ever. Yes, Paris, London, and Rome will always have their appeal and charm and you should definitely visit them during your lifetime, but if you want something that is as equally beautiful, but slightly different and quirkier, you should definitely put visiting Eastern Europe on your bucket list.
Today, getting to Eastern Europe is as easy as reaching any part of the world. There are many conventional and budget airlines flying there and the entire area is well-connected by buses and trains. If you pick the latter as your mode of transport, please buy InterRail or Eurail pass because you will save yourself a lot of money.
As for our pick of the best East European destinations to visit…. Well, we had a hard time deciding because there are so many to choose from but the ones that we mentioned in the article are all tried and tested. And we guarantee you that, once you visit them, you will be in awe just as much as we were. Bon voyage!
1. Prague, The Czech Republic
Considered one of the most magical and most beautiful cities not only in Eastern Europe, but in Europe as a whole, Prague has been the all time favorite of many foreign tourists. With its elaborate grid of cobble stone streets, historic buildings wherever you turn, museums, and hidden courtyards. Prague is simply magnificent. Its skyline boasts over a thousand copper Baroque domes, spires and towers. Someone said once that once you enter Prague, you will feel like you have stepped into a fantasia barely affected by the twenty-first century. There are also charming café bars and theatres, parks and gardens, bridges and castles. As for the latter, you should definitely visit the Prague Castle, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions here. The castle even has an entry in the book of the Guinness World Records as the biggest ancient castle in the world. It is 570m long and 128m wide, spanning an area as big as seven soccer fields. It was built in the 9th century by Prince Borivoj, was last renovated by Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century and has always been the seat of the Czech kings and queens.
Also, we highly recommend that you visit the visually stunning Vyšehrad Cemetery which is the final resting place of many famous Czech artists like Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana and Alfons Mucha. You should also pay the visit to Prague museums, like the Beer Museum, and the national gallery Veletržní Palác which showcases works of Van Gogh, Picasso, Schiele, and Klimt.
2. Belgrade, Serbia
Opinions about Belgrade are as diverse as they come. Whichever opinion you find to be true, there is one undeniable fact about Belgrade – you can love or hate it, or can’t wait to get to it or get out of it, but Belgrade will never leave you indifferent. Many people who visited Belgrade agree that their first encounter with the city was in their face since the city has such a strong presence, and even stronger energy. This unique energy is everywhere you go and it is something that sets Belgrade apart from other European cities. Somebody said once that Belgrade is a city for people who love cities. If you are going for small, quaint, cute and picturesque, we would advise you to go elsewhere, since Belgrade is anything but. The capital city of Serbia is big, brash, strangely beautiful, urban, on the go, never stopping, alive 24/7. Although, it attracts young people in droves and is considered the entertainment hub of Southeast Europe and the city that never sleeps, did you know that Belgrade is one of the oldest cities on the continent? And it is this age-old soul that permeates through as you walk down the streets of the 19th-century-Skadarlija or Stari Grad. Belgrade is a perfect example of Oriental passion and European flair.
Although, at first glance, Belgrade doesn’t resemble an ancient city like Rome or Athens does, its history goes back at least 7,000 years, to the time of the first Paleolithic settlements. Belgrade’s history has certainly been turbulent, interesting, and stormy. And the city’s historical sites and monuments provide a great testimony and an illustration of the past times. Rivers, parks, historical monuments, sumptuous cuisine, thriving night life, museums, medieval fortresses and monuments, mixture of various architectural periods and styles, the Belgrade spirit…. There are many reasons why people come, stay and fall in love with Belgrade.
3. Budva, Herceg Novi and Kotor, Montenegro
Just south of Serbia, there is a beautiful little gem of a country called Montenegro with its spectacular 295km long coastline and 72km of pebble and sand beaches. The Montenegrin coastline is home to quaint fishing villages, luxury resort towns, fjord-like landscapes protected by the UNESCO and the remnants of exquisite old Venetian fortresses. Montenegro has been visited by many celebrities, aristocrats and politicians including Elizabeth Taylor, the sister of the British Queen Princess Margaret, Sophia Loren, as well as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas ,Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Andrea Bocelli, Beyonce, Pamela Anderson, Lenny Kravitz, David Guetta, Sylvester Stallone and Jeremy Irons. We suggest that you visit three beautiful coastal towns while there – Budva and St. Stefan island (dating back to the 15th century) with a luxury namesake hotel, Herceg Novi known for its fragrant mimosa trees and the large number of sunny days all year around, and Kotor, a town situated in a beautiful bay, built between 12th and 14th century.
If you are an avid musical festival goer, please come to Budva’s main beach in July to attend one of the most exciting festivals in South East Europe called Sea Dance. This festival was voted the best European mid-sized festival and, this year, the lineup was as exciting as the festival’s location.
4. Ohrid, Macedonia
Ohrid Lake is a dictionary definition of breathtakingly beautiful. Located in southwestern Macedonia, this lake is as tranquil, enjoyable, sublime and relaxing as they come. There are old churches at the foot of the Ohrid hill, topped by a medieval castle. You can enjoy quiet secluded beaches on the lake’s eastern shore, as well as Galičica National Park which is situated on a spectacular mountain range that rises to 2,254m altitude. The national park is home to another crystal clear mountain lake called Prespan Lake which lies at 850m above the sea level. Galičica covers 22,750 hectares of fantastic nature with diverse flora and fauna. There are more than 1,500 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 260 species of migratory and non-migratory birds, 32 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 17 species of fish living here.
Ohrid Lake is 300m deep and, believe it or not, three million years old. It is considered one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. The best time to come and visit this nature’s diamond is from mid-July to mid-August when a summer festival takes place. Please book accommodation well in advance because this is a very popular destination both with locals and foreigners. If you prefer peace and quiet, the best time to visit Ohrid would be in June or September.
Ohrid is also home to ancient churches and monasteries like St. Sophia Church from 1317, the Monastery of Saint Panteleimon which is considered one of the oldest Slavic monasteries that dates back to 893 AD, and several other Byzantine basilicas.
5. Krakow, Poland
This is one of the most exciting, interesting and enchanted towns in Poland. According to a local legend, the town of Krakow was founded upon the defeat of a dragon and mystical is definitely how the town feels when you walk through its ancient streets and squares. Krakow is a Gothic, Renaissance and modern town, all rolled into one. It was founded in the 7th century and has always been one of the most important centers of the Polish cultural, academic and artistic life.
The town is full of exciting places to see and history buffs will feel like home here. There the Royal Cathedral, a Gothic structure built in the 11th century by King Boleslaw I on the foundation of a Roman construction dating back to 1140. The Cathedral has been the seat of many coronations and entombments of Polish monarchs.
The Wawel Castle is also one of must-see-historical sites in Krakow. For centuries, it has been considered the symbol of Polish national identity and today it houses a museum that is divided in five separate segments – Crown Treasury & Armory, Private Royal Apartments, State Rooms, Lost Wawel and Oriental Art Exhibit.
The third don’t-you-dare-miss-it location is the Monastery of the Camaldolese Monks from 1603. There are only two of these monasteries left in Poland today and the Camaldolese order is known as one of strictest. The monks here obey by the Memento Mori (“remember you must die”) rule which entails an extremely ascetic way of life where they live in seclusion and are allowed to contact each other only during prayers. They also have no contact with the outside world. Women can visit the monastery only on certain days, namely on Easter, Easter Monday, 3rd May, Pentecost (two days), Sunday after 19th June, second and fourth Sundays in July, first Sunday in August, Assumption of Mary (15th August), Virgin Mary’s birthday (8th September) and Christmas.
6. Transylvania, Romania
There is no destination more perfect to visit for Halloween than Transylvania. The home of Vlad Tepes, also ‘affectionately’ know as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Romanian ruler on which the character of Dracula was based, Transylvania is a must see for anyone who enjoys a bit of thrill coupled with interesting historical facts on their travels.
Surrounded by the Carpathian Mountain Range, Transylvania is a region in central Romania which is known for its medieval culture and monuments. It was first mentioned in a Medieval Latin document dating back to 1075 as Ultra Silvam (in Latin “beyond the forest”). Despite being commonly known as a “mystical land of bloodthirsty vampires”, Transylvania is actually a beautiful part of Romania – criss-crossed with rivers, valleys and impressive mountain ranges – and laden with history.
But if you are hell bent on going on one of those Dracula tours, we highly recommend that you pick one that will take you not only to see the Bran Castle (one of the castles where Vlad Tepes stayed or rather was imprisoned), but also to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, Targoviste, a beautiful city situated on the right bank of the Ialomita River and Sinaia, a stunning mountain and ski resort with excellent hotels (swimming pools and restaurants), cable cars and chair lifts. Also, make sure to visit the Royal Peles Castle near the town of Brasov, built in 1873 and designed by the Viennese architect Wilhelm Doderer. The location of the castle was chosen by the German prince Carol I de Hohenzollern. The interior of the Peles Castle is very lavish, decked in leather and expensive wood.
The capital city of Romania – Bucharest – is also worth seeing, particularly its grand Communist architecture. In Communist era, Bucharest was dubbed “Paris of the East” because of its wide boulevards and spectacular buildings. One of them that is frequently visited by tourist is the colossal Parliament building, spanning an incredible 365,000 square metres and 12 storeys with 3,100 rooms. Over 1 million cubic meters of Transylvanian marble and 3,500 metric tons of crystal were incorporated into the building which also has 480 chandeliers.
For art lovers, there is the National Museum of Art which is situated in the Royal Palace and which exhibits an impressive number of paintings by old masters.