10 Must-See Travel Destinations in Eastern Europe
Inaccessible to Americans for decades, these cities are now bucket list destinations for travelers who want to explore Europe beyond its western capitals.
Photo By: Ljubljana Slovenia
Photo By: Prague City Tourism
Photo By: Kaupo Kalda
Photo By: Ljubljana
Photo By: Joe Sills
Photo By: Go Vilnius
Photo By: Visit Split
Photo By: Joe Sills
Photo By: Live Riga
Photo By: Budapest Festival and Tourism Cente
Photo By: Tourist Organization of Belgrade
A sense of mystery still clings to Eastern Europe. Locked behind the Iron Curtain for most of the last century, many of its major cities have remained unseen by American eyes. Sure, you know the largest ones like Prague and Budapest, but what about the outliers? There are cities here where legends have never died, where stories of kings and queens, dragons and knights, and vampires, poets and priests are still told.
So if you've done London, been to Rome, perused Paris and you're in need of something new, lace up your travel boots and book a flight further east. The gates to these incredible cities are open, and adventure and discovery await.
Prague, Czech Republic
Talk to anyone who's been to Prague, and they'll undoubtedly tell you to take a trip. They’ll tell you that Prague is as beautiful as Paris, that its beer costs less than water and that no trip to Europe is complete without a visit—and they’re absolutely right. There may be no better place to begin your exploration of Eastern Europe than the City of a Hundred Spires.
Hot spot: When in Prague, be sure to visit Charles Bridge. This 1,700-foot long bridge dates back to the 14th century. Go early to avoid circus-like crowds. Many cafes in Prague open as early as 7:30 a.m., giving you the perfect post-bridge destination. (Coffee & Waffles All Day, anyone?)
The medieval walls of Tallinn lie just 50 miles from Helsinki, Finland, making it a popular getaway for Finns who cross the Baltic Sea to visit the city’s booming bar scene. (Try out popular spots like Depeche Mode Bar, F-Hoone and Pudel.) In recent years, word about Tallinn has spread far beyond the Baltic states and Scandinavia. Now, more than 1.7 million people visit Tallinn each year.
Hot spot: Lenusadam, a fortified World War I-era seaplane hanger where you can explore a 1930s naval submarine in what feels like a lair for a Hollywood villain.
Slovenia may claim just 29 miles of coastline, but its perch between Italy and Croatia has created a culture that's big on cuisine and surrounded by Balkan wilderness. Ljubljana (pronounced like lube-ya-nah) the nation’s capital, sits in its center. Though it once resembled most medieval cities in the region, a massive earthquake in 1895 paved the way for Ljbuljana to rebuild as the art nouveau paradise you see today.
Hot spot: Prešeren Square. If a festival is happening in Ljubljana, chances are it’s happening here, as nearly all festivals have since the 17th century. Ljbuljana’s famed triple bridges converge at Prešeren Square, which takes on a particularly dreamlike look during the winter holiday season.
Constanta has become Instagram famous thanks to the abandoned casino seen here. Built in 1880 but largely abandoned since the 1980s, this world class art nouveau structure somehow survived both World Wars along with Romania’s infamous Cold War-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Today, access is tightly regulated, but you can take a leisurely stroll to within a few feet of its entrance.
Hot spot: Old Town Constanta. The district is anchored by the National History and Archaeology Museum, but it’s brimming with street vendors, cafes, churches and mosques. Constanta’s Roman roots and history of Bulgarian and Ottoman rule make its eateries a melting pot of flavors.
Vilnius is most well-known for the ubiquitous orange rooftops and graffiti-lined streets of its old town. However, the city is much more than an Instagram-worthy collection of vistas. After emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, Vilnius has become a regional cultural hub, with people from nearly 130 ethnicities mingling under the spire of T.V. Tower, seen here.
Hot spot: The Republic of Uzupis. Much like Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania, Uzupis is an independent neighborhood within a city that operates under its own constitution. Uzupis was created on April Fool’s Day of 1997 in one of the roughest parts of town, but now serves as a haven for artists and creatives within Vilnius.
No Eastern European country has been a hotter tourist destination than Croatia this decade. However, while nearly every visitor makes their way to the walled city of Dubrovnik, the country’s second largest city, Split, is still an emerging destination on American travelers' radar. You can package Split with Dubrovnik—the two cities are just a three-hour drive apart—but this seaside city is worthy of a trip in its own right.
Hot spot: Diocletian’s Palace occupies nearly half of the entire old town of Split. Archaeologists believe that work on this ancient fortress along the Adriatic Sea began in 295 A.D. to serve as a residence for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Inside, sculptures from across the ancient world still stand watch over a sprawling complex that occupies more than half of Split's old town.
The history of Bulgaria’s second-largest city dates back an astonishing 8,000 years. Here, Thracian, Greek and Roman ruins intermingle with modern restaurants that blend traditional Bulgarian foods like stuffed peppers and baklava with flavors from Asia, South America and Western Europe.
Hot spot: The Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis. This enormous Roman amphitheater still carries the city’s Latin name and—remarkably—still hosts performances from rock concerts to operas. Pair a night at the theater with a visit to the nearby Kabana arts district, where you'll find street art, fusion food and a bootleg Central Perk coffee shop straight out of Friends.
Once an important center for Viking trade, Riga sits strategically on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Its history is intermingled with not only Vikings, but the Holy Roman, and Swedish and Russian Empires as well, making Riga a true smorgasbord of architecture and lore.
Flights from London to Riga International Airport are generally less than three hours and under $200 for round-trip fares, making a side trip to Riga a surprisingly accessible possibility for those who already plan to be in Western Europe.
Hot spot: The original House of Blackheads (seen here) was constructed in the 1300s as a guild for unmarried merchants, captains, foreigners and other wayfarers and nomads. Though that structure was bombed into ruin in 1941, it has since been restored to serve as the major tourist attraction.
Budapest was created when three cities—Pest, Buda and Óbuda—merged in 1873. Today, you can lounge in effervescent swimming pools, stroll along the Danube River and immerse yourself in the country's often violent history of fascism and communism at the House of Terror Museum. In this modern metropolis, historic luxury and recent history collide.
Hot spot: The Hungarian Parliament Building, seen here. This glimmering neo-gothic palace on the banks of the Danube River utilized some 100,000 workers during its construction. Though only a fraction of the building is in use today, daily tours are available to visitors who hire a guide. Prices start at around $15.
Belgrade’s reputation as a budget destination for backpackers is well-earned. Most local beers cost under $2 per pint and a first-class meal will run you under $30. However, Belgrade offers more than street art and cheap eats. The area’s history dates back some 7,000 years. Most recently, Belgrade served as the former capital of Yugoslavia, from 1918-2006.
Hot spot: Kalemegdan Fortress. Incredibly, 115 battles have been waged over Belgrade’s signature citadel, which has loomed over the city for more than two millennia. Thankfully, Kalemegdan Fortress is a peaceful ruin today. Its ramparts are popular among locals and tourists alike, who go to enjoy its park-like setting and incredible views.