Central and Eastern Europe are among the culturally diverse parts of the world, preserving a plethora of deep-rooted traditions. What’s more, large tracts of the area remain off the mass-tourism radar, ensuring that there is still a great deal to explore. The following ten suggestions will ensure you get the best out of this huge, compelling and endlessly surprising region.
Bulgarian capital Sofia will only ever earn a “well-it’s-OK-I-suppose” rating on your list of travel highlights. It’s second city Plovdiv that inspires the superlatives, with its enchanting blend of Roman remains, Ottoman-era mosques, stately Levantine houses and fresco-filled churches.
There’s a bohemian nightlife district in the cobbled Kapana quarter, and a host of cultural festivals – the city will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and is already gearing itself up for the experience.
For brilliant beaches: the Curonian Spit, Lithuania
People say that the Baltic Sea is too cold for a beach holiday, and they’re almost always right. However it is home to some of Europe’s most unique landscapes, most notably the stark dune-scape of the Curonian Spit (called Neringa in Lithuanian).
Deep forest and never-ending beaches characterize this narrow strip of land just off the coast, although it is the huge, shifting dunes above the fishing village of Nida that make an unforgettable impression.
Estonia’s second city Tartu is one of those European gems that will have you scratching your head as to why it’s not on everybody else’s bucket list. The leafy university city offers Neo-classical architecture, cute neighbourhoods and cult drinking dens – the ideal place to take a mid-journey breather.
Big, brusque, and frequently bewildering, Warsaw is the region’s only true metropolis. The city blends haughty grandeur and gritty history, suburbs which seem stranded in different epochs, and good, cheap food with lashings of beetroot.
It offers glimpses of the region’s future, too, thanks to its soaring architecture, increasingly cool design scene, and the al-fresco summer nightlife of the Wisła riverbank.
By all means hang out with the crowds in Split and Dubrovnik, but there’s really no point in coming all the way to the Adriatic coast without visiting at least one of the islands. All of them are enchanting in their own way, but Vis is special: there’s a minimum of mass-tourist development, loads of unspoiled coves and beaches, boat trips to stunning sea-caves and some of the best food and wine in the Mediterranean.
For the best beer: Prague, the Czech Republic
Prague is the city that’s got it all, the Gothic churches, the set-piece squares, the acres of park, the vast century-spanning museums and downtown streets that you never tire of walking.
The old Jewish quarter and the Franz Kafka trail provide extra allure; and the beer, of course, is quite simply the best in the world.
For laidback life: Odessa, Ukraine
If you have the time and inclination to take in Eastern Europe’s outer limits then aim for Odessa, the brash Black Sea port that combines buzzing beach life with belle-époque buildings and bags of exuberant, anything-goes attitude. Home to the Odessa Steps (dramatically featured in Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), it’s also Eastern Europe’s most famous film location.
For alluring towns and tradition: Transylvania, Romania
With its haystacks, horse-drawn carts, walled churches and hilltop castles Transylvania is steeped in centuries-old tradition. It is also Europe at its most truly European, with its historical mixture of Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian heritage. Alluringly ancient towns like Sibiu and Sighişoara look like they have jumped from the pages of a medieval manuscript – or a nineteenth-century vampire novel.
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Few cities pack so much into so compact and walkable a space as Ljubljana. There’s a hilltop castle with great views of the Alps, an old baroque quarter, a willow-lined river crossed by a sequence of pretty bridges, and a more than decent clutch of modern art museums. Add a laidback drinking culture, good food and a friendly alternative gig scene, and you’re in for a treat.
The Holocaust is the most powerful symbol of what Europe went through in the Second World War, and Auschwitz is its most symbolic location. This is not because somebody decided to make a tourist showcase out of it; it’s because survivors documented their experiences and built a fitting museum. The human issues raised by Auschwitz can’t be dealt with second-hand via newspaper articles and textbooks. You really have to go there in person.