K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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For many years Eastern Europe was considered the undiscovered half of the continent, but today more and more travelers are not only finding a wealth of attractions, spectacular beauty and especially warm, welcoming people but often a lot more bang for the buck. While some of the hottest cities, like Prague, can give Paris a run for the money when it comes to hotel rates, the bargain traveler will find many fantastic, bargain destinations – and, those who are looking for luxury can find plenty of that too.
Nestled in an alpine valley along the Ljubljanica River, Ljubljana is one of the most beautiful in Eastern Europe. Relatively small, this top destination in Slovenia very walkable, laid-back, slightly quirky and even romantic. You’ll find cobblestoned streets lined with charming cafes as well as hip, trendy bars, a number of museums and art galleries. The hilltop castle is one of the most popular sights – it contains an interactive museum of Slovenian history and a tower providing impressive views of the city and far beyond. You’ll find lots to do nearby as well, in the winter hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenia Alps and ski down the slopes. In the summer, picture-perfect Lake Bled can be reached in less than two hours.
If you want to sample the Dalmatian Coast without the crowds, the walled port of Zadar is ideal. This region is rich in history and natural beauty, which is still relatively undiscovered. Wander the quiet streets of marble and soak in the sand and the sun on undisturbed beaches, or sail to remote islands. Zadar makes for the perfect base to explore the entire region. In the historic old town, Roman ruins stand alongside Romanesque churches. Along the picturesque waterfront promenade, people gather at the promontory to watch some of the most glorious sunsets – Alfred Hitchcock famously claimed them to be the most beautiful in the world.
Tucked in a bend on the Ohre River, Locket is a picturesque city with a chocolate-box-style town square. Visiting here feels like a journey back to the 13th century, when it was first constructed. A gallery found at the top offers beautiful views of the town and Ohre River valley, while the castle features an exhibition of products from local factories, weapons and an archaeology exhibition. Several floors of cold and damp dungeons with a torture demonstration are hidden in the underground. While the small town of Loket is usually visited only as a day trip from Karlovy Vary, with its location in the Slavkov Forest Protected Landscape Area surrounded by beautiful countryside, it makes for a wonderfully relaxing place to slow down and enjoy lovely scenic walks for a few days.
The first thing that will catch your eye in Torun, located south of Gdansk, is its massive red-brick churches, looking more like fortresses than places of worship. The city is defined by its striking Gothic architecture, giving the Old Town a distinctive appearance as well as its promotional slogan: gotyk na dotyk, or “Touch Gothic.” This magnificently walled town should be high on every traveler’s list as the most Gothic urban complex in the country as well as one of the most important tourist centers, second only after Krakow as the richest of original and best-preserved historical monuments. Beyond its stunning architecture, Torun is well known as the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus – you can even buy gingerbread shaped in his image.
Anyone who is fascinated by the Soviet period will enjoy traveling to the attractive city of Minsk, with its clean, wide sidewalks of colored brick, a river running through the center as well as parks and monuments scattered throughout. Minsk was 80% destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in the 1950s to the liking of Stalin with large, Soviet-bloc style buildings making up a large portion of the city. You’ll find numerous restaurants and fashionable cafes, crowded bars and interesting art galleries to explore.
Tallinn is a budget-friendly European destination and just a ferry ride away from Stockholm and Helsinki, making it a perfect addition to a trip through Scandinavia. Discover the comforts of modern amenities and an exciting nightlife along with a rich cultural scene in a historical setting with its quaint cobbled streets and impressive medieval fortifications in the form of city walls. The students of Tallinn University keep the place hopping after dark, especially in the cavernous cellar bars. Just a five-minute walk from the medieval Old Town and you’ll find a thriving business center with modern glass and steel skyscrapers, high-tech hotels, hundreds of restaurants and plenty of shopping venues.
Montenegro is often ignored by travelers to Europe, but with such breathtaking vistas as the continent’s deepest fjord, it’s one that really shouldn’t be missed. You’ll find friendly people, cheap local wine and an abundance of spectacular scenery, with the picture-perfect Bay of Kotor, an impressive ancient port town, offering some of the best. The city has been named a cultural and natural World Heritage Center, thanks at least in part to its strong Venetian influences and unique river canyon from the Adriatic. The hidden community is accessed through a narrow passage from the sea with steep wooded hills descending to tiny villages perched atop the flat bit of ground between shore and slope. You’ll find stunning views from many vantage points, a sweaty trek along the city walls, sipping coffee on a rooftop bar or just taking a stroll to the ferry docks.
Budapest offers plenty of charm with an abundance of cultural influences that have affected the city throughout its long history, as well as affordability, as compared to places like Prague or Vienna. Architecture buffs will be in heaven with the magnificent Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau examples across the city, while the wonderfully decadent Turkish-era thermal baths are certainly worth a visit. Bath in the centuries-old architecture or perhaps splurge in some of the upscale spas. Budapest’s top attractions include an array of galleries and museums, while after dark, especially in the summer when there are lots of opportunities for partying until dawn at any one of the many pubs, open-air clubs and bars.
Zdiar is a small mountain village and the oldest Tatra settlement, inhabited since the 16th century. Families still live in traditional Slovak Goral timber homes, while several sections of the village are historical reservations, including the Zdiar House Museum, with its colorful local costumes and furnishings. Hiking and mountain biking are popular summer activities offering amazing vistas of emerald-hued lakes and the jaw-dropping snow-capped Tatra Mountains. In the wintertime, hit the slopes for some outstanding skiing or snowboarding.
Durress is a picturesque yet unpretentious Adriatic coast town where you can enjoy a game of beach volleyball, sipping local Korca beer at one of the beachside bars and indulging in fantastically fresh fish at one of the many outstanding eateries. Take an evening stroll in the summer along the seafront promenade and you’ll see men walking bears on a leash and others with snakes wrapped around their necks. When you’re not down at the beach, explore a recently excavated Roman theater which once held nearly 20,000 spectators.
This former capital of medieval Bulgaria, situated in the valley of the river Yantra, makes for a spectacular romantic escape, set atop a hill between two massive gorges. Stroll hand-in-hand through narrow, cobbled passages that weave among small red-roofed cottages and Byzantine dome churches which add to the feeling of tranquility and solitude. Be sure to visit Tsarevets fortress, a medieval stronghold protected on three sides by the Yantra River. Remnants date back to the 13th century BC, while excavation works have revealed more than 400 dwellings, 22 churches and 4 monastery complexes. You’ll also find a number of surviving weaver and coppersmith stalls amid the nearly endless clothes stalls in the town’s bazaar.
Transylvania is often thought of as a fictional city, a land filled with blood sucking vampires and howling wolves, but it’s a real destination located in central Romania bordered to the east by the Carpathian Mountains. Set among wildflower-filled meadows, lush pastures and hardwood forests, the region is considered to be the last truly medieval landscape in Europe. There are over 150 fortified churches as well as a number of castles, including Bran Castle, which appears as if it’s just popped out of the pages of your favorite vampire novel. While you’re here, sample the sour soups, particularly bean sour soup with smoked ham, as well as stuffed cabbage and freshly baked walnut pound cakes.
Sarajevo, tucked into the Miljacka River valley and surrounded by the mountains which played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics, is considered a true link between East and West. Its location in the central Balkans has kept Sarajevo in the crosshairs of world history. The Bosnian War that took place two decades ago devastated the city and its inhabitants, but while scars are visible, progress has been substantial, and it’s considered to be one of the safest capital cities in Europe. You can find traces of the Neolithic Butmir Culture, Illyrians, Romans and Slavs as well as remains representing the medieval Bosnian Kingdom, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Socialistic Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo is best known for its warm and hospitable people who go out of their way to make a visitor’s stay in their city a special one.
Riga is often referred to as the Paris of the North but this regal city does a great job on its own with some of the largest and most impressive showing of art nouveau architecture in Europe, including gargoyles and goddesses which adorn more than 750 buildings along the stately boulevards. Its fairy-tale-like Old Town is filled with charming cobbled lanes and gingerbread trim. The best way to explore Riga is by walking tour which includes the Old Town, city center sights nearby and the Art Noveau district. Don’t miss the Dome Cathedral, the chance to buy Latvian amber and linen from the wooden market stalls in the Dome square and climbing the spire of St Peter‘s church for a view of the city.
Mljet is the greenest and one of the most beautiful of the Croatian islands, with more than 72% of it covered by forests and the reminder dotted with vineyards, small villages and fields. The island is well known for its red and white wine, goat cheese and olives along with two salt lakes, Veliko and Malo Jezero, which are popular swimming spots for locals and visitors. In the middle of Veliko Lake is a building that was once part of a 12th-century monastery but today serves as a café. Take the ferry from Dubrovnik and spend a few days hiking, cycling or boating.
Ohrid is the most popular destination in Macedonia with an atmospheric old quarter and picturesque churches set along a graceful hill, topped by a medieval castle that overlooks the serene 21-mile-long Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. The town, a descendent of ancient Lichnidos has been in existence for over 2500 years, though Ohrid today was built mostly between the 7th and 19th centuries. The old town is encircled with walls, crowned with King Samoil fortress. Nearby, mountainous Galicica National Park is home to beautiful, secluded beaches along the lake’s eastern shore.
Travelers who appreciate history, stunning natural landscapes and magnificent architecture will not be disappointed with this ancient city and former capital of three empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. The majority of Istanbul’s top attractions are located within a short walking distance of each other, including Saint Sophia Museum, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Markets. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is a must-see as one of the world’s largest, as well as the first museum in Turkey, home to Greek, Roman and Byzantine artifacts.
Krakow has become an increasingly popular place on a Eastern Europe itinerary including highlights like fantastic architecture from Gothic to Renaissance that were kept incredibly well intact after WWII, the regal Wawel Castle and the atmospheric Jewish quarter of Kazimieriz. It’s also a great place for those that want take part in an exciting nightlife as its Old Town boasts more bars per square meter than anywhere else on the planet. While it’s more enjoyable to explore Krakow’s sights during the warmer summer months, visiting at Christmas you’ll find a spectacular winter wonderland with a beautiful dusting of snow across the buildings and glittering markets aglow with dazzling lights.
The historic town of Mostar, which spans a deep valley of the Neretva River, was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town, and during the Austro-Hungarian period in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s long been known for its old Turkish houses and Old Bridge, Stari Most. Its famous bridge, from which young men on the cusp of manhood would traditionally dive, was completely destroyed in the 1990s conflict, but today it’s been returned to its former glory. The beauty of this city lies in its turquoise river, refined minarets and shiny white stone, but with reminders of its brutal past visible in the bullet hole-laden walls and bombed-out buildings nestled among the shops and cafés. Nearby Kravice waterfalls offer the chance for a glorious swim.
Prague has become one of Europe’s hottest destinations over the past two decades with visitors drawn to its beautiful architecture and rich history. The city boasts lush riverside parks, beer gardens, nightclubs and a seemingly endless number of art galleries.Its picturesque downtown veils both a dark legacy and a resilient past; in its 1,100 years, withstanding numerous overthrows, invasions, fires and floods. But it’s Prague’s reputation for survival and perseverance that has made it so fascinating. Today, its storied churches, narrow streets, hilltop castle and statue-lined bridges create an urban fairy-tale scene. Prague’s numerous top attractions include the famous Charles Bridge and historic Prague Castle.