When people think of travelling to Europe they usually jump straight to the usual suspects of London, Paris or Rome. But what they miss out on is the untapped marvels that are hidden away in Eastern Europe. Even when they due head further East than the Danube they tend to stick to the large capital cities in Eastern Europe and in doing so miss out on tasting a wealth of incredible sights, sounds, flavours and cultures.
So on your next European adventure step away from the hot-spots in Prague and Budapest and head off the beaten track with our list of the most rewarding hidden gems of Eastern Europe travel. From fairy-tale castles, ancient fortresses and colourful culture, these secret treasures are waiting to be discovered.
With a rich history of clashing cultures reaching back centuries, the UNESCO listed capital of Latvia is a shining gem amongst Eastern Europe travel destinations. Just walking around Riga is an enjoyable experience, with picturesque architecture spanning from gothic and baroque in the Old Town to spectacular Art Nouveau houses and historic wooden structures. Take a break from strolling through the winding streets to duck into any of the mouth-watering cafes and restaurants to sample some of the best culinary delights in the region. Riga is also lauded as the cultural capital of the Baltics and any history buff or curious traveller will love indulging themselves in the numerous museums, cultural centres and even the former headquarters of the Soviet KGB that is now a museum open to the public. While many places in the Baltic states are overlooked by tourists, Riga stands out as a one Eastern Europe travel experience that every traveller should include on their list.
Tallin is a city where medieval meets modern, creating a vibrant fusion of old and new that is truly spectacular and unique. History is alive on the streets of Estonia’s capital, throughout the old town historic facades hide stylish stores and cafes amongst twisting streets which all lead to the most well preserved Hanseatic town centre on the continent. The two-tiered historic centre is a walled fairy-tale city that is truly spectacular and earned Tallinn it’s world heritage UNESCO listing as well as its place on this Eastern Europe travel list.
Often overlooked in favour of the capital city of Warsaw by many who visit Poland, Krakow is worth a trip all by itself and even competes with its sister city as the best destination in the country. With a deep history that is steeped in myths and legend, fantasy comes to life in Krakow. As the former seat of Polish royalty there is an abundance of historical sites to visit, including the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. For those with an interest in more modern events you can visit the Schindler Factory Museum, of Schindler’s List fame. These three are just a taste of what the town can offer and it would take several visits for you to see and do every.
Famous as the historic capital of Transylvania, Sibiu is a city that runs deep with culture and history. Shrouded in a perfectly preserved medieval urban ensemble the “Red City", because of the red clay used in its over 800-year-old fortifications, was voted the European Capital of Culture in 2007. Not only because of its rich historical atmosphere but because of the hundreds of festivals, exhibitions, plays and operas that run here annually.
Karlovy-Vary, Czech Republic
The spa city of Karlovy-Vary has had a resurgence in recent years and is quickly earning its reputation as a hidden gem of Eastern Europe travel. Through its history the town has played host to numerous icons of European aristocracy who made the trek into the Bohemian Spa Triangle to relax and rejuvenate. Most famously, Karlovy-Vary was a favourite of Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great who frequented the spas in the early 18th century. In the modern era the thirteen hot mineral springs that sit above the city still attract wellness travellers from around Europe and the world. But don’t think that is all the town has to offer, it is also famous for its rich cultural and historic history that comes alive on the tapestry of its street colonnades and picturesque hotels. The city is so picturesque that it captured the imagination of Hollywood and it played the backdrop for Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Another often underrated city in the Czech Republic is the historic town of Cesky Krumlov, which sits only a couple of hours outside of Prague. This UNESCO listed medieval centre is one of the most stunning cities in the whole of Eastern Europe, comprising colourful renaissance and baroque buildings that are all crowned by a breathtaking castle. A climb to the top of the highest central tower in the city is a must when visiting Cesky Krumlov, and will provide unobstructed panoramic views that will rival any in the world.
The “Town of a Thousand Windows" is a unique expression of what happens when east meets west. Throughout its 2,413 years as a city, Berat has been home to various religions, cultural communities and empires, all of which have left their mark through architecture and tradition. The most striking landmark which earned the city its nickname is the white Ottoman houses that climb the hill to its castle. It is this incredible site which attracted Berat’s UNESCO listing in 2008. Beyond this main attraction you’ll find an old quarter with traditional whitewashed walls and cobble-stoned streets. Nearby hills are spotted with olive, cherry and pine trees that lead down to the Osumi River. All of which is overlooked by the 3rd century BC Illyrian fortress of Antipatrea at its crown.
Amongst Eastern Europe travel destinations Bojnice is unique for the reason that when visitors are attracted to the city it is for primarily one reason, it has a real fairy-tale castle. The tiny town in Slovakia boasts not only the oldest spa in the country but the incredible 12th century Bojnice Castle. The castle combines numerous architectural styles masterfully to create an incredibl symphony of towers, buttresses and impressive cream coloured walls. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and has captured the imagination of filmmakers from across the world, it is rumoured as one of the influences alongside the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany for the famous Disney Castle. The grounds also include a zoo, making it the perfect location for young families.
Picture perfect is the only way to describe Bled and not even that does it justice. Sheltered by towering mountains the giant Lake Bled is an incredible site to behold. Throughout summer the region is flooded with locals and tourists alike engaging in water sports on the lakes pristine surface. But all year around you can enjoy the natural beauty of the region on the water, from the middle island (the only island in Slovenia) or from a perch at Castle Bled above the whole scene.