The Most Popular Travel Destinations in Eastern Europe
From Bucharest to Zakopane, Eastern Europe has plenty of intriguing sights and beguiling pleasures to offer. Start making plans today!
Between its diverse architecture, cultural institutions, and green spaces, Poland’s ever-resilient capital packs a sightseeing punch. Stare Miasto (Old Town) was all but destroyed at the end of World War II, but thanks to restoration efforts in the 1970s, visitors can experience the fabled churches, squares, and monuments in all their glory. There are also dozens of noteworthy museums, from Warsaw Rising Museum to Copernicus Science Center. Lazienki Park has a manicured gardens and verdant patches to relax—plus, you can catch free Chopin concerts on Sunday afternoons in the summer. Beyond that, Warsaw boasts the most exciting culinary and nightlife scenes in Poland. And it’s surprisingly affordable. On a budget? Don’t miss these 10 cheap destinations that still feel like VIP getaways.
Prague, Czech Republic
With its hilltop castles, bridges, Gothic cathedrals, Baroque buildings, and Vltava river, the historical capital of Bohemia looks like a fairytale land preserved in time. Prague’s storybook charm is on full display in Old Town—a maze of tree-lined cobbled lanes, public squares, church spires, and the medieval Astronomical Clock. After a day of sightseeing, refuel with hearty dumplings before heading downstairs to one of the cozy cellar pubs. Prague also made our list of romantic European locales for a fabulous fall honeymoon.
There’s a reason Budapest is called the “City of Baths,” it’s blessed with 118 thermal springs—more than any other capital in the world. And the tradition of “taking the waters” dates back to Roman rule. While the original establishments have ceased operation, you can still experience Turkish baths from the 16th century as well as Art Nouveau and state-of-the-art modern facilities. Each year millions of people make the pilgrimage to this holistic beauty haven to reap the myriad benefits of its mineral-rich, healing waters. Locals maintain it’s the ultimate hangover cure. Fancy a soothing soak? Take a gander at these gorgeous hot springs around the globe.
Situated on the Baltic Sea, Estonia’s coastal capital and cultural hub looks like it was plucked from the pages of a storybook. Fairy-tale charm is front and center in its UNESCO-listed, walled Old Town—cobbled lanes, medieval monuments, churches, merchant homes, cafés, and shops. Must-see sights include St. Nicholas, Kadriorg Palace, Gothic Town Hall, and Kiek in de Kök. Prefer to stay stateside? Book a trip to these small American towns you’d swear were in Europe.
Moscow mesmerizes with its artistry and grandeur. The beating heart of the city—and, many would argue, the nation itself—is Red Square, the site of many significant events, edged by Lenin’s Mausoleum, St. Basil’s Cathedral, State Historical Museum, and the awe-inspiring Kremlin, a massive walled complex with plazas, palaces, churches, and towers that serves as the official residence of the president. The Bolshoi Theatre is world-renowned for its ballet and opera performances. And whether you’re a fan of classical or conceptual art, the museums, exhibitions, and galleries are sure to stir your senses. Bet you can’t guess which Moscow monument is the top spot for wedding photos.
Bratislava is certainly not lacking when it comes to intrigue or activities. The capital of the newly independent Slovakia (since 1993) is ringed by lowland vineyards and the Little Carpathian mountains, which offer plenty of opportunities for hiking and cycling. Set on a hill overlooking the town, the reconstructed Bratislava Castle now houses a branch of the Slovak National Museum with many artifacts spanning from Roman times to the 20th century. The compact Old Town is filled with Baroque edifices, gateways, bars, and cafés. And, perhaps, the city’s most unique attraction is the futuristic-looking UFO Observation Deck—the perfect place to watch the sunset over the Danube River. Check out what’s considered a good luck charm in Slovakia.
While many travelers make Bucharest a pit stop on the way to Transylvania, this dynamic capital deserves more than a night or two. “Little Paris of the East,” as it’s known, is a city of contrasts. Remnants of Romania’s communist history linger throughout. And nowhere is that more evident than Palatul Parlamentului, a colossal and controversial tribute to Nicolae Ceausescu (the second largest administrative building in the world). You’ll also find lovely neoclassical landmarks, Brancovenesc-style Orthodox churches, Art Nouveau facades, as well as modern (post-revolution) high rises made of glass and steel. And a new crop of rooftop cocktail bars draws a cool, contemporary crowd.
Nestled in the foothills of the Tatras Mountains in southern Poland, Zakopane is a popular resort town and the perfect vacation destination for people who love cold-weather activities). In the winter, the focus is on skiing. In the summer, visitors can enjoy hiking and mountain climbing. The distinctive, turn-of-the-20th-century wooden chalets are prominent architectural symbols of Zakopane. Some remain private residences, while others have been converted into museums, hotels, or pensions.
Check out these amazing cold-weather destinations.
Kiev has a rich and at-times-tumultuous history dating back to the 5th century. Today, Ukraine’s capital and cultural epicenter displays more than 30 architectural styles from different eras, from Byzantine and Ukrainian Baroque to vernacular and Soviet modernism. While undeniably interesting, it can also be a challenging city to explore for western tourists as most signs are in Cyrillic script and few people speak English. So it’s advisable to hire a guide or, at the very least, pick up a pocket Ukrainian phrasebook.
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Give yourself at least a few days to take in the splendor of Saint Petersburg. Sprawling the Neva River, Russia’s second largest city and former imperial capital impresses with its lavish palaces, opulent cathedrals, graceful canals, beautiful bridges, performance halls, and artistic masterpieces. Get lost exploring everything from Egyptian antiquities to Renoirs at the Hermitage. Browse the fine works of Kandinsky and Malevich at the State Russian Museum. Take in an evening of ballet, opera, or symphony orchestra at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Kraków is one of the most culturally and politically important cities in Poland. Its long-time social center, Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest medieval town square, is brimming with restaurants, shops, street performers, horse-drawn carriages, and landmarks—the magnificent 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica and Cloth Hall. Located directly below is Rynek Underground, Kraków’s newest museum that takes visitors on a fascinating journey through the ages. In the historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, desecrated synagogues are a harrowing reminder of WWII, while hip galleries, cocktail bars, and chic boutiques reflect its current bohemian atmosphere. Learn how to propose a toast in Poland and around the world.