The first things that comes to someone’s mind when you mention travelling in Europe are the popular western European destinations such as Paris, Rome and Barcelona. While these destinations are full of rich history, interesting cultures and fantastic foods and deserve to be near the top of any vacation list, they are also highly touristy and heavily romanticized at times.
The Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum and the Sagrada Familia should be on every traveller’s bucket list, but there are some downsides to visiting such heavily-touristed European hotspots.
First, the prices in western Europe tend to be higher, particularly if you choose to visit during peak-season in the summer time.
Secondly, the lineups to visit some of these famous landmarks and to even get a good table at a restaurant can take up to an hour.
Last but not least, it can be annoying for the intrepid traveller to run into hordes of tour groups and busloads of tourists while trying to feel like you’re exploring somewhere off the beaten path!
So, what is the independent traveller to do? The answer lies in Central Europe, a region of the continent that offers the one of the best mixes of value for your travel dollar, western amenities and sense of safety with a dash of Eastern European charm, along with some cool sights to keep you busy for weeks on end.
Here are my top recommendations for Eastern European countries you should visit in 2019:
Slovakia, officially the Slovak Republic, is a relatively young country that only gained their independence in 1990 from the former Czechoslovakia and joined the E.U in 2004. Nonetheless, they have a rich history which dates back to the old Austro-Hungarian empires to go with their unique culture. This means charming old towns, gothic cathedrals and some really cool medieval castles.
Despite being a landlocked country in Central Europe, Slovakia boasts some of the most beautiful nature in Europe. From crystal clear lakes, to alpine mountains and green meadows, it is a nature lover’s paradise. From hiking to biking in the summer, to skiing and snowboarding in the winter, there is something for everyone
Geographically speaking, the country is relatively small but well-connected by a national rail system with multiple trains running daily which connect the biggest cities and towns. Their national currency is the Euro and most adults under 35 will speak English at a competent level, which makes travelling around relatively straight forward for a westerner.
Their capital of Bratislava is small by European standards with only a population of roughly 450,000 people but has still plenty of things to fill a traveler’s itinerary. Compared to nearby Vienna, which is only an hour or two drive away, they receive only a fraction of the visitors.
Given the size of the city, it is perfect for a 2 to 3-day visit. Some recommended landmarks and activities include a stroll up Devin Castle, Bratislava Castle, exploring the charming Old Town, taking in a performance at their National Theatre and attending a professional hockey game (Slovakians love ice hockey).
Further north, there are some interesting cities such as Trnava and Trenčín, which has some neat little cathedrals and well-preserved castles which are worth at least a day-trip. The fertile wine region in the south with Nitra as a centre is almost another great option for those with more time to thoroughly explore the country.
A must-visit destination and gem in Slovakia are the High Tatras Mountains, known by the locals as Vysoké Tatry. This mountain range which divides Slovakia from their northern neighbour Poland boasts some of the best hiking in the summer and alpine skiing and snowboarding in the winter.The snow-capped peaks of Rysys and Kriváň, two of the most well-known mountains in the country are majestic sights to behold and will challenge even the most seasoned hiker should they choose to ascend it. The surrounding turquois glacial lakes, gushing waterfalls and peaceful forests filled with unique fauna and flora will astound nature lovers with their beauty. Two other must-see gems are Štrbské Pleso and Popradske Pleso, Instagram-worthy, pristine glacial lakes.
Finally, an under-visited gem and the second largest city in the east of the country is Košice. This city of 250,000 was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013 and for good reason.
The Old Town is one of the most picturesque I have seen in my travels and has a very charming, laid-back vibe. A walk down the main boulevard will leave the traveller with sights of a Singing Fountain and St. Elisabeth Cathedral, the eastern most Gothic style church in Europe. The amount of building mural art and neat little bars make this place a gem. From Košice, one can also make a daytrip to nearby Spis Castle to feel like they are in a fairy tale.
4. Czech Republic
Just to the northwest of Slovakia lies their bigger and often more-visited cousin, the Czech Republic. Although it is also not a geographically large country, it has a rich and eventful history - from the times of the Holy Roman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the more modern events of World Wars and Cold Wars and the Velvet Revolution.
From the Bohemian regions on the west to the Moravia regions to the east, there are many forests, regions, mountains and plains to make this a picturesque country. Its real beauty, however, lies in its cultural heritage.
The Czech Republic is dotted with hundreds of ancient castles, austere monasteries and stately mansions. From the well-visited Prague to the university city of Brno, it contains a vast amount of architectural treasure, delicious foods and a well-set up tourist infrastructure.
The Czech Republic is also world famous for its beers, including the town of Pilsner, for which a beer was named after. If you love a big, cold and cheap pint, this is the country for you. Meat-lovers will enjoy love their traditional dishes of goulash and roasted porks to accompany their beer.
The Czechs also love ice hockey, and if you happen to be visiting during the fall or winter, going to a professional ice hockey game is a must along with a visit to the charming Christmas Markets.
The most visited city is the undoubtably the capital of Prague (Praha to the locals) and for good reason. It is considered by many as one of Europe’s most charming, colorful and pretty cities. Nestled on the Vltava river, it was almost undamaged by World War 2. As result, it is a magical city that has retained all of its splendid cathedrals, churches with majestic spires, historical bridges, cobbled lanes and fair-tale castle charm.
From Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, the Old Town to the Astronomical Clock, Wenceslas Square to Petrin Hill, there are plenty to see and do to keep an explorer busy. As a modern tourist destination, the vibrant city is also full of energetic nightlife, cultural fine arts and delicious fine dining. More adventurous travellers can also wander outside the tourist bubble of District 1 into the other district to see what every-day life is like for the locals.
Another landlocked Central European country is Hungary, a nation steeped in a rich history and culture. Its official language is Hungarian, a relatively unique language that the locals are rightfully proud and protective of. Hungarians are very proud of their country and are not afraid to show it. Despite this, English is widely spoken, especially in the capital of Budapest.
The city is one of the most popular destinations in central Europe, with over 15.8 million international tourists in 2017.The country offers many diverse destinations: relatively low mountains in the north-west, the Great Plain in the east, lakes and rivers of all sorts (including Balaton - the largest lake in Central Europe), and many beautiful small villages and hidden gems of cities.
It is important to note that despite being a part of the E.U, Hungary retained the Forint (HUF) as its national currency. Travellers are well-advised to exchange some Euros or Dollars ahead of time for Forints as many establishments only accept HUF in cash or will give terrible exchange rates for accepting the Euro.
Although it joined the E.U in 2004, its national history goes far back into the medieval times of the Romans and Celts. From the days of the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottomans, to the Austrian-Hungarian empire ruled by the Hapsburgs, there is a wealth of majestic cathedrals, fairy-tale like castles, beautiful opera houses and impressive monuments. Its encounters with other cultures in its history such as the Turkish people and nomads of the Asian steppes mean that some descendants also have some unique mix in their heritage.
For those who are into more modern history, Hungary’s involvement in the World Wars and subsequent 40-year occupation under the Former Soviet Union means a lot of important historical events have happened here. For history buffs, there will be no shortage of museums to learn about all world-shaping events that have transpired.
Budapest is one of the most-visited destinations in Europe due to its vivid culture and undeniable beauty. Situated on both banks of the Danube River, the municipalities of Buda and Pest were united into one. It feels like a European capital with wide boulevards, impressive architecture at every turn and a sophisticated culture. With an international airport and a beautiful central train station, it is well connected to other countries within Europe, the rest of the world and relatively easy to get to.
There are no shortage of sights and activities to do in this beautiful European capital, including:
Walking the famous Chain Bridge, climbing Buda Castle, exploring Fisherman’s Bastion, shopping on Fashion Street (Vaci Utsa), soaking in a thermal bath, relaxing on a romantic night time Danube River cruise, taking a tour of the Parliament Building, picnic in the peaceful City Park, admiring the grand Hero’s Square and partying the night away in the world famous ruin bars of Szimpla Kert.
With such a diverse range of things to see and do, Hungary should be a country for you to visit sooner rather than later.
Austria is a German-speaking country in Central Europe, with mountain villages, baroque architecture, Imperial history and rugged Alpine terrain. Despite the shared language, they proudly consider themselves quite different from the Germans and rightly so. They are a friendly yet reserved people, well-educated yet soft-spoken people who are generally open to foreigners and diversity. Having good manners and knowing a few basic phrases of German such as “guten tag” (hello) and “danke” (thank you) will go a long way to impress the locals.
Having joined the E.U in 1995, they are considered one of the wealthier countries and embrace internationals from abroad. Many international students study in their universities in Vienna, and it is not uncommon to hear English, French or Spanish on the streets or in the cafes. They use the Euro, and prices match those found in Western Europe.
Its sophisticated capital of Vienna is situated along the Danube River, and was the seat of power for the Austro-Hungarian Empire which consisted territories in what is modern day Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and portions of Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland and Italy.
Aside from the capital, country’s other notable regions include the northern Bohemian Forest, Traunsee Lake and eastern hillside vineyards. For more cities, check out Graz, which is the birthplace of the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger and boasts a classic Old Town designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Given its imperial history, Vienna is home to the impressive Schönbrunn, Hofburg and Belvedere Palaces of the Habsburgs, along with a wealth of cultural monuments, impressive art galleries and places with significant intellectual history.
Famous royal figures from Austrian history include Queen Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette, Emperor Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Bavaria, affectionately known as “Sisi.” Many of these larger-than-life figures have had plays, books and movies made about them as well as museums dedicated to documenting the details of their lives.
For music lovers, Vienna has a deep and rich history of musicians who have counted it as home; from Mozart to Strauss and Wagner to Beethoven. Given its popular café and intellectual culture, famous thinkers of the 20thcentury including Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have also lived in the capital.
Their famous State Opera House is also a beautiful sight to behold both from the inside and outside – definitely check out a performance here if you can. From majestic cathedrals to a world class zoo, there is something for everyone in Vienna.
Just make sure to budget accordingly because being on the Euro and being one of Europe’s wealthier countries make Austria one of the more expensive destinations in Central Europe!
Amongst my travels, Poland takes the top place as the must-visit country in Central Europe. It has the perfect blend of Old Town European charm, foreigner-friendly locals, diverse landscapes, with Western amenities and infrastructure for near Eastern European prices.
Bordered by Germany to the west, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus to the east, and the Baltic Sea to the north, Poland is a geographically large country with beautiful landscapes complete with primeval forests, national parks, mountain ranges, hidden valleys, grasslands, lakes and small-scale organic and traditional farms in the country side.
As one of the first countries to be invaded by Nazi Germany during World War 2, Poland suffered devastating losses in terms of human lives, cultural heritage buildings destroyed and economic ruin. This was followed by decades behind the Iron Curtain under Soviet occupation during the Cold War.
Since then, Poland has bounced back while commemorating the horrors of the 20th century to ensure that the lessons of the past do not become forgotten. Students of modern history will find many important sites to visit, including the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp and KGB museums.
Having joined NATO in 1999 and the E.U in 2004, Poland remembers its communist past but now has an eye firmly set towards the West. Although Polish is the native tongue of the land, the educated younger generation (IE most people under 35) will speak English at an excellent level. It is considered a rising star both economically and culturally, with all the modern amenities and a stroll around its capital of Warsaw will confirm that.
Be sure to try all the classic Polish dishes: Bigos – a Polish sauerkraut with pulled pork or other meals, Żurek - a type of sour rye soup served in a bowlwith a hard-boiled egg, poured over mashed potatoes, Chłodnik – a refreshing beetroot soup served cold as a refreshing summer dish and of course Pierogis – dumplings often deliciously stuffed with cabbage, cheese and pork
With plenty of airports, a well-connected rail network and plenty of international bus services, travel to and from as well as within Poland is relatively simply and straight forward.
Top Polish Cities to Visit:
Gdańsk–one of Central Europe's most beautiful and historic port cities during its golden age, painstakingly rebuilt after World War II. Situated by the Baltic sea, its Old Town is full of bustling cafes and colorful buildings. As part of the Tri-city with Sopot and Gdynia, it is also a popular vacation spot for Polish people looking for a relaxing beach holiday.
Warsaw– the capital, the biggest city of Poland and one of the EU's thriving new business centres. Most of the city and Old town was completely destroyed during World War II. Since then, it has been completely rebuilt in a 21stcentury style to rival any modern metropolis and its Old Town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to great museums, world-class universities, theatres, operas and a thriving night life.
Kraków– the cultural and historical capital of Poland. This vibrant and colorful city is one of the oldest in the country - a must-visit on any trip to Poland as it is considered the most visually striking. It is the most popular tourist destination in the country and for good reason: stunning architecture, a picturesque Old Town with impressive monuments and castles, along with a thriving night life. Combined that with cheap alcohol and plenty of cool bars / clubs, it has long been a destination for party-goers from the rest of continental Europe.
There are many smaller but no less interesting towns and cities within Poland to explore, including Wrocław, Toruń, Poznan and Szczecin, each with its unique history and charm.
Along with 23 national parks, outdoor spirits can find plenty of nature to soak in outside of the big cities. Beautiful natural getaways include Bialowieza National Park, a World Heritage Site which comprises the last of the primeval forests that once covered Europe, along with the Eagle’s Path on Poland’s highest peak Rysy along the Tatras Mountains shared with Slovakia.
Central Europe has quickly become one of the most popular regions to travel on the continent. Travel within the region has become notably easier and safer within the past decades. All the countries mentioned offer many of the interesting activities and impressive sights as other countries to the west but in a more budget-friendly way.
Moreover, most of the countries were under Communist regimes until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, giving it a unique history and culture. For travellers who have seen the sights of Western Europe and yearn for something offbeat and different, Central Europe should be near the top of your travel destinations for a rewarding adventure.
The best times to visit are probably in the spring (April-May) and in the fall (September-October) in order avoid the peak prices, big tourist crowds and simmering temperatures during the popular summer months. With all these countries as part of the EU and Shengen visa-free travel zone, exploring these countries is now easier than ever.
Happy travels and remember to get good travel insurance!
Until next time,