Throughout the entire Cold War up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe stood divided into the East and the West. Although such political days are long gone, you can still feel the cultural distinction between the two macroregions enough to cut it with a knife. These nations endured a turbulent history which made them what they are today – exceptionally open-hearted, unique, and full of character. And, boy, do these folks know how to party!
Eastern Europe is a cultural powerhouse, no matter if you gravitate more towards fine arts and folk tradition or culinary diversity and habitual binge drinking practices. It represents an amalgamation of styles and influences that arrived from all compass points. With pristine palatial edifices adorning the postcards of cities like Budapest, St. Petersburg, and Prague and gigantic squares found in Moscow or Krakow, the East is all about brutalism, grandeur, and old-world class.
Make no mistake, one thing that Eastern Europe is particularly renowned for is hospitality. It is embedded in the national identity of many former communist countries to treat the guest of the house almost like royalty. And people truly do it with charming zeal and absolute devotion – even to the point of mothering. Literally, no guest will leave a Slavic household unfed and with a penny less in the wallet.
From the Balkans to the Baltics, tourism is slowly but surely thriving because these countries offer something that you will never be able to experience in the western reaches of the old continent. So if you plan on seeing it for yourself or have doubts that need reassurance, let’s delve deeper into the world where cultures collide and the party never stops.
Bratislava – a.k.a. Partyslava
The capital of Slovakia may be new on the map, considering that the country gained its independence in 1993, but it boasts a mosaic of architectural splendor. With medieval and Gothic structures, baroque Hungarian noble palaces, brutalist monuments, and futuristic infrastructure, Bratislava successfully bridges the gap between the past and the future.
The city is particularly popular among day-trippers from Vienna and other nearby urban areas. Additionally, stag do weekends in Bratislava are just perfect for bachelors eager to celebrate their final days of freedom with style without having to spend a fortune.
Remember, the city is not cheap but affordable! Entourages of stags can indulge in all sorts of adrenaline-fuelled, fun-packed activities, such as paintball matches, guided pub crawls, and the uproarious nightlife scene that earned the city its title – Partyslava.
2 days are fairly enough to visit Bratislava unless you know where the hidden gems are (for that you have to mingle with the locals). The majority of visitors come to the Old Town, a compact and charming nest of architectural traditions and quaint cobbled streets. You cannot miss the Hlavne Namestie, the main square that houses the St. Martin’s Cathedral and the national theater.
Towering above is the 16th-century Bratislava Castle, which offers an impressive view of the famous UFO bridge and Petrazhalka – the Bronx of Bratislava. And when it is time for Christmas holidays, the old quarter is full of markets, mulled wine, and delicious culinary delights. Other places of interest are Slovak Radio building, the Presidental Palace, the Blue Church, and Nebdalka, a haven for contemporary artists.
Budapest – the Queen of Danube
Here’s some trivia: Did you know that Budapest earns more money from tourism than the rest of the country combined? Neat, right? And for a good reason. The government has put a lot of effort into making Budapest a hub of culture, economy, and tourism to great effect. In fact, they scored big time! Nowadays, you will hear languages literally from all over the world when you walk through the streets and people cannot seem to get enough of the remarkable architectural richness this ancient city has to offer.
The 19th century was the Golden Age of Budapest with many prominent structures constructed at that time to show off some of that Austro-Hungarian opulence and style. From Buda Castle and Parliament Palace to the Fisherman’s Bastion and Hősök tere, the city is teeming with pristine edifices, which lure visitors to explore of their own free will away from tour groups. You can even find some of the shrapnel pockmarks and bullet holes on buildings from World War II and the violent 1956 revolt against the communist regime.
And when it comes to leisure, Budapest has got you covered from head to toe! The urban quarters are packed with clubs, bars, cafes, and concert venues that attract students and travelers to enjoy some well-earned drinks and music. Need to cure a hangover or cat’s wail as Hungarians like to call it? Head over to the renown thermal spas to relax and unwind like a king. Some even date back to Roman times so you can only guess how formidable is this hospitality sector’s tradition. Oh, and definitely try other dishes besides goulash!
Prague – the Beer Capital of the World
Urquell, Staropramen, Budvar – do any of these names ring any bells? This city is where the gods of beer reside! And you know what is best? It is also the cheapest capital of brew in Europe. With less than 1 Euro per pint, you are bound to get a bang for your buck. Never has any city had such an offer of microbreweries. Kout na Šumavě, Primátor, Únětice, and Matuška are just some of many local labels that rock the craft worldwide.
Prague is also equal to Paris when it comes to architectural beauty. Your camera will L-O-V-E this Bohemian jewel. It does not come as a surprise that millions of visitors from around the world are swarming this place to absorb the spell-binding atmosphere. With a possessed 14-century stone bridge, the majestically lazy Vltava river, a breathtaking Gothic hilltop castle, and Bedrich Smetana’s Moldau symphony playing in the background, Prague will provide a hauntingly beautiful experience.
However, let’s not forget the new and urban side of this city. Regardless of the unbridled old world feel, the youth culture is up and jumping with many concert venues and festivals taking place all year round. Art galleries may not have the allure as the Louvre or Versailles, but Bohemian art in itself is not something you see every day. From Alfons Mucha’s artwork and Gothic altar relics in the Convent of St. Agnes, to otherworldly collections of 20th-century made by surrealist, cubist, and constructivist artists, Veletržní Palác is definitely a museum you should include in your itinerary.
Belgrade – The White City
If anybody was to describe Belgrade in just a few words, it’d be right to say that this “White City” is the capital of Serbian nightlife and history. And Serbs really know how to turn things up a notch when it comes to sports and celebrating life. In this spiritually orthodox city, you’ll witness the architecture from the Austro-Hungarian era to Art Nouveau and Yugoslav communism, along with remnants from the civil war and NATO bombing during the ’90s. However, inside these tightly squeezed buildings, you’ll find some of the most amazing clubs, coffee shops, and tourist attractions galore.
Sounds like much? Well, that’s because it is. This is why Belgrade holds the title as the Balkan number one tourist spot to visit. Some even say that the nightlife scene is avant-garde and not something you experience every day. So if you’re looking for a weirdly exotic and yet laid-back place to visit, Belgrade just might be the next name to put on your travel bucket list.
The downtown best represents the soul of this city. Walking the well-known pedestrian boulevard, Knez Mihailova street, you’ll walk pass grandiose architecture from the 19th and 20th century, until you finally reach the postcard-icon Kalemegdan (Belgrade fortress). This landmark was a great spot to build a fortress since the first version was built in the first century AD! Since then, it had various forms and shapes, depending on the purpose and which era it had been built in. In fact, Belgrade fortress survived the Romans empire, Byzantine empire, Ottoman empire, and finally the modern history!
Not to sound all FYI but these cities are just the tip of the iceberg. Eastern Europe may be economically inferior compared to the West but the cultural rebirth and modernization this region is experiencing are mesmerizing. Hats down! Krakow, Bucharest, Riga, Novi Sad, Sarajevo, Tallinn – these are just some of the captivating cities that truly deserve your attention if you ever plan to immerse yourself in the profound Eastern European culture.
Best of all, these people are much more relaxed, outgoing, and interactive compared to western folk of Europe – and that is a fact! Also, their cuisine is opulent, savoury, and producing some of the tallest people in the world. Sure, they may seem too straightforward for certain sensibilities but their approachable, light-hearted character can teach the rest of the world a lot about finding humour and optimism even in the bleakest of days.
Europe is a very convenient place to visit by train which is a more ecological and fun way of travelling than using planes. Now book your tickets and get cracking!