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!
Going EAST all the way?
The 5 best driving routes in Russia
Volcanoes, coasts, mountains, plains, volcanic vents, dangerous glaciers, castles, monasteries, gorges with waterfalls and hot springs. We have collected 6 scenic routes for self-drive tours along Russia. Let’s go!
1. To Mutlovsky and Gorey volcanoes: two-day trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula
The roads on the Kamchatka Peninsula are much worse than its scenery. However, everyone should go to Mutnovsky and Gorely volcanoes. Everyone needs to leave Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy early in the morning and go south through the village of Palatunka. After Palatunka, there are no more roads in better condition. It takes at least an hour to drive on the dirt road, and by the way you can also admire the Vilyuchik volcano (Vilyuchik) and its surrounding hills. The view from the mountain pass is particularly beautiful. You can’t miss Gorey Volcano: it’s a pile of lava and gray rocks “piled” high into the sky. Those who make it to the top expect to see a real miracle: a huge, boiling “cauldron” (crater) and two crater lakes, one white and one blue. The trip up and down Goreley Volcano takes about five hours.
Outdoor recreationists can spend the night in tents. For a more comfortable night’s sleep, you will have to retreat 30 kilometers to a place closer to Paratunka. It is also possible to stay at the Snow-Valley recreation center, where there is an open-air swimming pool with thermal water.
The next morning you will be greeted with a new sight. The Mitrovsky Volcano is a dazzling “mosaic”, the exact opposite of the Gorey Volcano. As you go on, under your feet there is either orange clay, bright yellow volcanic vents, purple rocks, stucco mounds, or dangerous glaciers. A few kilometers from the volcano there is a gorge with a waterfall.
There is no modern civilized car rental service in Kamchatka. You can only rent a car from a private person, and most likely you will get a “left-hand drive Japanese car”. If you decide to go on your own, research the roads first, as you will not find signs on the road, and in some places there is no communication signal.
The above routes are provided by local tour companies and guides on the Kamchatka Peninsula, who know the roads well and have suitable and tested jeeps. We still recommend you to use their services.
2. Discover the secrets of the Caucasus Mountains: climb the Aishkho Ridge
Experience the view of the “Aishkho Ridge” (not to be confused with the more famous Achishkho Mountain) – which is located in the mountains around Krasnaya Polyana. Here, it is possible to reach an altitude of 2,000 meters above sea level by car.
Although the road is not long (about 20 km), it still takes at least a full day on the road. Ideally, you will also have to spend a night in a tent in the mountains. This is a real mountain adventure that you will never forget.
On the way to “Aishkho”, you can visit the Narzan mineral springs to get water and take it with you on the way, so please save all your empty bottles. On the way up, you will see waterfalls. Turi and Mount Agepsta are among the peaks in the River Mzymta valley.
If you have a few days to spare, take a tent and head to Lake Kardyvach. The walk to its side is 15 kilometers by mountain road, so camping by the lake is usually required. If you don’t have that much time, you can take the shorter and also easier walk to the Eight Falls Valley.
It is all really mountainous and to come here you need to be prepared for the car. It is not easy to figure out the way to the lake and waterfalls.
There are also some details related to access permits and tolls to pay attention to in these places: some of the roads are in the Caucasus sanctuary and you have to get a permit and pay for it to be allowed. Next to the border area with Abkhazia, access requires permission from the border guards.
Therefore, it is better to use the services of local companies that provide suitable cars and experienced drivers-guides, as well as proper handling of the required documents. For example, the company “Autorodina” is very good at organizing such trips. They specialize in organizing trips around Karaslajapoljana.
If you have half a day to spare when you return to Karasrayapoljana and want to see the “Aishkho” ridge from the outside, you can buy a ticket at the “Rose Peak” cable car station up there. There is a path to the Crocus gondola, which takes you to the summit of Kamenny Stolb, the highest peak in the Aibga Ridge. From the height of 2509 meters, you can see the route you took a few days ago and enjoy the view of the Caucasus Mountains again.
3、Marching along the Chuya Highway: 7 days in the Altai Mountains
Relaxing in the Altai Mountains, you will see a variety of classic beauty. There are red pine forests, clean rivers, turquoise lakes, spacious meadows and small but beautiful villages. The best way to see them all is to drive south from Biysk on the Chuya highway (also known as the Russian route M52).
First, you’ll reach the village of Srostki, home of the famous Soviet director, screenwriter, actor, and writer Vasily Shukshin Markovich, whose statue and home museum are located in the village. Next, it’s worth taking a little detour to Lake Teletskoye. Back on the road, continue on and don’t miss the alpine ski resort of Manzherok. You can leave the main road and take a break at The Turquoise Katun resort. The Tavdinskie Caves are also worth seeing, as well as the breathtaking attractions of Patmos Island, the archaeological museum “Paleopark” and Lake Karakol. Lake Karakol, spend some time in the village of Chemal. In these places, you can choose to rest in the entertainment center “Rublevka”.
The next stop is the beautiful plain of Seminsky Pass and the ancient statues of Uch Enmek Park. After passing the Chike-Taman Pass, the village of Inya with its Ininsky stone pillars and large iron bridge is ahead. It is also possible to walk around the village of Aktash and have a look at it. The southernmost point of this tour is to see the view of the moon on the Kurayskaya Step’. If you still have the energy and time, you can also go further south and visit the Tarkhatinskiy Megaliticheskiy Kompleks.
This route is slightly more than 500 kilometers in a straight line, and the Chuya Highway is a highway that is naturally soothing to drive along, but there will be so much beauty on the way that it will take at least a week to get all the scenery “over”.
4、Beaches, palaces, wine: a week on the south coast of Crimea
This route from Kerch ferry port to Yalta is the most scenic route in Crimea, passing through Feodossia, Koktebel, Sudak, Novyi Svit and Alushta. Along the way you will see stunning nature, royal palaces and estates of Russian nobility, and learn about advanced Crimean winemaking (industry). If you are going to Crimea in summer, you can make a big purchase along the way at the seaside.
It will be winding mountain roads for everyone: take care along the way! Remember also that there are no gas stations on the way, so be careful to always have enough fuel in your tank.
The first city on the road is Kerch with Mount Mithridat, the ancient ruins of Panticapaeum and Yeni-Kale Castle. The surrounding area is worth visiting for its Lake Chokrak.
In Feodosia, visit the paintings of The Aivazovsky National Art Gallery, the Alexander Grin House Museums and the Tsvetaev House Museum.
20 km from Feodosia is the pleasant resort of Koktebel, where everything is reminiscent of the Russian poet, literary critic and artist Maximilian Voloshin Alexandrovich. It is possible to climb the Kara Dag mountain (Kara Dag) or swim in the surrounding sea. On the way to Klementyev Mountain, there are picturesque views all the way.
Head towards Sudak along the vineyard-lined Sun Valley. In Sudak, the Genoese fortress awaits you, while in the New World, the Champagne wineries and the Grotto Golitsyn trail.
The road from Sudak to Alushta is the most beautiful mountain road in Crimea. You can stop briefly in the village of Malorichens’ke to see the Church of Saint Nicholas Chudotvorets and visit the Museum of Watershed Disasters.
Before entering Alushta, you will want to see the Haphal Gorge in order to see the Djur-Djur waterfall, the largest in Crimea, as well as The Valley of Ghosts and the “Demurge” mountain next to it.
Next awaits you is Yalta – a favorite resort of Russian tsars and nobility. Be sure to visit the Nikitsky Botanical Garden, Massandra Palace and see the cellars. Be sure to visit Livadiya and Alupka to see the royal palaces. In Mishor, climb the Ai-petri hill for a visit. In Gurzuv, visit the museum of Chekhov’s house.
5. Russia’s Western Border: 7 days for the whole family
The western border of Russia from Moscow is full of interesting and ancient places that are beneficial for the whole family to visit. Elementary and middle school students will enjoy Pskov Krom, Izborsk Fortress and Veliky Novgorod Fortress. The route also includes the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery, the old snow-covered monasteries of Pskov and Novgorod regions, various ecological farms and private museums. The route is typical of the Russian hilly landscape, full of fields, forests, rivers and lakes.
If you are coming from Moscow, it is best to take the Novorizhskoye Shosse (New Riga Highway). After about three hours, you will find yourself in the historic city of Rzhev. It was largely destroyed during the Great Patriotic War. If you are ready to stop, take a walk into the city. Another 250 kilometers will bring you to Veliky luki, where only some of the castle’s earthen embankment remains. From here, 160 kilometers ahead, you will reach Pushkinskiye Gory, the first major attraction on the route.
You should definitely take time to visit this birthplace of Pushkin. First of all, the Mikhailovskoye Pushkin State Museum-Reserve is worth seeing. From here you can cross the Voronich and Savkino ruins to reach the Trigorskoye estates. Save your strength for the Petrovskoe estates. It’s inconvenient without a car in these places, but even with a car there’s a difference between taking the bus – you can’t park anywhere here.
You can buy a car pass at the Scientific and Cultural Center of the Pskov State Museum Reserve (Pskov, Novorzhevskaya Street, 21), which will allow you to drive your car to the parking lot in front of the state.
In Pskov you can take a walk along the Kremlin with its characteristic white stone and snow-white churches of the Pskov region. You can also make something by hand or buy a nice souvenir in the Kuznetsch Courtyard and Craft House, or buy a nice souvenir in the Naive Art Gallery.
If you plan to visit Russia in the near future, you can apply your Russian visa, and Russian invitation at Visa Express. For detail information: Visa Express
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!