Eastern Europe is vastly underrated.
With hip and affordable cities, unspoiled landscapes and countryside villages that rarely see tourists, this region deserves a lot more hype than it gets. But if that means fewer crowds and more reasonable prices, I guess we're okay that it's still a bit under the radar.
Last summer, we spent an amazing 2 months traversing through 10 countries in Eastern Europe - eating delicious food, sharing stories with new friends, and soaking up more of the region's history than we ever learned in school.
With the spotlight often shining on Western Europe, something people forget about the countries to the east, which is a shame. There is so much to do, see and experience in Eastern Europe, and think this region deserves some of the spotlight.
This list of Eastern Europe highlights ranges from "hidden gems" that you may have never heard of (until now!), to cute towns, dreamy waterfalls and can't miss experiences in some of Eastern Europe's most exciting cities.
Is Eastern Europe really worth visiting?
Well, we certainly think so! But if you need more convincing, check out this article where we explain in detail why we think you should go to Eastern Europe now!
Note: There are many different definitions of which countries constitute "Eastern Europe". This list includes several countries in the Balkans, and the east part of Southern Europe. We simply use the phrase "Eastern Europe" to refer to the east part of this continent.
1. Journey to Magical Rila Monastery in the Mountains
Where: Rila Mountain, Bulgaria
Rila Monastery is no ordinary church. Set in an idyllic mountain valley 73 miles (117 km) south of Sofia, this stunning Eastern Orthodox monastery is well worth a visit. Listen to birds chirp as you wander the forested grounds, and be sure to take a careful look at the highly-detailed frescos. They serve almost as comic strips and tell (sometimes graphic, sometimes funny) stories from biblical literature.
After you've explored to your heart's content, head to the restaurant that sits on the nearby river and serves up fresh river trout, local soups and the region's popular shopska salad. On most days, there's also a stand serving up fresh caramel donuts. Yes, please!
2. Wander the Little-Known Town of Veliko Tarnovo
Where: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Filled with rich history and the crossroads of many cultures, you’ll fall in love with the stunning riverside town of Veliko Tarnovo. For a memorable night, grab a beer and watch the sun set behind Castle Tsarevets. And be sure to stay past dusk for the impressive light show.
3. Explore the Castles of Transylvania
Where: Brasov, Romania
Two of the most popular castles in Transylvania are near the picturesque Romanian town of Brasov (worthy of a visit on its own!). These two castles are about as different as an orange and a carrot. Same color, but that's where the similarities end. If you have the time, we think it's worth visiting both.
Peles Castle (pictured above): Peles is over the top. It's everything you expect from a king with more money and ego than he knows what to do with. It is pretty fascinating walking through each differently themed room.
Bran Castle: Less impressive than Peles Castle for sure, what Bran lacks in opulence, it makes up for in rustic charm. Ignore the Dracula souvenir shops near the entrance and wander through the quaint castle.
4. Bicycle through the Romanian Countryside
Where: Sibiu, Romania
The Romanian countryside is seriously beautiful. And one of the best parts about it (in our opinion) is that this country is still relatively new to tourism. There are plenty of villages that see few tourists and landscape that hasn't been marred by developers.
One of the easiest areas to explore rural life is just outside of Sibiu, a small and stunning town in central Romania. Pack a picnic lunch (can you tell we LOVE picnics?!), rent a bike, and head southwest out of town and pedal in a clockwise loop that takes you through the villages of Rășinari, Gura Râului and Poplaca (46 km/28 miles)
5. Get a History Lesson in Sarajevo
The city of Sarajevo was at the edge of complete and utter destruction in the 1990's. But some 20 years later, this Bosnian capital has been largely restored and is a fascinating stop on any Eastern European itinerary.
While in Sarajevo, the popular "Under the Seige" tour is a great way to see some of the city's most important sites, including war tunnels that are thought to have saved thousands of innocent people as well as the iconic Olympic bobsled track that was destroyed during the military seige.
This powerful tour is chock-full of history and will help you understand the country's painful recent history.
6. Don't Miss Mostar's Incredible Day Tour
We actually heard about this tour before we even thought of going to Eastern Europe. In fact, on our tour, nearly everyone had heard of it from a friend or family member who persuaded them to sign up.
It's one of those tips travelers pass down, and once you've been on this tour, you feel the need to tell others about it. So consider yourself in on the secret.
This tour is an entire day and is part sightseeing, part history lesson, part adventure and part food tasting. On this tour, expect to swim in a waterfall, sample a traditional (meat-heavy, but delicious) lunch, explore a tiny walled village, sip Bosnian coffee (an experience in itself!) in a local's home, and visit a monastery at the foot of a cave.
Oh, and sprinkle in a heavy dose of history and witty banter for a 10-hour experience you won't soon forget.
7. Watch Sunset (or sunrise!) from the Kotor Fortress
Where: Kotor, Montenegro
When in Kotor, a hike up to the fortress is a must. The view from above is spectacular. There are two ways up to the top, one is the main paved road that your hotel will point you to, and the other is a little lesser known, but more of an adventure.
We recommend walking up the lesser-known path because you'll pass by a little restaurant serving homemade goat cheese. Stop for a dairy fix and enjoy the spectacular views. From this little restaurant, you're nearly there.
8. Hike to an Ice Cave in the Summer
Where: Žabljak, Montenegro
This day-hike will make you feel as if you've been plopped onto the set of a movie - think the mountain scenes in Sound of Music. Pack a picnic lunch and wander through wildflower meadows and up gentle mountain passes.
One of the more popular hikes in the region brings you to an ice cave that even in July boasts frigid temperatures and icicles.
9. Bike around Korčula - Croatia's Most Beautiful Island
Where: Korčula, Croatia
Bicycle is the perfect way to explore this stunning Croatian island. Cruise on dirt roads through vineyards and parks and past beaches. Stop at your leisure to enjoy a glass of local wine or to take a dip in Mediterranean waters. And refuel with a picnic lunch of local fruits, freshly baked bread and cheese.
Tip: There are many spots to take a swim that aren't marked as beaches. You might have to do a little off-road exploring, but you'll have the place all to yourself!
10. Go Chasing Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes
Where: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
We couldn't make a list of highlights of the region without including this otherworldly beauty. Follow the boardwalks past waterfalls that'll make you pinch yourself just to be sure this is real life.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is the stuff dreams are made of, but be prepared for company. Lots of it. This park is so popular, in fact, that if you're visiting during peak season, you'll likely be walking behind lines of other tourists.
Tip for avoiding crowds: Visit the most popular spots early in the day or in the later afternoon when the lighting is better and the crowds have thinned. In the meantime, venture off the well-trodden path a bit for a better chance of solitude.
11. Get Lost in the Street Art of Zagreb, Croatia
Where: Zagreb, Croatia
The cool metropolitan city of Zagreb feels worlds different than Croatia's coastal towns, and has a very welcoming and accessible vibe. Wander the streets and markets, pop into one of the many cute coffee shops, and get lost in alleyways on a mission to find some of the city's famed street art.
Tip: The free walking tour in Zagreb is a good way to see the city and some of its best murals without getting lost.
12. Watch a Movie Under the Stars in a Castle Courtyard
Where: Ljubliana, Slovenia
Each summer, the Ljublijana Castle features an open-air cinema in its courtyard. Yes, it's as magical as it sounds. Gather beneath the stars among locals and other visitors as you enjoy a film and an ambiance unparalleled by any other theater. For more information about movies and dates, check out this website.
13. Whitewater Kayak in one of Europe's most Unspoiled River Valleys
Where: Bovec, Slovenia
This gorgeous mountain town features a river with water so clear, you'll be tempted to take a drink. (And the water is so clean that drinking form it is encouraged!) The most thrilling adventure to be had on the River Soca is by donning a wetsuit and helmet and trying your skills at whitewater kayaking. It's more difficult than it sounds, but flipping over in the turquoise-clear waters is part of the fun!
14. Photograph Picture-Perfect Bled Island
Where: Lake Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled is unapologetically touristy, and for good reason. This picture perfect lake is flanked by the Julian Alps, an adorable city center and a cliffside castle.
But its most iconic feature is the island that draws visitors from all over the world. The wonderful thing about Bled is that it is stunning at all times of the year. We'd love to return and get a glimpse in the autumn or winter.
The best view of the island can be had by making a short hike up a trail called Ojstrica, on the southwest side of the lake. If you are a morning person, sunrise at this viewpoint is said to be fantastic!
Tip: While in Bled, try the famous Bled Cake! Mmmm!
15. Bar Crawl to Budapest's Famous Ruin Pubs
Where: Budapest, Hungary
A visit to Budapest is not complete without raising a glass (or three!) at one of the city's famed "ruin pubs". Located in the old Jewish Quarter, these once abandoned lots and buildings have been transformed into eclectic bars and clubs have are breathing life into this neighborhood.
The "ruin pub" trend started in 2000 with the opening of Szimpla Kert. Still the most famous of all ruin pubs, many more have opened in years since and are frequented by both locals and travelers alike.
For a perfect night out in Budapest, hop around from pub to pub. They each have unique qualities and a vibe entirely their own.
End your pub crawl at Szimpla, which is the most popular for good reason. Bust a move to techno beats or enjoy a string quartet in the same venue. And the drinks are as varied as the music selection - from a local wine bar to a tap featuring craft beer to hand-shaken cocktails, it's hard to dislike the king of all ruin pubs.
Note: While there are several organized Ruin Pub tours, there is no need to go with a tour group and pay the entrance fee. You can easily hop from bar to bar on your own. We gathered a group from our hostel and did our own version!
16. Soak in Thermal Baths in Budapest
Where: Budapest, Hungary
When in Budapest, soaking in the Széchenyi Thermal Baths is definitely an experience to be had. This century-old complex boasts 18 indoor and outdoor pools of different temperatures and mineral makeups, and is one of the largest natural hot spring baths in all of Europe.
There are smaller, lesser-known baths all around the city worth checking out as well, but these are the largest and most famous.
Keep your expectations in check, and you'll have a good (and memorable!) time. 1) It will be busy – going during off-peak times will mean less crowds, but you certainly won't be the only one. 2) Don't expect impeccable cleanliness. Some of the water is murky (due to minerals, etc.), but we also saw some things like band-aids and hair floating. Just a heads up. 3) You can bring your own picnic lunch inside or you can purchase food and beverages from on-site facilities.
Tip: If you're looking for a unique party, you may consider coming to the baths at night for the famous "Sparty" (spa + party... get it?!). We heard all sorts of mixed reviews – from "best party ever!" to "nasty-dirty-orygy" – but one thing they all had in common was that it was quite the experience. Not really our cup 'o tea, but to each their own!
17. Bask in the Beauty of Český Krumlov
Where: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
In addition to Veliko Tarnovo, this is another cute town to make the list. It is by no means unknown or "off the beaten path", but it is adorable all the same. Wander the castle grounds, explore the magnificent gardens and watch the afternoon pass by from one of the many cafe patios. There's no bad way to spend the day in this fairytale town.
18. Explore an Underground Salt Cathedral
Where: Krakow, Poland
Even if you're not much for tours, the Wieliczka Salt Mines just outside of Krakow are pretty dang cool. You'll start by descending flight after flight of stairs, down, down down... 443 feet (135 meters) below the ground, to be exact. (Don't worry - you will take an elevator back up after the tour finishes!)
You'll be led through a maze of cool, damp tunnels that make up less than 2% of this massive mine. Along the way, you'll get an in-depth history lesson and the tour culminates at a mind-blowing salt cathedral, where all the statues and artwork are carved out of – you guessed it – salt!
19. Take a Hike in Poland's Stunning Mountains
Where: Zakopane, Poland
Just 2 hours from Krakow, Zakopane is a popular getaway for Poles. Do as the locals do, and spend a little time in this cute mountain town. The hike to Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy Lake is popular, and for good reason.
The chalet at the Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy Lake is always busy with people eagerly looking for a post-hike beer or grub. Even though it might be packed, the lines move quickly and the raspberry smoothie and apple pie are well worth the wait.
Tip: You can't go to Zakopane without tasting Oscypek, the famous smoked cheese. If you're like us, you'll do a lot more than just tasting, and you may quadruple your dairy intake while in Zakopane!