Eastern European destinations
December 27, 2009 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm visiting Eastern Europe for 3 weeks in April - where should I visit and why?

This is a deliberately vague question, but try to 'sell me' a particular country/region
posted by jedro to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is not Eastern Europe, but if you're returning to western Europe from Prague, do take the train to Berlin and spend 3 or 4 days there...
posted by thewalrus at 9:49 PM on December 27, 2009

You'll get better responses if you list your age, budget, interests, number of people traveling, tolerance for inconvenience, and so on.
posted by alexei at 9:51 PM on December 27, 2009

Alexei - I thought I might get some interesting questions if I left it vague, but . . . . .

age: mid 30s
# of travellers: 2 (couple)
budget: around 150-175 euros a day between us

We're looking for a reasonably relaxing holiday (not going from town to town every day) with a mix of outdoors and 'culture'. Night life is not a particular priority.

We're more interested in spending time in towns and smaller cities than huge cities.
posted by jedro at 10:00 PM on December 27, 2009

Budapest, for the amazing Turkish baths. And the food, which is excellent.
posted by jb at 10:08 PM on December 27, 2009

It's not "fun," but it's worth checking out the Nazi death camps that litter Poland. I doubt you want your trip to be depressing and Holocaust-centered, but WWII was a defining event in this part of the world. It's worth at least a few hours of your time.

Although Auschwitz is the standard bearer (and convenient to Krakow), I would 'recommend' visiting Majdanek. It's easily in the best condition of any of the camps, and it's shockingly close to the city of Lublin. You probably don't want to plan too much for the rest of the day, since it's pretty upsetting.

Other than the death camps, Poland is a lot of fun. Be careful not to extrapolate from their unfortunate location.
posted by j1950 at 10:56 PM on December 27, 2009

Can I suggest immersing yourself in some Eastern European culture before you go? Ever since I watched Kusturica's The Underground, I've been dying to go to the Balkans. Another great film, this time about Romania: Transylvania. These films are full of culture: philosophy, food, brass bands, violins, and bacchanalia.

Ukraine might be interesting as a step into communism. They say that those ex-communist nations preserve a lot of the soviet-era culture, but I don't know if that's true. Bulgaria is supposed to have great skiing, but April might be too late. You could do a beer tour of the Czech republic, driving to a new town each day, and sampling a few beers in each town.

I'm looking forward to this thread, thanks for asking the question...
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:45 PM on December 27, 2009

An east-to-west trip across southern Poland (the region historically known as Silesia) and into Germant would get you many of the suggestions above. Try starting in Krakow, the cultural heart of the country and worth a week all on its own. Visit some of the sites outside the city such as Auschwitz or Wieliczka, then spend another week in Wroclaw. Both cities have large, beautiful central squares with beer gardens and restaurants to act as anchors. The countryside in this part of the world is absolutely littered with historic sites: battlefields, castles, churches, etc. if that's your thing. I'm rusty on the names but many have been converted to conference centers and museums, and are easy to visit especially if you rent a car. This part of the world has been viciously fought over by kingdoms and empires for centuries right up to WW2, and a lot of the attractions on offer are the result of collisions between populations and cultures. It's an amazing place. Keep heading west and you'll end up in Berlin, spend another week there.
posted by migurski at 12:34 AM on December 28, 2009

I know you said you wanted to hit small town but I would recommend going from Warsaw to Prague to Budapest and checking out the sights in between. Prague is especially beautiful.
posted by OrangeSoda at 12:37 AM on December 28, 2009

Eger, in Hungary. Wine cellars built into hillsides, history.

Not been, but my Hungarian friends all talk about Lake Balaton as a nice, relaxing, outdoorsy place. There is a national park attached to the southern end.

Krakow, while a bit more city like, was pretty chill full of interesting things.

To sort of echo j1950, but make it small town + nazi history you could go to Theresienstadt, in the Czech republic

Croatia in general is supposed to be amazing, never been though.
posted by sundri at 1:51 AM on December 28, 2009

If you're in or around Prague, make sure you visit the Sedlec Ossuary, aka the Church of Bones, which is about an hour outside of Prague. You can make your own way or most of the tour companies in Prague have guided tours. Really amazing.

Also, I don't know if this will be out of your way or not, but another place I've wanted to visit ever since I saw it on the Travel Channel is the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania.

I would also like to recommend Krakow as a must-see if you weren't planning it already. It's probably my favourite city out of all the major European cities I've been to. If you're planning to go to both Krakow and Prague, try to visit Krakow first. It has a similar feel to Prague but Prague is so spectacular that it could kind of ruin Krakow for you. That's what I found when I went to Prague a month before visiting Krakow, though Krakow is an amazing city on its own with its own unique charm - there aren't many cities that live up to the sheer beauty of Prague.

Have fun!
posted by triggerfinger at 3:13 AM on December 28, 2009

Lviv, south to Chernivtsi, through the Carpathians in Ukraine to the west of the city, then on to Slovakia and Hungary, or south to Romania.

Beautiful, cheap, easy-ish to get around rural areas with or without a car, cities connected by ridiculously cheap trains, a fun/challenging language situation with Ukrainian (different alphabet!), relatively-to-extremely untouristed by hordes of other people (though I imagine you'll find places to stay), un-Ryanaired.

If you're from Canada, the US, or the EU, you don't need a visa either.
posted by mdonley at 4:18 AM on December 28, 2009

I visited the Balkans and the Czech Republic this fall. The Balkans were an absolute dream. Not a single tourist trap to be found and just enough cultural challenges to make things exciting, but perfectly safe and smooth. I really loved Sarajevo. It was straightforward enough that I felt oriented within a few hours, and it's an utterly gorgeous city surrounded by green mountains (the military history is basically self-evident). I don't know if you're interested in meeting locals, but I met a ton of friendly locals, and it's a small enough place that my friend-of-a-friend tour guide was bumping into friends and family every few minutes. Despite its horrific recent history, I felt incredibly positive energy (and I am NOT a New Agey person at all) the whole time. There's not a TON to see, but the people-watching is good. Mostar, which you'll also visit if you visit Sarajevo, was nice, but not great: harsher sunlight, much smaller city with bridge area completely overtaken by tourist traps. Bosnia also has a lot of extreme sports, like great white water rafting, and very beautiful hiking (in areas that were never mined). It's also next to Croatia, which I hardly visited, but there are a lot of previous threads talking up Dubrovnik and Croatia's amazing natural wonders, like the islands and waterfalls. Here is my old thread with lots of helpful ideas.

Kosovo is certainly an interesting trip ("THANK YOU USA" signs everywhere!), but it's difficult to get there (think: eight-hour nighttime bus ride, standing up), and Prishtina is really more of a novelty attraction than anything else (look at Bill Klinton street, recent public art, see more NGO employees than you thought possible). Prizren was a cool mix of religions, and I was charmed enough that I let the chief of police pick me up and take me on a (very boring) date, but Sarajevo was a million times better.

Personally, the Balkans was an ideal destination because the first wars I was ever aware of as a kid (I'm 22) were the conflicts in the 90s, and it was a very special experience to add to my understanding of recent history. It's a different experience than visiting a place like Poland because the question is nowhere near solved and feelings are still simmering. If you're looking for more of a "vacation" feel, then I would suggest Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania (and I bet Macedonia) were not often relaxing. Except if you want to drive down the coast of the Mediterranean and come across dozens and dozens of empty beaches beckoning you to take a swim and spend the night, next to one of the million indestructible bunkers constructed by paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha. Then you should go to Albania.

Czech: Cesky Krumlov is jam-packed with tourists, but it's far more manageable than Prague and it's a truly lovely town (an S-shaped river and a castle). Near the end of my 3 months in Europe, when I was totally wiped out, I stayed in a sweet hostel and basically spent three days sitting in the sun drinking forest fruit milkshakes. I also went on a quick hiking trip to Telc, a less-touristed town in the area. If you like cycling then this area is perfect. Prague is dark and lovely and full of architectural joys, but in some areas there are just seas of tourists.
posted by acidic at 6:29 AM on December 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

I contradicted myself in the first paragraph regarding tourist traps. None in Sarajevo, none in Serbia, none in Kosovo, and only one souvenir shop in Albania-- but lots in Mostar (mass-produced earrings, bad paintings etc). Mostar, I think, gets a lot of day-trippers from Medjugorje 25 km away, which is unremarkable but for the reported 1981 apparition of the Virgin Mary (Marian apparitions being, of course, basically the original tourist trap).
posted by acidic at 6:39 AM on December 28, 2009

I've been to the Croatian coast in pieces (Istra on one trip, Dalmatia on another), and I would absolutely love to take a trip all the way down the coast, and visit the islands as well. At the very least, I'd love to travel leisurely between Split and Dubrovnik, and spend some time on the islands. April will miss the tourist season (it will be cheap and quiet, though it might not be warm enough to make swimming appealing), and the scenery is gorgeous. I'm still suffering vacation envy from a sailing trip a friend of mine took along the coast and through the Dalmatian islands a few years ago.

Bosnia will be lovely in the spring, too, as will Novi Sad in northern Serbia, which is a charming town. It should be beautiful around Lake Ohrid, in southern Macedonia, too. April/May is a great time of year to visit the Balkans, and the Balkans are well worth visiting for all the reasons acidic laid out.

If you'll be in Vienna for any length of time in the course of your trip, Bratislava is an easy day trip, and worth a visit.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:56 AM on December 28, 2009

Well, I ended up opting for Romania
posted by jedro at 12:54 AM on February 24, 2010

Sorry, I meant to say Bosnia
posted by jedro at 12:54 AM on February 24, 2010

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