Eastern Europe Tours and Travel Guide
Eastern Europe Attractions & Landmarks Guide
“Eastern Europe” is as much a political designation as a geographic one: the 22 countries normally included in the category were almost all within the sphere of the former Soviet Union bloc, and range from the Baltic to the Balkans, with some in central Europe as well. Many are now emerging democracies and share centuries of cultural history and other similarities. While less visited than Western Europe, Eastern Europe is a treasure trove of architecture, art, and scenic wonders waiting to be discovered.
While the term “Eastern Europe” could include, say, Finland and Greece, which lie farther east than several Eastern European countries, it’s generally applied to the 22 former Communist nations of the region, extending from the Baltics to the Balkans and east into Russia and the Caucasus Mountains. (Greece and Finland are considered part of Western Europe.)
A number were republics in the former Soviet Union (Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), while several others – most notably Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria -- were Soviet satellite states. The former nations of Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) as well as Albania enjoyed a bit more independence, if not freedom.
Despite sharing a good deal of political history from World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union and European communism in the early 1990s ,the countries of Eastern Europe are by no means cookie-cutter in culture. The northern Baltic countries bear little resemblance to the southern Balkan nations, while the countries of East Central Europe are quite different from the other regions.
So for travelers looking to narrow down their choices a bit, it’s helpful to group them into separate categories:
Touring the Baltics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
The three Baltic nations are small and can easily be toured at one time. The Estonian capital Tallinn – a truly beautiful medieval city – and the hip Latvian capital, Riga, both enjoy settings on the Baltic coast, while Lithuania’s Baroque capital, Vilnius, lies inland.
While the cities offer a mix of castles, churches, and medieval, modern and Baroque architecture – as well as, yes, some Stalinist buildings, too; the countryside is rich in natural treasures, including forests, lakes, beaches, and national parks. It’s easy to combine a visit to the Baltic states with one to Poland to the east or Finland to the north.
Touring Central Eastern Europe
Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia
Of all the Eastern European countries, with the possible exceptions of Croatia and Russia, the Central European nations are the most “discovered” by travelers. The crowds gathering in Old Town Prague, Czech Republic, and the lovely city of Budapest, Hungary, attest to that.
As beautiful as medieval Prague is, don’t miss fairy tale Czech villages like Český Krumlov and Kroměříz. And if you’re a beer fan, you’ll love the pilsner in the land where it was invented. Slovakia – the other half of the former Czechoslovakia – is less visited but its capital, Bratislava, has its own medieval core, and the rolling hills of the countryside are well worth seeing.
Budapest, for its part, enjoys a beautiful setting on the Danube and lots of ornate bath houses to soak in thermal waters. Poland is less discovered, yet reigns as the “sleeper” destination of Eastern Europe: Krakow is magnificently medieval, while the Wieliczka Salt Mine amazes with its vast underground tunnels.
Touring the former Yugoslav Republics
Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Lying along the Adriatic Sea, Croatia has become one of Europe‘s prime destinations. Besides the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik – which serves as the setting for many Game of Thrones scenes – the cities of Split (where the city walls are built right into the ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s’ Palace) and Pula (site of a huge Roman amphitheater) are can’t-miss spots. The coast is also dotted with islands like jewel-like Trogir and Korcula and scenic Hvar. Inland, the fabulous Plitvice Lakes National Park and the old town of Zagreb are among the highlights.
Nearby, the tiny country of Montenegro is gaining fame for its coastal and inland scenery, as is Slovenia, a patch of green just east of Italy. The romance of the East begins to blossom in Serbia, which boasts not just the newly hip capital of Belgrade but a mix of Ottoman and Byzantine cultures. Bosnia is known for its mosques and Turkish features as well.
Touring Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Ukraine
Romania and Bulgaria share a border on the Danube River, and a river cruise can provide an excellent introduction lo both countries. (Look for cruises that offer shore excursions to Romania’s capital, Bucharest, and to some Bulgarian destinations.) Romania is also known for Transylvania (aka Dracula country), its Byzantine churches and mosaics, and the hiking opportunities in the Carpathian Mountains. Bulgaria has mountains with plenty of hiking as well, along with an ancient melting pot culture of Byzantine, Greek, and Persian influences.
Bulgaria also offers a coastline on the Black Sea, as does huge Ukraine. Albania may be best known as the land that only recently opened to visitors, but that comes with the benefit of visiting an Adriatic coast country that hasn’t changed much in decades.
European, as opposed to Asian, Russia, is dominated by its two main cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and by the Volga River and connecting waterways. Fortunately you can take them all in on a river cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg, which includes views of the rustic countryside, historic villages, traditional wooden architecture, and vast lakes. Tours of Moscow and St. Petersburg are included on either end, so you won’t miss the architectural and artistic highlights of Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Hermitage.
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