You may think you’ve been to Europe — after all, you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, eaten Italian pasta, and enjoyed a Spanish siesta — but you don’t know Europe until you’ve traveled to the east. Eastern Europe offers a completely different travel experience than the more commonly visited places in the west and south; the languages are harsher, the food is hardier, and the people — well, the people are surprisingly more welcoming of tourists. A tour of the Eastern European countries is a must for any eager world traveler, but on your first trip to the east, you might want to stick to the highlights.
Tourism is certainly not Belarus’s main trade — the industry accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s economy — but the region has a rich culture that is largely misunderstood. In the capital of Minsk, you can visit any number of history and art museums, many of which explore and explain Belarus’s role in World War II. You can also tour Lee Harvey Oswald’s soviet home or take a refreshing dip in the Minsk Sea. The city is beautiful, so strolling the streets and admiring the architecture is enough to make a pleasant Belorussian vacation.
So close to other tourist havens like Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria is sometimes a brief stop for Western travelers, but the country deserves more attention than it often receives. Bulgaria should be one of the most appealing place in East Europe to adventure travelers; the Balkan Mountains, which cut directly through the center of the country, making hiking and trekking some of the most popular activities. For less outdoorsy visitors, the country offers a 100 Tourist Site challenge, which provides prizes for collecting stamps at Bulgaria’s most popular attractions. Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring some e-cigarettes with you — Bulgaria has the second highest rate of smoking in the world.
Perhaps the most frequently visited of the Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic is a wonderland of art and culture. The capital, Prague, is filled to bursting with fascinating landmarks, like Prague Castle (the largest ancient castle in the world), Old Town (the oldest neighborhood of the city), and Josefov (the Jewish quarter). Classical music buffs will love touring important sites for renowned composers Mozart, Janacek, Dvorak, and others. It is nearly impossible to soak up all of Prague’s culture in one trip.
Hungary is filled with valuable World Heritage Sites, but none of them are more pleasing to visit than the nation’s capital, Budapest. The deep history of Budapest (which was once in two, Buda and Pest) is exceedingly well-preserved in various significant buildings, statues, and gardens around the city; by touring the city on foot, you can spot landmarks that are easily missed by most tourists, like Memento Park or Matthias Church. You should try to explore both sides of the city for a more fulfilling experience.
Most visitors can’t find Moldova on a map, but its position between Romania and Ukraine makes this country a curious vacation destination. Moldova offers surprisingly fertile land for winemakers, and the country’s vineyards are some of the oldest in the world. While you explore the wine country, you can also visit a number of historic monasteries, like Capriana or Orheiul Vechi.
Best known as the country most ravaged by the Nazis during World War II, Poland offers travelers much more than 20th century history. In fact, the country boasts more 23 national parks, many of which boast the last remaining vestiges of Europe’s once-extensive primeval forest. Adventure travelers can hike up to Rysy, the tallest peak in Poland’s Tatra Mountains, or you can explore more than 2,000 lakes in Masuran Landscape Park. Natural wonder is never far away in Poland.
Romania remains one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe, which means the religious spaces here are well worth a visit. Orthodox churches are present on nearly every street corner in nearly every city; in fact, Romanians continue to build new churches at a rate of about 10 per month. You can sneak in and watch a service — coming and going during mass is common practice — while you wander the historic streets.
It is nearly impossible to reflect on all of the important destinations in Western Russia in such a minimal space. You could step off the train anywhere in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod, or any major western city and immediately come face-to-face with notable landmarks. Moscow is perhaps the most tourist-friendly city, with dedicated tourism sectors, but you should try to explore less obvious spaces for a more authentic Russian experience.
Boasting the tallest peaks in the Carpathian Mountain Range, Slovakia is a winter vacation paradise. The mountains are spotted with historic castles which served as high retreats for Slavic elites. Today, many medieval villages and forts still stand and offer travelers exciting, cultural diversions for their exhilarating ski trips.
Recently rocked by turbulent military activity, Ukraine is perhaps not the ideal vacation destination at the present time. However, to round out your tour of Eastern Europe, you should look forward to sunning on the stunning Crimean beaches, hiking leisurely amongst the Carpathians, and reinvigorating tired muscles at the banya — the Slavic steam room.