We spent about three years traveling through Eastern Europe from 2016 to 2019, and man there’s a lot to talk about. I’m trying to figure the best way to put it all together (book? blog posts? both?), but for now, let’s give a 10,000 meter overview of the region.
What is Eastern Europe?
There’s no easy or universally accepted answer to this one, thanks to political interests, social constructs, and so on. The definition we used while traveling involved the countries that were significantly or greatly impacted by the Soviet Union in the mid-to-late 20th century. It’s a messy definition, but they all are.
The way I’ve sometimes explained Eastern Europe involves a 90’s sci-fi TV show called Sliders. On the show, the main characters were sent to parallel universes — different Earths where different things caused each Earth to turn out a little differently from the one they’re from. Each Eastern European country was affected differently by the Iron Curtain, and any number of things have happened in each country since the Iron Curtain fell. As an exercise, it’ll be fun to figure out what looks / feels similar and different as you go from one Eastern European country to another.
You may also appreciate seeing how some countries have moved on from their past — or which ones haven’t. We stayed at an Airbnb in Bucharest that still had the old-school Brutalist architecture on the outside, but was a fine, modernized apartment on the inside. In some countries, the Soviet-era architecture still carries gas, water, and/or electricity (hey, if it ain’t broke…), while in others, the last couple decades have led to dramatic modernization efforts.
Why Eastern Europe, not Western Europe?
One great reason: it’s cheaper across the board. While the region may not have the iconic landmarks or same level of fame as Western Europe, there’s still plenty of history, plenty of people, and plenty of things to explore. What a place may lack in familiarity, it often makes up for interesting stories… and being cheaper means you stay longer, in nicer places, or see or do more with your budget.
Need more? More than a few places in Western Europe have become overrun by tourists, and in some cases, the locals have gotten fed up with tourists. Venice, Barcelona, and Amsterdam are three examples that have shown up in recent news articles, but there’s no sign of overtourism in Eastern Europe yet.
What are you interested in seeing?
There’s a ton to see and do… but what’s of primary interest to you? History? Food? An off-the-beaten-path bit of craziness? They’re all available — again, they may not always be well-known, but there’s plenty of opportunities.
Also worth asking here: how ‘mainstream’ do you want to be? Cities like Budapest, Hungary, Zagreb and Dubrovnik, Croatia are well on the tourist trail, while Sofia, Bulgaria has plenty going for it. If you’re ready to get off the beaten path, Ljubljana (say it like lube-lee-ah-na), Slovenia is worth researching, while Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina is also worthy. Prishtina, Kosovo is a contender for one of the cheapest capitals in the region and is very young, even though it doesn’t have a ton of touristy things going on.
The capital cities across Eastern Europe were our choices as we traveled, mainly because they’re the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. We love having lots of options, lots to see and do, and like being in the middle of it all. That said, it’s better to be in an expensive city in a cheap country than a cheap city in an expensive country, since it’s easier to find cheaper options in the former. That’s also just our style — you have your own.
How cheap are you looking for?
Eastern Europe has lots of budget options — but naturally, there’s a trade-off. Cheaper countries / cities have fewer public transportation options, stuff doesn’t always function as expected… There isn’t always exactly a five-star hotel around every corner.
Not as cheap
- Hungary (still cheaper than other countries in Western Europe)
- Slovenia (essentially a Western European country, but still on the cheap side)
- Turkey (especially the alcohol)
- Estonia (this is the best-run country in the region)
- Croatia (well, Zagreb at least — Dubrovnik is rather expensive)
- Azerbaijan (more Western Asia than Eastern Europe, but it’s close by!)
- Macedonia (naturally, more expensive in the modern tourist center…)
- Bulgaria (Sofia is surprisingly cheap)
- Montenegro (Podgorica’s cheap, but not a ton of places to spend!)
- Georgia (but Tbilisi can get expensive quick, and Tbilisi’s Old Town had a lot of touts to avoid)
- Romania (Bucharest is the biggest cheap city in the region, but still a bit rough around the edges)
- Serbia (Belgrade is amazing, but also a bit rough around the edges, and not necessarily moving towards the European Union as other countries)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo doesn’t quite feel like it’s moved on from its past, and there’s still lots of dark tourism to be found here)
- Albania (Tirana feels a bit chaotic, and doesn’t feel distinctly European or Russian)
- Kosovo (surprisingly pleasant and full of young people, but not many touristy things)
- Moldova (kind of caught between the EU and Russia in a cultural tug-of-war)
Don’t miss the food and drink!
We loved the burek / börek, seen in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and elsewhere — basically flaky pastries filled with meat or cheese, one piece is usually a perfect snack, while two pieces makes for a cheap meal.
Some countries really impressed us with their food options. Turkey and Georgia both had a wide variety of foods that impressed us both. Croatia also had a pretty good array of options, and it goes without saying that you’ll usually be able to cook wherever you go
You’ll find a few American franchises in the cities as you travel — think McDonald’s and Subway — but these aren’t the reasons you’re traveling. I’ve already compiled a list of chain / franchise restaurants around the world, which makes for a great place to start taking in a country’s food with an English language menu without paying inflated tourist prices.
And then there’s the alcohol. Some countries are better for beer drinkers (such as Croatia and Romania), while others are better for wine drinkers (such as Moldova and Turkey)… and most have a locally-made liquor they’re proud of showing to foreigners (such as rakia, a 40% fruit brandy).
- Tbilisi, Georgia was definitely a favorite for the both of us. Unlike any other country in the region, Georgia offers up to a year visa-free (just arrive in Georgia) to passport holders from dozens of countries, including all citizens of the European Union.
- Ljubljana was one of the most pleasant places to visit, and features an excellent public bike system.
- Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina — great burek, fairly cheap, and some good organized tours.
We probably won’t go back to…
- Podgorica, Montenegro — maybe it just rubbed us the wrong way, or maybe it was the season, but there was very little to do in or around the city. Being one of Europe’s smallest capital cities meant it didn’t feel very cosmopolitan. Ah, well, you live you learn.
- Prishtina, Kosovo — it’s certainly cheap enough and there’s plenty of young people around, but there isn’t much to see as tourist destinations go.
- Tirana, Albania — cheap but chaotic and underdeveloped.
Still to visit…
We haven’t yet been to any of these Eastern European countries:
- Armenia (couldn’t find a ton of things to see while there)
- Belarus (they’ve only recently allowed visa-free stays of 30 days)
- Poland (it’s on our list, but it’s Schengen Zone and haven’t yet gotten there)
- Ukraine (we’ll likely be heading there later this year)
Over to you
Have you traveled to Eastern Europe? What do you wish you knew before going? Any pro-tips for others?