Many of us are familiar with the amazing destinations that Western Europe has to offer; the beautiful coasts of Portugal and Spain, the fascinating city breaks you can take in Germany and France, the sun-drenched parties on stunning Greek Islands. However, looking slightly to the East, there are a plethora of destinations that remain more undiscovered. Eastern Europe is an up and coming area with something for everyone from the beach lover to the history fanatic. Here are our top picks of Eastern Europe’s hidden gems:
Romania is famous for little more than vampires, but a host of hidden-treasures are waiting to be discovered. Just be careful stepping too far off the beaten track; the chances of face-to-face encounters with Kalashnikov-bearing guards protecting Nicole Kidman on-set are not out of the question!
Even ‘touristy’ places are remarkably un-touristy, despite everything being cheap-as-chips. Bucharest is easy to fly to, and situated more-or-less in the centre is Braşov, a great location from which to explore. It is well-worth taking the cable-car up Tâmpa mountain, not only for panoramic views of Braşov, but also for the rare animal and plant species found here.
30km from Braşov is Bran, home to Bran Castle, fondly known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. With tenuous links to Vlad the Impaler, and milking this as a tourist attraction, there are Dracula-themed tours available. Sighişoara is where Vlad is truly linked to and, ironically, is charmingly picturesque with the fortified city being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also accessible from Braşov is Peleş Castle which is an impressive sight where some of the 170+ rooms can be visited on guided tours.
For A\an unparalleled experience take a trek on sturdy ponies from a tiny hamlet, Lunca Ilevi, through pine forests, up to the Borgo Pass (in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula) and into the remote Carpathian Mountains where shepherds, merry on vodka, make cheese in primitive huts whilst looking out for wolves, bears and lynx.
I recommend Romania for an unexpectedly fun trip, for a journey of eye-opening discovery and for putting life into perspective.
Bulgaria… a country of natural wonders, ancient history and rich culture. Despite being one of the oldest European countries, modern Bulgaria has a lot to offer.
In summer, you have an almost 400km sensational Black Sea coastline full of lively resorts and beautiful campsites to pick from. They will all offer you bright sun, golden sandy beaches and crystal waters but only the locals can show you the natural paradises away from the crowds. My personal favourite is Rusalka (Mermaid), a small resort situated in an oak forest where the spirit of wilderness meets peacefulness and luxury of modern hotel amenities.
For those of you with an interest in history and old architecture, there’s the ancient town of Nessebar. Situated on a romantic rocky peninsula, it features narrow cobblestone lanes, tiny squares and small vernacular houses and is often referred to as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”.
Beyond the beautiful beaches, there are also a lot of ski resorts such as Bansko, Pamporovo and Borovets where ski/snowboard enthusiasts can find great ski slopes, amazing views of snowy mountains and authentic local cuisine.
Bulgaria is also a country of arts and crafts. Just 200 km east from the capital you find yourself in a place called ‘Etara’ – an open-air Ethnographic Museum that represent the Bulgarian custom, culture and craftsmanship at its best. For a more hipster experience, go to PLOVEdiv (Plovdiv), a city that is proud to be titled the European Capital of Culture for 2019. While there, make sure you check out Kapana (the Trap) District – a trendy rising area of colours, arts, crafts, music, cafes, bars and nice atmosphere.
Best of all, Bulgaria is cheap; whatever the destination, you are bound to enjoy it!
For history lovers, Lithuania is a perfect location if you fancy something a little different. The country is considered by some to be central Europe, by others, Eastern Europe. Either way, it is one not to be missed from this list thanks to its amazing affordability (something every student loves to hear). The city of Vilnius boasts some beautiful architecture with neoclassic churches and one of the oldest university building’s in this part of Europe. At Žemaitija National Park, the history buff can also explore a former Soviet nuclear missile base which is an insightful and fascinating experience. There are also plenty of places to check out in Lithuania’s second biggest city of Kaunas; the world’s only ‘Devil’s Museum’ can be found here!
What many may not realise is that Lithuania has a coastline with some serene beach spots to relax at. You may not have heard of destinations such as Melnrage or Pida, but these quieter coastal towns are not to be missed with idyllic beaches and fishing villages to explore. For a livelier seaside experience, try somewhere like Palanga where you can take a stroll down the pier followed by a party by the beach.
Lithuania does offer some great spots to enjoy an evening drink or two; Vilnius is one of the cheapest places in Europe for beer. And if that wasn’t enough, why not combine your love of history and drink and head to an underground medieval cellar turned bar to taste some craft beer for as little as 80p! And for the foodies, why not try some traditional cuisine such as beetroot soup or potato pancake? If you’re in Kaunas head to the old town and check out restaurants such as Berneliu Uzeiga where all the servers are dressed in traditional outfits and the menu offers a range of local delicacies to tuck into.
Albania is a relatively new addition to Eastern-Europe’s top travel destinations. The country, home to an overwhelming array of natural beauty, saw an end to a brutal era of communism in 1991. This caused Albania to fall behind its neighboring countries on the tourism front. However, it is not difficult to see why travel to this breathtaking country is beginning to pick up. With affordable prices and a glorious summer climate, it’s easy to understand why Albania’s tourist industry is growing so immensely.
Albania is particularly praised for its unspoiled coast and abundance of hidden, untouched beaches. With hundreds of miles of coastline, you can find a mixture of sandy beaches and rocky coves; it’s a beach bums dream! One of the country’s most famous is Dhermi. Here the large white rocky coast creates a huge contrast to the shimmering turquoise water, making for a completely picturesque landscape. This Albanian hotspot is particularly busy in the summer months, and as the good weather arrives, so do the tourists. If you prefer a quieter, secluded beach away from the business of tourism, head to Bunec. This peaceful cove remains relatively untouched, but this does not make it one bit less stunning than the busier spots along the coastline. The signature Albanian white sands and bright waters are still present.
If you can, step away from the glorious beaches and head inland. No trip to Albania is complete without visiting the wondrous Blue Eye. Located in the south, there are many daytrips that will take you directly there. The journey is up-hill and consists or narrow, winding routes so I would definitely recommend a trip or taxi rather than braving the crazy Albanian roads. Once you reach your destination, your eyes will be met with a sight unlike any other. Blue Eye is a natural water spring and potentially one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The water glistens an array of emerald and cyan hues depending on which angle the light hits. It really is picture perfect. The waters themselves are 10 degrees and an unknown depth (only the first 50m have been explored), so a swim in these clear waters is only for the brave. If you don’t fancy taking a cold dip, it’s worth the journey just for the view.