“You always go to bizarre places,” said a friend to me when I told her that my husband Barry and I were going to Albania in September. It’s true; we like visiting quirky, offbeat countries — which we find is the case in eastern Europe — and the further east we go, the better. Although places like Budapest, Prague, and Dubrovnik are undeniably beautiful, they have become such popular tourist destinations in the last 20 years that we prefer visiting the overshadowed countries even further to the east.
We’ve explored Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Georgia (which is technically in central Asia but feels very European).
Here are 11 features we like that are common in all of them:
1. Attractive Urban Design
All over eastern Europe, we’ve found historic city centers with a wealth of pedestrianized streets and a hip café culture. Sometimes, we felt like we were in cosmopolitan Milan or Barcelona — but without the crowds or high prices. In Brasov, a city in Transylvania, Romania, there were so many blocks of outdoor cafés side by side that we wondered how they all stayed in business.
Considering the reputation eastern Europe has for austere, harsh Soviet-era buildings, I’ve been happily surprised by how much traditional architecture still exists. Stone and wooden buildings, Baroque and Gothic churches, and red-tiled or gabled roofs all abound. And walking along the streets, we’ve also been struck by what we don’t see — litter, graffiti, homeless encampments, panhandlers, and street dogs.
2. Green Space, Parks, And Natural Beauty
The number of parks, squares, and landscaped areas that exist in the former Soviet countries again surprises me. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is not only rich in parks but has a gracious, winding canal that we paddled on. Brasov has more green space than any city I’ve ever seen and boasts its very own centrally located mountain, Mt. Tampa, beyond which lie even more mountains. Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and the Bosnian cities of Sarajevo and Mostar, also have hiking areas above town.
3. Affordable Public Transit
We’re suckers for riding the trams, which range from sleek and modern to old-fashioned types that chug along. We usually buy several days’ worth of tickets so we can wander around in different neighborhoods. “I want to be a tram when I grow up,” Barry jokes. As for trains, while the eastern European ones lack the fame and speed of France’s TGV and other express trains in western Europe, they’re frequent and economical in the east.
4. Friendly People
It seems that the further east we go, the less the locals are used to sightseers, so they’re not tired of tourism. Because of this, we find it easier to meet both locals and other visitors than in more touristy countries. To run into another American in Paris or London is no big deal, but in Plovdiv, a town in Bulgaria? Very rare! So we’re much more likely to strike up a conversation. Locals, too, are flattered and curious about why we chose to visit their country. We’ve enjoyed schnapps at the home of a Romanian couple we met through couchsurfing; lunch at the home of a couple we met hiking in the moorland above Sofia; and a delicious Indian dinner at the home of a doctor from New Delhi who was working in Tallinn, Estonia. Even before we’ve arrived, we know we’ll meet friendly people in Albania!
5. Low Costs
In our experience, you won’t break the bank anywhere in eastern Europe. In Kotor, Montenegro, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Adriatic Sea, our generous Greek salads cost about $4 each, while a cup of cappuccino in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was about $1.50. Airbnbs cost about half of what we usually pay in western Europe.
6. A Mix Of Western And Eastern Influences
One of the most fascinating aspects about eastern European countries is their mixture of religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Many residents are ethnically Slav, but you’ll find Nordic peoples in the Baltic nations, as well as the nomadic Roma “gypsies,” scattered across eastern Europe.
The mix of religions came about because missionaries spread Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, the Ottomans brought Islam, and refugees from persecution brought Judaism. In Sarajevo, for example, a church, cathedral, mosque, and synagogue all share the same intersection.
7. A Slower Pace
Because these countries aren’t as affluent as their western neighbors, less of the “hurry disease” exists. This has a downside, of course: since the economies in eastern Europe aren’t robust enough to keep people employed, European Union citizens often relocate to make a living. From a tourist’s point of view, though, this translates to less traffic, fewer crowds, and faster lines. Perhaps because not everyone can afford a car, people of all ages use bicycles and scooters on the many bike lanes.
8. A Fascinating, But Painful, History
Many of these countries suffered under one occupier after another, including Genghis Khan, the Vikings, Romans, Ottomans, Nazis, and more recently, the Soviets. Their history is ancient, yet feels very fresh. For example, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia — a country I visited 2 years after the Dayton Accords — ended just 25 years ago.
In several countries we’ve been to, the citizens face their unsavory past with a sense of courage and honesty that I, as an American, feel we can learn from. Paneriai, for instance, is a small village outside Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) where 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were massacred by the Nazis. The setting was eerily pastoral and gentle for such grim events. As we walked around a cluster of large round pits where bodies had been piled on top of each other, we read the signs explaining that the Lithuanians had been all too happy to participate in the massacre. Visiting places like this isn’t pleasant, but I’m always glad I went, to remind myself that evil is not far away, and I respect how contemporary Lithuanians don’t shy away from their past.
9. Churches And Monasteries
Neither Barry nor I belong to a particular faith, but we’re drawn to the “smells and bells” found in some religions. All over eastern Europe, Orthodox churches and many Catholic churches use incense, especially during mass and other ceremonies, while their sanctuaries abound with gold-plated icons.
Monasteries are dotted around many eastern European countries and are a pleasure to visit, partly because many offer landscaped gardens and are located in secluded areas we might not visit otherwise. The ones we’ve seen, like Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, often have elaborate frescos and many icons. We reach these places by bus, train, Uber, or through the BlaBla network, where we pay a driver for a rideshare.
10. Castles And Roman Ruins
If you’re an archaeology fan, you can visit Roman ruins as far east as Georgia. In the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv — said to be the oldest inhabited town in Europe — they’re scattered all over. As for castles, Transylvania (or Dracula country) has at least 10 famous castles and fortresses within easy distance of one another.
11. The Food
While eastern Europe is famous for its meat dishes, vegetarian options are also available (vegan, not so much). For instance, we loved the Greek-style shopska salad we ate every day in Bulgaria, while in Bosnia, we snacked on borek, a savory pastry stuffed with feta, spinach, and other fillings.
If I’ve convinced you that eastern Europe is worth visiting, I recommend starting with the compact Transylvanian part of Romania. You can easily fly to Sibiu from London Heathrow, Frankfurt, or Munich, and from there, check out the beautiful towns of Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, and Sighisaura.