When you think of Europe, you usually think of London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam… all those flaring diamonds that sparkle so brightly that the other precious stones of Europe are unfairly outshone. But it only takes polishing a stone to recognise how precious it actually is. The same goes with Eastern Europe – a place that is relatively unexplored by the ordinary tourist and, yet, that possesses spots so beautiful, so unique, and so fresh it only takes an instant to fall in love with them. So what are these hidden little gems in Eastern Europe?
Now, it would be extremely unpatriotic of me if I hadn’t started list with my beautiful hometown Riga, Latvia. Riga is home to 701,976 people, including me (off topic: with Latvians counting for 45.7% and Russians for 38.3% of the population). The annual tourism rate in Latvia is growing so rapidly that soon it will become higher than the population of the whole country! Riga is a gorgeous place to be during the summer, when everything is rolling in luxurious greenery, beaming with sunlight, and breathing with history and beauty. Some of the buildings in Riga date back to the end of the 15th century, and a big part of the city is built in dainty Art Nouveau, which attracts tourists from all over the world.
Related read: 10 Things To See In Riga In One Day
Generally, tourists tend to head to Warsaw, usually overlooking Poland’s most beautiful city – Krakow. But even Warsowians admit that Krakow is more beautiful than Warsaw, so what are you waiting for? Go to Krakow!
Another capital in the Baltic States, Tallinn is becoming more and more popular among tourists – and for a good reason! First of all, Tallinn is comfortably located between St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and Helsinki, which are major travel destinations worldwide. So visiting Tallinn seems like an obvious choice. But secondly, and more importantly, Tallinn is a stunning place in its own right. It has this unique balance between history and modernity, being listed both in the UNESCO World Heritage list and the Top 10 digital cities in the world list. Which makes Tallinn really cool.
Many people haven’t even heard of Brasov, even though this city has a lot of interesting places in its sightseeing repertoire. For example, Strada Sforii, the narrowest street in Romania and one of the narrowest streets in Europe (Spreuerhofstraße in Reutlingen, Germany, is the ultimate winner, being only 50 at its widest.
Being one of the largest cities in Southeastern Europe, Bucharest is still not taken seriously among most of the tourists, who just stay there overnight on their way to mysterious Transylvania. Back in the days of communism, Bucharest wanted to become the hub of the universe so it decided to build the largest parliamentary building in the world. Wow, I guess. But that’s not why you visit Bucharest – you visit the city for its quiet spots, which are hidden beyond the wall of garish modernity and, at the same time, conceal numerous splendid architectural examples from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Sibiu is located in the heart of Transylvania, but no, you won’t find any vampires there. Instead, you’ll find yourself in Romania’s most important cultural centre and one of the 8 most idyllic places to live in Europe, according to Forbes Magazine. The city is indeed really picturesque and has some of the most astonishing landscapes that you’ll ever see.
7. Budapest, Hungary
I bet that after the huge success of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the capital of Hungary has been experiencing a nice influx of tourists. If only those people knew that the movie was shot entirely in Germany! Didn’t you recognize Dresden in some scenes? Nevertheless, Budapest isn’t any less gorgeous. In fact, it is even more fascinating than you could ever imagine: it is cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, attracting 4.4 million tourists per year! Then why, I hear your inquiring voice, is Budapest in this list? Because Budapest is so fantastic that it should be in every travel list, no matter what it is about.
If you’re looking for the perfect summer break, you should go to Varaždin. This small city in North Croatia hosts one of the best music festivals in Europe, has amazing cuisine, splendid baroque buildings that you can marvel at, and a thriving culture.
Dubrovnik is one of the 10 best preserved medieval walled cities in the whole world. Do you need to hear any more reasons to visit it? Fine. It’s located by the Adriatic Sea. It’s on the UNESCO list. It has one of the most diverse natural surroundings in the world. It has the most beautiful Mediterranean beaches. It has one of the world’s longest walls. It has the oldest fortress in Europe. Game of Thrones was filmed there. If the last one hasn’t persuaded you, then I don’t know what will.
Even though Ljubljana is the largest city in Slovenia, it contains less than 300,000 people, which isn’t that much for a country’s capital. But that’s what gives Ljubljana its undeniable charm and extremely romantic appearance: you walk along its pretty streets, gazing at the beautiful buildings, and you feel like the whole city belongs just to you alone. The cityscape of Slovenia’s capital is simply amazing, and some of the most important historical areas are now closed to traffic (which is what every city should do), offering you a unique sightseeing experience.
Isn’t it interesting that some of the best cities to travel to are so tiny that you can hardly find them on the map? Bojnice is one of them. It has less than 5,000 people living there, and yet it also has the oldest spas in Slovakia, which date back to the 1500s, and one of the most-visited castles in the whole world. The Bojnice Castle, built in the 12th century, is a popular destination not only among tourists, but also among filmmakers looking for a perfect fairy-tale stage. The castle masterfully combines the architectural styles of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, and is a genuinely inspiring place.
12. Kotor, Montenegro
Nothing can beat Kotor scenery-wise. Nothing. If you’ve been looking for a bit of paradise, this is it. The old Mediterranean city of Kotor is a home to some lucky 13,000 people, who can enjoy the serene views over the mountains every single day of their amazing lives. The paradisiacal town is located at the river canyon, which washes against ancient limestone cliffs and offers an impressively picturesque landscape.
The history of Sofia spans 2,400 years, which makes the city truly ancient. Everything that is the best of Bulgaria is found in Sofia: the most beautiful churches and cathedrals, the biggest national libraries, the largest museum collections, and, of course, the best tourist attractions. So what are you waiting for?
Like Sofia, Belgrade also was a prehistoric city. People started the first settlement around the Belgrade area in the 6th millennium (!) BC. Then, the village was inhabited by the Paleo-Balkan tribes, until it was conquered by the Celts in 279 BC. And then conquered by the Romans in 34-33 BC, who gave Belgrade city rights. Later, Belgrade was settled by the Slavs in the 520s AD, and then it passed from one owner to another: the Byzantine Empire, the Frankish Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire… The continuous history of conquests and defeats made Belgrade a unique destination that has combined many cultures that have become one – a great reason to visit Belgrade!
Having around just 3,000 people, Kazimierz Dolny is so tiny that even some Polish people have never heard of it. Nevertheless, Kazimierz is a popular tourist attraction in Central Poland and one of the cutest little towns in the whole country. It used to be a trade city in the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance, but then it somehow went ‘out of business’ and had to face economic stagnation. Which turned out well, I believe, as it really helped Kaziemierz Dolny to preserve its medieval look. Now the city is a famous art centre in Eastern Europe, where artists from all over the world come to paint, marvel at the ruins of an ancient castle, get inspired by the beautiful authenticity of the city, and sell their masterpieces. If you love art, come to Kaziemierz Dolny – you’ll find galleries in almost every street here.
Now, Karlovy Vary and Český Krumlov have been lately mentioned in so many travel lists that they’re not the most ‘hidden’ of all the hidden gems in Europe after all. However, there’s so much more to experience in Czech Bohemia other than just these two cities – take Mariánské Lázně, for example! A small town located in the midst of the mountains, with nearly every building representing La Belle Époque, and with spas so popular that they used to attract the biggest names of the 19th century: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Frederick Chopin, Thomas Edison, Richard Wagner, Edward VII of the United Kingdom, the last Russian Czar Nicolas II, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, and many more notable and royal people… Ah! Some days, I feel quite notable and royal myself as well, so I guess I should go to Mariánské Lázně, too!
After you have fully explored the Czech Bohemia, you should head to Moravia – another beautiful part of the Czech Republic. Its old capital Olomouc has an incredibly rich history, splendid historical sites, amazing Moravian cuisine, and wonderful surrounding landscapes. Olomouc, in reality, is a miniature version of Prague, with its own Olomouc Castle, Astronomical Clock, and St. Wenceslas Cathedral that resembles the famous St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech capital.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been working hard on attracting tourists over the last few years, and the people of Sarajevo, the country’s capital, can finally start enjoying the delicious fruits of that hard labour. Sarajevo has been through a lot during the 1990s, when the Bosnian War was taking place, but it has successfully recovered from all its misfortunes and miseries. Sarajevo has been undergoing a fast post-war reconstruction, which earned the city the title of 43rd best city in the world, according to Lonely Planet.
You absolutely have to go to Skopje. It’s one of those small European capitals that were partly destroyed at some point in the past and then greatly reconstructed later on, adding a modern vibe to the city’s historical appearance. Skopje is urban, bright, and very much alive, and yet so beautifully old, slow, and peaceful. There’s a lot that has survived from the times of the Ottoman- and Byzantine- eras that have left wonderful bazaars, bridges, fortresses, and churches for the modern eye to explore.
Last but not least, Berat is a magical place in the South of Albania. It is especially known for its white Ottoman houses leading the way up the hill towards an ancient castle. This image earned Berat the title of the “town of a thousand windows” and helped join the city to the UNESCO list in 2008. When you travel to Berat, you travel back in time: the whitewashed walls, the tiled roofs, the cobblestone roads, all covered in cracks…. Berat has such a unique, wonderful atmosphere that you seriously wonder how come you’ve never heard of this place before.