Europe comes loaded with immeasurable treasures, but if you’re in search of lesser-discovered gems in the region look East.
Granted, Eastern European cities don’t claim attractions quite as blockbuster as those found in Western Europe (there’s no Eiffel Tower or Roman Colosseum to behold this way) but rest assured, there’s no shortage of fascinating history, rich culture, and distinct charm to be found in the best cities in Eastern Europe. Plus, there are fewer crowds to contend with and oftentimes lesser costs, to boot.
The boundaries of Eastern Europe are loosely defined, but typically encompass a huge swath of countries that once fell under the Soviet Union’s post-World War II rule.
Many destinations of particular interest, like Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, were once part of former Yugoslavia, while other hot spots fall into the Baltics region, such as Estonia and its stunning capital city, Tallinn.
Today, many of these countries share a collective leaning toward Western-style democracy and a common goal of looking steadily towards the future.
When you visit these Eastern European cities, you’ll encounter a diverse range of cultures and traditions (many of which are heavily influenced by Orthodox Christianity), as well as varied natural landscapes that include rugged mountain wilderness and sandy beaches.
Discover cutting-edge art galleries, classic performing arts venues, timeless sidewalk cafés, medieval old towns, and modern city centers in Eastern European cities that are well worth adding to your travel radar.
With its well-preserved medieval architecture, mountainous backdrop, and seaside setting, dazzling Dubrovnik is nothing short of cinematic. A visit along the Croatian Riviera proposes a step back in time. Squint and you can see the walled city just as it was centuries ago when it served as a bustling Middle Ages seaport with opulent merchant houses and turret- and tower-pocked fortifications to match.
A stroll through the otherworldly Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most beautiful places in Croatia, reveals the city’s maritime flair. Seaside views of the shimmering Adriatic are always close at hand beyond the historic stone palaces, churches, and circuit of city walls.
Terracotta rooftops, welcoming shops, restaurants, and bars abound, while a coating of gardens, fountains, and sculptures helps ensure the city’s overall pleasantness.
If a plunge into the surrounding seas summons, there are several notable nearby beaches. But for something more unique, look to the small island of Lokrum, located only a short boat ride away. An uninhabited nature preserve that’s known for its lush vegetation, Lokrum has its own Dead Sea; a salt lake that is perfect for a peaceful respite.
Situated just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, Tallinn’s strategic seaport location has a long history marked by the political control of surrounding nations, including Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. This hodgepodge of cultural and architectural influences remains today, as does a distinctly Estonian stamp all of its own.
Old Town, the medieval walled center of Tallinn, is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where glimpses of the city’s layers of history are revealed. Follow the quarter’s cobbled streets past old medieval structures, ancient stone city walls and watchtowers, soaring church spires, and scores of welcoming shops and restaurants.
Don’t miss the Upper Old Town either, which features sites like the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky that dates back to 1900; its onion domes will make you feel like you’ve stepped over into Moscow.
Also worth seeking out outside of the Old Town tourist hub is the early 18th-century Kadriorg Palace, with its stunning gardens and fine Baroque architecture that’s since been reimagined as a home for the city’s Kadriorg Art Museum. Its collection spans Western European and Russian Art from the 16th through 20th centuries.
This fairy-tale Slovenian capital might be tiny, but it has real heart with a pulse to match. A national hub for culture, politics, and economics, Ljubljana is further fueled by the energy of its sizable university population (counting around 50,000 strong).
Cradled by Alpine peaks and perched along the emerald Ljubljanica River, Ljubljana claims a long and storied history (more recently, as part of the former Yugoslavia) to match its picturesque setting in central Slovenia.
Visitors today can wander through its pedestrianized center, located in the shadows of a lurking 15th-century medieval fortress. Cross over stone bridges, like the Triple Bridge, a haven for street performers; pause at bubbling fountains, like the baroque Robba Fountain at Town Square; dip into lovely squares, like the central Prešeren Square, a hub for street musicians and festivals; and admire a slate of artful Art Nouveau-style buildings, which were erected following a devastating earthquake in the city in 1895.
With many creative museums, galleries, and performing arts venues, cultural attractions in Ljubljana abound, as do opportunities to unwind at one of the riverfront cafés and restaurants.
The southern Croatian seaport of Split juts out atop a mountainous peninsula into the turquoise Adriatic Sea, offering rich history, transporting architecture, and quality beaches. Croatia’s second-largest city, Split is a lively hub for the region’s popular Dalmatian Coast and a major nautical center with a large marina that serves as a jumping-off point to the Dalmatian islands and other destinations further afield.
In town, don’t miss the ancient Roman ruins of the walled complex at Diocletian’s Palace, one of several UNESCO-protected sites in the city, along with other attractions that encompass a slate of old royal palaces, churches, and city fortifications.
But it’s not all historical buildings here; eateries, bars, and shops fill in the seafront and hidden-away alleyways, ensuring an inviting leisure scene to indulge your every whim. Bonus: Many establishments set up alfresco seating for optimum enjoyment of the city’s unique ambiance.
When you can’t ignore the beckoning of the beach a moment longer, hit up the sandy stretch at Bačvice Beach, set right in the heart of Split, where you’re likely to catch a glimpse of the traditional ball game picigin in between dips.
Situated at the mouth of Kotor Bay along Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, the seaport resort of Kotor earns points for its wow-factor setting at the foot of the brooding Lovćen massif with many fancy yachts bobbing in the harbor. Founded by the ancient Romans, the fortified port city oozes romance with ample choice of diversion, including beaches, mountains, and centuries-old buildings.
In the atmospheric Old Town, visitors can trace the city’s fortified walls and wander along the maze of winding cobblestoned streets lined by centuries-old Venetian, French, and Austrian architectural structures that lead into lost-in-time piazzas. Don’t miss the monumental St. Tryphon’s Cathedral with roots that stretch back to 809 A.D.
Throughout town, there’s ample opportunity to recharge at various eateries, cafés, and boutiques, where you’re likely to rub shoulders with some of Europe’s elite, as the city’s obvious charms have made it an official playground for the continent’s rich and famous.
While more acclaimed Croatian destinations like Dubrovnik and Split have enjoyed media-darling status in recent years, the charms of Rijeka shouldn’t be overlooked. Croatia’s third-largest city, Rijeka was long regarded as little more than a transit hub for travelers seeking to venture further along the coast or onto nearby islands. But that’s fast-changing: The city was recently designated as the European Capital of Culture in 2020, and with good reason.
Beyond the rugged roots of this still-active industrial port (it’s Croatia’s largest port), there are hints of grandeur, edgy culture, and real charm. Here, many of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian-styled buildings are newly restored, a hilltop castle stands guard, museums and theaters beckon, and cafés and boutiques line the streets.
Must-see attractions include the circular, 17th-century Cathedral of Saint Vitus or Rijeka’s take on a Leaning Tower with a distinctive, veering medieval bell tower that photographers love. The city also plays host to a series of festivals, including Croatia’s most spectacular carnival.
The one caveat: Despite its perch on the Adriatic, there are no real beaches here. Not to fret, though, sun-seekers can travel just outside of the city to Krk island, where a proper beach fix awaits.
Once an island, the scenic Slovenian seaport of Koper falls beyond the Italian border with a perch on the Adriatic Sea. While very much a working, industrial port with a history as a former Yugoslavian territory, Koper is especially noted for its charming Italian influences with a cityscape marked by Venetian-style palaces and homes that date back to its days as part of the Republic of Venice.
Strolling through the historic city’s Old Town—where you’ll be surrounded by medieval churches and palaces, narrow, cobbled streets, and Titov trg, the central town square—is a joy all on its own, but the port also serves as the perfect jumping-off point for adventures further afield.
You’ll find attractions like Slovenia’s picture-postcard Lake Bled, one of the best lakes in Europe, and an underground train that runs through the Postojna Caves and its massive stalagmite formations.
St. Petersburg, Russia
It’s hard to imagine that the graceful city of St. Petersburg was forged out of once inhabitable swampland. The brainchild of Tsar Peter the Great, the city spreads out over a patchwork of islets amid the Neva Delta, interconnected by a picturesque network of canals and bridge spans.
An imperial city to behold, St. Petersburg is reminiscent of Western Europe’s capitals and remains an enduring beacon for Russia’s intellectuals and creatives.
Here, architectural symmetry abounds in a spread of opulent palaces and Orthodox cathedrals with elegant masterpieces like the Winter Palace, which houses the astounding fine art collection of the Hermitage Museum.
Indeed, there’s no shortage of culture in St. Petersburg with a variety of world-class museums, ballets, opera houses, and other venues for performing and visual arts to visit throughout.
Follow in the footsteps of ill-fated Russian royalty at the sumptuous Catherine Palace or snap Instagram-ready pics in front of the multicolored onion domes of the icon-filled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
When it’s time to unwind, a leisurely scenic canal boat cruise along St. Petersburg’s rivers and canals offers the perfect perspective on the graceful cityscape.
This one-time capital of Croatia, Zadar claims more than three millennia of history, impressively evidenced in the city’s many remaining Roman structures and relics. Yet with all its standout offerings, this Adriatic destination remains refreshingly off-the-radar, allowing you to still find secluded beaches and untrammeled natural beauty—though its popularity is fast-growing.
History buffs relish in visiting the Old Town’s ancient Roman Forum, Kalelarga, which was conjured up by Roman Emperor Augustus around two thousand years ago. It still serves a function as a town hub, where local Croats gather for drinks and conversation in the shadow of the old cathedral and church facades.
Zadar also boasts a historic port, affording access to surrounding islands, like Pag Island with its lunar-like landscapes. The city additionally makes a perfect base for outdoorsy adventures in various surrounding national parks, including Paklenica National Park, full of wild canyons and the waterfalls haven of Krka National Park.
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