My American friends always ask me which cities to visit in Eastern Europe. With all the allure that Eastern Europe has, very few people actually know where to go in that corner of the world, so for the most part they end up avoiding it all together. But there is something very unique and exotic about Eastern European countries that should make most Americans want to visit at least once in their lifetime. Having been born and raised in that corner of the world myself I am going to tell you about a few magical cities to visit in Eastern Europe, as seen through my eyes.
The capital of Hungary and the largest city in Eastern Europe, Budapest was ranked as Europe's seventh most idyllic place to live in the world by Forbes, and as the ninth most beautiful city in the world by UCityGuides. It is by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and a must on the list of cities to visit in Eastern Europe of any worldly girl. Created by the merging of two old cities, Buda and Pest, Hungary’s capital will take your breath away with its extensive World Heritage Sites which include the banks of Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, Heroes’ Square and the Millennium Underground Railway, the second oldest in the world. But perhaps one of the coolest thing about Budapest is its geothermal springs, the world’s largest thermal water system, including the sprawling, baroque Széchenyi Baths in City Park. Even the Mission Impossible franchise thought Budapest was cool when they filmed the Ghost Protocol there!
Probably the best-known city in Eastern Europe, Prague has definitely earned its place on the top list of Eastern European cities to visit. With its impressive bridges, cathedrals, gold-tipped towers and church domes, Prague has a lot of history having served as the capital of Bohemia for centuries where many of its kings ruled as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. The city manages to successfully mix the old, medieval center characterized by cobbled lanes, walled courtyards, cathedrals and countless church spires, with the modern city full of fine dining restaurants, music, and art. If you visit Prague make sure you see Prague’s signature landmark, the Charles Bridge, or the Prague Castle/St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the largest castle complexes in the world, or the Old Town Square, home of the Old Town Hall with its well-known Astronomical Clock, which chimes at the top of the hour.
My birth home and Romania’s capital and largest city, Bucharest has served as the summer royal court of Vlad the Impaler (yes, that would be Dracula) in the fifteenth century and is said to be his final resting place as well (about 40 km outside the city at the Snagov Monastery). During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Bucharest underwent great development in terms of architecture, utilities and cultural establishments, including Bucharest University, Grand Hotel du Boulevard, the Botanical Garden, the Atheneum, Casa Capsa (restaurant and one of the first coffee shops in Europe), just to name a few. The strong French influence of the time on the social and cultural environment gained Bucharest its nickname "Little Paris," a recognition of its remarkable progress. Very rich in history, Bucharest is the home of many attractions but perhaps the most impressive is the Parliament Palace, the world's second largest building after the Pentagon, formerly named People's House. Built in 1984 by Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last Socialist leader, the building spans over twelve stories and 3,100 rooms. It is said that one ninth of the city of Bucharest was reconstructed to accommodate this massive building and its surroundings.
How could anyone visit Eastern Europe and not stop in Moscow? It is an impressive, modern city with over eleven million people living in it. From its world-famous Red Square to the new modern Moscow-City, Moscow is filled with artistic, historic, and cultural attractions. It is also the seat of political power in Russia – home of the Kremlin and to the President of the Russian Federation. But the most recognizable attraction of Moscow is the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed with its impressive multi-colored domes (officially named the Church of the Intercession), as well as Lenin’s Mausoleum, the final resting place of Vladimir Lenin, and the National Museum of Russian Fine Art. Invariably ranking in the top most expensive cities in the world in past few years, Moscow also offers an impressive nightlife with clubs like Soho Rooms, Imperia Lounge, Krysha Mira where table fees start at about 2,000-3,000 euros. Da!
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland, and it is known as the Phoenix City because it has survived many wars throughout its history, most notably the extensive damage it suffered from the Nazis during the World War II when approximately 90% of its buildings were destroyed. Today, very little remains of the old city; most of the city dates to the postwar era. In 2004 Poland joined the European Union and Warsaw is currently experiencing the biggest economic boom of its history. With a mixture of architectural styles ranging from gothic to renaissance, to baroque and neoclassical periods, the city is full of charm and history. A must while visiting Warsaw is the Old Town, where the original cobblestone Gothic streets and alleyways, baroque palaces, numerous churches and tiered burghers' houses were reconstructed; another must is Lazienki Park, a magnificent palatial and garden complex built during mid-eighteenth century and is home of the neoclassical Palace on the Water (Lazienki Palace).
Kiev is perhaps one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe and has survived the Mongol Empire, World War II, Chernobyl, and Soviet rule. The capital of Ukraine is an important industrial, scientific, educational, and cultural center of Eastern Europe. It is home to many high-tech industries, higher education institutions and world-famous historical landmarks, such as the Monastery of the Caves, founded in 1015, and Saint Sophia Cathedral, founded in 1037, which are both World Heritage Sites. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, topped by the massive Motherland Statue, provides gorgeous views of the city below. Another must-see while in Kiev is the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra - Caves Monastery, the holiest place in Ukraine built by the monks in 1051, as well as the National Opera House of Ukraine or St. Andrew’s Church.
7. Bratislava (Slovakia)
Slovakia’s small capital city offers a relaxing, old town charm which is hard say no to. Save this destination for the end of your vacation where you can recharge your batteries before heading back to the madness of every day life. It is a charming medieval inner city with narrow, winding streets, a hill-top castle next to the river Danube, and many historic churches. Take a stroll through the downtown where the streets are filled with cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops and fashion stores. On a warm evening the city is bustling with life so pick a restaurant patio, sip a cup of coffee and sit back and relax. Among places to see, make sure you visit the Bratislava Castle and the Slavin memorial for some really amazing views of the city. This is also a very romantic spot, though I hear it can get really windy sometimes. And if you’re visiting during Christmas, make sure to go to the Christmas Market in front of Old Town Hall and indulge in some traditional foods and drinks - you must try the mulled wine!
So next time you’re planning your European vacation make sure you hit at least one of these great places and experience a little Eastern European charm. These cities are unique, full of history and the people are kind. One thing all these countries have in common is a welcoming heart and everywhere you go the host will sit down and serve you their traditional food, drinks and will make sure you leave merry. In other words, go hungry and ready for adventures! Have you already been to any of these places? Or are they on your list of places to visit?