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Beyond Prague: 8 undiscovered Eastern European cities
Budapest, Kiev, Prague? Been there, got the burger. These lesser-known cities still offer frontier thrills
Once frontier travel territory, Eastern Europe has officially been discovered.
Or so you’d think if you visited only places such as Prague, Budapest and Kiev.
Thankfully, much of Eastern Europe remains way off the tourist radar -- including a lot of cities you’d actually want to visit.
Visiting these 10 lesser-traveled Eastern centers can still make you feel like you've stepped into a John le Carré novel, mid-winter.
Best for: Food scene
Noisy and invigorating, Poznan is fast gaining a reputation as the best city in Poland to sample the nation’s famously robust cuisine.
Amid fine squares, cobbled streets and tramways of the Old Town, you’ll find restaurants with earthy yet skilfully prepared dishes such as perogi (boiled pastry balls filled with anything from cottage cheese to mince and mushrooms) and golonka (tender roast pork knuckle served with horseradish sauce).
Culinary explorations are best begun in the side streets around Stary Rynek square. Here you’ll find current al fresco favorite Ratuszova (Stary Rynek 55; +48 61 8510 513), with large portions and a bohemian crowd.
With just three tables, Vine Bridge (6 Ostrówek; +48 61 8750 934) is the nation’s smallest restaurant. It serves modern twists on ancient dishes such as bear claw -- minus the claw, nowadays -- and “meat in clay.”
When you’re not eating: The strange-looking monument covered in numbers in front of Zamek Castle is dedicated to the team of Poznan University graduates who cracked the Enigma code during World War II.
More about Poznan.
Best for: Hedonism
With its reputation as the party capital of the former Soviet Union, the Black Sea port of Odessa is nonetheless surprisingly little known to Westerners.
Locals and visitors gather at the Potemkin Steps (immortalized in the Soviet cinematic masterpiece "Battleship Potemkin") and soak in the sun on sandy Lanzheron Beach.
As for clubs, you won’t go wrong at one of the glitzy and totally unhinged venues on Yekaterininskaya Street.
And to replenish the brain cells: The Pushkin Literary Museum (13 Pushkinskaya St.; +380 25 10 34) commemorates the great writer’s time in the city, which inspired him to write one of his best known poems, “The Bakhchisarai Fountain.”
More about Odessa.
Best for: Friendly locals
Deservedly labeled “Prague without the tourists,” the Transylvanian town of Sibiu has vast, genteel squares, Romania’s greatest art gallery (the Brukenthal Museum) and restored Saxon churches -- all with a dose of local hospitality often lacking elsewhere in the country.
The good vibes extend well into the evening.
At traditional cellar restaurants such as Vechi (3 Papiu Ilarian St.; +40 269 212 814), you can try dishes incuding sarmalute (cabbage, vine leaves and mincemeat) and ciorba de burta -- a local version of tripe soup.
There’s a young cosmopolitan crowd in the scruffy but friendly bars around Piata Mare Square.
When you’re not chatting with the locals: Close to the university in the south of Sibiu, the August Von Spiess Museum of Hunting (4 Şcoala de Înot St.; +40 369 101 784) has ornate, old fashioned weaponry and a grisly collection of stuffed bears’ and other animals’ heads.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Best for: Your health
Illustrious past visitors to the riverside boulevards and Belle Époque mansions of this elegant spa town include Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe and even James Bond -- scenes from “Casino Royale” were filmed here.
Karlovy Vary was the health retreat of choice for the ruling elite in Soviet times, and it still draws thousands of Russian visitors each summer.
There are numerous spas and sanatoriums nestled between the colonnades and fountains, or you can sip for free from the 12 natural springs dotted across the town.
When you’re not taking in the waters: Funiculars take you up the hills surrounding the town where you'll find a spectacular memorial to Peter the Great.
More about Karlovy Vary.
Best for: History
Miniscule Montenegro became an independent nation only in 2006.
On the coast, the town of Kotor is an untouched retreat from the modern world -- the entire old town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s little to disturb your indolence here, other than the lapping of the olive-colored waters in the harbor or the occasional creak from some sleek moored yacht.
The Hotel Vardar (Stari Grad 476; +382 32 325 084) -- plumped-up pillows, marble bathrooms, dreamy views across the medieval quarter -- suits the mood. To get you really sleepy, there’s even a Turkish bath.
When you’re not trying to delay your flight home: There are stirring paintings of ancient sea battles plus displays of uncomfortable-looking seafaring costumes in the Maritime Museum (Boka Marine Square; +382 32 304 720).
More about Kotor.
Best for: Crowd-free beachcombing
All but off the European beach radar, this unpretentious Adriatic coastal town an hour’s drive from Tirana is a favorite of young Albanians and visiting Kosovans.
You can spend a lazy afternoon playing volleyball on the butter-colored sands with forays to one of the ramshackle beachside bars for a local Korca beer costing pennies.
In the evening, there's fresh seabass at restaurants such as pine-roofed Aragosta (Taulantia Street; +355 52 226 477). The food tastes even better while you're congratulating yourself on discovering one of the least-known sun-drenched corners of the continent.
When you’re not being a beach bum: You can see a recently excavated Roman amphitheater in Durresi, which once held 15,000 bloodthirsty spectators.
More about Durresi.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Best for: Romantic interludes
Spectacularly situated on a hill between two giant gorges, the former capital of medieval Bulgaria is an impossibly atmospheric city.
Cobbled passages weave among tiny red-roofed cottages and Byzantine dome churches add to the feeling of romantic seclusion.
Amid all the splendor lies one of Bulgaria’s most stylish hotels. Hotel Studio (4 Todor Lefterov St.; +359 62 60 40 10) is a romantic bolthole with dim retro lamps, red leather armchairs and a spectacular roof terrace.
When you’re not sharing a bottle wine: You’ll find the odd surviving weaver and coppersmith among innumerable clothes stalls in the town’s bazaar.
More about Veliko Tarnovo.
Best for: Going gypsy
With its baroque burgher's houses and gold-spired Gothic cathedral, what the Slovaks call “the Jewel of the East” is a far more attractive alternative to the humdrum capital, Bratislava.
But the usual Eastern European medieval and classical remains aren't the only attraction here. Kosice is home to Europe’s only Romany theater, which puts on gypsy plays and concerts throughout the year.
There’s also central Europe’s only wax museum (Wax Museum of Kosice, Hlavna 3, in St. Urban's Tower; +421 055 623 2534), which gives pride of place to one of Slovakia’s most famous descendants -- Andy Warhol.
If you fancy dancing to another tune: The fountain in Kosice’s northern town square reputedly “dances” in time to the pop music pouring from the surrounding bars and cafes.
More about Kosice.