Eastern Europe’s best-kept secrets: 5 cities to explore

10 de November de 2023

Eastern Europe’s allure has grown in recent years.

Eastern European travel has been growing in popularity in recent years and several factors have contributed to its new rise in popularity among travellers. For starters, Eastern European countries often offer more budget-friendly travel options compared to Western European cities like London or Paris, making it attractive to travellers seeking cost-effective holidays.

Another bonus is that while some Western European destinations can become overcrowded with tourists during peak seasons, many Eastern European cities provide a more relaxed and less crowded travel experience. Cities like Prague, Budapest, and Krakow may have long been popular tourist destinations, but Eastern Europe is still home to many hidden gems and lesser-known travel destinations that are worth exploring.

The following selection of rather secret Eastern European cities offer well-preserved historic city centres, beautiful surrounding natural landscapes, and unique cultures far from the tourist crowds. While these destinations may still be a bit of a secret, what’s definitely not a secret is the importance thinking about travel insurance, whether you’re planning to chase Dracula in Romania or soak in a thermal bath in Hungary!

Brasov, Romania

Brasov isn’t just a city; it’s a masterpiece nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, and guess what? It won’t break the bank!

Brasov offers a nice blend of history, culture, outdoor adventure, and natural scenery, making it a well-rounded travel destination. It’s a charming and historic city nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, known for being a budget-friendly travel destination.

The Old Town of Brasov is a living museum, with cobblestone streets, vibrant buildings, and historic architecture that transport you back to medieval times. The Gothic Biserica Neagră church, an iconic symbol of Brasov and one of the largest of its kind in Europe, is a must-visit. Its stained-glass windows and collection of Anatolian carpets are a testament to its rich history.

For the adventure seekers, the Brasov Citadel on Tâmpa Mountain offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the surrounding mountains. It’s a hiker’s paradise and a sightseer’s dream.

Brasov also serves as a gateway to the mysteries of Transylvania. Just a short drive from the city centre, you can explore the famous Bran Castle, often referred to as “Dracula’s Castle”. The well-preserved Rasnov Fortress, located just outside Brasov, offers grand views of the Carpathian Mountains, a popular spot for hiking, mountain biking, and winter skiing.

Brasov is not just about landmarks, it’s a city that celebrates culture. With various events and festivals throughout the year, including concerts, exhibitions, and the Brasov International Film Festival & Market, the city is a cultural hub that keeps the spirit of Eastern Europe alive.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Step aside Athens and Rome, and make way for Plovdiv, a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 6th millennium BCE, making it one of Europe’s oldest cities. Plovdiv is a living museum, with an abundance of well-preserved Roman ruins, including the Roman Stadium and the Roman Theatre, which still echoes with performances today.

The city is also a canvas painted with Thracian and Greek ruins, each stroke telling a tale of its rich past. The Old Town of Plovdiv, known as Kapana, is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and colourful houses. It’s a haven for art lovers, foodies, and shoppers, with its art galleries, boutiques, cafes, and restaurants serving regional delicacies like banitsa and kavarma.

Plovdiv’s cultural richness was named the European Capital of Culture in 2019. This honour brought a wealth of cultural events, festivals, and artistic initiatives to the city, leaving a legacy, with ongoing cultural activities and events. The city’s creative spirit is evident in its street art and public art installations.

Tirana, Albania

Tirana is the capital of Albania and an increasingly popular destination for travellers looking to explore a less-visited corner of Europe. The city is a melting pot of cultures and religions, which is reflected in its diverse architecture, religious sites, and cuisine. You’ll find mosques, Orthodox churches, and Catholic cathedrals all coexisting within the city.

The city boasts several historical sites, including the Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero, and the Clock Tower of Tirana. The Et’hem Bey Mosque, with its beautiful frescoes, is another notable attraction.

The unique museum known as Bunk’Art is housed in a massive underground bunker, offering a unique look into Albania’s communist past. Meanwhile, once an exclusive district for Communist officials, Blloku is now a hub of cultural and social activity, offering visitors a trendy spot filled with cafes, bars, boutiques, and restaurants.

Just a short cable car ride away from the city, Mount Dajti offers panoramic views of Tirana and the surrounding landscape. It’s an ideal spot for hiking and outdoor activities much like Lake Bovilla which is also located just outside Tirana.

Another reason to visit Tirana is that it has seen rapid development in recent years, with a focus on modernization and urban revitalization in addition to improved public transport. This mix of the old and new, creates an intriguing urban landscape.

Košice, Slovakia

Košice is another hidden gem in Eastern Europe. For starters, it boasts one of the largest and best-preserved historic town centres in Slovakia. Stroll through its charming, winding streets, admire Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, and visit landmarks like St. Elisabeth Cathedral, which is the largest church in Slovakia.

The main street of the Old Town, Hlavná Street, is lined with historic buildings, cafes, restaurants, and shops, making it a vibrant hub for both locals and tourists. Be sure to visit the Singing Fountain located in the city centre which combines water, light, and music for captivating displays, drawing visitors of all ages.

Perched on a hill above the city, Košice Castle offers a roytal glimpse into the region’s history, while the East Slovak Museum showcases even more history, culture, and art of the region with its fascinating exhibits and collections. For a deeper ‘dive’ into the past, the East Slovak Museum ‘exhibits’ the region’s history, culture, and art.

If you’re a running enthusiast, lace up your shoes in early October for the Košice Peace Marathon, one of Europe’s oldest marathons. If you do run, be sure to ‘carb-load’ with traditional Slovak dishes like bryndzové halušky and pirohy.

Skopje, North Macedonia

Head to the southeastern corner of Europe, where Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, awaits. This city is a ‘time machine’, whisking you through the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Yugoslav periods. It’s also the birthplace of Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose life, and work are ‘etched’ in the local museum/memorial.

This iconic Ottoman-era Stone Bridge connects the old and new parts of the city and serves as a symbol of Skopje. For a ‘heightened’ experience, head to Kale Fortress, which ‘towers’ over the city and offers panoramic views of the Vardar River.

The city also presents a rather surprising vibrant nightlife scene, with a variety of bars, clubs, and live music venues.

Don’t forget to pay homage to the giant statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, a ‘monumental’ sight indeed! Then, ‘navigate’ your way to Skopje’s Old Bazaar, one of the largest and most well-preserved in the Balkans. This bustling area is a ‘marketplace’ of traditional crafts, cafes, historic mosques, and a glimpse into the city’s multicultural heritage.