Over 25 years after the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, many of the region’s capital cities have made it onto the travel map in a big way. Once you’ve witnessed Budapest’s raw grandeur, Tallinn’s cozy beauty, and the saturated color of a Prague sunset, what’s next? It’s impossible to pick just 10 cities that are the most beautiful in such a diverse and exciting region, so just consider these a start.
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
A red-roofed town, sitting comfortably in the embrace of the Vltava River, unchanged since its heyday in the 14th to 17th centuries – it may sound like a fairy-tale, but it’s actually a real town in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. Only a few hours away from the country’s famous capital, Český Krumlov has all of Prague’s charm packed into an area that’s a fraction of the size. As many people choose to take day trips from Prague, the best way to see the town is to stay overnight and then catch it in the evening and early morning when the streets are quiet and peaceful.
Once an important trading city in the Hanseatic League and later the birthplace of the Solidarity movement that would bring down communism in Poland, Gdańsk is more than just a pretty face when it comes to Polish history – though it is also stunning on an aesthetic level. Located right on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Motlawa River, Gdańsk is full of colorful streets and mainly 17th century buildings. Visiting kings and queens used to travel along what they called the Royal Way, and you can do the same yourself. It’s a great way to see the main sights, and it’s not every day that you can put yourself in a king’s shoes.
Tartu is important as a university town in Estonia, so you can already guess that it’s far livelier than its size might portend. The buildings in the center around the university are painted bright pastel colors, so that they can lighten up the dark winter days and reflect the never-ending light in the summer months. It’s known as the intellectual center of the country, and the “Kissing Students” statue in the main square reminds visitors of whom the city celebrates. As if it wasn’t cute enough, Tartu’s motto displays the same sort of positivity as its buildings – “City of good thoughts”.
Lviv has earned the nickname in some circles as the “Little Paris of Ukraine”, which should give you some idea of the impression that foreigners get when they visit. Although the Germans and Soviets battled over it out on the Eastern Frontright during World War II, it survived mostly unharmed, and its old center is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Another notable thing about Lviv is its historical diversity – Germans, Poles, and Jews once comprised the majority of its population, and only relatively recently has it become largely Ukrainian. Situated as it is on the western side of the country, it’s safe to visit Lviv now, even with the tensions in eastern Ukraine .
Many people who are new to the history of Eastern Europe don’t realize that before the changes that came along with the modern era, there were German settlers scattered everywhere from the Baltic States to the Balkans. Sibiu is a typical example of the result of this diaspora – Germans founded the city in the 10th century, and soon enough it became the most important German city in Transylvania. It later became part of the Hapsburg Empire, attracted thousands of Hungarians and Romanians, and then became a part of Romania after World War I. Enjoy the pristine center and then head out to the open-air ethnographic museum on the outskirts of the city for a deeper look.
Budapest understandably gets most of the attention in Hungary, but Pécs is a great place to visit if you’re looking for beautiful buildings or a fascinating cultural atmosphere. Originally founded by the Romans in the 2nd century, Pécs has long attracted people of all walks of life. It was an early Christian center, and thanks to that you can find the UNESCO-listed early Christian necropolis, but you can also find a mosque on the main square thanks to the 150 years of Ottoman rule in the area. Now, it is populated by Hungarians, Croatians, and Swabians, all of whom co-exist together comfortably in some particularly gorgeous surroundings.
Another town founded by German settlers, lovely Banská Bystrica is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Low Tatra, Velka Fatra, and Kremnica Mountains. While the Germans and Hungarians who once populated the area are all gone, the buildings still retain the cultural history left behind and the Slovak inhabitants have recently renovated much of the center to make it the attractive place that it is today. The Square of the Slovak National Uprising, the city’s main square, even has a clock tower that, at 40 centimeters off a perpendicular angle, is a cousin of the more famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Bled, in northwestern Slovenia, is the perfect example of nature and humanity coming together to create true beauty. The town is situated by Lake Bled, a glacial lake where the blue of the water and the sky almost seem to blend together. Bled Castle looks down on the town from a rock outcropping above, and then the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church on an island in the middle of the lake really completes the scene. Check out the town first, and then take a boat out to the island to ring the church’s bell for good luck. Between the lakes, mountains, trees, and gorgeous structures, Bled is absolutely unmissable.
It’s a pattern in this region for the cities to have been part of multiple empires and kingdoms, and Wroclaw definitely follows that pattern. The varied and impressive architectural structures throughout the city pay testament to that history, and you’ll feel it while you’re walking around. The Old Town Hall and Salt Market Square are particularly stunning, but there are many others that will catch your eye. It’s also a major center of education, and during the school year it’s home to well over 100,000 students. These draws and more have given it the well-deserved distinction of European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Plzeň, Czech Republic
Plzeň, the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic, is famous throughout the world for a particular beverage that was invented within its borders; Pilsner beer, the most commonly brewed type of beer in the world, the bitter archetype of which is Pilsner Urquell. The city itself is more than just the memorable gate to the brewery that graces all of the beer’s bottles however. Republic Square is home to the cathedral with the tallest tower in the country, and the Gothic buildings that surround the square have been kept in remarkably good shape. The city’s current inhabitants have added pieces of modern art and sculpture throughout to remind us that their beloved 2015 European Capital of Culture is still evolving with the times.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.