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.