In the last few years Eastern Europe has finally stepped out of the shadows of its Western counterpart, to become an increasingly popular destination for travellers worldwide. Having cast off its reputation as the undiscovered half of the continent, it has still managed to retain the sense that is unspoilt by throngs of fellow travellers. Whilst each city has a unique identity, they all evoke a charming reminiscence of past socialist times, whilst still having one foot firmly invested in modern innovation. What other striking similarities do they have in common? Well unfaltering artistic credentials, striking architecture and culinary prowess to name just a few.
The capital city of Latvia is an architectural masterpiece; iconic in the way it blends different building styles to create an overall sense of being a fairy-tale city. Whilst the town centre is a UNESCO protected art nouveau wonder – think colourful buildings with peach facades and mint green rooftops – other parts of the city illustrate gothic mastery, with stone gargoyles and goddesses found atop over 750 buildings.
Sandwiched between the River Daugava and the Baltic Sea, it is perhaps unsurprising that Riga is a city fond of water based activities. Swimming and rowing are popular and many a warm day can be spent relaxing on a boat deck.
Nearly as colourful as the city’s architecture, is Riga’s cultural credentials. Whilst Young Rigans are particularly notorious for filling the lively bars in the Old Town with merriment, Riga has its high brow side too – look no further than its exquisite opera house, numerous concert halls and plethora of churches.
An unsurprising addition to the list is Hungary’s capital, Budapest. Two cities in one, each resting on either side of the Danube, Buda to the west and Pest to the East. Budapest is the archetypal Eastern European city where traces of communism linger amidst more glamourous moments in history, such as fin-de-siecle facades and old fashioned café culture.
Notorious for its natural hot spring fed baths, refined public bathing and outdoor spas are still at the heart of Budapest’s culture. Yet it isn’t all refined, the baths now host late night parties which frequently go on into the early hours of the morning. Other nightlife options include the ‘ruin bars’, a bohemian drinking scene which has flourished in the dilapidated courtyards in the Jewish quarter. If staying out late isn’t for you, during the daytime you can find the courtyards filled with eclectic art and flea markets.
Although Dubrovnik has been a mainstay on the list of top European city destinations, Split has often (unfairly) been overlooked. North of Dubrovnik, sitting on the sapphire blue ocean, Split is a town of winding streets and crumbling Roman architecture. In fact, where many other Roman ruins in Europe have become tourist attractions, Split’s crumbling buildings like Diocletian’s Palace have remained an integral part of the town centre’s structure. Buildings have been built into old palace walls and futile pillars have been left to lean on. Modern twists can still be located and Split is home to some fabulous boulevard shopping and nightlife. Popular with yachting holidaymakers, backpackers and locals alike – it’s a town with an incredible atmospheric café culture.
Krakow serves as a masterclass in how a city can simultaneously pay respect to the rich texture of its history, whilst also being fully committed to exciting growth and modern culture. Having survived bombing in the Second World War unscathed, The Jewish Quarter remains a respectful legacy to the more sombre moments of its past, with memorials to honour those lost in the Holocaust, as well as being home to Schindler’s Factory. Forty miles west of the city lies Auschwitz, the site which has become a symbol of the horrors of the holocaust. Whilst it is not a trip to be undertaken lightly, a visit to the memorial and museum leaves a powerful impact.
Other historical points of interest include the Old Town, chiefly made up of medieval buildings and partly 17th-19th-century- it remains wholly lovely. Housed inside these historical buildings, energetic nightlife and contemporary boutiques have popped up, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants.
A truly romantic city, Kotor is a labyrinth of medieval buildings set against a backdrop of breath-taking mountains and beautiful blue waters. An exceptionally historical city, Kotor was first mentioned in 168 BC. Nestled within its ancient town walls, the city is a maze of cobbled streets, interlocking squares and quaint churches.
Proud of its seafaring prowess, Kotor’s cuisine is all about delicious local seafood. Montenegro also takes much of its gastronomical influence from Italy, reminiscent perhaps of time as a Venetian-era settlement.
Last on the list, but by no means least is Ljubljana the Green Capital of Europe. Tucked between Austria and Italy, Slovenia is a country rightly proud of its unique heritage. Charmingly laid back and easily walkable, Ljubljana is full of Baroque architecture, brightly painted churches and an abundance of greenery. With plenty of cafes lining the riverside, the city is atmospheric and bustling.