Great off the Radar Eastern European Cities to Visit

Eastern Europe is a fascinating and romantic slice of the globe to explore. And it generally offers far better value than Western Europe. The secret has long been out of the bag with Prague, which doesn’t offer nearly the same value as it did 15 years ago. But there are several cities that rival Prague, where you’ll find better deals than the Czech Republic’s capital. Here are some great off the radar Eastern European cities to visit, with tips for romantic getaways!

Bratislava, Slovakia

The capital of Slovakia is like a sibling to Prague. They were both part of Czechoslovakia until the country peacefully split in 1993. Bratislava has a beautiful historic center that’s easily navigable and is dotted with good restaurants, shops and pubs. Bratislava Castle, perched on a hill above town, offers fantastic views for miles, including the Danube River below.

Bratislava has a vibrant nightlife and draws a party crowd on the weekends. But it’s also a romantic city, given the charming architecture and Danube River. There are some boat hotel accommodations on the Danube, and many more romantic options in the Old Town. It’s only an hour train ride from Vienna, making Bratislava worth a day day trip from Austria’s capital. The city is also well connected with the rest of Europe thanks to discount airlines like Ryanair. 

Krakow, Poland

Krakow has one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Europe. Elegant white horse and carriages line Main Market Square and carry passengers around magnificent centuries old structures like Wawel Castle. On an evening with good weather, sitting out on the main square is truly a fairy tale like setting. So Krakow is wonderful for a romantic getaway, with cheaper prices than Prague.

A lot of visitors are drawn to Krakow for its Jewish history. The Kazimierz district houses the Jewish quarter, which is filled with great Jewish restaurants. The concentration camp of Auschwitz and Birkenau is located in the medieval city of Oswiecim, about 66 kilometers west of Krakow. It’s easy to organize a tour there, if you want to add very disturbing history to your trip.

We’ve previously published several articles on Krakow including 5 Must Things to Do in Krakow, Tips on Areas to Stay in Krakow and Scams to Avoid in Krakow.

Wawel Castle, things to do in Krakow
Wawel Cathedral, one of several great sights at Wawel Castle.

Bucharest, Romania

Great Off the Radar Eastern European Cities to Visit

Bucharest is a little rough around the edges. But its old town is pretty, and the nightlife is as good as anywhere else in Eastern Europe. It also has a better than you’d expect food scene, though not so much if you’re vegetarian.

One of the highlights of Bucharest is a visit to The Palace of Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului). It’s the biggest parliament building in the world, and the second biggest administrative building in the world. Only the Pentagon in Washington, DC is bigger. A tour of this building is fascinating and a little creepy since they don’t even run all the lights. This building was part of what cost brutal dictator Nicholae Ceaușescu his life when the iron curtain fell in 1989. Thousands of Bucharest’s residents were displaced in the early 1980’s to make room for this monstrosity (I didn’t know that during this thumbs up photo).

Visiting busted some myths we had about Romania, as is often the case with traveling. While Bucharest may be the least romantic city on this list, it has some redeeming qualities for a romantic getaway. And we would both re-visit Bucharest over Sofia, Bulgaria.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia is the European Union’s cheapest capital city, so that’s certainly appealing for travelers looking to maximize budgets. We enjoyed some delicious meals in the Bulgarian capital for great prices. While Sofia lacks the wow factor of some other Eastern European cities, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. Sofia is one of the best cities for value shopping on this list, given it shares a border with Turkey.

Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest capitals, with a storied history influenced by Greeks, Arabs, Jews and others. The Square of Tolerance features a mosque, a Catholic cathedral, an orthodox church and a synagogue, within a few minutes walk from each other. And the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest in the Eastern Orthodox world.

We weighed many of the pros and cons in our article, Is Sofia, Bulgaria Worth Visiting?

Great Off the Radar Eastern European Cities to Visit

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest isn’t off the radar, but in comparison to Prague it still is, especially among a large segment of American travelers. While Budapest gets a lot of tourists, it’s a bigger city than Prague, so the center absorbs the crowds a little better. The architecture in Budapest is very impressive, and the Hungarian Parliament is possibly the most beautiful in the world. 

Mineral baths are really popular in Budapest, and Hungarians have been using them for centuries to relax and aid a wide assortment of ailments. Budapest is one of the few major cities in the world that lies atop an array of hot thermal springs. Asides from healthy minerals seeping into your pours, the baths are also therapeutic because they’re fun and relaxing. Baths and spas are awesome on a romantic getaway. We’ve previously covered two Hungarian baths, in our post Budapest baths- Széchenyi or Rudas?

Riga, Latvia (Or Vilnius or Tallinn)

Traveling to Riga is a little like traveling to a mini-Russia, except you don’t need a visa. The city has a large Russian population, with grand buildings in a charming historic center. There are some delicious Russian restaurants and even communist themed pubs, with old Soviet memorabilia.

Riga is the largest capital of the 3 Baltic countries and boasts excellent architecture, food and nightlife, for great prices. It used to be difficult to visit Riga, given that it was formerly part of the Soviet Union. But now that several European discount carriers fly there or to neighboring Vilnius, Lithuania and Tallinn, Estonia, more people are traveling to Riga.

All of the Baltic capitals are worth visiting. We also enjoyed our time in Vilnius and would return if the opportunity arose. While we haven’t been to Tallinn, Estonia, we consistently read and hear great things. In the future we’re planning to travel to Tallinn and visit St. Petersburg, Russia on their free 72 hour visa. The free 72 hour visa is only available for travellers visiting St. Petersburg by ferry, which you can also take from Helsinki.

Trakai Castle. Wizz Air got us from the Netherlands to beautiful Lithuania for very cheap.

Travel Tips for Great Off the Radar Eastern European Cities to Visit

Use Uber over taxis in Eastern Europe. It’s cheaper and on average more reliable because of GPS tracking. If you’ve never used Uber, sign up here and receive $20 credit towards your first ride!

You’ll generally find the best hotel prices on booking.com. You can also find awesome value on apartments with consistently good reviews on Airbnb. If you’ve never used the service, sign up here for a $40 credit off your first stay!

Are you considering any of these cities for a romantic getaway? Leave a comment if you have a question!

10 thoughts on “Great off the Radar Eastern European Cities to Visit

  1. This is a great lineup- and you’re so right about the better value in Eastern Europe versus West. In some cases it’s almost night and day! A good friend of mine is from Slovakia, and I had contemplated visiting this past summer but ended up going to Prague and Budapest instead. In hindsight, I wish I’d done Bratislava instead of Prague. It looks equally gorgeous to Prague but Prague was so pricy and almost felt fake with all the touristy things. Budapest is, as you mentioned, “on” the radar but had surprisingly good value and authenticity.

    1. Well said! Prague is a beautiful city but tourism there is getting out of control. So not only are the prices higher, but the city starts to lose authenticity. Prague can still be cheaper than a trip to Disneyworld though and hopefully you still had fun there. There’s always next time to see your friend in Bratislava! 😀

  2. Great suggestions – I love visiting Eastern Europe, it’s so much more authentic, and way less crowds than the west – and I don’t understand why people don’t head here more often because there are some incredible destinations. We loved Bratislava so I was glad to see it made your list. Such a charming city, we loved the pastel colored buildings and quirky street sculptures coming out form the road!

    Agree that Budapest isn’t really off the radar, but definitely is compared to most other cities in it’s immediate surrounds. Probably one of my favorite cities for it’s architecture, food scene – even though it sees decent tourism, I agree that it’s an incredible hidden gem 🙂 Will have to get to the others. Thanks for the list!

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Megan! Glad you enjoyed Bratislava as well! The historic center and views from Bratislava Castle really exceeded our expectations. We’d return in a heartbeat as our visit was short. But even though we only spent a night in Bratislava, it was enough to see much of the city. It’s definitely one of Europe’s most navigable capital cities. We also ate a couple excellent meals at Zeleny Rodriguez and Flamender and highly recommend those restaurants.

      Budapest is one of our favorite cities for architecture as well. The food and drink scene is also great. Hungary produces very good wine, as does Bulgaria! Budapest and Sofia are two cities to enjoy delicious local wines!

  3. Europe has its charm and Eastern Europe is no exception. When I first visited there a few years back, I really love the architecture and the vibe. Can’t wait to go back!

  4. Wow A lot of good choice and in fact all these places should be under the spotlight for those who traveled (or about to travel to ) Eastern Europe. Thanks for the post and great information. @ knycx.journeying

  5. That’s an interesting selection there 🙂 curious about why you picked Bucharest over Sofia – which is why I’ll head over to your post about Sofia next! We’ve always wanted to visit Vilnius, Riga, Talinn aside from Prague / Budapest / Slovakia and your tips make a compelling case 🙂 Pinning the post for future reference!

    1. Thanks so much for pinning! Really glad you found this post informative and useful. We’d return to Bucharest over Sofia because there’s a little more to do in Bucharest. And as you may have read in our post on Sofia, Bell had an unfortunate incident with very unprofessional airport security leaving Sofia airport. She was so upset she filed a complaint with the EU and it’s turned her off from returning. Prior to that, we had a nice time in Sofia though, so that was just bad luck (but a very weird situation).

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