More From Eastern Europe
Everyone knows of the mythical and magical Czech capital of Prague. It first came on my radar when watching the original installment of my all time favorite movie franchise: Mission Impossible 1. Watching Tom Cruise run across the Charles Bridge with all the fog...
I cannot tell you exactly why I became so fascinated with this beautiful town in the western hills of Czechia. The more research I did into it, the cooler it seemed. Karlovy Vary is the 22nd largest city in the Czech Republic (according to Wikipedia), a country with a...
If you google "biggest festivals in the world" the results will yield four festivals that are not really music festivals. They're one day events like Street Parade in Zurich every July or Summerfest in Milwaukee, USA. I have been to the latter and it ends at 10 PM...
For my money, the best part of Europe is Eastern Europe. These formerly Communist countries have been providing backpackers with cheap options to visit for decades. My first foray into this epic part of the continent was on a two week trip from Budapest→Bratislava→Vienna→Krakow→Prague. Later, I got more exposure on a road trip in the summer of 2015 where some German buddies and I went to almost every country in Eastern Europe.
Things to Know as Background on Eastern Europe
A little history so you know what to expect. Eastern Europe is the part of Europe that is obviously on the eastern side of the continent. These countries were not initially admitted into the European Union, the agreement which allows for easier international trading, monetary policy, tourism, etc. A large number of these countries form the Balkan Peninsula: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria (and Greece, but they don’t count amongst ‘Eastern Europe’ because they’re a founding EU member).
Most of the Eastern European countries have lived through a war in the past 30 years. Czechoslovakia broke up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of communism in the early 90’s. The former Yugoslavia gave rise to a large portion of the Balkans during that time as well. This means that the people living there have witnessed horrible tragedies in their lifetimes and came out the other side…a commendable notion when you visit their museums and see the extent of the atrocities.
Countries to Make Sure You Visit
Here is the fun part. Each of these six countries has something incredible and unique to offer. Montenegro has one of the most beautiful little towns I have ever seen called Kotor. Hike up the hill to the mountainside castle and jump into the Bay of Kotor from any downtown location, it’s almost too pretty. Serbia is just north and has some of the coolest people you will ever meet. Belgrade is a phenomenal city with boat parties on the Danube as its main nightlife attraction. Novi Sad hosts Exit Festival every year, which I have not been to but it’s on my list. I’ve heard that Novi Sad is a really cool city too. You will have a wild time in Serbia…oh, and the girls are not ugly. Bosnia is the last of this little trio. The populace has been ravaged by the invading Serbs in the 90s and seen the spark of World War 1 a century ago. Franz Ferdinand Hostel is the spot, most comfortable beds I’ve ever had in a hostel…except for the one below.
Romania is the country I have been to most recently. Bucharest is not a great city, overcrowded and not pretty. Use Brasov as a jumping off point for a few days of exploring the Dracula Castle in Bran, and the city of Brasov is beautiful and a fun college town. The Secret Boutique Hostel has the most comfortable beds you will ever find in a hostel.
Albania is extremely underrated and I imagine that in the next decade it will turn into what Croatia is today. The coast is amazing, the capital city of Tirana is skippable but do not skip out on Sarande and its crystal clear water. Finally, I loved Slovenia. The capital of Ljubljana is super cool, hikable, and has a lovely castle right in town. You also should go to Lake Bled, which I regrettably did not in 2016 when I went but I will get back there one day, and it’s in the EU/Schengen zone.
Countries You Can Skip If You Don’t Have Time
- North Macedonia
It pains me to talk shit about places but I need to be honest about some of these countries. Let’s start with the worst one…Bulgaria. To be fair, I have only spent one night in this country. It was in Sofia on the road trip and nothing stood out to me about the city. I have heard that Plovdiv has a cute little downtown and I want to spend a week in a resort on the Black Sea in Varna. Bulgarians, unlike their neighbors to the north, are not notoriously nice people.
North Macedonia has a tiny capital city in Skopje with an ancient castle and a million statues. Lake Ohrid to the south is really cool and touches three countries. We spent a few nights camping there and I really enjoyed it. Kosovo is a small war torn nation south of Serbia, which the Serbs still consider it a part of their country so that made for an intense border crossing. The capital of Pristina has tons of foreign embassies on a hill where my buddy and I walked around drinking tall boys one night in 2015. That city is forgettable.
I have only been to Bratislava in Slovakia and it was after they adopted the Euro so the prices were not as cheap. In passing through on my most recent trip it looked as if the entire section on the river had turned into apartment buildings and luxury hotels so maybe there is more to do in Bratislava now. Wild Elephant Hostel, where I stayed in 2014, has apparently developed quite the reputation and I recently heard that they have a signup list for an orgy (no idea if that’s true). Lastly is Moldova. I feel bad about putting Moldova on this side of the list because I really enjoyed it, I just needed some balance on this list. The capital of Chisinau is not particularly pretty or fun but the people are lovely and the food was surprisingly good. A day trip to Transnistria is a must to step outside your comfort zone.
Backpackers Paradise in Eastern Europe
I group these countries together for a few reasons: A) their proximity B) their cheapness C) their popularity among backpackers. Granted, everything is pretty close in Eastern Europe but Croatia is right on the Adriatic, Hungary is directly north of it. Czechia (recently changed from the Czech Republic) is one country away from Hungary. It’s a four hour bus ride from Budapest to Prague, cutting through Slovakia briefly.
Budapest and Prague typically go hand in hand as people love to go from one immediately to the other, depending on which direction you’re working. Prague has the protection of the EU but it still feels distinctly Eastern Europe. Budapest has the famous ruin bars, chiefly amongst them are Szimpla Kert and Instant (both of which I went to recently and both are awesome). Definitely do not miss a chance at one of those two, they’re located inside beautiful old buildings. It also has the Hungarian bathhouses, the best two are on the Danube River and in a city park. Of course, the incredible Parliament building is the symbol of the city.
Prague holds the Charles Bridge and gothic cathedral. The Bohemian vibes are amazing and you can find cheap Pilsner beer everywhere. Croatia is a beach haven with an awesome national park, Plitvice Lakes. The nightlife is world class there too and be sure to hit up Dubrovnik and its ancient city wall.
Where Harvey Hasn’t Been
I have met a few people from these countries, all have been exceedingly kind. I have not met a single backpacker who has traveled to either Ukraine or Belarus. This is not for lack of trying. I want to go, especially to Ukraine, which holds immutable beauty. Of course they can be a little dangerous right now so the window to visit is closed for the foreseeable future. Rest assured, when it opens I will be on my way to Odessa, Ukraine to swim in the Black Sea.
What Time of Year Should You Visit Eastern Europe?
This is a critical part of this post. The tourist season in the Balkans is primarily the summertime. You will see tons of backpackers all across Eastern Europe from May-September. It starts to die down in October and becomes non-existent in the winter months. It’s just too cold to attract people to this part of Europe if there is no Eiffel Tower or Coliseum to see. Regular tourists, which means older folks on cruises through the Adriatic Sea or Danube River, will go to Budapest, Croatia, and a little bit into Bosnia to see Mostar and the World War 1 bridge in Sarajevo.
Here is what I recommend: if you want partying and beaches then head to Croatia and be sure to go in the summertime. The place is packed with travelers, festivals, and amazing beaches. If you want the tapered down version of that, I would head a little farther along the riviera to Albania where you will find less of a party scene but just as much coastal beauty. You can also party anywhere in Serbia although the scene is a bit more grungy and alt rock. Serbia is the hipster backpacker place.
The majority of Eastern Europe is better experienced in the summer. With the exception of Budapest and Prague, most of these countries and cities will be empty in the winter months. I imagine that Slovenia is pretty in the wintertime so maybe include that one but amazing summer places like Serbia and Romania start to empty out when the clocks change in November.
If you fall in love with the Balkans, as I did, and want to stick around I would do the following: go to the places with elevation in the fall. These include Romania, Czechia, and Bosnia to name a few. This is because you will see the beautiful fall scenes with changing leaves and heavy fog settling onto the surrounding mountains. Avoid Eastern Europe in the winter: 1) it’s too cold to go outside and 2) many of the backpackers who make this zone magical will be at Christmas markets in Germany or chilling on a beach in the Canary Islands.
"Harvey Falcon" is the the senior adventure corespondant for Ski Bum Van Life. From Europe to Asia to South America and beyond Harvey offers an exciting take on adventure travel. Read all his stories here.