The Eiffel Tower. The Colosseum. The canals of Venice. Big Ben. These are some of the most famous landmarks of Europe. Like many travelers to Europe, I’ve seen them and every year these famous structures and natural beauties will continue to draw millions of visitors every year.
I love Paris, Rome, and London (I have to admit I am not a big fan of Venice but you can’t deny the appeal and romance of this city for many people). However, what can you tell me about the Magyars? Do you know anything about Jože Plečnik? Where were the first shots of the Yugoslavia war fired? Sure, you’ve heard of Auschwitz but what town was this concentration camp actually in?
No, this isn’t a quiz and you won’t be graded. However, there is a lot to learn about Eastern Europe – not only about its history but about many of the destinations that you must put on your list.
For example, ‘Eastern Europe’ is a term given to this area based on its socio-political history and its ties to Communism and the USSR. Geographically speaking, ‘Eastern Europe’ is actually ‘Central Europe’ and this area has become front and center for the last two decades.
Back in the 90s, the war in Yugoslavia made Slobodan Milosevic a household name and saw one country became many countries. While Germany was in the process of becoming unified as Communism fell apart, the USSR and Yugoslavia were being torn apart and each of these many nations carved their own identities in Eastern Europe for the world to see.
Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia split up into two different countries as they moved towards democracy while Hungary began to establish its own identity after years as an empire and under Communist rule.
So what does this history lesson mean? There’s a lot to see in Eastern Europe, even more to learn about its complicated history, and some beautiful areas to explore that many visitors in Europe have never even heard about it. Sure, some of these places are gaining in popularity but regardless, here are destinations not to be missed in Eastern Europe.
Without a doubt, it is the scene of the most tragic events in human history. Millions died at the hands of Nazi Germany and Auschwitz was the center of the greatest tragedy and hate ever know. From the train ride into the concentration camp to the barracks and gas chambers, a visit here is a somber reminder to never let history repeat itself. It’s a place to teach, mourn, remember, and become angry – all in one visit. It’s not an easy or fun adventure but a much needed one located in this small town of Oświęcim, Poland (Auschwitz is the German name of the town).
Plitvice National Parks, Croatia
One of the most beautiful natural areas in all of Europe (and the world), this park in the central part of Croatia boasts beautiful waterfalls and travertine lakes formed by the calcium carbonate in the water to give it its spectacular blue color. A total of 16 lakes make up the upper and lower part of Plitvice National Park. Once you have observed its beauty, you understand why this is a must see destination in Croatia. Plitvice is also the place where the first shots of the Yugoslavia war were fired.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps, this beautiful alpine lake with its island church is less than an hour outside of Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana. However, the peace and tranquility seems miles away. Pletna boats take you around the lake or you can enjoy a scenic stroll or hike one of the many trails around the lake. Visit the castle perched high on the cliff overlooking the lake or visit the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary. And less that an hour away, you can enjoy Slovenia’s capital Jjubljana and learn more about the native architect Jože Plečnik. No matter what time of year you visit, Lake Bled slows you down and has something for everyone who visits. Check out my photo essay on Lake Bled as well as my visitor’s guide to Slovenia.
Prague, Czech Republic
While Prague has been a must-see tourist destination for a number of years, the history and architecture of this place is worth a visit. It would be difficult to list any one site as the city has so many stories to tell. There is the famous Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, and the site of the Velvet Revolution – Wenceslas Square. Prague is a unique city in Eastern Europe and is incredibly beautiful. Even if you aren’t a fan of big, touristy cities, this one is worth visiting as it is the center of the Eastern European revolution.
Szechenyi Baths in Budapest, Hungary
Hungary has one of the most unique cultures in all of Europe. Hungarians are descended from the Magyars – a nomadic people who most people believe originated from the Ural mountains. Upon visiting Budapest, you will realize that Hungary is different – from its food to its culture to its sites. The city is actually divided into two parts by the Danube River – the city of Buda and the city of Pest. One of the great local experiences is the Szechenyi Baths located in a beautiful area of the city. Hang out with locals and experience pools, spas, and unique health treatments very popular among Hungarians. Don’t worry – there is no nudity involved and anyone is welcome.
Eastern Europe is one of the most fascinating places in the world to me. I can’t get enough of its history and culture. Unlike some of the more popular destinations in Western Europe, Eastern Europe has a beauty and culture undiscovered by many travelers. Thankfully, the doors have been opened and many people are excited to explore!
While there are far too many great places to list all of them, exploring the sights of Eastern Europe will be a welcome start to a cultural extravaganza!