Some of the best-value breaks in Europe can be found in the East, and countries of the former Eastern Bloc such as Poland, Hungary and Croatia are blossoming into short break destinations which offer cultural and historical highlights, as well as great cuisine and exciting nightlife. With the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution coming up this year, what better time to explore Eastern Europe and find some remnants of the Communist era along the way?!
The East/West divide started here with the Russian Revolution (although it is still not clear if the anniversary will even be officially marked by the Russian government). From Peter the Great to Nicholas II, the grand city of St Petersburg was the home of the Tsars for hundreds of years until the overthrow of the Romanovs in 1917. The royal family’s former residence, the imposing Winter Palace is now home to the world famous State Hermitage art gallery and museum. Another important revolutionary site is the warship Aurora, now moored in the Neva River opposite the Palace Embankment. If you’d like a flavour of revolutionary Russia a little closer to home, head to the Royal Academy of Art in London where a brand new exhibition of Russian art is now open featuring important works by the likes of Kandinsky and Chagall.
One of the oldest and largest cities in Poland, Krakow looks like being the place to be in 2017. Combining Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture with medieval buildings and squares, Krakow is a fascinating mix of cultures and styles. Krakow’s major attractions include Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the former Nazi concentration camp as well as Oskar Schindler’s Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik factory, Wieliczka Salt Mine and Wawel Castle. You can take walking tours of the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town as well as seeing the sights of Communist era Krakow such as the planned industrial suburb of Nowa Huta. Food fans will be in heaven as Krakow has a variety of restaurants from budget priced milk bars (bar mleczny) to gourmet fine dining and everything in-between. Moaburger has been described as the best burger in Krakow and Wierzynek is apparently Europe’s oldest restaurant!
Take a sightseeing tour with a difference as you get behind the wheel of an icon of Communist Europe, the humble Trabant! These much-maligned vehicles were produced in large numbers throughout the Cold War era (although there was still a long waiting list if you wanted to buy one!) and became symbolic of the time. You can see all the main sights of the Hungarian capital including the Chain Bridge, Buda Castle and the Parliament Building. Or you can choose to view the sites of Communist Budapest and also get behind the wheel of the Trabi and have a drive yourself! While you’re there, make sure you grab yourself a bowl of traditional Goulash followed by a glass of Hungarian wine which is good quality but also incredibly cheap.
I’m including the German capital as it was part of Communist East Germany for over 40 years and you can still find reminders of the Soviet-inspired regime in the city to this day. Head to Treptower Park to see the enormous Soviet War Memorial or Marx-Engels Platz on Museuminsel. You could also take a Cold War walking tour to find out more about the role the city played on the frontier between East and West. In central Berlin the DDR Museum gives a glimpse into daily life under the Communist system including a recreation of a typical apartment, a Trabant and clips of TV shows and cinema newsreels. Jump on a tram from Alexanderplatz to Lichtenberg to visit the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the former Stasi prison which is now open for public tours (if you’ve seen The Lives of Others you’ll recognise it!). Just down the road is Pietschmanns restaurant where you can try traditional East German dishes. There are plenty of bars in Berlin that try to recreate the past but my recommendation is Möwe im Felsenkeller in the Schönberg district; a tiny wood-panelled bar with GDR décor and a seagull hanging from the ceiling!
If you think this looks familiar that is because “the pearl of the Adriatic” is a major location for filming of the epic TV show Game of Thrones. The city doubles as the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, and it’s easy to see why as the old town is a maze of red-roofed buildings surrounded by medieval city walls with jagged rocks leading down to an azure sea. Dubrovnik’s location on the shores of the Adriatic gives it a Mediterranean climate and there are even several beaches within easy reach of the city. Southern Croatian cuisine is distinctly Mediterranean as well with cheese, ham, seafood and fruit making up the most popular dishes and don’t forget a post-dinner ice cream!
If you’re looking for “the new Prague” you could do a lot worse than visiting Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. The former Soviet republics are making a name for themselves as popular short break destinations for fun-loving tourists.
Tallinn is situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are several impressive buildings such as St. Olaf’s Church (which was the world’s tallest building at one time). Finnish and German influences are clear in the city’s seafood based cuisine and there is a thriving craft beer scene too.
The capital city of Latvia, Riga was the European Capital of Culture in 2014 and is also a World Heritage Site. There are also plenty of Soviet era buildings and monuments still to be found. Head to the Central Market to sample smoked fish, black bread and sausages or Miera iela for trendy brew pubs and cocktail bars.
Perhaps a bit more off the beaten track but still well worth a visit is Vilnius. It boasts an impressive number of historic buildings showing Polish and Russian influences. A large student population guarantees a good night out and with great value flights from the UK, Vilnius could be the next big short break capital of Europe.
Are you planning a short break in Eastern Europe? Let us know where you’re heading to in the comments section below…