Backpacking in Europe is a rite of passage for most students and travellers. But it’s such a vast place that many end up hopping between the most famous cities (London, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome – sound familiar?) and never delve beneath the surface into what this continent, particularly the Eastern fringes, really has to offer.
If you’re looking for something that’s a little different and – a big bonus for the budget traveller- much more cost-effective, then backpacking in Eastern Europe is the thing to do.
When you think of Eastern Europe, a long troubled history of war and hard-line Communist regimes may well be what spring to mind. What you’ll find, however, is a lush countryside of idyllic coastlines and picturesque mountains and unique architecture, a thrilling art scene and buzzing nightlife. Backpacking Eastern Europe is now a firm favourite on the backpacker itinerary.
In fact, some of the best cities in Eastern Europe such as Prague and Krakow are no longer quite the bargain they once were. But on the flip side, this means that things such as transport, accommodation (don’t forget to check out HostelBookers Awards for Excellence 2013 to find the best hostels in Europe) and entertainment have all improved in recent years and are totally geared up for backpackers.
Getting Around in Eastern Europe
First things first, getting there. Plenty of budget airlines service the capital cities in Eastern Europe. After the flight, you can explore the best of Eastern Europe by train. If you intend to travel extensively, check out our suggested InterRail itineraries in South East Europe then buy InterRail or Eurail passes for your trip. Alternatively, if you only intend to make a few journeys, just pay as you go on the regional trains. For more information on getting the best deal on rail travel, read our handy guide to InterRailing.
Here’s our pick of the 10 best places to visit in Eastern Europe – from waterfalls and monasteries to floating techno clubs and cobbled streets, there’s a whole host of amazing discoveries to be made. Recommended hostels in Eastern Europe are priced per person, per night (€pppn).
1. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ljubljana is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe. Nestled in an alpine valley and straddling the Ljubljanica River, it is a picture-perfect and very walkable city. The cobbled streets are filled with bicycles, laid-back students (who make up a quarter of the city’s population) and the cafe culture pleasantly spills out onto the pavements in warmer months.
It’s the outdoorsy atmosphere of the Old Town you should be soaking up here, with less emphasis placed on large attractions, although Ljubljana does boast some great galleries and museums. There is a grand mix of bridges, Baroque townhouses and churches in Prešernov trg, but even the modern government complex on the left bank around Kongresni trg compliments the historical cityscape.
To name just a few of the favourite sights, climb to the pretty hilltop Ljubljana Castle, catch a concert at the open-air theatre of Križanke, cross Dragon Bridge and, if you visit in winter, it’s a 30-minute car journey to a Ljubljana ski centre, Krvavec. A trip to the magnificent Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj with the fairy tale castle is also a must. Here you can try a number of water sports, hiking and biking.
Where to stay… Although there are a number of good hostels in Ljubljana, head to Hostel Celica – nothing beats the novelty of sleeping in a converted prison cell for the night. If you are looking for Lake Bled hostels, then the brand new Bled Backpackers Hostel organises adventure sports, bike rental and has an onsite bar.
2. Mostar, Bosnia
On the front line of the Croatian-Bosnian conflict during the Balkan War, Mostar was badly damaged by the fighting. Its famous bridge, from which young men on the cusp of manhood would traditionally dive, was completely destroyed and the town’s residents were unable to cross the river thereby splitting up many families.
Today, however, the Stari Most bridge is back to its former glory – using old photographs, an exact replica of the bridge has been rebuilt. A great time to visit is during the annual diving competition held in July, you can see some of the divers below.
The beauty of Mostar lies in the turquoise river, elegant minarets and shiny white stone but with reminders of the city’s brutal past visible in the bullet hole-laden walls and bombed out buildings nestled among the shops and cafes. Don’t miss the lush nearby Kravice waterfalls for glorious swimming opportunities. You will need a car, or ask your hostel to organise a trip.
Where to stay… Thanks to its fascinating history, there are plenty of Mostar hostels in the city centre. Hostel Majdas is our top-rated property providing shared rooms, but if you prefer to go private, try Guest House “Taso”.
3. Zadar, Croatia
The city’s historic old town is the big draw with glowing white flagstones and the Riva – a picturesque waterfront promenade. In the evening, people gather at the promontory to watch the sunset – which Hitchcock famously claimed to be the most beautiful in the world. To add to the magic, Nikola Basic’s Sea Organ (click to listen!) provides a soundtrack to the setting of the sun. The art installation is operated by the tides which flow in and out of a series of tunnels underfoot to create an eclectic and poetic drone. You will catch people crouching with their ear to the ground in awe of the music.
Cocktails are best enjoyed at the Bedouin-style Garden Grow bar, opened by UB40 drummer James Brown. Once you’ve tasted the city’s heady nightlife, Zadar itself doesn’t need more than a few days. When you’ve had your fill, check out the popular Soundwave Festival or explore the northern Zadar archipelago for a spot of island hopping in Croatia to Pag, Ugljan or Dugi for idyllic beaches.
Where to stay… If you are looking for budget accommodation in Zadar you might want to make the most of the beautiful city by staying in Old Town which has both shared and private rooms from €16pppn and organises excursions. On Pag, Big Yellow House is a great place to meet and party with fellow travellers. It is minutes from Zrce beach, Page nightlife hotspots and offers rooms from €18pppn including breakfast.
4. Belgrade, Serbia
This city is something of an up-and-coming destination, which today means you need to look beyond the city’s rather ugly housing blocks and cast your eyes to the heart of Belgrade – to the leafy squares and ancient churches – to see its true beauty. They are a reminder of this region’s diverse culture and religious history. There is, in fact, something of Paris’s Montmartre in Belgrade’s pretty Skadarska area too.
The real draw of Belgrade, however, is its hedonistic nightlife. During the summer, clubs open up along the Danube River on barges and some 3-storey boats. The city comes alive with the blast of techno rhythms and ravers waving glow sticks at open-air events, although most music tastes are catered for in some club or other, if that’s not your thing.
Where to stay… If you are looking for a hostel in Belgrade then Hostelche Hostel is a firm backpacker favourite offering great interior design. It’s a few minutes from the river and prices start at €14pppn.
5. Kiev, Ukraine
Unfortunately, the Ukraine has found itself embroiled in another all-too-familiar political crisis, an unhappy symptom of its positioning between Russia and Europe. It’s sad, especially for such a beautiful country with such wonderful people. Still, during better times, Kiev is an affordable and lovable choice for backpackers.
In the markets near Independence Square you can pick up original Soviet era paraphernalia – think red-star adorned fur hats – and stuff yourself silly on dumplings all for a handful of coins. It’s worth climbing the bell tower of Kiev’s oldest church, St Sofia Cathedral for views across the rooftops and gilded domes.
To acquaint yourself with darker days, the Chernobyl Museum documents the fatal nuclear event, while the Pecherska Lavra is a monastery complete with catacombs holding centuries’ old mummified monks. Check out our list of cheap things to do in Kiev for more advice and you can check out the nightlife in Kiev too.
Although it is an amazing city, we don’t recommend visiting while there is still trouble in the region. Hopefully there will be a quick and peaceful resolution to the current tensions and you’ll soon be able to see for yourself everything that Ukraine has to offer.
Where to stay… Nowadays Kiev has a great selection budget accommodation and hostels to rival their nearby neighbours. Whether you want something quiet and quaint or a little livelier, you’ll find something to suit your tastes.
6. Tallinn, Estonia
Winner of the European Capital of Culture award in 2011, Tallinn has put itself well and truly on the map with a lengthy list of annual art events, a music week, a rooftop cinema, along with activities like harbour kayaking tours. It boasts a pleasant muddle of cobbled streets and impressive medieval fortifications in the form of city walls. The students of Tallinn University really keep the place ticking, especially in the cavernous cellar bars – try the millimallikas. Have a read of our Tallinn guide for more things to do and highlights in 2011.
7. Suceava, Romania
Once the capital of Moldovia (an ancient European principality), Suceava is an intriguing place that’s undergone recent regeneration. It lies quite a way off the usual backpacking trail in Europe (as does much of Romania, beyond Bucharest and the Dracula tours) but it’s worth the trek for the seven painted churches of Northern Moldovia located nearby. These unique and beautifully preserved monasteries are adorned with frescoes and are masterpieces of Byzantine art.
To really see the city in full swing, you should time your trip to coincide with the lively Moldavian Furrier Fair in mid-August or for Suceava Days, a giant street party held in late June. The area will be difficult to explore during the hard winters, but it’s hard to pass up the opportunity of a sleigh ride eh?!
Where to stay… There are only a couple of hostels in Suceava and they’re a little way out, but for a good time, check out the Lary Hostel. It’s a lively place with its own bar and nightclub, and it’s a not-too-taxing 15 mins bus ride away from the centre.
8. Krakow, Poland
The best-known city on this list, Krakow has become a firm favourite on the InterRail scene and it’s definitely earned its place on your Eastern Europe itinerary. Highlights include the wonderful architecture from Gothic to Renaissance (amazingly well intact after WWII), the atmospheric Jewish quarter of Kazimieriz, the regal Wawel Castle and excellent nightlife – the Old Town boasts more bars per square metre than anywhere else in the world.
Similarly to Prague, Krakow is cashing in on its newly-found tourist appeal so expect higher prices than the rest of Eastern Europe. Winter or summer? It’s a tough call because Christmas in Krakow is a picturesque affair with glittering markets and a beautiful frosting of snow on the buildings, but as part of a greater Eastern Europe itinerary, the sights are more enjoyable to explore in warmer months.
Where to stay… You are spoilt for choice when it comes to hostels. Some of the best hostels in Europe can be found here. It’s a tough call but Greg & Tom Junior Hostel has spacious dorms, Polish themed nights and a free breakfast included in your room rate from €14pppn.
9. Kotor, Montenegro
Like Romania, Montenegro is often sadly ignored by backpackers in Europe. But with such spectacular vistas in Europe’s deepest fjord, Kotor is not easily forgotten! The friendly people and cheap local wine, mean you really can’t go far wrong here so take a leap of faith and trust us on this one! The idyllic Bay of Kotor and its impressive ancient port town is Montenegro at its best. With its strong Venetian influences (the Republic conquered this area long ago) and unique river canyon from the Adriatic, it’s little wonder that Kotor has been named a cultural and natural World Heritage Centre. The summer carnival always proves to be a big draw, with thousands partying on the streets every year.
Where to stay… Reaching a balmy 28 degrees in summer, hostels in Kotor soon fill up so book your accommodation in advance. Small, comfortable and central, Montenegro Hostel Kotor is the ideal cheap stay equipped with air-conditioning and an onsite restaurant.
10. Budapest, Hungary
Separated by the Danube River, the Buda Hills lie to the west while the relatively flat Pest is on the east bank. Architecture buffs can start salivating at the promise of glorious Baroque, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau examples across the city. The particularly decadent Turkish-era thermal baths are also worth a look and a try.
Budapest galleries and museums will fill the days, but the city is equally thrilling at night, especially in the summer when kertek – purpose-built entertainment gardens – draw night owls to party until the early hours. There’s also the 7 day long Sziget Festival in August, suitable for lovers of all kinds of music, so long as they possess the stamina.
Although this list of European hotspots is in no particular order, consider leaving Budapest until last to give your bones a well-earned rest in one of the many beautiful Budapest bathhouses. Read about 5 Cultural Things to do in Budapest.
Where to stay… Choosing hostels in Budapest is a doddle and another charm to this city. Basically, there are a lot of them and they’re all pretty fabulous. Home Plus Hostel get wonderful reviews from previous guests and offers both shared and private rooms from €13pppn.
Do you have a favourite place or a hidden gem in Eastern Europe to share with us? Are you planning a backpacking trip this summer? Let us know your plans, or a review your latest experience and share your tips with other travellers below!
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Thanks to Yadis – Art, Rosino, jrover, anjči, Björn Söderqvist, dobrych, leafar., chrn, superbez, jsouthorn, scottmliddell and bortescristian for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were free to use under the Creative Commons license at time of publication.