When we think of a European break for a long weekend, statistics tell us that London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Venice & Amsterdam are the most popular with the British and also figure very highly in the favourites for a lot of Western Europeans.
They are all fantastic destinations of course with mountains of things to do and see and should surely be on everybody’s wish list to visit at least once.
However, they also have another thing in common – they are pretty expensive places to enjoy yourself in.
If you drew an imaginary vertical line pretty much from Stockholm to the heel of Italy, there are a multitude of absolute gems to the right of this divide, which are equally as enthralling as their Western neighbours, but can be enjoyed at a fraction of the cost.
Add to this that the further east you go the more the culture shifts from what you are used to and you start to put together a very compelling case to pay a visit to truly expand your horizons.
With the region also having a comprehensive rail network it is also easily possible to spend a little longer in the area to visit two or more of the great cities or to venture out of the city to discover some lesser known delights that every country has to offer.
Here I give you ten of my favourite city breaks in the region, together with a slightly lesser known destination that is easily accessible from it.
Kiev & Lviv, Ukraine
Is Kiev safe? The UK Government advice is to avoid the Crimea and the area around Donetsk in the East of Ukraine due to their unstable nature. The fact that the capital is 800 & 700 km respectively away from these regions is probably all you need to know.
Kiev is as a safe as any capital city in the world. Visitor numbers are on the decrease due to the situation elsewhere, so if you do go you will not only be rewarded with an amazing experience, but will also unearth a real bargain break.
For me the highlight of Kiev is the amazing Monastery of the Caves or Pechersk Lavra to give it is proper name. This is a vast area of 230,000 square metres, which houses the unusual monastery, plus several majestic domed churches, a striking bell tower and a museum. All this set high up above the Dnieper River within landscaped tree-lined gardens.
You can easily spend the best part of a day there and will need to allow at least another day to explore the amazing cathedrals and churches of the city centre, with the gold & green domed St Sophia’s Cathedral the unquestioned highlight.
For anybody that likes a museum, Kiev has a fascinating example dedicated to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, informative, awe-inspiring and harrowing all at once. Culture fans are also very well catered for with Kiev’s splendid National Opera House and the National Circus of Ukraine.
Five and a half hours away by train (or eight and a half overnight) to the west stands Lviv, close to the Polish border.
The cobbled, fountain filled old town is a beauty and deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site. Clamber or take the lift up the historic clock tower to get a bird’s-eye view of the city and the green hills that surround it.
The Baroque St George’s Cathedral is an absolute gem as is the Neo-Renaissance Opera House, fronted by a horse-chestnut lined pedestrian boulevard where old men play chess and little children whizz around in toy cars.
The real delight of Lviv is to just relax with an al fresco coffee whilst soaking up the soothing aura of the place. If you are feeling more energetic, I would recommend a brisk stroll out to Lvivske Brewery with its fine dark beer, a jive at one of the jazz venues about town or a yomp up to Lviv High Castle, as you would expect atop a steep hill. Whatever you do, fun is virtually assured.
Athens & Meteora, Greece
Greece has taken quite a financial battering in recent years and continues to feel the effects of austerity measures. Hard as this is for all Greeks, it makes the country even more of a bargain for travellers, who are all welcomed with open arms.
Athens vies with Rome & Egypt in the ancient history stakes. The awesome Acropolis built in the 5th Century BC, dominates the skyline for miles around. Fitting for a place described as the Cradle of Civilisation.
A walk around the large complex takes in the historic Parthenon, the ancient Temple of Athena Nike, the centuries old Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Herodeon Theatre), the Ancient Agora (marketplace) and many more antiquities.
The magnificent Museum of the Acropolis tells the story of it all, but with replicas of its most famous artifacts, the so called Elgin Marbles, which are controversially housed in London’s British Museum.
There are many more ancient sites around Athens and others that are easy excursions from the city (Epidavros, Delphi & Olympus for example), but Athens has so much more to offer.
For nightlife, Athens is hard to beat for bars and restaurants, whilst its lively cafe culture is thriving despite the economic hardships.
In around five hours by train you can be in Kalambaka, which is just a short upward hop away from one of Greece’s main architectural wonders, the mountain top monasteries and convents of Meteora.
The UNESCO World Heritage site is home to six monasteries (twenty were built originally), perched seemingly precariously on the rocks.
The monasteries were built that way to keep the outside world out, especially the occupying Turks that ruled Greece from the mid 15th Century until 1821.
An ideal way to see the incredible feats of construction, is to take a taxi up and spend a few pleasurable hours visiting them. There are still some steep steps to conquer and a few vertigo inducing views, but the effort is really well worth it.
You can then meander down along paths and through some woods, perhaps stopping at a taverna near the foot of the rocky outcrops for some well earned refreshment.
You could then decide to take the train northwards to the alluring waterfront city of Thessaloniki, which will take three and a half to four hours. You will find plenty of flight options available to take you home.
Istanbul & Izmir, Turkey
The great city that straddles Europe & Asia needs little in the way of introduction. It is the first Islamic powerhouse that you come to on your eastwardly travels, as it has been since the times of the Crusades and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, replaced by the Ottoman Empire.
Nothing personifies this change more than the alteration of the Greek Orthodox church Aghia Sophia into an Islamic mosque, Ayasofya, which is in fact a museum today.
Istanbul is stuffed full of treasures including the Blue Mosque, the fabulous indoor market known as the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace and the incredible Byzantine cistern.
There are plenty of other mosques and churches to keep you occupied, whilst transport wise a ride around the city on the modern tram system is great fun. You can even now take a train under the Bosphorus to hop from one continent to another. Alternatively, a cheap ferry is a slower and slightly more exciting way to do so accompanied by hundreds of locals.
If you are feeling really brave, a visit to one of the city’s bath houses (hammam) for a wash and scrub up is an experience that you will never forget!
A memorable overnight train via Eskisehir will take you south to Izmir, on the Aegean coast.
Although the port city is Turkey’s third largest, it has a relaxed atmosphere and some great squares for sitting and chilling with a coffee or beer. The best known of these is Konak Square, home of the intricate twenty-five meter high clock tower, Izmir’s most iconic structure.
From the square, it’s a short walk to the cafe-lined seaside promenade named the Kordon, and the customs house on Konak Pier, which was built by Gustave Eiffel and has been restored as a chic shopping centre.
Izmir used to be the Greek city of Smyrna and there a few notable Greek ruins scattered about the city such as the ancient agora and some nice colonnades.
About 70KM outside Izmir are the marvelous Roman ruins of Ephesus. This makes the city perfect as a base to go and visit them.
Bucharest & Brasov, Romania
The Romanian capital is not well known as a city destination, but there is plenty to keep you occupied. The most amazing site is a modern one. The Palace of the Parliament in central Bucharest is the world’s largest civilian building with an administrative function and the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington DC.
The Palace was planned by the notorious Ceausescu regime as the seat of political and administrative power, though wiping out a large section of the central city and at the same time flattening many important religious buildings.
This was all at the behest of the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who commissioned the building in the early ’80s that was to cost an estimated $4 billion to build.
You have to go on a guided tour to discover that the palace measures 270m by 240m, is 86m high, has 1,100 rooms, two underground parking garages, is twelve stories tall and has a huge nuclear bomb proof shelter. The floor space is an enormous 340,000 m2.
Talking of big, the Orthodox Cathedral is currently under construction and when complete will be the tallest Orthodox place of worship in the world. There are also plenty of other interesting buildings and churches, especially the tiny Stavropoleos Church, which is beautifully ornate inside and out.
The lovely Romanian Athenaeum is also a great place for cultural events from Autumn to Spring.
The pedestrianised area of Lipscani is great for outdoor people watching accompanied by a cool beer or full meal. It is very popular with the locals and a fun and relaxing place to spend a few hours. Buskers also keep you entertained, whilst free concerts are commonplace.
Another favourite with locals is to stroll around one of Bucharest’s parks, perhaps taking a pedaloe ride across a lake or ice-skating in Winter.
Romania is perhaps most famous for the region of Transylvania, home of the mythical Count Dracula.
This is also where the charming town of Brasov is located three hours south by train, with its mediaeval squares, ambient cafes and picturesque terracotta roofed buildings.
The area surrounding Brasov is one of outstanding natural beauty, perfect for hiking or skiing. Even if you do not like either of these activities, taking a cable car high up into the Southern Carpathian Mountains rewards you with spectacular views in the freshest of air.
Fans of the blood-sucking Count are also well catered for with a trip out to Bran Castle, said to be his Gothic home. Some might say that the place is on the tacky side and indeed the decor and Dracula puns (the cafe sells bat wings (chicken) garlic soup and stake & chips) are overdone somewhat.
The castle is however set in an awesome mountain-scape, with the journey to it worth the effort alone.
Sarajevo & Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Just about every teenager knows that Sarajevo was the place where World War One started and in recent times the city was notorious for the horrendous 1,425 day siege during the ‘90s Yugoslav conflict.
Today Sarajevo is a great place to visit. It is home to Europe’s oldest tram system and suitably still runs rattly old trams throughout the compact city’s main thoroughfares.
Have your picture taken in the exact spot that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914 and visit the atmospheric Old Town that gives Sarajevo the title of ‘Europe’s Jerusalem’ on account of the mosque, synagogue and churches all situated there.
It also contains an Arabic souk with plenty of artisan retailers selling brightly coloured lamps and fabrics.
There are tours available that tell you the story of the siege to help you understand the tragic circumstances, but also tales of amazing human resolve that were necessary to survive the ordeal.
No visit to Sarajevo would be complete without a visit to the central brewery, which houses an ornate and dimly lit restaurant in which to enjoy its superb brews and delicious food.
Mostar is reached via a picturesque train journey of under three hours. Again synonymous with the War of Yugoslavia, Mostar has also restored its way of life, most noticeably by rebuilding its iconic 16th Century Ottoman bridge that had been destroyed by enemy forces.
For 427 years the bridge that straddles the Neretva River stood as a symbol of peace dividing the largely Bosniak (Muslim) east side from the Croat (Christian) west.
Nowadays, the rebuilt bridge is almost identical to the original and in fact contains much of the same stone that was blasted into the waters on that hideous November day.
It is also home once more to the Mostar Diving Club, whose members act as a great draw for visitors by diving or jumping the 24 metres into the Neretva. For a reasonable fee (c.€25) the club will even train you to take the plunge yourself!
Apart from the majestic bridge and diving spectacle, Mostar has loads more to offer including marvellously colourful eclectic souvenir shops, chilled riverside cafes & restaurants, wonderful Ottoman architecture and interesting mosques & churches.
Sofia & Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
The Bulgarian capital is a very lively place that is great for a weekend break. Its undoubted highlight is the vast St. Alexander Nevski Memorial Cathedral, with its large gold and green domes.
Sofia is choc full of architectural delights and is great to wander around. As well as many lovely churches, there are dozens of statues, many situated in landscaped greenery.
Pedestrianised Vitosha Boulevard is stuffed full of cafes, restaurants and bars, whilst for culture Sofia opera house stages world class opera and ballet. The National Art Gallery has an extensive and varied collection of Eastern European art to enjoy too.
For me the highlight of Bulgaria is delightful Veliko Tarnovo and its ancient walled settlement of Tsarevets.
Three and a half hours away by train, VT as I call it actually used to be the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between the 12th and 14th Centuries.
The town itself is lovely – situated photogenically on the River Yantra, surrounded by green hills and with a great collection of bars, restaurants and shops selling local crafts such as handmade wooden toys and delicately painted chinaware. Many of the buildings are of the old wooden Ottoman style, adding to the ambience of the place.
Tsarevets is situated just outside the main town and although it appears to be a fortress due to its hilltop location, it was in fact a settlement. Today you can visit the cathedral and make out the ruined palace and other residences.
On another hill named Trapezitsa you will find some very nice churches and monasteries. If you are feeling energetic you can walk up there and take refreshment in one of the hotels whilst looking at the fabulous views of VT and beyond.
VT is becoming more and more popular with tourists, so peak Summer months are definitely best avoided.
Split & Zagreb, Croatia
Split is the laid back and unhurried little cousin of Dubrovnik, the tourist hotspot a few hours along the Dalmatian Coast.
Although Split is popular and is now on the cruise ship map, a visit outside of the peak Summer months is a joy.
You will be immediately enraptured by the tranquil blue sea fronting the honey stone buildings and spires of the old town.
The massive Diocletian’s Palace casts a huge shadow over the main square by day and is beautifully lit at night. You may even lucky to be treated to an acoustic guitar set on some nights during the Summer months.
For the energetically minded there is a very nice U-shaped 14KM walk around the headland, happily bringing you back to waiting tables serving ice-cold beer. From one of these, you get a great vantage point of Split’s famous clock tower housing it’s trademark blue-faced clock.
You can also use Split as a base for taking a ferry to the holiday island of Hvar or could take a bus east to the aforementioned Dubrovnik or a little further on to wonderful Kotor in Montenegro.
Although Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, it is not often thought of as a city break destination. That makes it even more attractive for a visit. Although it has some amazing churches, municipal buildings, statues and cobbled squares, it does not possess any stand out attractions. That however does not detract from the joy of being there.
The whole centre is pleasant and compact. There is a particularly nice cafe lined pedestrian area named Tkalčićeva Street just off the main square, accessed through a bustling flower market. This is a great place to linger in and watch the world go by.
Hopping on a tram and just riding the rails through the city is also a lovely ‘waste of time’, as is just ambling around the back streets discovering eclectic shops and bohemian cafes.
The Royal Opera House is the usual stately affair with plenty of economically priced events to view.
Prague & Karly Vary, Czech Republic
The Bohemian Czech capital needs little introduction and has become hugely popular. It is still possible however to enjoy a stress free few days taking in the wonderful sights if you time your visit carefully.
Visitors are assured a brilliant time amongst the iconic landmarks including Karlovy Most (the statue festooned Charles Bridge), St Vitus’s Cathedral and the castle area, the Gothic masterpiece Tyn Church and and the golden roof of Narodni Divadlo (National Theatre).
A fabulous way to get your bearings is to take a tram through the centre and uphill to the castle district. A wander through the cobbled squares and alleyways takes you to an amazing viewpoint from which to see the whole city laid out before you.
You can then twist down the lovely streets of Mala Strana and Stare Mesto, stopping for coffee and cake or some warming soup, before continuing across iconic Charles Bridge and onto Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) with its stupendous astrological clock.
Culture lovers will find themselves in paradise with an extensive choice of theatrical & musical offerings across the city, often with bargain ticket prices. Visit in May for the Prague Spring when the whole city comes alive with music and venues such as historical churches and secluded squares become concert venues.
It is easy to fall in love with Prague and not want to leave, but if you can be tempted away for a day, the spa town of Karlovy Vary will give you a very nice side trip.
The journey from Prague can be done in just over two hours by train. KV is home to the Republic’s foremost natural hot springs and has been popular for centuries as a place to go for therapeutic treatments and healing mineral baths. This has brought considerable wealth to the town as can be seen in the splendid houses and intricately decorated buildings.
You do not need an ailment to justify a visit and will enjoy just walking around the extremely pretty streets and stopping in one of the fine eateries for refreshment.
Warsaw & Gdansk, Poland
It is hard to believe that the old town of the Polish capital was completely flattened during World War Two and that what you see today is the rebuilt version, which was reconstructed using as many of the original materials as possible.
The cobbled squares, the Royal Castle, the King Zygmunt Column, the fine statues, ornate churches and colourful buildings all look as if they have stood for centuries rather than around sixty years.
Warsaw was under siege by the Nazis for the vast majority of the Second Great War, but in 1944 the Polish Resistance rose up against their enemy only to be crushed under superior firepower. The story of the siege and failed uprising are portrayed superbly in the Siege Museum, a visit to which is vital if you truly want to understand the history of the city and the nation as a whole.
Warsaw also has some wonderful parks for strolling and relaxing, home to scores of red squirrels and manicured gardens surrounding man made lakes and ponds.
The Baltic city of Gdansk may not renowned for being pretty, even if the Hanseatic period walled old town is certainly picturesque. Entering the Golden Gate into the cobbled square of the old town, you get a real sense of merchants and rich cargo through a display of wealth of bygone years.
You could imagine yourself in Amsterdam or Rotterdam as the typically Dutch style tall, narrow buildings with their gabled roofs look down upon you.
Take a wooden masted schooner tour to Westerplatte, scene of the first angry shots of World War Two, view the amazing man-powered hamster wheel winch that used to load and unload tons of cargo off tea clippers & grain barges, or my own personal favourite, a visit to the historic shipyards, home of Solidarity, Lech Walesa and the labour protests that did so much to bring down the Berlin Wall.
Gdansk is one part of what is known as the tri-city, encompassing Gdynia and the trendy beach resort of Sopot, all a stone’s throw from one another and worth a visit in their own right.
Finally, Gdansk is a gateway to the intriguing Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a three-four hour bus ride away (organise your 72-hour tourist visa first though).
Tirana & Berati, Albania
For decades Albania was cut off from the rest of Europe under the unpredictable dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. He ruled the country with an iron fist and apart from short-lived alliances with Russia and China, the country went it alone as a largely peasant nation, a mystery to most people in a similar way to North Korea today.
A visit to Tirana is an intriguing insight into what made the country tick for all those years. The central hub is Skandebeg Square where you will find the national museum, the opera house, the main mosque, a clock tower and a huge statue of national hero Skandebeg atop his stallion.
A visit to the museum is recommended so that you understand Albania’s history, most noticeably the Hoxa period when contact with the West was a crime and having a beard was banned. Albania trusted nobody and it was during this period that thousands of mushroom shaped bunkers were built as a national defence. Many have survived, dotting the landscape like a pimply rash.
Take a bus or taxi into the hills to visit Skandebeg’s Castle or a slow train to the coast to Durres, one of Albania’s very few train destinations. Internationally there are none.
Tirana is still catching up with most of Europe, but is an intriguing destination.
About three hours south by bus you get to the pleasant town of Berati. It is known as the town of a thousand windows on account of the Ottoman style houses built up the hillside.
A steady climb up the hill through the houses takes you to Berati’s ruined castle and affords you splendid views of the river valley and town below.
The town runs at a slow pace. It is divided by the Osum River, with east and west joined by an ancient stone bridge. In its main square you are as likely to see a horse and cart as a motor vehicle and farm livestock as people. Sitting at one of the cafes here and watching the goings on is a perfect way to unwind.
The overall effect of Berati is of a town that has stood still and largely still practices a simple way of life. I recommend getting there before all that changes, both here and in the rest of the country.
So there you have it, some fabulous city breaks that exist as affordable alternatives to the usual suspects. What do you have to lose?