By Jim Ferri
Before the 20th century, many countries in Eastern Europe were not individual nations but parts of vast European empires.
Their rulers built opulent castles, soaring cathedrals, and other massive monuments in grandiose displays of power, prestige, and supremacy in impressive capital cities that survive today. Five of these European cities – Belgrade, Bucharest, Budapest, Ljubljana, and Prague – are fascinating places, each well worth a visit for several days. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible for many travelers.
For those with limited time to explore this fascinating area of Europe, you should still go. Even if you can only spend 24 hours in each city, you’ll still find it worthwhile. Here are some suggestions.
One of the Best Eastern European Cities with Old-World Style: Budapest
Budapest is a magnificent jewel-box of a city, rich in architecture, culture, food, music and just about everything you might imagine.
It’s a beautiful place, which reached its zenith in the Renaissance under “Good King” Mátyás before being occupied by Ottoman Turks and later the Hapsburgs, who created so many of its imposing buildings and palaces. Some rate it as the finest of the Hapsburg triumvirate of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.
Modern Budapest oozes European Old-World grace. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its quirky side, as evidenced by the popularity of its “ruin” pubs, popular bars in derelict buildings.
Set out early in the morning and don’t miss the famous view of the city, Parliament and the Danube from Fishermen’s Bastion. Then pay a visit to the adjacent historic Mátyás Church followed by a stroll around old Buda.
Across the city on the Pest side visit Heroes’ Square and then walk back down Andrassy Avenue (stop in the beautiful Bookstore Café in the Paris Department Store on the way) and visit beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica. Nearby is the Dohány Street Synagogue, the second largest in the world.
Don’t miss the Shoe Memorial, a tribute to Jews killed on that spot by Fascists in World War II, and the Royal Palace (home to the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery). Also visit, if you can, the Great Market Hall and any of the old Turkish baths. The ornate Gellért Baths on the Buda side are known for their beauty; the Széchenyi Baths near Heroes’ Square is the city’s most popular.
The Best Eastern European City for Sightseeing: Prague
Since Prague has been untouched by war, for the most part, it contains a wealth of stunning, original and authentic European-style architecture found nowhere else in Europe. It’s a city where you can just walk about and inhale the ambiance.
But it’s this very overabundance of beauty that’s problematic; there are so many remarkable buildings that it’s very easy to overlook things that would be a standout in any other city.
First and foremost to see is Prague Castle, regally situated on a hilltop above the Vltava River (reached via Tram #22). But it’s not just a castle; it’s an entire complex that includes, among other sites, the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral. There’s also a daily changing of the guard.
While on the castle side of the river also stroll around Malá Strana, the city’s “Little Quarter,” once home to craftspeople and merchants who served the royal court. Then walk across the 600-year-old Charles Bridge, lined with Baroque statues, en route to the famous medieval Astronomical Clock.
Close nearby is Old Town Square, the heart and soul of Prague. Adjacent to it is the old Jewish Ghetto dating from the 12th century. If time permits, walk a few more blocks and visit the Municipal House (with its beautiful Smetana Concert Hall, home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra), and its Old-World and Art-Nouveau restaurants.
Great Baroque and Art Nouveau Architecture: Ljubljana
Ljubljana, born centuries ago as a Roman trading center, is an amazingly beautiful and clean city. Walk about its Old Town and you’ll find yourself transported back centuries in the warren of cobblestone streets and alleyways.
But even in the “newer” part of the city you’ll still find car-less streets and pedestrian thoroughfares, filled with street musicians, people shopping or sitting in outdoor cafés. It’s a peaceful, clean and mesmerizing European city with an atmosphere markedly different from that of many other European capitals.
Its architecture, which ranges from Baroque to Art Nouveau and modern is just as mesmerizing, and makes it one of the best Eastern European cities for architecture. And rather than divide the New and Old sections of the city, the river that bisects it unites the two. You’ll find the left bank just as interesting as the right.
Don’t miss Prešeren Square, and the Art Nouveau architecture scattered all over the city (especially along Miklošičeva Street, near Prešeren). The Triple Bridge by Prešeren will lead you to the Old Town near the Market Colonnade. Not far beyond you can take the funicular up to the fairytale-looking Ljubljana Castle right in the center of the city (it’s also reachable via a road and hiking path).
Spend a little while in the National Gallery before strolling about town aimlessly wandering up myriad streets and alleyways – the best way to appreciate the city.
The Best Eastern European City for Inexpensive 5-Star Hotels: Bucharest
Bucharest has a strong Turkish flavor, the result of being conquered by the Ottomans in the late 16th century. For years nicknamed “Little Paris” due to its lavish buildings and French-style architecture, it’s today better known as best Eastern European cities with affordable 5-star hotels in Europe. In fact, a visit here will cost only about one-third what you’d spend on a visit to Paris.
Romania is still recovering from the damage inflicted on it by the country’s much-hated former President, the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu. In Bucharest, he demolished 80% of the old historic section of the city to build the huge parliament building, the second-largest government building in the world.
What’s left of the Old Town is the center of nightlife in Bucharest. Just be careful walking about the area since the streets aren’t perfectly paved. There’s also a moderate amount of construction ongoing so you’ll find one street fairly dirty, the next super clean.
See the Old Court Church and Stavropoleos Church, the Romanian Athenaeum (home to the Philharmonic Orchestra), the Royal Palace (encompassing the National Art Museum) and the interesting Village Museum in Herāstrāu Park, containing replicas of Romania houses. Stop for lunch or dinner at the restaurant Caru Cu Bere in the Old Town, which is one of the best-maintained traditional restaurants in the city.
Clubs and Coffee Houses: Belgrade
One of the oldest European cities, Belgrade was very gray and dour during the Cold War days. Today it is such a “happening” place that it attracts club-goers from all over Europe to its pulsing clubs and floating pub-barges along its waterfront.
Despite its modern vibe Belgrade remains a wonderful patchwork of architectural styles. Blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings contrast with Art Nouveau masterpieces and remnants of the city’s former Hapsburg and Ottoman rulers.
You find Serbs visiting upscale shops and stylish coffee houses on attractive pedestrian boulevards, and then later shopping for food in a centuries-old outdoor market, still very much in favor, only a few blocks from a large modern mall.
It’s also a city in transition with some growing pains. One day you can be riding on a streetcar that’s 60 years old, the next day on one that’s been in service only a week.
Be sure to visit the historic crown jewel of the city, Kalemegdan Citadel, the old fortress that is now a lovely urban park. It was quite interesting since we took a guided tour. Otherwise, we would just have been walking through a park without having a greater understanding of its historical importance.
See also the Church of Saint Sava, currently nearing completion, the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans.