Eastern Europe is one of the most culturally and naturally diverse regions in the world. It’s often overlooked by those opting for more traditional European escapes, but, personally, I have been constantly blown away while living and traveling there. The history is complex and, therefore, so is the culture, with remnants from an array of political and religious influences.
In this region, you can find it all and do it all. Considering the nature, cities and nightlife, architecture, scenery, arts and food, there’s always something new at the next turn. An Eastern European road trip may very well be your most epic adventure to date. With so much to see and do, it’s impossible to tackle it all at once but here are three options that will keep you exploring.
The Center Loop
Route: Vienna — Ljubljana — Zagreb — Budapest — Krákow — Wroclaw — Prague — Vienna
Total days: 12
Distance: 2,370 KM
Best time to go: From May to September
This route is superb not only because you are hopping from one city, filled with unbelievable character and nightlife, to the next, but you can also detour and catch some serious scenery.
Start in Austria’s capital, Vienna, for a few days of sightseeing (and some wiener schnitzel) before heading south and crossing the border into Slovenia and on to Ljubljana. Slovenia is a small country and it’s fairly easy to drive from one end to the next in a matter of hours.
It’s a great place to explore: Lake Bled is famous for a reason (or opt for its larger, less crowded neighbor, Lake Bohinj), the mountains in Triglav National Park, or the old walled seaside town of Piran (yes, Slovenia even has a sliver of Adriatic coastline).
From there you can cross over to Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb is surprisingly small for a European capital, meaning you can see it all in a day or two. It has two old towns, a ton of street art, a beautiful park that dominates its core, and an emerging foodie scene. The Plitvice Lakes National Park, essentially a web of lakes all connected by waterfalls, is an easy day trip.
Save your late nights for your arrival in Budapest. This city lives and breathes for you as you make your way through its historic core to ruin bars, discos, and some of the grandest sights in Eastern Europe.
From Budapest get back on the road and head to Krákow. Getting to Krákow means crossing the entire country of Slovakia, so detour through the High Tatras mountains and roam the 900-year-old Spiš Castle. Once in Krákow, it’s best to experience it by foot. The city is unmatched for its food, spirits, nightlife, arts, and some of the most haunting history in the entire region. And it’s not far from Wroclaw, a perfectly picturesque city with its signature pastel-colored, cookie-cutter buildings of Old Town Hall.
This road trip hits all the greats, including Prague, a city that is sure to captivate you from start to finish. It’s so immaculately preserved, with twisting cobblestone streets and perfect architecture, you really might pinch yourself.
The food is some of the best and no trip is complete without a dozen nighttime strolls when the city really sparkles. Finish your trip back in Vienna, put your feet up, and savor the rich cafe culture.
Visit the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.
Relax in Budapest’s thermal baths.
Eat at one of the Milk Bars and taste vodka in Kazimierz.
Fish in the Labska Dam in the Kroknose Mountain Range.
Tour the prestigious wineries of Krasna Hora.
Route: Warsaw — Krutynia River — Vilnius — Riga — Pärnu — Tallinn
Total days: 8
Distance: 1,130 KM
Best time to go: From May to July
Begin this trip in Warsaw, Poland. Warsaw is a large and diverse capital city.
There’s no one neighborhood to see, so some exploring is required. But the exposure to warm, pastel architecture juxtaposed with gray, Communist concrete will certainly leave an impression. Białowieża Forest, one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests, is a close day trip, and so is Poland’s lake district on the Krutynia River where you can kayak and relax.
From Warsaw, cross the border into Lithuania. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is buzzing with energy while still embracing its historic past, filled with castles and palaces and impressive baroque architecture. Potatoes seem to be the theme of every meal, but it’s worth it for meat-filled potato pancakes and dumplings.
Next cross to Lativa where you’ll find the food in Riga is similar, but a little lighter, taking the form of smoked fish and sausages. It will fuel you for all there is to do in this amazing city. It’s certainly a place to wander and stare, with a quirky mix of gothic spires and art nouveau details.
Pärnu is a little detour on your way to Tallinn and perfectly breaks up the city theme. It’s on the sea, it’s charming, it’s old, it’s quaint, and it’s an excellent place to spend a lazy summer day. You’ll refresh yourself before heading to another bustling capital city. Estonia’s capital Tallinn is smaller than Riga, a bit more concentrated and peaceful, and maybe the most picturesque of the Baltic cities.
Experience interrogation by retired KGB agents in Vilnius.
Enjoy traditional drinks and Latvian folk music in Riga.
Take a romantic stroll along the seawall in Pärnu.
Sing Estonian songs with a choir of 30,000 in Tallinn.
Route: Bay of Kotor — Dubrovnik — Split — Zadar — Ljubljana
Total days: 7
Distance 820 KM
Best time to go: From May to August
This road trip starts off with some incredible scenery. The Bay of Kotor may very well leave you speechless with its giant, jagged peaks surrounding a calm and historic inlet. The old town is one of the most preserved in the region and you can hike up to the fortress for dizzying views. The coast is well worth the time and brings you to Dubrovnik, another perfectly preserved old town. There is almost too much to see here, and you will easily get your architecture fix wandering through the narrow streets, and your adventure fix kayaking around the walls.
Dubrovnik is beautiful, but so is Split, which is home to the perfectly squared and preserved Diocletian Palace.
This is an excellent place to wander and get a little lost. You can find quiet, beautiful corners and hidden cafes filled with locals. In the city’s park, Marjan, you can ditch the crowds, enjoy nature, and find some secret swimming holes.
Zadar is a port city framed by dramatic mountains and home to some of the country’s best sunsets. Island hopping is the thing to do here, and these islands are not nearly as crowded as those found near Split. End the trip in Ljubljana, a super artsy, foodie, and green capital. You can spread your hipster wings here and hang out in Metelkova, a prison turned hostel and public art space.