To say that the tourist trail through Western Europe is well-travelled is an understatement. In fact it’s so well-travelled it’s not a mere trail, but a six lane highway with frequent rest stops and peak hour traffic jams.
So what can you do if you want the quintessential European experience without the expense or the mob scene?
Easy - head east. More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have evolved into a kind of 'parallel universe' Europe; one with the picture-perfect castles and art treasures of the west, but with an added flavour all its own.
Want proof? Here are six eastern attractions that stack up well against their well-known western equivalents (and there’s a bonus at the end!).
First, marvel at great churches...
West: The magnificent Gothic interior of York Minster, Britain.
East: St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine.
This magnificent 11th-century example of Byzantine architecture was built when the Byzantine Empire (the last relic of the once mighty Roman Empire) was still being run from Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople, but St Sophia is still standing in Kiev. It’s decked out spectacularly with five naves, five apses and a whopping 13 cupolas, with impressive mosaics and frescoes within. It narrowly escaped destruction in communist times, being transformed temporarily into a museum.
Then sit back and relax on a river cruise...
West: Floating down the Rhine, Germany.
East: Catching the hydrofoil between Budapest and Bratislava.
The Danube is Eastern Europe’s greatest river, passing through no fewer than four national capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. One of the most cost-efficient ways of cruising along it is by catching the daily hydrofoil which operates between Budapest and Bratislava in the warmer months. Have some fine sacher torte cake in Budapest’s grand 19th-century coffee house Gerbeaud before you leave, then follow it up with a fine hot chocolate at Čokoládovňa Pod Michalom in Bratislava’s Old Town.
Hungry now? Try some tasty European cuisine...
West: The ever-popular flavours of tapas and sangria in Spain.
East: The delights of Hungarian cuisine, with its plentiful use of spicy paprika.
It’s a mystery why there aren’t more Hungarian restaurants along the world’s eat streets. One of the most distinctive of European cuisines, Hungarian food is memorably denoted by spicy paprika and flavoursome sauces, and accompanied by excellent local wine. For a delicious example, head to underground restaurant Cellarium in the southwestern city of Pécs and order the 'prison officer rolls'. They’re pieces of a pork schnitzel stuffed with smoked spare rib meat and horseradish, then served on a bed of oven-baked potatoes. Nice.
Followed by fine wine, of course...
West: The fine wines of France’s Loire Valley.
East: The Jeruzalem Wine Road in Slovenia.
Situated in the Ljutomer-Ormož hills in northeast corner of Slovenia, this wine trail takes its name from the route that Crusaders followed to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Nowadays it’s a more peaceful part of the world, scattered with small farms and vineyards that are open to visitors. Take your time, relax, and try some unfamiliar varieties of white wine such as Šipon, Laški or Rizvanec.
And after all that food, perhaps a nap on a top beach...
West: The sandy shores of the ever-popular Greek islands.
East: The fine white sand beaches on Poland's Baltic coast.
The Baltic coast of Pomerania is dotted with beach resort towns that haven’t much changed since they became popular with 19th-century German holiday makers. They feature fine white sandy beaches, decorated beer gardens, wicker beach chairs and spa treatments, along with old-fashioned seaside amusements. After you’ve worked on your tan in Kołobrzeg, sit back with a drink at the atmospheric beer garden operated by Kalla Pizza in the square in front of the coastal city’s town hall.
Better try to look more cultured by taking in some art treasures...
West: Browsing the contents of the Vatican Museum.
East: The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
If you’ve seen the Vatican and done the Louvre, it’s time to head east to this vast art museum, founded in the 18th century by Empress Catherine the Great. Exhibitions range from ancient Egypt through Renaissance art to the work of the Impressionists, with Russian art featured within the Tsar’s former Winter Palace. After all this culture, microbrew bar-restaurant Die Kneipe is a great place to reflect on the past from its position on the opposite bank of the Neva River.
Bonus round: snap up some of those curious communist leftovers...
One thing that Western Europe can’t offer you is the fascinating selection of strange and interesting relics left over from communist times.
Among the many gems to look out for are the sprawling 3000-room Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania; the Socialist-style astronomical clock of Olomouc, Czech Republic; the weird space-age central post office in Skopje, Macedonia; and, last but not least, Grūto Parkas, a theme park packed with Soviet-era statues near Druskininkai, Lithuania. And drop in to PRL in the main market square of Wrocław, Poland, to be immersed in a tongue-in-cheek 'communist nostalgia' pub, packed with socialist-era memorabilia.
Tim Richards is an author of Lonely Planet guides including the Poland country guide, and the Eastern Europe multi-country guide. He writes a regular travel blog at www.aerohaveno.com.
There's a lot to explore in Lonely Planet's guide to Eastern Europe