Forget the evocative skylines and merry nightlife: beyond Eastern Europe's classic sights you can walk with witches, hear the ocean sing and step straight back in time. Prepare to smile - or shudder - at some of Eastern Europe's startling sights.
Nothing combats museum fatigue like a show-stoppingly huge painting, but this masterpiece might just be the most immersive, and massive, of its kind. The Racławice Panorama takes you so close to the battlefield you can almost smell gunpowder. Depicting the famous Battle of Racławice in 1794 - a stunning victory for the Poles, although they eventually lost their fight for independence - this painting extends for an eye-watering 114m around the walls of a rotunda. Details like sand and shrubs inside the building draw you right into the action. This monument to Poland’s war-torn history will bring a lump to the throat of locals, while you quietly pick your jaw up from the floor.
Hill of Witches in Lithuania
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise: this forested sand dune on Lithuania's Curonian Spit is teeming with folkloric wooden carvings, from the mischievous to the macabre. Mere steps from beachfront town Juodkrantė (follow signs for 'Raganų Kalnas'), children can slide down a giant witch’s tongue, while their parents cringe at creepy satanic visages peering from between the trees. Pose next to a warty-nosed banshee or mushroom-headed gnome before you lose your nerve, and then flee the dark side of Lithuanian myth with a walk along the serene seafront.
Hear the ocean sing at this amazing creation on Zadar’s waterfront. As the ebb and flow of the tide push water into the organ’s pipes, it creates music ranging from sonorous chimes to a full-on groaning cacophony, depending on the weather. Go during a storm for a true aural assault, and stroll there in the evening to enjoy the nearby Sun Salutation evening light show, where neon squares and zig-zags illuminate the pier. Learn more about the organ here.
Ghost town of Prypiat, Ukraine
The word ‘Chernobyl’ lingers as a gruesome warning in the world’s memory, but Ukraine - like many other European countries - still lives with the legacy of 1986's nuclear accident. Large swathes of Ukrainian countryside remain too radioactive to farm or inhabit safely, with the towns closest to the ruined reactor left abandoned. But organised tours can take you right into the exclusion zone to visit Prypiat, one such ghost town. Tread carefully amid the broken glass, gaze up at the rusty ferris wheel that never had the chance to turn, and note the haunting graffiti that peoples the town with shadowy figures. Don’t step on the moss; tour guides will remind you it has a tendency to absorb high levels of radiation. Many hostels in the capital Kyiv (like the reasonably priced Hostel Kiev Backpackers) will help you find a tour operator.
Ever had that feeling someone was watching you? Guests of the Hotel Viru couldn’t be blamed for feeling a chill up their spine: during the Cold War, their every move was taped by a secret KGB surveillance area on the secret 23rd floor of the building. The newly opened museum there has gadgets and tales of espionage to tantalise your inner spy. Book ahead, as tours have limited spaces (learn more here).
The Czech Republic is rich in incredible sights, from the majestic skyline of Prague to the more macabre ossuary in Kutna Horá. One of its more offbeat attractions is Brno's Capuchin Crypt, its frosty pink exterior giving no clue of its remarkable contents. The airflow within Brno’s Capuchin monastery ensured perfect preservation of monks’ bodies when they were laid here. Walking among their paper-dry remains, still clothed in the robes they wore in life, is grimly fascinating in such a beautiful setting as the Czech second city.
Back in the sunlight, you can forget your nagging mortality over a beer in Namesti Svobody (the Main Square). Alternatively, make mummy-hunting a theme of your Eastern European travels by visiting Lenin’s remains in Moscow, Russia, or making a beeline for the high bodycount at Kyiv’s haunting Pecherska Lavra.
Kunstkamera, St Petersburg, Russia
Brains in jars, painstakingly assembled skeletons... sometimes it's hard not to wonder at the mentality of natural historians. But while St Petersburg's Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology might make you pause, with Peter the Great himself as the collector, this is no freak show. The tsar's intention was to quell superstitious beliefs about the human body, but these noble aims may have gone out of the window when he started insisting that grieving parents offer up the bodies of their children - provided they were sufficiently deformed to meet his standards, of course. A truly chilling snapshot from the Enlightenment.