Ok, ok so the bank holiday bonanza is behind us. But with spring finally in full bloom and the gloom and ever-pervading greyness of winter now a distant memory, there are plenty of reasons to book a long weekend. ...or better still, plan for the next bank holiday! Eastern Europe is now on the well trodden tourism track, but there are still a number of cities that are yet to be swamped by the tourist tide.
Although the east is not as cheap as it used to be, a number of countries such as Romania and Estonia still offer good value for money, and with breathtaking architecture, historic and cultural sights in abundance, and varied food and drink to sample, there is no excuse not to start planning.
We have sampled four of the best New European cities to get you started!
Said to be founded by the Greek mythological hero Jason after killing the Ljubljana Dragon upon returning to Greece with his Argonauts, this small capital city is packed full of history, which can easily be seen upon walking through its ancient streets. The capital of the Republic of Slovenia is a city of contradictions, where the historical architecture of the 13th to the 19th century mixes with a heady young populace of artists, intellectuals and businessmen.
The city has a large number of art galleries, museums, restaurants and bars, so it really is perfect for a city break. A good plan for a day out could be a visit to the National Museum of Slovenia to view the 55,000 year-old Neanderthal flute, followed by viewing 13th century art at the National Gallery before drinking cocktails at the Dvorni Bar in the evening. And as the country is situated between Austria, Italy, Croatia, and the Adriatic Sea, it offers a warm Mediterranean climate in the spring and summer which sun-worshippers will love.
easyJet flies straight into the city from London, while the city itself is easily explored by bus, taxi, and bicycle. A great way of seeing a lot of the city is by purchasing an Urbana-Ljubljana Tourist Card, which allows free bus travel around the city along with free entrance into galleries, museums, and the Ljubljana Castle, where you can enjoy stunning views of the city from its Outlook Tower. In the day, plant buffs may also want to check out the Botanic Garden, which was founded in 1810 during Napoleon’s reign of the Illyrian Provinces, and boasts 4,500 plant species.
This stunning UNESCO World Heritage listed city in Western Ukraine has been likened to Prague - but without the tourists, so it would be wise to visit soon before more people find out about the magic of this place! Ukraine’s second largest city has a long multi-cultural history as a result of a mixture of Polish, Jewish, and German immigration.
Known for its thriving night life scene which sees world-class DJs regularly fly in for sets at clubs Zanzibar and Millenium, the city also has a number of fine eateries, from Italian restaurants to local haunts selling pyrohy dumplings and hearty soups. A favourite is the Puzata Khata, which serves chicken kiev and borsch in well decorated surroundings.
But the main draw is Lviv’s Old Town, which features over 2000 historical landmarks, including a number of churches, cathedrals, and castles, many of them dating from the 14th century. It is quite easy to get lost in the nostalgia of it all when walking through.
There are not many direct flights to Lviv from London, which is probably part of the reason it has stayed off the tourist radar, but with a little planning and a short stopover in Vienna it can be easily visited.
The capital of Romania is a contradictory city on the move where it is not uncommon to spot communist architecture alongside modern buildings. Still undergoing an economic boom, the city boasts a sophisticated charm which is both modern and trendy, while retaining a sense of history with sights such as the Parliament Palace, which with 3100 rooms, is one of the world’s largest buildings.
The city also boasts a number of museums, including one dedicated to the traditional Romanian way of life. Named the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, it focuses on traditional decoration, clothing, and tools, and should not be missed. There are also numerous 16th century churches for religious buffs, parks to walk in, and a large number of cinemas showing Romanian films, which have boomed in the country since the demise of communism. You might want to take a phrasebook in though as most of the films are in Romanian.
Estonia’s capital is host to another UNESCO World Cultural site in the form of its medieval Old Town. Although usually thought of as a chilly north European country, the spring and summer months can bring mild and sometimes hot weather to its ancient streets.
One of the many highlights of Tallinn is the Rotermann Quarter, which until a decade ago was a street of decaying factories but has been transformed into a busy commercial centre. There are of course countless castles and cathedrals, some dating back to the 13th century, and the city boasts a number of viewing points where the ancient rooftops of the Old Town can be stared at in wonderment. One of the best viewpoints is the Town Hall Tower which provides a bird’s eye view of the Old Town’s square.
With the advent of budget airlines flying to more and more destinations, there really is no better time to start exploring these ancient capitals in all their glory.