If you talk with anyone living in one of the countries included in this guide and refer to his or her homeland's location as Eastern European, you'll quickly be corrected. It's in central Europe, you'll be told, whether you are referring to Croatia, Romania, or sometimes even Russia. So why the semantic dispute about geography? Perhaps it's an attempt to shake off persistent suspicions that Eastern Europe is still in the thrall of Soviet socialism. Or perhaps it's just the desire to be accepted without having to deal with the past's unpleasant baggage. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that this diverse, politically complicated region is coming into its own and revamping its image.
Eastern Europe's diverse delights translate to a long list of options for vacationers. With so many choices, how can you see everything in a single trip or even decide which is the most worthwhile itinerary? In this guide, we provide an overall view of the region and explain each country's unique attractions to help you decide what you want to see most.
Geographically, the countries of Eastern Europe are blessed with breathtaking scenery, deep-seated history, and a menu of natural wonders that offers something for everyone. Croatia's crystal-blue Adriatic seacoast, Romania's snowcapped Carpathian peaks, and Poland's lush forests and golden farmland are just three examples of the countless treasures found there. Add Roman ruins, sophisticated metropolitan areas, medieval castles, and Kremlin-era architecture and you have a recipe for a singular adventure.
Culturally Eastern Europe is a cross section of influences from Turkey, Italy, Germany, and other European nations. Many Westerners routinely lump Eastern European nations under a single umbrella and assume they are interchangeable variations on one depressing theme. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the countries that lie roughly between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas are a remarkably diverse bunch with intersecting but distinct cultures, complicated histories, lusty political traditions, and a list of attractions that run the gamut from religious shrines to opulent palaces to Soviet-era monuments.
But there are similarities among these countries, too. Each has rejected Soviet-style ideology, each is in a different stage of recovery from years of oppression, and each is on a trajectory to become a full and participating member of the global community.
The dilemma lies in the realization that the fate of the Balkan nations depends on the ability of the divergent people who live there to coexist peacefully. The burden is on each group in the region being strong enough in its own identity and tolerant enough of differences to not feel threatened by any of the other groups.
Serbs and Croats, Hungarians and Russians; Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Muslims -- each of these groups has a claim on the culture, and each is in competition with the other for the same piece of real estate. Will they be able to recognize the need for peaceful coexistence and prosper together in peace, or will they find they are unable to give up a little to gain a lot?
Even in the face of warring traditions, economic and political developments related to the European Union have transformed Eastern Europe. The road to European Union membership has been difficult for some of the region's countries, but their efforts to join the larger European community also reflect a new stability. That, in turn, has attracted foreign development and a new tourism demographic.
Bulgaria and Romania in particular are working hard to overcome the off-putting perception that they are countries still operating with an iron-curtain mentality. Bulgaria's tourism industry is in its infancy and hopes that E.U. membership will help dispel inaccuracies about its image. Bulgarian officials are working hard at a makeover that will more accurately reflect the country as it is today.
The vetting process for E.U. membership also has reduced the shroud of uncertainty surrounding Eastern Europeans' ability to live together peacefully and it has given their citizens -- and the world -- the hope that the region's future might turn out to be prosperous.
The fall of the Berlin Wall did little to boost this nation on the Black Sea from its plight as one of the poorest in the old Soviet bloc. In 1999, 10% of the population still lived in impoverished conditions, but that is slowly changing.
The old Communist regime ruled the country until 1997 under the guise of "Socialists," but the state still controlled the economy. The result was hunger, disarray, and eventually an economic collapse.
After the Socialist government fell, there seemed to be little chance that this nation with a heritage dating from Byzantine times would turn around quickly, but governmental and currency reform have been moving rapidly.
Situated on the southeastern tip of the Balkans, Bulgaria has pushed hard to become an accepted member of the world cultural and economic community by seeking full membership in the E.U.
Publicity surrounding that effort has put a spotlight on both the good and the bad of Bulgaria's emergence from Communist control.
Tourists are uncovering the complex history of cities like Sofia, which can trace its lineage back 4,000 years. They can savor the mélange of cultures from the Romans to the Ottomans to remnants of the iron-curtain years.
The Byzantine Church of St. George, the Sofia Synagogue, and the Ottoman Banya Bashi Mosque all are within easy walking distance of each other.
Skiers are finding banner skiing at bargain prices in resorts such as Borovets and Bansko, while sun worshippers are basking at Black Sea havens like Sunny Beach and Golden Sands.
Right now, Bulgaria is a travel bargain thanks to a relatively low-cost but well-educated workforce. The country's tourism infrastructure still needs a lot of work, but there are signs that the means to improve it are building because investment, construction, and tourism all showed strong growth in 2008.
Bulgaria joined the E.U. on January 1, 2007, and accepted the World Bank's first infusion of cash ($300 million). Some of the results of that deposit (improved highways, restored monuments) were visible in the summer of 2008, but how the future plays out remains to be seen. The challenge is in putting aside the totalitarian mindset and sustaining reforms that will control widespread corruption and increase the standard of living for Bulgaria's citizens.
Contemporary Croatia is a land of contrasts and contradictions, a land with diverse geography and cultures that include primitive Stone Age settlements, glittering seaside resorts, vestiges of Greek and Roman antiquity, pristine natural wonders, and newly cosmopolitan cities. It is famous as a sun-drenched tourist destination and infamous as the site of one of the most vicious European wars in modern times.
Croatia has successfully protected its heritage despite invasions by neighboring nations. Those invaders played keep-away with the land itself while pushing aside Croatian culture in favor of their own.
Modern Croats are survivors, fiercely independent people who through the ages again and again emerged from ethnic conflicts and foreign occupations to reassert their national identity. Fortunately, Croatia's wars are in the past and the newly vibrant nation is now solidly in the 21st century, poised to embrace progress, global commerce, tourism, and independence as it pushes forward to claim a place in the European Union.
Signs of economic recovery are everywhere, from packed luxury hotels on the Adriatic coast to thriving upscale boutiques and gourmet restaurants in Zagreb. There is no doubt that Croatia is beginning to shake off its down-in-the-mouth persona and present a more sophisticated, savvy face to the world. Tourism is booming; international hoteliers such as Hilton (Dubrovnik) Le Meridien (Split), and Sheraton (Zagreb) have established a presence in the country; and local hoteliers especially have been courting an upscale international crowd by upgrading properties on the Dalmatian Coast at a dizzying pace.
Meanwhile, the Croatian government is working to reduce foreign debt, boost the economy, and promote the country's natural treasures while it waits for admittance to the European Union, an event that was stalled until mid-2006 but is now moving ahead following the arrest of one of Croatia's alleged war criminals. If the process proceeds without any more glitches, E.U. membership could become a reality for Croatia as early as 2010.
Croatian travel professionals are anticipating a healthy increase in tourism when that happens. In the meantime, they are getting the word out about their country's considerable appeal: Croatia's stunning Adriatic seacoast, idyllic islands, vibrant cities, historic sites, and warmhearted people are the things tour operators' dreams are made of. If Croatia achieves its economic and social goals, there will be no limits to its future.
The landlocked Czech Republic is a crossroads for Eastern Europe, thanks to its location in the heart of the region. In some ways the Czech Republic has been the "heart" of the region's emergence from Communist domination, too.
Leaders like Alexander Dubcek, who instituted the freedoms that led to the Prague Spring of 1968, and Václav Havel, who engineered the split from Moscow, embody the spirit of the Czech people.
Havel stayed on to lead the new Czech Republic when the former Czechoslovakia split into two nations during the "Velvet Divorce" of 1993.
The two regions that now make up the Czech Republic -- Bohemia and Moravia -- have fostered a booming tourism industry, especially in Prague, where a multitude of spires punctuate the skyline in the heart of Bohemia.
Visiting Prague provides a typical glimpse of the contrasts that exist throughout the country, with designer boutiques and chain restaurants around the corner from ancient cobbled streets and crumbling facades. Prague's timeline is visible in its architecture, from the 9th-century Prague Castle to the houses and palaces of Old Town, the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter, and the Charles Bridge, where street performers entertain passersby. Visitors to Prague have a lot to take in because the city has a lot to offer. So if you're weary of entertainment delivered by sidewalk violinists and jugglers, take a walk to the Estates Theater, formerly Count Nostitz's Theater. If you listen carefully you might pick up the sounds of Don Giovanni floating past and the sense that Mozart is smiling.
Prague may be the destination du jour in the Czech Republic, but the country has much more to offer outside the capital. In Bohemia, you can visit the center of the Czech beer-brewing industry and the birthplace of lager. Stop at a tavern in Bohemia, and a beer appears in front of you almost automatically.
In contrast, Moravia's beverage of choice is wine. Moravia's soil is conducive to growing grapes. That fortunate topographical feature supports a robust wine industry that in turn has spawned numerous wine bars serving local vintages.
Both regions are home to numerous castles and châteaux, which provide visitors with a view into the country's cultural heritage. The state of these architectural treasures varies from pristinely preserved to near ruins. Those still in good shape offer glimpses into a vanished way of life.
Outdoor enthusiasts have numerous options. Miles of flat, quiet roads await bicyclists outside the large cities, and mountainous regions of both Bohemia and Moravia maintain an extensive network of marked trails that connect the smaller towns.
Winter sports enthusiasts in Bohemia can choose between the Alpine resorts of the Giant Mountains of the north and Nordic areas of the Sumava in the south. And no matter which sport you fancy, at the end of the day you can soothe your muscles at one of the many thermal spas that dot every corner of the country.
Since January 2007, Mirek Topolánek (ODS) has been prime minister of Czech Republic, whose government comprises the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS), the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), and the Greens (SZ). The prime minister is the head of the government. President Vaclav Klaus is was re-elected for a second 5-year term as the head of state in the spring of 2008. Even with changes in its diverse leadership, the Czech Republic is flourishing and keeping in step with its European Union compatriots on the road to prosperity.
Like many of its neighbors, Hungary has had to battle a series of would-be foreign conquerors on the way to its current state of independence. Hungarians have had to rout occupiers repeatedly over the last 1,000 years or so: They took on the Turks in the 17th century, the Habsburgs in the 19th century, and the Soviets in the 20th century in a 1956 rebellion that is the most infamous of all the country's uprisings.
What began on October 23, 1956, as a student protest to demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil ended on November 11, 1956, when the Soviets flexed their military muscle and sent tanks into Budapest to quash the dissidents. When the guns finally fell silent nearly 3 weeks later, more than 25,000 people had died. Shortly afterward, the Soviets arrested or executed thousands of others, and a quarter of a million Hungarians fled to Austria. The last Soviet troops left Hungary in 1991, and the beleaguered nation then began its transformation into an independent citizen of the world community in earnest.
Since then, Hungary has joined NATO (1999), become a member of the European Union (2004), and experienced a powerful economic growth spurt thanks to investments by foreign companies that amount to billions of dollars.
Hungary has been a free country for more than a decade, and visitors will find a new order softened by courtly old-world customs such as gentlemen kissing their ladies' hands.
Hungary also has undergone an image change in the nearly 20 years since the fall of Communism, and with it tourism has brought hordes of visitors to the country's restored castles, palaces, and museums and to its festivals, fairs, and harvest celebrations.
Today Hungary's travel specialists can arrange general or special-interest tours for English speakers, among them a tour with an itinerary that helps visitors research their roots or just walk around the same land where their ancestors once lived.
There is a new national pride evident in big cities and rural villages in Hungary as fear of foreign invasion fades. Many restaurants have revived traditional recipes, museums display artifacts that trace Hungary's turbulent 1,000-year past, and lively Hungarian folk music fills the air everywhere.
Above all, visitors feel welcome thanks to the contagious goodwill and optimism of the Hungarian people, who have endured and prospered no matter how high the odds.
Since Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, many of its tourist sites have acquired an international reputation as "must-sees" for foreign visitors. Kraków, Warsaw, Gdansk, Czestochowa, Auschwitz, and the Tatra Mountains are just some of the stops that are attracting large crowds these days, and with good reason.
With a population of more than three-quarters of a million people, Kraków is Poland's third-largest city and its former capital. Kraków was left virtually untouched by World War II hostilities, so much of its original architecture and most of its monuments are still intact, and today it is Poland's unofficial cultural center. Kraków always has been one of Poland's most popular tourist centers, but is also the birthplace of the late Pope John Paul II and as such its popularity with tourists has surged since his death in 2005.
Warsaw is Poland's capital. Unlike Kraków, Warsaw was devastated during World War II and had to be almost totally rebuilt. Today Warsaw is a sophisticated, modern city with a vibrant business district that exudes an Eastern European aura. If you visit, be sure to see Old Town, the Royal Route, the Chopin museum, and the former Jewish ghetto.
Gdansk is a seaport city where in 1978 shipyard electrician Lech Walesa started the Solidarity movement on behalf of workers' rights. Walesa's efforts eventually resulted in the defeat of Communism in Poland and made him a national hero. Gdansk also is a tourist town thanks to a mild climate, beautiful beaches, and architectural treasures that include the largest brick Gothic church in Europe.
The town of Czestochowa is usually associated with Jasna Gora Monastery, which is the biggest Marian sanctuary in Poland. For Catholic Poland it is a sacred pilgrimage destination that is home to an icon known as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. There are several legends associated with the Black Madonna, but the most common is that the painting saved its church from being destroyed in a fire, but not before the flames darkened the Virgin Mary's flesh tones. Catholics honor the Madonna as Poland's protector and she is credited with many miracles.
The provincial town of Oswiecim, aka Auschwitz, was the site of the largest Nazi extermination camp during World War II. An estimated 1.5 million people were tortured, starved, and murdered there. Today Auschwitz has been preserved as a monument to man's inhumanity to his fellow man.
The Tatras are the highest mountains between the Alps and the Caucasus and the range's rocky peaks are covered with snow year-round. About 250km (155 miles) of trails and ski slopes delight hikers and skiers.
In spite of a turbulent history and dramatic changes in its world standing, Poland has maintained its culture, its faith, and its sense of humor. Coupled with the country's considerable natural wonders, historical sites, and hospitality, these elements are a potent combination for tourists.
Romania's history is marked by a legacy of bloodthirsty leaders, one of whom inspired the Count Dracula legend (Vlad the Impaler) because of his cruel method of killing his enemies, and another (Nicolae Ceausescu) who parlayed personal excesses, repressive policies, and economic miscues to suck a different sort of life force from the people he governed. But the cold-blooded nature of Romania's political leaders has never been able to dull the beauty of the country and the warmth of its people.
Breathtaking scenery and traditional values mark the rural heartland, while Bucharest boasts broad boulevards and a sophistication that demonstrate why it once was called the "Paris of the East."
The contrasts between the lavish architecture of the past and the ugly, utilitarian facades of the Ceausescu era are pervasive throughout Bucharest. Orthodox churches and 18th-century monasteries are neighbors to concrete high-rises, a dichotomy that also symbolizes Romania's current state of mind, an attitude that still straddles the chasm between the country's iron-curtain past and its 21st-century future.
Hotels in Bucharest are upgrading to accommodate an expected influx of international guests, tour operators are planning ski trips and other excursions to Romania's mountains (Poiana Brasov), and budget carrier Wizz Air has been running daily round-trip flights between Bucharest and London's Luton Airport since 2007. At the same time, the country's economy is struggling, some of its leaders are under suspicion for war crimes, and Romania's European Union brethren are nervous about the politics of its Balkan member.
Romania's tourism board says the country realized a 23% increase in visitor traffic in 2007 over the previous year. But despite that positive sign, the country has a long way to go to catch up with industry accommodations and service standards appropriate for an international destination.
Romania's modern capital represents just a small portion of this country, which covers about the same acreage as the state of Oregon. Actually, most of Romania is a "wild" country, terrain that has pockets of primitive roads that can be difficult to navigate, especially in winter.
Attractions include Transylvania, a name that's recognizable to any horror-movie fan because it is the birthplace of the infamous Vlad, and by association the home of filmdom's most famous vampire. The "Dracula Castle" there is a popular stop.
Romania also is home to the rugged Carpathian Mountains, the Danube Delta wetland ecosystem, the amazing painted monasteries of Bucovina, countless rural villages untouched by time for centuries, and a string of Black Sea resorts that always have attracted a crowd.
Russian Federation (Moscow & St. Petersburg)
The Russian landscape depicted in the film Doctor Zhivago was characterized by vast expanses of snow-covered land dotted with opulent palaces inhabited by aristocrats and humble homes where ordinary people lived. The discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in Russia may not be as visual today, but an economic chasm definitely exists in the newly flush country.
Oil money has created a superwealthy class of nouveau riche, and at the same time relegated the elderly and longtime patriots to poverty. Perhaps this gap was inevitable: The sheer size of the Russian Federation almost guarantees an adventure in diversity, spreading across 11 time zones and numerous ethnic cultures. But cultural and socioeconomic strata are obvious even in the western portion of the country known as "European Russia."
Visits to Russia's two largest cities amplify the differences: the hectic, modern bustle of Moscow, contrasted with the historical, sophisticated aura of imperial St. Petersburg.
Moscow flaunts its links to Western culture, with chain restaurants, dance clubs, and a cutthroat club scene. Its residents have discarded the dour, gray mood that characterized the city during the Soviet years in favor of a pursuit of hedonism and wealth.
The city has more billionaires than any other city in the world, but it also is home to vast numbers of beggars, as if to accentuate the city's stark differences.
Moscow's economy has been booming since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, opening the door to increased tourism from the West. The city's more than 12 million citizens crowd the subways and clubs. Visitors will find that hotel prices rival or exceed those charged in Paris, and restaurant tabs can run as high or higher than a three-star dining room in New York. Add to that a rising crime rate and police corruption (tourist shakedowns are common) and you have "big city" problems.
But Moscow still is a fascinating city to explore. Cupolas and cathedrals compete with Soviet-era skyscrapers for visitors' attention, while the brooding specter of the Kremlin reminds them of the events from recent history. Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, and Lenin's Mausoleum all beckon to the tourists, while the Bolshoi and Chekhov theaters offer a glimpse into the classical Russian soul.
St. Petersburg is Moscow's cultural counterpoint, a city filled with architectural and artistic wonders. Built by Peter the Great in 1703 on the site of a swamp, St. Petersburg has evolved into the fourth-largest city in Europe. Its role in the arts world is solidified by author Fyodor Dostoevski and composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
The Heritage Museum in the Winter Palace contains one of the world's great collections of art, but intellectual and artistic excellence has not translated into economic progress for St. Petersburg, as it has for Moscow.
Slovakia's tourism industry has burgeoned since that country declared independence in 1993. By the late 1990s Slovakia was receiving more than half a million visitors annually; in 2007, the number of visitors was just over 1.6 million.
Slovakia is situated between Austria, Hungary, and Russia, a position that had a strong influence on its history and architecture. Of the three influential styles, the sensibilities of Austria and Hungary won out. However, in the eastern part of the country the architectural landscape is more Eastern Orthodox than Austro-Hungarian.
Almost every town in Slovakia has a historic church, and each house of worship has something to commend it. However, the most interesting churches in the country are the centuries-old wooden churches in the northeastern part of the country. Unfortunately, these are difficult to reach.
Throughout history Slovakia never was a dominant nation, and it never became a wealthy nation, either. Consequently the historic sections of Slovak cities are less ornate than those in wealthier countries like Austria.
Slovakian town squares deserve special note for their architectural interest. Some (like Stiavnica) even have been designated UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites.
Slovak castles and ruins are another source of interest for architecture buffs. Many have been restored, but even those that have fallen into ruin are notable and every region of the country offers a few examples of each.
If poking around rock piles isn't your passion, check out Slovakia's historic towns and its mountain ski resorts, which seem to ban westernization and the commercialism that go hand in hand with capitalism. Here you can comfortably go back in time and experience life as it was lived in Slovakia for centuries.
Finally, Slovakia's capital city, Bratislava, is homey and friendly, but with a surprisingly rich cultural life. Bratislava is a capital city without the usual congestion of most seats of government. Quaint, gentle, and old world are apt terms to describe this charming city, and they extend to food and lodging options, too. Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, but the country has not yet caught up with its neighbors when it comes to developing a thriving tourism infrastructure. If you visit, don't expect things to be up to western standards, but that could be a good thing. Instead, luxuriate in an atmosphere that lets you truly experience a bygone era.
Slovenia is a country of firsts. As the westernmost country in the region defined as Eastern Europe in this guide, Slovenia was the first to declare its independence (1990). It also was one of the first of this group to join the European Union, and on January 1, 2007, it was the first to adopt the euro as its official currency. Slovenia is definitely the first of this group to boast the lowest crime rate in all of Europe. In fact, this efficient country has moved into the ranks of successful European Union nations with laserlike precision, and the result is a nation that works. Slovenia has a well-oiled tourism industry with facilities and sites that consistently attract an international crowd. It even has exported its expertise in spa design and management to Croatia, where Slovenian firms are taking over and rehabbing that country's aging spa facilities.
Business acumen isn't the only Slovenian virtue. Legend has it that after God created the world he had a fistful of leftover beauty, which he sprinkled over Slovenia. A glimpse of St. Martin's Pilgrimage Church rising through the mist from its island perch in the middle of Lake Bled, a walk through the subterranean majesty of Skocjan Caves, the panoramic view of Ljubljana from its namesake castle, or an Adriatic sunset over coastal Portoroz are enough hard evidence to convince even atheists that the legend is fact.
Slovenia certainly is one of the most easily accessible Eastern European nations from Europe's capitals: It is just 230km (143 miles) from Vienna, 240km (149 miles) from Budapest, and 460km (285 miles) from Milan. It is linked to the world by modern highways, numerous air routes, efficient train service, and even by ferry.
Slovenia's position on land surrounded by the mountains of Austria and Italy, Hungary's plains, and the Adriatic makes for a surprisingly diverse landscape. What's even more of a pleasant surprise is that nothing in Slovenia is more than a 2-hour drive from anything else in the country. You can ski an Olympic training run on the slopes above picturesque Kranjska Gora in the morning, and take a dip in the warm sea at languid Portoroz before the sun goes down. You can hike through gorgeous Triglav National Park and marvel at its glacial valleys, gorges, and waterfalls. You even can launch your kayak in rushing water that moves fast enough to challenge the most expert white-water fan and finish your run in time for dinner in enchanting Ljubljana the same day.
Of all the countries profiled in this guide, Slovenia has proven to be the most "together" in its plan to become a full member of the global community. Not only has Slovenia's government gone out of its way to attract, and keep, foreign investment since its accession to the E.U. in 2004, but it also has shared the resulting wealth with its citizens by taking steps to improve public services and to enhance everyone's everyday life.