The Heritage Villages of Pirin, Rhodope, Balkan, and Sredna Gora Mountains (Bulgaria): Besides the charm of the 18th- and 19th-century stone-and-timber architecture, village life here appears untainted by the 21st century, with toothless old-timers in headscarves sunning themselves on benches while young lovers holding hands head off to the fields, hoes casually slung over their shoulders. The most photogenic and evocative villages are hidden deep in the mountains: Kovachevitsa and Dolen are surrounded by the forested Rhodope ranges, Zheravna by the lush Balkan foothills, and pretty Koprivishtitsa in the undulating Sredna Gora.
Hum (Croatia): It calls itself the smallest town in the world, and population-wise, it might be. But so many people visit this village high in the Istrian interior that it almost always seems crowded. The village elders have done a wonderful job of restoring buildings to make Hum tourist-friendly.
Ceský Krumlov (Czech Republic): If you have time for only one excursion from Prague, make it Ceský Krumlov. This living gallery of Renaissance-era buildings housing many galleries, shops, and restaurants is 167km (104 miles) south of Prague. Above it towers the second-largest castle complex in the country, with the Vltava River running below. No wonder UNESCO named this town a World Heritage Site.
Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic): A slow pace and pedestrian promenades lined with turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau buildings turn strolling into an art form here. Nighttime walks take on a mystical feel as the sewers, the river, and multiple major cracks in the roads emit steam from the mineral waters running underneath. Sample the town's 12 hot spring waters; each is full of healing power.
Pécs (Hungary): This delightful city in southern Hungary is home to one of the country's most pleasing central squares and some great examples of Turkish architecture.
Szentendre (Hungary): Right along the Danube bend and only 45 minutes from Budapest, this small Serbian village has a different cultural flavor than the rest of the country. It is worth a trip outside the capital for a half-day to see the architecture.
Gdansk (Poland): If you were expecting a dirty port city on the Baltic, you're in for the surprise of your life. Gdansk is a beautifully restored Hanseatic town that's brimming with life. The hotels and restaurants are superb and the city couldn't be more inviting. And when you tire of Gdansk, there's Sopot and the beaches and nightclubs just up the road.
Wroclaw (Poland): This city feels (at least in terms of the architecture) very much like a provincial German capital. The Old Town is gorgeous. The Baroque and Renaissance facades sing with color, and elevate your mood in any season. Wroclaw is also filled with students, ensuring lots of great little clubs tucked away in places you'd least expect.
Sibiu (Romania): A joint European City of Culture in 2007, Sibiu has received a remarkable makeover, transforming it into a whitewashed version of its former self: a walled city with bastion towers, large open squares, impossible alleyways, and countless marvelous Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance buildings.
Sighisoara (Romania): This medieval citadel was the birthplace of the man who inspired Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Today, it remains inhabited, and despite its compact size, it is one of the best preserved hilltop fortress cities in Europe, a jumble of ancient crannies, cobbled streets, medieval homes, and towers protruding from battlements.
Old Town (Bratislava, Slovakia): Yes, it's technically part of a city, but Old Town feels more like a village. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more active, fun, and user-friendly town center than Bratislava's Old Town. The past decade has witnessed a major effort to bring new life into what once was a quiet part of town. The result is a nightly street party.
Piran (Slovenia): Piran is Slovenia's Venice, occupying a sharp promontory on the Istrian Coast. Piran doesn't have canals, but it will make your head spin as you get lost in a jumble of narrow cobblestone streets lined with lovely architecture, some beautifully preserved, some crumbling perfectly.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.