Jacqueline Des Forges is a European rail expert and community manager for Rail Europe, the place to plan and book your Euro rail trip if you’re from outside the EU
Eastern Europe is having a moment. Generally a bit less expensive than western Europe, and offering travelers more chances to get off the well-worn path, the eastern portion of the continent has become a very attractive destination for all sorts of travelers. Don’t miss out on 5 of the best places in Eastern Europe that could be part of your next adventure.
First things first: should you consider a rail pass? Many of the trains in Eastern Europe do not require seat reservation supplements, meaning you can just hop on with a rail pass and pick any seat you’d like. With that said, overnight trains and some international trains will require seat reservation supplements, so always check before you go. The route we’ve outlined below will work with the Balkan Flexipass, which covers rail travel in Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Turkey, and is a great option for travelers taking three or more journeys by train throughout these countries.
1. Ease off the beaten path with Budapest
Of all the places mentioned here, Budapest is the most “on the path.” It’s become quite a popular destination recently and this is why it’s a great starting off point – it’s fairly easy to reach and the locals are used to seeing visitors, so you can ease into the whole off-the-beaten-path thing.
Budapest is rich in history, outdoor markets, music, and hearty food. In essence it has all of the things that people want to see whenever they travel to Europe – minus a famous landmark or two. In the summer take a boat ride along the Danube or ride a bike along the shore, and in the wintertime it’s cozy to hole up in a local bar with a large bowl of traditional goulash.
Don’t miss: The baths! Budapest is one of the only places in the world where you can still experience traditional Turkish baths. The most famous and one of the largest is the Szechenyi Bath – keep an eye out for the Hungarian men playing chess in the water.
2. Discover an overlooked capital with Bucharest
Even though it’s Romania’s capital city, it could be argued that Bucharest is sort of off Romania’s beaten path, overshadowed by the infamous Bran Castle and the haunted Sibiu Forest located miles away. Not many people know that Bucharest is the 6th largest city in the European Union, nor that its nickname is “Little Paris” – partially due to its Arcul de Triumf and the fact that its train station is called Gare du Nord (both landmarks you can also find in the real Paris).
For a city that was heavily affected by communist rule in the mid-twentieth century, Bucharest still has a surprising array of visually interesting architecture. Try the outdoor Village Museum, filled with over 300 historical buildings, or the Cotroceni Palace, seat of the Romanian President (the National Cotroceni Museum is located inside the palace and is open to the public).
Don’t miss: Cismigiu Gardens, the city’s largest public park, and a favorite relaxation spot for locals.
Budapest to Bucharest by train: This route requires an overnight train. You can either go directly – 16-17 hours – or break up the journey in Simeria or Timisoara along the way. As you may notice, the night trains move more slowly in this region of the world, and they are truly a cultural experience in themselves.
3. Get really lost in Sofia
Ready for that culture shock you’re looking for? Look no further than Bulgaria. Here you’ll be greeted by the Cyrillic alphabet, a mix of western and eastern influence, and confusing “nods” – in Bulgaria, a shake of the head means “yes” while a nod means “no.” With so much culture on offer, it’s no wonder Sofia is one of the best places in Eastern Europe.
Sofia looks otherworldly, and that’s probably because some of the architecture and art dates so far back that it might as well have come from another world – the oldest building is from around the 4th century. As far as capital cities go, it’s located perfectly for several quick day trips – head over to the 1000 year old Rila Monastery, or experience the hiking and skiing hotspot Mount Vitosha, or spend a week sunbathing on the shores of the Black Sea.
Don’t miss: The National Gallery – the largest museum in the Balkan region, housed in a former palace.
Bucharest to Sofia by Train: This journey will take about 9.5 hours by train. As we mentioned, trains in some parts of Eastern Europe are a bit slower than in other parts of Europe – the high-speed craze hasn’t spread across the whole continent yet. With that said, there have been a few significant train developments in parts of the country, including new trains imported from Germany.
4. Pay your respects in Skopje
If Skopje is known for anything, it isn’t a monument or festival or natural wonder – it’s Mother Teresa. She was born here, and you can visit the site where her house once stood. One of the main attractions – though probably overshadowed by Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – is the Old Bazaar in the city center, and it’s currently one of the largest markets in the Balkan region. To escape the crowds and scope the perfect panoramic photo of the city, head up the hills to the Kale Fortress.
Don’t miss: The Old Bazaar! Recent archeological digs show that the market is probably thousands of years old.
Sofia to Skopje by train: To travel this route by train you will need to first head from Sofia into Serbia, and then connect to a train that continues on to Skopje. There are also buses that travel directly between Sofia and Skopje.
5. Head off the continent from Athens to Santorini.
Athens is one of the most well-known cities on this list thanks to its iconic historical landmarks and beautiful landscape. To get slightly off the beaten track in Athens, try one of these: The National Gardens of Athens (visit the Botantic Museum or the free zoo), the Cine Thisio (an outdoor movie theater with a view of the Acropolis!), and the markets on Athinas Street (a local favorite).
To finish off your trip, head off the continent towards the Greek Islands. Santorini is the most popular, with its whitewashed buildings and stunning ocean views. The other popularly visited islands – Corfu, Hydra, Rhodes, etc – are full of history, pristine beaches, and quiet cobblestoned streets. Not quite as busy as western Europe and not quite as rugged as eastern Europe, the Greek Islands feel almost completely like a little world unto themselves.
Skopje to Athens and beyond by train: For this route you will need to take a train from Skopje to Thessaloniki (about 5 hours) and then a train from Thessaloniki to Athens (about 6 hours). Tip: If you are traveling with the Balkan Pass we mentioned earlier in this post, you can use the pass to receive a discount on certain ferry crossings to these islands.