Eastern Europe is a region that encompasses many different cultures, ethnicities, languages, and histories. Grouping all of these countries under a single designation can sometimes be problematic; experts, scholars, and those living there label parts of the region according to varying sets of criteria, and heated debates have been known to erupt when one party has felt that a certain country has been miscategorized. However, it's important to note that the countries broadly classified as being a part of Eastern Europe have one thing in common: they were all behind the Iron Curtain before its fall, and this political boundary of the last century helps us define a region whose development, especially until the 1990s, has been very different from that of Western Europe.
The most widely recognized sub-regions of Eastern Europe include:
- East Central Europe
- The Baltics
- Southeastern Europe/Balkans
- Eastern Europe
The countries within these regions are as follows:
- Czech Republic
- Romania and Moldova
- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia
- Ukraine and Belarus
- Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia
Eastern Europe's Regional Differences and Similarities
We can acknowledge that some countries, like Poland and the Czech Republic, are more "central," and, if we want to be specific about their location, can refer to them as a part of East Central Europe. The Baltics, populated by people ethnically different from the rest of Eastern Europe, can also be grouped accordingly. The countries of the Balkans are classified differently depending on what factors you're using, and Southeastern Europe is a good description for those countries that occupy the southern corner of Eastern Europe. And, as for everyone else—they're so far east there's no disputing the fact that they're a part of Eastern Europe, but East Eastern Europe seems redundant.
It's understandable for some countries—whose national identities were so repressed under authoritarian regimes—to tire of being affiliated with a term that they feel is outdated and which unfairly associates them with other countries from whom they would rather distance themselves. But the truth is that Eastern Europe and all its sub-regions is a culturally, geographically, and historically fascinating place, and this site chooses to celebrate the region as a whole while acknowledging the differences of each sub-region and each nation within that sub-region.
Russia is Eastern Europe's largest and easternmost country. It separates Europe from Asia and straddles both continents over a wide geographical area that engulfs many cultures, terrains, and climates.
Moscow is Russia's capital city, but it's an important cultural and historical center, too. Most individuals who travel to Russia visit Moscow first: here, the Kremlin's walls contain echoes of legends, museums guard important examples of Russian art, the nation's rich and powerful strut their plumage, and pagan festivals like Maslenitsa are interpreted anew for those seeking to get at the heart of Russian culture.
Moscow may give you an introduction to Russia, but Russia's other cities reward travelers with their variety, sights, regional traditions, and more.
The Czech Republic, once joined with Slovakia, is an East Central European nation that is home to one of the region's most popular destinations, Prague.
But, as any person who takes a day trip from Prague can attest, the Czech Republic is more than Prague. Other destinations include castles, medieval towns, and spa centers. Czech Republic World Heritage sites showcase the best of the Czech Republic's heritage.
No matter what region of the Czech Republic you visit, Czech culture provides plenty of opportunities to celebrate throughout the year, and Czech souvenirs show pride in Czech traditions.
Poland occupies a location in the north of the East/East Central European region. This culturally rich, easy-to-get-around destination is a traveler's dream with big cities and small towns tucked into every corner of the country, each with a unique heritage to share.
Warsaw is Poland's capital city and is a thriving, modern destination with a historic core that has been carefully reconstructed to its pre-war state of elegance.
However, Krakow is Poland's most popular destination, and other cities in Poland attract visitors from far and wide, too. Look for Polish castles when touring the country—they are plentiful, and many have been turned into museums or hotels.
Polish culture, with its numerous holidays, festive traditions, colorful folk costumes, and charming handicrafts, makes Poland even more attractive as a travel destination.
Croatia's location on the Adriatic Sea and its long coast are enough reason to travel there - its abundance of enchanting cities is a bonus. And, while other Southeastern European countries are still struggling to attract visitors, Croatia has woken up the tourism industry to its endless potential: cruise liners dock in its ports, spring breakers flock to its beaches, and honeymooners seek out its achingly romantic getaways.
Dubrovnik is Croatia's most famous destination city, its walled old town encapsulating the best of seaside life and the prosperity of medieval Dalmatia. Dubrovnik is one of the Eastern Europe's must-see cities—its number of visitors increases every year for good reason!
But travelers to Croatia shouldn't end their exploration of this fascinating country in Dubrovnik. Croatia's cities and towns reveal the mysteries of past civilizations, proudly serve local cuisines, and protect rare treasures of art and architecture. Consider Split with its giant Roman palace or Rovinj with its legendary church.
Croatia's culture is as colorful as the country itself. Embroidered folk costumes, traditional song and dance, and an exciting calendar of festivals and holidays mean that visitors to Croatia can begin to understand the country's identity and enjoy themselves at the same time.
Slovakia, once only considered the Czech Republic's other half in their marriage called Czechoslovakia, is now making an impression as an independent Central Eastern European country—both as a member of the EU and an attractive travel destination. With a stable economy and a capital that knows how to party, Slovakia is increasing its importance as a player in various sectors.
Bratislava is gaining in popularity as a European capital with plenty to offer. Its small, compact old Town is the center of festivities when the holidays approach. For example, New Year's Eve in Bratislava hosts a celebration that rivals that of nearby capitals, and the Bratislava Christmas market sells handmade Slovakian crafts and traditional food.
Slovakia's castles are a great excuse to go out and see the Slovakian countryside, where mountains, hills, lakes, and fields create romantic settings for picnics and hikes.
Hungary occupies an interesting place in the Central Eastern European territory. Its Magyar, rather than Slavic, heritage differentiates it from many of the other countries in the region. Hungarian culture reflects Hungary's differences even while it shares similarities with neighboring cultures.
Budapest's 19th-century grandeur makes it one of Eastern Europe's top romantic cities. Neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture drips with details—Hungary's parliament building is one example of Hungary's symbolic architecture. Even less officious buildings, like the Great Market Hall, glow with the beauty of past centuries.
Beyond Budapest, Hungary's destinations include Pecs, famous for its Roman archaeological sites, and Lake Balaton, Hungary's most popular resort area. Hungary's castles—from medieval strongholds to castles built for temporary use —provide the opportunity to see even more of this country.
Romania and Moldova
Romania is so often associated with the real Dracula legend that it can seem like this Eastern European country has little identity beyond as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. However, Romania is a place of haunting beauty, centuries-old traditions, and hidden surprises—for those who have the patience to seek them out.
Romania's culture dates back to Roman times when the Dacians inhabited the region. Archaeological sites reveal information about the earliest Romanians and offer clues to modern Romania's origins.
Romania today preserves much of the past in countryside life and traditions and in its castles, churches, and historic towns.
Moldova is its own country though it is sometimes wrongly thought to be a part of Romania due to geographic proximity and its similar culture and language. The capital of this tiny country is Chisinau.
Did you know that Serbia has an expanding tourism industry and is becoming more attractive to visitors every year? This Southeastern European country is often overlooked by those visiting the region, but you might be surprised at what Serbia has to offer.
Belgrade is the Serbian capital city. This hub of activity is attracting bloggers, businesses, and travelers alike. The number of hostels in Belgrade has exploded in the past few years, and English-language coverage of this destination city is better than for some of the rest of Southeastern Europe.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia
The Baltic region consists of three Northeastern European countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They share the Baltic Sea Coast and its cold winter weather and wealth of amber deposits, but these countries are three individual entities.
The people of Lithuania speak one of the oldest languages on the Indo-European language tree. Lithuania's historical heritage is also strong—grand dukes from the past conquered large tracts of land and converted their subjects from paganism to Christianity. One of Lithuania's most important monuments is Trakai Island Castle, a stronghold in the middle of a lake that symbolizes Lithuania's medieval authority.
Latvia is the middle Baltic nation. Latvian culture includes one of the world's oldest flags. Latvia also claims to be the originator of the Christmas tree, and Latvian Christmas traditions include a celebration of this contribution to Christianity's important holiday.
Estonia is the third Baltic nation. Like Latvia, it also claims to have originated the tradition of the Christmas tree, and Christmas in Estonia always includes large, elaborately decorated fir trees for the holidays.
Estonia's castles and manor houses are important draws for tourism. Some are museums and others are inns or hotels.
Slovenia, with its capital city, Ljubljana, is a Central Eastern European country that is making a name for itself as a destination that anyone can enjoy.
Ljubljana has a charming old town that is hopping from Easter to New Year. Climb to the top of Ljubljana Castle for views of the city, or stroll along its willow-sheltered waterway for a romantic trip back in time. Restaurants, cafes, shops, museums, and sights will satisfy your craving for Slovenian culture.
Many know Slovenia for its natural wonders; caves, mountains, and lakes in this Eastern European country are big attractions. For example, Lake Bled draws both locals and visitors who go there to be awed by its blue waters and white-capped mountains. Here, as in other Slovenian sanctums of nature worship, a castle adds to the fairy-tale scenery.
Bulgaria is a Southeastern European country that remains a mystery to some travelers even though its landscape exhibits great beauty and its historical landmarks enable transport into the past. The Cyrillic alphabet was first introduced here in the 9th century, and this heritage is preserved proudly by its people.
Though Sofia is Bulgaria's capital city, visitors who are looking for Bulgaria's treasures might be encouraged to branch out from Sofia and explore its Black Sea coast and mountain towns to get the country's full story. Cities like Plovdiv reveal Bulgaria's long heritage in their architectural artifacts and museums.
Other interesting sights in Bulgaria include Rila Monastery, a pilgrimage site for centuries. This popular attraction is nestled in the Rila Mountains and is the most important seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
Ukraine and Belarus
Ukraine and Belarus are two Eastern European countries that are still feeling the reverberations of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, though it has its independence, wants better recognition from the world as an entity separate from its neighbor, Russia. Belarus is ruled by what some call the "last dictatorship in Europe" and ideologies ensconced there by the ruling power align more with last-century Soviet Union ideologies than modern ways of thought.
Ukraine (never "the Ukraine") is a nation whose past leaders elicited such a strong change throughout the region that we can still see the effects today. When Russia was still getting its act together as an out-of-the-way duchy, Kiev's Prince Vladimir introduced Christianity to the Slavs. Thus, Eastern Orthodoxy was born, and it is that religion that Ukrainians, Russians, Serbians, and others still follow today.
Kiev is today the capital of Ukraine. St. Sophia's Cathedral there hearkens back to the early days of Eastern Orthodoxy. Other sights, monuments, and churches also remember Kiev's medieval reign.
Belarus is an almost forgotten Eastern European country—its authoritarian government prevents it from spreading its wings. Human rights violations, rather than its travel-worthiness, put it in the news. Minsk, the capital city, has potential as a travel destination, but it's not for rookies!
Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are two Southeastern European countries that were a part of Yugoslavia before it disintegrated. Today, they're creating their own space in the region and broadcasting their cultural identities.
Montenegro, which means "black mountain," is a land of haunting, mist-encased peaks and rocky terrain. It is sometimes included on tours to Croatia, though some travelers have found it difficult to traverse on their own. Some highlights of Montenegro include:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia, to the north, and Herzegovina, to the south, are two parts to one Southeastern European country. This country's name is sometimes abbreviated as BiH. Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital city is Sarajevo. Two sights of interest for travelers is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mostar and the so-called Bosnian pyramids.
Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia
Three small countries occupy a geographical area in Southeastern Europe. These are Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
Albania has both a seacoast and mountains perfect for skiing, and these two elements have helped Albania's tourism industry to keep growing. For a special look at Albanian culture, Gjirokastra is designated a museum city for its preservation of a way of life.
Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia, and many nations, including the United States, have recognized this status. However, the issue is still contentious. The world waits to see if Kosovo and Serbia can settle their differences. Kosovo's capital is Pristina.
The Republic of Macedonia is a small Southeastern European nation bordered by Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Ohrid and Skopje are two attractive travel destinations in Macedonia.