Three unspoiled and affordable Eastern European cities

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Marketplace in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Photo: J. Skok, Slovenian Tourist Board)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 14, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Croatia, destination, Molly Feltner, Poland, Slovenia, vacation package.

Why pay $1.89 for one British pound when you can get can 3.16 Polish zlotych for $1? Or, instead of getting .77 euros for your dollar, how about 5.70 Croatian kuna?

With the dollar as weak as it is against the pound and euro, trips to popular destinations in Western Europe like London and Rome are going to be more expensive than ever this summer. For more buying power on the ground and perhaps a more authentic European experience, look east to countries like Poland, Slovenia, and Croatia, where high prices and mass-market tourism haven't quite caught on yet.

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"Eastern Europe allows travelers to see the best of Old World traditions and New World transition," says Alex Crevar, a freelance journalist based in Croatia. "As opposed to Western Europe, which for the most part is actualized as a tourist destination, every visit to capitals in the East has the potential to be something completely different. It's fun to travel to places that are 1,000 years old and still defining themselves in new and positive ways."

Three Eastern destinations worth considering for your next Europe trip are Krakow, Poland; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Zagreb, Croatia.

Krakow, Poland

With its vibrant, youthful population and story book Old Town—one of the first historic areas to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site—Krakow reveals as much about Europe's future as it does its past. You can spend the day exploring centuries-old market squares and churches and spend the night dining at a newly opened gourmet restaurant. Although Poland is not as cheap as it once was for Americans, your dollar will still get you a lot more on the ground than in Western cities: think $20 per person for a three-course meal at one of the city's top restaurants.

Before heading out in the city, pick up a Krakow Tourist Card, a pass that allows you to use the city's public transportation and enter about 30 city attractions for free. A two-day card costs about $14 and can be purchased at numerous locations in the city.

Begin a tour of the city in Rynek Glowny, Krakow's medieval market square, which is dominated by the gothic St. Mary's Church and surrounded by outdoor cafes and vendors. A short walk away is Wawel Hill, home to the Royal Castle (Wawel 5), the seat of the Polish monarchy from the 11th to the 17th century. The castle is now a museum and houses Flemish tapestries, paintings, armor, and Asian art, among other displays. Castle admission starts at $4 per adult. Then, visit the nearby Wawel Cathedral (Wawel 3), the burial place of Polish royalty, for $3 per adult. The Czartoryski Museum (Sw. Jana 19), where you can see Da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine," is another not-to-miss site, and costs only $3 to tour.

A visit to Krakow is not complete without acknowledging the city's Jewish culture, which was largely ravaged in WWII but has been experiencing a revival since the release of the film Schindler's List. You can see several Jewish sites in Krakow's Kazimierz district, including the Old Synagogue (ulica Szeroka 24), part of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, for $2 per adult. If you have more time, take a day trip to the museum and memorial at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. There is no charge to tour the site on your own, but guided tours are available for an extra charge.

Trip planning

For information about sightseeing, accommodations, dining, and more, go to the official Krakow tourism website. Another helpful resource is Explore-Krakow.com, which has a hotel search function. Using this site, we found three-star hotels starting at $59 per night and four-star hotels staring at $89 per night for stays this summer.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia escaped the 1990s Balkan War relatively unharmed. Today, its mountain-encircled capital city, Ljubljana, is being heralded as the new Prague, minus the masses of tourists. Like Prague, Ljubljana is a city of colorful squares, stunning architecture, quaint cafes and shops, and stone bridges. Ljubljana also boasts a thriving arts and culture scene, hosting countless musical, theatrical, and avant-garde events throughout the year. In the summer months, the Ljubljana Festival brings more than 50 cultural events and performances to the city.

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