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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Year round you can experience Ljubljana’s many museums and historic sites for little or no cost. For discounted admission to attractions with entrance fees and free use of city transportation for up to three days, purchase a Ljubljana tourist card for $16.
Start your visit at the Ljubljana Castle, which sits on top of a hill in the city center and offers sweeping views of the city and the nearby Julian Alps. Tour the castle for $4 per adult. Down in the city itself, meander through the market squares and narrow alleyways of Old Town and browse the open-air market at Vodnikov Trg (trg means square). Also, stroll along the tree-lined Ljubljanica River and admire the ornate stone bridges, including the elaborate Triple Bridge and the Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge. To learn more about the city’s art and culture, stop by the National Gallery (Presernova 24) to see Slovene art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and the National Museum (Muzejska 1) to view exhibitions on local archeology and history. Both charge about $4 per adult for admission.
For detailed information about Ljubljana attractions, accommodations, dining, events, and more, go to the Ljubljana Tourist Information Portal. The Slovenia Tourist Board website is also helpful, and includes links to many city hotels. Using these links, we found high-season rates starting at $58 per night for two-star hotels $116 for three-star hotels.
Unlike Slovenia, Croatia was hit hard during the breakup of Yugoslavia, but the capital city of Zagreb survived with most of the historic sites and cultural institutions from its 900-year history intact. Today, Zagreb is home to more than 30 museums and galleries that hold more than three million artifacts and exhibits. The city is also blossoming with modern shops, restaurants, bars, and other new businesses.
To get around the city and save on sightseeing, purchase a Zagreb Card online for $16. This discount card allows unlimited free travel on public transportation and discounts at nearly all Zagreb museums for three days.
A proper tour of Zagreb begins in its historic heart, Upper Town, where you can see the neo-Gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the colorfully tiled St. Mark’s Church. While in the area, be sure to stop by the Croatian History Museum (Matoseva 9) which is located in the baroque palace Vojkovic-Orsic-Rauch and holds more than 140,000 historic objects. Admission is about $2 per adult. To learn more about Croatian history including the tragic events of the 20th century, check out the Zagreb City Museum, for a $4 charge.
There are many more museums in Zagreb’s Lower Town, including the Archaeological Museum (19 Nikola Subic Zrinski Square), where you can see a large collection of Egyptian artifacts, plus Greek and Roman exhibits. There is an entrance fee of $4 per adult. For a mere $2 charge, admire European paintings from the 14th through 19th centuries in the nearby Strossmayer’s Old Masters Gallery.
Learn more about Zagreb by visiting the Croatian National Tourist Board website, where you can find links to city hotels along with other detailed travel information. Browsing the hotels’ websites, we found per-night rates for two-star hotels starting at $73 and three-star hotels starting at $118 for stays in the summer.
Getting to Eastern Europe
Getting to Krakow, Ljubljana, or Zagreb from the U.S. in the summer is a pricey proposition, with round-trip fares costing over $1,000 from the East Coast. You’ll save several hundred dollars if you can travel during off-peak months in the spring and fall.
You can also try booking a cheap flight to London and then taking a low-cost European carrier to your final destination. We found flights on EasyJet from London to Krakow or Ljubljana for a little over $70 each way. To get to Zagreb from London, you can book a flight on EuropebyAir for $99 each way. Taxes are extra.