Venture from the well-worn Prague and Vienna circuit to explore lands where prices are cheaper and flea markets plentiful. This insider-inspired European itinerary starts in Budapest to soak alongside locals at thermal baths, then south to Zagreb, with its artisans and eccentric Museum of Broken Relationships, and finally to Sarajevo, where the bullet-scarred Olympic bobsled track is a sobering reminder of the 1990s war. Throughout, an enterprising new generation gives visitors to the Old World a fresh welcome.
DAY 1 Hopping aboard the 96 miles of tram lines in Budapest is a cheap way to orient yourself in the Hungarian capital. Trams 47 and 49 stop in front of the Great Market Hall. “Don’t forget to check out the fishmongers and colorful pickle stalls in the basement,” says Carolyn Bánfalvi, founder of food and wine tour company Taste Hungary. Take Tram 2 along the Danube River to the spire-bristling Hungarian Parliament. Nearby is Hold Street Market, where perfectly fried schnitzel served at Buja Disznók draws discerning foodies.
Walk across stately Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the river to check out the imposing Buda Castle complex.
Back on the Pest side, some of the best traditional restaurants can be found in Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter. The matzo ball soup at family-run Rosenstein has a cult following. This revitalized neighborhood also hosts Budapest’s famed “ruin bars.” In the early 2000s, impromptu nightlife venues began popping up in abandoned buildings. The pioneering Szimpla Kert, a sprawling maze of oddities and various bars, is the most popular. For a calmer night, drop in on newcomerMazel Tov.
Stay: At Brody House, each guest room displays an ever evolving gallery by a single artist.
DAY 2 With its re-created prison cells and other interactive exhibits, the House of Terror gives a feel for life in Hungary during its fascist and communist regimes. Then sit down at Kádár Étkezde, a lunch-only holdout from the 1950s still heaping plates with Hungarian staples. A 20-minute bus ride out of town leads to Memento Park, final resting place of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist icons.
At apartment restaurant Zoltán 18, a Hungarian-Canadian and Russian couple serve elaborate six-course meals, with starters such as tandoori octopus and egg-yolk ravioli, in a minimalist dining room. Bambi Eszpresszó, an intellectual hangout in the 1960s where regulars now gather for backgammon, is the ideal spot for a local Dreher Pilsener.
DAY 3 Budapest has no shortage of coffee houses in which to nurse cups of espresso and sample creamy tortes. On the grand end of the spectrum, the revived Centrál “was once one of the prime salons for Hungary’s famed artists, writers, and literary stars, before shutting down during communism,” says Bánfalvi.
Find further relaxation in the city’s other favorite pastime: bathing. Ottoman-era Veli Bej is the oldest hammam in the city. At night, it’s time to dial up the energy at Corvinteto, a dance party on the top floor of a communist-era department store.
DAY 4 “Even if you don’t have a goal, a long walk through the streets of Zagreb always brings discoveries,” says Iva Silla, the founder of Secret Zagreb, a tour company and city blog. Get your bearings in the heart of the diminutive Croatian capital at Ban Jelačić Square, and wander down artisan-filled Ilica Street and its quirky alleyways. Nearby, a courtyard hides the Lapo Lapo studio, created by and for local street artists.
Then you can climb a few blocks to the Museum of Broken Relationships, a bizarre but poignant collection of keepsakes from failed love affairs, like a noseless garden dwarf that was thrown at a husband’s new car. Stari Fijaker serves up comfort food such as veal ragout and black pudding. Vinyl has a theme for every evening, from book exchanges to live music.
Stay: At 4 City Windows B&B, rooms reflect aspects of Zagreb culture, including a Cartoon Room.
DAY 5 Scour the best treasures at Zagreb’s flea markets. Dolac market “is one of the most colorful sights in Zagreb,” says Silla. British Square on the weekends “has trapped the spirit of the old days.” Reenergize with a plate of štrukli, a dish of cheese and dough dumpling topped with clotted cream, at La Štruk.
Then head to the forested peaks of neighboring Mount Medvednica, accessible by tram. “We call the mountain the lungs of the city,” says Silla. “It is a perfect getaway.”
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
DAY 6 Two decades have passed since an almost four-year siege pummeled this capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You can still see some bullet holes on buildings, but the citizens haven’t lost their zest for life. For an overview of the city, a tram or taxi will take you past the Latin Bridge—where visiting Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, setting World War I into motion—to the newly remodeled History Museum, which focuses on 20th-century Sarajevo. Nearby, the recently reopened National Museum holds Bosnia’s archaeologic and artistic treasures.
Tito Cafe is filled with amusingly reappropriated decor, but head to the old Ottoman quarter Baščaršija for souvenirs. “The city center is still visited by the locals, and the prices are local prices,” says Adnan Zuka, a guide at tour company Sarajevo Insider. Then fill up on Bosnia’s most famous dish, a grilled minced meat sandwich called ćevapi, at Ćevabdžinica Željo.
“You always start with a coffee here,” says Zuka, of Bosnian nightlife. Try the Čajdžinica Džirlo Tea House for a warm welcome and caffeine, then move on to cocktails at Cafe Barometar or head to party spot Cinema Sloga.
Stay: Halvat Hotel has made-to-order breakfast feasts and friendly staff who provide city tips.
DAY 7 The Sarajevo Siege Tour takes visitors on an intimate trip to the mountainous front line. Walk on the 1984 Olympic bobsled track, left littered with artillery shells. On the way back, stop at the Tunnel Museum to learn about the secret passageway Sarajevans dug to transport supplies.
A defiant wartime spirit also lives on in the Sarajevo War Theater, founded during the siege. “The goal was to have some fun,” says Zuka. The performances may be largely in Bosnian, but the entertainment remains, so catch a show anyway and then decamp for your last night to nearby Zlatna Ribica, a curio cabinet of a bar that embraces all comers.
Other Eastern European Cities to Visit
- Ljubljana, Slovenia: A storybook city set on a photogenic river, Ljubljana is a breath of fresh air. Literally: This year it snagged the Green Capital of Europe title. Bring a book to trade in the library of brick-walled Tozd bar, then hang out as the riverbank turns into an open-air party at sunset.
- Tirana, Albania: With a half-century of dictator-imposed isolation in its rearview mirror, Tirana has adapted aspects of its socialist past with artistic flourish: Boxy downtown buildings now wear coats of rainbow paint. Elsewhere, patrons of outdoor cafés such as Funky Moustache spill onto the sidewalks.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Tip: Due to some outdated infrastructure and the current refugee crisis, train travel is not always reliable in eastern Europe. Verify schedules and routes when possible, but be flexible.