By its very geography, Eastern Europe has been at a cultural crossroads since the emergence of the first civilizations. Valuable goods from spices and amber to silver and gold have been traded here … cultural traditions from clothing to dance have been shared … religions from Eastern Orthodox to Judaism have been practiced. It all converged here. Which is why these far reaches of Europe are among the most fascinating and enlightening places to explore. Gate 1 Travel gets you there in comfort and style, and our knowledgeable local guides reveal the secrets and mysteries that make this such a captivating region.
Explore our north-to-south guide to Eastern Europe’s proud nations and cities on Gate 1’s itineraries:
Lithuania: A Stunning Capital Emerges from the Forest
Flat landscapes blanketed with forests and lakes greet you as you drive through Lithuania. Indeed, Mother Nature has blessed this small country with soft contours and stunning green expanses under wide-open skies. The capital, Vilnius, is covered in beauty of another sort. The city boasts one of the largest historic quarters in Europe, a dizzying blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Vilnius Upper Castle has lorded over the scene for centuries and its adjacent Gediminas Tower is a symbol of national pride. The city boasts more than 40 historic churches and former places of worship. Among them, the Gothic St. Anne’s captivated Napoleon so much that in 1812 he exclaimed he wanted to take it home to Paris “in the palm of his hand”.
Poland: Risen from the Ashes
For many, Poland stands out as one of Europe’s most resilient nations. Its beautiful capital Warsaw, straddling the Vistula River, plainly illustrates its beauty. The city saw dark times during World War II, as Jews were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. The city was completely destroyed by war’s end. After the war, its citizens took to rebuilding their beloved Old Town exactly as it was constructed in the 14th century. Today, the restored cobbled lanes lead to Market Square, its heart, where the Royal Castle and Cathedral of St. John invite exploration.
Medieval Krakow dates back to the 7th century. Many consider this one of Europe’s most breathtaking cities. Its cultural and architectural heritage spans the centuries, leaving masterworks of the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras in the Wawel Royal Castle District, in St. Mary’s soaring basilica, in the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, and all along its vast medieval market square. A more sobering sight are the remaining walls of the Jewish Ghetto and the Ghetto Heroes Square. Oskar Schindler employed more than 1,000 Jews in his enamelware factory to save them from certain extermination at camps such as Auschwitz, located right outside the city.
On Poland’s scenic northern coast lies Gdansk, one of the most powerful cities of the medieval-era Hanseatic League, the mercantile guild that ruled the Baltic region. Remnants of its prosperity are visible everywhere along the city’s Royal Route, the pedestrian-only street that once hosted processions for the Kings of Poland. Admire pretty gabled houses, the Gothic-Renaissance Main Town Hall with its soaring tower, and St. Mary’s, the third largest brick church in the world. Perhaps the most fascinating relic from Gdansk’s golden age is the medieval crane that once loaded and unloaded cargo from docked ships, long before the industrial age!
Remarkably, the city of Wroclaw is a vibrant blend of almost all of Europe’s religions and cultures. Its heritage stretches back more than 1,000 years and has been shaped by Germany, Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and the kingdoms of Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. Today, it is a bastion of culture rich in theater, art, literature, and more. It boasts one of Europe’s most stunning market squares, lovely waterways and parks, and the famed cycloramic painting of the Battle of Raclawice in which the citizenry rose up against Russia in 1794. The city is also renowned for the largest beer festival in Poland, held each June.
That beer may go well with pierniki, the delicious gingerbread of Torun. This city was proclaimed one of the Seven Wonders of Poland for its incredibly preserved Old Town. Astronomy buffs can gaze upon one of its shining stars: the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, the first to suggest that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. Less scientific, but no less enduring, are the miraculous powers attributed to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, housed in the Jasna Gora Monastery. Millions flock here each year just to be in her presence.
Romania: Beyond the Myth of Dracula
There is much more to Romania than its legendary vampire stories. Stunning vistas at every turn, soaring Carpathian Mountains, deeply held folkloric traditions, and beautifully preserved Orthodox churches housed within medieval walled cities combine to make it one of travel’s best-kept secrets.
The nation’s capital, Bucharest, has been compared to Paris for its emerging elegance, wide boulevards, and intentional 1935 replica of the Arc de Triomphe. Neoclassical buildings and Orthodox churches dominate the cityscape of this former communist enclave. Today, museums, opera, and theater set the tone for an increasingly creative cultural center. The most imposing building of Bucharest is the Parliament Palace. Even its enormity could not satisfy the ego of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It is the second largest administrative building in the world after the US Pentagon.
Amidst the bucolic landscapes of Transylvania—the land “beyond the forest” as translated from Latin—the charms of medieval Saxon villages beckon. Brasov, Sibiu, and Sighisoara have been lovingly preserved and each evokes the seductive splendor of Old Romania. Narrow streets wind past steeply roofed 17thcentury houses. Intricately decorated buildings bring fairy tales to mind. Wooden dancing figurines within chiming clocks, rare book collections, gingerbread houses, tranquil monasteries, and museums filled with period furniture paint a rich picture of a pastoral past. Of course, in every fairy tale, a wolf lurks; Transylvania is home to the legendary Dracula, Bram Stoker’s vampire inspired by the towers and turrets of Bran Castle. Fortunately, you will also visit castles considerably less malicious: the 19th-century Peles Castle, romantic summer home of King Carol I, and the 14th-century Hunedoara, with its soaring towers and dramatic drawbridge.
Farther north, two hidden gems of Romania await. Immerse yourself in Transylvanian culture in Targu Mures, once a rural hamlet and today a small city rich in local tradition. The Palace of Culture is the centerpiece, a magnificent Hungarian Art Nouveau treasure built in 1913. Mahogany woodwork, stained glass masterworks, marble staircases, and a hall of mirrors make this one of Romania’s most beloved buildings. The city’s library, founded in the late 18th century, is one of the country’s oldest and houses an astounding collection of manuscripts and artifacts.
And speaking of astounding collections, during your stay in Piatra Neamt, we’re giving you the option to visit Moldavia province’s renowned painted monasteries. Here, local princes and nobles employed painters to adorn ecclesiastical building from top to bottom with bright frescoes. These fully imagined canvases told stories of warfare and redemption to local villagers who were mostly illiterate.
Explore another side of Romania in Timisoara, cultural center of the West. This winsome city on the Bega River boasts many buildings from the Austrian Empire, earning it the nickname, “Little Vienna.” Opera, philharmonic, theater, museums, and more cultural institutions line its gracious streets. There seems to be a performance very night in Timisoara, which might make you think everyone is still celebrating the Romanian Revolution, which started here in 1989. It’s no surprise that Timisoara has been declared the European Capital of Culture for 2021.
Bulgaria: Authentic and True
Perhaps it is because so few travelers visit Bulgaria that it remains one of Eastern Europe’s most authentic nations. Its capital, Sofia, lies scenically at the foot of Vitosha Mountain and is at the geographic center of the Balkan peninsula. The city has been inhabited since 7000 BC and is rich in Roman and Thracian ruins. Remarkably, many of its Bulgarian Orthodox monasteries survived centuries of iron-fisted Ottoman rule. Today, the National Museum of History chronicles its long past while the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Church stands proudly as a neo-Byzantine symbol of the city’s enduring spiritual heart.
Serbia: Where Life’s Simple Pleasures Endure
With rolling hills and enchanting villages, Serbia transports you back to the simpler times of the Balkans. There is much to endear you to its charms, particularly the three-kiss hello you will receive from the famously friendly locals. This is all despite the nation’s recent tumult, from which it has steadied itself with open-armed confidence. Nis, one of the oldest cities in Europe, resides in Serbia. Constantine the Great was born here before he went on to found Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. Today, this city on the Nisava River is rich in history, some of which you will witness at its Turkish fortress.
Skirting the Sava River, Belgrade is often thought of as the bohemian cousin to the continent’s more refined cities. It might have gotten this reputation in the Skadarlija quarter, which has often been compared to the artistic enclave of Montmartre in Paris. Soak it all in as you browse Republic Square and the café-lined pedestrian zone of Knez Mihajlova Street. To get a glimpse into the city’s long history and architectural treasures, visit the imposing Kalemegdan Fortress, erected strategically where the Sava meets the Danube. Equally impressive, the Saint Sava Temple is one of the world’s largest Orthodox churches.
Go Deeper with a Discovery Tours Small Group, and Add Belarus
Want to further immerse yourself into the rich traditions and history of Eastern Europe? Join a Discovery Tours small group! With fewer travelers on each departure, we can take our time and enjoy experiences that larger groups cannot. Plus, our Eastern Europe Heritage journey also visits Belarus, featuring time in the cultural capital of Minsk and a home-hosted meal with a local family. In Poland, stop in Bialystok, where the Branicki Palace, the “Polish Versailles”, takes one’s breath away.
Uncover the countless wonders of Eastern Europe with Gate 1 Travel. When you do, you’ll close each remarkable day in comfortable accommodations, delight in local cuisine, and gain in-depth insight from local guides who call this destination home. Join us!