Mondo’s picks: 8 gems in Eastern Europe

Alpine landscapes in Serbia, a Black Sea cruise and the oldest city in Romania. Mondo’s editorial staff gathered less well-known Eastern European sites that are worth exploring when traveling is again possible.

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Stari Most or the Mostar Bridge has hosted an annual diving competition for over four centuries. It was destroyed in the Yugoslavian war but rebuilt in the early 2000s, and the tradition of daredevils continues.

1. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Known for its magnificent bridge and named after the bridge keepers, Mostar is the little gem of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The city, which had grown during the Ottoman Empire, fell under Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century, and it is an enchanting combination of Islamic and European tradition.

The 16th-century bridge in Mostar was bombed during the Yugoslav War but then rebuilt. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a symbol of Bosnia’s unity. The hammam museum and numerous small atmospheric restaurants also delight visitors in Mostar. The city can be reached from the capital Sarajevo by a two-hour train ride via a gorgeous route. A bus ride from Dubrovnik, Croatia, takes four hours.

Black Sea cruise
Black Sea cruises offer striking views. They are also often less congested and more affordable than their counterparts in the Mediterranean.

2. Black Sea cruise

Mediterranean cruises are already familiar to many, but fewer have cruised the Black Sea. The sea is surrounded by six countries whose history dates back to antiquity. Cruises of various lengths usually cover Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, and often also Georgia.

Trips that are less congested than Mediterranean cruises offer at least as stunning landscapes and places to visit. Black Sea cruises can be taken from April through November, and they usually last a week or two. The cruises depart from several cities, such as Istanbul. Black Sea cruises also depart from Athens. On a Turkish or Russian ship, a cruise can be very affordable.

Chernobyl, Ukraine
Nature has reclaimed the deserted city of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

3. Chernobyl, Ukraine

In Eastern Europe, top sites for the friends of abandoned places include Chernobyl and the nearby ghost town of Pripyat. Even though these sites have recently become more famous due to HBO’s popular TV series Chernobyl, guided tours of the area have been organized for over fifteen years.

The sarcophagus encasing the nuclear power plant that exploded, the deserted streets and houses in the area, and particularly the Pripyat school and amusement park are touching sights that show the impact of the 1986 tragedy. Several companies organize visits to the area. Trips are mainly organized from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which can be reached from Finland via a direct connection.

On excursions to Chernobyl, there is a guide with a Geiger counter, so the trips are safe. The area surrounding the power plant is an exclusion zone that cannot be accessed.

Orheilu Vechi, Moldova
The Orthodox monastery of Orheiul Vechi is built on a high ridge by river Răut – and also inside it.

4. Orheiul Vechi, Moldova

As a tourist destination, Moldova may be little known, but this small Eastern European country has both experiences and old-time charm to offer. Moldova’s best-kept secret is the vast historical area of Orheiul Vechi. It has been permanently inhabited since the Neolithic period, 5,000 BC, and the region houses several archeologically valuable sites.

Moldova’s best-kept secret is the vast historical area of Orheiul Vechi.

The most impressive sight is the 14th-century Orthodox monastery, located in caves carved in limestone rock. A newer monastery, which is still inhabited by monks, rises on the cliff above. Orheiul Vechi is located 50 km from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, which is the most convenient starting point for a tour of this area.

Constanța, Romania
The landmark of Constanța is the Art Nouveau casino designed by Swiss-Romanian architect Daniel Renard. Plans have been made to restore it to its early 20th-century glory.

5. Constanța, Romania

Constanța, located on the coast of the Black Sea and considered the oldest city in Romania, offers a wide range of attractions. There are, for example, remnants of ancient times – during the Roman Empire, the place was known as Tomis, and the poet Ovidius was deported there. There are also signs of both the Ottoman Empire and the Roaring Twenties. These times are now reflected in the magnificent, deserted Art Nouveau casino at the end of the promenade.

The best beaches in Romania are located just north of Constanța, on the Mamaia spit, and even further north, near the triple border between Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, there is the Danube delta with its natural wonders. Constanța is a few-hour train ride away from Bucharest, and Black Sea cruises also stop there.

Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria
Veliko Tărnovo was built on the hills overlooking river Yantra.

6. Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria

Even though Bulgaria is often thought of as this concrete-gray Eastern European country, Veliko Tărnovo, the former capital of the medieval kingdom of Bulgaria, offers a different kind of an experience.

Located in the lush green valley of river Yantra, the city of 80,000 inhabitants impresses with its colorful houses sprinkled on the hillside, diverse architecture and narrow cobbled streets. The Gurko street, which also offers a view to other parts of the city center, is particularly beautiful. The oldest part of the city, the still impressive Tsarevets fortress built in the 1100s, rises on a hilltop.

Veliko Tărnovo is located a few hundred kilometers from the capital Sofia and Golden Sands in Varna. It is also easy to reach by bus from Bucharest, Romania.

Kaunas, Lithuania
The buildings of Kaunas span from medieval churches to contemporary constructions. In 2017, the city's modernist architecture was included on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

7. Kaunas, Lithuania

Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, awarded the title of the European Capital of Culture for 2022, advertises itself with the slogan ”It’s Kaunastic!”. And not in vain. There are only few places in Eastern Europe where medieval heritage, the burden of socialism and modern urban culture are combined in such an inspiring way.

There are only few places in Eastern Europe where medieval heritage, the burden of socialism and modern urban culture are combined in such an inspiring way.

If one had to choose a 2020s city that is reminiscent of the 1920s, Kaunas would be a top contender. In addition to the old churches and fortresses, the city also features a museum specializing in devils, presumably the only one in the world.

Kaunas is also an important city in the Lithuanian street art scene. From Vilnius, Kaunas can be reached by train in one and a half hours, and from Tallinn, the trip takes ten hours by a day or night bus.

Tara national park, Serbia
The average altitude of the Tara national park is 1200 meters. The beautiful mountainous area hosts over 1100 plant species which is almost a third of Serbia's total flora.

8. Tara national park, Serbia

The Alps are usually connected with Switzerland or Italy, but at their eastern end in the Dinaric Alps, the mountain range continues all the way to the Balkans. These slopes can be climbed in the Tara national park located on the western side of Serbia.

The highest peak is at approximately 1,500 meters, so the vistas in Tara are not quite as rugged as in the actual Alps, but they still have much to offer. In addition to the snowy mountain views, verdant ravines and dark caves, the park houses an Orthodox monastery. Bajina Basta and Kremna, where trips to Tara begin, are the easiest to reach by car from Belgrade, Serbia, or Sarajevo, Bosnia, which is closer by.

Text: Ville-Juhani Sutinen Photos: Getty Images

This story was first published in Mondo’s issue 4/20.

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