For most travellers, Europe becomes far less familiar as you stray east.
From language to cuisine, it’s likely that this part of the world will challenge even the keenest of wanderers. However, there are ways to make slipping behind the former Iron Curtain a less daunting experience.
Here are ten tips for travelling to Eastern Europe.
This is the most important of my ten tips for travelling to Eastern Europe. I cannot stress how important it is to organise your documents in advance. Although there are no visa requirements for Australians travelling to Poland, entry into some countries such as Ukraine and Russia is not so easy.
I applied for a tourist visa for Ukraine but it was rejected because I didn’t adhere to the 30-day processing period. As a result I lost $125 and wasn’t able to continue my travels beyond the Ukrainian border. Research all visa requirements for your trip well in advance.
The recent refugee crisis has seen border crossings open and close without notice, and lengthy processing delays. Check the Smart Traveller website regularly for updates.
I prefer to be spontaneous when travelling, but if you don’t want to waste valuable time it pays to book a few things in advance in this part of the world — especially if you are travelling during peak season. As an example, on a whim I decided to travel to the Transylvanian region in Romania. I had hoped to tour the castles around Sibiu but I was unable to hire a driver or join a bus tour, and a local travel agency advised that I should have booked a month before.
I finally found a willing driver online, but I had to travel by bus for three hours to Brasov to meet him! In case you are wondering, yes I finally made it to Bran Castle!
Discount airfares are growing in popularity in the region and Vienna has the best network of flights in and out of the region. Once in Eastern Europe, it’s usually cheaper to travel by bus or train. I recommend buying international train tickets in the country from which you are travelling. They are usually cheaper than pre-purchasing in Australia and there are generally plenty of seats. Be careful in peak season.
The pace of local trains can be very slow so look for a fast train option. Locals are encouraged to hitchhike, but that’s not recommended for tourists. A better option is share rides. By funding someone else’s car trip you’ll save time and reach places inaccessible by public transport. The bonus: you’ll meet some interesting people. Use a reputable site such as www.blablacar.com.
Language is perhaps the biggest challenge for Eastern Europe travel, but don’t let this deter you. As tourism steadily increases and a younger university crowd populates cities such as Krakow and Sarajevo, English is becoming more widespread. If you are travelling to smaller villages make sure you know a few words of the local language. As always, a smile works wonders.
If you are hesitant about travelling alone or unsure what to expect, an organised group tour is a good option in Eastern Europe. It allows you to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Reputable tour companies offer safety, security and usually the services of a local guide. Top Australian companies with a presence in Eastern Europe include Intrepid, Geckos and Peregrine. All of these offer a grassroots style of trip, so you won’t lose out on an authentic experience.
The wave of ‘free’ or pay-what-you-want walking tours has rapidly spread across Eastern Europe. Typically led by passionate young people, these tours can change your perspective of a city. When I first arrived in Bucharest I felt a sense of disappointment. There seemed to be a lack of soul. Our local guide Kami spoke candidly about what it was like to grow up under a communist regime. It changed my perspective of the city entirely.
Every day is a fascinating history lesson in this part of the world. Follow the plight of the Jews in WWII, the history of the Cold War or the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Much of this history is etched into the facades of buildings across the region. Make sure you have a quality guidebook and read up as you go.
Don’t discount travelling to smaller towns and villages either. You’ll stumble across medieval castles and discover a rich legacy of Renaissance and Baroque architecture in many out-of-the-way places.
Deeply influenced by cold winters, the staples in Eastern Europe blend humble ingredients into heart-warming dishes. Whether it’s Polish dumplings (pierogi), Hungarian goulash or Latvia’s deep purple cold beet soup, these comfort foods will leave you full and satisfied.
When it comes to working out the best time to travel to Eastern Europe, it all depends on the type of holiday you are after. Skiing is a popular sport during winter months, so prices may escalate in the Romanian Carpathians and Slovakia’s Tatra mountains, but they are still a lot cheaper than the Swiss Alps. In the summer months tourists flock to the coast. During August and September prices peak in countries such as Croatia, so perhaps look at the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn.
Although the Euro is widely accepted, especially in hotels, each country still operates under a local currency, making travel to Eastern Europe relatively cost effective. That said, the region has faced many challenges recently, including the unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis. However, the people are friendly, optimistic and forgiving as they move on from suppression towards relative peace. Many now rely on tourism to survive and you will be made to feel more than welcome.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of tips for travelling to Eastern Europe? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Vanessa O’Hanlon is an Australian television news presenter with the Nine Network and an avid traveller. Her travels began with a flight to Egypt, a visit to the pyramids and a camel ride, and she knew there was no turning back. Since then, Vanessa’s backpack has seen a thing or two — from exploring relatively untouched Bhutan to braving the cold on the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.