Exploring the other Europe

Exploring ‘the other Europe’

If you love cobbled old towns with street-side cafes, a trip to Central and Eastern Europe fits the bill—and all at affordable prices


Remember that Europe trip where your Tower of London family ticket cost $125 and a lame Rome lunch ate up almost $200? It doesn’t have to be this way. Our travel dollar may be flatter than a Dutch pannekoek right now but stretching your vacation funds in the Old World can be as easy as changing direction. “Central and Eastern Europe are much cheaper for big ticket items like travel, lodging and eating,” says Prague-based Lonely Planet author Mark Baker. “Figure on 75% of the price you’d pay for most things in Western Europe.”

In recent years, countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain—from Estonia to Romania and from Poland to Slovakia—have lured travellers with an eye on their wallets. Choose wisely and you’ll find everything you love about more familiar European destinations, but for a built-in discount.

Enjoy cobbled old towns with street-side cafes? Consider Slovenia’s Ljubljana or Latvia’s Riga. Museums tucked into domed palaces? Hungary’s Budapest and the Czech capital Prague await. Oceanfront villages with white sand beaches? Think Croatia’s Adriatic coast or Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts. Outdoor activity fans are also well-served. Hikers love the less-crowded trails of Poland’s jagged Tatra Mountains and Romania’s Omu Peak area.

Sleepover-wise, the days of Soviet hotels with potato-based room service menus are mostly over. “Much of the hotel infrastructure here is newer than in Western Europe. And hotel and restaurant standards in cities like Prague, Budapest and Krakow are at least as high as western destinations,” says Baker.

That’s what Vancouverite Richard Fraser found on his “generally good value” Budapest trip last fall. “The Iberostar Grand Hotel was clean and modern with outrageous boudoir reds in the rooms. It was also very reasonable—about half the price of Amsterdam—and their airport pick-up was like a mini guided tour.”

Tours are recommended in the region if you want to make the most of your visit. Fraser booked three Tours By Locals excursions that he says helped connect him to the unfamiliar city. “We really wanted honest local opinions—and our Pest, Buda and fashion district tours were great.”

Baker agrees with the tour approach and adds that emulating the locals can also help keep costs in check. “Take transit, take your main meal at lunch and drink local beverages—like beer in the Czech Republic.” Prague-brewed pilsner isn’t the region’s only value-added tipple. The cost of wine-based vacationing in France or Italy can drive you to drink, but alternative grape-hugging areas such as coastal Croatia or Hungary’s Tokaj can be equally lip-smacking—without the champagne prices.

B.C.-based wine studies instructor Erin Korpisto went almost as far east as possible in Europe when she visited Georgia in 2014. The former Soviet republic has been making wine for centuries but in recent years it’s been luring Western oenophiles keen to sip further afield.

“Wine touring here isn’t as easy as in North America—guided operators like Taste Georgia or Living Roots are a good idea—but it feels similar to France’s smaller wine areas,” says Korpisto, who visited the Kartli area around Tbilisi as well as the mountainous Kakheti region. “The tasting rooms aren’t grand but you’re usually hosted by the owner and guided through their operations.”

Language and road conditions can be challenges, she adds—another good reason to book a tour—but Georgians are highly hospitable and the countryside is studded with heritage sites. Korpisto also loved the wines and found the local food scene a taste-tripping delight.

The prices were even tastier. “The cost of most things in Georgia is quite reasonable, even cheap,” she says, adding that bottles of wine start around $5 and dining is excellent value.

For Baker, though, vacationing eastwards isn’t only about doing Europe on the cheap. The region has its own allure and can provide a memorable holiday. Doing some advance research and choosing destinations carefully can make all the difference. “Before arriving, read a book—fiction or nonfiction—about the country you’re visiting to give you a feel for it. And be prepared: languages here don’t sound like those we’re used to,” he says, before adding his own recommendations for the region.

A fan of Romanian cities Sibiu and Brasov, it’s Poland that tops his must-do list. “Gdansk is a surprisingly beautiful and lively seaport. If you have outdated images of Solidarity and Lech Walesa in your head, it’s a big surprise. And Krakow is always good: a manageable size, with sights including an old royal city and a moving Jewish heritage—it’s also fun and beautiful.”