Six Unconventional European Cities To See Abroad
There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thinking about Europe. Yes, I know, how cliché. The Europhile in me is constantly yearning to go back to the cities that are near and dear to my heart: London, Paris, Amsterdam.
However, this past summer, I shied away from the conventional European cities and journeyed to ones that are often overlooked. When I say that my experiences in these cities were some of the best experiences I’ve had, I mean it. There’s something about eastern Europe that makes you feel like you’re in a different continent from its western counterparts all together.
The language barriers are higher, the cost of living is cheaper, the streets are less populated by travelers trying to take the same photo you are. There’s a real, archaic charm the more east you go. Don’t get me wrong, I love London. I’m grateful to have chosen it as my study abroad destination, but perhaps if I had known more about some of these other cities, I would’ve thought twice about where to spend my semester abroad.
Without further ado, here are six unconventional European cities (some I’ve explored personally and others I’m dying to see) worth checking out the next time you’re around.
I never anticipated Budapest to become one of my all time favorite cities. Before heading over to Hungary, I knew very little of what this beautiful city had to offer. A friend and I spontaneously decided to take an eight-hour bus ride over a few country lines to experience it.
Budapest is historically known to have once been two cities, hilly Buda and flat Pest — separated by the River Danube and connected by the stunning Széchenyi Chain Bridge — until they merged into one city in 1873. Both sides are distinct (especially by their topography), with Buda being more architecturally historic with Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church dominating the scenery.
Though Pest is home to the gorgeous Parliament Building, this side is full of parks, shopping, cafes and bars, and has become more modern and fun. It’s also home to Budapest’s infamous ‘ruin bars’ (which are a MUST). Hungarian might be known as one of the most difficult languages to learn, but fear not, as mostly everyone speaks English. One word to note though, the ever so easy and necessary “thank you,” translated “koszonom.”
Poland stole my heart over the summer. I never made it to the country’s main capital, but rather, to its second biggest, and a lot more beautiful, city: Krakow. There’s something so cinematically beautiful about Krakow that makes you feel like you’re in an old school film. I think it has to do with the horse and carriages galavanting about the main square.
Poland is known to be quite inexpensive and that remained true throughout my time in Krakow. A meal for one of let’s say, kielbasa or pierogis with a drink for under $5 is common, but, mind-boggling for someone coming from an expensive American city where that’s unheard of.
The history of the city is also very extensive and heart-wrenching, especially as the most well known concentration camp, Auschwitz, is located an hour outside the city. Definitely a city to take advantage of if you’re a history buff.
I have a thing for Scandinavia. But if I were to ask any Dane, Norsk, or Swede, they would immediately tell me that Finland is not actually a part of that brotherhood. Fair enough, however, Finland can be considered a Nordic country as it has a lot of the same cultural identity and customs as its counterparts do.
Helsinki was a city I never considered when exploring north Europe, but I’m happy to have experienced. The city is known as the design capital of Europe, and it’s easy to see why. Just a walk around the harbor or within the Kiasma Museum and the aesthetic, modern and sleek look of everything will make your question why you didn’t go to design school.
These countries, including Finland, however, are known to be expensive, even though it’s the only Nordic country to have embraced the Euro. Yet, one of the coolest things about Helsinki is how close Tallinn, Estonia is — a quick ferry ride away. Finns are notorious for purchasing alcohol and other goodies from their friendly neighbors from time to time, too, all to take back on the way home, sometimes on the same day.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is known as Budapest’s sister city. Too often, I’ve come across blog posts that compare the two cities to each other — a battle of beautiful cities, so to speak. Both have a rich history, are too gorgeous for photographs to capture, and are relatively inexpensive to spend a few days in.
Prague stands out especially because of its architecture. Just a walk through the Old Town and you’re immediately transported back into a plethora of different time periods, seeing that the architecture reflects many unique styles coexisting side by side.
What’s great about Prague is that every major sight to see is in walking distance of each other, though, that sometimes can be a downfall as the center city tends to see tons of tourists clustering together. Nevertheless, the fairy-tale scenery and endless cobblestone streets that have remained despite having been involved in numerous wars are Czech-esque experiences that’ll leave you breathless with every step. Add cheap food and great beer, what more could you need?
Not to be confused with #1 on this list, Bucharest, Romania’s capital, is a city once considered the “Little Paris” of the east. Though Bucharest is a much more populated city than some of the others mentioned above, the vibe in the center is a lot more low-key and slow paced at times.
Structurally, the architecture is more reminiscent of the Communist Era. And while you won’t find the buildings or scenery to be as pleasing to the eye as Prague for instance, the history of Romania is rather interesting and worth learning a thing or two about. The abundance of parks, regarded as “tourist-friendly forests,” and extremely cheap shopping and accommodation are another few reasons why this hidden treasure city should be next on your eastern European bucket list.
The Balkans…now that’s a region very few of my friends and colleagues have visited. The Balkans’ capital and of course, Bulgaria’s highest populated city, Sofia, might look Russian in some of its aesthetic, history and style, but it is distinctly European, with its people happily speaking English with hints of Italian and French within daily life.
The city has been listed numerous times as being the most inexpensive city in all of Europe for travelers and backpackers alike. Yes, it’s even cheaper than some of the other cheap ones mentioned on the list (which I find hard to believe). The center is famous for its yellow brick roads and great cafe culture.
While there aren’t as many noticeable attractions to check off a list, a wander around the walkable city is enough to capture the essence and beauty. Plus, if you’re up for nature, the stunning Vitosha Mountain and ranges are close enough for a visit and a hike, too.
What places outside of western Europe have you visited that took you by surprise? Let us know if the comments below and your city might even be featured in a part II!