I’ve been planning this show for a while now, ever since hearing from a member of our community that she was bringing her family over to Eastern Europe for Christmas, and asking if I had any recommendations.
Boy… do I! And since I’ve been listening to travel podcasts for the last fifteen years, I just can’t resist the chance to try it for myself, just this once.
So today we’re deviating a bit from our usual focus on creative teaching. Because sometimes travel helps recharge creative teacher batteries! Plus, if you love travel, you can build it into your curriculum with a virtual travel research project, so really, this episode can count as curriculum research… right?
Eastern Europe might seem – from a distance – to be somehow stuck in a gray post-Communist cloud, but boy-oh-boy, the part that I’m in sure isn’t! So come with me today on a little tour of my family’s favorite spots in this part of the world. And I hope someday they become some of your favorites too!
You can listen in to this episode 180 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Of all the places we’ve been in the last two years of living abroad, there are a few that we keep going back to. They’re our favorite favorites, and I want to share them with you. Two are cities, one is a region, and one is a whole country (and we just can’t get enough).
First let’s get situated. Take a look at the area that’s circled on the map below. The area we’re talking about is East of Italy, North of Greece, and West of Ukraine.
Let’s start up North with…
We’ve been to Prague four times now, and it feels a little different every time. I’ve walked through huge rally in support of Ukraine, run over the Charles Bridge in the early morning mist, happened upon a music video shoot, wandered through the Christmas markets with wide eyes and freezing cold toes, and played games of Klask with my kids over popcorn at Bohemia Boards and Brews.
Prague is colorful and fun. The city feels both old-world and modern, even whimsical. The old traces of communism have been wiped out, except for a tiny (and amazing) museum called The Museum of Communism that sits perched above a McDonalds in a busy shopping street.
If you’re going to go, I have a few top recommendations for you.
You’ll want to wander the Old Town and visit the square with the astronomical clock. Watch the clock do its show on the hour with the crowd. You might be a bit underwhelmed unless you remember its been doing that same show for more than 500 years.
Criss-cross the Charles Bridge in different lights and weathers. Loiter along to see the art shared by vendors across the bridge, and if you’re lucky, take in some live music on the Old Town end.
Wander up to the Castle on the hill, or go even further to Prague’s own mini Eiffel tower, which gives a great view out over the city (and shakes a bit in the wind!).
When you get hungry, try Laboratorio della Pizza, Artic Bakehouse, or The Bakeshop. Look for Trdelnik, also called “Chimney Cake,” roasted cinnamon sugar donuts baking on spits over coals all over the city. You can fill them with ice cream, whipped cream, fruit, or Nutella. Tough to go wrong.
A decade or so ago my husband and I visited Budapest and had the worst time. The heat in our Airbnb didn’t work, and the bus we took to the Museum of Communist Sculptures didn’t come back to get us for four hours, though we were able to lap the (freezing cold outdoor) museum in about 30 minutes.
So it’s a bit ironic that Budapest is now our FAVORITE weekend away. Seriously, we love this city. If you’re going to go to Budapest, there are a few absolutely vital stops…
Visit the baths. Szechenyi is the most famous, and honestly definitely really cool. But not super kid friendly. There are a LOT more options to check out. Explore beyond the most popular with this rundown from Offbeat Budapest (a website you’ll for sure want to bookmark if you visit Budapest).
Take a walk. Explore along the river and check out the huge parliament building, go up liberty hill and look back down over the city, and/or wend your way up and over to Fisherman’s Bastion.
Check out the singing fountain on Margaret Island. It’s more fun than you might expect, with fifteen minute choreographed shows and smiling people sitting on every bench to take it all in.
EAT. Budapest tastes so good. Get a gelato flower at the incredible Gelarto Rosa, grab macarons at Chez Dodo, make a reservation and enjoy lunch at the ruin bar Mazel Tov (we’re obsessed), and definitely definitely go to Arán bakery for morning pastries.
Perhaps most important of all, go to The Flipper Museum (think Pinball) right when it opens, and stay for hours. If you’ve ever enjoyed an arcade game, this free-play museum featuring a hundred or so amazing classic arcade games and pinball machines is going to send you to the land of nostalgic bliss. My son chose a weekend of the Pinball museum with his dad as his 11th birthday party and he has NO REGRETS. (I think they stayed in the museum for a combined ten hours across two days).
A special note for Christmas-oriented winter travelers! Budapest is my #1 recommendation for travel in this region (we also LOVED the Frankfurt Christmas market, but that’s way over in Germany). There are multiple huge and gorgeous Christmas markets with light shows, a huge ice skating rink in the central park up by Szechenyi baths, and (almost) all the same fun things to do as the rest of the year!
Let’s put it this way, my husband and I frequently have conversations about possibly living in Croatia one day. I still haven’t been to a single place there that I didn’t love and want to come back to. In fact, we’re going with some of our best friends from Bratislava in just a few weeks so we can re-visit Plitvice Lakes in another season…
So let’s do a quick rundown of the places we’ve been…
Rovinj is gorgeous in warm weather. It’s considered Instagram heaven, and every woman seems to be wearing the same style of blue or white flowy dresses or flowy pants (yes, I bought both while I was there). The little nooks and crannies of the pedestrian old town are lovely, and the sea is peeking through all over the place. Everyone gathers along the coast to swim during the day (find a calm area without tons of rocks) and watch the sunset at night.
Zagreb is the busy hub where capital energy meets fun restaurants and bookshops galore. It’s a great place to stop for a night or two on your way elsewhere.
Zadar is striking for its public art. Be sure to see The Greeting to the Sun and sit by the Sea Organ a few different times so you hear different music. We spent a loooot of time on the pay-to-play public trampolines nearby and got some great ice cream at Bob Rock’s Ice Cream shop.
Krka National Park and Plitvice National Park are both STUNNING places to hike and photograph waterfalls. Plitvice is much more well known, so expect a ton of people in summer – book your entry tickets online way in advance! Honestly, we loved both.
Dubrovnik is sooooo popular these days, so try to visit in the off season if you’re going to go. When we visited in February it was lovely and relaxed, though the ferry out to the nearby island was shut down for the season. We enjoyed wandering, playing on the rocks at the beach, and especially hiking up the hillside behind the city for far-reaching views over the Dalmatian coast.
We also took a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovinia. This small town has the most beautiful stone bridge across its gorge, and a lovely market of art, pottery, and jewelry on the pedestrian road leading up to it.
Lake Bled was one of our first favorite European cities, way back when we lived in Bulgaria before we had kids. We visited for New Year’s, and were enchanted by the torchlit procession around the lake and the fireworks over the island. Plus, we wanted to eat pizza at Pizza Rustika every day for the rest of our lives.
It’s still just as nice!
This region of Slovenia is just stunning, but the word is out, so expect to share the area with lots of other folks in summer.
Wander around Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, visit the island at Lake Bled, go paddleboarding and hiking, explore Vintgar gorge (a short hike you should book a ticket for) and Mostnica gorge (a short or long paid hike – buy your ticket in the woods on the way). Mostnica is truly stunning, with the option to go way up the mountain and stop at one of two huts for lunch and pie. You can’t get a much prettier view for lunch!
In the summertime, there are a ton of things to do in this area with kids, including water obstacle courses, rock climbing, horse back riding, paragliding, treetop playgrounds, and more.
Ooh, I almost forgot. Try the Lake Bled cream cake – it really is delicious. We like the Zima pastry shop for cream cake, but it’s everywhere!
There are More, but…
OK, friends. I could share about more places – the Tatras mountains of Slovakia and the lovely spots in Vienna certainly pop to mind. BUT, I’m guessing you’ll be in this region for one or two weeks, so I wanted to share our absolute favorites.
You can build an amazing trip out of these destinations, and I think you’ll have more fun going slow and relaxing into them than trying to pack an itinerary with seven or eight different locations.
That’s just me though, you do you! Thanks for hanging out with me on this whirlwind tour of East Central Europe.