12 countries, 3000 kilometres and 43 hours of pure travel time. Do you have what it takes to retrace this epic Eastern European travel bucket list?
One of the great advantages of travelling across Europe is the geographical proximity of its countries and the ability to tick off a variety of destinations in a relatively short period of time. Programmes such as Interrail or Interflix offer different ticket options that allow unlimited use of public transport on certain routes, or across all of Europe for a specific period. This way, you can not only save on travel expenses but also get an insight into an abundance of cultures, cuisines and lifestyles. We have found the easiest way to combine multiple top bucket list destinations, making it quick and easy to visit many countries in one trip.
For the first part of our Europe trip bucket list adventure, we travel mainly through Central and Eastern Europe, where the most diverse cultures are as close to each other as nowhere else. Depending on the criteria, about 17 countries are counted as countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with only about 3000km from the northernmost (Tallinn, Estonia) to the southernmost point (Saranda, Albania). Here we go.
Stop 1: Berlin
We start our journey in Berlin, Germany – thanks to its central location it is the ideal base camp for our following excursions to more eastern realms and itself most definitely worth a visit. Plus, Berlin has several airports and is easy to reach, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find cheap flights from most (European) countries. Depending on your length of stay, a visit to Berlin can be organised in a variety of ways.
Not only the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are a must here. The goal should be to get to know the fabled special atmosphere of the city, which can best be captured in neighbourhoods such as Prenzlauerberg, Kreuzberg or Berlin-Friedrichshain. Berlin combines history, zeitgeist and contemporary zero-waste minimalism movements in a colourful mix of bold individuality, vintage Adidas nostalgia and artistic Enlightenment (at least that seems to be the intended goal of many).
Stop 2: Prague
Next stop is Prague, Czech Republic, a city that is loved by its visitors like children love their mother – or at least that’s what Franz Kafka wrote about the city almost one hundred years ago. To anyone walking the cobbled streets and exploring the narrow alleys of Prague today it likely won’t seem like a stretch either.
Prague is a destination on the bucket list of many travellers – and rightfully so. Its pointy gothic towers that characterise the cityscape in such a unique way are not the only reason you will want to return here. Prague has become an international metropolis yet has preserved its special character.
Stop 3: Krakow
The journey continues to Krakow, Poland, the deliberately chosen alternative to the capital of the country, Warsaw. The train ride should take about 7 hours and a sleeping compartment can be booked relatively cheaply, but where is the fun in that? Your experience won’t be authentic if you didn’t spend at least a few hours wedged between two armrests trying to change your sleeping position 17 times within 30 minutes and then end up falling into the lap of the unknown person sitting next to you.
Arriving in Krakow, you will step into a fairytale with a medieval town centre, gothic towers and the remains of the city wall. Rich in history, the Polish capital of hearts provides an insight into a deeply rooted culture as well as into a young, buzzing nightlife. Maybe it would be a good idea not to continue the journey in the early morning hours of the next day.
Stop 4: Vienna
The next destination on our list can again be reached within 7 hours (with or without sleeping compartment) and is the Austrian capital Vienna. Piano music echoes across the impressive squares and elegant streets of one of Europe’s most affluent cities, sometimes to such an extent that the line between gallant and cheesy seems almost blurred.
Known for its magnificent castles and baroque buildings, Vienna is the perfect destination to follow the historic footsteps of the Austrian Empire and to immerse yourself in one of Europe’s cultural and political centres. For a shallower, but by no means less interesting recreational option, the Wiener Prater, an amusement park near the Danube Island, offers a sheer endless choice of rides with restaurants, clubs and bars nearby.
Stop 5: Bratislava
Following the Danube, Budapest will be the next stop on our journey but not without a short stopover in Bratislava, Slovakia. With less than half a million inhabitants, Bratislava is the largest city in the country and one of the smaller capitals of Europe. Just a few hours are enough for a visit: the old town centre, the viewing platform UFO and the castle Bratislava are attractions especially worth seeing.
Although you will have heard comments like “Bratislava? What’s come over you?!”, ignore the naysayers. The winding alleys and especially the food make up in charm and excellent flavours what Bratislava lacks in size.
Stop 6: Budapest
But now it’s finally time to head to Budapest, Hungary. Due to some similarities to Vienna, many travellers choose only one of the two cities (but why decide if you can have both?).
For those who believe in the healing powers of thermal water that has hundreds of visitors bobbing around in it, the Széchny Spa is a must, especially in winter, when the hot steam rises into the cold Hungarian sky. Also standing in the sign of water, the Fisherman’s Bastion on the western side of the Danube was built for a fishing guild in the early 20th century and is worth seeing – there are aquatic options for hydrophiles both with and without germaphobia.
Stop 7: Zagreb
The next long train journey, from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia is imminent. Time may be filled by taking another nap on the person sitting next to you, or by practicing your Slav Squat, a skill you should have acquired on your journey so far (we just wouldn’t advise trying both at the same time).
Zagreb is divided into three districts, two of them, Gornji Grad and Donji Grad, are unbelievably beautiful and full of museums, galleries and architectural masterpieces (you can confidently skip the third part, Novi Zagreb).
Stop 8: Sarajevo
Back on the road our next stop is Sarajevo, Bosnia. Due to the length of the route, it is advisable to repeat the aforementioned interim measures during the journey. Once in Sarajevo, you should definitely stop in Stari Grad (Old Town), one of the four municipalities of Sarajevo.
Stari Grad shines with its atmospheric streets and towering buildings as the jewel of the city, which will transport you – complete with the smell of cevapcici up your nose – to another time.
Stop 9: Belgrade
As hard as it may be to leave this place, it is time to move on to Belgrade, Serbia, a city that will quickly cheer you up with Torta, Krofne and Palachinke. Belgrade is often referred to as the cultural centre of South-Eastern Europe and justifies a visit with ease.
The city is regarded as a colourful melting pot of art, culture and cuisine, and the rivers Danube and Sava also kiss here. If you happen to visit in autumn, try to get tickets for the No Sleep Festival in November!
Stop 10: Sofia
After a few sleepless nights, we continue our journey to Sofia, Bulgaria, the tenth stop of our trip. The capital of Bulgaria had engraved itself into our collective memory mainly by being the light-blue coloured card that no one ever wanted to buy in Euro Monopoly.
But like Sleeping Beauty, Sofia seems to wake up from its slumber, drawing in an increasing number of tourists in search of destinations off the beaten track. Thanks to its 16(!) universities, Sofia is a popular student city with bohemian art districts and an up-and-coming nightlife – and all this at the foot of the Vitosha Mountain, so nature lovers are also taken care of.
Stop 11: Skopje
We are nearing the end of our Eastern European bucket list adventure, but not without visiting Skopje, Macedonia. About a quarter of Macedonian citizens call Skopje their home, about half of all inhabitants of Macedonia commute to the capital during the week and even mother Theresa had chosen this city to be her birthplace in 1910.
Surrounded by dramatic mountains and turquoise shimmering lakes, Skopje flourishes as a vibrant city, mirroring the landscape surrounding it.
Stop 12: Tirana
As the southernmost country in Eastern Europe, Albania is the final destination on our bucket list – Tirana, Albania to be more precise. Fun Fact: Tirana is one of the few European capitals without McDonalds – and you certainly will not miss it. In Albania, you can enjoy predominantly Mediterranean cuisine with Italian influences, due to the close relationship between the two countries.
As the final stop of our adventure, Tirana completes our journey with a mix of austere Soviet concrete buildings, 1930s Italian architecture and Ottoman minarets.
After a total distance of approximately 3000km covered, and a travel time of about 43 hours – with an average travel time of 4.5 hours per trip – our journey comes to an end. 12 countries can be ticked off your European bucket list, and you will certainly have made many memories to take home with you. For the complete route you should plan about 4-5 weeks, but of course you can choose individual sections of the trip if work or study duty calls – although who’s to say we shouldn’t be measuring success by the number of ugly kitchen magnets bought or items of clothing lost on the road anyway?
If this life philosophy speaks to you, you can even continue your journey with a Northern or Western Europe bucket list adventure (blog posts to follow).
P.S: In case 43 hours on board buses and trains seems off-putting, you’ll need a mere 675 hours (and three pairs of iron shoes) to walk the entire route.