Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Eastern Europe

This is a guest post by Ian from Eager Existence.

For many years Europe has been popular among the travel crowd and backpacker circuit, but the assumption is always travel in the West.

Is it because of pop culture and plenty of media coverage; or simply ease of getting around, communicating in English, and a common currency? Many have no ambition to travel to the East; when really, why not?

So where exactly is Eastern Europe?

It’s in the East, right? But where do you draw the line exactly?

Back in the Cold War days, defining the borders of Eastern Europe was easy; it was made up of all the communist countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Nowadays, it depends where you get your information. For me, Eastern Europe is everywhere east of the Adriatic Sea and west of Asia-Minor (the West side of Istanbul).

Eastern Europe according to the CIA (Wikipedia)

Just having the geographical North, East, South, and West makes life easier. Wikipedia suggests Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine as Eastern Europe. So where does that leave Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Hungary, Serbia, and Slovenia? You get the idea; let’s just say Eastern Europe is in the East.

Eastern Europe is not as unsafe as you might think. The people are genuine and friendly, things cost less, it’s easy enough to get around, there’s plenty of history and geographic diversity.

However, for the first-time traveller, travel there requires a little more flexibility (and perhaps travel planning) than Western Europe; but overall it makes it an excellent region for travel.

Safety

Hollywood movies would have you believe that Eastern Europe is an extremely dangerous place.

But in all honesty, it’s no more dangerous than anywhere else you’d travel. I think it’s a fear of the unknown that has the majority of people avoiding travel in the region.

I travelled Eastern Europe (mostly) solo, and didn’t have any trouble at all. In fact, it was North Africa and Western Europe where I had troubles with scammers and thieves.

Day 37 - West Midlands Police - Safer Travel officers on patrol

If you are really concerned, there are several well-known travel techniques to keeping yourself safe. If it’s your first time in the region, consider following the advice of a local tourist bureau, not because it’s unsafe, but because it’s quite different to the travel you’re used to.

Further Reading: Safety in the Ukraine: Avoiding Theft and Personal Danger

Culture & History

Eastern Europe has the geography, weather, and history you’d want to experience when travelling.

Bulgaria has the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Black Sea coast. I can recommend Plovdiv, Sofia, and Veliko Tarnovo.

Croatia has the beautiful blue oceans, the cliffs, and islands; as well as Roman ruins. Zadar is magical, and Vis will always hold a special place in my heart. Split, Dubrovnik, and Hvar are touristy, but definitely worth a visit.

beautiful cliff-tops, dubrovnik, croatia

Czech Republic is the beer drinking capital. But it also has beautiful historical centres like Cesky Krumlov.

Hungary has Budapest (and the Roman Baths), is completely land-locked, and has the Hungarian Sea (Lake Balaton). I spent a summer on the lake (CouchSurfing with a Grandmother) during an annual wine festival, and had one of the best summers of my life.

Eastern Europeans are friendly, warm, and still curious about foreigners. It’s not uncommon to be invited into someone’s home for a meal. I’ve met many backpackers and hitch hikers with stories of genuine hospitality and concern for their welfare.

Each country has unique cultural traditions, influences, and historical experiences.

Further Reading: The Day I held the Iron Curtain in my Hand via @insidetravellab

Challenging

Perhaps the greatest challenges you will face in your travels are the language barriers. I managed to get lost in Hungary when the clerk at the train station put me on the wrong train.

Miscommunication is somewhat common practice, but makes for great travel tales later. The fact that many places are off the backpacker circuit means that hundreds of thousands of tourists haven’t been there before you. It just means that all those little things like catching the bus, buying a meal, meeting locals, and navigating your way around become more of an adventure.

Further Reading: How to Hop Around Language Barriers via @traveldudes

Less Tourists

One of the biggest draw cards to Eastern European travel would have to be the lack of Western tourists. In many places you can move around freely without hearing English chatter, except for the hostels and bars obviously.

It’s a great “off the beaten path” feeling when you have to try and communicate with broken English or the local language. However, there are still a few well-trodden tourist places like Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia, Krakow in Poland, and Istanbul in Turkey.

travel to Eastern Europe Prague
1. Prague

Further Reading: (listening) Why You Should Visit Eastern Europe Now via @FrommersTravel

Getting Around

Flying into Eastern Europe is fairly straightforward, with budget airlines servicing major cities. Once there, train travel is a great low-cost option; although not everywhere supports the high speed Eurail network — so check before using Eurail passes. But, local trains are many and very cheap. You can check Eastern Europe train schedules on the German Train site DB Bahn.

Buses are also frequent and low-cost.

Further Reading: A Guide to Booking Travel in Eastern Europe via @WomanSeeksWorld

Budget

If you are a student, or if you have a student ID, many museums and other attractions in Eastern Europe offer a student discount when an ID is presented.

Remember, Eastern European countries aren’t on the Euro (except Greece), so you have to make use of currency exchanges. Be sure to protect yourself and your finances by going to official exchanges, but avoid using airports and hotels (they charge a higher exchange rate).

Do your research first, and establish the rates & all costs before handing over your cash. Either spend all your cash, or exchange it before leaving the country.

Most of Eastern Europe is still relatively cheap to travel through compared to the West.

Further Reading: The Cost of Traveling Far-Eastern Europe via @NomadicMatt

The Global Village

The number one reason to get to Eastern Europe now, is that the world is shrinking at a phenomenal rate. It’s not westernized yet, but who knows in a few years from now? Cities in the East are growing, and rural areas are becoming urbanized.

You’ll find Internet cafes common-place, McDonald’s here-and-there, but for the most part you can still find great off-the-beaten-track destinations.

I remember walking down the street in Hvar, I approached people asking for rooms to rent, and pretty soon found a great 3 bedroom place overlooking the town at a very reasonable price (less than a dorm bed in the West). Approaching locals for accommodation is not so common place in Western Europe, with the abundance of hostels and campsites.

More Resources for Eastern Europe:

Check out these helpful travel guides:

Our other posts:

Bio: Ian is a 20-something year old guy who gave up his career and mortgage for solo long-term travel. He travelled extensively across Europe for a year before heading onward to North Africa. Catch him on Facebook and his travel blog Eager Existence.

* images credit 1, 2, 3, 5, 7.

52 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Eastern Europe”

  1. Roy Marvelous

    Great post Ian! I actually prefer Eastern Europe because it’s less touristy and cheaper. And totally agree, the people are really genuine.

    Btw, Slovakia is on the Euro! (And why did you refer to Greece as Eastern? More like Southern Europe right? 🙂

    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      C’mon Roy! I spent ages trying to differentiate. It’s way too complicated.

      All you have to do is ask a local in whatever country you’re in. Which part of Europe is this? You will get a different answer from each person you ask, and they are locals!

      Let’s just say “Eastern Europe is in the East”.

      Thanks for catching that Slovakia is on the Euro too.

      1. I’d classify Greece as Southern… 🙂

        Poland being my native country, I can tell you tat many people in Central Europe will not identify themselves as Eastern European. It has a lot to do with the former Eastern Block’s complicated history, national feelings etc. So looking at some of the countries mentioned in this post, I feel like the title should be Central and Eastern Europe.

        Yes, Slovakia is on the Europe and I think it’s pretty unfortunate for them in some ways. They used to be much cheaper and would get e.g. people from Poland crossing the border to shop there. Things have reversed.

        1. Ian [EagerExistence]

          I really enjoyed my time in Poland. I was there during Christmas. So there was plenty of Snow. For a beginning Snowboarder like me, Zakopane was a favourite!

  2. I absolutely loved my time in Prague and Budapest–would love to go back and explore more of Eastern Europe, particularly outside of the cities. But, seriously, I’d go back just to eat more Hungarian goulash.

    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      You should always try and get a good balance “outside of the cities”! Unless you’re quite rushed for time.

  3. I’d prefer to visit Eastern over Western Europe for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. But it will have to wait until after the next two trips.

  4. Yes yes yes! I travelled to the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania in January/February and loved it. If you get away from Krakow, there aren’t that many tourists anywhere in Poland – Gdansk and Poznan are fantastic. Even in Prague, if you just get out of the city centre a bit, you’ll find places that aren’t touristy at all.

    Wonderful countries – and they’re the only three eastern European countries I’ve explored! Romania and Hungary are high on my list.

  5. Thanks for this!! I’m a HUGE fan of East European travel and I’ve been to most of the countries there. Make sure to mention the beauty of the sea in Bulgaria, the painted monasteries of Romania, and the Mediterranean food and archeological ruins in Albania!! All extremely interesting.

  6. I’ve seen a lot of travel posts on Eastern Europe lately and I’m getting even more excited to see the Czech Republic for myself! Yes, it seems a lot of people avoid traveling there compared to Western Europe, but that just means there’s so many more off the beaten path places to go that aren’t overwhelmed with tourists! I think the real issue is that people are lazy–just like in the post I read over at Nomadic Matt on why people think travel isn’t affordable (http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/how-to-go-anywhere-you-desire/). They’d rather travel to places they’d be more comfortable with rather than a place where they might not speak English.

    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      Is that laziness? Or comfort-zone… people fear what they don’t know. I know I hard a VERY hard time in a few places trying to do something as simple as buy lunch. But they make the best memories, because usually both the shopkeeper & I realised we couldn’t communicate, and had a laugh about it.

    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      Hi Debbie, I’ve been to all 3 that you’ve mentioned… and really enjoyed it. If there’s anything you want to know, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

  7. Though it is not high on my bucket list, your post is very tempting to give Eastern Europe a shot. It’s only a short flight from where I am, and I keep reading how marvelous it is. The locals sound fantastic, and from your post it appears that connecting with them was part of the experience, which definitely eases the concern of not knowing the languages.

  8. Hi,

    the picture that you reffer to as Prague is actualy one of the landmarks – Michaels Gate – but in Bratislava, Slovakia. Just saying….

    Best,

    Tibor

    1. Thanks Tibor. I’ll have to contact the photographer on Flickr who has it listed as Prague. Thanks for popping out to let us know. Great to meet you. What did you find useful or inspiring about the article? It’s always good to just say the positives as well

  9. I’m glad this region is finally on more travelers’ list. As for safety issues, if we look at both central and Eastern Europe, the region is diverse. Many of the countries have been very westernized and you won’t feel any different that you would in Western Europe. 🙂

  10. I haven’t been to eastern Europe but would like to explore by bike for at least a month – hopefully one of these Septembers.I think the language barrier will be the biggest problem but I’ve done it before and will communicate with mime, smiles and a drawing.

    1. Ian [EagerExistence]

      You’d be surprised at how far those simple techniques will get you. Most people are very happy to stop and try and communicate with a traveller.

  11. I’m heading to Eastern Europe next summer and one of my biggest hesitations is the language barrier. It will definitely be an experience!

  12. Hi Ian!
    I like what you sait:”I think it’s a fear of the unknown that has the majority of people avoiding travel in the region.” Yes, it is definitely true. At least speaking up for Slovakia. It is safe country to live and travel…
    Tom

  13. Niether Prague, nor Budapest are in Eastern Europe. Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are CIVILIZED central european countries. If you want to insult us, call us eastern europeans. After all, why do you think, that fourty years of communist oppression is able to erase previous thousand years long history. And for more than thousand years, we have been part of western civilization. Today, cold war is for more than twenty years over. It´s time to stop throwing us on the same pile with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and other dirty poor and backward eastern european countries.

    1. I don’t think this post was written with the intention to insult anyone. I think its time to bring peace into our world and move forward. IT does not matter so much as to what your label is but as to how you are spending your days trying to make your life better and therefore the greater world. I understand there may be a lot of hurt and frustration for you with previous history etc, but I don’t think insulting other nations is the best way to make a difference and create positive change.
      We really welcome people’s opinions here, and of course we love for facts to be correct, we however do not welcome insults.

    2. “Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and other dirty poor and backward eastern european countries.”

      Mr. Czech. Have you ever been to Belarus? Or is it rather your illiteracy and prejudice makes you say it? And you think the Baltic countries of Lithuana, Latvia, Estonia are not up to your standards? Well, let me disappoint you, they are in the same level as Czecho, Portugal , Greece or Italy. Go and check it out yourself.

  14. There is no hurt or frustration for me with previous history. I did not experienced it. When communism fell, I was 4 years old. All my anger arise from the fact, that Czechs don´t consider themselves to be alien to western culture. Actually, they do not separate themselves from westerners. Czechs are westerners! We share same values, same institutions, same international organizations (NATO and EU). But what is the most important, we have been part of western civilization for thousand years before communist takeover. After 1989, we simply reverted our true identity. The same can be told about Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. And, of course, about Eastern Germany (I hope, you don´t pretend, that border between „Eastern“ and „Western“ Europe is situated in the middle of Germany). If you have some basic historic knowledges, you must confirm my statements.
    Today, cold war is more than twenty years over. There is no reason to perpetuate this obsolete division, which disqualifies our countries from western word.

  15. Well stated Caz.

    This post definitely wasn’t written as an insult to any nationality or minority; if anything, it’s to encourage travel to the east of Europe.

    But there will always be trolls (and misunderstandings) on the Internet.

  16. Well, I am not troll. If I were, than every normal Czech considering himself to be central European and not easterner should be troll. And I can confirm you that virtually no Czech consider himself to be easterner. Do you really think that Czech republic has more common with Ukraine than with Austria? And this is the reason why I am angry. You implicitly claim that fourty years of oppression could overshadow previous thousand years history. Why??!

  17. Hi,
    I loved reading your post about Eastern Europe. Im going to Europe in about 5 weeks time and im really looking forward to checking out some less touristy places with some great culture. Ive already done a lot of Western Europe. Im a female and i’ll be travelling solo for the most part and was just wondering how safe it is to be travelling on my own as a first timer in Eastern and Southern Europe? I know basic common sence plays a big part, but like you said its the fear of the unknown that makes us a little hesitant towards these places.
    Linds

  18. The picture that you have captioned “Prague” is actually Bratislava, Slovakia. Slovakia is a beautiful country that is definitely worth visiting. They have the most castles per capita in the world! It is also much cheaper than, say, Prague. As far as language is concerned- English is spoken especially in larger cities, so knowledge of the local language isn’t necessary. Although if you do learn some Czech, Slovak, or Polish is could be helpful as “survival” words/ phrases in these languages are the same (with slight variations) in all three.

  19. Great article! I have travelled extensively in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and lived in Hungary. My favourite places have to be Prague, Budapest and Sarajevo (I’m more of a city person!). Whilst I think that the offended Czech person has taken this article in the wrong sense, I do agree in regards to their comment about putting the Czech Republic in the same boat as Belarus and Moldova as I feel that the Czech Republic (Prague in particular) is no different at all on a development level than many western places, it seems to me more advanced, modern and safe than many places I’ve been to in Spain, France, Germany and the UK.
    On the other hand I think calling Ukraine etc ‘dirty backwards countries’ is totally uncalled for. This poster seems to have the untrue view of these ‘backwards countries’ that English, French, Spanish etc people have of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. So it’s a little bit hypocritical I think.

  20. Allhotru Bhitrawhau

    Easternized countries (with freedom of travel) are so much more attractive to me than the westernized ones. 🙂 Soul of place is very strong. I really loved the feel of Kiev, Ukraine in the early 1980s.

  21. Pam @Skinny chick travelling

    Interesting post I must say – I got pretty upset by the title 😀 I hate that people think it’s not safe, but I assume it’s cause all the Hollywood movies or shows where there’s mafia, drugs whatever stuff taking plot comes from East Europe. I would agree is like anywhere else, is not a like we are stuck in time like Cuba. Just one thing about the language barrier – well we do speak many other languages, the problem is that British, Aussies or Americans commonly don’t speak any other then English – so it’s their fault not ours 😉

  22. Although it’s not technically an Eastern European country, Romania is also an attractive travel destination, especially when on a budget. The landscapes are beautiful, the cities have an interesting mix of “old” and “modern” elements and the local culture is really interesting. Eastern Europe in general is appealing because there are not that many tourists, at least not yet, and you can have some interesting experiences while travelling.

  23. Hi. Sorry for coming up with a remark, but there is some sensitivity in this topic; Estonia officially belongs to the Northern part of Europe. After all what this country have done to preserve its identity, the little recognition would be appreciated. Regards

  24. The map gets it about right with the definition what is “Eastern Europe”, but the text doesn’t reflect this. As travellers – and especially travel bloggers – we should be more considerate about geographic descriptions, as some of the comments here show. Even the CIA considers Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary to be Central European. I have put together 9 points which for me define Central Europe. One big hint: the geographic center of Europe is a few hundred miles northeast of Warsaw. http://urbispedes.com/why-you-shouldnt-call-eastern-europe-eastern-europe/

  25. Wonderful post, Ian! Eastern Europe is indeed safe and such an amazing place to visit. I see Slovenia isn’t included and it actually is one of the jewels of Eastern Europe (plus, nearly everyone speaks English there). Croatia is incredibly beautiful and Bulgaria is also picking up quite fast. And I totally agree with you – all these countries are to be visitted now, before everything becomes westernized (because it’s slowly happening).

  26. After HBO series more than 100 000 people visited Chernobyl. You know what I mean? Chernobyl! And they are all fine. Eastern Europe is safer than US. Particular I am talking about Ukraine.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.