Thankfully the days of totalitarian communism are all well behind us. And while the new gems in the crown of Europe's great tourist cities don't shimmer quite as gloriously as when they first became open to visitors, back in the 90s, the cities of Eastern Europe remain remarkable opportunities. They bring together breathtaking architecture, delicious food, ancient cultures, affordable prices and people who remain free from tourism-overload cynicism.
Here are our top three on the list of must-see cities:
If #3 takes you by surprised, we're not surprised. Its charms remain still widely unacknowledged in mainstream tourism. This fact likely contributes to its appeal. We offer fair warning, though, don't wait too long or this lovely gem could be swamped by the time you get there.
Known as little Paris, because of its French influence, this wonderful city has survived the bleakest of the bleak Iron Curtain totalitarians much better than one could have hoped. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, before the Communists got hold of it, Bucharest underwent a developmental flowering.
This included great achievements in architecture and culture. Noteworthy among these were construction of Bucharest University, Grand Hotel du Boulevard, the Botanical Garden, the Atheneum, and the iconic Casa Capsa.
In general, the city's wide, tree-lined boulevards, glorious Belle Epoque buildings and a reputation for high style, has provided it its well deserved little Paris moniker. A bustling metropolis, Romania's largest city and capital is an absolute must see if you're in search of the East's best European cities.
Admittedly, the second spot on our list is a little more obvious. Don't make the mistake though of allowing familiarity to put you off of this wonderful destination. If Prague is an obvious choice for such a list; it comes by the reputation honestly.
A city awash in dazzling architecture, it is replete with unending eye-candy vistas of bridges, cathedrals, gold-tipped towers and church domes. Perhaps most impressively it somehow is able to beautifully blend the old, medieval center characterized by cobbled lanes, walled courtyards, cathedrals and countless church spires, with the modern city, packed with excellent fine dining restaurants, and all the sublime music and art you could wish for.
Of course, when visiting Prague one must see the iconic sights: the Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle/St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Old Town Square, with its well-known Astronomical Clock. Don't stop there, though. The city has many other intriguing secrets.
Top on our list are the cafes of Prague. Well, sure, you may say, the city is famous for its grand cafes. True, but did you know that the real gems, which most tourists never even see, are tucked away up on what they call the first floor? That's where you look to find the city's most refined and atmospheric downtown cafes.
It is amazingly that these are overlooked by most tourists. All the better for you. You'll be left speechless by the elegance and refinement of the period interiors. The coffee is dependably exquisite and the clientele always well appointed in the old European way. Top recommendations are the Grand Cafe Orient above the Cubist Museum and Cafe Louvre. The latter, I'm told, was once of haunt of both Kafka and Einstein.
Anyone who thought Prague a bit too obvious might be more intrigued by our number one choice. Krakow has some of Europe's best kept secrets of Europe, in its elegant architecture and old world charm. The eateries of Krakow possess a well deserved reputation for their quaint ambiance and excellent cuisine, all offered at very reasonable prices.
Don't, though, let its relative freshness on the tourist trail mislead you. Krakow is no longer undiscovered. Steven Spielberg's awarding film, Shindler's List, both shot and based on events that took place here, has changed all that. The tourism at this point, though, remains located in very specific parts of town. If you want to get away and see the real Krakow, it still can be done. The best tip we can offer is this: get over to Podgrze.
It is a working-class area slowly being revitalized by bohos fleeing the touristy center and Jewish district. The Laetus Bernatek footbridge has opened up this area for easy access. It's just that most tourists don't venture across it. The area has plenty of bars and cafes, for all tastes, that give you some sense of life in Krakow before the movie buffs started to arrive.
One place we would highly recommend, though, is Klub Drukarnia. It is a swinging jazz club and offers the bonus of being able to enjoy spectacular sunset vistas over the Wisla River. The club's basement is the setting for frequent concerts and DJ nights. Features include a saloon-style smoking room and a smarter side with velvet seats and a long bar with huge windows providing a glorious panorama over the river.
Much as you might enjoy the music and food of Podgrze, the real attraction on this side of the river is Liban Quarry. This place is something else. It's a must-see. Honestly, the term surreal may get overused, but it's perfectly chosen for this place. Originally the quarry of a 19th century Jewish owned limestone company, the Nazis converted it into a forced labor camp. Perhaps they felt there was some irony. The price of this irony was many people's lives; forced labor, when enforced by those as serious as the Nazis, meant worked to death.
After the war it was dedicated as a memorial to the victims of the atrocities. Over the decades, though, the city has turned its back on the place leaving it to be reclaimed by nature. It has become a kind of spontaneous wildlife sanctuary, now: home to waterfowl, birds of prey, pheasants and various other animals - including the occasional apparently wild horse. The rusting refinery equipment and memorial gravestones, with the looming limestone cliffs, have given way to ponds and dense vegetation. I'll leave you to speculate on the symbolism.
It is quite possible that your visit to Liban Quarry leaves you a tad spooked. If so, I'd suggest a warming evening nightcap. On the journey back across the bridge from Podgrze two delightful cafes options sit just on the city side of the bridge. Mostowy Art Cafe is the larger one: an elegant gallery cafe. For those preferring a more subdued option, right next door is Po Drodze: a cosy old kitchen cafe. Spicing up your coffee with a vodka shot may be just the thing.
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