Dubrovnik is one of those places that somehow just doesn’t seem quite real. Is it a fairy tale? A place in Game of Thrones (which used it as a filming location) or Lord of the Rings? But no, Dubrovnik is the thriving southmost city of Croatia, the EU’s latest member. Vibrant, busy and loud, the streets of this small but beloved city thrumb with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula full of
The Palace of Culture and Science ((Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish) was originally built by and named for its creator, Joseph Stalin. Much hated by the Varsovians, during the “destalinization” of Poland, Stalin’s named was effaced from the palace. It has many nicknames – Pekin (its abbreviation, PKiN, sounds similar); pajac (meaning clown), Stalin’s Needle, or my favourite, Chuj Stalina, which means (you guessed it) Stalin’s Dick. It is a hated monument. Varsovians joke that the Palace of Culture and Science offers the best view of Warsaw because it’s the only place in the city where the Palace itself doesn’t ruin the view! Erected in 1955 and meant as a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people (thanks Stalin, much appreciated…), it was built in the Communist totalitarianism style common in USSR-controlled territories (the most famous being the Seven Sisters of Moscow). After WWII, Poland was under Russian rule. The war destroyed some 85% of Warsaw, leaving massive piles of rubble, en masse homelessness and thousands of displaced families. It was the Communist Russians who rebuilt the city (the Old Town is really only half a century old, though based on what the city looked like with smuggled blueprints, paintings and memories). But outside the old town, much of Warsaw has the typical “communist look” – concrete functionalist totalitarianism style favoured by the USSR – with the Palace of Culture and Science the biggest and baddest of all the Stalinist architecture. Today, the palace hosts exhibits, office space, an omniplex, museums of technology and evolution, a pool, a university, shops and of course the observation tower. Though some say that the Palace of Culture and Science is a symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth, persistence and strength in face of adversary, if you want to see this controversial tower, we suggest that go now as many have called for its demolition.
Pro tip: Want to know more about Warsaw in WWII? Visit the fantastic Warsaw Uprising museum. Then take a walk through what used to be the Jewish ghetto (marked with brass lines on the street) to get a wider sense of everyday Soviet-era architecture. There is also a memorial to a Gestapo prison in this neighbourhood (Muzeum Więzienia Pawiak). And of course as mentioned above, take the chance to get the lift to the 30th floor for the panoramic view of the city.
Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
While most of Poland is flat, Poland’s southern border with Czechia, Slovakia and Ukraine to the south has some sizeable mountains. Poland’s mountains come in two groups, the Carpathian’s (most famously associated with Romania, bit stretching through a good bit of the Balkans and Eastern Europe) on the eastern half of Poland’s southern realms, and the Sudetes, on its western side. The most well known of these are the Tatras Mountains and the Beskid Mountains, both part of the Carpathian range. While the Tatras are Poland’s most significant mountains, none of Poland’s mountainous terrain is enough to prevent habitation, and the Tatras are especially popular as idyllic mountain getaways. The most famed mountain resort is of course Zakopane, well known for its winter skiing and summer hiking. Rising up behind the town is Gubałówka Mountain. At 1,126m elevation, it provides commanding views over the surrounding Tatras and out to the Slovakian peaks, whose border is just a dozen or so kilometres away. Gubałówka Mountain is serviced by a funicular, opened in 1938 to allow non-hikers to enjoy the view at this new and fashionable ski resort, though to fully appreciate the Tatras mountains and Polish countryside, it’s recommended to hike to the top of this hill too. The top is a cacophony of shops (many selling the same cheap souvenirs), festivities, bars and restaurants as well as stunning views and adorable chalets. Even if resort towns aren’t your cup of tea, Zakopane is a great jumping off point to arrive in the region, get your bearings and prepare for you hiking adventure. Because Poland’s beautiful and quiet only mountainous region is one of the loveliest places to walk in all of Europe !
Pro tip: The queue for the funicular can be quite long – if you want to take it, arrive early. It costs 14 zl, and takes 4 minutes. Walking up Gubałówka takes about an hour, and from there, you have access to a network of other trails. There are many trails in the area, as well as further into the Tatras and into the Beskids too – here are some near Zakopane. If you are hiking in this region, don’t miss the spectacular wooden churches, many of which are UNESCO protected.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, red-brick turrets of a fairytale castle rise through the waves of golden trees on a crisp autumn day. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To though there is a bus, a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of castle ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificently eerie woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. Today there is a small folk park area and sculpture garden outside, as well as the castle of towers, walls and outbuildings. Though of course Turaida Castle is still an impressive place when arriving by bus or car, hiking through the quiet trails of the Gauja River Valley from Sigulda Train Station, and exploring the region on foot is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
Pro tip: Pick up a map from the Sigulda Train Station and hike to the castle! The Gauja River Valley is magical to explore on foot. You’ll have to take the cable car to Krimulda, which operates daily from 10-18h30 (or 17h in winter), and currently costs €12 (the views are worth it!). The whole hike is about 5km with deviations to Sigulda Castle or Gutmanis Cave adding a wee bit more on. Once you visit the castle, you can then take the bus back to Sigulda. There is a tiny (and very simple) restaurant near the castle, but you may want to bring a picnic. Cable car info here.
Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.
Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.
Have you ever wondered where the world’s heaviest building might be? If so, you probably didn’t imagine you’d find it in Romania… and yet, there it is. The Palace of the Parliament in downtown Bucharest, capital of Romania, claims the crown, weighing in at an incredible 4,098,500,000 kilograms (9.0356×109 lb)! Immense, colossal, intimidating and jaded, this massive relic of Romania’s not-so-distant Soviet past and their affinity for everything concrete, it took a team of 700 architects 13 years (from 1884 – 1997) to bring the Palace of the Parliament into existence. The building is everything you’d expect from the Soviet Era. A gem of Totalitarian architecture, it is a massive undertaking, involving an impressive amount of human labour, complicated architectural skill and huge amounts of building materials, showing off to the rest of the world the Soviet might, skill and technology on the edge of the USSR’s communist reaches. Despite its austere exterior, inside it is ornate and decadent, meant to dazzle the visitor with a different sort of might, in line with many other Communist-era constructions (the Moscow Metro springs to mind! And yes it’s true – if you ever visit Moscow, you have to visit its underground, it is indeed a tourist attraction). Today the Palace of Parliament houses the Parliament of Romania as well as some museums, and is worth visiting inside or out to appreciate its sheer size and the power it still exudes even decades after the clouds of Communism have settled and blown away.
Pro tip: Want to visit inside? Make sure you book over the phone 24h in advance; be sure to have your passport ready for inspection. Looking for some refreshments afterwards? Just a 10 minute walk away, head to Abel’s Wine Bar, a chic, hipster sort of place with delicious local Romanian wines and beers. There are plenty of reds and whites – be sure to try a local wine! Prefer beer? We recommend you taste the local microbrewery Ground Zero. You might not find these beers outside of Bucharest – which is a shame because it’s delicious!
In the far-flung province of Transylvania, there’s an even more far-flung corner, a little-visited region called Hunedoara. Far off the tourism radar, Hunedoara is remote, agricultural, and lost in time. Towering over the plains and village of Hunedoara are the Retezat Mountains National Park, part of the famed Carpathian Mountains. With about 20 peaks pushing over 2300m (7500 feet), the Retezat Mountains, like the rest of their cousins in the Carpathians, are a force to be reckoned with. However, quiet Hunedoara, tucked into the foothills of the Retezats, is a place caught in a time capsule. It is a place of dusty villages and traditional dress, of ancient plows and horse and carts and even Roma gypsy palaces. Here, you’ll find another side to Romania, one quite far from that of the cosmopolitan centres of Bucharest and Brasov. At one moment in history part of Dacia, the Roman Empire, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania, the Soviet Union, and modern-day Romania, Hunedaora is a region accustomed to change and turbulent times. Today, though, no place could be quieter and off-the-beaten-track.
Pro tip: Hiking in the Rezetat Mountains is no joke, and should only be done by experienced and well-prepared hikers – even better with a local guide. Otherwise, there are plenty of villages and lower-level foothills to explore. Hateg is a good base. The town of Hunedora may not be beautiful – but its Corvinus Castle sure is!
Huddled on the banks of River Daugava, Riga is a town recognised for its architectural beauty and rich culture. As the capital of Latvia, and one of the three main cultural centres in the Baltics region of northeast Europe (the others being Tallinn and Vilnius), Riga is a blend of old world charm and cosmopolitan busyness. Architecturally, it is composed of a medieval city Old Town, unique art nouveau facades and gothic and baroque spires, such as this one here. Perched atop St Peter’s Church at the heart of Riga, the 130-metre-high baroque steeple is the city’s tallest spire. This steeple dates back to WWII when the church was rebuilt after the city was torn apart during the war. This new structure was based on a former tower erected in the 1720s, replacing a previous structure that was struck by lighting in 1721 which in turn replaced one that collapsed in 1666. In fact, at one point in the late 1690s, St Peter’s Church was the highest wood building in the world! The oldest version of this spire dates all the way back to the end of the 15th century, while St Peter’s Church itself was consecrated in 1209 (though little remains of that original construction). The basilica we see today is from the 15th century in all of its baroque and gothic fashion. In 1997, Riga’s Old Town was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites – among the sites called out for their particular beauty, heritage and culture was of course St Peter’s Church.
Pro tips: A stone’s throw away is the famed House of Blackheads, a unique baroque guildhall. Pick up one of the Like A Local maps which shows streets and iconic sights but also less-known sights recommended by local citizens as well as food recommendations. One such recommendation is a lovely teacup-sized family-run restaurant, Varzoba, located very close to both St Peter’s Church and the House of Blackheads. Not sure what to get? Let them choose! You won’t regret it.
When most people envision European travel itineraries, not many include Romania – a country that gets a bad rep. Though it has one of Europe’s lowest salary averages, it also has one of Europe’s highest economical increases in recent years. It’s taken awhile for Romania to get on its feet, but it was worth the wait! Deep in the Transylvanian woodlands is the beautiful and not-so-famous city of Sibiu. Climb the stairs into the lovely old town of Sibiu, a true masterpiece of medieval marvels with towers, walls and historic houses. Like cities in Poland, Croatia,Lithuania and most other Eastern European countries, Sibiu (and other Romanian cities) is a colourful labyrinth of brightly-painted streets. Like other Transylvanian cities – such as Sighisoara and Brasov – Sibiu packs a bundle. From vast public squares to tiny, hidden-away bookshops, from beautiful church spires to streets lined with nothing but restaurants, Sibiu has something for everyone. Despite being a European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu is still a relatively undiscovered this eastern charm. Originally a Daco-Roman settlement (Dacia was the name of the region before the Romans conquered), Sibiu exploded in size and economy when it as re-founded by the 12th century settlers from Saxony (modern-day Germany), concreting it as one of the most important medieval trade centres in this part of Europe. Later joining the state of Transylvania thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI, Sibiu once again changed hands – this time to finally become part of modern-day Romania.
Pro tip: La Taifas restaurant on the main Piata Mare has a nice terrace, great view and they do good food – including nice veggie dishes and delicious spritz, though there are many other restaurants on the smaller streets around the main plaza.
Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
Neither Slovakia nor its capital city of Bratislava are places that often make travel wish-lists of grand tours of Europe. At the heart of Eastern Europe, Bratislava and Slovakia in general has always been a place swept under the rug of larger powers. Though Bratislava may not have the charm of some other Central and Eastern European cities (such as Prague, Vienna or Krakow), its cobbled streets, ancient churches, quirky statues and mosaic roofs are well worth the wander. And then of course there is the castle, rebuilt “recently” after a fire gutted the estate. Today, its shimmering white towers float in the fog on a hilltop above the city. Though Slovakia is on the Euro, the country is still good value for money, and the fact that it isn’t as famous as its neighbours means that you won’t be fighting tourism crowds while still enjoying a fairly authentic experience. Start by wandering the old narrow streets in the morning – you’ll probably have them all to yourself at this hour. Visit the castle and the Blue Church, say hello to Cumil then have some lunch – be sure to try some Slovakian crepes (called palacinky) as well as a glass of local beer such as Bazant Radler. If you stay for the evening, you’re in for a treat – Bratislava is meant to have a great nightlife scene and is quite popular with hen and stag parties!
Pro tip: Bratislava is only about an hour away from Vienna, and the cities make a good combination (Vienna is bigger but Bratislava is far more cost effective). Bratislava Airport is a good alternative access point to the region to Vienna’s airport.
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.
One of Europe’s most fascinating Renaissance castles can be found tucked away under the Carpathian Mountains that march across the mysterious and beautiful country of Romania. Amongst Romania’s most famed sites, Peles Castle is actually a neo-Renaissance fortress. Built on what was once an important trade route linking Wallachia and Transylvania – Romania’s two principal trade regions – Peles Castle was inaugurated in 1883, making it one of Europe’s younger castles. Inside and out, expect grandeur, over-the-top luxury, and a clear exertion of King Carol I’s power. Peles Castle and the Alpine-esque resort town of Sinaia came about in the late 1800s when King Carol of Romania fell in love with the dramatic mountain scenery. It was under King Carol that Romania gained its independence (1877). The king wanted a regal yet original mountain resort, rejecting anything that wasn’t grand and unique. In the end, he went for German architect Johannes Schultz’s proposal, a grand palatial Alpine castle that combines the most distinctive and appealing features of classic European castles, including styles born of the Italian and later German Renaissance. In a way, this approach to locating the very best of European castles makes Peles Castle all the more fairytale!
Pro tip: Peles Castle and nearby resort town of Sinaia can be quite touristy – best to visit in the off season if possible. Take a stroll around the grounds of Peles Castle at sunset – the views will be stunning, and as the castle is closed at that hour, you’ll have the estate to yourself.
Other Neo Renaissance Fairytale Castles of Europe Built to Impress
Neuschwanstein Castle – similar to Peles, this castle was built in the 1800s by a king looking for a regal and quintessential fairytale castle
Kreuzenstein Castle – This castle is actually a hodgepodge of different castles, imported and re-constituted together after the original building was destroyed
Chateau de Chenonceau – One of the many chateaux of the Loire Valley, Chenonceau stretching over the river is the picture of elegance.
Chateau de Chambord– Another Loire Valley chateau, this massive castle takes the concept of royal hunting lodge to the extreme.
Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.
Pro tip: Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes.
Built in 2011 to house the 2012 UEFA Europe Cup, Stadion Narodowy or the National Stadium is Poland’s biggest – with seating room for around 58,000 spectators! (Other UEFA stadiums included Poznan, Wrocław, Gdańsk and Kiev). Red and white like the Polish flag, is has a retractable roof (Poland can get chilly and snowy at times as seen in the image!), and stands proud on the Wisła River, one of Poland’s (and Warsaw’s!) main arteries. Located in the Praga district, this once-seedy area of the city has seen fantastic urban revival in the past decade, and is now one of Warsaw’s hippest new neighbourhoods with the modern architecture of Stadion Narodowy the crown jewel. The Polish people are enormous football fans, and very proud of both their national teams as well as their own local teams (friendly rivalry between regions is common!). On a games night, the National Stadium, and indeed much of the Praga district, explode and rock with noise, support and red and white flags! One of the best ways to connect with the Polish and immerse yourself in the culture no matter how brief your visit, is to catch a match with the locals! Stadion Narodowy is the best place to watch as nothing beats its ambience, but if you can’t get there, don’t worry – head downtown to one of the many sporty bars to see the match and root for the national team!
Pro tip: Even if you don’t manage to get a Polish football jersey, be sure to get yourself a Polska football scarf before your match! Not only are you showing your support, it makes for a great souvenir!
Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia
If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though it’s important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines!
Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible. For amazing views of the Kremlin, St Basils and more, take a sunset cruise on the Moskva River.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
Snowflakes fall softly on the colourful facades of Poznan’s Stary Rynek (main square). Vibrant and beautiful, Poznan is one of Poland’s most lively towns rain or shine or snow. Centred on the Stary Rynek, Poznan’s old town was once a walled city though the walls were sadly taken down to expand this growing city in the 1800s. In the centre of this magnificent square is the Ratusz, or the Town Hall, the pride and glory of the city of Poznan. On the clock tower there are two goats, referring to a legend involving burnt dinner, an angry lord, a desperate cook, a couple of escapist goats (read more here), which chimes every day. Besides the to-die-for architecture, Poznan offers many museums, monuments, churches and cathedrals. There are dozens and dozens of eateries, restaurants, cafes and bars. Poznan also has a significant student population which goes hand-in-hand with a thriving nightlife. Visit the many bars to taste the local beers and liqueurs as well as the local cuisine!
Pro tip: For an easy way to try a few of the local beers, head to Brovaria just off the main square – a guesthouse, restaurant and brewery all in one! Order their “taster menu” to sample a few of their different wares. Poznan is only about 4 hours from Warsaw via public transport (see Polish FlixBus or PKP trains), but merits an overnight stay!
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.