Skiing in the Swiss Alps. A snowy holiday in London. Eating a Nutella crepe under the Eiffel Tower. As the colder months approach, we begin to see more of these classic winter holidays pop up in travel magazines and online travel sites. While a winter getaway in western Europe may sound like the ideal vacation, it’s neighbor to the east may hold some of the best hidden gems when it comes to a winter travel destination. Here are eight reasons why.
1. Local Cuisine (and Comfort Food): Whether it’s piping-hot meatstrudel soup, fresh potato dumplings in warm sheep cheese, or savory lamb stew, you can’t go wrong when it comes to Eastern European food. Pair it with some homemade infused Polish vodka (shoutout to Krakow's Starka Restaurant and their herbal infused vodka with honey), hot spiced wine, or take your tea the Slovakian way with honey, lemon, and a shot of Tatratea, a sweet tea-based liquor. If you’re a little bit more on the adventurous side, you’re sure to find some out-of-the-ordinary culinary gems.
2. Outdoor Holiday Markets: When it comes to Christmas markets, Eastern Europe doesn't mess around. While they may not necessarily be a “locals” spot, it’s okay to be a tourist every now and then and bask in the cheesy Christmas music and/or holiday treats. Everything is fairly inexpensive so you can try a little bit of everything…think of it as tapas style. Nothing quite says winter comfort food like steaming slow-cooked meat topped with sauerkraut on fresh, thick bread with the smell of roasted chestnuts (and yes, on an open fire) wafting by. If you’re in Prague, Budapest, or Krakow, take your pick between mulled wine, fried cheese in raspberry sauce, or chocolate covered plums…they have it all. And while you’re munching away, be sure to take a peek at some unique Christmas ornaments or one-of-a-kind handmade items.
3. Cafe Culture: Although a little outside the typically categorized “Eastern European” countries, at just over an hour drive from Bratislava, Slovakia, you’ll find the prized café culture of Vienna, Austria. If you think you take your coffee seriously, think again. At the coffeehouses in Vienna, coffee and cake are not simply a morning routine, but a lifestyle. Some of the best coffeehouses have lines out their doors that take upwards of 30 minutes just to get your morning cup of joe, and what's more, they're manned by doormen. But when you finally get to try the Original Sacher Torte and small espresso with Italian egg rum liquor and foamed milk (shoutout to Anna’s kaffee at Café Sacher), you might just think it’s well worth the wait. Looking for a coffee with a great view? Our recommendation: Get the classic Original Bled Cake and a cappuccino at the Bled Castle Restaurant which has some incredible views over the lake and island below.
4. NEATURE: If Bob Ross ever went to Eastern Europe, his mind would be blown. When it comes to nature, Eastern Europe is a real hidden gem. Take a walk around the lake at Lake Bled or along the Soča River in Slovenia or a hike around Altaussee, Austria where there is no shortage of winter wonderlands. Huge forests of pine trees, snow-capped mountain peaks, and snowy lakeside towns…Eastern Europe is a nature-enthusiast’s paradise. Even a simple train ride through the country will reveal some of the most beautiful scenery. Which leads me to...
5. Cute Towns: While Hallstatt, Austria may take a few trains and a boat to reach, it’s well worth the effort. If you’re looking for a cute town to cozy up in, you’re sure to find your fair share of them tucked away in Eastern Europe. So get your cozy sweaters on, grab a good book, and head to a cute cafe with a warm cappuccino in hand while you watch the snow fall outside.
6. History: Don't get me wrong, a huge part of traveling is about trying the street food which may or may not involve a scorpion, skydiving over a ridiculously scenic landscape, or perhaps finding yourself at a winery in Italy. But I think you'd be missing the point if you decided to forgo a little bit of cultural or historical knowledge along the way. There's a lot to be said about learning how the world use to be, how people used to live, think, and be, and I think it’s important every now and then to try to connect the dots to how everything runs today. To mentally map out how things ended up the way they did and why. So go to a museum, take a tour, or go to an art exhibit. Whether you're in Prague, Krakow, on the Croatian coast, or somewhere in between, Eastern Europe is rich with history, and with the plethora of cultural heritage sites, it’s easy to make a historical detour in your travels. Every once in a while, it's good to take a break from the fun and add something of substance to those noggins of ours along the way.
7. Spas: When it comes to thermal spas, there’s no comparison to Budapest's Széchenyi thermal baths which are fed by natural hot springs and are famous for their healing qualities. When temperatures drop during winter months and Eastern Europe turns blistery cold, spas and thermal baths are a great way to warm up. Take a dip or spend the whole day. Go ahead, treat yo’self.
8. Random Adventures: As we like to say, Do cool shit. And more often than not, the best cool shit happens when you find yourself in places you normally wouldn't be. Okay, so maybe Slovakia isn’t the first winter travel destination that jumps into your mind. But maybe spending your New Year’s Eve dancing in a huge Slovakian plaza to terrible 80s music with hundreds of other people as fireworks erupt around you may just be a great memory you have for the rest of your life (truth). And maybe you’ll find that getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise over a castle on an island in a small Slovenian town is one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen in a long time (truth). And maybe you’ll find yourself walking in one of the most picturesque Austrian towns as the snow falls in huge flakes and you wonder how you never knew about this place before (truth). And even when you find yourself stuck on a chairlift with one of your best friends in a small Slovakian town for an hour while you freeze in your onesie, you can’t help but laugh. By being off the beaten path, you’ll find yourself on atypical adventures, making memories that will stick with you for the rest of your life, moments that start with “Remember that one time when…”
When it come down to it, Eastern Europe is a true hidden gem when it comes to winter holidays. Whether it’s the people you meet, the amazing food, or the experiences you have, from Hungary to Poland to Slovenia and everything in between, these countries are rich with adventure and a perfect place for your next winter trip.
For more information on traveling through Eastern Europe, check out the following links: