Brno, Czech Republic
So you’ve been to Prague, but how about discovering the Czech Republic’s second city? The cityscape is dominated by two stunning medieval buildings – the Špilberk castle and fortress and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Petrov Hill – visiting which will surely be a highlight of your visit. The UNESCO-listed functionalist Villa Tugendhat should also be high on the agenda for any architecture enthusiasts. For something a little more gruesome, head to the Brno Ossuary, which is the second largest mausoleum in Europe and estimated to hold the remains of over 50,000 people. If you don’t want to end up in there yourself, watch out for the legendary Brno dragon, known to have threatened the citizens of the city once upon a time. Thank goodness it was eventually caught and can now be seen on display at the Old Town Hall. You may notice it looks somewhat like a crocodile… coincidence we’re sure.
Situated on Poland’s Baltic coast, Gdańsk is the country’s main seaport. The city is much more than shipyards, however, and makes for a fantastic location for a city break. Although many of the city’s old buildings were damaged or destroyed in the Second World War, most have been painstakingly restored and, as such, Gdańsk boasts some of Poland’s most magnificent architecture. Be sure to pay a visit to Long Lane, said by many to be one of the loveliest streets in Poland, and Long Market, where you will find some of the city’s most stunning architecture. The City Gates (particularly the Golden Gate) are also impressive sights. If you really want to get away, think about renting a car and checking out the stunning beach on the nearby Vistula Spit. You can even wave across the border to Russia!
Thought by many to be Estonia’s spiritual capital, Tartu arguably has a more relaxed and fun feel than Tallinn. This reputation is at least partly owed to the University of Tartu – the country’s largest and one of Europe’s oldest – which should definitely be high on your list for a visit. The large student population brings a dose of dynamism to the leafy city filled with stately architecture, also injecting a dose of vibrancy into the city’s nightlife. Also worth seeing is the charmingly named Soup Neighbourhood, where all of the streets are named after soup ingredients and you can find adorable old wooden houses. There’s more on offer for architecture buffs, in the form of some fantastic examples of modern building design. Click here to find Tartu’s modern architecture hotspots.
History, excitement, style – Kiev has it all. One of eastern Europe’s oldest cities, the Ukrainian capital has a fantastically interesting story – the city was the capital of the Kievan Rus’, which Ukraine, Belarus and Russia claim as their cultural heritage. If you want to see some of the iconic golden domes, check out St Sophia’s Cathedral or Kiev Pechersk Lavra – a stunning 11th-century monastery and pilgrimage site. Or for those wanting a slice of more recent history, be sure to head to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square where the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests took place. While on your wanderings, be sure to saunter down the impressive Khreshchatyk main street and the charming Andriyivsky Uzviz, a steep street teeming with cafes, restaurants, galleries and craft shops. Kiev is also fast becoming a hub for contemporary art – on your “must see” list should be Port Creative Hub, set by the river, and Izolyatsia, a cultural platform from Donetsk that has now moved to one of Kiev’s former shipyards.
Easier to get to than ever before, the capital of Macedonia is opening itself up as an excellent destination for a city break. To get a feel for the scale of the city and its history, make the ascent up to Kale Fortress, which was originally built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and stands on the highest hill in the Skopje valley, offering fantastic views over the city. You’ll also enjoy a stroll around Bedesten, the site of the old Bazaar, and a visit to the Čifte Hammam, a beautiful former bathhouse turned exhibition space. Or, if you have a taste for controversy, why not discover the scandal of the government-funded Skopje 2014? This neoclassical revamp of the city has sparked uproar, with costs far exceeding original estimates. You can even download a Skopje 2014 app to guide you around the transformed city centre and fill you in on the costs.
Home to human dwelling since at least 7000 BC, Sofia has a tumultuous history. While fascinating ancient ruins can be found throughout the city centre, it’s the diversity of Sofia’s buildings that make it such an exciting city – enjoy the captivating contrast between ancient Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian buildings and communist-style architecture. Essential to the city are its seven mineral water springs, one of which you will find behind the mosque in the centre, open to all. On a watery note, the beautiful old Sofia Public Mineral Baths building has been renovated and now hosts the hugely interesting Museum of Sofia History. Many locals will proudly tell you that theirs is one of few European capitals to be so close to a fully-fledged ski-resort – if you get the chance, visit the Vitosha mountain and its stunning nature park, maybe fitting in a ski if the season is right.
One of Albania’s most stunning cities, Berat is known for its historic architecture and beautiful natural surroundings. Although dating back much further, Berat is notable for being home to rare examples of wonderfully preserved traditional Ottoman architecture. In July 2008, the old town (Mangalem district) made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List – definitely make time to wander through the narrow streets of this fascinating area. Or for a slightly more intense walk and great views of the city and the surrounding area, head up the steep cobbled path to the castle (Kala). Fun fact for you: Berat is also known as the “city of a thousand windows”, due to the large windows of the beautiful old houses overlooking the town.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Under siege not so very long ago, Sarajevo is now a vibrant and welcoming city. History buffs will have an absolute field day – from the city’s 15th century historical and cultural centre Baščaršija and the Latin Bridge that saw the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to the iconic Holiday Inn from where journalists observed and recorded the city’s three-year siege, Sarajevo has a rich and turbulent heritage that is ripe to be explored. The city is also abundant in museums, picturesque mosques and churches, not least due to its long history of religious and cultural diversity. Or perhaps you’d like to combine sports, history and nature? Take the steep walk up to the former bobsleigh track on Trebević mountain, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, and take in the views of Sarajevo.
Located in central Romania and surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, Brașov does not disappoint when it comes beauty, be it natural or architectural. Enjoy a stroll around the picture-perfect old town, centered around the main square, making sure to take a walk down the pretty Republicii Street. You’ll be struck by the German influence evident in the city, not least by the impressive Gothic-style Black Church. If you’re craving something a little closer to nature, don’t miss out on the wonderful vantage point offered by the Tâmpa mountain peak – you can enjoy the pleasant cable car ride or hike the journey up on foot. Be on the lookout for some fantastic wildlife, such as boars, brown bears and lynxes! Little piece of trivia for you: Brașov is the birthplace of Romania’s national anthem. Unlikely to come up in your next pub quiz, but you never know.
Surely one of the hottest city destinations around at the moment, Tbilisi is a diverse and cosmopolitan city full of charm, and is renowned as a meeting point of east and west. The city’s rich mix of architecture escorts you gently all the way from antiquity to Soviet-style blocks and ultra-modern buildings. That said, Old Tbilisi will almost certainly be the real highlight. Yes, the “old town” areas of cities seem to be a recurring feature of this list, but this one is simply enchanting. Top sights in Tbilisi include the Sameba and Sioni cathedrals and Rustaveli and Agmashenebeli avenues. Make the steep climb up to the Narikala Fortress for panoramic views of the city below, or take the gondola lift from Rike Park for a more leisurely journey. For a little relaxation, make the most of Tbilisi’s location on the site of natural hot springs and visit the Sulphur Baths.