Having emerged from complex histories, and with their eyes now on the future, New East cities spanning from the Adriatic Sea to the Gulf of Finland are fast becoming essential destinations for the modern traveller.
With extraordinary architecture, dynamic nightlife and, in the case of places like Ljubljana, ambitious environmental projects that are propelling them to the front of the green agenda, the cities of the New East are emerging as some of Europe’s most convivial and cosmopolitan hubs. Here’s our list of the most stylish cities to visit now.
Text: Nadia Beard
Where Belgrade is concerned, it’s grit not glitter that is the bedrock for its appeal. The country’s complex political history oozes from its architecture; unforgiving Socialist housing blocks, remnants from the Hapsburg legacy, Ottoman relics and art nouveau edifices strike an unusual but pleasing contrast. The once dilapidated Savamala quarter has been robustly regenerated and is now home to the city’s young creative class. Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s most vibrant pedestrian strip, is full of bohemian coffee houses tucked behind or underneath historical buildings. But it’s Belgrade’s lively nightlife that makes this city on the Danube the site for techno pilgrims from across Europe. DJs from home and abroad play in quirky venues across the city, including Belgrade’s best-loved venue Drugstore housed in a former slaughterhouse.
It might be one of Europe’s most popular mini-break destinations, but there’s much more to Budapest than thermal baths and gothic palaces. The dynamic fashion, film and design scenes have styled the city as a cultural hub in its own right, home to a new generation of auteurs and ateliers. It’s a city best enjoyed on foot (and looking up), where you can drink in history through the devastating beauty of the once-grand architecture that looms overhead. Eating in Budapest is an activity to be savoured, and different districts serve Hungarian delights as well as other cuisines. The Jewish Quarter in particular, with the crumbling facades of its buildings and balconies, is popular for its charming restaurants and stylish bars.
Set against a backdrop of rolling hills, Cluj has swiftly risen to become Romania’s film capital, playing home to the annual Transylvania International Film Festival and a lively community of cineastes. It’s largely because of this that the city’s bohemian cafe culture and art scene has blossomed, making it an attractive home for the city’s dense student population, too. Meandering through backstreets, quaint Baroque architecture hides a plethora of subterranean bars, while former factories and old palaces serve as art residencies for the country’s best new talent. As well as being a startup hub, Cluj is also the birthplace of Transylvania’s first underground electro nightclub, Club Midi, which has become the country’s biggest and best since launching in 2007. Visiting Romania’s second city in August is a must for electro-heads in search of new sounds, who can now enjoy Cluj’s newly launched Untold Festival which runs during the first week of August.
The marble streets and enchanting churches of Dubrovnik’s old town are so captivating you could almost forget that a luminous azure sea stretches out beyond the ancient city walls. Despite its troubled history, Dubrovnik has been energetically rebuilt and the physical remains of the devastating siege of 1991 are visible today in the city’s museums. Visiting the 17 churches and strolling the narrow streets that wind up and down old town’s hills can be tiring, but there are an abundance of bars and restaurants that fringe the pavements offering exquisite gastronomic respite. For a little more calm, there’s a Franciscan monastery which hides a functioning medicinal garden sweet with the fragrance of fresh herbs.
Over-sized jackets, high-tech materials, flamboyant prints and minimal workwear bear so few similarities that it would be hard to guess they’re all in vogue in the same place, let alone the same generation. Kiev has swiftly become the sartorial capital of the New East and its emerging fashion talent, unafraid of cutting new, bold shapes, often go from debutante to international acclaim in the space of a few months. There’s a kinetic energy in Kiev, unique because it has emerged freshly from revolution and upheaval. The newness of Kiev’s identity as a place where designers can experiment with new styles strikes an arresting contrast to the city’s great history, which looms overhead in the onion domes of its numerous Orthodox churches. Aside from the many speakeasy-style basement bars, raves in Kiev have also undergone a revolution, with nights like Cxema and Closer housed in old factories and abandoned warehouses often running well into next week.
When the Slovenian government decided to limit car use and focus on making the capital Ljubljana a city for pedestrians and cyclists, the small southern European city quickly went from liveable to pioneering. This year it was awarded the title European Green Capital, in part due to the clean air and quality of water (Ljubljana is one of the only European capitals that can boast natural drinking water with no prior treatment), but mainly for its abundance of greenery. The city’s municipality opened its first public orchard last year where residents can freely pick apples, and decaying suburban areas are being redeveloped into green oases. When the summer terraces set up along the Ljubljana river have been dismantled in the colder months, families and students can still be seen rambling along the bank, which of course are only for those on two wheels or none at all.
In the last five years, Moscow has been transformed. No longer a grey, unwelcoming place, the Russian capital is now an incubator for budding entrepreneurs, designers and foodies who lovingly display their wares at the city’s many unconventional pop-up venues (the repurposed Brusov Boat on the Moskva River is a good place to start). Enthusiastic restaurateurs used sanctions to their advantage, turning to their own country’s produce to create lavish but affordable menus serving the best in reinvented Russian cuisine. The redevelopment of Gorky Park now provides a welcome retreat to while away the summer months at picnics or waterside cafes; in winter it becomes a labyrinthine ice rink. From the velvet sofas of a secret cocktail bar accessed through a noodle shop to a motorbike repair shop-turned-watering hole by night, Moscow’s electric cafe and bar scene is not to be missed.
The haunting silhouette of the rebuilt stone bridge that proudly connects the two halves of the town is undoubtedly Mostar’s most famous attraction. The medieval legacy of this town is captured in its architecture, but so too are its more recent scars – bullet holes still mark the walls. For much of the year Mostar is tranquil, but in the summer months it becomes alive when multiethnic restaurants packed together along the riverbank offer visitors mouthwatering food and a spectacular view of the bridge. The cobbled streets of the beautifully restored Ottoman quarter are charming and your nose will soon draw you to any of Mostar’s many bakeries and cafes with the scent of pastries and thick Bosnian coffee.
The southern port city of Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast is a place of contradictions. Its literary legacy, fostered by the countless noted writers who spent time in the city, exists to this day, but it’s now joined by a newer, permissive energy that has grown with Odessa’s emergence as a popular resort town. The leafy streets that unfurl alongside the pastel, neo-classical buildings are pleasant to stroll down all year round, and a trip to the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, a monument to neo-classicism as well as French Rococo-style interiors, is a must. Odessa’s array of colourful inhabitants, from businessman to ballerinas, can be seen unwinding at any one of the new gastrobars across the city (its food scene has gone from bad to great in the space of a couple of years). In the summer months the sandy beaches that hem the coastline are wildly popular, and the many bars and restaurants in the area are always studded with visitors from near and far. Odessa’s heritage as a strategic Black Sea location is encapsulated by the great Potemkin Stairs, immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film The Battleship Potemkin
While every city negotiates past and present in its own way, the Dalmatian city of Split marries majestic history with a modern present in conjugal bliss. The city grew out of Diocletian’s Palace, named after the Roman emperor who built it in 4AD, and looks out over the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s one of the world’s most spectacular Roman monuments and a Unesco world heritage site, but far from a fossil, it’s the beating heart of the city, a large part of which was built inside the ancient walls. The shops, bars and restaurants constructed inside the ruins breathed fresh life into the structure, drawing crowds throughout the year who keep this shabby-chic city in a constant state of buzz.
If Moscow is Russia’s beating heart, St Petersburg is its beautiful face. Gliding through the web of canals and passing by baroque and Italianate mansions that line the water, it is easy to see why St Petersburg is called the Venice of the North. The city was Peter the Great’s European show project and there’s no shortage of grand palaces and sumptuous museums to visit. But its rich artistic heritage is complemented by a growing underground art scene, where artists and their provocative installations inhabit apartments and small galleries across the city. The city’s legendary White Nights make the summer months gloriously fun, and city dwellers spend all night at outdoor festivals and concerts under the eerie white hue of the sky. For those looking for some darkness, the vibrant electric atmosphere of St Petersburg’s gritty underground electro scene isn’t to be missed.
If there’s any New East city that best encapsulates the fusion of old and new, Tallinn is it. When it left the Soviet Union, the Estonian capital also shed its grey coat; it staged bold renovations of the city’s derelict quarters and erected a smattering of new builds across the city. The result is a vibrant metropolis full of architectural contrasts (think red-topped medieval castles and the occasional onion-domed church), home to a clique of artists and creatives who have filled the events calendar with the likes of the much-lauded Architecture Biennale and Design Night Festival. The city also possesses a digitally sophisticated streak, serving as the birthplace for Skype and e-citizenship among other technological initiatives. Throw in its burgeoning food scene and this rough-round-the-edges capital is a destination drawing more visitors by the year.
It’s hard to decide whether it’s the ornately carved wooden balconies, cutting-edge fashion and design, mouthwatering food or vibrant nightlife that is the most arresting part of visiting Tbilisi, so it’s little surprise that the Georgian capital is the most lauded city of the New East right now. This charming melting pot at the crossroads of the southern Caucasus region wears its multi-layered identity on its sleeve; Brutalist, art nouveau and medieval edifices all speaking of Tbilisi’s different histories stand side by side. The city is a hotbed for new Georgian designers, including the likes of Vetement’s Demna Gvasalia and rising star Georg Keburia who both cut their teeth here, and new, sharp cuts can often be seen donned by Tbilisi’s fashionable youth. Entrepreneurs and activists inject the city with incredible creative energy, which by night is funnelled into a pumping clubbing scene; in an old, Soviet-era football stadium, you’ll find Tbilisi’s techno club Bassiani, touted as the New East’s answer to Berghain.
Considered Bulgaria’s third city, Varna is a relaxing coastal gem full of surprises. This seaside resort city on the Black Sea is the country’s largest seaport complex, which over the decades has cultivated a cosmopolitan veneer. Architectural relics from the city’s rich history as a cradle for ancient civilisations are visible from walking the streets, while a stroll through the sprawling Sea Garden — supposedly the largest landscaped garden in the Balkans — is a calming antidote to the bustle of the city. The silky beach that stretches along the coast has an abundance of sun loungers and the restaurants specialising in seafood and locally caught fish nearby are particularly popular with locals.
“Off the beaten track” would be a step too far when describing Zadar, but it has the same curious quality that less-visited cities often possess. Like elsewhere on the Dalmatian coast, Zadar is steeped in history, with Roman ruins and medieval churches peppering the cityscape. It’s less crowded than many other Croatian cities, which means visiting the city’s excellent museums and sophisticated cafes and restaurants can be a relaxing experience even during the summer months. Nevertheless, the lived-in feel of the city, enhanced by the contrast between clearly visible tower blocks and ancient relics, combines with the shimmering coast to produce a captivating atmosphere. Don’t miss the the Sea Organ, an experimental musical instrument underneath a flight of marble steps on the shoreline that uses the waves to create otherworldly harmonic sounds.
It’s rough around the edges and hotter than its coastal counterparts, but as one of the most cultural and architecturally rich capitals in the Balkans, who really cares? Meandering through Zagreb’s charming stone streets, it seems as though the city was built with the objective of making life easy to enjoy. With its smattering of socialist buildings and legacy of Austro-Hungarian architecture, Zagreb is a uniquely characterful mini-metropolis and boasts a superb café culture (Zagrebians have a penchant for coffee drinking). Although hot, the summer months are a fantastic time see the city when flocks of sun-seekers head south to the Dalmatian cities leaving the streets emptier. There are museums and galleries aplenty, and you can swim, sail or ice skate in the blue Jarun Lake in the city’s southwest all year round.