Monday, March 27, 2017

How to Visit Eastern Europe in 2 Weeks



This trip was rainy, full of history and hearty food, and introduced us to one of my favorite countries (Slovenia).

Now depending on how you view Europe, this area might be called Eastern or Central. For the sake of this post, I'm referring it to Eastern Europe so go with me. Here's what we learned along the way from Slovenia to Prague. Our detailed itinerary is at the bottom of this post.


Bring rain gear. 


This is not a drill. It rained nearly every day we were on our trip and it was at the end of May/beginning of June. Bring a raincoat and boots. Consider yourself warned.



Be smart about your currency. 


This itinerary covers 5 different countries with 5 different currencies. You have the Euro, Croatian Kuna, Hungarian Forint, Polish Zloty, Czech Koruna.  The exchange rates vary severely so either get used to some division/multiplication or use a currency conversion app/calculator. It was trickier on this trip to spend all of our cash before we left each country, so keep an eye on that.

Currency exchange. DO NOT exchange your money at the airport or the currency exchange booths (there are many at each border). The exchange rate is poor or they tack on fees which is how they make money. Get money from the ATM for a better rate. It is almost always better even if you have a small ATM fee.

Transportation


Train travel is typically the best way to get between each country/city especially if you plan to stick to the big cities. Don't underestimate how long it takes to to get between each country. Trains tend to be slower overall in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe. Overnight trains are the best way to save time while traveling.

Booking Train Tickets: we found it difficult and not possible to book our trains ahead of time unless with a travel agent so we booked when we arrived in each city. Overnight trains can fill up, especially in high season so book right when you arrive in the city you want to leave from. If you book more than 3 days ahead of time, you can get a significant discount in places like Poland.

If you venture into the country, be prepared for limited public transportation or consider renting a car. We rented a car through Sixt (and used Ebates to get 4% cash back) to visit Slovenia and Croatia. We crossed the border without issue, navigated and read the street signs easily, and the roads were just fine. But it didn't make sense to rent a car for the rest of our trip. Keep in mind that if you return a rental car to a different location/country you will pay a significant drop-off fee. Ours was about 100 Euros extra.

Some car rental companies will not all their rental cars to be taken into the Czech Republic (car theft is apparently a big problem).


Eat heartily


Food tends to be heartier in this region (think meats, potatoes, gravy, mushroom soup) which warmed our bones during the cool weather. Here are some of our favorite things you can try:
  • Slovenia:  Bled Cake or kremna rezina a heavenly cream cake best when eaten on the shores of Lake bled. Anything/everything with truffle butter or truffle oil!
  • Croatia: pasta/seafood near the coast. Anything/everything with truffle butter!
  • Hungary: anything with the national spice of paprika such as chicken paprikas, Hungarian goulash. Extra points if it is smoked paprika. Dessert from the famous Ruszwurm, beautiful ice cream from Gelarto Rosa. Kürtoskalács which is a cylindrical pastry rolled in cinnamon sugar. 
  • Poland: Pierogi (stuffed Polish dumplings) served savory or sweet. 
For better tasting food and better prices, look for a place full of locals. Typically these are not the establishments with people beckoning (more like harassing) you to dine there. If you look around and you are surrounded by tourists, you have likely chosen incorrectly. A better experience likely awaits you just off the main thoroughfare.



Bits and Bobs:




Itinerary

There is so much to see in Eastern Europe and I still have a laaaarge wishlist of places to visit if I get the chance to come back. My biggest regret was not visiting Vienna. Maybe I would have shaved off a day in Budapest and Krakow for Vienna, but that seems a bit rushed. Vienna, I will come for you!


Day 1: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Arrive in the morning
Sights in Old Town
Sleep in Ljubljana at apartment found here.

Day 2: Ljubjana, Slovenia
Castle Hill, Galleria Emporium, Skyscraper
Pick up rental car and drove to Lake Bled.
Sleep in Lake Bled at Hotel Kompas

Day 3: Lake Bled, Slovenia
Bike ride around Lake Bled
Vintgar Gorge
Hike Ojstrica
Sleep in Lake Bled at Hotel Kompas

Day 4: Julian Alps, Slovenia
Drive through Julian Alps, Soča River, Kobarid
Sleep in Nova Gortia at Guest Accommodation Primula

Day 5: Southern Slovenia
Predjama Castle & Postojna Caves
Drive to Rovinj
Bike ride around Rovinj, farmer's market
Sleep in Rovinj at Casale Bed and Breakfast

Day 6: Rovinj, Croatia
Explore Rovinj via bike. Bell tower of Church of St Eupehmia
Eat lots of gelato
Drive to Plitvice (about 3.5 hours)
Sleep just outside of Plitvice at Villa Plitvicka Sedra

Day 7: Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Explore the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park
Drive to Zagreb- 2 hours. Drop off rental car
Sleep in Zagreb found on Airbnb

Day 8: Zagreb, Croatia
Explore Croatia: St Mark's Square, Museum of Broken Relationships, Stone Gate, Market
Lunch at Mundoaka
Train to Budapest (direct train is not direct. Must get off at the border and take a bus)
Sleep in Budapest found on Airbnb

Day 9: Budapest, Hungary
Explore Pest: Great Market Hall, Parliament Building grounds, shopping on Vaci Utca
Heroe's Square and nearby sights.
Szechenyi Baths
Sleep in Budapest

Day 10: Budapest, Hungary
Church in the a.m.
Tour of Parliament Building
Explore Buda and Castle Hill
Opera House
Sleep in Budapest

Day 11: Budapest, Hungary
Momento Park
St. Istvan's Basilica and neighboring area
Planned on visiting Jewish sights but they were closed
Overnight train to Krakow, Poland

Day 12: Poland, Krakow
Day trip to Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Sleep in Poland found via Airbnb

Day 13: Poland, Krakow
Explore Old Town and Market Square
Shopping
Sleep in Poland

Day 14: Poland, Krakow
Explore Wawel Hill and nearby castle and cathedral
Hang out and eat near Market Square
Overnight train to Prague

Day 15: Prague, Czech Republic
Explore Old Town, Charles Bridge
Sleep in Prague Old Town found via Airbnb

Day 16: Prague, Czech Republic
Day trip to Konopiště Castle
Riverside sights: Dancing House, boat ride
Black Light Theater
Sleep in Prague

Day 17: Prague, Czech Republic
Jewish Quarter
Strahov Monastery, library of dreams
Prague Castle, Cathedral
Astronomical Clock and tower
Sleep in Prague

Day 18: Fly home. :(


Thoughts:

This itinerary is a lot of city. And to be frank, I got sick of the city about 10 days in. If you tend to tire over big cities, consider adding in day trips to add a little green to your trip. Most of our Slovenian and Croatian stops counterbalanced the big cities. By the time we got to Poland, however, I yearned for some green.

If you truly only have two weeks, I would shorten Budapest and Poland to two days each or skip Croatia. I love Croatia but it is harder to reach than the other cities as you must have a car to reach Rovinj and Plitvice National Park so that would be a natural place to skip.

Hope this helps! We traveled in May/June 2015. If you have any questions, shoot me an email at stephaniefbenson@gmail.com.

Happy trails.

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