In our quest to explore some European cities off the beaten track but within our budget, we discovered three quirkier destinations that are a must-see for any keen traveler. These places are for the people who have visited all the usual suspects and are on the lookout for somewhere the under 35’s tour buses don’t frequent. To find something new, different, interesting, and best of all – with flights that are cheap and cheerful. All three destinations are serviced by Ryanair and cost us less than a round of drinks at the airport! We’re here to blow the lid on their secrets… the three cities in Europe you probably haven’t explored, but you should, and why:
1. Bratislava, Slovakia
Why you should go there:
Bratislava is where the real hipsters live. There are tasteful wine bars, cute coffee shops and political art museums for days… although we were fairly sure that the locals did not consider themselves as hipsters, but just Bratislavians! Don’t be fooled by TripAdvisor’s #16 of the “Top Things to do in Bratislava” being a statue of a man in a pothole (his name is Cumil if you’re interested)…
The main highlight of the trip for us was the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum (coming in at #2). More interactive than your average modern art museum, the sculptures go all around the building which is situated on the edge of a dock. It will have you climbing stairs and walking through mirrored exhibitions until you don’t know which way is up. My personal favourite was the sculpture that reminded you exactly where you came from:
If you’re not an art fan (although how could you not be with those sculptures), most people love to indulge in the local food and drink. You honestly have not experienced a dumpling until you’ve had one filled with goats cheese… I’ll let you contemplate that for a second.
We got ours from a local favourite, the Slovak kitchen Starosloviensky Pivovar. If you didn’t already get the feeling that you weren’t in Kansas anymore, this place will definitely make you feel like you’re in proper Eastern Europe. Looking to taste some traditional Slovakian wine? Head down to Grand Cru Wine Gallery. The owner is a very well known local who will help you pick out a local wine to your taste. Be careful though, they are only open between 5pm – 10pm, Monday to Saturday, so plan your trip in advance!
If you’re not so much into alcohol, or you are too much into alcohol and you need a pick me up the next day, look no further than locally roasted coffee 9 grams. It is dispersed throughout the city, but our favourite baristas were at Swäg to Go. The coffee was a perfect balance of floral and strong tasting flavour, so good we also took some “to go” for the percolator!
If you find the city a little small for your appetite after a day or two, there is the option to catch a train to Vienna! It is only 1 hour away and costs €15 return for an adult. At this price it is cheaper than flying directly into Vienna airport! A day spent roaming around this city and it’s huge, historically significant buildings and museums was enough to mix up our weekend trip.
If you’re into interesting buildings, Bratislava is also famous for it’s Blue church, which you may have seen on our Instagram feed. But what is an Eastern European city without a castle?! Make sure you go for a walk through the old town and up to the the aptly named Bratislava Castle for a stunning view of the city.
2. Bucharest, Romania
Why you should go there:
If you’ve been a keen adventurer for a while now, you would have seen our video highlights from our trip to Bucharest and Bran (Draculas) castle last October. The Romanian capital packs a whole lot of culture and quirks into a relatively small central Old Town and even better is the fact that Romania is off the Euro, instead using their own currency, the Leu. Of course this means living like a king is easy!
While you may roll your eyes at the recommendation of taking a walking tour around town, we were pleasantly suprised at how much genuinely cool and interesting history we learned about, from political uprisings to murderous medieval rulers and everything in between. Slightly less suprising was learning that the Palace of Parliament building is the 2nd biggest in the world, smaller only than the Pentagon. Seriously, this thing is massive. The photos don’t quite do it justice!
Our guide also had the lowdown on arguably the towns best joint for Romanian cuisine, City Grill Covaci, which despite sounding like a typical tourist trap, provided us with a mouth watering array of local meat dishes for a very fair price. The real star though was the Papanasi dessert, basically a fried donut stuffed with berries and cream cheese. Make sure you order this upfront because they are made fresh and take about an hour to prepare.
If you start getting thirsty and in need of a beverage, craft beer bar La 100 der Beri will see you right, with as the name suggests, about 100 craft brews from across the globe to suit all tastes. For those who don’t fancy a beer, they also had a selection of ciders.
By far the coolest shop in town is Cărturești Carusel, which they claim is a bookstore, but in reality is so much more. 6 floors, including a cafe, over 10,000 books and so many other quirky items from astrological calendars, dream journals and stationary to loose leaf tea and witty coffee mugs. Give yourself at least an hour in here, but ideally more.
For all you coffee snobs, The Urbanist served up our best brew, while also serving as a pretty cool shop in its own right, with streetwear for sale and DJ decks for mini-parties. They also specialise in alcoholic coffee, which if you’re visiting in winter months, really is a no-brainer.
Should you tire of the city, the obvious day-trip choice is to Draculas castle, which is a bit of a trek by train but well worth the visit. Be sure to avoid the pesky scam-artists offering to shuttle you there from Central Station!
3. Riga, Latvia
Why you should go there:
Ah, the Baltics… the forgotten corner of Europe that only those who really have conquered the Med and mainland Europe seek to venture up to. Although they may be overshadowed in popularity and notoriety by their nearby Northern Neighbours Scandinavia and Russia respectively, the ace up their sleeve is, of course, their affordability. With winter fading and longer daylight hours returning, we snapped up some cheap mid-April flights to the Latvian capital Riga to see what the Craic was up there.
The first thing we noticed in Riga was the stunning range of architecture around town. The contrast between classically designed buildings like the World Heritage Latvian Opera Building and restored wooden structures like those in Kalnciems Quarter highlighted well the diversity of Riga’s culture. The prevalence and influence of Art Nouveau could also be seen, particularly on the famed House of the Blackheads just off the city center, which you can see on our instagram.
There’s some pretty cool history behind some of these buildings too. For example, getting into the Great Guild in Latvia in the 14th century, was an incredibly huge honor. Similarly, getting snubbed from the Great Guild was a gigantic insult. One Riga local was so offended that he attached a black cat on top of his home so it would cast its evil glare upon the Guild for as long as the building would stand.
Treating yourself to local delicacies is a piece of cake in Riga, simply order anything from Lido… And you can have everything, because it is ridiculously cheap and you serve yourself, canteen style. The waitresses are dressed in traditional Latvian clothing and the walls are made of old bricks, so you still get that local restaurant feeling. There’s numerous branches around town too so there’s no excuse for going hungry! As for coffee, you can grab a tasty brew for just 1 euro at Vinilbārs on your way into the Kalnciems Quarter market (only on Saturdays).
The best bar we found also happens to be in Riga’s coolest district, Vest in Centrs district north of the old town. This place is clearly where the cool kids hang, with a smart but relaxed vibe and well curated range of beers and wines. This place is Urbanism at its finest and is not unlike something you’d find in equally hip areas of Europe like Kreuzberg (Berlin) or Shoreditch (London).
While we don’t normally consider ourselves book nerds, we couldn’t not award the coolest shop honour to Mr Page, also in Centrs. Its may be a small shop, but this is because they stock only a fine selection of novels, non-fiction and magazines catering to more offbeat interests. It is required to wear white gloves while handling the books to keep them in perfect condition, which may sound pretentious, but the sales assistant was friendly, quirky and helped us with a few key selections to add to our bookshelf.
If you’re up for a day trip, jump on a train and head inland to Sigulda, a small town bordering a big forest that has all kinds of sights to behold. The Turaida and Krimulda Castles showcase medieval Latvia, while the ancient inscriptions in the caves at Gūtmaņala are both unique and fascinating. Just make sure you’re back in time for the last train!
Have you visited Bratislava, Bucharest or Riga? Or perhaps you know an even better secret destiantion that we should check out! Let us know where we should adventure to next and we’l be sure to plan a trip!