Eastern Europe's Best-Kept Secrets

04/10/2013 11:43 | Updated 23 January 2014

There's a reason cities like Prague, Budapest, and Vienna are on every traveler's Eastern & Central European dream list: they're iconic. There really is nothing quite like strolling across the Charles Bridge or watching the lights reflect off of the Danube at night, and no one knows better than us how amazing it is to throw back a pint in one of Budapest's famed ruin bars.

Unfortunately, with so much to explore in these major cities, the underdogs are often forgotten. While the smaller cities and towns found in Eastern Europe's less-traveled pockets may not get as much love, we're here to say: they definitely deserve more.

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Bratislava, Slovakia is often overlooked in favor of its nearby neighbors, Budapest and Vienna--which, we can't deny, are worthy of your time. However, Bratislava is so easy to navigate in one day that it's a definite must if you need a break from the hubbub of its busier neighbors. Don't miss a traditional Slovakian meal (and pint) at Pôvodný Meštiansky pivovar, and take note that the halusky is a must.

Secret Tip: Skip the train from Bratislava to Vienna and opt for the Twin City Liner Catamaran instead! You'll see castle ruins, tiny towns, and riverfront fishing shacks you'd otherwise miss, and as you float into Vienna, you'll see the city from an entirely new perspective.

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Görlitz, Germany, an easy daytrip from nearby Dresden, has literally withstood the test of time... especially as one of Germany's few places that managed to come away unscathed after World War II. As the country's easternmost city, you have the added perk of visiting two countries in one. Stroll across the bridge and grab a pierogi in Zgorzelec, Poland, and when you return, enjoy swapping secrets at the Flüsterbogen, which means "whispering arch." If you whisper into one side of the arch, your voice carries over the arch and out the other side, where the listener can hear every word.

Secret Tip: Keep an eye toward the sky wherever you go, because the architectural details are definitely worth your time--as are the painted ceilings adorning the majority of the homes, retailers, and restaurants in the center of the city. These murals have been preserved for hundreds of years, with some dating back as far as the 1500s. You might not realize their significance or even notice they're there if you don't look up, either peeping from the street at the ceilings of apartments above you, or while throwing back a pilsner at a local restaurant.

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Freiburg, Germany is Germany's "jewel of the Black Forest," and succeeds in being everything you imagine when you envision a picturesque city situated in the Black Forest. As one of Germany's only sustainable cities, it's best to explore on foot--all the way from the Minster in the main square up to the top of Schlossberg Hill overlooking the city.

Secret Tip: Keep an eye on the Bächle! These small canals along most of the main sidewalks have been supplying the city with water since the 1200s--though now they are more of an attraction for local kids and tourists, rather than a functioning water source. Legend has it, if you accidentally step into the Bächle, you'll be destined to marry a Freiburger.

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Hallstatt, Austria is often ignored in favor of a daytrip to Salzburg, but if we're being honest? We kind of prefer Hallstatt. It's much smaller than the nearby town made famous by Mozart and Sister Mary, but also far more charming.

Secret Tip: For the best views, stay close to the water, but don't just shoot out. Turn around and look up at the small houses dotting the hill. And then wish that it was snowing and you were cuddled up inside with a fire and a bottle of local rotwein. Maybe that last part is just us?

Details to help you plan:

Consider a Eurail train pass to help make daytrips to smaller stops even easier. The Global Pass requires all adults over 26 to ride first class, and it's the best way to city hop in style around Europe.

For more help planning, check out the resources provided by Visit Bratislava, Destination Germany and the Austrian Tourism Board.

Photo Credits: Ashley Chalmers