By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in Eastern Europe, my plan for your best three-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities.
- 3 days: Prague
- 5 days, add: Budapest
- 7 days, add: Kraków and Auschwitz
- 9 days, add: Český Krumlov
- 12 days, add: Ljubljana and Lake Bled
- 16 days, add: Dubrovnik and Split
- 22 days, add: Plitvice Lakes, Mostar, Eger, Rovinj
With more time or a special interest, choose among Vienna, Gdańsk, Pomerania, Toruń, Warsaw, Pécs, Bratislava, sights near Prague, Korčula, Zagreb, and Slovakia's Spiš Region.
Eastern Europe's Best Three-Week Trip (by Public Transportation)
Day 1: Arrive in Prague (sleep in Prague)
Day 2: Prague (sleep in Prague)
Day 3: Prague, night train to Kraków (sleep on night train)
Day 4: Kraków (sleep in Kraków)
Day 5: Kraków, day trip to Auschwitz (sleep in Kraków)
Day 6: Kraków, maybe side-trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine, night train to Eger (sleep on night train*)
Day 7: Eger (sleep in Eger)
Day 8: Early to Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 9: Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 10: Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 11: To Ljubljana (catch direct 9.5-hour midday train; no night-train option; sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 12: Ljubljana (sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 13: To Bled (sleep in Bled)
Day 14: Rent car for day trips around Julian Alps (sleep in Bled)
Day 15: To Zagreb, sightseeing, then early evening bus to Plitvice Lakes National Park (sleep in Plitvice)
Day 16: Plitvice hike in morning, then afternoon bus to Split (sleep in Split)
Day 17: Split (sleep in Split)
Day 18: Boat to Korčula (for beach fun) or bus to Mostar (for a taste of Bosnia; sleep in Korčula or Mostar)
Day 19: Korčula or Mostar (sleep in Korčula or Mostar)
Day 20: Boat or bus to Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 21: Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 22: Side-trip to Mostar or fly home
*The handy Kraków–Eger night train connection runs sporadically (most likely only in summer). If it's not running, you can take the more reliable Kraków–Budapest night train. Once in Budapest, you can either side-trip to Eger, or skip the town entirely.
This ambitious, speedy, far-reaching itinerary works best by public transportation. Most of the time, you'll take the train. There are a few exceptions: Bled and Ljubljana are better connected by bus. To get from Bled to Plitvice, take the bus to Ljubljana, the train to Zagreb, and then the bus to Plitvice. To get from Plitvice to the coast, take the bus to Split. The Dalmatian Coast destinations are best connected to each other by boat or bus (no trains). While night trains can save lots of sightseeing time, the trains themselves don't provide much comfort; consider looking around for affordable flights for the longer trips.
Vienna: The Austrian capital is a likely gateway between Western and Eastern Europe, but it's out of the way for the above itinerary. If you really want to see Vienna, give it two days between Budapest and Ljubljana (it also makes sense if you're going directly between Budapest and Prague).
By car, this itinerary is exhausting, with lots of long road days. Instead, connect long-distance destinations (e.g., Prague to Kraków, Kraków to Eger/Budapest) by night trains or cheap flights, then strategically rent cars for a day or two in areas that merit having wheels (e.g., the Czech or Slovenian countryside). Also consider adding a side-trip to Croatia's Rovinj (and skip Zagreb). But remember that international drop-off fees for rental cars can be astronomical, and plan accordingly (for example, you could drop off your rental car in Slovenia, take the train or bus into Croatia, and then pick up a different rental car for your Croatia visit). This can be a bit of a puzzle to figure out, but it can save you plenty.
When to Go
The "tourist season" runs roughly from May through September. Summer has its advantages: the best weather, very long days (light until after 21:00), and the busiest schedule of tourist fun.
In spring and fall — May, June, September, and early October — travelers enjoy fewer crowds and milder weather. This is my favorite time to travel here. Cities are great at this time of year, but some small towns — especially resorts on the Croatian coast — get quieter and quieter the further off-season you get, and are downright deserted and disappointing in early May and late October.
Winter travelers find concert season in full swing, with absolutely no tourist crowds (except in always-packed Prague), but some accommodations and sights are either closed or run on a limited schedule. Croatian coastal towns are completely shuttered in winter. Confirm your sightseeing plans locally, especially when traveling off-season. The weather can be cold and dreary, and night will draw the shades on your sightseeing before dinnertime.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Eastern Europe guidebook.