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
- 6 days, add: Budapest
- 9 days, add: Kraków, Auschwitz, Český Krumlov
- 12 days, add: Ljubljana, Lake Bled
- 14 days, add: Vienna
- 17 days, add: Dubrovnik and Split
- 22 days, add: Plitvice Lakes, Mostar
With more time or a special interest, choose among Gdańsk, Warsaw, Toruń, Bratislava, Eger, sights near Prague, Rovinj, and Zagreb.
Eastern Europe’s Best Three-Week Trip (by Public Transportation)
Few travelers have three weeks for this entire itinerary, and in any event, this sprawling region is best split up into more manageable "zones" (for example, Vienna–Hungary–Czech Republic; Poland by itself; or Slovenia–Croatia–Bosnia). But if you want to squeeze as many highlights as possible into a three-week span, this is your best plan.
Day 1: Arrive in Kraków (sleep in Kraków)
Day 2: Kraków (sleep in Kraków)
Day 3: Side-trip to Auschwitz; night train or flight to Prague (or go by car — about 6 hours — with a stop at Auschwitz en route)
Day 4: Prague (sleep in Prague)
Day 5: Prague (sleep in Prague)
Day 6: To Český Krumlov by bus (sleep in Český Krumlov)
Day 7: To Vienna via shuttle bus (sleep in Vienna)
Day 8: Vienna (sleep in Vienna)
Day 9: Train to Bratislava for lunch/sightseeing, then continue to Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 10: Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 11: Budapest (sleep in Budapest)
Day 12: To Ljubljana on direct 9-hour midday train (sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 13: Ljubljana (sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 14: To Lake Bled (sleep in Lake Bled)
Day 15: Rent car for day trips around Julian Alps (sleep in Lake Bled)
Day 16: To Zagreb for sightseeing, then early-evening bus to Plitvice Lakes National Park (sleep in Plitvice)
Day 17: Plitvice hike in morning, then afternoon bus to Split (sleep in Split)
Day 18: Split (sleep in Split)
Day 19: Bus to Mostar (sleep in Mostar)
Day 20: Bus to Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 21: Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 22: Fly home
This fast-paced, city-focused itinerary is ambitious — some would say foolishly so. Consider trimming the destinations that interest you less to carve out more time in the ones that interest you more. This itinerary is designed to work best by public transportation; except where noted, you’ll take the train. Hiring your own private driver, while expensive, can be a worthwhile splurge (for example, it enables you to visit Auschwitz on the way between Kraków and Prague).
If you have only two weeks and want to save Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia for another trip, end the above itinerary in Budapest and spend any extra time squeezing in additional destinations (e.g., Eger, Warsaw, Prague day trips) — or simply slow down.
This itinerary isn’t advisable by car, given some long road days and potentially exorbitant international drop-off charges. I’d rather connect the longer distances by public transportation or budget flights, then rent cars for shorter periods where they’re most useful.
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.