Typically when we think of taking a European vacation, we immediately envision such glamorous capital cities as London, Paris, Rome or Madrid. These dream destinations are probably on every American’s bucket list as well they should be because they are, after all, some of the most fascinating and interesting places in the world. But have you ever thought about planning a trip to a place like Warsaw? Prague? Budapest? Vienna? Well think again because Eastern Europe offers some of the most spectacular, cosmopolitan and historically significant sites that easily rival her Western counterpart!
While many still think of Eastern Europe as a throwback to the days of Communism and the Cold War, it’s a worthwhile trip to discover some of the most underappreciated cities and sites that will surprise you for their warm and welcoming hospitality and old world charm. I had the opportunity to visit some of these cities in the summer of 2013 as part of a study abroad group for educators from around the United States. We began in Berlin, Germany and concluded in Budapest, Hungary for an unforgettable journey throughout Eastern Europe that harkened back to its painful past up to its triumphant present. Make plans to visit some of these “must-see” members of the European Union!
Berlin, Germany has its own “Great Wall”. The Berlin Wall once stood for twenty-nine years as a physical barrier that divided and separated Communist East Berlin from West Berlin. Although it was erected to prevent East Berliners from escaping to a life in a democratic society, its remains serve as a symbol of real rebellion and revolution. The museum there holds thousands of photos and documents from Hitler’s reign of terror. He could never have imagined Berlin today with its wide boulevards for upscale shopping, hundreds of al fresco diners of all races and religions and lively outdoor beer gardens seemingly everywhere. It is wunderbar!
We arrived by rail in Warsaw, Poland to learn not so much about its painful past of Nazi occupation but more about its fighting spirit of Nazi resistance. A visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum displays lots of documents and artifacts that attest to a somber but proud heritage of people who had the courage to fight back in 1944 against oppression and injustice.
Despite the overwhelming natural beauty of Poland with its colorful floral blooms and manicured greenery everywhere, one of the most memorable highlights of this country are the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau located just outside of Krakow. Evidence of unspeakable atrocities done to Eastern European Jews was so shocking and horrific that this place will be indelibly seared into your memory for a lifetime.
After witnessing the hatred of the Holocaust, a visit to Prague in the Czech Republic is just the place to lift your spirits! Often referred to as the “Paris” of Eastern Europe, Prague is bustling, thriving, pulsating and popping with people and tourists and happenings everywhere! Enjoy lots of open-air restaurants with live bands in the town square and dancing in the streets! Prague is the place where you can literally eat, drink and be merry all day, every day!
Next it was on to Vienna, Austria with its grand and majestic architecture like the Imperial Palace. Visit its inviting town squares where locals gather to meet, greet and eat! Enjoy lots of spacious outdoor places to linger, relax and enjoy live entertainment or just hang out in one of the many cool coffeehouses. And if opera is your thing, then Vienna is the place to be!
One final stop to the capital of Hungary to behold the splendor of the Buda Castle in the heart of Budapest all lit up to dazzle and impress the multitude of night sightseers. You’ll feel like royalty just admiring this magnificent historical structure that attracts thousands of tourists each year. It is a World Heritage Site and for good reason!
So now that I’ve whet your appetite for the flip side of Europe, pack your bags and get ready to experience a perfect combination of happiness and history. You’ll be glad you did!