Adventures in Eastern Europe that Need to be on Your Bucket List

by Steph Dyson

It’s not just the promise of unique Slavic languages (that’ll get your tongue in a tangle) that makes this a compellingly offbeat region to travel. An Eastern Europe adventure awaits for those looking to explore handsome, historic cities or venture into remote countryside to fairytale villages and lofty mountain ranges– all without a single vampire in sight.

Up until now, you may have only encountered Eastern Europe in modern history textbooks in chapters about the Cold War, but let me assure you: though this region might have more than its fair share of miserable modern history, what has risen from the flames is a tapestry of countries seeped in proud cultures and remote, dramatic landscapes.

biking through romanian countryside
Leave the garlic at home, you won’t encounter any Vampires on your bike ride through Transylvania.

Now, eastern Europe is a growing hotspot for the best european adventure travel. Here you’ll find the birthplace of Dracula, swim spectacular lakes, explore even more spectacular 17th century churches, and stay amongst local people as part of a hike through ‘accursed’ mountains. Stunning and culturally varied, there are few areas as brimming with adventurous possibilities as eastern Europe. Trust us when we say these eastern Europe adventure travel experiences are a must-add to your bucket list:

1. Hunt vampires, Saxons and fairytale villages in Transylvania, Romania

Although Hollywood hasn’t been kind in establishing Romania’s reputation as a shadow-filled land of thirsty vampires, the main culprit for this erroneous repute was one Bram Stoker – who never actually visited the country.

It’s fair to say he got a few details wrong. Forget the garlic; adventure travel in Romania doesn’t include many vampires. Instead, Romania is an engrossing blend of Saxon churches and fairytale villages where horse-drawn carriages rumble through Medieval-era cobbled streets.

Although starting in Romania’s dynamic capital, Bucharest is essential, the Transylvania region is where the real adventure begins. Head to Bran Castle near Brasov, a city 100 miles from the capital, where this 14th century mix of thick stone slabs and terracotta spires looks just the ticket beneath a spooky layer of cloud and a full moon. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t the actual home of cruel Vlad Tepes (the real-life Dracula) who was born in a less impressive house in equally beautiful Sighisoara – the next stop on your itinerary.

Indeed, adventure travel in Romania is incomplete without a trip to this historic city, where its 12th century Saxon-built citadel is the oldest still inhabited building of its type in Europe. A splendid 14th century clock tower alongside other medieval monuments make this an excellent final stop off on an adventure tour of Romania.

Recommended adventure travel in Romania programs: Help restore the medieval architecture of Brasov or learn about theories of conflict and conflict resolution in post-Soviet states with an adventure through Romania and other former Eastern Bloc countries.

railroad through kholmorgorisky rayon, Russia
Ride the infamous Trans-siberian railway through Russia and hop on and off to have your own adventures.

2. Board the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia

The most iconic train journey of all time, the Trans-Siberian railway is the only way to adventure travel in Russia. Between May and September, tourists flock to Moscow to board the ageing yet still utterly romantic carriages, which cross an astonishing third of the world to arrive at the mountainous bays of Vladivostok in the far east of Russia.

This train journey is an adventure traveler’s dream and a comfy one at that; your ticket books you a cozy berth and a window-side view of the changing character of the Russian landscape – all 6,152 miles of it.

To squeeze the most adventure out of your trip, book stops en route so that you can jump off at the finely-carved, 12th century Assumption Cathedral in medieval Vladimir or dip your bare feet into tempting but toe-tingly icy waters of the world’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal. Learn about the vast cultural and ethnic diversity of the Russian people by visiting Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic where you can experience folk singing and local traditions in a city that was only opened to outsiders in 1991.

Knowing a little Russian before you jump on the train (a Russian language study abroad program should do the trick) can help pass the many lazy hours on board and ensure you understand the rules of the card games that’ll fill most of your waking moments. 

Recommended adventure travel in Russia programs: Study Russian history and culture in an educational adventure in Moscow.

3. Cycle and hike around Mljet Island, Croatia

According to legend, Mljet Island off the coast of Croatia’s capital Dubrovnik was the home of Odysseus for seven years, and adventure travelers always hope for a similar (mis)fortune once they land upon these lush, green shores.

Baska, Croatia woman hiking through rock formations
Croatia is an adventure traveler’s dream.

Marketed as the “pearl of the Mediterranean,” Mljet Island is ripe for exploration, particularly as its abundance of sandy coves and thick forest are best accessed on foot or by two wheels. The western tip is home to a favorite Eastern Europe adventure travel destination: Mljet National Park. Speckled with saltwater lakes and sumptuous forests of pine, visitors can rent canoes to paddle out to the fortified 12th century Benedictine monastery at the center of the larger of these lakes.

Despite its tranquil mood, Mljet Island supports its claim as the home of adventure travel in Croatia thanks to its range of mountain bike and hiking trails. But if this doesn’t sound daring enough, consider visiting in October for the annual Mljet Half Ironman triathlon, which combines cycling, swimming, and running through the island’s serene setting.

Recommended adventure travel in Croatia programs: Jump aboard for a sailing adventure through the Adriatic Sea, stopping to snorkel in secluded bays and to splash in the warm waters of private beaches or work alongside marine biologists and other volunteers to track the numbers and habits of the bottlenose dolphin populations off the coast of Funtana.

4. Explore the historic waters and shores of Lake Bled, Slovenia

Slovenia might historically be overlooked by tourists in favor of neighboring Croatia, but it remains one of the most scintillating locations for adventurous travel. This small, but perfectly formed country has Lake Bled at its north-westerly edge. This mirror-like expanse of water reflects the snow peaked tips of the Julian Alps and is crowned in beauty by the picturesque spire and roofs of the 17th century church that sits on Bled island in its center.

woman trekking in the Julian Alps surrounding Slovenia
When you’re done exploring the shores of lake Bled, tackle the Julian alps for some top views.

Sure, it’s still an adventure if you relax in the cool waters at the edges of the lake; although swimming to Bled Island and exploring the church is another way of extracting every ounce of adventure from your trip. Be aware that weddings are frequently held here, so try and avoid dripping too much water on the wedding party.

Once exhausted from a day’s adventure, Bled Castle – the medieval monument built high above the northern shore of the lake – is a short but steep uphill wander. During the summer months, sit back and enjoy a film beneath the stars at the open-air cinema in the castle’s forecourt.

Recommended adventure travel in Slovenia programs: Investigate the dolphin and sea turtle populations off the coast of Slovenia as you monitor their behavior and movements.

5. Cycle your way around the vineyards of Lake Balaton, Hungary

While Budapest, Hungary’s thriving capital, is a mesmerizing muddle of modern and semi-ruined bars and splendid, neo-gothic buildings – and the perfect place to pick up the monumentally difficult Hungarian language, Lake Balaton is the real adventure travel destination in Hungary. Escape the crowds that flood the capital as you head a short train journey to this tranquil spot for an adventure.

Pick up a set of wheels and soak up the fertile landscape on the northern shores of the lake, where a circuit of wineries and unassuming, yet delicious restaurants in the Badacsony region await. Sample the hearty Chicken Paprikash (flavored with lashings of paprika and cooked over a wood fire) or drop into a handful of vineyards for a tour and a taste of the region’s favorite: white wine. Nibble on freshly-made goat cheeses and cured meats, but take it easy on the wine tasting if you’re cycling home. Finish your Hungarian adventure with a cold drink on a terrace overlooking the calm waters of the lake.

Recommended adventure travel in Hungary programs: Plunge into the charismatic heart of Hungary with a weekend adventure break to Budapest.

vineyard in Eastern Europe
Drink in the scenery and adventure cycling through Hungary.

6. Explore accursed alps and ancient architecture, Albania

Albania is a little-known Eastern European treasure, sandwiched between Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. It can blame its omission from the list of more popular Eastern European countries on the legacy of its former communist leader who left the historic and cultural identity of this small Balkan country in tatters.

But, the Albanian people refused to be defeated. Few other adventure travel locations in the region offer the same possibilities for encountering these courageous local people and supporting their collective attempts at putting the country firmly back on the map.

The best way to do so is to hike a section of the 120-mile Peaks of the Balkans mountain trail; it passes through the Accursed Mountains of Albania and crosses the border into neighboring Montenegro and Kosovo, stopping in a range of tiny, remote villages along the way. Residents keen to interact with a growing stream of foreign visitors have converted their ancestral homes into rustic lodgings, welcoming their guests with open arms and fascinating tales about Albania life.

Recommended adventure travel in Albania programs: Volunteer in a community school in the Albanian Alps as a way of supporting the country’s development or support community projects and teach English classes in Albania’s capital, Tirana.

Dhermi, Albania
From the coast to the mountains, you’re bound to have an adventure in Albania.

All set for an Eastern European adventure?

Whichever dazzling Eastern European gem has struck your fancy, the GoAbroad is brimming with other countries that should top your bucket list. Reviews from previous adventurers give you a real flavor of what to expect in this bewitching region, while MyGoAbroad saves time by helping you to compare different programs side-by-side. 

Don’t delay turning your wanderlust-fuelled dreams into action; Eastern Europe’s status as a top adventure destination won’t be secret for too much longer. Get planning today before the rest of the world discovers why these are some of Europe’s most unique and captivating countries.