Maybe you’ve already strolled along the romantic canals of Venice and biked your way around Copenhagen in rush hour. There’s no reason to stop exploring Europe once you’ve hit the most popular destinations—all you have to do is look east. Social media has introduced us to destinations with people regularly using Instagram for travel inspiration, increased infrastructure (like Tallinn, Estonia’s future transit hub) means certain places will be more connected than ever and, of course, the internet has undoubtedly made travel to farther-flung countries more accessible. With a growing tourism industry, there has never been a better time to explore the wonders of Eastern Europe.

Jay Ternavan is the Founder and CEO of JayWay Travel, a tour company specializing in semi-independent travel with expert, local guides across Central and Eastern Europe. He says that tourists sometimes worry about travel to these regions because of troubled recent histories, like with Bosnia and its conflict from the 1990s. Also, in many countries in Eastern Europe, visitors struggle with language barriers—the most commonly spoken foreign language in Georgia is Russian. Don’t let these things deter you, though, because what awaits in these destinations is spectacular cuisine, stunning architecture, inspiring art and a warm and welcoming culture.

Having witnessed growth in the demand for tours to places like Albania and The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, we spoke with Jay to learn more about Eastern Europe’s draw, recommendations on where to go and how to preserve these amazing places.

For many Americans, going to Europe means visiting England, France, or Spain. Why would you encourage travelers to look further east?

Jay Ternavan (JT): People used to travel further east because it was cheaper but today they’re choosing these destinations for their beauty and culture. For our core destinations in Central Europe, like Prague, Budapest and Krakow, or Croatia, that cost advantage isn’t so dramatic as it once was. It has, however, been accompanied with an overall increase in quality of services.

Because “cheap” is no longer such a factor, there are other compelling reason to visit these countries—and for us that comes out in their unique histories, cuisines and cultures. We’re glad to see price being less of a factor in these destinations in fact. At the same time going to real Eastern Europe, like Ukraine or Georgia for example, that cost advantage is still there. Airfares [to those destinations] tend to be higher, though, than to the most popular Western European hubs.

Can you give readers a few recommendations on where to go in Central or Eastern Europe? Where should people who want to indulge in amazing food go?

JT: Everyone raves about Georgian food, and rightfully so, but we’ve been very surprised by Armenian cuisine. A little more subtle than Georgian, but with similar advantages in terms of flavor-packed produce. Armenians seem to have a lighter touch when it comes to barbecue than their neighbors and there are some dishes like Ghapama that sit firmly in the wow-factor comfort food category like pumpkin stuffed with rice and a spicy minced beef or beans mix (depending on which version you order). Definitely worth combining a visit to Armenia with Georgia if you’re in the area.

What place would you most recommend for architecture buffs? What about for art?

JT: Prague is truly a gem for architecture lovers. Because it escaped WWII largely unscathed, its center truly is really well preserved. At the same time it’s home to buildings like The Dancing House, a collaboration with Frank Gehry, best known for the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

In terms of art, the country that gave the world Mucha is well placed. The Municipal House is a must-see. This building is a contemporary of the birth of Czechoslovakia as a nation and as such is a showcase for homegrown talent, including Mucha. The city has many art galleries in addition to the vast National Gallery in the Holesovice district and a thriving creative scene with schools like UmPrum (full name The Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) developing young artists and designers.

Some well-loved destinations are now struggling with over tourism. How can travelers explore these kinds of “undiscovered” places which are more accessible than ever while making tourism there sustainable?

JT: Certainly, over-tourism is a concern in some of our destinations. We have Dubrovnik, Prague, Rome and Venice on our map. Yet even those destinations can be experienced at their best if the experience is carefully managed in terms of timing and avoiding the worst pinch points. In Prague we are starting to include stays in hotels in the Karlin district (one of Time Out’s 50 coolest neighborhoods in the world in 2018). It’s five minutes by tram from the center but a world away in terms of crowds and with a real local feel.

The challenge for undiscovered places is certainly how to handle sudden attention when the infrastructure isn’t quite ready for it. Tbilisi’s old baths district is already starting to feel a little crowded at certain times of the day and the most popular monastery sights in Armenia are occasionally heaving under the load of large bus tourism. I’m not sure we have the macro answer for it but for our guests we have already learned from the busiest spots on our map that it’s important to both manage expectations and the overall experience through timing visits well. 

Theresa Christine is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, CA. You can follow along with her adventures by subscribing to her newsletter Delve here.



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