Ten must-see Eastern European towns

LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA

The Slovenian capital proves that small cities can pack a punch. The old town is a huddle of medieval and Art Nouveau buildings, fine museums and lively theatres, and erupts with hundreds of annual cultural events. Little squares host more cafes than you could visit in a month. The beer is Germanic in quality, the ice-cream Italian, and the food in the rustic street markets is Central European. See visitljubljana.com

POZNAN, POLAND

This lively, youthful university town flies almost completely under the tourist radar and yet is a Krakow in miniature, centred on a huge main square surrounded by tall, 16th-century merchants' houses picked out in lurid colours. It has a friendly, arty, student vibe and, despite being a millennium old, still has abundant energy – especially in the evenings, when the whole town comes out to eat and drink. See poznan.travel

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA

Okay, there are no big-name palaces, cathedral or museums here, and the hilltop castle underwhelms, though it does have fine Danube River views. Yet this means you can abandon your sightseeing duties and simply enjoy the relaxed buzz of this capital's delightfully petite and mostly pedestrianised old town. Its graceful medieval and renaissance buildings now house a lively variety of bars and eateries, making Bratislava a lovely  destination with a great vibe. See visitbratislava.com

BRASOV, ROMANIA

Brasov cityscape with black cathedral and mountain on backround in Romania SunFeb2Trav10
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City of Brasov in Romania. Photo: iStock

Once you penetrate the concrete, Soviet-era outskirts of this once-prominent and proud Austro-Hungarian trading city, you'll find a lovingly renovated baroque town picked out in pink and yellow, festooned with flowerboxes and centred on elegant Piata Sfatului square, where kids skip and locals slurp ice creams around a fountain. On the hillside above, a leafy Esplanade gives views over pepper-pot towers, medieval church spires and tiled rooftops. See romaniatourism.com

SZEGED, HUNGARY

A devastating flood in 1879 saw this town rebuilt in Art Nouveau style, bequeathing it both a wonderful architectural uniformity and some of the era's best buildings, such as the town hall and Reok and Grof palaces. You'll also find one of Europe's most beautiful synagogues. Add a sunny climate, riverside location and energetic student life for a perfect little European city without the tourist crowds. See szegedtourism.hu

HVAR, CROATIA

This Renaissance gem on an island of the same name has all the requisite marble-paved piazzas, shady alleys, dim chapels and fortress above for splendid outlooks over a turquoise Adriatic Sea. Even better, Hvar has a chic contemporary buzz thanks to its yachting and bar scene, which has turned it into the St Tropez of Croatia. Don your designer duds, stroll the promenades and tuck into seafood. See tzhvar.hr

KOTOR, MONTENEGRO

Founded by the Romans, emblazoned with Venetian lions, rich in maritime history and World Heritage listed for its medieval architecture and fine fortifications, this car-free old town feels like a mini Dubrovnik, though isn't nearly as busy. Its setting at the end of a 30-kilometre, fiord-like sunken valley is just as superb: stroll beyond the walls for Midori-blue water and rugged mountains sometimes dusted with snow. See touristiko.me

MARIANSKE LAZNE, CZECH REPUBLIC 

Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic - December 28 2017: Winter image of Colonnade made of cast iron. Singning water fountain in front, all covered with white snow. SunFeb2Trav10
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Winter in Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic. Photo: iStock

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This renowned 19th-century spa destination, formerly known as Marienbad – which Mark Twain called the most charming town on the Continent – retains much of its sedate, buttercup-yellow, fin-de-siecle architecture, perfectly set off by dark pine-covered hills, flowerbeds and manicured lawns. Visitors soak in fizzy water, take forest rambles and eat cream buns under the Colonnade. A prestigious Chopin Festival is held each August. See marianskelazne.cz

NOVI SAD, SERBIA

This Serbian city on the Danube River will be European Capital of Culture in 2021, so make haste now before the rest of the world discovers its delights. It's a typical European city, big enough for many pleasures (laneway bars, art galleries, music festivals, cafe terraces, parks) but small enough to avoid urban annoyances. The old town eyes off a whopping fortress across the river. See novisad.travel

VELIKO TARNOVO, BULGARIA

The onetime capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (and now a university town) sits high above a curl of the Yantra River in northern Bulgaria's mountains. Though not striking apart from its huge ruined Tsarevets fortress, the town has considerable charm thanks to its setting, genteel architecture, Byzantine-influenced churches and agreeably slow pace. In the evening, swallows swoop above the limestone cliffs and rooftops. See kws.go.ke

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