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My '30 By 30' Countries Challenge: 9 Countries In Central And East Europe, 23-Day Itinerary From India + Costs


My (then) boyfriend and I have our birthdays 18 days apart and we happened to about to turn BIG 30! So, both being avid backpackers, we decided that we’d bring our 30th by finishing 30 countries. Now don’t get me wrong, we ain’t really country counters, and both of us, individually and together, have spent over two decades traveling, sometimes spending a whole month in a single country and it’s never been about “checking off” a country list.


But since both of us had already done a west Europe backpacking trip once before, we kind of knew what to expect and yet we knew that East and Central Europe are slightly different in terms of culture, architecture, history, and economy from West Europe. Plus since a lot of the countries in East Europe are smaller than certain cities in India, we knew we could travel to a few of them in a short time, without compromising much on an immersive experience in each. So with that in mind, we planned our Europe Trip, to start with around his birthday and end close to mine. We began our trip landing in Vienna, the Austrian capital in Central Europe and then continued moving eastwards to end our trip at the final European bastion, Greece. While we did plan to be in a few cities originally, many got added impromptu as points of stop on our eastward journey, bringing the total country count to 9. (Sounds a bit insane, but you'll realise it wasn't as you read the trip details coming forth.


Here’s our 30-Day Itinerary for our Central and East Europe Trip from India



Day 1 Flew into Vienna and had an overnight layover


We flew from New Delhi to Vienna with a 12-hour layover in Kiev, Ukraine. I’m not counting Austria in my count because of Vienna because we just spent about a night and some of it in the day from the bus, but because we spent a whole day in Salzburg later which also is in Austria.


Day 2 - Budapest - Walking tour, dive bars, and supermarket hopping


A 4-hour bus from Vienna got us to Budapest around noon. On the first impression, Budapest was as beautiful as they come, like Paris on the other side, but just cheaper. Our hotel turned out be wonderfully located near the famous Liszt-Ferenc Square with most of the hotspots located nearby. (Little did I know that 4 years later, I’d be back in the city for a company retreat and walking the same streets.)


Budapest things to do


As we usually do, we immediately got on a guided walking tour of the city which walked us by The State Opera House, the Synagogue, the Academy of Music and the iconic Hungarian Parliament building, majestically located by the Danube river. But what was most interesting was the local beer festival where we couldn't help but get ourselves a mug each and let go of our tour.


In the evening, we headed to one of the most famous dive bars in Budapest – Szimpla Kert – a true bohemian chaotic "ruin bar" with multiple levels and the most random boho decor!

Something I'd learn about Budapest 4 years later is that it's home to hundreds of ruin bars located deep in alleys within alleys and one simply can party 24/7 in the city!

And they're cheap! Bring on the 1 euro beers!



Day 3: Sightseeing in Budapest and bringing in M’s 30th!


Having got oriented with Budapest the previous day, today we were comfortable with taking off on our own and checking out Széchenyi Bath, one of the more famous Thermal Bath houses of Budapest. While unfortunately we couldn't get into the pool due to reasons now unclear to me, just seeing the place in action was quite something! Hundreds of people splashing about in the sprawling blue thermal pools surrounded by a sunshine yellow palace! Apparently "Spa Parties or Sparties" are also a thing in Budapest.


On our way back, we stopped to pay our respects at the Heroes' Square, commemorating prominent figures of Hungarian History, and picnicked at the City park (This would become a thing on our travels.) This was followed by walking to the Castle Hill, a hill around the Buda Castle for panoramic views of the 'Pest' side. Don't miss the fountain with the dogs! The atmosphere at the Buda Castle is always festive, especially at night with its romantically lit architecture and the lone violinist who set the background score for the evening.


We then walked to the end of the famous Chain bridge and just at the base, got a pizza and some red wine to bring in M’s 30th! And here we were, 30 and 29, looking at the dazzling Chain Bridge and the majestic Budapest skyline in the background.


budapest at night


Day 4 - Couchsurfing in Prague


One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, a party town, and a historical place, Prague was next on our Central Europe itinerary and just a few hours away by bus from Budapest. Thanks to a jam on the highway, instead of reaching Prague at 2pm as scheduled, we got there by 5pm and then fumbled a bit with finding our host’s place – yep Prague was the only destination where we were going to Couchsurf instead of stay in a hotel, hostel or Airbnb. Our host was lovely Zuzanna who welcomed us into her lovely little boho pad. Even though it was located in the outskirts and getting there took some time, we were there by 6 and thankfully since the sun sets really late in the summer in Europe, still had a few hours of daylight left to explore some of the city. We again, we took a local metro and reached downtown Prague.  At this point, I started to come down with something and walking wasn’t helping. So we decided to cut today’s outing a bit short and call it an early night. We still had 2 more days in Prague so there was no rush. We were were back at Zuzanna's by 9, chilled with her and her dog on the cosy couch instead!



Day 5 - Exploring Prague's bohemian and Nazi history on a rainy day


Even though the weather was looking glum and we were too comfortable in the cosy apartment, we pushed ourselves and joined a late noon walking tour. The tour guide walked us through Prague's fascinating Bohemian history as well as its Dark Nazi days and then the recent history of this communist state and finally the 1989 Velvet Revolution as we walked past the historic old district including the Wenceslas Square, the astronomical clock, and the site of the WWII Prague uprising. The tour finally ended near the Charles Bridge, an impressive 600~year-old medieval stone arch bridge with 30+ statues, leading to the Prague Castle, a medieval gothic church.


charles bridge prague


On our way back, we stopped by for a quick look at the 'Dancing Building", and came back to eat a pizza by the Charles bridge with stunning views of Prague by night.


prague by night


Day 6 - Letna Park, Dancing Building and beep guzzling in Prague


By now, both of us were under the weather so we started the day quite late. Finally around noon, we got back to the city centre, soaked in the amazing energy on a thankfully sunny day, and ended up in Letna Park, a high hill park facing old Prague and the Vltava river. We settled ourselves on a pine table, unpacked our supermarket lunch and got some some beers from the park cafe. Much to our delight, there was Wifi here making it a perfect spot for some working! On our way back, we took Zuzanna for a vegetarian meal at an Indian restaurant of her choosing.


Early next day, we bid our farewells and got on a 3-hour long - and our only train on this Europe trip - to Salzburg



Day 7 - A day in Mozart's Salzburg


After five days away from Vienna, we properly ticked off the Austrian leg of the trip with a day in Salzburg, better known for the sight of the iconic "Sound Of Music".

We were not going to stay the night in Salzburg so we left our luggage in the cloakroom on the railway station and began walking to the centre. On our way, we stopped at the famous Mirabelle Gardens, sprawling baroque gardens with beautifully manicured greenery and flowers, elaborate fountains and historic statues. We then took a stroll at the lively Cathedral area, checking out a beautiful, if dark, medieval cemetery, and the colourful buildings that seem etched on to the cliffs! Salzburg is so tiny you can pretty much walk the whole old tourist town within a couple of hours.


Salzburg things to do


In fact at some point, we didn’t know what to do so we sat around the steps of the square and witnessed a Vegan Campaign with volunteers wearing Guy Fawkes masks holding laptops and showing animal cruelty involved in the meat industry. Back then, I wasn’t a vegan yet,  but I remember this event having some subconscious impact on me. On our way out, we strolled through the famous Getreidegasse street full of quaint cafes, fancy shops, and walked past Mozart's apartment from almost 250 years ago!


Around sunset, we crossed the pedestrian only "love lock bridge" with a beautiful sunset and a street musician's haunting score in the background! On the other side of the river, Salzburg looked like that postcard perfect European hamlet with its mountains, medieval buildings and the fortress forming a backdrop to its charming houses, cafes and squares. Salzburg turned out to be the perfect little day trip. Not sure if we would’ve got a lot more from staying overnight and spending another day so a day in Salzburg was just about enough.


Day 8 - Lounging in the banks of emerald Lake Bled, Slovenia


We were going to from one fairytale town to the other, but our bus to Bled wasn’t going to be until later at night so we waited at the bus station, fighting sleeping every minute. Finally, at around 2am, we got into the bus for a semi-overnight journey to Bled, a beautiful lake side hill town in Slovenia, country #4 on the trip. The way to Bled was unravelling itself as what I’d imagined Switzerland to be. Lush green meadows, snow-capped alps in the distance and quant cottages all around. Our bus made a small coffee stop on the way - reminding us of a chai stop at a dhaba back home in India - except no chai was to be had.


lake bled slovenia


Turns out, our receptionist at the Bled hotel was a huge fan of Bollywood and had seen the movie 3 idiots! Amused that in a small town the size of Koramangla in a country hardly anyone in India could point on the map, someone had seen a Bollywood movie! As an aside, this is why I love traveling. This small moments of joy and wonder surpass the sights and experiences even.

After a nap in our bed, we walked around the lake area, I petted some dogs and we again chilled on the lush green lawns on the lake banks, with no agenda or rush since we were going to spend a night here.



Day 9 - Hiking for a stunning views of lake Bled


After grabbing some "sandwich buns" and coffee for breakfast and and packing some "Pizza by the slice" for later, we walked all the way to the lake Bled from the walkway around it. To get best views of lake Bled, we trekked up Ojstrica, a small viewpoint offering incredible view of the city of Bled, the lake, the little castle on the island, and the surrounding mountains. After a 2-hour easy hike, on which we met an Indian girl working in Infosys in Budapest, we were up at this viewpoint, devouring the pizza we’d packed and carried all the way up! This carry-pizza-enjoy-at-a-viewpoint was going to be our thing hence forward!


views of lake bled slovenia


We got back to the lake by 4pm, and soon it was time to leave. After a brief stopover in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and an extremely tricky word to spell and pronounce, we were on our way to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, checking off country #5. Little did I know that 4 years later, Slovenia would become such an important part of my life.


Day 10 - Museum of breakups, lavender, and football in Zagreb


I’d be honest, by the time we got to Zagreb, Europe fatigue was setting in and all these capital cities were blurring on to one another. We did do the walking tour, going through many historical places, but the one that jumped out the most to me was the “Museum of Breakups”, a curious museum of objects and memorabilia from breakups all over Europe! (We didn't go inside in case someone got any ideas ;) ) Croatia is also the lavender capital of Europe and you can get yourself freshly plucked buds, dried and fresh, and pack some potpourri for back home.


zagreb walking tour


Since the Football World Cup was on during our trip and Croatia happens to be a major football nation, we sat by the Ban Jelačić square, and watched a game on the big projector screen, along with some takeaway pizza!


Day 11 - Plitvice National Park, Croatia


The next morning, we set off on a day trip to Plitvitz National park, a sprawling national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. Embedded in a mosaic of forests and meadows, Plitvice Lakes National Park conserves a strikingly beautiful and intact series of lakes formed by natural tufa barriers. Even though it was an expensive entry ticket, the park was beautiful, with emerald green tall and cascading waterfalls everywhere the eye looked!


Plitvice national park croatia


We were done at the park by 5pm and headed back to Zagreb, caught another football match at the Ban Jelačić square, and chitchatted with an elderly solo traveler in our hotel.



Day 12- 'Shame Shame"! At King's Landing in Dubrovnik


The next morning, we took an early morning bus to go Dubrovnik, a coastal town in South Croatia, famous for being one of the locations of King’s Landing in the Game Of Thrones - which both of us were fans of. After a lot of walking through levels, we made it to our Airbnb, a sweet room located within the house of a lovely Croatian family and were greeted by a sweet drink and cake as a welcome goodie!


Dubrovnik game of thrones shooting


Not wasting much time, we set out to explore Dubrovnik. A Mediterranean tourist hotspot steeped in medieval history, with a lot of castles, forts, and the most charming cafes. Everywhere you loooked, the crystal blue Adriatic sea would peak out on the horizon. Finally, at the square, we walked around, checking out the famous “Walk of Shame” shooting spot and missing GoT all over again! Even though we considered going to a Michelin Star restaurant in the area, decided to save the Euros and caught a dinner at one of the many cafes at the plaza feeling the electric, if slight dark, vibes of Dubrovnik.


The next day, after breakfast, we were on our way to our next destination, Montenegro.


Day 13 - The Town of Cats, Kotor, Montenegro


Even though it wasn’t originally on our itinerary when we left from India, taking the road from Dubrovnik on our way to our final destination Greece required passing by Montenegro, a tiny balkan country we’d barely heard of it before.

The most standout part about this leg of the trip has to be passing the strict border check at Albania, and our bus going aboard a cruise ship to cross the channel to Kotor, Montenegro’s bay capital. The small town of Kotor with a population of 18,000 ~ is as charming as it gets but still full of character as the modern waterfront cafes are lined by well-preserved medieval buildings, churches and squares in the old town. But the thing that jumped out the most about Kotor was the abundance of street cats! There was one peaking out everywhere you looked, so much so that most souvenirs of Montenegro have a cat on it!



Kotor montenegro


Day 14 - Hike up to St John's fortress for stunning views of Kotor Bay


To get a different perspective of this fascinating town, we did a refreshing but easy 2-hour trek up to St John's fortress. The views from top were breath taking with the mountains closing in on the river, almost making Kotor look like a hidden secret!


St John's fortress for stunning views of Kotor Bay


We were back to the city by 12, hungry and so I did what I'd been doing on this trip so far -- Walk into the local supermarket and get a sense and feel of the "local" culture through its products.


Using the Nutella jar as the index, I found Montenegro to be cheapest amongst all of the countries we’d visited so far! Don’t miss eating the spanakopita at the bakeries here for a cheap and healthy vegetarian meal fix


After getting some work done sitting on the wooden board by the bays, we took a late evening bus to Podgorica, capital of Montenegro to take another bus to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, our next destination.


Day 15 - Skopje, Macedonia, Mother Teresa's birthplace and a town full of statues


We got to Skopje, at around 5am, and thankfully our hostel let us do an early check-in.

Even though we set out to explore the city early enough and did quite a lot of walking, I don’t remember being too impressed by Skopje. Maybe it's because Europe fatigue was real. But the one thing that stood out about Skopje to me was the abundance of statues all over!

There was one at every square, and these were not some medieval or even recent history, but rather recent additions from a much-publicised and expensive reconstruction project in 2014 which included renovations of classic buildings and beautification of streets including fountains and statues.


things to do in Skopje Macedonia


The other thing that Skopje sound familiar to most Indians is because Mother Teresa was born here, and we paid a visit to her museum, read the letters she'd send to the nuns back home, and confirmed that she was in fact a celebrated Christian missionary in the garb of a social worker.

After probably seeing some 20+ statues, we ambled into the Ottoman side of town, with a large Muslim population and local markets that resembled many of Hyderabad's old city markets! Glad we weren't spending longer in Skopje, we called it a night early and early next day took a local bus to Sofia, Bulgaria.


Day 16 - A day with Slavic and Ottoman history in Sofia, Bulgaria


Our penultimate destination on this trip was Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria, one of the Balkan countries in East Europe.

We left the luggage at the Sofia central station as we didn’t intend to sleep overnight here.

After figuring out some mess with the local currency, we did the famous, but self-guided Sofia graffiti tour, being impressed at many advanced wall murals, learning as we went about its history and appreciating the city's support to turn to street art to cover its drab Eastern Bloc aesthetics.


street art in sofia bulgaria


Post the arty districts, we used the imposing statue of Sofia saint to orient ourselves, got a takeaway pizza from a local deli, and plonked ourselves at a Borisova garden, a large public park to enjoy a little picnic. While Skopje left us underwhelmed, Sofia, despite a very similar historical background, turned out to have a lot more character. The presence of well-preserved architecture from its Byzantine and Ottoman days was clearly visible in historic buildings like the Roman Rotunda, the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church, an Ottoman Church was which once a mosque, just like the Hagia Sofia (from my 3-day Istanbul trip), and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a humungous green-domed building.


things to do in Sofia bulgaria in a day

At the city park, we witnessed a group of locals doing the "Horo", the national dance of Bulgaria, while dressed in traditional costume, and at some point, got pulled into the dancing which was surprisingly a lot of fun and probably the most authentically local experience I'd had so far!


Sofia was cheap, and a nice place for a day or two. But again, it’s a capital city, and there isn’t a whole lot to do or see for longer. Finally at midnight, we had our first inter-Europe flight of this trip to get to our final destination, Greece.


Day 17 - Greeking it in Athens


Greece was the final European country, the one we spent the most time at, and the one I was looking forward to the most. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, a large part of Western civilization, and home to Socrates, Platos, and the Greek Gods, both literally and otherwise. We reached Athens at 10am, and to start the trip on a great note, a random traveler who was on his way back from Athens handed us his metro pass which still had a couple of rides left.


We didn’t have an agenda for the day, so after a lot of chilling and chitchatting with our Turkish Airbnb host called "Anil", we joined an evening walking tour of Athens. Starting with the Greek Parliament and watching the Change Of Guard ceremony at Syntgama Square and a convoy of the Greek PM pass, we then went to the Panathenaic Stadium, a white marble stadium, built over 2000 years ago, abandoned and revived, and the venue for the first official Olympics in 1896. The tour ended finally at a hill, with great sunset views over the city and the glittering Parthenon temple on the Acropolis hill, which we were saving for our last day in Athens.


Athens is a huge city, but for a traveler, the main places of interest are really the central districts around the Monastiraki area with the pedestrian cobblestoned lanes, the many open air cafes, souvenir shops, and views of the Parthenon temple.



Day 18 - Cruise to Santorini and checking into the most charming Airbnb in Perissa


As we'd planned to, we got to the busy Piraeus port in central Athens and booked ourselves a cruise to Santorini. After a choppy but scenic 6-hour ride, passing islands like Naxos and Paros and coasting the choppy Aegean sea, we alighted the massive ship in Santorini at around 3pm.

Since it was peak season, we had to contend with an Airbnb located in Perissa, a coastal village, far from the visuals that Santorini is synonymous with.



perissa beach santorini islands


But to our surprise, our Airbnb turned out to be charming property with bougainvilleas trees in the patio and an in-house swimming pool.

The Perissa beach, walking distance from our Airbnb, turned out to be a wonderful revelation as the black sand beach framed by volcanic mountains and charming churches in the distance was a great option to spend a calm evening after a tiring day on the ship. Picking up a $5 bottle of locally produced red wine from a supermarket, we plonked ourselves on sun beds on the black beach and had ourselves a lil private party.


Day 19 - Battling the crowds in Oia, Santorini


Next day, after a little inhouse breakfast in the patio of our Airbnb, we took a local bus (1,18 hours) from Perissa to Oia. The first thing that hit us about Oia was just how crowded and buzzing it was! Even before we saw the seaside, we had to wade through the sea of tourists all around. Backpackers, vacationers, honeymooners, digital nomads, locals, and everything in between. We saved the popular spots for the next day and took a less-trodden path by the cliffside to get to the sunset point. On the way, we passed the famous Blue domed church, THE most prominent sight in Santorini, but as expected there were queues and you could wait up to 30 minutes to get to take your click and even then you'd barely have a minute to get that money shot, before next contenders start tut tutting you to move!


oia sunset views santorini greece


If the rest of the trip was easy-paced and chill, Santorini brought out the claws! By the time we made it to the Sunset point, the sun was well set so we beat it to beat the crowds again to make it back. We didn't want to miss the last bus from Oia to Perissa so just to be on the safe side we took the one at 8pm and got back to Perissa beach, and finally breathed! After the madness of Oia, Perissa felt like a calm, almost a private haven.


Day 20 - Final shot at Oia to catch the famous Santorini sunset


Next day, we were back to Oia for another outing. Having got a bit familiar with Oia now, we walked around leisurely though the narrow levelled allies, full of cafes, arty boutiques and souvenir store. (everything is expensive!) Picking up Gyros at the famous 'Suvlaki's, we started to retrace yesterday's steps, and this time, managed to get a few pictures at the Blue Domed Church and a few other famous spots. At around, we were at the sunset point, as were a 1000 others, everyone waiting with baited breath for the showdown. And yes, the sunset was every bit as spectacular as it’s made out to be. As the sun went down, the entire white-topped cliff village went white to pink to sepia, the crowds went different levels of "oooooh", we leisurely devoured our Gyros, and the music from the street artists lent the perfect background score for the romantic visuals. It's not hard to see why Santorini is as hyped as it is, though one can't help but wonder, if other Greek islands of Naxos and Paros may just be few white-washed cliff-side houses away from a Santorini-like reckoning.



blue domed building viewpoint santorini


After Oia, we took the overnight cruise back from Santorini to Athens cruise, this time inside sleeping on the chais inside, rather than the deck outside. Reaching Athens at wee hours in the morning, again, we got to our final Airbnb, a charming studio apartment with a balcony in a residential district, away from the touristic old town.


Day 21 - Bringing in my 30th in Athens


We were sleep deprived and tired after the uncomfortable semi-overnight cruise hunched up over our seats (we didn't book sleeper cabins) in the ship so we slept in in our Airbnb until the noon. Finally we got out in the evening and walked all the way to the Monastiraki area for a night out. I picked up a lot of souvenirs like $1 Olive soaps, a Santorini coffee mug, a tiled "welcome" board and many other knick knacks that Monastiraki is littered with. What I did resist buying was the amazing array of leather footwear, because well as a vegan I don't use animal products in any form.

We ambled into a rooftop pub called 360 and as the name suggested, the did have views of the ruins all around, but most impressively of the golden crown that was the Parthenon temple for a stage backdrop. Finally at midnight, I cut my "birthday cake", a hurriedly bought Eclair as it was my Birthday in Europe time! Finally 30!


athens



Day 22 - First day as a 30-year-old and final day in Europe


I woke up to a homey but comforting breakfast of (store-bought) hummus, (locally bought) bread and black coffee, on our little balcony in the Airbnb.

I wanted to sleep in and get some skincare in to celebrate my day, so I decided to stay back while M decided to check out the Greece Museum. At early evening, I bought my ticket and joined him at the Parthenon and we spent the rest of the evening hanging out at the iconic Greek monument. The Parthenon building is in constant state of restoration and one would usually find one or more sides of it under scaffolding, tempering the experience a little, but it's still an impressive structure given what it stands on and most important what it stands for -- a 2500-year-old temple that's survived multiple civilizations, conquests, natural calamities, wars and more.


parthenon on acropolis athens greece


Our final dinner was at a rooftop cafe in Monastiraki with views of the Parthenon, a simple Ouzo and Moussaka meal -- both Greek delicacies, signally the ending of a near perfect 30 by 30 country challenge.


Day 23 - A Singapore layover


The next day, our host dropped us to the Airport bus stop, and taking the same Airport bus to the Athens Airport, we flew back to India, with a 10-hour layover in Singapore giving us enough time to get out in the city. M managed to do his 32nd country just like that while for me, it was reliving my 2007 Singapore college trip all over again!


Day 24 - Back to homeland


After 24 complete days gallivanting in Europe, hopping countries like hopping cafes back home, we were back to India, having now successfully completed our 30th country by 30, and then some.


Costs of a 3-week Europe trip from India


This 22-day~ trip to Central and East Europe trip covering 9 countries cost us about Rs. 1,50,000 (or around $2000) each.


25% of this cost was the New Delhi to Vienna and Athens To Bangalore inter-continental flights which we'd booked 3 months in advance. The rest of the costs were distributed between the inter-country buses/trains in Europe, accommodation at an average of around $15/per night per person, food at around $10 person per day, and the remaining was entrance tickets, tips on walking tours, currency exchange losses, and shopping.


A hack to saving money on a trip like this would be to:


  1. Buy overnight bus, trains and crises to save on accommodation

  2. Buy food like hummus, salads, and breads from supermarkets and local vendors to save on restaurant eating.

  3. Use "Pizza by Slice" to pack and enjoy at scenic locations with views to resist the temptation of walking into expensive cafes or buying packed junk like chips.

  4. Book your bus tickets a few days in advance as just like flights Flixbus increase their rates as the dates close in.

  5. Go on tip-based "free" walking tours to cover the highlights on the first day and then decide what you want to focus on for the rest of the time.

  6. Plan your trip in such a way that you get whole days in a single city instead of two half days so the need to spend two nights is less.





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 I (Monica) am a lifelong traveler, (40 countries), sustainability and veganism advocate, and a marketer by profession. I'm old school in that I still like to blog and document rather than shoot and post.

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