Venture from the well-worn Prague and Vienna circuit to explore lands where prices are cheaper and flea markets plentiful. This insider-inspired European itinerary starts in Budapest to soak alongside locals at thermal baths, then south to Zagreb, with its artisans and eccentric Museum of Broken Relationships, and finally to Sarajevo, where the bullet-scarred Olympic bobsleigh track is a sobering reminder of the 1990s war. Throughout, an enterprising new generation gives visitors to the Old World a fresh welcome.
DAY 1 Hopping aboard the 155 kilometres of tram lines in Budapest is a cheap way to orient yourself in the Hungarian capital. Trams 47 and 49 stop in front of the Great Market Hall. “Don’t forget to check out the fishmongers and colourful pickle stalls in the basement,” says Carolyn Bánfalvi, founder of food and wine tour company, Taste Hungary. Take Tram 2 along the Danube River to the spire-bristling Hungarian Parliament. Nearby is Hold Street Market, where perfectly fried schnitzel served at Buja Disznók draws foodies.
Walk across stately Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the river to check out the imposing Buda Castle complex (budacastlebudapest.com; entry to castle free; adults €30/₹2,260, children between 3-12, €15/₹1,128 for a 2.5-hour guided tour).
Back on the Pest side, some of the best traditional restaurants can be found in the old Jewish Quarter. The matzo ball soup at family-run Rosenstein has a cult following (rosenstein.hu; matzo ball soup HUF1,200/₹290). This revitalized neighbourhood also hosts Budapest’s famed “ruin bars.” In the early 2000s, impromptu nightlife venues began popping up in abandoned buildings. The pioneering Szimpla Kert, a sprawling maze of oddities and bars, is the most popular (en.szimpla.hu). For a calmer night, drop in on newcomer Mazel Tov (mazeltov.hu/en).
Stay: At Brody House, each guest room displays an ever evolving gallery by a single artist (brodyhouse.com; doubles from €70/₹5,290).
DAY 2 With its recreated prison cells and other interactive exhibits, the House of Terror at Andrássy út 60 gives a feel for life in Hungary during its communist regime (www.terrorhaza.hu; entry HUF2,000/₹480). Then, after a 15-minute-walk to Klauzál tér 9, sit down at Kádár Étkezde, a lunch-only holdout from the 1950s still heaping plates with Hungarian staples at reasonable prices. A 20-minute bus ride out of town leads to Memento Park, final resting place of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist icons (www.mementopark.hu; entry HUF1,500/₹360).
A 30-minute drive north, at apartment-restaurant Zoltán 18, a Hungarian-Canadian and Russian couple serve elaborate six-course meals, with starters such as tandoori octopus and egg-yolk ravioli, in a minimalist dining room (Zoltán utca 18; +36-20-4306383). A ten-minute drive west is Bambi Eszpresszó, an intellectual hangout in the 1960s where regulars now gather for backgammon. It is the ideal spot for a local Dreher Pilsener (II kerület, Frankel Leó utca 2-4; +36-1-2123171).
DAY 3 Budapest has no shortage of coffee houses in which to nurse cups of espresso and sample creamy tortes. On the grand end of the spectrum, the revived Centrál “was once one of the prime salons for Hungary’s famed artists and literary stars, before shutting down during communism,” says Bánfalvi (www.centralkavehaz.hu; coffee from HUF550/₹130).
Find further relaxation in the city’s other favourite pastime: bathing. Ottoman-era Veli Bej is the oldest hammam in the city (Árpád fejedelem útja 7, district II; entry from HUF2,240/₹540).
At night, it’s time to dial up the energy at Corvinteto, a dance party on the top floor of a communist-era department store (www.corvinclub.hu).
DAY 4 “Even if you don’t have a goal, a long walk through the streets of Zagreb always brings discoveries,” says Iva Silla, the founder of Secret Zagreb, a tour company and city blog. Get your bearings in the heart of the diminutive Croatian capital at Ban Jelačić Square, and wander down artisan-filled Ilica Street and its quirky alleyways. Nearby, a courtyard hides the Lapo Lapo studio, created by and for local street artists.
Then you can climb a few blocks to the Museum of Broken Relationships, a bizarre but poignant collection of keepsakes from failed love affairs, like a noseless garden dwarf that was thrown at a husband’s new car (brokenships.com; entry KN30/₹300). Stari Fijaker serves up comfort food such as veal ragout and black pudding (www.starifijaker.hr). Vinyl bar has a theme for every evening, from book exchanges to live music (www.vinylzagreb.com).
Stay: At 4 City Windows B&B, rooms reflect aspects of Zagreb culture, including a Cartoon Room (www.4citywindows.com; doubles from €70/₹5,320).
DAY 5 Scour the best treasures at Zagreb’s flea markets. Dolac market “is one of the most colourful sights in Zagreb,” says Silla. British Square on the weekends “has trapped the spirit of the old days.” Re-energize with a plate of štrukli, a dish of cheese and dough dumpling topped with clotted cream, at La Štruk (Skalinska 5; +385-1-4837701).
Then head to the forested peaks of neighbouring Mount Medvednica, accessible by tram. “We call the mountain the lungs of the city,” says Silla. “It is a perfect getaway.”