Eastern Europe: a place that still conjures up images of bleak Khrushchev-era cities filled with abysmal grey apartment blocks and perpetually depressed inhabitants, yet intrigues because it’s the other, different side of Europe that is emerging as the next best adventure motorcycling destination on the Old Continent. Why? For one, off-road trails in the West are being closed to motorized traffic at an alarming rate, whereas in the East, some countries still offer unlimited dirt riding with no restrictions. More importantly, Eastern Europe has so much to offer you may end up coming back for more every year: pristine nature, wild camping, scenic mountain roads, wild beaches and dunes (yup, dunes), friendly locals, decent beer, and delicious local cuisine all make Eastern Europe a great place to ride.
However, not all Eastern Europe is very Eastern, and few two Eastern European countries are alike. Estonia has as much in common with Serbia as Norway has with Greece, and if you ask a Hungarian whether their language is Slavic, you’ll be told to check your linguistics and look up Finno-Ugric; Croatia has a more Italian than Balkan feel to it, whereas Lithuania is more like the Czech Republic – but nothing like Moldova. Confused yet? Here’s a handy guide to riding Eastern Europe like a local:
This should go without saying anywhere you go, but try and leave your expectations of what Eastern Europe will be like behind. Regardless of whether you’re headed to Kosovo, Slovakia, or Poland, the entire region has seen dramatic changes over the last few decades, and instead of those bleak, depressing cities you may be imagining, you’ll find beautiful medieval Old Towns, modern quarters boasting craft beer breweries and cafes inhabited by Insta-famous digital nomads, and quirky street art adorning the cities from Budapest to Riga and beyond. Easter Europe is rediscovering its own identity; still somewhat torn between the East and the West, this region is a colorful, weird, and wonderful corner of the continent. In the cities, expect great infrastructure, ridiculously fast WiFi, chai lattes, and free electric scooters; out in the backcountry, there’s peace and quiet, forests and mountains, and more off-road trails that you can hope for.
2. Tread Carefully
That said, a lot of Eastern European countries are still fragile to an extent; the complex and turbulent past, including the Soviet era, has left its scars, and most Eastern Europeans cling to their identity with understandable anxiety. Lithuanians get upset when mistaken for Latvians, and Slovenians will produce an elaborate eye roll if you call them Slovaks; it’s not about being overly sensitive, it’s about being wary of Westerners lumping Eastern Europe together and parceling it off as one. Do your homework and know your basics – and no, Zagreb is not the capital of Serbia.
3. Chat to the Locals
Cultural sensitivities aside, Eastern Europeans do love to talk (and party). Younger people speak very good English just about everywhere you go (with the exception of Hungary, where German is the preferred second language), and you’re likely to strike up a conversation if you’re on a bike, as most Eastern Europeans are avid riders. In the Baltics, expect lots of street riders; in Poland and Czech, adventure bikes seem to be the most popular, whereas Croatians and Romanians are famously nuts for dirt biking. When traveling Eastern Europe on a motorcycle, you’ll probably be adopted by a posse of ADV or dirt bike riders and passed on to the next group or club of motorcyclists in the next country – at least, that’s what’s happened to me in Poland and Croatia.
4. Get off the Beaten Path
When it comes to motorcycle roads, Transfagarasan in Romania, the Adriatic Coast Road in Croatia, and the Slovenian off-road trails are probably among the most famous. But don’t just stick to the tourist routes; in Lithuania, explore the Curonian Spit, a weird little peninsula sticking out to the Baltic Sea and boasting enormous white sand dunes crashing into the water. In Poland, ride the Zakopane area for some scenic Tatra Mountains views and medieval castles; in Croatia, head inland and explore the Dinaric Alps. Every Easter European country has a lot to offer when it comes to scenery, off-road trails, paved mountain twisties, and tranquil countryside, it’s just a matter of getting off the main routes and taking the time to explore.
5. Try the Cuisine
Seriously: try it. On the Baltic Coast, smoked fish and dark ales are to die for; the Polish make mean stews and pirogi, the Croatian black risotto is a mouth-watering lunch, and the Hungarian goulash needs no introduction. The best beer is found in Czech Republic and Lithuania, the best wines are in Hungary and Moldova, and if you’re looking for stronger beverages, Croatian rakia could raise the dead.
6. Take Your Time
If you want to cover more than one country, plan to spend a month or two in Eastern Europe to explore it all. You can start in Tallinn, Estonia and finish your trip in Belgrade, Serbia, go the other way round, or do a loop, but make sure to go slowly and include all the fifteen Eastern European countries. It’s weird, it’s different, it’s sometimes a little crazy – but it’s beautiful.