A Viking Longship sails past the parliament building in Budapest Hungary
A Viking Longship sails past the parliament building in Budapest Hungary (Image: Viking)

10 Amazing Sights on a Voyage Through Eastern Europe

A Viking Longship sails past the parliament building in Budapest Hungary
A Viking Longship sails past the parliament building in Budapest Hungary (Image: Viking)
Sue Bryant

Last updated
Mar 21, 2024

Read time
7 min read

Sponsored by Viking

Beyond Budapest, the Danube snakes through the Carpathian Mountains and crosses the edge of the vast Hungarian steppes on its journey to the Black Sea. As you follow its course, you'll be immersed in a world of giant skies, deep gorges, medieval castles and cosmopolitan cities.

Here, the river is a watery border that over time has divided peoples, cultures, and empires. It's served as a transportation superhighway since the days of the Romans.

There's a lot to see and a great deal to learn as you pass through five very different countries on one of Viking's nine in-depth itineraries. Here are 10 amazing sights on the lower Danube that might surprise you.

The Danube Has Divided Empires and Cultures

Budapest, Hungary (Photo: TTstudio/Shutterstock)
Budapest, Hungary (Photo: TTstudio/Shutterstock)

While the Danube has been a trade and transport highway for millennia, it's also served as a natural divide between empires, faiths and language groups.

From the first century A.D., the river formed the northern boundary of the great Roman empire. At the time, Budapest was the largest city on the river, prized by the Romans for its natural hot springs.

During the Middle Ages, when roads were few and far between, the river served as a principal highway for trade, pilgrimages, and crusades. By the 16th century, with the Ottomans edging deeper into Europe, the Danube formed a border between the Christian Hapsburg empire to the north and the Muslim Ottomans in the east. Even today, it's the natural border between Serbia and Croatia, and Bulgaria and Romania. 

You'll Be Immersed in Nature

Iron Gates Gorge
Iron Gates Gorge (Photo: Viking)

There's very little river traffic beyond Budapest and as you head south and east, you'll be surrounded by nature. An ethereal mist hangs over the trees in the mornings, the sound of cuckoos calling in the woods. Other than a few fishermen in small boats and barges laden with coal or logs, you're unlikely to see another ship.

In places, the banks give way to densely forested hills. This is one of Europe's last great wildernesses, home to bears, wolves and lynx. In fact, the Danube-Carpathian region is home to two-thirds of Europe's populations of these large carnivores.

Learn More About First Time River Cruising

The Iron Gates is Europe's Most Spectacular Gorge

Gulabac Fortress Iron Gates Gorge
Gulabac Fortress Iron Gates Gorge (Photo: Sue Bryant)

Some 83 miles of rushing water, plunging ravines, and clifftop fortresses is a sight to behold. The Iron Gates Gorge, where the Danube cuts between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan hills, is the longest, deepest gorge in Europe. On the southern shore is Serbia and to the north, Romania.

Join Viking's included walking tour to craggy Golubac Fortress, built in the 14th century, guarding the western entrance to the gorge. Clinging to the rock, the fortress appears to be part of the cliff itself.

As you're sailing through, look for a stone tablet carved into the rock, commemorating the Emperor Trajan's efforts to build a bridge over the gorge, in AD 105. This was later destroyed by Hadrian to prevent enemies crossing from the north.

The 141-ft high stone carving of Decebalus King of Dacia
Decebalus King of Dacia (Photo: Sue Bryant)

Something you won't miss is the 141-foot-high rock carving of Decebalus, king of Dacia (as Romania was known in the 1st century AD). The carving was actually commissioned by a Romanian businessman, who bought the rock in 1994. The work took 10 years to complete and is now synonymous with the Iron Gates Gorge. 

Belgrade is Buzzing

The Belgrade Fortress
The Belgrade Fortress (Photo: Viking)

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is an eye-opener of a city during your Danube voyage on Viking’s Passage to Eastern Europe. Lying on a curve of the Danube, where the larger river is joined by the Sava, this gritty, energetic place is a fascinating mix of communist-era tower blocks, Belle Epoque villas, and sun-drenched urban river beaches.

You'll see Belgrade Fortress (pictured above), a citadel that's been destroyed and rebuilt more than 40 times in a history that pre-dates the Romans. Inside the citadel, there are orthodox churches, old clock towers and Turkish baths to explore.

The Nikola Tesla Museum is an interactive science museum dedicated to the work of the engineer and inventor, whose ashes are displayed here inside a glowing orb. 

In summer, you can see Belgrade like a local on Viking's optional cycling tour along the banks of the Sava River to Ada Lake, known as Belgrade's beach and fringed by oak and elm woods. On a sunny day, the beaches here are packed as the whole city decamps to picnic, swim, and sunbathe.

The Views from Belogradchik Fortress Are Spectacular

View from Belogradchick rock fortress
Belogradchik view (Photo: Sue Bryant)

Ancient Belogradchik Rocks, an unmissable optional excursion offered by Viking from the port of Vidin, is a rock fortress that blends seamlessly into a red sandstone massif towering 656 feet above the surrounding countryside. The rock has been sculpted over the millennia by wind and water to create curious shapes, with names like “The Bear”, “The Virgin Mary”, and “The Lion”.

The Romans built a fortress here, using the rock walls as natural fortifications. The castle was further expanded by the Bulgarians in the 14th century and again by the Ottomans. You can clamber all over the ruin, and the higher you go, the more spectacular the views down over the rocks, forests, and ravines.

In Transylvania, People Still Believe in Vampires

Bran Castle inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula
Bran Castle in Transylvania (Photo: Sue Bryant)

Extend your lower Danube cruise with Viking for three nights in Transylvania and you’ll be transported to a medieval world of impenetrable forest, cloud-shrouded mountains, and imposing castles. Vampires are very much part of the local folklore in this wildly beautiful region that time seems to have left behind.

Transylvania is, of course, the setting of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," although the Irish author never set foot here. The 14th-century Bran Castle, clinging to a pinnacle of rock, inspired the novel's location, as did the story of Vlad the Impaler, a sadistic 15th-century ruler.

But locals have feared vampires since long before Dracula. They're called strigoi here, believed to rise from their graves at night to feast on the blood of the living. Local people believe that the strigoi are afraid of garlic and still smear garlic over their doors and windows to deter the undead.

The Scars of the Balkans Conflict Remain

Water fountains in main square Osijek, Croatia
Osijek, Croatia (Photo: Viking)

As you cruise the eastern Danube, you'll pass through places in Serbia and Croatia where the memories of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s are all too vivid.

Many of the guides you'll meet lived through the crisis as the former Yugoslavia broke up in a painful process that took from 1991 to 1999. More than a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were displaced by ethnic cleansing and more than 100,000 lives were lost.

While these are peaceful places now, local guides are keen to help visitors put this complex period of history into context.

Bulgaria is "The Land of the Roses"

Shopping in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Shopping in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria (Photo: Viking)

Did you know that Bulgaria is the world's biggest producer of rose oil? Fragrant roses were brought here by Alexander the Great and rose cultivation has thrived to the extent that Bulgaria dubs itself "The Land of Roses." 

Producing rose oil is a complex business as the flowers are so delicate and as such, true rose oil products are expensive. Buying at the source makes sense. If you're looking for a scented souvenir to bring home, try to buy your vials of rose oil from an authentic, artisanal producer, as the oil will be purer. It's regarded as a miracle treatment for anything from skin conditions to anxiety and is also used to flavor jam, liqueur and Turkish Delight.

Ceausescu's Palace is a Monument to Excess

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania (Photo: Viking)

Bucharest is associated with the brutalist architecture and monstrous extravagance of executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Indeed, the People's Palace, one of his legacies, is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, with 3,000 rooms. The opulent interiors display glittering chandeliers and gleaming marble floors, although Ceausescu and his wife never lived there, as their reign of terror ended abruptly in 1989.

Take time to explore, though, and you’ll find a city of gorgeous Belle Epoque villas, flower-filled parks, wide boulevards, and impressive Orthodox churches dating back 300 years. Viking’s Capitals of Eastern Europe itinerary gives you three days to immerse yourself in this intriguing city.

You'll See Red Gold and Riding Genius

Riding horses in Kalocsa
Riding horses in Kalocsa (Photo: Viking)

Kalocsa, 100 miles south of Budapest, lies at the heart of Hungary's paprika-producing area, fields of scarlet peppers extending as far as the eye can see. Everything in this pretty, 1,000-year-old town revolves around paprika, from the murals on houses to the strings of peppers hanging decoratively out to dry. There's even a Paprika Museum.

This is also the land of exquisite horsemanship, harking back to a time when horseback was the most effective way to cover the vast distances across the Puszta, or plain. Rather than lose this connection to tradition, locals train horses to demonstrate daredevil skills.

Join Viking’s included tour to see an astonishing, heart-in-the-mouth display of riding, all dust, thundering hooves, and drama, culminating in a man standing astride two galloping horses while simultaneously driving a team of 10.

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