Europe is once again teeming with tourists now that the weather is warm enough for soft gelato and alfresco dinners, and as usual, the likes of Spain, France, and Italy are leading booking trends, thanks to their ancient culture and turquoise coastlines

However, there’s something they don’t warn you about Europe’s power trio: they can be awfully crowded to visit, to the point it ruins the entire experience, and as the French say it, holidays in the Riviera are hors de prix: meaning, don’t try and visit on a limited budget.

Now, if you’re still keen on experiencing European summer, beaches are not non-negotiable to you, and you’re looking to escape the ordinary, I have a suggestion for you:

Moldova Is Europe’s Last True Hidden Gem

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Moldova is officially the continent’s least-visited country, tucked away in the Eastern fringes, and no, it doesn’t have access to the sea, nor is it famous for pastel-colored towns and scenic lakes lined by Baroque villas that just scream dolce vita.

It is, on the other hand, Europe’s cheapest, and perhaps most underrated destination, and somewhere that feels more authentic and it’s far more exciting to visit; while everyone is burning through their savings in Southern Europe, how about slurping babushka’s borscht in Moldova for under $8?

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If you’ve always dreamed of visiting Russia or Ukraine but your plans have been delayed indefinitely because of the ongoing war, this fellow former Soviet state that is not blatantly anti-Western, and not directly affected by the regional conflict, is a great pick.

What Makes Moldova So Unique?

Moldova is a different flavor of Europe, and one culture enthusiasts will surely appreciate: with its Brutalist cities, rural provinces still struggling to recover from a long century of force-fed communism, and delectable Balkan-Slavic cuisine.

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It is culturally-influenced by both Romania and Russia, and depending on family background and ethnicity, native Moldovans will either speak, and identify as Romanian, or speak, and identify as Russian, or both.

National capital Chisinau is the main tourist destination in Moldova, and though there are certainly beautiful sites around, with lush green parks, wide leafy boulevards, and even an Arc de Triomphe lookalike, it is not somewhere you visit for sightseeing proper.

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Unless, of course, you’re a fan of the stereotypical Eastern European aesthetic of rows upon rows of gray apartment blocks and run-down children’s playgrounds with rusty seesaws, like me: hey, it’s still a different culture from your own and one worth experiencing up close.

Still, the main reason why you would visit Chisinau is for lavish-eating on under $30, the wine tasting—Moldovan wineries are some of the most reputable in Europe—socializing with locals, and if you’re a party animal, going on that epic night out.

Did You Have Any Idea Moldova Was As Incredible As This?

Beautiful Red-Colored Monastery In The Town Of Curchi, Moldova, Eastern Europe

Besides the fascinating culture and Chisinau’s youthful atmosphere, there is an entire country waiting to be discovered, full of warm, kind-hearted people, and historic towns that are yet to be exposed to the spoils of European overtourism.

If you’re not keen on straying too far from Chisinau, and you’re here mostly for the ecotourism, visiting Cricova is a must: a short half-hour drive away, it is the wine capital of Moldova, home to the landmark Cricoca Winery, with wine cellars that feel more like literal underground labyrinths.

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Curchi is another must-see, a tiny village northwest of Chisinau best known for the namesake monastery, with five grand Orthodox churches, and characterized by its Bessarabia-era architecture, successfully preserved throughout the Soviet period.

For the culture buff, Soroca is a good place to start, a small city straddling the scenic Dniestr River dating back to the 15th century: it’s a short two to three-hour marshrutka ride from Chisinau, and you won’t want to miss the medieval Soroca Castle.

Aerial drone view of Soroca Fort in Moldova

Looking for a laid-back spa town instead?

Offbeat Cahul and its thermal spas and summer folk festivals will not let you down, especially when overnights in local hotels equipped with saunas cost a negligible $42 to book.

How Is Moldova So Cheap?

Speaking of, affordability is a big draw for West-disillusioned tourists landing in Moldova this year: overall, you should plan on spending $300-$500 during a one-week vacation while staying in modest hotels, eating in local restaurants, and paying for transportation.

A Yellow-Colored Monastery In Moldova, Eastern Europe

I’ve been to every single European country there is, and alongside Albania, Moldova is the cheapest destination, thanks not only to low national wages and a less-robust welfare state, bringing down consumer prices, but also the fact the local currency is weaker than the euro and the dollar:

I mean, 1 Moldovan leu equals only 0.056 U.S. dollars: imagine the luxuries, the fine dining, the wine overload that awaits you whether you’re a budget traveler, a big spender, or you’re sitting somewhere in the middle.

The Country That Doesn’t Exist

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Transnistria is a Russian-backed breakaway state in Eastern Moldova that most national governments would advise against visiting, due to the risk of arbitrary arrests, the staggering levels of corruption, and the proximity with Ukraine.

It is one of the most unique places in Europe in the sense that it feels frozen in the 1970s, with vintage Soviet cars parading the streets and commemorative Lenin statues being the centerpiece of public squares in the regional capital, Tiraspol.

Lenin Monument In The Unrecognized Transnistria, Moldova

Chisinau is already pretty big on Soviet nostalgia, but this is communist-era Chisinau on steroids, and considering Transnistria enforces a border with Moldova, issues its own passport, and even its own currency, despite not formally existing as a country, make it an intriguing place to visit in the very least.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from visiting Eastern European countries, even the no-go zones, is that much of the perceived danger and fear-mongering in Western media does not always accurately reflect the situation on the ground.

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In general, regular people just want to lead peaceful lives, and are completely oblivious, and oftentimes do not feel represented by the political developments on a Government level, so bearing that in mind when visiting these zones is paramount.

That being said, I wouldn’t encourage you to go, but if you do so, make sure you keep a low profile, avoid areas of contention near the Moldovan and Ukrainian borders, and be respectful of traditional Eastern European values, far more noticeable here.

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In short, you wouldn’t hold hands with your same-sex partner in Chisinau if you don’t want to get ugly stares and just be a nuisance to a majority of passersby, but in Tiraspol, that would actually subject you to abuse, even on authorities’ part.

Soyez prudent.

Read the room.

Don’t impose your Westerness in here and demand to be tolerated.

You won’t.

Moldova Is Getting Trendier To Visit

Aerial View Of The Curchi Monastery In Moldova, Eastern Europe

Moldova remains the last European country on everyone’s bucket list, but it definitely deserves more praise, and we’re glad to report it’s getting trendier to visit, with 391,000 foreign tourists registered last year, more than the previous all-time high of 375,000 in 2019.

As they are neighbors and sister-nations, Romania issues the most tourists to Moldova, comprising 39% of the foreign clientele. They are followed by Italians, Ukrainians, Germans and, surprise, surprise, Americans, who make up 5.2% of visitors.

A Remote Monastery On A Hilltop In Moldova, Eastern Europe

Hardly significant, but that number is growing, as demand for the unexpected and off-path destinations surges among U.S. travelers. Needless to say, there are no Transatlantic flights from the States to Moldova, but this doesn’t have to be a deterrent.

Since last year, Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air is back to Chisinau, offering flights from a number of European cities from as cheap as $50, including Rome, Milan, Venice, London and Budapest.

None Of Those Complicated Schengen Rules

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Due to its restrictive ’90 days out of any 180-day period’ rule, which bars non-Europeans from exploring much of Europe for longer than three months at a time, Schengen is every long-term traveler’s worst-nightmare.

If you’re country-hopping around the Old Continent, looking for somewhere to lie low for 3 months before being re-admitted, especially now that once-popular ‘Schengen reset’ destinations Bulgaria and Romania are officially off the cards, you should know Moldova will welcome you with open arms.

Arcul De Triumf In Chisinau, Moldova, Eastern Europe

Moldova is not a member of the European Union, nor the Schengen Zone, and it allows American tourists to stay for 90 continuous days irrespective of time spent in other European countries.

That, and the fact that cheap Airbnbs have led to an increase in digital nomads choosing Moldova as a temporary base.

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