Weekend Travel: Bloc Booking; DON'T MISS THE HIP CITIES OF EASTERN EUROPE, SAYS IAIN MAYHEW

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Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

EASTERN Europe is fast becoming the place to go for a long weekend.

Prague, in the Czech Republic, is already firmly on the hen-and-stag party circuit, while the Hungarian capital Budapest is attracting Brits looking to buy cheap holiday apartments.

And now that much of Eastern Europe has joined the EU, most of the former Soviet Bloc countries have spruced themselves up and make fascinating short break destinations. Here's our guide...

ESTONIA

Population: 1.4million.

Language: Estonian and Russian.

Capital: Tallinn.

When to go: Tallinn shares the same latitude as St Petersburg and pretty much the same climate - long summer days and cold winters.

What's it like? Along with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia is the third of the Baltic States which formed part of the Soviet Union. It has embraced its independence with gusto and has a lively nightlife.

Estonia's economy is also a success story, so you'll find good public transport, fine restaurants and excellent shopping.

Tallinn is a medieval city overlooking the Gulf of Finland. The Old Town, tumbling down a hill called Toompea, is well-preserved with a cathedral, castle and merchants' houses.

The Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats) is a charming place to sit in summer.

In the evening, head for one of the restaurants with an Estonian menu - it's not all pickled cabbage.

Try the stylish Eesti Maja in the Old Town. For drinks, head to the popular Kower Korts bar and then let your hair down at the hottest nightclub, Hollywood.

Best hotel: The Parc Consul and the Parc Consul St Petersburg (email: pctallinn@consulhotels.com) occupy a series of 600-year-old buildings. Prices are steep.

Getting there: Estonian Air (020 7333 0196/www.estonian-air.ee) has scheduled flights to Tallinn from Gatwick from pounds 180 return. Also try British Airways (0870 8509850/ www.ba.com).

More info: www.visitestonia.com or the Estonian Embassy on 020 7589 3428.

LATVIA

Population: 2.3million.

Language: Latvian and Russian.

Capital: Riga.

When to go: Not as far north as Tallinn, so slightly milder winters.

What's it like? During the Soviet era, Latvia churned out goods for the USSR and this has helped the country move painlessly to independence.

Riga is the largest city in the Baltics and has retained much of its charm. Straddling the Daugava River, the Old Town has many ornate, colour-washed buildings.

The huge Dome Cathedral dominates the city, while Riga Castle offers good views. Don't miss a moving tour of the former Jewish ghetto.

There is a good choice of restaurants around Dome Laukums - try Put Vejini or French-style Verdins.

Scores of bars line the squares including Paddy Whelan's, the ubiquitous Irish bar, and the atmospheric Jever Bistro.

Best hotel: Konventa Seta (email: admin@ konventaseta.lv) is a stylishly-restored convent.

Getting there: BA has return flights to Riga from Heathrow starting at pounds 178.

More info: The Latvian Tourist Office 020 7224 2151/ www.latvia tourism.lv

LITHUANIA

Population: 3.4million.

Language: Lithuanian and Polish.

Capital: Vilnius.

When to go: Spring or summer.

What's it like? Lithuania was at the forefront of anti-Soviet rebellion and so suffered more under the KGB (the Museum Of The Genocide in Vilnius is a grim reminder of this).

However, the two main cities, Vilnius and Kaunas, are now prospering, with good nightlife, bars and restaurants.

Vilnius is an attractive city of cobbled alleyways, churches and old merchants' houses.

For an overview, trek up Gediminas Hill. Eat wild boar and suckling pig at Lokys Restaurant, then head for Indigo in the Old Town for beers and live music. …