At once natural and refined, folksy and cultured: the combination of mountain rusticity with old-world style captivates in Central Europe.
Teutonic half-timbered villages, graffiti-decorated Renaissance squares, medieval walled towns…if you're looking for old-world appeal, you've come to the right place. Wander the darkly Gothic alleyways of Prague, admire the baroque excess of Salzburg or take in the colourful old-Venetian influence on the Slovenian port of Piran. Poland and the Czech Republic seem to have more than their fair share of medieval masterpieces, but you can find narrow lanes and quaint townscapes throughout the region – from Bern, Switzerland to Bardejov, Slovakia. Smaller gems such as Bamberg, Germany are often far from the tourist radar. On mornings when the mists lie heavy and crowds are few, you might imagine yourself in an earlier century.
Atmospheric Eating & Drinking
Nourishing yourself is more fun in a great atmosphere, and Central Europe's abundance of outdoor cafes, beer halls and coffee houses offer just that. When the temperatures rise in spring, outdoor tables proliferate along with the daffodils and tulips. Enjoy a plate of pasta while admiring the Slovenian coast, nosh pierogi (dumplings) on a Polish cobblestone street or dip into fondue lakeside in Switzerland. Beer gardens across the region offer an opportunity to enjoy hearty food, a convivial atmosphere and a good brew alfresco. Once the weather cools, move inside to a boisterous beer hall. Or, for something a little sweeter, try a cake at a coffee house or pastry cafe. The most famous are in Vienna and Budapest, but you'll find many options – and other interesting places to eat and drink – all across the region.
With mountains covering so many Central European states, it's no wonder that the outdoors holds such an attraction in the region. The Alps rise to their highest in Switzerland, with jagged, Toblerone-like peaks such as the Matterhorn, and march on through southern Germany, across Austria and south into Slovenia. You can hike, bike, ski or just ride the gondolas and funiculars to enjoy the Alpine views. Other mountains, like the Swiss Jura and the Polish–Slovak Tatras, offer no less adventure. There are also sculptural sandstone 'rock towns' in the Czech Republic to climb, waterfall-filled gorges in Slovakia and Slovenia to hike and the bucolic Black Forest in Germany to walk. There's a new part of nature to explore almost around every corner.
Budget less than €60
- Dorm bed: €10–35
- Fresh-food markets and cheap eats
- Camping, hiking and free museum days keep costs down
- Double room in a pension or small hotel: €40–160
- Dinners average from €10 in the east to €30 in the west
- Great-value daily lunch menus at top restaurants
Top End over €180
- International or boutique hotel: €180 and up
- High prices in Switzerland, Berlin and Prague
- Pocket the duty-free refunds from shopping sprees
Regions at a Glance
Central Europe's charm lies in the common characteristics shared by some of its nations, juxtaposed with each country's individual attractions. Tuck into veal schnitzel and raise a stein to toast Prost! in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Study communist history and Slavic cultures in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Hike scenic trails and wander ancient Old Town streets all across the region.
For more country-specific pursuits, soak up the warm coastal sun at Slovenian ports or ski the continent's most extreme slopes in Switzerland. For high art and opera, visit Austria. Into WWII history? Poland has numerous well-preserved sites. For great brews, choose between German stouts and Czech Republic Pilsners. Hungary boasts countless thermal spas; Slovakia has castles galore. Exploring the contrasts and commonalities of this intriguing region could well consume a lifetime.
Music, Opera & Art
Vienna is home to a cultural scene that includes world-class opera and art. But you’ll also find Mozart’s music resounding in Salzburg, modern art in Linz, and plays and festivals wherever you go.
The Austrian Alps have hiking and skiing galore, and upland lakes serve as a summer playground. Whether swimming in Salzkammergut, climbing in Kitzbühel or driving over Grossglockner Road, the mountains offer quite a high.
Ornate palaces, baroque castles and wacky modern constructs – Austria has it all. Look for impressive architecture in the cities and picture-perfect villages in the hills.
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The Czech Republic has more than its share of Central Europe’s beautiful Old Towns. Prague tops the list, but don’t miss Telč, Český Krumlov or Olomouc either.
The interesting landscapes around the country can inspire and amuse. Pinnacles, spires and other sandstone shapes punctuate Bohemian Switzerland National Park and ‘rock towns’ like Adršpach and Teplice.
Czech brews are enjoyed the world over; why not go straight to the source? Throw back a Pilsner in Plzeň and a Budvar in České Budějovice before you indulge in the emerging microbrewery scene.
Events in Germany have often dominated the Central European stage, especially during the two world wars. Travelling through the country, you’ll feel the weight of history in places like Berlin, Weimar, Dachau and beyond.
Oktoberfest in Munich is perhaps the world’s biggest party, and it’s just one of the country’s many festivals. At less celebratory times of year, check out the pulsing club scene in cities like Berlin.
The Bavarian culture, from oompah bands to beer halls, is enough reason to visit. You can also shop for cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest, or just admire the Teutonic half-timbered buildings as you go.
Soaking in Spas
Sure, the thermal baths scattered across Hungary are recuperative, but they’re also just plain fun. Try the big ones in Budapest then move on to the bubbles and squirts of smaller spas countrywide.
Art nouveau in Budapest and Kecskemét, Moorish elements in Pécs and Eger…Hungary has a different style to much of Central Europe.
From the country that made paprika famous comes a variety of delicious stews and sauces flavoured with this ‘red gold’. Savour it with a glass of noteworthy Bull’s Blood red or Tokaj white wine.
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WWII history is ever present, whether you’re at the Warsaw Rising Museum or the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim. It can be both enlightening and emotionally challenging.
Well-preserved towns like Kraków, Toruń and Wrocław will wow you. But even big cities like Warsaw and Gdańsk have compact Old Town centres worth exploring.
In the south of the country, the surprisingly tall peaks of the compact Tatra Mountains provide hiking, lodging and lower prices than the Central European Alps to the west.
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More than 20% of this country is reserved parkland, but the whole thing is covered with trails. Hike the alpine peaks of the High Tatras, climb up waterfall-filled gorges in Slovenský Raj and traverse forests in the Malá Fatra.
Of the hundreds of fortress ruins in Slovakia, the 4-hectare Spiš Castle is the most impressive. More complete, fairytale-worthy castles include those in Trenčín, Devín and Bojnice.
The rabbit-warren Old Town of capital Bratislava is worth a wander before you explore the medieval walled town of Levoča, the perfect Renaissance square in Bardejov and a Middle Ages mining town, Banská Štiavnica.
Whether hiking up Mt Triglav, crossing Vršič Pass or rowing on Lake Bled, the Slovenian mountain scenery is truly impressive. Towns like Bovec and Bohinj serve as both summer and winter sports central.
The Adriatic coast of Slovenia is reminiscent of neighbouring Italy. The narrow old Venetian alleyways of Piran attract hordes of summer visitors. Avoid the crowds by seeking out other port towns like Koper and Izola.
Distinct Slovenian wines include peppery reds and dry rosés. Because exports are limited, the best local vintages can often be had nowhere but here.
More than 65% of Switzerland is mountainous. The different regions of Valais, Jungfrau and the Jura each have their own character, but all offer spectacular vistas. Admire the views from cable cars, trains and the towns below.
Some of the top skiing in the world is to be had on the Swiss slopes. Klein Matterhorn has Europe’s highest runs and extensive summer skiing. Beginners can try one of more than 200 ski schools.
Zürich and Bern are well known for lively club scenes. Outside the cities, après-ski provides vibrant nightlife in mountain towns like chi-chi Zermatt and St Moritz.