World Heritage Sites
Unesco’s World Heritage list contains more than 80 of Central Europe’s cultural and natural gems. Following their trail would take you to all of the region’s states but one (alas, little Liechtenstein has yet to garner recognition). Here's a sampling.
- Škocjan Caves, Slovenia There’s an unimaginably deep chasm to cross by footbridge while exploring these caves
- Wartburg, Germany A timber-and-stone edifice near where Bach was born is the only German castle to make the list
- Kutná Hora, Czech Republic A 14th-century townscape built outside Prague by silver-mining interests
- Białowieża National Park, Poland In the furthest eastern reaches of Poland, the drawcard here is the magnificent European bison
- Bardejov, Slovakia Slovakia’s best-preserved Gothic-Renaissance town square, surrounded by 15th-century walls
- Pannonhalma Abbey, Hungary Buildings in northeastern Hungary’s most ancient abbey date to the 13th century, but the library boasts even older treasures
Icy blue glacial lakes, crashing waterfalls, technical ascents…with so much striking mountain scenery, hiking in Central Europe is almost always a superlative – and challenging – experience.
- Slovenský Raj National Park, Slovakia Ladders and chain-assists line the trails of the waterfall-filled gorge hikes in this national park
- Zakopane, Poland Southern Poland’s Tatra Mountain trails lead to emerald-green lakes like Morskie Oko
- Julian Alps, Slovenia Centered on iconic Mt Triglav, trails lace this beautiful mountain region on the Italian border.
- Jungfrau region, Switzerland Spend a day or a month on the myriad trails – easy to hard – through this spectacular playground of Alpine peaks and valleys. The views will astound.
- Black Forest, Germany Seemingly endless paths lead from bucolic villages to misty peaks and crags
- Kitzbühel Alps, Austria Peak-to-peak hiking here is well-served by cable cars, with plenty of alpine accommodation to boot
Defence was long a priority here at the crossroads of Europe. In some countries it seems that at the top of every craggy cliff you’ll find a castle ruin. Stony fortresses typically date from between 12th and the 17th centuries. Then, as peace reigned, ruling families expanded and constructed chateaux and ornate palaces.
- Karlštejn Castle, Czech Republic A finely restored, high Gothic castle built by Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century
- Spiš Castle, Slovakia Impressive fortress ruins sprawl over more than four hilltop hectares
- Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany Mad King Ludwig’s over-the-top castle inspired Walt Disney to create Fantasyland
- Wawel Castle, Poland Kraków’s town castle contains a large cathedral and is an enduring symbol of the country
- Vienna’s palaces, Austria The Hofburg palace served as the imperial Habsburg home for six centuries, while Schönbrunn was their ornate summer residence
Just about every one of the larger capitals in Central Europe, such as Prague and Budapest, will have a club scene, plus some live music. Smaller towns like Ljubljana and Bratislava rely on a calmer cafe culture for their evening’s entertainment. Your choice: dancing until dawn or a quiet, alfresco conversation with friends. T
- Berlin, Germany With more cutting-edge clubs than seems possible, Berlin is where DJs experiment with the sounds of tomorrow
- Zürich, Switzerland Blows the staid Swiss cliché out of the (lakeside) water with trendy bar 'hoods and cutting-edge clubs
- Warsaw, Poland Clubbers flock to Poland's main city for fabulous dance clubs, but don't miss the live jazz venues either
- Budapest, Hungary Venues change by the week, giving Budapest a cutting-edge club scene that is blade-sharp
Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all influenced Central Europe. Impressive cathedrals inhabit many of the town castles and squares, and other sacred sites are scattered around the countries.
- Old Jewish Cemetery, Czech Republic The approximately 12,000 ancient graves here date from 1439; it’s an evocative setting that's just one of the many sacred Jewish sights in Prague
- Mosque Church, Hungary Originally constructed during the 16th-century Turkish occupation of Hungary, this mosque-turned-church retains several Islamic elements
- Wooden churches, Slovakia The onion domes on the nail-less village churches reflect the eastern-facing faith in the Slovakian hinterland
- Wieskirche, Germany A jaw-dropping example of 18th-century rococo excess, covered with gilt decorations and hand-painted stucco, sits in a peaceful German valley
- Kölner Dom, Germany Dominating the skyline of Cologne when seen from any distance, this is one of Europe's perfect huge cathedrals
We can learn a lot from history in a region that was ripped apart by several world wars – both hot and cold.
- Berlin Wall, Germany Reverberations were felt across Europe when the wall dividing East and West Germany came down in 1989; what remains is part outdoor art gallery, part walking trail
- Memento Park, Hungary An amazing collection of Hungary’s socialist and Soviet-inspired statues that were removed from public spaces after the fall of communism
- Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland Two of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps remain partially standing as a heart-wrenching memorial and museum
- Vienna, Austria In this rococo capital to a vanished empire, history looms grandly around every corner
- Terezín, Czech Republic A fortress ‘community’ that was actually a waypoint for Nazi death camps; exhibits include poignant pictures and poems by children once held there
With so many cultural capitals, it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of a favourite author or musician. Read or listen to their works as you experience their home cities.
- Salzburg, Austria Native son Wolfgang Mozart’s music resonates in all corners of this Austrian Alpine town – as does The Sound of Music
- Weimar, Germany Bach, Liszt, Goethe and Nietzsche were just some of the luminaries who lived and worked here
- Prague, Czech Republic Postmodern authors Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka both left their mark on the Old Town streets of Prague
- Warsaw, Poland Nobel Laureate and poet Czeslaw Milosz spent WWII attending underground lectures in Poland’s capital city
- Vienna, Austria As the cultural capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna attracted the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn and Béla Bartók; their classical music can still be heard at venues today
Central Europe’s Old Towns are legendary. You’ll hardly turn a corner without bumping into a Gothic arch or a medieval buttress. The ancient aura is perhaps best experienced in the more compact pedestrian centres.
- Český Krumlov, Czech Republic A stunning castle, baroque buildings and the winding Vltava River make this one of the Czech Republic’s most charming Old Towns
- Bratislava, Slovakia The rabbit-warren-like streets in the Slovakian capital are studded with more outdoor cafes than you can shake a drink at
- Ljubljana, Slovenia This lovely town has a hilltop castle perched above narrow streets and riverfront plazas
- Kraków, Poland The stunning medieval centre escaped the ravages of WWII and, as such, is one of the region’s best preserved Old Towns
- Salzburg, Austria ‘If it’s baroque, don’t fix it’ seems to be the motto in this incredible Old Town in the Austrian Alps
Definitely don’t miss the dark, light, sweet and wheat beers crafted in Germany. But don't limit yourself to hops as there’s plenty more regional imbibing to do.
- Bison vodka, Poland Locals claim vodka was invented in Poland; try it here, flavoured with cherries or berries – or with grass from the bison fields
- New wine, Austria In autumn when an evergreen branch appears over the Heurigen (wine tavern) door, you know effervescent new wine is available
- Budvar, Czech Republic The original ‘Budweiser’ beer is still made today in České Budějovice; tour the factory or taste it at a beer hall
- Wine, Switzerland Unesco-recognised vineyards climb from the shores of beautiful Lake Geneva and the neighbouring region of Valais
- Fruit brandy, everywhere Look for fruit-flavoured firewater (OK, they usually call it ‘brandy’) all across the region. Slivovica is flavoured with plums, pálinka with apricots…
Sure, Central Europe is known for age-old architecture. But there’s also a more modern side to the region.
- Elbphilharmonie, Germany Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron designed this modern glass facade in an old warehouse district of Hamburg
- Hundertwasserhaus, Austria A colourful mish-mash of uneven floors, misshapen windows and industrial materials make up this apartment house in Vienna
- Bauhaus school, Germany Examples of the less-is-more, early-1900s school aesthetic can be found in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin
- Museum of Czech Cubism, Czech Republic A monument of the indigenous cubist style
- Paul Klee Centre, Switzerland Renzo Piano's sensitive building in Bern is the perfect homage to Klee's brilliant work within
- Secessionist style, Austria and Hungary Austro-Hungarian Secessionist style emerged at the turn of the 20th century; examples include Vienna’s Secession building and Kecskemét’s Ornamental Palace>
Off the Beaten Track
Everyone’s heard of Berlin and Budapest. If you feel you’ve been there, done that, then why not explore smaller, off-the-beaten-track towns? You’re likely to have a more local experience as you discover these gems.
- Toruń, Poland A beautiful Gothic city with curious statuary and plenty of beer gardens to enjoy
- Kecskemét, Hungary Full of art nouveau architecture and small museums; the town itself is worth visiting before you set off to see the famous horses in the adjacent national park
- Bern, Switzerland Often underrated, this capital city has a melange of medieval charm, folkloric and cartoonish fountains, and a pulsating cafe scene
- Piran, Slovenia There are Venetian alleyways to explore and fresh seafood to eat at this port town on the tip of a peninsula
- Bamberg, Germany Cute little bridges span the canal that bisects one of Germany’s best small towns; they also have smoked beer
Opportunities abound in Central Europe if you enjoy a good soak. Thermal mineral waters bubble under parts of Germany and the Czech Republic, and beneath all of Hungary and Slovakia. We list the main sites, but many smaller spas exist across these countries.
- Budapest, Hungary The queen of the spa towns, Budapest has thermal bathhouses dating back to Turkish times; the two most popular are ginormous Széchenyi Baths and the more intimate Gellért Baths
- Piešťany, Slovakia A neo-classical thermal spa where you can be wrapped naked in hot mud or soak in a ‘mirror pool’
- Baden-Baden, Germany A 16-step Roman bathing experience is on offer in Germany’s ritzy spa town
- Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic Book a steam inhalation or a soak among the international set at the Czech answer to Baden-Baden
The Jungfrau region around Switzerland's Interlaken is an adventure-sports mecca
Go canyoning, parasailing or hydro-speed rafting in Bovec, Slovenia
Try rock climbing, rafting or paragliding in the Zillertal valley in Austria