Central Europe is one of Europe's most beautiful regions. Long divided by the ambitions of warring empires and then Cold War tensions, this region has been deeply influenced by Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and German hegemony throughout history. While the scars of the Cold War are still visible in the eastern parts of this region, it is slowly but surely shedding its erstwhile negative reputation and cannot be called a "forgotten" corner of Europe any more. With the exception of tiny Liechtenstein and staunchly neutral Switzerland all countries in the area are now EU members and participate in the process of European unification and thus traveling is a breeze. Where just three decades ago barbed wire and walls and unfriendly border agents would hinder free movement, today frequent rail and bus connections, cheap flights and excellent roads make getting around easier than ever before. But before you plan your "Central Europe in two weeks" trip, do consider the many small towns and beautiful unspoiled nature reserves that would fall by the wayside were you to concentrate on the many top highlights.
Forget "the sound of music" (few Austrians have ever actually heard of it), this country has much more to offer than breathtaking alpine panoramas - the cosmopolitan city of Vienna has a unique charm and Vienna coffee houses were both the start of many a story and the place where they were written. You can of course always ski or hike in the Austrian Alps as well
At the heart of Europe, this country is much more than the home of Kafka fairytale forests and beautiful mountains are a nice addition to the charming cities that survived both wars and socialism and the hearty and filling cuisine is just more reason to stay.
Both the most populous and the most economically powerful country in the region, Germany is an incredibly diverse nation that offers everything from skiing in the Alps to sunbathing on the coasts, old towns dating back to the Roman Empire and ultramodern architecture in cities like Frankfurt.
A favorite with Easterners during the Cold War, Hungary today is one of the often overlooked gems of Central Europe. Don't make that mistake. An open mind and a curious heart will open the beauty of this country to you.
While you might associate Liechtenstein with shady financial deals and strange politics, this tiny principality is well worth a stop even if you aren't paying your money a visit
Poland has finally shed its status as perpetual object of desire of its powerful neighbors and can now show visitors on its own terms why its untouched forests and beautiful cities were so coveted for centuries.
Often mistaken as simply an appendix of "big brother" Czech Republic, this small ice-hockey crazy nation has made good use of its independence won in 1993 and now offers a unique blend of German, Magyar, Czech and Slovak influences that come together in its capital Bratislava as well as the skiing resorts of Europe's smallest high mountain range, the High Tatra.
Much more than just another post-Yugoslavian state, this tiny nation has both Adriatic sea and Alps, Romance, Slavic and Germanic influences and a well educated population that speaks enough foreign languages to welcome visitors from all around the globe
With four official languages and strong regional identities in over two dozen cantons the size of a county, Switzerland is one of the most diverse countries in Europe. It is also rightly famous for chocolate and cheese, banks and neutrality as well as the culture of honest debate and consensus that binds it all together
There are way more cities of interest in Central Europe than would be convenient to list in one article. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- Berlin — divided by force for 45 years during the Cold War, the capital of reunited Germany since 1990, and now an international cultural centre
- Bratislava — Once known as "Pressburg" this city has seen both Austro-German and Hungarian influences and has thankfully survived the world wars largely unscathed
- Budapest — made up of old Buda and Pest on both sides of the Danube, this old Austro-Hungarian co-capital is famous for its thermal baths and was one of the first cities in the world to get a Metro
- Geneva — Switzerland's second city is very much a global city with its location close to the French border and the countless international organizations from CERN to the Red Cross headquartered here
- Ljubljana — the picturesque alpine capital of Slovenia and a charming baroque city with stunning architecture and dynamic nightlife
- Munich — Bavaria's beautiful capital city, its slogan is 'world city with a heart' (Weltstadt mit Herz), the site of the famous Oktoberfest, Hofbräuhaus, many beer gardens and the gateway to the Alps.
- Prague — home of Kafka and castles and one of the centers of power of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, as well as seat of the oldest university north of the Alps, Prague today draws countless young tourists for its affordable and tasty beer
- Vienna — An erstwhile imperial capital famous for its coffee houses, the Arts and culture, this city looks at least two sizes to large for the tiny country it sits in
- Warsaw — capital of Poland, and one of the EU's thriving new business centres; the old town, nearly completely destroyed during World War II, has been rebuilt in a style inspired by classicist paintings of Canaletto.
- Alps — probably one of the most important winter destinations in the world, that is home to summer resorts too
- Auschwitz-Birkenau — Nazi death camp that was the centre of the Holocaust for European Jews during World War II
- Baltic Sea Coast — Germany and Poland share the Baltic Sea coast of Central Europe with hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and resorts
- Białowieża National Park — a huge area of ancient woodland in Poland designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Black Forest — smaller mountain range in southwest Germany famous for its scenery and history
- Bohemian Paradise — unique geographical formations within the oldest protected parkland in the Czech Republic
- Lake Balaton — this scenic Hungarian lake is the largest lake in Central Europe and a year-round tourist hub
- Neuschwanstein Castle — the well-known fairy-tale castle in the Bavarian Alps in Germany
- Vysoké Tatry — beautiful and unspoiled mountain range peaking at 2600 meters above sea level
While ethnically different, the countries of Central Europe share a similar culture and history throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, the region was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of feudal fief, city-states and other smaller entities, until it lost much of its power in the Thirty Years War, and was superseded by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later the German Empire. German used to be the lingua franca of the region well into the 20th century.
Ethnic conflict was a major problem for hundreds of years in Central Europe, and culminated in the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. During the Cold War the region was divided between east and west by the figurative Iron Curtain, but since the revolutions around 1990, Germany has been reunified, most countries in the region have joined the European Union (except Switzerland and Liechtenstein, which have close ties to the EU), and border controls are absent or casual. Economic and cultural gaps remain in the region, even within countries such as Germany; as a broad generalization, the West is wealthier and more cosmopolitan than the East.
While they are not currently considered part of Central Europe, the regions of western Ukraine, Transylvania, Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia), Alsace and parts of Lorraine (France), and South Tyrol/Alto-Adige province (Italy), are sometimes also considered Central European. This is due either to their current and or past ethnic makeup and/or previous political histories. The Kaliningrad oblast spent most of its history as a German speaking region and South Tirol remains a largely German-speaking region in northern Italy maintaining strong cultural ties to Austria. Even though Ukraine is predominantly an orthodox country, its westernmost part for the centuries was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later passed to Austria-Hungary which to some extent influenced it's unique culture.
Central Europe, because of its rich heritage of nationalities, likewise is home to many languages. Some languages enjoy national status and thus are taught in schools and used widely in the media. Others however are only regional languages or minority languages and thus are sadly in danger of eventual extinction even though efforts are underway to try to preserve them.
German has the largest number of native speakers in the region and acts as the single "official" language of Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. In Switzerland, German (in its very different Swiss variety) is the mother tongue of 2/3 of the population and the dominant language of the four official Swiss languages (German, French, Italian & Romansh) and many Swiss people learn at least one of the other official languages in school. There is a small German speaking minority to be found in Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. It is also spoken outside Central Europe in eastern Belgium and France, and northern Italy (mainly in the region of South Tyrol/Alto Adige). German can be very diverse and appears in many different colorful dialects particular in the Southern German-speaking world (Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and South Tyrol) were tradition and dialect remains strong.
Polish is the dominant language in all regions of Poland. Kashubian, a regional Slavonic language, is spoken in the region around Gdansk in Pomerania in northern Poland. Silesian is a regional language/dialect, (depending on who you ask) found in southwest Poland.
Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages for other Europeans to learn, as it originates from a different language family and is distantly related only to Finnish and Estonian, which probably won't help you much in learning or understanding the language. There are 5 million Hungarian speakers living outside Hungary in neighboring countries such as Romania (Transylvania), northern Serbia, eastern Austria and southern Slovakia.
French or Italian are spoken by the majority of the population in the southern and western regions of Switzerland, while German is commonly taught as a second language. Similarly, German-speaking Swiss often learn French as a second language. French plays a historic role in alpine northern Italy in the French border regions.
In the Swiss Canton of Graubünden or Grison, Romansh is spoken as a regional language. Almost all Romansh speakers speak either Swiss German and/or Italian as well. It is closely related to Ladin which is spoken in a few mountain valleys of northern Italy and is another endangered regional language. Sadly it is being replaced by German or Italian.
Slovenian is the official language of Slovenia, but it is also spoken by the Slovenian minorities in southern Austria, northeastern Italy and western Hungary. There is also a small Croatian minority in Austria's Burgenland. Sorbian, Frisian and Low German are Germany's three native minority languages with exception of Roma. Sorbian is related to Polish and Czech and can be found spoken in both the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg. All Sorbs speak German as well and the current Minister President (Governor) of the German federal-state of Saxony is even Sorbian! Frisian is related to English and Dutch and is spoken by tiny minority communities in Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen and neighboring communities in the Netherlands.
Lastly, Low German is spoken by rural communities or as a second language by a few in most federal states of northern Germany and still has a significant role to play in the city states of Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck and in the states of Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein and particular in the eastern federal-state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. All three German minority languages are endangered languages. Efforts are underway to preserve the languages and their culture but it is seemingly a losing battle.
Finding people who speak and understand English is not a problem in most regions of Central Europe, especially in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Poland. In Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, English is widely spoken in the larger cities and especially by younger people; German and Russian are also spoken and understood by many older people in these countries. Russian, since the end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe is in steady decline. Today German remains important, more for financial and economic reasons instead of cultural or political reasons, as was the case in the past. Slovenians and the Swiss by far lead the region in their ability to speak many different tongues.
Central Europe is very well connected within Europe and with the rest of the world. Germany, Austria and Switzerland are particularly renowned for efficient and fast transport infrastructures that make it possible to travel quickly to even the smallest villages usually by modern bus but sometimes even by train!
The largest gateway for air travel is Frankfurt Main Airport in Hesse, Germany, which offers connections to all continents and to most airports in Europe. Zürich, Munich and Vienna airports are a lot smaller but provide good connections to selected regional and international destinations.
One difference between flag carriers and low-cost airlines is that the latter often fly to an airport some distance from the city it serves. Flag carriers usually fly to nearby airports, such as Frankfurt/Main, while no-frill airlines like Ryanair fly to "Frankfurt"-Hahn airport, which is two hours away from Frankfurt city and actually closer to Trier.
Some of the minor airports may also offer a limited number of direct flights to destinations mostly in other parts of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East.
see also: rail travel in Europe
Central Europe has a dense high-speed rail network:
- InterCityExpress (ICE) trains offer connections across Germany, but are also run in partnership with the Danish, Austrian, French and Dutch railways.
- The French TGV connects France with Geneva, Berne, Basel and Zurich. Also there are connections to Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
- Thalys trains connect Cologne with Brussels and Paris
- RailJet connects Vienna with Zürich, Munich and Budapest. The Czech Republic has also acquired some Railjet-trains to connect Prague to the rest of Europe, mostly Austria.
- Pendolinos are run in Slovenia and the Czech Republic with connections to neighboring countries.
In addition, there are numerous night- and other express and regular trains that connect Central Europe with the rest of continental Europe, and travel as far as Istanbul or Moscow. Check the homepage of the Deutsche Bahn, which has an excellent overview of the European rail system. Sadly some services have been cut in recent times or within due to bad economic results and the need to replace trainsets which was deemed to expensive. There is currently low level political pressure to do something about the decline of night-trains but thus far it has not reached a critical mass to really get any visible change going.
The motorways in Central Europe are excellent and offer fast connections across the region. The European Union has spent vast amounts of money to improve transport connectivity. Check individual country pages for details of routes and suggested itineraries.
Until quite recently buses were a niche market if that mostly catering to immigrants from the Balkans and their descendants. However, since a liberalisation of the market in Germany (and subsequently in France), more and more buses offer both domestic and international routes throughout and in and out of Central Europe. As a rule of thumb, short hops can be incredibly cheap with prices like 5€ not unheard of, but the longer the distance and the later you book, the more expensive it gets. While routes like London-Cologne are offered, they don't necessarily offer much of a saving compared to a flight or train.
All of the countries located in Central Europe are now signatories to the Schengen Agreement, which means that you can cross the borders unimpeded, save for random police checks. However as a visitor to the EU on a tourist visa you are limited to a 90 days total stay in all the countries in the region.
As travel within Europe is not much different whether you are crossing borders or not, see the individual country articles for detail on getting around.
- The English Garden and the huge Deutsches Museum in Munich
- The massive Dom in Cologne
- The modern architecture of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz
- The modern skyline of Frankfurt and Warsaw
- The natural skyline of the Alps in Innsbruck
- The natural beauty of Lake Constance and its three national shorelines
- the Elbe Radweg follows the eponymous river for most of its course from the Czech Republic to the North Sea near Cuxhaven - popular with expert and novice bikers alike as the route is mostly flat and well maintained.
- Ascend the Reichstag Dome in the Berlin district of Mitte
- Hike the mountainous areas of "Saxon and Bohemian Switzerland" south of Dresden along the Elbe/Labe
- Walk around historic Rothenburg ob der Tauber complete with city walls
- Visit a beer hall, the Olympic Park, BMW museum and don't forget the colorful central pedestrian zone in Munich
- Visit Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps with a good museum on the Nazi Crimes
- Tour the Black Forest and maybe buy a cuckoo clock or just eat a torte!
- Cruise the Rhine River and enjoy the world famous wine
- Ride the post-modern monorail in Wuppertal
- Stroll through the old town center of Salzburg and visit the imposing fortress of the Archbishop
- Float down the river with the locals in the swiss capital of Berne
- Ride a cable car up to Gimmelwald, eat at the Piz Gloria restaurant, go out on the Jungfrau glacier, see a churning waterfall, or hike one of the countless Swiss mountain ridges
- Stroll through historic Vienna and visit the Prater district
- Go skiing or snowboarding in Switzerland, Austria or Bavaria a
- Go up Castle Hill and admire the view of the river and city in Budapest
- Relax in a Hungarian Turkish style spa
- Visit the world's largest castle complex and tour the old and new towns of Prague
- Visit the historic and elegant port city of Gdansk and it surrounding Baltic resorts
- Spend a night camping under the stars and moonlight on the German Baltic island of Rügen
- Stroll Warsaw's old town and old Jewish Ghetto, and take a glance at the Soviet inspired Palace of Culture and Science
- Tour the historic old town and castle of Kraków, and visit the Soviet worker's suburb of Nowa Huta
- Holocaust remembrance: Be moved by a visit to a Nazi concentration camp and memorial such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau or Treblinka
- Tour the Old Town of Dresden and see the reconstructed "Frauenkirche" a symbol of peace and reconciliation
- Visit the historic spa town of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) in Bohemia in the Czech Republic and "take the cure"
- Experience the wild nightlife in Berlin, Prague, Munich and Budapest until the wee hours of the morning if you can!
- Visit Nuremberg for a castle, a charming medieval old town, one of the best known Christmas Markets in the world or the chilling history of the NSDAP rallies at Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände - the former Nazi party rallying grounds, now a superb museum
- Jazz fans will enjoy two big jazz festivals in Poland:
|Calendar of events and festivals|
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Overall Central European cuisine is rather heavy and meat based with another emphasis on potatoes, which were all necessary in the old days to survive the rather harsh winters. Poland and Germany are both rightly famous for their various types of sausages and it would take a generous academic grant and a lot of time to sample them all. In the Alps, the cuisine has taken a lot of inspiration from high mountain cattle farming and is thus heavy in savory cheese or durable dry ingredients like Müsli. In recent years the haute cuisine of France and staples of Italian food have made a big impact on Central European cuisine as have the culinary traditions of immigrants from Turkey, the Balkans or (South) East Asia and all of that will be available at varying price quality and authenticity in almost all major cities in the region.
- Beer -The golden beer drunk throughout the world was developed in this region, and arguably it is here that it is still at its best. The Czech Republic has a grand brewing heritage and Pilsen is the place were the technique was pioneered, creating the Pilsner style that is reproduced around the world. The low cost of beer in the Czech Republic makes it easy to get a taste of many of the fabulous beers, from the well known Pilsner Urquell, Budvar (Budweiser) and Staropramen, to local favorites such as Kozel, Bernard and Gambrinus. Many have a few different varieties and a Cerny Pivo (Black Beer) these can be as good if not better than the standard beer. Slovakia has many beers of high quality with Zlaty Bazant being highly regarded. Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia all have very good national examples sometimes on a par with those from the Czech lands. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have a similar brewing heritage, but can throw in several different types of beer. Weissbier, (Wheat Beer) is a refreshing style popular in summer but drunk year round. There are a huge amount of varieties and local specialties are nearly always worth seeking out. Generally, the further north one travels in Germany, the more bitter or hoppy the beer becomes adding to the north-south cultural divide. Bavaria, "the Holy Grail of Brewing", located in southern Germany, has over 600 breweries alone and even more accompanying beers to sample!
- Wine- The region produces a wide range of wines from superb world famous regions, down to inexpensive local plonk. Possibly the finest region in the area is Tokaj, world-renowned for its sweet dessert wines as well as more standard whites. Germany has several wine regions the Rhine, and Moselle Valleys are well known for their fragrant white wines. Saxony in the east even is home to a small wine growing region on the riverbanks of the Elbe. Austria and Switzerland also produce some very high quality products. In the other countries like Hungary and Slovenia local wines can throw up some very good varieties and it is always worth investigating local produce.
- Vodka- A Polish specialty, the quality of Polish vodka is amongst, if not the, best in the world. The high quality product can be very different to the industrial stuff you may buy in your local shop and is well worth a try. Zubrowka is a variety of vodka flavored with a cinnamon-like grass and is delicious when combined with apple juice. Some claim it to be so good it produces no hangover!
The western part of this region is probably one of the safest in the world with violent crime being almost nonexistent in Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. While the situation in some parts of countries that used to be east of the iron curtain is by no means bad, certain neighborhoods in the bigger cities do have the typical big-city issues and also some crime arising from it. Unfortunately racism is an issue to varying degrees in all of these countries, although tourists are hardly ever targetted and the areas most affected are poor neighborhoods or rural areas, people who fear they might be targeted are advised to avoid those areas, especially at night and especially when travelling alone. This is especially true for politcal rallies of extremist groups that happen from time to time and can get violent, especially in Hungary and Germany but also in other parts of this region such as the Czech Republic and Poland. There are usually bigger counter-demonstrations to every right wing demonstration, however they are sometimes also violent and police violence is not unheard of on those occasions.
It is a common mistake by outsiders to label all the former Warsaw Pact states in the region as being in "Eastern Europe". Almost uniformly, inhabitants of Central Europe will be flattered and pleased if you correctly describe their countries as "central European" both geographically and culturally. Conversely, they may be upset if you lapse into Cold War stereotypes. East and West Germany were countries, so better to call it eastern and western Germany. Reunification is all but a thing of the past and seen in a more or less positive light by most there and in all of Central Europe so try to avoid labeling Germans by their recent past. Remember Germans are Germans but Austrians, Liechtensteiners and most Swiss and Luxembourgers all speak German, but are not German! Czech, Polish or Slovakian may sound similar to Russian, but inhabitants of these countries will not take kindly to assumptions of cultural overlap. Lastly, keep in mind that the Czech Republic and Slovakia once shared a country as well and Slovaks in general are very proud of their new found independence, which will show especially if there is an opportunity to beat the Czech at soccer or ice hockey.