Central Europe
region of Europe
Europe > Central Europe
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 the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 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 travelling 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.
Countries of Central Europe
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.
 Czech Republic
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 communism 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 favourite with Easterners during the Cold War, Hungary today is among 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 alpine principality by the Rhine is well worth a short stop.
This beautiful country has a long and brave history spanning thousands of years. With the beautiful Baltic Sea to the north and the Sudetes and Carpathian mountains in the south, Poland is truly a diverse gem.
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-Yugoslav state, this small nation has both the Adriatic sea and the 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, 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
Map of Central Europe
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:
Other destinations
View of Lake Balaton
Castles appearing straight out of fairy tales dot the entire landscape of Central Europe. Pictured here is Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen, Germany.
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 fiefs, 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.
While the ethnic mosaic of the region was not a major source of conflict until the 19th century, nationalism and racism made it an increasingly divisive issue ultimately resulting 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 between neighbours (while many Polish people are devout Catholics, the Czech people are rarely religious), and within countries such as Germany. In general, the West is wealthier and more cosmopolitan than the East; though since the EU membership, some cities of the east, such as Warsaw and Ljubljana, have seen tremendous economic growth.
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 or past ethnic makeup 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 its unique culture.
Central Europe has temperate climate with four seasons. The further inland, the greater are temperature differences between summer and winter. Summers have more daylight than winters, with difference increasing further north: in Hamburg, sun sets at 16:00 in December, and 22:00 (DST) in June.
Central Europe has much linguistic diversity with a wide spread of the Germanic, Slavic, Uralic and Romance language families.
Germanic languages
Early 20th century postcard with Swabian German writing; "The beer belongs to my master!"
German has the largest number of native speakers in the region and acts as the official language for Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, and is co-official in Switzerland (alongside French, Italian and Romansh).
In Switzerland, Swiss German is the mother tongue of over 60% of the population. However, standard German is taught in school and is used in signage and formal settings. There are small German-speaking minorities to be found in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Many people throughout the region can also speak German as a second language.
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 Lübeck and in the states of Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein and particular in the eastern federal-state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
Frisian is closely related to English and Dutch and is spoken by a few thousand people in parts of the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen and a lot more people in the Dutch province of Friesland.
Slavic Languages
The Czech and Slovak languages are closely related, with the Sorbian language spoken in eastern Germany near the Polish frontier also a close relative.
Polish is the main language of Poland, although the country does host some minority Slavic languages such as Kashubian (in the region) and Silesian in southwest Poland.
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.
While Russian is not endemic to the region, it was taught in schools east of the Iron Curtain.
Road sign in Old Hungarian script
A Uralic language, Hungarian is an outlier in Central Europe, and considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn due to its complexity. There are 5 million Hungarian speakers living outside Hungary in regions of neighbouring countries such as eastern Austria and southern Slovakia, plus in Romania (Transylvania) and northern Serbia.
Romance languages
French or Italian are spoken by the majority of the population in the western and southern regions of Switzerland respectively, while German is commonly taught as a second language. Similarly, German-speaking Swiss often learn French as a second language.
In the Swiss Canton of Graubünden or Grison, Romansh is spoken as a regional language and notable for being very close to Latin. Given that almost all Romansh speakers speak either Swiss German and/or Italian it is unlikely to be encountered.
Other languages
Finding people who speak and understand English is not a problem in most regions of Central Europe, with quite a few people also speaking German and Russian as second languages. Generally speaking, foreign language proficiency is greater the further west and north you go, and in urban areas in general, while people from wealthier regions tend to have better fluency. With the notable exception of Russian and German, which were more commonly taught two or three decades ago, young people will often speak more and better foreign languages than older people.
Get in
The best entry point to the region depends mostly on your travel plans and itinerary. Prices for flights can vary significantly depending on the airport you fly into and due to the excellent transportation connections you have a wide selection available. Cross border train tickets are sometimes sold by several different railways under varying prices and conditions, so shop around a bit.
By plane
Vienna International Airport serves destinations in Austria, Slovakia and Hungary
See also: Flying in Europe
By far the busiest and best connected airport in the region is Frankfurt Airport in Hesse, Germany, which offers connections to all inhabited continents and to most airports of any importance in Europe. Zürich, Munich and Vienna airports also see their share of intercontinental travel with Vienna in particular having a focus on connections to the Middle East.
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. Seasonal flights to "sunny" destinations like Antalya or Mallorca are pretty common even at the most minor airports that otherwise only have feeder flights to one or two hubs.
By train
See also: Rail travel in Europe
Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Central railway station)
Central Europe has a dense high-speed rail network:
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.
The long and slow decline of the Central European sleeper train seems to have been stopped for now with ÖBB operating the lion's share of them under the Nightjet brand. There are also some night trains run by other railways, mostly east of the former Iron Curtain.
By car
The days of long lines at the border are thankfully largely over due to increasing European integration. That said, even 25 years after the end of the Cold War there are still bottlenecks for traffic across the former Iron Curtain.
By bus
See also: Intercity buses in Europe
Buses used to be 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 bus companies offer 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.
Get around
Central Europe is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
By car
See also: Driving in Europe
Roads are generally in good to excellent condition and the Czech Republic and Poland in particular have been investing a lot in road construction to deal with the pent up demand since 1990 when cars became much more common. That said, there are some issues with congestion, particularly in large cities. Crossing borders with your own car should be no problem whatsoever, but rental car contracts sometimes have limitations, especially for German or Austrian cars to be taken east - those usually don't apply the other way round, so read the fine print carefully before committing to anything. If you plan to visit large cities, you should try working around having a car on the days you'll be there or forego one entirely as cars are more of a headache than a useful tool in cities of roughly 500 000 or more inhabitants.
By train
The Czech Republic, Switzerland and Germany are among a handful of countries variously listed as having the densest railway network in km of routes per square km of area and as such most communities of any size and even many natural attractions are easily reachable by train. Poland neglected its railway during the later communist era, but has started investing in rail transport again. It's still a good option to reach big cities in Poland with reasonable comfort and speed. Train tickets in Germany and Switzerland can be expensive, but there are discount cards and early bird offers that can be used to reduce the damage. The sleeper train network has suffered a lot, but thankfully Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has picked up the baton from DB and now runs Nightjet, a reasonably modern and comfortable Night Train through the region. Booking in advance can net you real bargains, but popular routes and times or last minute booking might mean you'll pay significant amounts of money.
By bus
See also: Intercity buses in Germany
The bus did not play a major role in intercity transportation in this area until 2012 when Germany opened its domestic market. Poland and the Czech Republic had fairly deregulated markets prior to that, but with few exceptions those companies never made a major foray into Germany even after the market was opened. Major players include Flixbus and Student Agency.
By plane
Domestic flights are mostly aimed at business travellers and due to the excellent railway network, they can be sparse or non-existent on some routes. In general they are hardly good value in terms of money and not always a major time-saver either. That said, bargains can still be had on some routes and for larger distances, flying might save you a day in transit.
At the top of the Oberalp mountain pass, Central Switzerland
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.
View of Prague
Inside Hofburg, Vienna
Jungfraubahn in the winter
See also: Central European cuisines
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 muesli (or müsli outside of Switzerland). 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.
Munich's yearly Oktoberfest is a must for beer friends
Stay safe
The western part of this region is probably one of the safest in the world with violent crime being rare 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 neighbourhood 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. Antiziganism (hatred towards and discrimination of Sinti and Roma "gypsies") is particularly common in parts of the area with large Sinti and Roma populations but can sadly be found in most of Central Europe to saddening degrees. Political rallies by extremist groups can get violent, along with bigger left wing counter-demonstrations that can be violent in their own right.
Despite the tendency by many around the world to refer to all countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain as "Eastern Europe", inhabitants of Central Europe will be flattered and pleased if you describe their countries as "central European" both geographically and culturally. Remember that 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.
Performing a Nazi salute is a criminal offence in Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The penalty for doing so in these countries is typically a fine; however, in Germany and Austria, any person caught performing a Nazi salute can not only be fined, but imprisoned too. In Switzerland, use of the salute is not a criminal offence in itself, but doing so for the purpose of actively promoting Nazi ideology is considered to constitute hate speech. Displaying the Swastika is also a criminal offence, though in Germany, exceptions are made for religious Swastikas.
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This region travel guide to Central Europe is an outline and may need more content. It has a template, but there is not enough information present. If there are Cities and Other destinations listed, they may not all be at usable status or there may not be a valid regional structure and a "Get in" section describing all of the typical ways to get here. Please plunge forward and help it grow!
Last edited on 13 August 2021, at 13:30
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