Old Town of Prague with Charles Bridge at sunset, Czech Republic Trip
Prague, Czech Republic
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Four Ideal City Breaks in Central Europe

7 min read
Published on Dec 12, 2018
Christian Baines
By Christian BainesContributing Writer

Steeped in history, culture, and architectural beauty, here are four cities well worth exploring on a Central Europe vacation.

Budapest, Hungary

Divided into "Buda" on the hilly side of the Danube, and "Pest," which contains the city’s core, Budapest sits at the crossroads between Germanic, Slavic, and Balkan Europe, maintaining a Hungarian identity all its own. From its grand architecture to the joys of its thermal spas and ruin pubs, Budapest is one of Europe’s must-sees. You’ll want at least two days to see the best of Budapest, one on each side of the river, but focus on Pest if you only have time for one side. This is where you can tour Hungary’s magnificent Parliament Building, St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Hungarian State Opera, Dohany Synagogue, Heroes’ Square, and City Park, which contains Vajdahunyad Castle, the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden, and the grand Szechenyi Thermal Baths.

Parliament Building in Budapest at sunrise, Hungary
Parliament Building in Budapest at sunrise

Hilltop Buda offers magnificent views over the city, Chain Bridge, and Danube, particularly from Fisherman’s Bastion, a highlight in its own right. Behind it sits the beautiful Matthias Church, while a short walk takes you to Hospital in the Rock, a small museum preserving a disaster-ready Cold War Budapest. Buda Castle’s main attractions are the Budapest History Museum and Hungarian National Gallery, so either museum hop or just take some time to wander the attractive grounds. Don’t miss the view from the Citadel either, home to Budapest’s liberty monument. After either day of sightseeing, you’ll want to finish with a refreshing spa break at a thermal bath like Szechenyi, Lukacs, or Gellert, then dive into the nightlife of the Jewish Quarter, where long-abandoned apartments have been converted into the city’s famously eclectic ruin pubs.

Szechenyi Chain Bridge suspension bridge Budapest, Hungary
Szechenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest

Prague, Czech Republic

Even surrounded by worthy rivals, the city of Mucha and Kafka is still Central Europe’s most romantic. Untouched by the World War II bombing that devastated other cities, Prague has shaken off decades of Communist grime to retake its rightful place as a destination everyone should experience once in their lifetime on a Europe vacation. Give the city at least two sightseeing days on your Czech Republic itinerary, preferably more. Devote one to the Old Town and Jewish Museum (which is actually a half dozen moving sites), and the other to Prague Castle and its hilltop surrounds. Understand that Prague isn’t just another European "cobblestone streets" postcard city. The whole town is possessed with an oddball, Gothic beauty that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside some dark, yet lovely fairy tale. Whether it’s watching the figures of the Astronomical Clock, studying the statues of Charles Bridge, or just admiring the unusual art pieces that dot the city, Prague feels like another world, one you may never want to leave.

Crowd of people in streets of Prague, Czech Republic
You’ll find stunning churches, shops, and restaurants in Prague’s Old Town

Prague however is not a city stuck in fantasy or the past. A walk down Wenceslas Square followed by a tour of the Museum of Communism paints a vivid picture of what the city has shaken off. Architectural icons such as Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, and modern art collections such as the Museum Kampa show a Czechia, whose passion for all things strange and beautiful, remains as fierce as ever. It’s also a superb home base for day trips to towns like picture-perfect Cesky Krumlov, and the former silver mining town of Kutna Hora, home to the famous Sedlec Ossuary.

Interior of the Sedlec Ossuary decorated with skulls and bones, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Interior of the Sedlec Ossuary, decorated with skulls and bones

Krakow, Poland

Krakow is Poland’s most beautiful and popular city. It has a convenient location near the borders of Czechia and Slovakia and makes for an easy stopover between Prague and Budapest. The city is centred on the largest medieval town square in Europe, in the middle of which you’ll find the Cloth Hall. In one corner of the square you’ll find the twin-towered St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church featuring an impressive wooden-carved altarpiece that is one of Poland’s most prized national treasures. In and around the square, you’ll find several restaurants and bars that are worth visiting. The other centrepiece within the city is Wawel Castle, which overlooks the Vistula River from the heights of Wawel Hill. You’ll find a museum with a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit within the castle. The walk up to the castle makes for a nice and picturesque stroll. For the coolest sites in town, head to the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find remnants of the city’s Jewish community as well as the hippest bars and restaurants.

Wawel Castle along the Vistula River in Krakow, Poland
Wawel Castle along the Vistula River in Krakow

Outside of Krakow, you’ll find two essential landmarks. To the west lies Oswiecim, the lovely Polish town that was home to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where over a million Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust. Visiting the remains of the concentration camp is by no means an uplifting experience on a Europe vacation, but it’s an essential act of remembrance. The other nearby landmark is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which used to be one of the largest salt mines in Europe. Visitors can delve hundreds of meters below the surface to tour corridors and see its impressive sites, including St. Kinga’s Chapel, an entire church sanctuary carved out of the salt.

St Kinga's Chapel, deep in Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland
St Kinga's Chapel, deep in Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow

Vienna, Austria

In the 2018 edition of CNN Travel’s World’s Most Livable Cities, Vienna finally unseated Melbourne at the top of the list. It doesn’t take long walking the streets of Vienna to realize just why this is the case. Awash with gorgeous palaces, world-class museums, picturesque parks, and a first-rate café culture, Vienna is a charming city to explore on an Austria vacation. The grand palaces of the Habsburg Emperors remain the city’s most treasured landmarks. Foremost among them is the Schonbrunn Palace, their 18th-century summer palace. Its opulent state rooms, rococo design, and enormous gardens demonstrate the lavish imperial style. The Baroque Hofburg is the other most famous palace and houses the President of Austria. You’ll find several museums in and around the Hofburg, including the Albertina, the Natural History Museum, and the Art History Museum. Head southeast of the Hofburg to find the Schloss Belvedere, home to the paintings of Gustav Klimt, one of Austria’s most celebrated painters.

Vienna skyline with St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
Vienna skyline with St Stephen's Cathedral

Of course, Austria is about more than museums and imperial palaces. It also played host to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven, whose impacts continue to loom largely over the city. You can experience their legacy at the landmarks dedicated to their lives and work, such as the Mozart Museum, where Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro, and the House of Music, which details the city’s enormous musical history. You can even watch productions of their greatest operas at the Vienna State Opera, one of the world’s most famous opera houses.

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Christian Baines
Christian Baines
Goway - Contributing Writer

Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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