Central Europe is caught between two worlds, the Frankish, Norman, and Mediterranean West and South of Europe – and the mainly Slavic Eastern Europe. At its center is Germany. Only unified into a single nation 150 years ago, its principalities and people have for centuries spread all across this region of Europe, making their influence known.
Today, you’ll find Bavarian villages in Central Europe, old castle towns, grandiose market squares that point to a rich history of trade in the region, as well as glittering old imperial cities with remnants of the Roman Empire still visible.
Dominated by the Alps, the heart of Europe is rich in natural beauty: mountains march around towns, lakes reflect the jagged peaks, rivers carve through villages, and forests sit waiting to be explored.
21. Zell am See[SEE MAP]
Zell am See is a small town situated on the shores of Lake Zell, just south of Salzburg, Austria. The alpine lake is a beautiful spot to enjoy year-round. In the summer months, there are water sports to enjoy and sunbathing, as well as some lovely hikes around the lake. In the winter, there’s excellent skiing in the surrounding mountains.
The town itself boasts the Romanesque St. Hippolyte’s Church, one of the oldest churches in the region – complete with 15th-century tower – plus many streetside cafes and bars, as well as low-cost and high-end accommodation options.
20. Rothenburg ob der Tauber[SEE MAP]
A well preserved medieval town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber sits on the illustrious Romantic Road route through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. The town itself is a maze of cobbled lanes and wonky houses that make for a quintessentially storybook destination.
The central square of the town is a decidedly romantic setting for the Rothenburger Reiterlesmarkt; this Christmas market is a fantastic place to visit when the season is right, making the town even more magical. Easy to get to thanks to its location on the Romantic Road, you can also stay in charming hotels that make you feel like you’re part of the town.
19. Ljubljana[SEE MAP]
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and its largest city to boot. The tree-lined Ljubljanica River – a central part of the capital – turns even more charming in summer, with locals sipping coffee at cafes by the river’s edge and strolling along the banks. Ljubljana is also a vibrant student town with a lively, energetic nightlife and a delightful dining scene.
There are also many historical sights, especially the old town, but the medieval Ljubljana Castle is an icon of the city and provides impressive views across the town. There are also the remains of its Roman city walls. Staying in Ljubljana is easy, with a whole host of affordable lodgings on offer.
18. Innsbruck[SEE MAP]
Surrounded by the imposing mountains of the Nordkette Range, and valleys carpeted in thick greenery, Innsbruck is a beautiful mountain town with an abundance of interesting activities to enjoy in both summer and winter. This Austrian town is made up of the medieval Altstadt (Old Town), with fairytale-esque buildings, as well as a Renaissance-style castle and Baroque cathedral.
In Innsbruck, you can enjoy camping out of town in summer, in which case you’ll get to be right on nature’s doorstep, as well as close to hiking opportunities; or splash out on grander lodgings in the heart of the town.
17. Heidelberg[SEE MAP]
Heidelberg is the oldest university town in Germany. With its attractive Baroque Altstadt, lush forested surroundings, and relaxing riverside, this town is like stepping into times gone by – complete with great student nightlife, of course. The town’s brick-built, partially renovated hilltop castle sits on a site dating back to the 13th century high above the red roofs of the Old Town.
The Philosopher’s Walk is a picturesque, historic walking path on the north side of Heidelberg with vistas across the town. Remnants of the ancient Celtic wall can still be seen here, too. You can even stay in heritage buildings – one dates back to 1592 – or in affordable hostels.
16. Warsaw[SEE MAP]
The capital of Poland is home to a historic Old Town and buzzing local life that makes it well worth a visit. Putting its Communist era and wartime tragedies well in the past, there’s a new lease of life along its cobbled lanes. Walk along the Royal Route for a chance to spot the best historic sights in the city, like the statue of Copernicus and the Holy Cross Church.
There’s also the imposing 1950s Palace of Culture and Science (the tallest building in Poland) and the grand, 16th-century Royal Castle. Accommodation options and transport abound in this lively and fascinating city.
15. Bratislava[SEE MAP]
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and actually one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. Even so, there is a lot of history and architecture packed into its core; the medieval and Gothic old town, with its ornate palaces and impressive castle, are a must-see. Mixed with this are Communist-era blocks and Modernist, concrete infrastructure.
Located on the banks of the storied Danube, the streets are busy with stylish boutiques, buzzing bars, and happening cafes. If you’re looking for a place to stay, simply take your pick; there is plenty in Bratislava to fit a variety of travel types.
14. Lucerne[SEE MAP]
Switzerland’s Lucerne sits on the shores of Lake Lucerne, edged by snow-capped mountains. There are magnetic views of the lake to enjoy, as well as a stunning old town to explore with a heap of medieval architecture to marvel at. The Musegg Wall, bordering the old town, dates back to the 13th century, while the amazing, art-filled Chapel Bridge was built in 1333.
You can also admire the 15th-century Hofkirche St. Leodegar or head to the neoclassical Sammlung Rosengart for plenty of Picasso pieces on show. Otherwise, just soak up the upbeat atmosphere that is infectious in the vibrant city of Lucerne.
13. Salzburg[SEE MAP]
Salzburg is an Austrian city that sits on the border with Germany. It comes complete with inescapable and incredible views of the Eastern Alps. Split by the Salzach River, Salzburg is a city of two halves: the Altstadt sits on the left bank of the river and boasts pedestrianized streets with medieval and Baroque architecture; the right bank is Neustadt, the 19th-century, neo-Gothic ‘New Town.’
Many iconic sights can be found in Salzburg, such as the Baroque Domquartier (the Archbishop’s Palace), but it’s probably most famous as the birthplace of prodigious composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
12. Zermatt[SEE MAP]
Set in the Valais Canton, Zermatt is a quintessential Swiss mountain resort that’s popular with skiers. This is where you will find the jagged peak of the famously breathtaking Matterhorn; the sight of this mountain is an iconic image of the region, and it’s also very popular with climbers.
The town itself actually sits at 1,600 meters above sea level, but is still in the shadow of the Matterhorn. While daytime is all about skiing or hiking, Zermatt has a busy main street with plenty of places to eat, drink, and stay, and comes complete with a lively apres-ski atmosphere.
11. Munich[SEE MAP]
Birthplace of the international sensation that is Oktoberfest, Munich is the Bavarian capital, and a city of beer and bratwurst. There’s more to it than eating and drinking in its beer halls, however. At the heart of the Altstadt lies Marienplatz Square, which is overlooked by its centerpiece, the New Town Hall, a soaring, intricate Neo-Gothic masterpiece built in 1874.
There’s also the 12th-century St Peter’s Church and the very pretty Frauenkirche Cathedral, dating all the way back to the 15th century. The Englischer Garten (a venue of Oktoberfest) is a large public park from 1789; it’s an excellent spot for a beer, a snack, and watching the locals go about their days.
See also: Where to Stay in Munich
10. Hallstatt[SEE MAP]
Situated on the western shore of the lake of the same name, Hallstatt is an Austrian gem of a city. It’s all about the location, which boasts the gorgeous, emerald waters of the lake that reflect the alpine hills surrounding it.
In winter, the town is coated with a thick dusting of snow, and skiing is on the cards. In summer, hiking in the hills and water sports become the order of the day. This mountain town boats local cafes and charming shops in beautiful 16th-century houses along attractive alleyways, as well as boutique and more affordable places to stay.
9. Zurich[SEE MAP]
The world center of finance and banking, Zurich is a northern Swiss town that hugs the shores of Lake Zurich. Aside from the serious world of economics and money, it’s an attractive city with a handsome Altstadt at its core.
The city spills out across the Limmat River and comes alive with waterside walkways and magnificent medieval buildings, as well as the 17th-century Town Hall practically hanging over the water. There’s also the interesting old mercantile district of Augustinegasse, complete with ornately carved windows. Accommodation here isn’t always affordable, so be prepared to splash out on boutique offerings or chic digs.
8. Budapest[SEE MAP]
Budapest is the Hungarian capital. Known for being made up of three parts, the town has a lot of history, and can even trace its origins back to Roman times. Relics of Rome can be found in the oldest part of the city, Buda, as well as the even older part, Obuda (literally, “Old Buda”).
Pest is where you will find the newer, 19th-century face of Budapest, complete with its stunning Houses of Parliament, Opera House, and St Stephen’s Basilica. With plenty of affordable, old-world accommodation on offer, staying in Budapest and enjoying its hot mineral baths couldn’t be easier.
7. Krakow[SEE MAP]
Located near the Czech border, Krakow is a southern Polish city with a lot of character to discover. Its medieval center features such architectural delights as the Rynek Glowny – the market square – where you will find the massively impressive Cloth Hall, as well as St Mary’s Basilica.
The city has a rich Jewish history; the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, though with a dark WWII history, is now alive with quirky cafes and hipster bars. To learn more about that history, it’s a simple trip from Krakow to the infamous and harrowing Auschwitz.
See also: Where to Stay in Krakow
6. Fussen[SEE MAP]
A Bavarian town close to the Austrian border, Fussen is famous for the many castles that can be found in and around town. There’s the medieval Hohes Schloss, with its white walls and red roofs; amazingly, this has been an important site ever since the Romans built a rest stop here in 47 AD.
The Altstadt of Fussen is awash with 700-year-old Bavarian architecture, making the perfect place for a coffee along its pedestrianized streets. Take a trip from Fussen to the nearby Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II’s 19th-century fairytale castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.
5. Lake Bled[SEE MAP]
Located in the Julian Alps in northwestern Slovenia, Lake Bled is a scenic spot indeed. One of the best places here is in the lake itself – Bled Island. On the island, which is reachable via a rentable rowboat or a pletna (traditional wooden boat), you’ll find the Church of the Assumption of Mary.
There’s also Bled Castle nearby. But the summer months at Lake Bled are all about enjoying the water, splashing around, swimming, sunbathing, and boating. You can even hike very easily around the lake itself, with many interesting places to stop at along the way – and beautiful views over the lake, too.
4. Jungfrau Region[SEE MAP]
Named after the Jungfrau (or ‘Virgin’) Mountain, the Jungfrau Region is made up of daring mountainous landscape, sheer waterfalls, and impressive glaciers. Jungfrau Mountain itself is a famous peak and towers at 4,158 meters above sea level. The Jungfraubahnen cogwheel train travels to Europe’s highest railway station high above Interlaken where Switzerland is at its most beautiful.
The famous Trummelbachfalle is a collection of ten glacier falls located actually inside a mountain, only reachable via lift. A visit to the town of Wengen is like stepping back in time; its timber houses and charming holiday resorts make it a great base for exploring the region. Ski in the winter or hike in the summer – it’s beautiful either way.
3. Vienna[SEE MAP]
The Austrian capital of Vienna is known for its intellectual and artistic past: it has at one time or another been the home of figures such as Freud, Mozart, Lenin, and Beethoven. There are imperial palaces aplenty in Vienna, giving you an insight into the past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; there’s the opulent Baroque Schonbrunn Palace – summer retreat of the Habsburg royalty – as well as the lavish apartments at Hofburg.
The 18th-century Vienna State Opera is a beautiful building that shows the importance of art and culture in this historic city. Enjoy heritage cafes, amazing bakeries, stay in budget hostels or high-end hotels, and discover what makes Vienna tick.
See also: Where to Stay in Vienna
2. Berlin[SEE MAP]
The bold and brash German capital is a city that has seen a lot of history, most recently being split between capitalist West and socialist East Germany. But with its turbulent history in the past, this modern-day city has a fashionable street scene, energetic art culture, infamous and very cool nightlife, and plenty of hipster hangouts.
Go and see sections of the Berlin Wall and see graffiti daubed on it at East Side Gallery, or go to the classical archway steeped in history at the Brandenburg Gate. Elsewhere, the Reichstag Building is a marrying of past and present. There are many cool places to stay in Berlin, and many more places to eat, drink, and dance the night away.
1. Prague[SEE MAP]
Prague is the Czech Republic’s stunning capital. Though it’s famous for its nightlife, with plenty of bars and restaurants to hop around after dark – as well as plenty of places to stay – the city also has a plethora of history to discover.
The beautiful Old Town of Prague is home to the oldest working astronomical clock, the 600-year-old Orloj. Connecting the Old Town with the Lesser Town is the pedestrianized Charles Bridge, built in 1402. Prague Castle dates back to the 9th century; this amazingly historic building is now the seat of the Czech president. Understand about Prague’s Jewish history at the old Jewish Quarter, see the oldest synagogue in Europe, and visit the old Jewish cemetery.