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