Central Europe is an astounding canvas of natural beauty. Dense forests blanket vast expanses, rolling rivers meander through a sloping terrain of granite, and colossal snow-capped peaks soar into a crisp, blue sky. Amidst these wonders, some of the world’s most storied cities evolved, tiny villages at first that burgeoned into richly layered cultural capitals that today are the pride of the region.
It’s easy to become so enamored with the awe-inspiring architecture and welcoming people that all you feel is gratitude toward all that made these majestic cities and charming villages what they are today. Yet the story of how Central Europe emerged into one of the most frequently visited places in the world is neither straightforward nor simple, and Gate 1 Travel’s tours and Tour Managers help you understand the complexities of local history and culture. After experiencing these six countries with our seasoned experts, you’ll return home richly rewarded and breathlessly inspired.
Germany: Cities of Glorious Architecture, Medieval Treasures
Behind Germany’s place as an economic powerhouse is a nation that has tightly held onto its medieval past. Even in Frankfurt, modern Europe’s largest financial center, the Altstadt, or Old Town, invites endless exploration through the Romerplatz—the historic square where the City Hall has stood watch for 600 years. Outside of Frankfurt, a more bucolic view of the Middle Ages unfolds along the banks of the Rhine River. Here, timber-framed houses and fairytale villages line the water’s shores and stalwart castles cling to hillsides. Even the endless vineyards that blanket the riverside date back to the ancients.
A riverboat idyll from the city of Mainz—birthplace of Gutenberg’s printing press—to the castle-dominated town of Heidelberg reveals Germany at its legendary best. Indeed, Heidelberg is one of the county’s most romantic destinations, thanks to its pretty location between the hills of Odenwald and the Neckar River. But as far as authentic historic towns go, Rothenberg is Germany’s best preserved. Untouched by the wars that have swept through Europe over the centuries—it even escaped the bombings of World War II—it provides a priceless snapshot of medieval life.
Other German cities, of course, were forever altered by war and stand today as triumphant testaments to the human spirit. Berlin today enjoys a free and transparent democracy. Just how transparent is today’s German government? It’s enough to say that the Reichstag, Berlin’s glorious Parliament building, is crowned with a see-through glass dome to symbolize the new openness. Arts are embraced here, too. The East Side Gallery comprises 105 paintings on a mile-long length of the old Berlin Wall, each one meant to convey the exuberance and euphoria of the newly united Germany. And the city’s Museum Island in the River Spree is home to five cultural institutions. The past is also well-preserved in Berlin at the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate and at the remnants of Checkpoint Charlie.
Dresden also rose from the ashes of World War II. So painstaking was its resurrection, you would never know today that it was completely decimated by Allied bombing. This city of Baroque art has been called the “Florence on the Elbe River” for its rich artistic heritage and sheer beauty. From the rococo-style Zwinger Palace and gardens … to the wedding-cake exterior of the Semper Opera House … to the stunning Frauenkirche with its massive dome, the city’s elegance is unmatched.
Many are surprised to learn that Nuremberg boasts a long tradition of handmade toys. Home to the Nuremberg Toy Museum and host of the annual Nuremberg International Toy Fair, a playful spirit lives on in the city’s Market Square and Old Town. It is a sad irony that the city staged Nazi rallies and became a center of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Yet it was entirely fitting that the Palace of Justice here hosted the post-war Nuremberg Trials that put war criminals behind bars.
One of Germany’s most striking sights is the Cologne Cathedral. It is an undeniably hulking piece of architecture; its double spires comprise the largest façade of any church. It was the tallest manmade structure in the world from 1880 to 1884, surpassed by the Washington Monument. The cathedral stands on the perimeter of the Altstadt, or Old Town, where you’ll find ample beer pubs. In fact, Cologne boasts the most pubs per capita in Germany.
The city of Hamburg is an underappreciated gem. Situated on the Elbe River, which flows into the North Sea, it is Europe’s second largest port city. Its official name (the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg) dates back to its time as a key trader in the medieval Hanseatic League and to its role as a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, it is a remarkably clean and graceful city. Its citizens embrace the great outdoors in several green spaces—while strolling the walkways at Alster Lake and exploring the fountains and gardens at Planten un Blomen Park.
The capital of Bavaria, Munich enjoys a breathtaking setting near the foothills of the German Alps. The city is most often associated with Oktoberfest, but its highlights point to a rich history and charming ambiance. At the Baroque Nymphenburg Palace, Bavarian kings whiled away the summer and strolled through their extensive gardens. And at the Marienplatz, or Old Town Square, the splendid Gothic Revival New Town Hall takes center stage each day at 11am when life-sized carved figures emerge to enact fabled stories of Bavaria.
Switzerland: Alpine Splendor
The German Alps outside Munich rise into the magnificent peaks of Switzerland, land of chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Gruyere cheese, and precision watches. Vistas here are so breathtaking, it’s little wonder that the Swiss have long maintained neutrality in world affairs; with so much inspirational beauty to marvel at day after day, you might not want to be distracted by petty conflicts either.
Three of its cultural centers sit on namesake lakes, each with a glorious alpine backdrop. The highlight of German-speaking Lucerne is its 14th-century wooden Chapel Bridge. The footbridge across the Reuss River is the oldest covered span in Europe, and its interiors are adorned with 17th-century paintings, each one depicting scenes from the city’s past. In French-speaking Geneva, life seems to revolve around its tremendous Jet d’Eau, a single geyser-like fountain that shoots up from the lake more than 400 feet. The green parks and promenades around the lake provide expansive views. Though Geneva hosts the most international organizations in the world, including the United Nations and the Red Cross, its Old City is home to 82 historic Swiss heritage sites. Zurich, too, enjoys a splendid lakeside setting. This stunning city is often cited as having the best quality of life in the world. It Fraumünster Church, with its five stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, has been turning heads for centuries and its St. Peter’s Church boasts the largest clock face on a church in Europe.
Zermatt is perhaps the nation’s most laid-back resort town, if only because it is a traffic-free alpine paradise tucked on a plateau 5,300 feet above sea level. It is only accessible by a steep mountain tram. Long a base from which to ascend the nearby Matterhorn, whose distinctive summit is visible on clear days, it’s also where you can catch gondolas and a cog railway to some of the other peaks for incredible views. Not to be outdone, St. Moritz is Switzerland’s other mountain resort city, Nestled amidst soaring peaks at an elevation of 5,900 feet, this winter retreat for the well-heeled of Europe is one of the most luxurious places on earth.
Austria: Legacy of the Habsburgs
For almost 500 years, Vienna was at one time or another the capital of much of Central Europe, thanks to the Habsburg Dynasty and its descendants. They made Vienna their elegant and graceful center of culture, with the grandest gifts along the city’s famed Ringstrasse—the Hofburg Palace, Opera House, City Hall, Belvedere Palace and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The monarchy built their 1,441-room summer home at Schonbrunn, an opulent and sprawling estate. While here, be sure to take some time to experience Vienna’s famous café life, perhaps sampling the city’s decadent sacher torte.
While waltz-writer Johann Strauss called Vienna home, Mozart was born in Salzburg. His music still spills into these streets from concert halls, but it was the film, The Sound of Music, that put this dreamy alpine city on every traveler’s map. Embraced by lofty hills, the city is a delightful tapestry of elegant buildings, lovely squares and manicured gardens—all watched over by the looming 11th-century Hohensalzburg Castle perched atop the Festungsberg Hill.
The city of Innsbruck gained its fame as the host of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. But, like Salzburg, it is home to a stunning collection of splendid architecture, including the Gothic Hofburg Palace and the Baroque-rococo Helblinghaus. The elegant symbol of the city, the Golden Roof, is decorated with 2,738 fire-gilded copper tiles.
One of Lower Austria’s most beautiful regions is the Danube Valley. Long a lure for oenophiles, it has produced high-quality wines for centuries. Charming wine villages, vineyards, and lovely whitewashed churches dot the landscape. Amidst all this beauty in the riverside city of Melk, the Melk Abbey rests on a promontory overlooking the Danube River. The Baroque masterpiece, built in the early 1700s, features priceless frescoes and a library of thousands of medieval manuscripts.
Hungary: Home to a Stunning Riverside Capital
If you were to continue from Melk down the Danube River by river ship (and soon we will tell you how you can), you would arrive in Budapest, Hungary’s fascinating capital. The city gracefully straddles the Danube, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. In Buda, sloping hills rise up to the fortress-like Fisherman’s Bastion, an ornate riverside terrace that seems torn from a storybook. It is just a hint of the wonder that lies beyond—the gleaming, Romanesque St. Matthias Church and the hulking Royal Palace with its massive wings and imposing dome.
On the opposite bank, Pest stretches eastward with a cosmopolitan air. Here, the mighty Parliament Building parallels the river’s shore. The sophisticated Andrassy Avenue, the city’s version of the Champs-Elysees, stretches to Heroes’ Square—a monumental square dedicated to the country’s leaders. To witness the spirituality of Budapesters at its grandest, visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral, named for the first King of Hungary. And for a more down-to-earth option, the Great Market Hall is lined with endless stalls of goods that provide an unparalleled snapshot of the city’s culture.
The Czech Republic: A Medieval Jewel
The Czech Republic, once ruled by Communists with an iron fist, is today a vibrant and creative corner of Europe. Its political and cultural capital, Prague, is a scenic showcase of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and one of the best preserved medieval cities of its size. So authentic are the narrow cobbled streets of its Old Town they are often used to film movies set in the Middle Ages. Prague is aptly named the “City of a Hundred Spires” for the many towers that soar above the red rooftops. Its Lesser Town, or Mala Strana, is a delightful cluster of old burgher houses and the Old Town Square lures the curious with its magnificent Orloj. This 600-year-old Astronomical Clock sends out a procession of figurines with the chiming of every hour. Across the 14th-century Charles Bridge, which spans the leisurely waters of the Vltava River, the Royal Castle District beckons from a hillside. The former residence of Bohemian kings, this town within a town was the site of early Prague, a collection of stately buildings, tiny enclaves and pretty courtyards built around the grand St. Vitus Cathedral.
Poland: Risen from the Ashes
For many, Poland stands out as one of Europe’s most resilient nations. Its capital Warsaw illustrates why. This beautiful city on the Vistula River was completely destroyed during World War II. After the war, its citizens took to rebuilding their beloved Old Town exactly as it was constructed in the 14th century. Its restored cobbled lanes lead to Market Square, its heart, where the Royal Castle and Cathedral of St. John invite exploration.
Medieval Krakow dates to the 7th century. Many consider this one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Its cultural and architectural heritage spans the centuries, leaving masterworks of the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras in the Wawel Royal Castle District, in St. Mary’s soaring basilica, in the Sukiennice Cloth Hall and all along its vast medieval market square. A more sobering sight here is Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory. Schindler employed more than 1,000 Jews in order to save them from certain extermination at camps such as Auschwitz, which is right outside Krakow.
So Many Ways to Explore Central Europe with Gate 1 Travel
Our Gate 1 Travel land programs take you to some of the most fascinating pockets of Central Europe, with some of the region’s best-value hotels keeping you comfortable along the way. Want to add some luxury to your journey? Join our Signature Collection trip to Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. And our European River Cruises along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers – with select itineraries sailing aboard Gate 1’s privately owned Monarch Empress – provide an equally rewarding option, with the opportunity to begin or conclude your trip with stays in some of the exciting cities we’ve told you about above. The beauty of a European river cruise is the luxury of unpacking your bags just once and letting fairytale villages and glittering cultural capitals come to you. All onboard meals are included, and you’ll explore at the leisurely pace of the waterways. You can even take advantage of the freedom and value of our Independent Vacations, a great way to follow your own interests in the great cities of Central Europe.
Whether you have eight days or fifteen, whether you want to explore one country or six. Gate 1 Travel has the ideal itinerary, each one enriched by the professional service, local insight, and cultural know-how of our attentive Tour Managers (unless you choose an Independent Vacation, of course). Join Gate 1 Travel in Central Europe, and enjoy unmatched discovery, unparalleled service and a value that no one can equal. We hope to see you soon!