Central Europe is a vibrant mosaic of beauty, culturally important cities and villages. Dense forests blanket large areas, rolling rivers meander through fairy-tale landscapes, and snow-capped peaks reach high into the sky. Among these natural wonders, some of the world’s most important cities evolved. Tiny villages flourished into richly layered cultural capitals that are the pride of the area today.
It’s easy to become enthralled by the awe-inspiring architecture and welcoming people that all you feel is gratitude toward all that made these cities and villages what they are now. However, the story of how Central Europe emerged into one of the most frequently visited places in the world is neither straightforward nor simple. Gate 1 Travel’s itineraries and knowledgeable tour managers help you understand the complexities of local history and cultural outcomes of war that helped shape these nations. After experiencing this area with our seasoned experts, you’ll return home feeling encouraged and inspired.
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 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.
If you were to continue down the Danube River by river ship, offered on some of our Gate 1 Travel River Cruise itineraries, 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 movie. Not to be forgotten, the Romanesque St. Matthias Church and the Royal Palace with its 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 Budapest at its grandest, visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral, named for the first King of Hungary. The Great Market Hall is lined with endless stalls of goods that provide an unparalleled snapshot of the city’s culture.
For many, Poland stands out as one of Europe’s most resilient nations. Its capital Warsaw illustrates the country’s resolve. 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.
Behind Germany’s position as an economic powerhouse is a nation that has tightly held onto its historic influences over the years.The city of Mainz, birthplace of Gutenberg’s printing press, to the castle-dominated town of Heidelberg reveal Germany at its legendary best. Picturesque Heidelberg is one of the country’s most romantic destinations, thanks to its pretty location between the hills of Odenwald and the Neckar River. Home to the oldest university in Germany, Heidelberg is dominated by the red sandstone of the Heidelberg Castle, originally built in the 12th century. As far as authentic historic towns go, Rothenberg is definitely Germany’s best preserved. Untouched by the wars that have swept through Europe over the centuries, Rothenberg even escaped the bombings of World War II. It provides one of the most authentic snapshots of medieval life in the world.
Other German cities were forever altered by war and stand today as triumphant testaments to the human spirit. Berlin today enjoys a free and transparent democracy; the Reichstag, Berlin’s Parliament building, is crowned with a see-through glass dome to symbolize the new transparent atmosphere. Art is embraced here, with the East Side Gallery comprised of 105 paintings on a mile-long length of the old Berlin Wall. 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 Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
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 elegant beauty. From the rococo-style Zwinger Palace and gardens, to the layered exterior of the Semper Opera House, to the stunning Frauenkirche with its massive dome, the city’s elegance is truly unrivaled.
One of Germany’s most striking sights is the Cologne Cathedral. It is a huge piece of architecture with its double spires comprising the largest façade of any church. It was the tallest manmade structure in the world from 1880 to 1884, surpassed then by the Washington Monument. The cathedral stands on the perimeter of the Altstadt, where you’ll find ample beer pubs. In fact, Cologne boasts the most pubs per capita in Germany, an excellent claim to fame!
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. At Marienplatz, or Old Town Square, the splendid Gothic Revival New Town Hall takes center stage each day at 11am when life-size carved figures emerge to enact fabled stories of Bavaria.
The German Alps outside Munich continue on to form the majestic peaks of Switzerland. This land of chocolate, Gruyere cheese, and watches welcomes you with vistas and landmarks so breathtaking, you will fall in love upon arrival.
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. This footbridge spans across the Reuss River, is the oldest truss bridge in Europe, and its interiors are adorned with 17th-century paintings, each one depicting scenes from the city’s history.
In French-speaking Geneva, life seems to revolve around its 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 charming lakeside setting. This stunning city is often cited as having the best quality of life in the world so you know it’s beautiful. 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 wealthy of Europe is one of the most luxurious places on earth.
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 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 Palace, an opulent and sprawling estate. While in the city, be sure to take some time to experience Vienna’s famous café life, perhaps sampling the city’s decadent sacher torte, a delicious chocolate cake dessert.
While waltz-composer 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 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. Like Salzburg, Innsbruck 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 whitewashed churches dot the landscape. Amidst all this beauty in the riverside city of Melk, the Melk Abbey rests on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube River. The Baroque masterpiece, built in the early 1700s, features priceless frescoes and a library of thousands of medieval manuscripts.
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 cruising to your journey? Join our European River Cruises along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers that 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 fairy-tale 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.
If Christmas Markets are more your scene, Gate 1 has an array of itineraries that visit incredible towns such as Munich, Dresden, Salzburg, Krakow, Prague and more! A variety of stalls awaits full of decorations, gifts, sweets, mulled wine and warm food. Imagine spending the Christmas season in some of the most historic and majestic backdrops in the entire world. From the most famous and largest Christmas Market in Munich, Germany to the Old Town Square location of Prague, Czech Republic, there are truly unforgettable adventures to be had.
Whether you have eight days or fifteen, whether you want to explore one country or five. 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 in Central Europe!