Central Europe is a region forming the heart of Europe. It includes the German-speaking countries, four former Warsaw Pact member states that have successfully joined the European Union, and Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic, now also a member of the EU. Only Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein are not EU member states but share close economic and cultural ties with the region but also have stayed away largely for economic and historical reasons. It is a large and important region stretching from the Baltic and North Sea in the north to the Adriatic in the south. It is also home to some of Europe's and the world's most prosperous economies and cities. Lastly, it includes the fabled mountain range of the Alps which acts a transition zone between the latin, germanic and slavic cultures which all call the region home.
Central Europe has some of the oldest and best preserved cities on the continent. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- Berlin - The capital of reunited Germany since 1990, it was divided by force for 45 years during the Cold War. It has emerged as a international cultural center and an area of rapid development since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- Budapest - The capital of Hungary has a wealth of grand architecture, culture and its famous thermal baths, as well as one of the oldest metro systems in the world.
- Geneva - The largest city in Francophone Switzerland. This wealthy urban banking center is home to many international agencies like the Red Cross and the United Nations.
- Kraków - The cultural center and former capital of Poland. It is famed for its charming architecture and the largest medieval old-town market square in Europe.
- Ljubljana - The picturesque alpine capital of Slovenia is a charming baroque city with stunning architecture and dynamic night life.
- Munich - The well to do capital of the southern German federal-state of Bavaria. This gateway to the Alps is famous for Oktoberfest, the world's largest beer festival.
- Prague - The world-famous capital of the Czech Republic is one of Europe's most attractive and well preserved large cities and has emerged as an expatriate melting pot since the opening of the Iron Curtain.
- Vienna - The elegant capital of Austria. This imperial capital has countless classicist sights.
- Warsaw - The political and business center of Poland with a completely re-built old-town and castle square.
- Alps - probably one of the most important winter destinations in the world. Home to summer resorts too. Includes: France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia.
- Tatra Mountains - beautiful and unspoiled mountain range peaking at 2600 meters above sea level. Located on the Polish-Slovak frontier.
- Balaton - this scenic Hungarian lake is the largest lake in Central Europe and a year-round tourist hub.
- Baltic Sea- Germany and Poland share the Baltic Sea coast of Central Europe with hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and resorts.
- North Sea- Germany has many tourist islands in the North Sea.
- Black Forest- smaller mountain range in southwest Germany famous for its scenery and history.
- Hévíz - the world's second largest thermal lake in Hungary, a health tourism centre.
- Harz Mountains - low-lying mountain range in central Germany home to the legend of the witch.
- Aggtelek Caves - a magnificent complex of 712 caves in Northern Hungary and Southern Slovakia.
- Adriatic Sea - Slovenia has a relatively small, but beautiful coastline on the north-eastern tip of the Adriatic.
- Giant Mountians - Located along the Silesia-Bohemian frontier in Poland and the Czech Republic.
While ethnically different, the countries of Central Europe share a similar culture and history throughout the ages. Two of the most important political units in the region were the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. They were preceded in the Middle Ages by the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of states and statelets whose extent varied over time. Ethnic conflict was a major problem for hundreds of years in Central Europe and culminated in the horrors of the Second World War. With the peaceful reunification of Germany and the recent expansion of the EU to encompass the former Warsaw Pact states in the region, this problem finally seems to have been solved.
It is a common mistake by outsiders to label all the former Warsaw Pact states in the region as being in Eastern Europe. Almost uniformly, inhabitants of Central Europe will be flattered and pleased if you correctly describe their countries as "central European" both geographically and culturally. Conversely, they may be upset if you lapse into Cold War stereotypes. East and West Germany were countries, so better to call it eastern and western Germany. Reunification is all but a thing of the past and seen in a more or less positive light by most there and in all of Central Europe so try to avoid labeling Germans by their recent past. Remember Germans are Germans but Austrians, Liechtensteiners and most Swiss and Luxembourgers all speak German, but are not German! Czech, Polish or Slovakian may sound similar to Russian, but inhabitants of these countries will not take kindly to assumptions of cultural overlap. Lastly, keep in mind that the Czech Republic and Slovakia once shared a country as well and Slovaks in general are very proud of their new found independence.
While they are not currently considered part of Central Europe, the regions of western Ukraine, Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and Alto-Adige / South Tirol - province (Italy), are sometimes also considered Central European. This is due either to their current and or past ethnic makeup and/or previous political histories. The Kaliningrad oblast spent most of its history as a German speaking region and South Tirol remains a largely German-speaking region in northern Italy maintaining strong cultural ties to Austria. Even though Ukraine is predominantly an orthodox country, its westernmost part for the centuries was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later passed to Austria-Hungary which to some extent influenced it's unique culture.
Central Europe, because of its rich heritage of nationalities, likewise is home to many languages. Some languages enjoy national status and thus are taught in schools and used widely in the media. Others however are only regional languages or minority languages and thus are sadly in danger of eventual extinction even though efforts are underway to try to preserve them.
German has the largest number of native speakers in the region and acts as the single "official" language of Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. In Switzerland, German is the mother tongue of 2/3 of the population and the dominant language of the four official Swiss languages (German, French, Italian & Romansh). There is a small German speaking minority to be found in Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. It is also spoken outside Central Europe in eastern Belgium and France, and northern Italy (mainly in the region of South Tyrol/Alto Adige). German can be very diverse and appears in many different colorful dialects particular in the Southern German-speaking world (Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and South Tyrol) were tradition and dialect remains strong.
Polish is the dominant language in all regions of Poland and in a tiny border region of the Czech Republic. Kashubian, a regional Slavonic language, is spoken in the region around Gdansk in Pomerania in northern Poland. Silesian is a regional language/dialect, (depending on who you ask) found in southwest Poland.
Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages for other Europeans to learn, as it originates from a different language family and is related to Finnish and Estonian. There are 5 million Hungarian speakers living outside Hungary in neighboring countries such as Romania (Transylvania), northern Serbia, eastern Austria and southern Slovakia.
French or Italian are spoken by the majority of the population in the southern and western regions of Switzerland, while Swiss German is commonly taught as a second language. French plays a historic role in alpine northern Italy in the French border regions.
In the Swiss Canton of Graubünden or Grison, Romansh is spoken as a regional language. Almost all Romansh speakers speak either Swiss German and/or Italian as well. It is closely related to Ladin which is spoken in a few mountain valleys of northern Italy and is another endangered regional language. Sadly it is being replaced by German or Italian.
Slovenian is the official language of Slovenia, but it is also spoken by the Slovenian minorities in southern Austria, northeastern Italy and western Hungary. There is also a small Croatian minority in Austria's Burgenland. Sorbian, Frisian and Low German are Germany's three native minority languages with exception of Roma. Sorbian is related to Polish and Czech and can be found spoken in both the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg. All Sorbs speak German as well and the current Minister President (Governor) of the German federal-state of Saxony is even Sorbian! Frisian is related to English and Dutch and is spoken by tiny minority communities in Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen and neighboring communities in the Netherlands.
Lastly, Low German is spoken by rural communities or as a second language by a few in most federal states of northern Germany and still has a significant role to play in the city states of Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck and in the states of Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein and particular in the eastern federal-state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. All three German minority languages are endangered languages. Efforts are underway to preserve the languages and their culture but it is seemingly a losing battle.
Finding people who speak and understand English is not a problem in most regions of Central Europe, especially in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. In Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, English is widely spoken in the larger cities and by younger people; German and Russian are also spoken and understood by many older people in these countries. Russian, since the end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe is in steady decline. Today German remains important, more for financial and economic reasons instead of cultural or political reasons, as was the case in the past. Slovenians and the Swiss by far lead the region in their ability to speak many different tongues.
Central Europe is very well connected within Europe and with the rest of the world. Germany, Austria and Switzerland are particularly renowned for efficient and fast transport infrastructures that make it possible to travel quickly to even the smallest villages usually by modern bus but sometimes even by train!
The largest gateway for air travel is Frankfurt Main airport in central Germany, which offers connections to all continents and to most airports in Europe. Zurich, Munich and Vienna airports are a lot smaller but provide good connections to selected regional and intl. destinations.
A difference between flag carriers and discount airlines is discount airlines may fly to an airport some distance from the city it serves. Flag carriers usually fly to nearby airports, such as Frankfurt/Main, while no-frill airlines like Ryanair fly to Frankfurt-Hahn airport, which is two hours away from Frankfurt city and actually closer to Trier.
Central Europe has a dense high-speed train network:
- InterCityExpress (ICE) trains offer connections across Germany, but are also run in partnership with the Danish, Austrian and Dutch railways.
- The French TGV connects France with Geneva, Berne, Basel and Zurich. Also there are connections to Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
- Thalys trains connect Cologne with Brussels and Paris
- RailJet conects Vienna with Zurich, Munich and Budapest.
- Pendilinos are run in Slovenia and the Czech Republic with connections to neighboring countries.
In addition, there are numerous night- and other express and regular trains that connect Central Europe with the rest of continental Europe, and travel as far as Istanbul or Moscow. Check the homepage of the Deutsche Bahn , which has an excellent overview of the European rail system.
The motorways in Central Europe are excellent and offer fast connections across the region. The European Union has spent vast amounts of money to improve transport connectivity. Check individual country pages for details of routes and suggested itineraries.
All of the countries located in Central Europe are now signatories to Schengen Agreement, which means that you can cross the borders unimpeded, save for random police checks. However as a visitor to the EU on a tourist visa you are limited to a 3-months total stay in all the countries in the region.
- The English Garden and the huge Deutsches Museum in Munich
- The massive Dom in Cologne
- The modern architecture of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz
- The modern skyline of Frankfurt and Warsaw
- The natural skyline of the alps in Innsbruck
- The natural beauty of Lake Constance and its three national shorelines
- Ascend the Reichstag Dome in Berlin
- Hike the mountainous areas of "Saxon and Bohemian Switzerland" south of Dresden along the Elbe/Labe
- Walk around historic Rothenburg ob der Tauber complete with city walls
- Visit a beer hall, the Olympic Park, BMW museum and don't forget the colorful central pedestrian zone in Munich
- Visit Hitler's infamous Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps with a good museum on the Nazi Crimes
- Tour the Black Forest and maybe buy a cuckoo clock or just eat a torte!
- Cruise the Rhine River and enjoy the world famous wine
- Ride the post-modern monorail in Wuppertal
- Stroll through the old town center of Salzburg and visit the imposing fortress of the Archbishop
- Float down the river with the locals in the swiss capital of Berne
- Ride a cable car up to Gimmelwald, eat at the Piz Gloria restaurant, go out on the Jungfrau glacier, see a churning waterfall, or hike one of the countless Swiss mountain ridges
- Stroll through historic Vienna and visit the Prater district
- Go skiing or snowboarding in Switzerland, Austria or Bavaria a
- Go up Castle Hill and admire the view of the river and city in Budapest
- Relax in a Hungarian Turkish style spa
- Visit the world's largest castle complex and tour the old and new towns of Prague
- Visit the historic and elegant port city of Gdansk and it surrounding Baltic resorts
- Spend a night camping under the stars and moonlight on the German Baltic island of Ruegen
- Stroll Warsaw's old town and old Jewish Ghetto, and take a glance at the Soviet inspired Palace of Culture and Science
- Tour the historic old town and castle of Krakow, and visit the Soviet worker's suburb of Nowa Huta
- Be moved by a visit to a Nazi concentration camp and memorial such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau or Treblinka
- Tour the Old Town of Dresden and see the reconstructed "Frauenkirche" a symbol of peace and reconciliation
- Visit the historic spa town of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) in Bohemia in the Czech Republic and "take the cure"
- Experience the wild nightlife in Berlin, Prague, Munich and Budapest until the wee hours of the morning if you can!
- Jazz fans will enjoy two big jazz festivals in Poland:
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- Beer -The golden beer drunk throughout the world was developed in this region, and arguably it is here that it is still at its best. The Czech Republic has a grand brewing heritage and Pilsen is the place were the technique was pioneered, creating the Pilsner style that is reproduced around the world. The low cost of beer in the Czech Republic makes it easy to get a taste of many of the fabulous beers, from the well known Pilsner Urquell, Budvar (Budweiser) and Staropramen, to local favorites such as Kozel, Bernard and Gambrinus. Many have a few different varieties and a Cerny Pivo (Black Beer) these can be as good if not better than the standard beer. Slovakia has many beers of high quality with Zlaty Bazant being highly regarded. Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia all have very good national examples sometimes on a par with those from the Czech lands. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have a similar brewing heritage, but can throw in several different types of beer. Weissbier, (Wheat Beer) is a refreshing style popular in summer but drunk year round. There are a huge amount of varieties and local specialties are nearly always worth seeking out. Generally, the further north one travels in Germany, the more bitter or hoppy the beer becomes adding to the north-south cultural divide. Bavaria, "the Holy Grail of Brewing", located in southern Germany, has over 600 breweries alone and even more accompanying beers to sample!
- Wine- The region produces a wide range of wines from superb world famous regions, down to inexpensive local plonk. Possibly the finest region in the area is Tokaj, world-renowned for its sweet dessert wines as well as more standard whites. Germany has several wine regions the Rhine, and Moselle Valleys are well known for their fragrant white wines. Saxony in the east even is home to a small wine growing region on the riverbanks of the Elbe. Austria and Switzerland also produce some very high quality products. In the other countries like Hungary and Slovenia local wines can throw up some very good varieties and it is always worth investigating local produce.
- Vodka- A Polish specialty, the quality of Polish vodka is amongst, if not the, best in the world. The high quality product can be very different to the industrial stuff you may buy in your local shop and is well worth a try. Zubrowka is a variety of vodka flavored with a cinnamon-like grass and is delicious when combined with apple juice. Some claim it to be so good it produces no hangover!
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