Central Europe has quite quickly become one of the most popular regions to travel on the continent. Central Europe travel is met with the same ease as those countries further to the west but can offer some more offbeat and budget-friendly destinations. Most of the countries comprising this region were under Communist regimes until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, giving it a unique history and culture.
For the purposes of this Central Europe travel guide, we will be concentrating on the countries of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. While Austria is definitely considered to be Central Europe, neither of us have travelled extensively outside of Vienna so cannot give an accurate depiction of the country. Also, if you’re after travel information on Croatia, Slovenia, or Serbia, be sure to check out our Balkan travel guide which will lead you to all of the information we have on those respective countries and the region as a whole.
When To Go
Like pretty much everywhere else on the continent, Central Europe experiences five distinct seasons. The winters can be cold and snowy where the summers are hot and muggy. Spring and Autumn tend to both have more mild weather, but can be rainy and chilly at times. You might also experience some beautiful and unseasonably warm days if you travel during these times of year as well.
If you’re planning on travelling to Central Europe during the summer, keep in mind that the months of July and August can get very crowded in Central Europe so you’ll likely have to plan and book your trip further in advance. Summers can also get very warm in most Central European cities, and it’s rare to have air conditioning in your accommodation. If they have the means, many locals tend to flock to the mountains or seaside during particularly warm spells, so these areas can also be quite crowded.
Arguably the best time to travel to Central Europe is in the shoulder seasons of April to June and September to November. During these seasons, the weather is more mild and the tourist crowds are considerably fewer. Often, as well, accommodation and attraction prices can be reduced. Because there is less demand in general, you will also have a bit more room to be flexible in your itinerary Another advantage of the shoulder season is that lets you experience some of the great student towns in the region when the students are actually around!
There are some advantages in travelling during winter, with many cities in Central Europe having world Christmas markets as well as some fantastic and affordable skiing. While the weather is very cold, travelling to Central Europe in winter is easily the cheapest season to visit the region. Because the tourist demand is low, accommodation and attractions costs will likely be discounted, but you may find that some things do not operate during the offseason.
All in all, there is no absolute answer for the best season to travel in Central Europe, but if you want decent weather combined with a lack of tourist crowds, then visiting the region during the shoulder seasons is probably your best bet.
Despite all of these countries being in the European Union, only Slovakia use the Euro. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all still use their own currencies: Koruna, Forint, and Zloty respectively. This can make it tricky when trying to remember the exchange rate for each country, but using a mobile app like XE that you can also download offline if you don’t have a local SIM or international data plan.
Luckily though, unlike travelling the Balkans, these currencies are easier to exchange outside of their respective countries if you do get stuck with some leftover money after leaving! It is, however, good practice to try and make sure you use all of the coins because these are nearly impossible to exchange. Also, avoid changing money in either the airport or a busy tourist centre because the exchange rate in these places is usually poor and you will end up losing a significant amount of money.
We usually only withdraw a couple of day’s worth of cash at a time in order to avoid having to exchange anything. Make sure you have a debit card without ATM or foreign transaction fees and this will also end up saving you some money. ATM’s are prevalent throughout Central Europe, even in the more rural areas so you shouldn’t have a problem. Many places also have credit card facilities, but it is always good practice to carry at least some cash on you just in case the place you’re visiting doesn’t accept cards.
You will notice that in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland some shops and restaurants will accept Euros in the tourist areas however it’s best to avoid paying in Euros as they will always give you an inferior exchange rate. It would also probably be best to avoid these places alltogether, as they tend to be tourist traps.
Planning a Central Europe budget can be a daunting task, however, the region tends to be noticeably less expensive when compared to Western Europe. It is very easy to travel in this region while maintaining even the most strict of budgets, while there is ample opportunity to spend top dollar should you wish.
Accommodation costs can range from about €15 / night for a dorm bed to about €15-30 for a private room in a locally run guesthouse or hostel. Transport between cities by bus or train doesn’t tend to run more than €25 for a longer, international bus ride.
Food, again, can vary depending on your budget. If you plan on only cooking your own meals or relying on street food, you can eat quite well for no more than €10 / day and prices will generally increase from there, depending on your habits.
One thing you can absolutely do on the cheap anywhere in Central Europe is drink! The Czech Republic especially is famous for its pilsners and, outside of Prague, you can grab a pint for as little as €1. In most countries in Central Europe, a bottle of local beer in the shop will often time cost less than a bottle of water. Although these prices are enough to turn the strictest teetotallers into alcoholics, please make sure to drink pace yourself and drink responsibly! No one likes a drunk tourist.
The most convenient way to get around Central Europe is to use the extensive train network. It’s worth booking in advance for popular routes such as night trains as tickets can be considerably cheaper. During your Central Europe travel, it’s worth also considering getting around using buses as whilst less scenic and comfortable than trains, they can be significantly cheaper. Finally, BlaBlaCar – a ride sharing service – can also be a cheap option to find rides to nearby cities.
If you’re wanting to visit a more rural or off-beat destination while travelling in Central Europe, then it can be worth renting a car. While the bus and train networks reach most places through out all the countries in the region, the farther off the tourist trail you get the transit becomes more infrequent. Rather than be at the mercy of erratic bus and train timetables, it can be a better value for your time to have your own means of transport. However, if you’re sticking to the bigger cities in Central Europe, a rental car isn’t really necessary.
If you choose to rent a car, we recommend searching on Rentalscars.com to find the best deal across car rental companies. To save money on car rental insurance, we also suggest to buy excess insurance through iCarHireInsurance which offers policies for a few dollars per day – a fraction of what you’d pay from a car hire company!
Public transport in cities is extensive, affordable, and relatively easy to navigate. It can be helpful to stop by the tourist information office in whichever city you’re visiting and pick up a paper map. While this may seem outdated, sometimes popular navigation systems like Google maps don’t have accurate information about all of the public transport routes available to you.
Accommodation is widespread throughout the region and finding a place to sleep is easy when it comes to Central Europe travel. Most capital cities have dozens of budget accommodation options making it a fantastic area for any backpacker. As for smaller cities, most have at least one hostel and, if not, Airbnb is always a viable option. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, click here to get up to $40 off your first stay!
One thing to keep in mind with your Central Europe itinerary, is if you happen to be travelling in the high season (June-August), make sure you book a bed at least a week in advance. Many of the capital cities get quite popular in the summer months and demand for accommodation, obviously, surges with this. Click here to find the best deal on budget rooms in Central Europe.
Polish, Czech and Slovak are all Slavic languages that have common words and phrases with Russian and many Balkan languages. The Hungarian language, however, has completely different roots to its neighbours and can, therefore, be quite difficult to pronounce and speak for western language speakers.
English is widely spoken in Central Europe, particularly by the younger generation, and you generally shouldn’t run into much trouble communicating, particularly in larger and student cities. However, as you venture away from bigger tourist centres, the language barrier might become a slight issue. In more rural areas, English isn’t as widely spoken as in the cities.
A helpful tip to combat this is to use the Google Translate app which even allows you to download languages offline. As always, locals will appreciate if you learn a few words of the local language and it will go a long way to enriching your Central Europe travel experience!
All countries in Central Europe have deep Christian roots, however, their modern-day observance varies dramatically. Poland is one of the most religious countries in Europe, with a large majority of Poles identifying themselves as Catholic. Slovakia and Hungary also both have Catholic majorities with Protestant minorities and in the case of Hungary, there is also a significant Jewish population – one of the largest in present-day Europe.
Because of the stong Catholic influence, you might find that many shops, restaurants, and attractions are closed on Sunday’s. Be aware of this and plan accordingly and it shouldn’t hinder you Central Europe trip in the slightest.
In the Czech Republic, the largest majority of people identify themselves as having no religion, however, there are still Catholic and Protestant minorities.
One of the highlights of Central Europe travel is sampling the local cuisine. Generally speaking, food varies little between the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, but Hungary, due to its Magyar rather than Slavic influence, has its own unique cuisine.
Dishes like pierogi (delicious potato and cheese dumplings), potato pancakes, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, kasha, sauerkraut, all topped with sour cream are commonplace throughout Central Europe, though they may be called by different names depending on the country.
Hungarian cuisine is defined by paprika and peppers, with notable dishes including chicken paprikash, goulash, and the popular street snack of langos. Food in Hungary can be quite a bit more flavourful and spicy compared to the rest of Central Europe so it can be a welcome break from the bland world of boiled potatoes!
Safety isn’t something to worry too much about during your Central Europe travel as long as you exercise some common sense. The most trouble you’re likely to encounter is in the nightlife areas of larger cities such as Prague, Krakow, and Budapest. Avoid walking home drunk or flashing around valuables and read up on common scams that are prevalent in these countries. One example is if a pretty woman convinces you to go into a specific bar and makes you buy her drinks, then you might be left with a huge bar bill that a couple of local “enforcers” will make you pay!
Another thing to consider when travelling in Central Europe is travel insurance. We personally used World Nomads however it’s important to read the policy details to ensure it’s right for you. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads.
Central Europe Travel: Country by Country
Currency: Czech koruna
Religion: Majority have no religious affiliation
- Prague – Czech capital famous for its beautiful Old Town, Prague Castle and bustling nightlife
- Ostrava – the third-largest Czech city is the industrial heart of the country. It is off the typical tourist trail but definitely worth a visit.
- Olomouc – the undiscovered gem of the Czech Republic with a beautiful Old Town, large student population and few tourists
- Brno – second largest city in the Czech Republic and capital of Moravian culture
- Jeseniky Mountains – a mountainous area in the Moravian-Silesian region of the country, this is the Czech Republic’s premeir area for skiing. It is also packed with beautiful nature and hiking trails making it a great place to visit year-round.
Currency: Hungarian Forint
Religion: Majority Catholic with Protestant and Jewish minorities
- Budapest – Hungary’s amazing capital with enough attractions and things to do to keep a traveller occupied for days.
- Pécs – undiscovered city in the southwest of Hungary with a large student population and beautiful Old Town
Currency: Polish Zloty
Religion: Catholic majority
- Krakow – Poland’s most popular city for visitors with a beautiful medieval Old Town and famous nightlife
- Wroclaw – a lively city with a large youthful population meaning there are plenty of cool things to do
- Poznan – a less touristy Polish city with an interesting city centre and near Wielkopolski National Park
- Warsaw – Polish capital that was largely destroyed during WWII with a number of interesting museums
Religion: Catholic majority with Protestant minority
- Bratislava – Slovak capital with a number of castles and churches to explore in the Old Town
- Ždiar – a small town in the Tatra Mountains which is a perfect base for hiking and skiing
Central Europe is one of the best regions to travel on the continent. Met with the ease of travel in the EU and Schengen-area countries, but still with a unique culture and history set alongside some of the most beautiful cities and towns in the world — Central Europe travel can be one of the most rewarding experiences ever. While the region certainly is growing in popularity, there are still so many undiscovered places and it is very easy to get off the beaten track!
Do you have experience with Central Europe travel? Are you planning a trip? Ask a question or leave a comment below!