Old-World Charm of Central Europe

No doubt popular destinations like Paris and Rome in West Europe are worth visiting. If you are a fan of the old-world charm, however, you should be fascinated with the antique beauty of Central and East European cities as well. This was a road trip from mid-September to early October during which we had great times exploring lots of heritage sites in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, and Germany. 

HUNGARY Budapest 

Not only is Budapest the largest city as well as capital of Hungary, it is also known as the Pearl over River Danube. Upon arrival we glanced round the city by joining a Danube cruise on which we saw most main attractions from afar and had the best view of Hungarian Parliament, the world’s second largest parliament building. Then, we went to see the statues on Heroes’ Square whose scale and grandeur are an indication of the pride Hungarians have for their country. My favorites are Fishermen’s Bastion and The Chain Bridge. The former is a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style and the latter the first permanent bridge across the Danube in Budapest that looks even nicer at night as part of the Pearl. 

SLOVAKIA Bratislava 

Bratislava, the largest city as well as capital of Slovakia located in the southwestern part of the country, borders Hungary and Austria, and moreover it made a perfect stop exactly between Budapest and Vienna, which was the third destination of our trip. As the country’s cultural heart with historical multi-cultural character, Bratislava has its local culture influenced by different ethnic and religious groups such as Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Jews. We spent all our time wandering around Bratislava Old Town in which most historical buildings are concentrated. Apart from Michael’s Gate and Bratislava City Museum, the old Slovak National Theatre on Hviezdoslav Square was eye-catching in particular. 


Vienna, also well-known as “City of Music” and “City of Dreams”, is Austria’s largest city as well as capital located less than 1-hour drive west of Bratislava. The city lies close to the borders of Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic, which was our next destination. Being one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Vienna is full of architectural ensembles, including Baroque castles and gardens, and the late 19th-century Ringstrasse lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks. We visited Hundertwasserhaus that I might refer to as “a colorful apartment house of fantasy”, the white Austrian Parliament that I found extraordinary gorgeous, the Schönbrunn Palace, etc., a former imperial residence that illustrates the tastes, interests, and aspirations of successive Habsburg monarchs. 


It took almost three hours on the road before reaching Český Krumlov, a small city in the South Bohemian Region of Czech Republic northwest of Vienna. It was a best choice not to go straight to Prague and miss this wonderful place famous for its fine architecture and art of the historic old town and Český Krumlov Castle, because it’s given the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the historic Prague castle district. Construction of the town and castle began in late 13th century at a ford in the Vltava River, which was important in trade routes in Bohemia. The town’s structures are mostly in Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. We spent a whole day exploring this antique Český Krumlov. What a pity it was a cloudy day! 


It took another 2.5 hours on the road before reaching Prague, the largest city as well as capital of the Czech Republic north of Český Krumlov. We were so excited to finally arrive in this great place widely perceived as one of the places to see before you die. Many of famous cultural attractions in Prague survived the violence and destruction of 20th century Europe. Main attractions include the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, the Lennon Wall, Petřín hill, etc. The extensive historic center of Prague has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. We also visited St. Vitus’ Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral which is an excellent example of Gothic architecture and is the biggest and most significant church in the country located within Prague Castle. 


Karlovy Vary, located 2-hour drive west from Prague, is a spa city founded in 1370 historically famous for its hot springs, i.e. 13 main springs, around 300 smaller springs, and the warm-water Teplá River. It has been a popular tourist destination, especially for visitors who come for spa treatment. Karlovy Vary is different from those previous ones on the route, as it appears to be such a quiet and peaceful residential town from the old world, instead of a busy and thriving ancient city. Pretty street views were seen all over the city. I imagined it might be a great choice of background for pre-wedding photos shooting. We had a nice day there just walking around and enjoying teatime amid colorful houses and greens in a riverside restaurant. 


We headed northeast towards Germany. It took more than two hours on the road before arriving in Dresden, a city with a long history as the capital and royal residence for the Electors and Kings of Saxony, who furnished the city for centuries with cultural and artistic splendor. Owing to its status of baroque and rococo city center, the city was once known as the Jewel Box. The impact of wars and 40 years of urban development during the East German communist era have considerably changed the face of the city. Some restoration work has helped reconstruct parts of the historic inner city, including the Katholische Hofkirche, the Semperoper and the Dresdner Frauenkirche, which all best showcase the old-world charm of Dresden. 


Berlin, the largest city as well as capital of Germany 2-hour drive north of Dresden, was the final stop of our journey. In sharp contrast to Dresden or even other historical cities on the route, Berlin is very much like a metropolis full of modern buildings. The famous Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, and TV tower at Alexanderplatz are all nothing exceptional. Since Berlin is a world city of culture, politics, media, and science, we decided to spend enough time on seeing more about Germany in museums, instead of going sightseeing. What interested us the most was actually something out of Berlin. Sanssouci in Potsdam, located 45-minute drive southwest of Berlin, is the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It is often counted among the German rivals of Versailles.