Central Europe, a vaguely defined region open to many interpretations, is becoming increasingly popular with travelers, thanks to its rich and complicated history, multiculturalism, stunning landmarks, and in some cases, affordable prices. Most first-time visitors to the region stick to capital cities, such as Prague, Vienna, Berlin, and Budapest. Although these dynamic capitals merit the attention, there are plenty of rewarding experiences that await in smaller cities and the countryside. Whether you’re looking to escape the crowds, mingle with locals, or satiate your wanderlust, these seven underrated destinations in Central Europe will deliver.
1. Wroclaw, Poland
Polish isn’t the easiest language to master, so it’s worth noting upfront that Wroclaw is pronounced as “vrots-swaf.” Unlike Krakow, the city hasn’t yet become a mainstay on Central European itineraries, though it was spotlighted as the 2016 European Capital of Culture. That being said, you’ll be well ahead of the trend when visiting the capital of Lower Silesia. Wroclaw is an architectural marvel, with influences from various occupying regimes visible along its cobblestoned streets. The Old Town’s Market Square is the obvious centerpiece, with picture-perfect Baroque buildings housing bustling bars and cafes. Wroclaw also features hundreds of bridges, many of which span the Odra River, connecting the city with a dozen islands containing parks, churches, and charming views. In addition to that, Wroclaw is home to a number of cultural attractions, including the opera house, Museum of Bourgeois Art housed in the Old Town Hall, and several festivals. One of Wroclaw’s most unique attractions is the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice, a massive painting that depicts the famous battle and lines the interior wall of a rotunda. For a more modern glimpse into Poland’s history, seek out the Neon Side Gallery, which exhibits an impressive collection of old neon signs in a courtyard covered in street art.
2. Leipzig, Germany
Leipzig has been increasingly making headlines for its gritty and alternative cultural scene that’s reminiscent of Berlin. That being said, it’s undeniable that Leipzig’s own identity shines through. Despite suffering consecutively from WWII and socialist rule, the city exudes a picturesque quality, and the headlines are true in saying that Leipzig is a burgeoning center for progressive culture and the arts today. In fact, Berlin’s gentrification has prompted artists and creative types to migrate south to Leipzig. This isn’t an entirely novel phenomenon, though, as Leipzig has been producing some of Germany’s most creative minds, including Bach, Goethe, and Mendelssohn, for centuries. There’s even a museum dedicated to Bach’s life and music. Classical music is alive and well in Leipzig today, too. Head to Klassik Underground to hear the local talent and visiting artists perform in the intimate, brick-vaulted venue.
The city’s contemporary art and culture scene should be explored as well. Leipzig’s counterpart to Berlin’s East Side Gallery is the Mural of the Peaceful Revolution, located on part of the Marriott hotel. This colorful mural marks the 20th anniversary of the peaceful resistance that took place in Leipzig years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. These lesser-known protests played a key role in toppling the Communist regime. Other modern works can be found at the Gallery for Contemporary Art and Spinnerei (the latter is a factory-turned-artist compound).
3. Innsbruck, Austria
Located in the Austrian Alps, Innsbruck has long been a popular winter sport destination. It even hosted the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976. However, many visitors largely bypass this charming, dynamic city and head straight to its towering backdrop of mountains. Innsbruck offers an excellent combination of urban amenities and adventure sports, and going from one to the other can be done in a matter of minutes, thanks to the funicular in downtown Innsbruck. This contraption ascends to the Nordkette mountain range that reaches 6,500 feet above sea level. While at a lower elevation, Innsbruck’s medieval Altstadt (Old Town) is certainly worth exploring. Among the idyllic buildings sits the Hofkirche, an ornate Gothic church. The church was constructed in the 16th century to serve as a mausoleum for Maximilian I, complete with dozens of life-size black bronze statues guarding the tomb. Ironically, however, these masterpieces stand guard over an empty grave, as Maximilian’s remains are still located hundreds of miles away. Other stunning historical landmarks include the Schloss Ambras, a Renaissance-style castle housing an impressive art collection, and the Hofburg, the Rococo-style former residence of Maximilian I.
4. Brno, Czech Republic
Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city, rivals Prague’s historical character and charm while offering a glimpse into a side of the country that too few visitors venture to see. The Czech Republic is comprised of three historic regions: Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. Prague is the capital of Bohemia, while Brno has reigned as the Moravian capital for roughly 1,000 years. Much like Prague, Brno’s center is chock-full of historic treasures: churches, sculptures, and Baroque facades. The sizable university population maintains a vibrant bar and club scene, adding a modern pulse to Brno’s historic character. Most people associate the Czech Republic with beer, but while in Moravia, be sure to sample the light-bodied white wine, grown throughout the surrounding countryside. The UNESCO-listed Tugendhat Villa, and its sleek Bauhaus design, stands in stark contrast to the historic Old Town. The Villa, which can be explored with a guided tour, was also the location for the talks that led to the separation of Czechoslovakia (a.k.a. the Velvet Divorce).
Brno also boasts a handful of unique attractions, including Europe’s second-largest ossuary, a nuclear fallout shelter-turned-hotel, and the unusual astronomical clock in Freedom Square. The ossuary opened in 2012, as the roughly 50,000 skeletons were only discovered in the 21st century during excavations at St. Jacob’s Square. Another underground attraction -- the Nuclear Shelter 10-Z -- was designed to house government elites in case of a nuclear war, but now offers low-cost accommodations in its subterranean rooms. Heading back above ground, the obelisk-shaped astronomical clock discharges dozens of glass marbles every day at 11 a.m. to commemorate a victory over Swedish forces in the 17th century. Spectators are welcome to keep them as souvenirs.
5. Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
Slovenia is a rising star for European travel, but most visitors occupy themselves with the charming capital of Ljubljana and stunning Lake Bled. Lake Bohinj, located in Slovenia’s sparsely populated northwestern corner, is a quiet, glacial-fed spot nestled in a valley of the Julian Alps. The lake is situated within Triglav National Park, home to nearly all of Slovenia’s Julian Alps, including Mount Triglav, which reaches 9,400 feet above sea level. The protected area also shelters bears, marmots, and the endangered chamois. There are several hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Make sure to check out Savica Waterfall to the west of the lake. Despite the high elevation, the summer sun warms the lake to pleasant swimming temperatures, so you can cool off after a long hike. Plus, there are villages located on Lake Bohinj’s western and eastern shores where you can find accommodations and restaurants serving local wine and hearty cuisine.
Sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein is largely unknown to those not well-versed in European geography. At just under 62 square miles, the principality has the Rhine River valley to the west and steep alpine mountains rising to the east. Beyond the novelty of visiting this lesser-known European enclave, Liechtenstein grants the opportunity to both hike the famous Alps and cross an entire country in one day. There are hundreds of miles of trails packed into the tiny nation, with the shortest cross-country routes stretching roughly eight to nine miles. Come winter, Liechtenstein’s tiny resort, Malbun, offers affordable skiing prices when compared to its popular neighbors, Austria and Switzerland. The mountainous landscape is home to several impressive castles as well -- notably Gutenberg and Schloss Vaduz (the latter is the home of the royal family).
7. Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia
Located in central Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica is an easy two-hour trip east from the capital of Bratislava. The town originated as a mining outpost due to the wealth of minerals and metals found in the formerly volcanic landscape of calderas. The town’s former subterranean resources prompted the Hungarian Empire to build the impressive fortifications and castles that still stand today. The closing of the mine and subsequent population loss saved Banská Štiavnica from the architectural horrors that often come with modernization. In other words, the medieval town center is still one of the best preserved in Central Europe. The town’s main square is centered around the Holy Trinity Column, a red marble structure built to commemorate the end of the 18th-century plague. It hardly takes an afternoon to stroll past the Baroque-style buildings surrounding the square and the narrow lanes leading outward to more cafes and shops. The town also boasts two castles -- creatively dubbed the Old Castle and New Castle. The picturesquely crumbling stone-walled Old Castle and minimalist white-walled New Castle create quite a visual dichotomy from opposing hilltops.
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