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There’s no question that Central Europe is one of my favourite regions of Europe to travel in. Central Europe is a region that has so much potential for tourists, while also being relatively easy to explore independently. It might not be as classically recognisable as Western Europe or the Mediterranean, but that leaves more opportunity for exciting and unexpected destinations on your Central Europe itinerary.
For some reason, two weeks seems to be the most common length of time people wish to allow to explore the region. For an area that covers so much space, that’s not long. As such, a 2-week central Europe itinerary can only cover so much. I would personally allow longer or narrow my focus, but I do believe a whirlwind tour of Central Europe is possible. Here’s how.
Where is Central Europe?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s agree on where we’re talking about. Regions like Western Europe, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe are usually quite loosely defined and mean different things to different people. Some people only look at Europe as east and west based on the Iron Curtain, but I don’t think that reflects modern Europe very well.
When I talk about Central Europe, I mean the following six countries: Austria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. Other people may extend the region to include Germany and Switzerland, or Croatia, or the Baltic, but to me it’s these six. Arguments for the other countries are perfectly valid, but I tend to categorize them differently.
Besides being actually geographically central, there’s one other trait that these countries share. There’s a shared history, with all having ties to the Habsburg Empire in the 17th century. But there’s also similarities in their cultures, their cuisine, and their landscapes that unite these destinations in a real way.
Planning a Central Europe Itinerary
So you have two weeks. Fourteen days. Six countries. That math isn’t very favourable, especially when you factor in travel time. But assuming you want to get at least a taste of each country, that really only leaves room for one or two stops in each. If this is your first time in the region and you only have so much leave, that may be all you can hope for.
There are many ways to go about getting a feel for a country, but going to big cities that are easily reachable is the only way this works. In fact, this is more like a tour of Central Europe’s capitals, as below you’ll find five of the six capital cities listed (sorry Warsaw). I’m tempted to create an alternative itinerary with smaller cities, towns, and villages, but I think this article is going to be long already.
How to Travel Around Central Europe
Public transport in this region of Europe is quite good. Nearly all of my extensive travels here have been by bus and train. However, for the sake of time, I highly recommend a car for this kind of trip.
You can expect to spend at least half a day getting from one destination to the next, with several long travel days. Doing this with public transport will take longer and mean spending a lot of time on buses and trains. The benefit to driving is that it lets you see more along the way and travel at times that suit you.
Naturally it’s up to you. If you have the time, you could make this itinerary more comfortably by public transport if you extended it by a few days to account for travel time. It just wouldn’t be a 2 week itinerary any more.
14 Day Central Europe Trip
The design behind this itinerary is that you can make it a circuit starting and ending from any of the cities. That way, flights work out easier. Because you have to start somewhere, I’ve made it Vienna, arguably the largest and easiest place to reach. The destinations on this itinerary are:
- Vienna and Salzburg in Austria
- Bratislava in Slovakia
- Budapest in Hungary
- Ljubljana and Lake Bled in Slovenia
- Prague and Cesky Krumlov in Czechia
- Krakow in Poland
Vienna – 3 Days
Vienna is easily one of the most popular destinations in this part of Europe. The Austrian capital has no shortage of things to keep visitors entertained, thanks to its grand architecture, countless museums, and cultural touchstones. It’s a city I know very well at this point, so I have plenty of advice for visiting Vienna.
After arriving and settling in to your Vienna accommodation, begin exploring the city with the First District. There in the city centre you’ll find attractions like St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Graben, and the Opera House. With time a factor, consider taking a sightseeing tour of Vienna to cover more ground.
Over your first two days gradually work your way further and further from the centre. Start with close in attractions like the Town Hall and Karlsplatz, then hit up Imperial classics like the Belvedere Palace and Schönbrunn Palace. Break up these traditional sights with the bizarre Hundertwasser Haus and the family-friendly Prater amusement park.
Where to Stay: Look at these accommodation options in Vienna, or consult this guide to where to stay in Vienna.
Bratislava Day Trip
Vienna is a convenient distance from many of the stops on this itinerary, but none so more than Bratislava. Allowing just one day to visit a country isn’t ideal, but time is the biggest limitation of this itinerary. Fortunately, a day trip to Bratislava lets you see most of the city’s highlights and at least give you a sense of what Slovakia is like.
Bratislava is one of the smaller capitals, with most of its main attractions relatively close together. Once you arrive in the city, head to its Old Town where you can walk its narrow streets and admire its main square. From there, walk up to Bratislava Castle for great views over the city’s rooftops.
Find a restaurant for lunch to try some local cuisine and then press on to see sights outside the immediate old town area. The Blue Church is a popular choice, as is the Presidential Palace and Slavin memorial. As you explore the city, keep an eye out for its scattering of playful statues.
Vienna to Bratislava Transport – Options abound for getting to Bratislava and back in about an hour each way. Bus and train from Hauptbahnhof is easy and affordable, while taking the hydrofoil lets you enjoy a river cruise. Of course, there’s always a tour from Vienna if you prefer a hands off approach.
Budapest – 2 Days
Journey to yet another capital city on the Danube River and travel to Budapest in Hungary. Of all the cities on here, I feel like Budapest is the best able to appeal to any kind of traveller. You’re just as easily able to find cultural attractions here as you are cool places to get food and drink.
After arriving in the city and getting rid of your bags, start by exploring the eastern side of the city called Pest. Attractions in this half of the city that are close to the city centre include St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Dohány Street Synagogue, and of course, the signature Hungarian Parliament Building. Maybe finish up with a cruise along the river to admire the view and head out to one of the city’s ruin bars for a drink.
Waste no time on day 2 and cross the river to see Buda Castle. While there is the castle museum there, more popular sights include the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church. Across the city, don’t miss a ride on the old-fashioned M1 metro out to Heroes’ Square and Vajdahunyad Castle. It’s there that you’ll also find the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, one of many thermal spring baths in the country.
Vienna to Budapest Transport – Taking the train to Budapest from Vienna is really easy and takes roughly 2.5 hours. Going by bus also works, but isn’t really faster or cheaper.
Where to Stay: You won’t have any trouble finding places to stay in Budapest.
Ljubljana – 3 Days
I think one of the most underrated and unassuming capital cities in Europe is Ljubljana. Certainly, it’s one of the least iconic tourist destinations on this list. And yet it’s a place that I’ve grown really fond of because it’s just such a nice place to visit.
Getting to Ljubljana is going to occupy a lot of your first day there, which is why I think you need three nights here. After arriving, orient yourselves with a stroll along the riverfront. This area is the beating heart of the city and pretty both at day and night. The fun really begins though on the next day, when you’ll want to do all your sightseeing, possibly with a sightseeing tour to make the most of your time.
Start with Prešeren Square and cross into the old town area on the eastern bank of the Ljubljanica river. Make sure to visit each of the river’s bridges as you do, but especially the city’s signature Dragon Bridge. Then it’s time to head up to Ljubljana Castle, either on foot or by funicular. The castle has some museum exhibits inside on Slovenian history, but it’s also a great place to see views of the city.
After that I’d say head to the peaceful Tivoli Park or check out the Metelkova Art Center. Finish up with a drink at the Nebotičnik rooftop bar for a nice view up to the castle.
Budapest to Ljubljana Transport – This is going to be a long day if done by public transport. You’ll spend 7.5 hours on the train getting to Ljubljana from Budapest, whereas driving only takes 4.5 hours.
Where to Stay: Take your pick from accommodation in the centre of Ljubljana.
Bled Day Trip
It will likely be the busiest place you go in Slovenia, but Lake Bled really is worth the visit. With a day trip to Lake Bled, you’ll get a chance to see Slovenia’s mountains a little closer, and enjoy the serene lake setting. I’d say start by walking along the lakeshore round to Bled Castle. There you get incredible views of the area, plus a pretty, but small, castle to explore.
How you spend the rest of the day is up to you. A relaxed approach is to return to Bled town to take a traditional pletna boat across to the lake’s island church. It’s a relaxing experience and the island has a very special feeling to it. Another relaxing Bled activity is to visit a cafe in town and indulge in a Bled Cream Cake.
A more active option is to walk a lap of the lake to see it from different sides. The circuit around the lake is mostly flat, so it’s more a matter of time than energy. Things start to get more challenging if you visit the Mala Osojnica viewpoint, as it’s a steep and uneven walk up.
Ljubljana to Bled Transport – Although there are both bus and train options to get to Bled that take a little over an hour, I highly recommend going by bus. That’s because the train station is actually in Lesce, the next town over, so you’ll need to get a local bus into Bled. Alternatively, you can actually see more of the area with a tour to Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge from Ljubljana.
Salzburg – 1 Day
Salzburg is an incredibly charming city in northwest Austria. But the main reason I’ve included it in this itinerary is as a transit stop between Ljubljana and Prague. Otherwise, you’d probably just be stopping in at Vienna again, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Once you account for travel time, you won’t have more than half a day to explore in Salzburg. While that’s a shame, Salzburg doesn’t need long to wow you. Start with a walk along the riverfront and make your way to Mirabell Palace for the above view.
With more time I’d suggest walking up the Kapuzinerberg for its city panoramas, but instead make a beeline for the old town. There you’ll see the city’s cathedral, Residenzplatz square, and maybe even the house Mozart was born in. Visiting Fortress Hohensalzburg is definitely worth doing if you can, but I don’t suggest rushing to the point of just ticking boxes.
Ljubljana to Salzburg Transport – Cross the Alps by bus or train to reach Salzburg from Ljubljana. Taking the 4.5 hour train ride is the fastest way to get there, but going by 4 hour bus can work in a pinch too. For this travel day, it’s all about timing to allow some sightseeing time in Salzburg.
Where to Stay: Pick somewhere nice to stay for your one night in Salzburg.
Prague – 3 Days
There’s something about Prague that even its name conjures up imagery of a grand, perhaps moody city. The Czech capital is rightly popular with tourists and is sure to overwhelm you with attractions to see and neighbourhoods to explore. I’ve visited the city three times now and am sure there’s more yet to see. If this is your one chance to see the Czech Republic, Prague is the way to go.
With whatever time you have during your first day there, I’d say it’s best to focus on starting with the Old Town. Head straight to the Old Town Square, because there you’ll see several of the city’s most iconic landmarks. While some people think the Prague Astronomical Clock is overrated, it’s still a must-see timepiece. Then there’s the Church of Our Lady before Týn and buildings like The House at the Minute.
Your next day is going to feel like a whirlwind, so buckle up. Start with the city’s Jewish Quarter to see the Old Jewish Cemetery and Klausen Synagogue. Then it’s time for a walk across the famous Charles Bridge to the Malá Strana neighbourhood. There’s plenty to see in this area, such as the Lennon Wall and the neighbourhood’s main square. But it’s also the way to reaching Prague Castle, where you can spend hours, not to mention the beautiful Strahov Monastery.
Salzburg to Prague Transport – Expect another long travel day here. Trains via Linz take 6 to 7 hours, while early morning buses take around 6 hour as well. There is an expensive alternative, which is to take a private transfer like this one with a stop in Cesky Krumlov. However, most only go the one way from Prague to Salzburg, not vice versa for some reason.
Where to Stay: Prague has accommodation for every budget, so take your pick of hotels, hostels, and more.
Cesky Krumlov Day Trip
Take the chance to see more of Czechia with a day trip to Cesky Krumlov. If you’re looking for a fairytale town full of old-world character, then Cesky Krumlov is going to delight. This town in South Bohemia is not huge, so it’s best to temper expectations about how much there is to see and do.
That said, you certainly won’t be bored here. Start with a walk into the historic centre past the regional museum to visit the main square and walk around a little. Walk down to the southern bridge to see its view of the Church of St. Vitus, then head north across the other bridge. There you’ll see Cesky Krumlov Castle looming above you.
A walk through Cesky Krumlov Castle is definitely going to make an impression, especially if you take time to visit inside and go up the tower for its observation deck. But for me, it’s once you continue climbing up past the Cloak Bridge that you get the classic town view. A walk in the lovely Castle Garden won’t hurt either, before returning to the town centre for food, museums, or more wandering.
Prague to Cesky Krumlov Transport – Part of the reason it’s so common to do a day trip to Cesky Krumlov, is how easy it is. Bus is the quickest approach, taking less than 3 hours each way. Going by train is slower, regardless of whether you transfer to bus in Ceske Budejovice. But the easiest option is definitely going with a tour to Cesky Krumlov, because then it’s all handled for you.
Krakow – 2 Days
While it’s a bit of a trek to add Krakow to this itinerary, trust me it’s well worth the effort. This city in southern Poland is full of history, both harrowing related to the Holocaust, but also earlier stuff. And it’s historic centre, home to many of the highlights of Krakow, is exactly what you picture an old-fashioned European city looking like. You won’t always find that in Poland, which makes Krakow all the more special.
Again, take whatever time you have after arriving to see the historic centre. Visit the Rynek Główny square to see the Cloth Hall, the St. Mary’s Basilica, and the rest. The next day you can explore more thoroughly, from seeing the Barbican and the park where the city walls once were, to strolling down the picturesque Kanonicza street.
But there’s more to Krakow than what was behind its city walls. Wawel Royal Castle is not to be missed, with its mish-mash architecture and history. Down below the castle you’ll find the cave where the city’s legendary dragon was said to live. Heading away from the centre, you’ll find the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, and attractions such as Oskar Schindler’s Factory and Plac Bohaterów Getta related to the Holocaust.
Prague to Krakow Transport – Unfortunately this is a long day again. Going by train takes 6.5 hours, but there’s only one daily service. Buses take even longer at roughly 8 hours. While it’s not very eco-friendly, I’d almost consider flying this leg to save time. This trip is where I’d add an extra day if I had more time to stop somewhere like Wroclaw or Olomouc to break it up.
Where to Stay: Walk right into the Old Town with these places to stay in Krakow.
Getting Back to Vienna
If you’re planning on completing the loop, then you’ll want to know about Krakow to Vienna transport options. Strangely there are only overnight buses between the two, so I’d say taking the train is the best option. Whether direct to Vienna or transferring in Katowice, the journey is going to take 6 or so hours. That may not sound great, but return flights are generally much cheaper and easier to organize than multi-city ones.
Central Europe Itinerary Alterations and Inclusions
There really are countless ways you could change this itinerary to meet your needs. You can add extra days to it, drop day trips, change individual stops, or adjust the shape of it entirely.
One option is to make this Central Europe itinerary a one-way trip and have a little more time in the process. For that, I’d suggest starting in Krakow, then traveling in the following order: Krakow, Prague, Vienna, Ljubljana, and Budapest. Or do the opposite and go from Budapest to Krakow. This way you don’t have to return to your starting point. Plus, it allows you to remove Salzburg and free up another day.
Now, if you’ve already spent some time in Central Europe, you may want to change out places you’ve visited. Been to Krakow before? Try Wroclaw instead. Seen the sights of Vienna? Replace it with Graz and stay in Bratislava for a couple of nights. You could basically do this with any destination and just fine-tune the itinerary as a result. You’ll find plenty of ideas for other Central Europe destinations on my blog.
Have you ever tried to do your own 2 week Central Europe travel itinerary? Did you feel rushed or were you glad to see what you could in that amount of time? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.