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:
While ethnically different, the countries of Central Europe share a similar culture and history throughout the ages. Apart from Germany, all are considered by historians the periphery of Western Civilization, always following it but lagging behind. People consider themselves holding western values and most are intent on catching up to the level of Western Europe after the last occupation.
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, and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ethnic conflict was a major problem from 1800 in Central Europe and culminated in 1848 and 1919. With the recent expansion of EU and Schengen to encompass all nationalities of the region regardless of borders, the 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, culturally and economically. Conversely, they may be upset if you lapse into Cold War stereotypes: pollution difference has been eliminated by changing to western technology. East and West Germany were countries, so better to call it eastern and western Germany. Reunification and the system changes are all but things of the past and seen in a more or less positive light by all so try to avoid labeling Central Europeans by their recent past. Remember, communism was a system installed contrary to their will and it is false to assume someone loves deprivation of freedom. Many people regard the West out of inability left them when it first allowed the Soviet Army to reach their territory to liberate them first, then didn't push them diplomatically out and finally looked on when by 1950 their democratic systems were overtaken one by one. Germans are Germans but Austrians, Liechtensteiners and most Swiss and Luxembourgers while speak derivations of German, are not German! Czech, Polish or Slovakian as they are Slavic languages 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), Alsace and parts of Lorraine (France), and South Tyrol/Alto-Adige 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:
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.