Discover Central Europe
Four Central European countries - the Czech Republic (Czechia),
Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have joined together to promote tourism to the region. This unique ensemble of countries share borders, history, cultural and gourmet delights, and a spa and wellness culture. As part of this cooperation, a new Travel Advisor Training program has been created to provide advisors information about Central Europe as a region as well as provide in-depth training about each individual country.
But before we learn more about the Discover Central Europe training program, lets review the tourism highlights of each of the participating countries.
Selling Czechia in 2024
With new tourism developments, UNESCO designations and awards and inviting festivals, there’s never been a better time to sell the Czech Republic, a.k.a. Czechia.
A UNESCO monument in its own right, Prague, Czechia’s beautiful capital, consistently earns it a place on top ten city lists. Here, as visitors stroll around Prague Castle, sip a coffee in its Old Town Square and pose for selfies on the Charles Bridge, there’s always something to catch their attention—a street musician, an ancient gargoyle or an exotic piece of jewelry in a shop window. A new plus for visitors: the Prague Visitors Pass launched last year features 57 of the most popular attractions.
Prague is also the gateway to off-the-beaten-track destinations where ancient castles guard its rivers and countryside from atop rocky cliffs, treasured art tucks into medieval cities and churches, and lovely lakes and mountains beckon with historic spa towns and sports. Its well-developed train network makes traveling easy.
Throughout the year, festivals provide a window into Czech culture. It’s not too late to hop over to Czechia’s renowned Christmas Markets (most open daily from Dec. 2 to Jan 6) for last minute shopping, spiced wine and yummy holiday treats. Easter also fills Czechia’s market squares with stands selling traditional decor and holiday foods and beverages.
The best-known markets are in Prague’s Old Town and Wenceslas Squares but seasonal markets are also a draw in smaller cities such as medieval Český Krumlov, where on Christmas Eve, families set out (food) presents for the resident bears who live in the Krumlov castle moat.
Music is the focus of many festivals. Since 1924, the annual “Year of Czech Music” has celebrated major Czech composers. In 2024, the spotlight will shine on the “father of Czech music” Bedřich Smetana, on the 200th anniversary of his birth. His works will be performed at the prestigious Prague Spring International Music Festival in May and the Smetanova Litomyšl Music Festival, June 7 to July 7, will feature his operas and lesser-known compositions.
Other music events include the Dvořák Prague International Music Festival in September and Colours of Ostrava (July 16 to 19), a multi-genre event in a unique setting—a labyrinth of iron towers and pipes of a former mining area, now an industrial monument.
For film (and spa) buffs, the prestigious International Film Festival in the spa town of Karlovy Vary (June 27 to July 5, 2024) is a must, drawing celebrities and fans for parties, award ceremonies, and more. Also of note: Karlovy Vary is part of the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021 along with two nearby Czechia spa towns: Mariánské Lázně and Františkovy Lázně. All feature treatments derived from natural mineral springs and peloid (mud suspension) amid elegant architecture and gardens.
World War II buffs will enjoy the annual May Liberation Festival in Pilsen, celebrating the city’s 1945 liberation by the American army with recreations of military camps and the everyday lives of civilians, a military vehicle convoy, and commemorations at the WWII memorials.
Beer-buffs also will delight in Pilsen’s brew-producing history that dates back to1295. Beer aficionados should also plan to visit medieval Zatec, named a World Heritage Site in 2023 for its long history of hops production. Here, they can learn about its internationally acclaimed, aromatic hops at the Hop Museum and attend harvest and beer-themed festivals.
In Prague, a must for beer-lovers is the new Pilsner Urquell Experience, a self-guided tour followed by tastings, and a beer hall serving Czech cuisine.
New hotels and renovations also make this an exciting time for Prague. Recent additions include Andaz by Hyatt, The Julius Prague, Almanac X Prague (formerly Alcron Hotel) and The Manes Boutique Hotel. Coming in 2024, W Prague (formerly Grand Hotel Europe), the boutique Grande Amade Hotel, set in a 19th century palace, and the grand 297-room Fairmont Golden Prague (formerly the Intercontinental). Also of note: NH Collection Prague Carlo IV, a National Heritage property built in 1890s.
In other news, on March 25, 2024, the Brussels – Amsterdam – Berlin European Sleeper train will extend its route to Dresden and Prague. And just before press time, Prague was named a top 10 “valuable and sustainable” destination to visit in 2024 by Lonely Planet, which called it “a ‘pulsating capital cloaked in a Gothic cityscape.”
Its extensive calendar of events, brimming with festivals for all interests, new awards and infrastructure, and timeless allure are just some of the reasons that 2024 will be a great year to experience Czechia. www.visitczechia.com
Hungary: Sumptuously Steeped in Spa culture
Budapest is one of the world’s prettiest capitals. Its broad boulevards are lined by leafy trees shading sidewalk cafes and lovely Art Nouveau/Secessionist buildings. The Baroque Buda Castle and neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament buildings—especially striking when lit up at night—dazzle from opposite sides of the Danube River. And monumental statues around the city tell the story of the ebb and flow of Hungary’s history, revealing connections with the Romans, Hapsburgs, Ottomans and other powers, and hinting at a time when its boundaries defined an area triple its current size.
Yet what really sets Budapest—and Hungary—apart is the spa culture that has evolved around its naturally-heated thermal waters. Even before the ancient Romans came to partake of its healthful benefits, people were drinking and soaking in Hungary’s mineral-rich waters. All told, the country has more than 1,500 known mineral-rich hot springs; many are the focus of historic, elegant spas and spa towns, and soaking in these heated pools is an integral part of wellness in Hungary.
Every thermal bath has different characteristics; the ills they are used for include degenerative joint and spine diseases, chronic arthritis, orthopedic and post-traumatic rehabilitation, spinal conditions, neuralgia, and bone calcium deficiencies. In addition, the water in the drinking halls are used to treat digestive and other problems.
In Budapest alone, there are more than 120 active spas.
The expansive Széchenyi Thermal Baths, the largest in Europe, is the most popular. It offers 18 medicinal water pools, plus saunas, aqua-fitness and steam chambers along with massages and beer baths, said to do wonders for the skin.
Adding to the fun is an outdoor adventure pool, hot tub, and swimming and drift pools. Plus, February to December, weekend evenings are party nights, with electronic music and spectacular lights.
Located in the heart of City Park, the spa is steps from Heroes’ Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, and the new House of Music Hungary, which celebrates Hungarian composers including Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, György Ligeti and Zoltán Kocsis.
Elegant and exclusive, Gellért Bath is the city’s most famous. Housed in an Art Nouveau building and hotel that opened in 1911, it is an official national monument. With sculptures and stained glass windows by famous artists of the time, walls tiled with ceramics by the acclaimed Zsolnay factory, and exquisite frescoed ceilings, stone columns, and domed ceilings, Gellert makes you feel like you’re bathing in a palace or a museum. No wonder it has drawn a roster of famous patrons including Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Uma Thurman and Ryan Gosling.
Located at the foot of Gellért Hill, the spa overlooks the Danube River. In addition to therapeutic indoor pools, there’s a swimming pool, an outdoor wave pool in summer (the world’s first), an outdoor thermal pool and rooms for private bathing. There are also saunas and steam rooms and a variety of massage therapies, including couples massages and a red wine bath, said to rejuvenate the skin.
Another favorite, Rudas Thermal Bath is one of Budapest’s many Turkish baths dating back to the Ottoman occupation. Centered around a 16th century central octagon-shaped pool capped by a high domed ceiling, Rudas feels like a Turkish hammam. It is also one of the city’s few spas to have men-only and women-only hours.
Rudas offers a full range a spa services and its own terrace bistro. For many, the best time to come is on a Friday or Saturday night when the baths stay open from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. and the modern rooftop pool affords glamorous views of city lights reflecting in the Danube.
Rural bath destinations beckon throughout Hungary. The most famous is the spa town of Hévíz, whose name actually means warm water. Located near the western tip of Lake Balaton, Hévíz is the world’s largest biologically active thermal water lake. It is fed by hot and cold springs so its temperature stays within a range that allows swimming year-round.
Here, spa-goers can soak in thermal baths and relax in saunas, steam baths, salt caves and a light-room. Special offerings include mud packs and beauty treatments using the salutary lake mud, massage, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.
Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake, is about two hours from Budapest by car; 2 hours 40 minutes by train. It is a great destination for nature and active outdoor pursuits and wine-tastings.
Throughout Hungary, healing waters and cocooning settings help guests unwind and be immersed in a spa culture that goes back to ancient times. https://hungary.com
Poland’s Food Revolution: From Milk Bars to Michelin Stars
Pierogis stuffed with Polish mountain cheese, served with a morels reduction (Bottiglieria 1881 restaurant in Krakow), beef tartare, roquefort, pearl onion, sherry, red pine mushroom (Muga in Poznan), almond rhubarb soup with sorrel (Nuta in Warsaw)…these are just a sampling from tasting menus at Poland’s 2023 Michelin-star restaurants.
Poland’s best known dishes reflect its long history as a major East-West crossroads and the influence of the diverse cultures that settled and passed through here. Before World War II, Polish chefs were known for their artistic presentations and creative flavors.
Communism put a stop to all that. With fancy cuisine viewed as decadent and meat unaffordable, milk bars took hold, named for the dairy that was the base of their meals. In recent years, menus and quality expanded. Now, these often trendy eateries are akin to U.S. diners, serving quality meals at reasonable prices.
Propelling Polish cuisine onto the global stage, this year Poland claimed its first-ever two Michelin-starred restaurant—plus two single-starred establishments and seven Bib Gourmand, a designation celebrating good food at reasonable prices. With 49 recognized restaurants in all, Poland is perfect for foodie-inspired itineraries.
Guided tours—on foot, bicycle, e-scooter and Segway—often combine main attractions with tastings at restaurants and markets. There’s also a wealth of cooking classes and vodka and craft beer tastings.
Here are three ideal destinations for clients seeking to sample Michelin-recognized restaurants and distinctive culinary scenes in fascinating settings.
Kraków, the European Capital of Gastronomy Culture in 2019, has 18 Michel-in-recognized restaurants. Bottiglieria 1881, Poland’s only two-star establishment, especially prides itself on its artistic, all-senses presentation.
The only Polish city not bombed to the ground during World War II, Krakow has a lively Old Town square dating back to the 1200s while its 200,000-plus university students add to the city’s creative, cultural vibe.
Lively Market Square is home to Cloth Hall, an ornate Renaissance trading center with friendly shops and eateries offering pierogi with fillings from classic potato and cheese to savory meat and mushroom, and Obwarzanek, a large, chewy pretzel flavored with sesame and smoked sheep’s cheese called Oscypek, often topped with jam.
Nearby is Wawel Hill and the Royal Castle, now an important art museum. Not to be missed is Wierzynek, a 14th-century restaurant with knights armor and stained glass windows. Like Krakow, it combines authentic history with wonderful Polish cuisine.
Warsaw, the nation’s capital and largest city, imbues its cuisine with big-city energy and creativity. Its 19 Michelin-recognized restaurants include the Michelin-starred Nuta, which adds Italian and Asian accents to Polish cooking. And for a glimpse of Soviet days, Czerwony Wieprz (Inn Under the Red Hog), serves Polish favorites amid photos of Lenin and others notables who have dined here.
Local markets, filled with chic eateries, shops, galleries and often, museums include Old Town’s Art Nouveau Hala Koszyki and breakfast markets in Zoliborz and Mokotow. And don’t forget street food specialties like Warsaw-style herring.
The city was practically flattened by the Nazis. Today, Old Town, painstakingly reconstructed, stands amid skyscrapers, sleek glass and chrome buildings and communist-era “Brutalist” block architecture.
History buffs will want to visit the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Royal Castle, where Europe’s first constitution was signed in 1791. And no trip is complete without a stroll along the city walls for vistas of this ever-changing, delicious city.
Poznan is a hidden gem for foodies. About 2.5 hours by express train from Warsaw, this 1,000 year-old city of just over 500,000 people has 11 Michelin-recognized restaurants, including two with Bib Gourmand (good value) status and Muga, the city’s first to earn a Michelin star.
Poznan’s signature sweet is the St. Martin croissant, a crescent moon of pastry dough filled with white poppy seed and almond-paste filling drizzled with icing. Learn all about them and make your own at the Croissant Museum.
Other gastronomic areas of interest include Pomerania (Gdansk), Silesia (Katowice) and the cities of Lodz, and Wroclaw. Those who take the time to explore and savor the flavors of Poland are well rewarded. And who knows, you just might discover the next rising (Michelin) star! www.poland.travel/en
The Many Facets of Slovakia
Smaller than West Virginia, Slovakia surprises first-time visitors with the diversity of experiences it offers. Stroll through historic cities, explore its castles, head out to the countryside for wine tastings and to the mountains to hike, bike or ski or relax at a thermal spas.
Americans often marvel at the ease of getting around in this compact nation, where distances are short and transportation is efficient. A member of the EU and part of the Schengen area, Slovakia uses the Euro and English is widely spoken.
Bratislava, the cultural heart of Slovakia, is often the first stop. The only national capital to border three countries (Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary), it sits along the Danube River, just 45 minutes from the Vienna Airport.
The city has long been an important trading post and cultural center, as its Roman ruins attest. From 1563 to 1830, the gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral in Old Town was where the far-reaching Kingdom of Hungary crowned its kings and queens. A huge guided replica of the crown tops the Cathedral, and every July, during Bratislava Coronation Days, actors in period clothing reenact the ceremonies and the Main Square comes alive with music, fencing and falconry performances.
Bratislava Castle, the former royal residence, is worth a trip if just for its lovely panoramic views of the city, the Danube and the surrounding countryside. Other great vantage points include UFO Restaurant and observation tower, which sits on the SNP bridge, and Dunajský Pivovar, a boat, or “botel”, moored on the Danube River with a hotel, restaurant and craft beer brewery.
With six wine regions, you’ll never be far from one of its many vineyards, producing everything from light white, rose and red to the unique sweet wines from the Tokaj region, where you can sip the same sweet natural wine as Napoleon did.
The award-winning Tokaj wine region features medieval wine cellars carved into volcanic rock and popular villages like Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa and Viniky, known for gastronomy as well as quality wines.
Most Slovakian wines are still little known outside the country. Yet all six of its regions, organized into easy-to-follow wine-tasting trails, produce wines worthy of note.
One of the most visited lies just outside Bratislava; the Wine Route of Malé Karpaty winds through picturesque villages in the Little Carpathian Mountains, and harvest festivals are celebrated with parades, artisan markets, and of course, wine. And in the Tirnavia region, you can witness medieval wine pressing and pageants.
Nature lovers find paradise in nine national parks and over 9,000 miles of trails that lead to to stunning lakes, waterfalls and panoramic vistas and winter visitors can take to the ski slopes.
More than 100 glacier-carved valleys and lakes make the High and Low Tatras Mountains a good choice for everyone from indulgent escapists to serious climbers and birders. The region is popular for its guided treks to remote chalets and hut-to-hut hiking as well as five-star hotels like the Grand Hotel Kempinski and Lomnica Hotel.
Biking is a passion throughout the country; national and international cycling routes lead through forests, meadows, picturesque countryside and villages and include EuroVelo trans-Europe routes and mountain-biking trails. For adrenaline-pumping thrills, the adventurous can hire a guide to help them navigate the ladders, chains and steel ropes of Via Ferrata, or go river rafting down the Belá River.
Pieniny National Park is known for its wooden raft trips and Poloniny National Park in the northeast protects a towering beech forest and Europe’s last remaining wild bison.
Thermal spas and healing waters have drawn wellness-seekers since pre-historic times. Slovakia is packed with 1,782 mineral springs; 82 of them are designated as natural healing waters.
Less than an hour from the capital is the renowned spa town, Piešťany. It is known for its pretty Art Nouveau style hotels and cultural offerings along with its medicinal geo-thermal water and sulphuric mud treatments said to help rheumatic and neurological disorders.
Medicinal water and mud treatments are also on tap at Trenianske Teplice, a spa town with a Moorish style hammam and cultural events including a summer chamber music festival and Art Film, a high-profile event attended by international stars who leave their palm prints in front of the modern Flora Hotel.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites abound, including eight that recognize the intricate beauty of the country’s wooden churches, that have held together for centuries without a single nail.
Banská Štiavnica earned UNESCO status as an innovative centre of Hungarian mining and European gold and silver mining. Today, it is also known for the fine palace architecture and delightful cobbled streets and squares that its mines funded.
Košice, the nation’s second largest city, was named Europe’s 2013 City of Culture and a UNESCO Creative City. Experience its artistic spirit in the White Night International Art Festival and UNESCO Art & Fest, a celebration of media art, technology and digital culture.
Best of all, Slovakia’s diverse landscapes, cities and villages means there’s always another delightful experience awaiting your discovery. Slovakia – what a surprise! www.slovakia.travel/en
Discover Central Europe New Specialist Sales Companion™
Discover Central Europe has introduced a new cutting-edge, mobile-ready platform that uses engaging, high-tech tools to help travel advisors learn about, promote and sell the region. The program has four main modules.
The LEARN channel gives you all the essentials on Central Europe as a region plus more in-depth training on the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. As you complete each Learning chapter, you unlock the Sales Companion portion of the program with RETAIN, PROMOTE, and SELL.
In the RETAIN channel, you’ll find all the content from training reformatted into a quick-click resource with a Table of Contents so you can refresh your memory or answer a client question quickly and easily. The PROMOTE channel is like your own little marketing department. Inside you’ll find all sorts of fun images, videos, brochures, itineraries, and more that you can share with just one tap — through social, email, text, or download. The SELL channel was created to help you make bookings with deep resources, links, and sales support.
Best of all, the Central Europe Specialist Sales Companion is a native app that you can download from your device’s app store. Your training progress and any favorites you make in web view are synced onto your mobile device when connected to WiFi. And, don’t worry if you’re on the go but not connected — if you download the app to your device instead of streaming it, you can train anywhere, anytime, even offline.Visit www.centraleuropespecialist.com and sign up today.