Central Europe by Rail: 10 Cities in 3-4 Weeks
This is a pretty hectic schedule that will keep you diving in and out of European countries as you take in one thrilling city after another. Almost every other day you pass through new cultures and languages in a small yet hugely diverse continent. Our Backpacking route for Central Europe takes in some exciting Western European capitals either side of a trip beyond the former iron curtain into some charming and budget friendly Eastern Europe cities.
To do this route Europeans (including non-EU countries & Russia) can buy the InterRail pass enabling travel on any 10 days over a one month period costing €301/£262 for under 26’s and €378/£329 for people 26 and over (as of January 2017).
Non Europeans would probably be best to buy a Eurail pass enabling 7 days of travel over a 1 month period costing US$409 for under 28’s or $513 for those 28+ (as of January 2017). However you will need to buy separate tickets for the legs in Poland and Slovakia as they are not covered by the Eurail global pass.
It’s also worth noting that some trains on this route require you to pay for a seat reservation or other small surcharge even with the railpass. It’s best to check at the station before boarding any train.
TIME NEEDED – 3-4 WEEKS
2 days should be a reasonable amount of time in most cities on the route. However you’d be wise to allow for a bit more given there’ll be days where you spend a lot of time on trains and won’t get much done on arrival.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1075 €1250 $1325
(PLUS COST OF RAILPASS!)
If you’re planning on partying most nights you can probably double that but you can still have fun on our suggested budget but you’ll have to be a bit savvy to stick to it. The likes of Paris and Zurich are very expensive cities but there is good value to be found further East. Certainly in the West, it’s highly advisable to join couchsurfing and sleep for free where possible, which will allow you to get by on much less per day.
More details on backpacking costs in different European countries.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR EUROPE
All the cities on this route are in the Schengen Area of Europe. If you’re from the EU you can travel freely around them for as long as you want. If not you will either get 90 days to spend in the region visa-free or you will need to apply for a special Schengen visa.
None of these cities are particularly dangerous but petty theft and pick-pocketing are common in almost all of them. Therefore it’s advisable to arrange some travel insurance in advance. We recommend World Nomads.
Backpacking Route for Central Europe
This ultra liberal city is the perfect place to start any eurotrip and is a popular stop for most travellers on a Central Europe backpacking route. The large airport is a major hub with flights to and from cities all around the world and the train station offers excellent info and advice in English on Europe rail passes, a luxury that is less common as you head east, so is a good starting point. As for the city well for starters, yes you really can walk into a cafe in Amsterdam and buy weed. This alone is enough to convince many travellers in Europe that the Dutch capital is worth a visit. If you’re looking for more then this attractive city is full of lively squares, loads of canals and the fantastic Anne Frank Museum. It’s slightly dangerous in parts, especially the red light district which you may find an unpleasant eye-opening experience but it is an important place to visit to fully understand the city.
(Amsterdam to Berlin: 6 hours)
Germany and its capital especially has very much got its cool back. Germans have got a renewed self-confidence and sense of national pride that was lacking for the latter half of the 20th Century. Berlin has been practically rebuilt since the Wall was knocked down in 1989 and has been done so with great style and planning that is rarely seen in big cities across the world. The city also has a rebellious streak and there are some interesting districts to visit while you attempt to understand the immense history of this until recently divided city. It’s nightlife scene is also not to be missed with some incredible warehouse clubs.
(Berlin to Prague: 4-5 hours)
It is true that Prague has become very touristy over the past decade or two but there’s good reason for it and it’s still a lot cheaper than its western European counterparts. The city is perhaps the most beautiful in Europe with stunning churches and bridges. There’s also excellent and ridiculously cheap beer, available in the student areas for well under €1 for a pint. The nightlife is lively and best on weekends when the clubs are packed with a mixed crowd of Czechs and mostly European tourists. There are also literally hundreds of youth hostels and budget hotels of varying quality, most of which are very reasonably priced while Prague Castle is perhaps the main highlight in terms of things to see.
(Prague to Krakow Night Train: 8-10 hours)
If you liked Prague, you’ll most likely enjoy Krakow. It’s another city with a fascinating history with a lively old quarter and a once thriving Jewish district which still intrigues and charts the troubled history of Jews in the city. A visit to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is a harrowing daytrip that can be done by using your rail pass. At night the city has some crazy cellar bars and clubs which are great places to beat the cold Polish winters.
For more on Krakow check out our Backpacker’s Guide to Poland.
(Krakow to Budapest Night Train: 9-10 hours)
The Hungarian capital on the Danube river has a distinctly different feel to it from other European cities. There is a definite Turkish influence and with such a vast history the city has certainly stuck to its traditions. Famous for its baths, stylish architecture and interesting nightlife, there is plenty to entertain visitors here. Cross over the river between Buda and Pest, the two ancient cities which combined to make the modern city which is here today. Climb to the top of the hills near the castle on the Buda side of the river to get some stunning views across this vast city.
(Budapest to Bratislava: 2 hour 30 mins)
Bratislava provides a taster into Eastern Europe and what life before the fall of Communism might have been like. Just an hour or so from Vienna but in many ways it still feels like a world away. The capital of Slovakia has a nice old town and castle and is perhaps at its best in December when the Christmas market comes to town. While relatively small the city has a growing reputation for lively bars and clubs.
(Bratislava to Vienna: 1 hour)
Vienna is a stylish city with fashionable residents. Austrians are easily among the friendliest people in Europe and don’t let the German accents fool you, Vienna is in many ways more like Milan than Munich or Berlin. Come on a nice day and you will see scores of Viennese out drinking beer in the sun and the city’s colourful streets have a more relaxed feel than most European capitals.
(Vienna to Munich: 4 hours 20 min)
Back in Germany and the southern city of Munich in Bavaria. This is the country’s cultural centre with an outrageous number of museums on everything from motors, theatre and art to Bavarian history. This is also home of the 200 year old Oktoberfest which sees millions of litres of beer drunk by the huge numbers of visitors who flock to Munich every autumn. The city is also home to Bayern Munich, one of the most successful football clubs in the world who play at the stunning Allianz Arena.
(Munich to Zurich: 4 hours)
A trip to Zurich is worth it just to see some of the stunning Swiss scenery you pass on the train in and it’s certainly worth looking to book a train during daylight hours either side of your visit.
It is the largest city in Switzerland but still has some small town charm to it. It is a city of churches, lakes and gardens but there are also plenty of lively shopping streets and a larger concentration of nightclubs than any other city in Europe. The city is known as a gateway to the Alps and it’s a short hop on the train to nearby ski resorts.
(Zurich to Paris: 4 hours 30 mins)
Paris is the most visited city on the planet and although its reputation as a romantic getaway and high prices make it more popular with couples and wealthy foreign tourists than backpackers, there can hardly be a better place to end a trip around Europe. From the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre and the Champs Elysées, Paris is a city full of world famous landmarks that keeps tourists snapping away for the duration of their stay in the French capital. Aside from the essential places to visit, there’s plenty of interesting and more wallet-friendly districts to eat, sleep and party in this beautifully artistic city.
Budget Accommodation in Europe
With the exception of Bratislava and maybe Zurich, there are at least 50 hostels to choose from in each of the cities along the route. Be careful to check the ratings and customer reviews online as you would be surprised how bad some of them are. Anything rated 80% or above should be fine. If you’re looking to party there are plenty of party hostels, especially in Amsterdam and Prague. You should be paying in the region of 10-15 Euros per night for a dorm bed. It will be a bit less in Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Bratislava but slightly more in Paris or Zurich.
Another good option in Europe is Airbnb, which often works out cheaper than staying in hostels or cheap hotels. Read our Airbnb review and get 30 Euros of free travel credit.
This page was last updated in January 2017.