Though we know those beautiful, chilly months before frost as the “off season” in Europe, there truly is no time like the present to explore the historical, natural, and cultural hubs of this idyllic continent. Our suggestion? Bundle up a bit, and head East, trading Paris for Prague and the many other delights Eastern Europe has to offer. The colors will give New England a run for its money, and even the seasoned European traveler will find stunning surprises on either side of the Danube.
1) Prague, Czech Republic
While technically located in central Europe, the cobble streets and red roofs of the Czech capital dazzle in the auburn tones of Autumn. With the crowds of July and August largely dissipated, bundle up and wander the city of a hundred spires at your leisure. When it comes to decadence, nothing beats The Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa. Located on a quiet street by the river, the 16th-century palace serves up an intelligent mix of Habsburg baroque interiors sprinkled with modern spaces. The restaurant offers a dose of tasteful kitsch along with a delicious menu, and the garden across the way lures the unassuming traveler with the promise of cocktails, Turkish divans, and serene seclusion. The Hotel Josef offers a simpler, though incredibly chic experience secreted away from crowds. While there is no restaurant proper, the glass-frontage of the breakfast-only dining room is a stunning way to start the day. If sleek simplicity isn’t for you, still stop by to take in the 10,000 sq. ft. courtyard, the largest in the city’s Old Town, and a sight to behold.
For a breath-taking panorama, head to the top of Petrin Hill for a 360 view of the cities vibrant landscape. You can walk to the top and work up a sweat, or use your tram card to hop on the funicular for an amusing and relaxing trip. Feeling adventurous (and ready for a workout)? Sign up for a 45-km bike tour to Karlstejn Castle. You’ll feel like a champion by the end of your ride, not to mention experience the beautiful Czech countryside first hand. The Castle at the end is an added bonus. If you’re lucky, you can catch the two-day wine festival hosted at the Castle during harvest season, where you can sample local vintages while you explore the grounds.For a truly transcendent culinary experience, head to La Dégustation Bohème Bourgeoise. Executive Chef Oldřich Sahajdák choreographs “small thought-provoking meals that arouse the senses” from local, seasonal produce elevating regional dishes to a level of art. Beyond the world of fine dining, you would be remiss to pass up the unassuming traditional cuisine found throughout the city. Nothing beats a hot bowl of goulash on a cool Fall evening. Restaurants tend to keep their outdoor terraces open well into the off-season, some provide blankets to keep you extra cozy. Wander into the establishment of your choice to take in an Autumn sunset while sampling traditional culinary delights for a truly unbeatable evening.
2) Budapest, Hungary
Since the fall of the iron curtain, Budapest has slowly but surely regained its rightful prestige as one of Europe’s most compelling capital cities. The soft swells of the Danube river divide the hills of Buda from the level lands of Pest, and together the three make up a city teeming with culture old and new. When it comes to choosing a hotel, there’s always The Ritz Carlton, for centrally-located simple elegance. However, if you’re looking for something a little more unique The Corinthia Hotel, originally opened as the Grand Hotel Royal in 1896, offers the perfect mix of historical romance (19th century spa, anyone?) and modern amenity. Step out to explore the town and be sure to stop by Potkulcs pub to take in the captivating and quintessential music of Budapest, a blend of traditional Roma and Hungarian sounds with jazz and contemporary concepts. After all, this is the city that gave us Bartók, and they have much more still on offer.
Budapest is known The City of Baths, with the first thermal baths built by the Romans continued by the Turkish occupiers in the 16th century, and culminating with the 19th-20th century trends towards aqua therapies. Luckily you can soak year round in City Park’s Széchyeni Baths. The stunning Neo-Baroque palace touts 18 pools, 10 saunas, and additional spa and facial treatments. Relax while taking in the unique romance and history of this iconic, central attraction. Afterwards, stop by the hotspot Anonymous Bar & More in Vajdahunyad Castle for libations and dishes bursting with Magyar flavor served on a lakeside terrace. Climb either of the two towers in the castle after your meal for an epic view of the city.If you find yourself craving additional warmth, dive just below the city surface to explore the countless underground attractions from the beautiful crystal formations of Szemlo-Hegyi Cave to the eery recreations of WWII nuclear bunker The Hospital in the Rock. Feeling bold? You can sign up to go spelunking and cave climbing in the Pàlvölgi Cave. For some more relaxing adventure, head just outside the city to Fenyogyongye restaurant, serving Hungarian staples like goulash and pottages in a charming courtyard adjacent to some of the cities more incredible hiking trails.
3) Bratislava, Slovakia
An underrated city in all respects, Bratislava presents its fair share of beautiful sunsets set against a backdrop of picturesque architecture, fall foliage, and delicious meals. Then again, there’s plenty more Slavic charm to go around. Do your best to make it in time for the annual Goose Festival, located just 30 minutes outside of the city. The festival celebrates the traditional work of goose farmers, passed down through generations and culminating in a delicious meal of roast goose and Slovakian potato pancakes. Simply delicious.For the epitome of luxury and an unrivaled riverside view stay at the Grand River Park Hotel. If you’re looking for something more contemporary, the cozy, boutique Hotel Albrecht offers an equally picturesque view of the Danube Valley. Opened in the 1920s amidst Bratislava’s abundance of vineyards, the Albrecht still offers a sumptuous selection of wines. Its set-back secluded location provides proximity to the city center without the added noise and disruption.
Take in the city by day, and choose from an impressive host of cultural events at night. The Slovak Philharmonic launches its season each Fall and promises an unforgettable night of music, while The Slovak National Theatre offers countless plays, ballets, and operas throughout the year. If you can, plan your trip around Biela Noc, the contemporary light art festival that happens each year in October, and Bratislava Jazz Days, a jazz festival beyond comparison.Work up a sweat and an appetite hiking or biking through the Little Carpathians, a low mountain range just outside the city then explore the incredible gourmet creations of vendors in Bratislava’s iconic street food park in front of the city center’s Stará Tržnica (Old Market). Craving a sit-down spot? Dunajsky Pivovar Restaurant lets you indulge in the traditional flavors of Slovakia while floating on the Danube, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
4) Warsaw, Poland
If the awe-inspiring colors of Lazienki Park weren’t enough reason to visit Warsaw in Autumn, the city’s jam-packed social and cultural calendar certainly is. Plan your trip around any number of compelling events, or see where the day leads you. Warsaw is full of superior sights and surprises.The Intercontinental Hotel in Warsaw offers convenient luxury, just ten minutes from the airport and within walking distance of most major attractions. You can unwind at their beloved spa and pool, and then explore any number of the restaurants listed on their Michellin guide. On the otherhand, the historic Mamaison Hotel Le Regina located within the quaint and quiet streets of Old Town offers a dose of old european romance served with perfect boutique hotel charm and hospitality. If staying here, definitely head to the top of St. Anna Church to get a beautiful view of the historic neighborhood.
Spend your time exploring major landmarks by day, the Royal Castle, the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów, and all the buildings in the Royal Łazienki Museum are not to be missed. Head over to Hala Mirowska to sample tastes of the Polish Countryside straight from farmer’s food stands. The historic marketplace was built in the 19th-century, destroyed during WWII, and rebuilt in the 50s. Get there early to sample delectable Polish pastries like creamy Wuzetka (Warsaw cake), Szarlotka (Polish apple pie) or fluffy Pączek (perhaps the best pastry in the world). At night, if you fancy yourself a film buff, check out events hosted by Polish Films for Foreigners to get a cinematic take on Polish culture. Then head to “Pawilony”, a little area in Nowy Świat street with 25 tiny pubs where you can interact with locals and expats while sampling the area’s classic libations, beer and vodka.
5) Krakow, Poland
The creative center of Poland, Krakow wears its history proudly while staying true to its role as a modern hub for Polish culture. A compact city, easily navigated by foot, get set to explore every enchanting, autumnal corner of this magical city.
The Hotel Wentzl is the only hotel overlooking Krakow’s central square, and while a typical tourist destination, the central location recommends itself most highly in the off-season. The Hotel itself is grand, constructed in the 16th century, and maintains the heights of luxury to this day. If you simply can’t resist the charms of Old Town, The Hotel Pod Roza offers the ideal combination of Renaissance façade with modern sensibility. There are two fine dining establishments in house, but you are steps away from countless restaurants if you’re craving a more authentic Krakow experience.Take a stroll from the Barbican, a fortress located on the outskirts of the city with some incredible stonework worth examining, and walk through the Florian Gate into Ul Florianska, a pedestrian boulevard known for top brand shops. Then, head towards Basilica of St Mary, its distinctive towers visible from some distance, which you can climb on given days to take in a beautiful view of the old town and Wawel Castle, Kraków's centrepiece. Speaking of which, the striking building fully merits its own trip, and the walk down Ulica Kanonicza, a 14th-century side street lined with townhouses and leading towards the Castle, adds to the adventure.
On November 1st, locals celebrate All Souls Day, and the historic cemeteries of the city gradually become illuminated by countless candlelights. Whether there for the holiday or not, take time to explore Rakowiki cemetery with its sprawling verdure transforming into the burning colors of falls above the famous graves. Having taken in some history, head over to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow to gain an appreciation of the groundbreaking work Polish artists contribute.In true Polish fashion, end your day with a hearty meal. Having persisted for two-centuries as a leader of fine dining in Krakow, Wentzl Restaurant will not disappoint. However, the father-son run Pod Baranem offers updated Polish staples in a low-lit, comforting environment (which has earned it a spot in the hearts and stomachs of Polish presidents, painters, and poets alike).
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