The phrase ‘do it as the locals’ has been lingering around in the travel community that it is now a norm to also do the non-touristy things when visiting a new destination, and try as much to immerse in the local cultures – partaking in the activities – apart from buying heaps of postcards and snapping endless photos at the renowned landmarks.
Central Europe has a very rich history and the countries boast their elaborated cuisines but are often underrated compared to their counterparts in Western Europe. Each year, travellers flock to big names like London, Paris, and Amsterdam; and sometimes you would really wonder what’s in Central Europe.
For those who are looking at Central Europe as your next adventure, here’s a concise guide to living like a local, or simply to inspire anyone to venture beyond Western Europe.
Wiener Melange when café hopping
Be sure to visit at least one coffee house when in Austria, especially Vienna. It’s not a touristy or a waste of money because having a cup of coffee at any time of the day – yes, some open till midnight – is part of the culinary culture in Vienna that you must appreciate to fully immerse. Many of these coffee houses come with live music to be enjoyed for free!
You might find yourself spoilt for choices with the extensive list of coffee, even if you have a type of coffee in mind. You must try Wiener Melange at least once. It is a Viennese classic and the most traditional coffee in Austria – a shot of espresso served in a large coffee cup with hot water added and dollops of frothed milk.
Where Schnitzel was invented
Though you can easily find Schnitzel all around Europe, and also very popular in neighbouring Germany, the best is said to be from Austria, especially Vienna. It was believed that Schnitzel was invented in Vienna. Today, you can find them in variations of veal, mutton, chicken, beef, or pork; pork being the most common and popular. The ‘original’ one in Vienna was actually made of veal and always served with potato salad. You know which to try now.
Desserts all day, everyday
Rumour has it that Italy has the best Gelato but ice creams and Gelatos in Austria are not lacking too far behind. Of most of the European countries I’ve visited, the ice creams from Austria still keeps me going back for more, and it’s one of the most affordable ones at EUR1.10 per scoop on average.
Legends never fade; ice creams are named after them too. When in Salzburg, don’t forget to try the legendary Mozart Balls Ice Cream.
Tip 1: Pop by Gelateria Italiana and Eissalon at Schwedenplatz when in Vienna.
Tip 2: Sacher cakes are known as the world’s most famous chocolate cakes! Don’t miss the thick layers of chocolate sponge cake with generous portions of mousse and bits of fresh cherries when you’re in Austria!
Be classy and cultural with the music scene
Need I say more? Austria is synonymous with classical music. It is the birth and living – or even resting – place of many world’s famous composers and musicians. You should catch a concert in the opera houses if you have the chance to. Be it ‘The Sound of Music’ in Salzburg or Vienna Boys’ Choir in Vienna State Opera, it will be an inspiring experience.
Tip 1: Don’t forget to admire the intricate architecture and design of the Vienna State Opera.
The old, yet bad joke – Hungry in Hungary – stays because that’s practically how you will feel when you are there. Although food in Hungary is rather heavy (think: high protein and high carbohydrates), it is worth every single calorie.
For travellers who continue to watch their diets while on the road, you will have no regrets indulging, because there aren’t such elaborate European cuisine back home.
Get your stomach filled with Goulash
Goulash is one hearty meal that will warm you up instantly. If you are home sick, this dish makes you feel at home. Now a popular dish in Europe, especially Central, Southern Europe, and Scandinavia, Goulash originated from Hungary.
Goulash is usually prepared with beef, well simmered in either soup or stew seasoned with spices, and served with bread dumplings or potatoes.
Snack on Langos
Yet another traditional Hungarian food is Langos. Langos may not be impressive at the first sight, or may not even catch your attention; it is a popular street food you must try. Langos is basically a deep-fried flat bread served with sour cream, yogurt or mash potatoes; and usually eaten piping hot.
However, as it gets more commercialised (especially in capital Budapest), there are not many toppings you can add to your Langos – from mushrooms, to quark cheese and jam among many others.
Cheese lovers to rejoice with Fried Cheese
Hungarian cuisine uses a large variety of cheese and you’ll find yourself trapped in a gridlock of dishes with cheese in them. But the simplest yet the most popular one would be Fried Cheese!
Fried Cheese can be eaten hot and as an appetiser or dessert. Huge chunks of cheese are breaded and then deep-fried; giving crisp on the outside to the melted mozzarella cheese on the inside. It’s rich, chewy, and definitely addictive.
Relax and rejuvenate in Thermal Baths
Hungary boasts its perfect geological feature of the Carpathian Basin that is in the country itself. It isn’t named ‘city of baths’ for nothing, as you can easily find a few thousand hot springs across the country, in both the big cities and smaller towns.
Such bath is uniquely a Hungarian experience and this tradition dates back to the 16th century. These baths cater to everyone: families with young children, budget travellers, or romantic honeymooners. Each of these baths has a distinct character and is worth a visit.
Tip 1: Check for programmes before heading to the baths. There may be parties happening in some of them.
Tip 2: Budapest offers the finest ones.
Have a legitimate reason to down Vodka
The stereotype of Eastern Europeans downing Vodka is true. But Vodka can actually be enjoyed if you’re in Poland. With the strong influence from Russia, Poland’s bar food takes after Russian’s Zakuski. Herring accompanied by shots of Vodka is a staple of the Polish gastronomic repertoire. The Herring fish is served cold and coated in oil, onion bulbs and chopped greens.
This is the only time you have a really food excuse to drink copious amounts of Vodka because you can only eat the Herring fish after you finish a shot of Vodka! A fun night is guaranteed.
Relive communism through dining
To experience life during the communist era, head to a Bar Mleczny for a meal. Bar Mleczny directly translates to ‘milk bar’ but is actually just another form of cafeteria. These cafeterias are giving way to globalisation and commercialisation at a rapid rate but you can still find them across Warsaw.
To complete the Polish communist nostalgia, order Pierogi. Pierogi is a Polish national food and everyone in Poland loves it. The kids love it, the adults love it, and the elderlies love it. Many would lit up and think of Christmas when you mention Pierogi; but of course you don’t only have them during Christmas.
Pierogi is a dumpling with filling such as mash potatoes, cabbage, fried onions, sauerkraut, cheese, mushrooms, spinach, and the possibilities goes on.
Tip: If you are not a fan of starchy food, take a generous serving of yogurt with Pierogi.
Enjoy a different kind of cheesecake
Also known as Sernik, you can actually feel and bite on the cheese in the traditional Polish cheesecake. Cheesecake is another national dish of Poland, and hence do not expect a typical smooth-texture American cheesecake when ordering one. Unlike the cream cheese we commonly use at home, dry curd cheese is what atop the sweet pastry crust.
Walk through the rich history
One can only imagine how much Poland went through during the wars. With the largest concentration camp in the South of Krakow, and the most badly destroyed city in Warsaw, this country is now a perfect place to better understand history through an interactive manner. Some suggestions are Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Warsaw Uprising Museum, Krakow Ghetto Wall, and Fryderyk Chopin.
4. The Czech Republic
Satisfy your sweet tooth with Trdelnik
Walking past the main square in Prague, one can’t help but notice this old-school style pastry. You will come across these sugared cylindrical-shaped pastries when travelling Central Europe, and it’s not something you should – or can – resist.
This pastry, Trdelnik, is Slovak in origin. They are baked on a spit over an open fire and typically dusted with cinnamon and sugar. A variety of toppings such as Nutella or nuts are offered too.
Get stuffed with Svickova
Similar to Goulash mentioned previously, the beef sirloin of Svickova is served in cream sauce instead. This cream sauce is prepared with root vegetables and served with the typical bread dumplings and dollops of cranberry sauce too.
Although usually eaten during winter because of the heavy ingredients used, it’s not easy to say no when you smell the broth from neighbouring tables. Also, just like Sunday Roast for the English, this is a classic Sunday get-together meal for the Czech families.
Engage in the Czech’s bar humour
The bar food in the Czech often has deep roots in their soul and humour. One of which is Utopenci, also known as ‘Drowned Man’, invented a century back by Mr. Samanek. You may or may not get their humour, but you should never miss out on this pickled hot dogs. These hot dogs are seasoned with onion, black pepper, bay leaf, and other spices, and carry a tangy taste to them.
Another classic bar food is Nakladany Hermelin – pickled soft cheese. Nakladany Hermelin is not the most appealing bar snacks one would order but would leave some coming back for me. Often topped with bread, Hermelin is soft and creaming, and does not have a strong cheesy taste to it. Accompanied with beer, you’ll be surprised at how many servings you’re going for.
Drinks lots of beer with the World’s Greatest Beer Producer
No! Drop your stereotype, Germans are not the greatest drinkers. Czechs are the greatest drinkers and producers in the world and have been drinking and producing beer for more than a millennium. This number one drinking nation has an annual capita consumption of 156 litres.
Pubs are nearly at every corner of the streets and you can even enjoy a pint at the train stations. The Czech Republic is well known for their light beers and is home to the original Pilsner and Budweiser. What completes the best light beer in the world? Really low prices!
Tip 1: Don’t forget to tip. You’re not obliged to but it will be courteous to drop 5 to 10 crowns for every crowns spent.
Have a communist-style Coke
This refreshing Cola’s substitute was invented in the 1950s when Czechoslovakia (when they were still joined) was under the strict communist reign and had no access to the western brands of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Homely to the natives, and a novelty to foreigners, Kofola continued to thrive even after the western brands were introduced after the fall of communism.
Kofola is definitely not a substitute and has a different character from Coke – it is not as gassy or sweet, containing only 1/3 the sugar content and ½ the caffeine.