European backpacking routes: 7 pearls of central Europe

Rural, peak-framed scenery, romantic Danube towns with jaw-dropping cathedrals, and lush vineyards on the fringes of the Little Carpathians await you on your trip across Central Europe. You’ll get your money’s worth on these European backpacking routes, whether it’s Zagreb to Vienna, Zagreb to Budapest, or the coastal views from Dubrovnik to Zagreb that appeal to you. 

Depending on how much time you have to travel, your European backpacking routes could look like this…

  • Sample route for two weeks in central Europe: Zagreb > Budapest > Vienna
  • Possible central European route for three weeks: Budapest > Bratislava > Vienna > Zagreb
  • Backpacking in Europe one-month itinerary: Zagreb > Budpest > Bratislava > Vienna > Maribor > Ljubljana
  • Backpacking Europe starting route for three months:  Dubrovink > Zagreb > Budpest > Bratislava > Vienna > Graz > Maribor > Ljubljana You can see it all (and more) in three months! Lucky you!
Drone shot of Dubrovnik- the start of a European backpacking route

Aside from amazonite waters, Dubrovnik scores with medieval architecture and cobblestone alleys. All the terracotta masonry embodies Mediterranean charm. Plus, prices are relatively low. 

Amble along the six-meter-thick and 25-meter-high city walls at Dubrovnik’s West Harbor featured in Game of Thrones. As you gaze at the historical setting, you’ll be uttering oohs and aahs in admiration. The limestone-paved streets of Old Town comprise a Franciscan Monastery, the Church of Saint Blaise and Orlando’s Column. All of this merely steps away from the Adriatic—glistening like a field of diamonds.

Dubrovnik at night

If you have a few bucks to spare, there are more things to do in Dubrovnik. Start by devouring baked lobster tails with black garlic, honey, and butter, sipping a racy Croatian Chianti, or hopping on a cable car to marvel at the city below. 

You can also kayak to the nearby Lokrum Island off the Dalmatian coast. Catch the omnipresent scents of pines, olive trees, and cypresses. Or treat your senses by visiting Lokrum’s Botanical Garden.

Dive into Zagreb’s art and coffee culture

Zagreb

Among the best places to backpack in Europe, Zagreb is overlooked by many travelers who prefer Croatia’s more expensive islands. However, the capital has numerous shops, museums, parks, and a fascinating coffee culture. In addition, art and history are glued together amid centuries-old Austro-Hungarian architecture—from the art pavilion and Art Park to the Mirogoj cemetery.

Setting foot in that cemetery with its copper-green domes is like stepping into a Gothic fairyland with elaborate cloisters and endless arcades embellished with sepulchral sculptures. It’s a quick tram ride from the city center with countless outdoor cafes and the pedestrian-friendly Tkalčićeva Street.

Zagreb archways

While Zagreb is walkable, you can whisk to the Upper Town in 64 seconds on the funicular. 

At the top is the Old Town, where you can visit the Museum of Broken Relationships. Housed in a Baroque palace, it boasts humorous exhibitions providing food for thought. 

Other things to do in Zagreb include people-watching at Bogovićeva Street or hunting fresh produce bargains at Dolac Market. 

Need some Insta shots? Check out the Gothic, twin-spired Zagreb Cathedral and 13th-century St. Mark’s Parish Church with its colorfully tiled roof.

Experience Budapest’s opposing sides 

Budapest archways

If you’re lucky enough to go backpacking in Europe, you’ve got to watch every dollar. One way to save is to ride the Zagreb to Budapest bus for $17. Once you’re there, you’ll have your choice of hostels throughout the city.

Ottoman-influenced Budapest, Hungarian’s capital, is split into two along the Danube’s riverbanks. 

On the western banks, Buda has a calm atmosphere, epitomized at the Buda Castle, which you can access via the funicular. Views from there are just as good as from Budapest’s Ferris Wheel. 

The dichotomy becomes apparent in Pest’s city center. It’s a lively corner with exuberant nightlife and the Hungarian Parliament building—a neo-Gothic hulk with arches and turrets plus Baroque interiors.

Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

While thermal baths and jet massagers invite you to linger in sulfurous water, be sure to make time for other things to do in Budapest. Strolling across the illuminated Chain Bridge with arched towers is a sight for sore eyes, as is the sun setting over Buda Hill. Relish Hungarian scones at the Great Market Hall, and enjoy fun evenings at ruin bars in the old Jewish Quarter. 

Need a breather? The City Park’s Vajdahunyad Castle is a romantic spot by a lake.

Enjoy walking tours in Vienna

Vienna at night

If your European backpacking route is for two weeks only, you can’t do it all, but Vienna is a must. The Zagreb to Vienna bus is only four hours. And the trip from Budapest to Vienna is a short 2.5 hours. So, there is a lot to see within a short distance in this part of Europe. 

Formerly the home of classical music luminaries like Beethoven and Strauss, Vienna awaits with meticulously preserved history. Before you know it, you’ll run out of photo storage space as you saunter along chunky cobble streets, gazing at statues and imperial architecture.

Snuggled against the Danube, the Austrian capital bristles with artistic energy, perfected by Gothic structures so intriguing you can almost hear Mozart’s waltzes reverberating through the ages. 

Ferris wheel in Vienna

You can find so many things to do in Vienna. So, it’s best to get the hang of the train and subway system to explore Vienna beyond the wide Ringstraße. There are galleries, museums and cafes galore. But don’t forget to ride the Ferris wheel for city views and visit the flowerbed-filled Privy Garden at Schönbrunn Palace, a Baroque structure with frescoed galleries.

Go castle and cathedral hopping in Bratislava

Aerial in Bratislava

Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, is a secret gem embedded in lush vineyards and surrounded by the Little Carpathians.

Stroll through the Old Town’s cobbled streets, where affable musicians mingle with pedestrians. 

The Danube city is more than Gothic Cathedrals. It also beckons with green spaces, parks aplenty, and hiking trails crisscrossing woodlands. 

Old Town in Bratislava, a cool stop on your European backpacking route

To feed your adventurous side, discover Devín Castle’s old ruins atop a rugged cliff above the Danube-Morava confluence.

Other things to do in Bratislava include sipping coffee on the main square amid pastel-colored buildings or exploring the castle dominating the skyline. 

Get lost in the rabbit warren of Maribor

Maribor, Slovenia along the river

History and modernity are stitched together in the Slovenian town of Maribor. Hidden amid vine-clad hills, the Drava River city comes with a secluded feel and distinctive east-European charm. Its red-brick roofs, medieval architecture, and winding cobblestone alleys are lined with hostels, cafes, and fruit-filled gardens. 

There are many things to do in Maribor, like wine tasting at the Old Vine House and taking on the hiking trails in Pohorje. 

Drava Bridge in Maribor

Ljubljana: Central Europe’s rare gem

Ljubljana is a perfect stop on the European backpacking route

Ljubljana’s been hailed as one of Europe’s rare gems. The Slovenian capital brims with character, from cultural activities and gastronomic delights to architectural treasures.

Things to do in Ljubljana include exploring the Old Town’s Baroque Franciscan Church and the Triple Bridge straddling the Ljubljanica. If you’re feeling active,  hike to the castle for magical views of the Julian Alps. Or chill at Tivoli Park, just steps from the city center, and listen to flowing fountains.

The best way to continue your wallet-friendly European backpacking route is to get beautifully lost in an Old Town and catch that early bus to the next Central European city.

FAQ

How long is the ride from Zagreb to Vienna?

The bus ride from Zagreb to Vienna takes about five hours and 15 minutes.

How much does it cost to get from Vienna to Bratislava?

You can ride a standard bus for seven euros.

What’s the best way to get from Zagreb to Budapest?

The best way is to take a five-hour bus ride, which costs less than 16 euros.

Want to travel across the land and sea?

Get inspired with more stories by travelers, for travelers

Hoi An's Ancient Town, Vietnam

What makes Hoi An, Vietnam so unique

Hoi An, voted 2019’s best city in the world, is a charming, ancient city, with an incredible food scene, unique architecture and an easy-going atmosphere.