Discover The Timeless Treasures of Europe’s Most Iconic Cities
And Explore the Ancient Jewish Heritage that Still Endures
A trip to Europe can be a wonderful adventure. It’s an opportunity to explore history, architecture, cuisine and over a thousand years of rich cultural heritage. For Jews, a trip to European destinations like Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest is a bittersweet experience. Amid all the beauty and cultural treasures are names and places that evoke evil events, and in many cases, tragic family memories.
Jewish history (at least for most US Jews) is entwined with European history. Two thousand years of European cultures shaped our own modern existence. The Jewish experience aside, anybody who wants to understand modern America should visit Europe. It’s fascinating to see all the diverse influences and traditions that crossed the Atlantic and contributed to the vast American melting pot.
The most popular Jewish tours in Europe offer a window into the past and allow us to experience the very best of Europe at first hand. If your ancestors came from Europe, or you just love history and culture, Jewish heritage tours in Europe can provide the trip of a lifetime. They are also a unique educational opportunity for teens and young adults.
A family vacation in Europe allows kids to connect with their Jewish heritage and gain a valuable perspective on their own family origins. Atmospheric walking tours through the old Jewish districts of European cities beat documentaries and interactive tours hands down. The feeling of walking through a Berlin or Warsaw neighborhood where your grandparents or great grandparents – or even your earlier ancestors – lived and worked is unbelievable!
Jewish Heritage Tours in Central Europe and Eastern Europe
Western Europe, with cities like Paris, London, Barcelona and Bruges, contains some of the world’s greatest cultural sites, but we’ll be focusing on Jewish heritage tours in central Europe and Jewish heritage tours in eastern Europe. There are five major cities that attract Jewish tourists. They are packed with interesting sites and are also convenient bases for further exploration and day trips to other cities and locations.
Five Most Popular Jewish Tours in Europe
Berlin is arguably Europe’s most complex capital city. It was a center of enlightenment under Frederick the Great, the capital of the hubristic German Empire, the home of the German Expressionist Movement and it epitomized the frenetic culture of the Roaring Twenties and the Weimar period.
Berlin was also the sinister capital of the Third Reich and the city where the Holocaust was conceived. Devastated by aerial bombing and street fighting, the ruined metropolis became an occupied and divided city. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie are still iconic symbols of the Cold War.
21st century Berlin is one of the most popular Jewish tours in Europe and a major destination for all tourists. The city is once again a center of culture and is thriving, vibrant, cosmopolitan and welcoming. It also has a great public transport system which makes it easy to get around and see the sites.
Recommended Tourist Sites in Berlin
Hackescher Markt & the New Synagogue
The center of Budapest is the jewel of the Danube and is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Budapest is a must-see destination on any Jewish heritage tour of central Europe. Hungary was home to a Jewish community for over a thousand years and by the 20th century Budapest was over 20% Jewish.
As in many European countries, Jewish existence in Hungary was frequently precarious. Periods of relative tolerance and progress eventually culminated in disaster. Over half of Hungary’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust – with the enthusiastic assistance of Hungary’s fascist leaders. Recommended walking tours of Budapest include a visit to the haunting Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial.
Despite the horror and sadness of the previous century, modern Budapest is a fun city to explore. Hungarian cuisine is an appetizing blend of European, Balkan and Asiatic influences and prices are affordable. Budapest is full of museums and galleries, and the summer is famous for outdoor festivals and concerts.
Recommended Tourist Sites in Budapest
Kazinczy Street Synagogue
Hungarian National Gallery
Warsaw is the jumping off point for most Jewish heritage tours in Eastern Europe. Poland was home to Europe’s largest and most influential Ahskenazi community and Polish Jewry thrived for generations during a period of tolerance. The Nazis unleashed the full horrors of the Holocaust in Poland and only 10% of Polish Jews survived.
Jewish heritage tours in Europe that visit Poland will often include a visit to Auschwitz. Walking tours of Auschwitz are a uniquely somber event and can be an emotionally challenging day, particularly for people who lost family members. It’s also a vital educational trip for Jewish teens. There are many wonderful and beautiful sites in Poland that are a delight to visit, but a heritage tour that doesn’t also confront the nadir of Jewish history is of questionable value.
Warsaw was extensively rebuilt after the destruction of World War Two, but still contains many magnificent examples of historical architecture. The Warsaw Old Town area was painstakingly reconstructed, often using original bricks salvaged from the rubble. The Royal Lazienki Park and the Old Town market Square are lovely places to wander and take in the historical atmosphere.
Recommended Tourist Sites in Warsaw
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Mury Getta (Remains of the Warsaw Ghetto wall)
One of the most popular destinations for Jewish heritage tours in central Europe is the ancient city of Vienna. Like its fellow Danube city Budapest, the center of Vienna is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vienna has a well deserved reputation as a city of music, high culture and baroque architecture, and was home to a major Jewish community. The most famous Viennese Jew was probably Sigmund Freud.
Prior to the Holocaust, Vienna had one of the most prominent and influential Jewish communities in the world. By 1945, barely Jews 4,000 remained in the city, many of whom chose to emigrate. Since the 1990s there has been a minor Jewish cultural resurgence in Vienna, fuelled by Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.
Walking tours in Vienna are an unforgettable experience. Vienna was the capital of the Habsburgs and the Austrian Empire and some of the architecture retains its imperial splendor. A walking tour of the old Jewish textile quarter is even more atmospheric, especially if you are descended from one of the 30,000 Viennese Jews who emigrated to the US.
Recommended Tourist Sites in Vienna
Spanish Riding School
Prague is another beautiful historic city that became a major tourist destination after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s also high on the list of Jewish heritage tours in Central Europe. Prague’s Jewish community has a thousand year history and its Jewish quarter was a center of professional endeavor, learning and Jewish mysticism.
The Jewish population of Prague was as resilient as any in Europe. The minority who survived the Holocaust also endured the hostility of the post-war communist government, and today numbers around 2,000 people. One of the best-known Prague Jews was the writer Franz Kafka. The city is also famous for the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem.
One of the key Jewish sites in Prague is the Josefov. Its narrow winding streets were demolished over a century ago during civic improvements, but there are still a few tantalizing hints of the old Jewish quarter. The Josefov is home to at least half a dozen synagogues and other sites. It’s situated at the heart of Prague’s stunning medieval Old Town and is easy to visit.
Recommended Tourist Sites in Prague
Franz Kafka’s birthplace
Travel to Europe in 2023
A properly planned Jewish heritage tour in Europe is the trip of a lifetime. It can also be a profound educational experience for kids and young adults. There’s so much to do and to see in any European city that the challenge is to create a balanced itinerary.
Nothing beats local knowledge when it comes to arranging a trip, especially if you want to see beyond the basic tourist attractions and gain some deeper insights into European cities as our ancestors experienced them on a day to day basis. If you do want to explore Europe’s most beautiful cities from a Jewish perspective, talk to the Jewish travel experts.