Prague, Vienna and Budapest are not only rich in culture but offer a myriad of experiences without making you broke compared to their Western counterparts. A visit through Prague’s quaint cobbled streets, Vienna’s grandeur music scene and Budapest’s vivacious nightlife deserves a spot on your travel bucket list.
You’ve convinced me; now how do I get there?
I recommend flying into one city and leaving out of another. Open jaw tickets save time since you’re not backtracking, and it usually doesn’t cost significantly more than a round trip. Ryanair also has ridiculously low flights between major European cities (US airlines please take note!)
Rail Europe offers a Central Europe Triangle Pass that comes with three one-way rail trips in 2nd class between these cities. You’re free to start in any while traveling in any direction. There’s a one month time frame but you can go at your own pace.
The rail journey takes about 4.5 hours from Prague to Vienna, 3 hours from Vienna to Budapest and 7 hours from Budapest to Prague. Trains are your best option as the three cities are directly connected with railway system.
There’s also a pretty dope option of taking a six-hour scenic cruise on the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest that passes through Bratislava. I didn’t know about this on my trip or else I’d have opted for this route.
Renting a car can be pretty expensive and parking is a nightmare. Your best bet is to stay close to the heart of the city and walk around or use the efficient public transportation system.
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The Václav Havel Airport is 9 miles from the city center and takes about half an hour. A taxi will cost about 500 CKZ or $22. If you want to save money for snacks, use the Airport Express bus which runs between the airport and Praha Hlavni Nadrazi (aka the Main Station). It takes 33 minutes and costs 60 CKZ or $3.
If you’re coming from Vienna or Budapest, you’ll likely be using Main Railway Station or Holesovice Station. Both are connected by the Metro (Red Line C) to the city. The Main station is situated within walking distance of Wenceslas Square (central Prague).
Not every place in Prague takes the Euro so be sure to convert money into Czech koruna. Currently 1 USD = 21.89 CZK
Prague is the most touristy of the three, in my opinion, and the best spot for people watching is in Old Town Square where you’ll find the famous Astronomical Clock. I suggest renting a pedal boat on the Vltava to view Charles Bridge while escaping the tourist traps and heavy crowds. It’s really a win-win.
Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, looks like something straight out of a fairytale. As you’re wandering, you’ll notice how the stunning Gothic architecture of the historic buildings and museums dominates the city walls. The castle compound includes residences of the royalty, churches and gardens that can keep you busy.
St. Vitus Cathedral holds the honor of having an extensive that traced back to the early Middle Ages. Entrance to the grounds is free, but you have to pay extra to go inside the main attractions.
If you’re here on a Saturday, check out the Naplavka farmers market. The stalls are filled with fresh produce, cooked cuisine, liquor and local crafts. I suggest trying tredelnik, a sweet local delicacy countered with a difficult name. I watched in fascination as the woman rolled out the dough, wrapped it on a stick and added sugar and cinnamon before setting it over the fire. If that doesn’t satisfy your sweet tooth, the Choco Café, located in Old Town, is a haven for chocolate addicts.
As a side note, the most delicious Chinese food I’ve ever eaten was somewhere near Old Town Square and it was so cheap! Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name but I thought I’d mention it in case you’re craving it too.
Vienna (Wien in German)
Vienna International Airport is located 12 miles from the city center and a taxi will cost 30 – 40 Euros. The cheaper option would be to take the S7 Schnellbahn train to Wien Mitte which leaves you at the intersection of Landstrasse underground in central Vienna. It takes half an hour and only costs 5 Euros. If arriving by train, the Vienna Main Station or Wien Hauptbahnhof (Wien HBF) is centrally located near the famous shopping markets. It’s so easy to make a pit stop shopping spree on the way to your accommodation.
The capital of Austria, is called the World’s Music Capital since it’s most famous for housing the great legends Mozart. Beethoven, Hayden and Schubert. Vienna played a vital role in history due to its strategic location in the center of Europe. Here’s an interesting fact: Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Freud all lived here in 1913.
The Schonbrunn Palace and the garden that surrounds it is majestic, not to mention free (unless you want a tour inside). Innere Stadt is the medieval heart of Vienna where the twisting cobblestone streets leads to the grand Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s) Cathedral.
Coffeehouses are a vital part of Viennese culture and have graced the city for centuries, probably to supply the caffeine fix needed to dance the night away. The historic Café Sperl opened its doors in 1880 and makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. As an added bonus, a live pianist performs on Sundays from 3:30pm-5:30pm.
Not into coffee? Well, Vienna also holds the title as the only world capital that produces “significant quantities” of wine within its city limits. The vineyards can be explored in autumn on Wine Hiking Day with a chance to sample “significant quantities” as you hike along the 15-mile route. Another way to escape the city rush is to take the tram ride to Vienna Woods. These forested highlands have small historical towns and mountainous vineyards is a perfect day trip to experience Viennese culture.
I found Vienna to be more reserved with a quieter night life than the others and also more expensive. If you can’t get enough of museums, imperial architecture, and post-world war tragedies then the price is worth it.
It costs 6,500 HUF ($25) for a taxi from the airport to the city center. If you use public transport, bus 100E will take you from terminal 2 to Deák Ferenc Square. It takes 35 minutes, costing a mere 900 HUF ($4). Like Prague, Euro isn’t accepted everywhere. Convert your money once you’re already in Budapest to get the best rate.
Currently 1 US = 255 Hungarian Forint
Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, split by the Danube River and is one of the most scenic places in the world. The Buda hills are to the west of the Danube while the Pest flats are to the East. I found Budapest to be eccentric (in a good way) while offering the best value. If money is a factor, I’d definitely spend more time here.
Have a go at another difficult named pastry: Kürtőskalács. This chimney cake is a traditional wedding dessert that’s crunchy on the outside with a soft dough on the inside. Add cinnamon or walnuts to this bad boy to make it even better. If you’re weird and don’t like sweets, I recommend trying Langos, a deep-fried flatbread with sour cream, cheese and garlic. *drool
To burn those calories, stroll through the Castle District to get the best views of the Danube, Chain Bridge, the Hungarian Parliament and Gresham Palace. The Hospital in the Rock is pretty cool too; it served as a nuclear shelter during World War II.
Cruises on the Danube are another option to view the grace of Budapest. There’s several options from budget friendly to fancy full course dinners and occasional special cruises for Halloween and Wine Tasting.
The Hungarian Opera House, a neo- Renaissance beauty that has been renovated to the grandeur of the 19th century, is worth a peek inside even if you’re not an Opera fan. St. Stephen’s Basilica, located in Pest, is is free but the Panorama tower and Treasury costs extra.
Budapest’s pulsating nightlife is located in the heart of the city in District VII’s Jewish Quarter and lives up to its reputation. Luckily, it’s all within walking distance. The streets are full of life while the architectural flairs of the buildings describe memoirs of the past. The Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe, is in the 7th district.
After absorbing the endless sites, give your poor body a break. The “City of Baths” has several thermal baths spread throughout so you can easily find out that fits your needs. The outdoor pools remain open even in winter due to the abundant underground hot thermal waters. Word on the street is the mineral rich waters will cure all ailments. Szechenyi Bath is famous for their nightly summer spa parties but buy your tickets online to avoid the long lines. Speaking of water, Budapest installed drinking taps on fire hydrants which is totally safe and much needed with all this walking.
I’m booking my flights but when should I go?
These cities offer so many festivals and events throughout the year so you’re bound to encounter something interesting. Here is a few:
Prague Writing Festival brings together cultural ideas from around the world and is a must for literary enthusiasts (Nov).
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is the biggest and one of the oldest film festivals in the country (early July).
The International Jazz Festival is a favorite autumn tradition with a variety of genres (Oct).
Dancing with the Stars enthusiasts should know the Waltz originated here. The Viennese Ball season runs from News Year’s Eve to mid-February and hosts more than 450 balls in between. This timeworn tradition is intoxicating and dreamy but there’s a strict dress code. So, all you twinkle toes, mark your calendars and bring your dancing shoes!
The Budapest Spring Festival features local and international talents in operas, ballet, jazz and the circus (end of March to April).
Buda Castle Beer Festiva is a favorite and brings together almost 100 domestic and international beers, food trucks and concerts (June).
The Szentendre Summer Festival is an art celebration with theater performances, concerts and films (end of June to August).