European Charm Personified
My wife and I walked into a little bakery and the smell of fresh baked sweets slowly lulled me into a childlike delirium. Sugary glaze on raisin danishes. Fresh, crusty baguettes. And a proper espresso machine, humming and steaming its way to frothy cappuccinos and stiff, biting Americanos. As I walked up to the counter, the woman behind the counter asked me what I wanted for breakfast. In English. I decided to have coffee with a rich, custardy pastry with blueberries and strawberries. No. This was no a Parisian getaway. This was one shop in Prague; just one of our beautiful stops in the Central European triangle of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna.
Though most people tend to think of western Europe when considering trips to the European continent, our 12 day journey to Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria provided a wonderful contrast to places like France, Spain and the UK. We went in November, which is a nice off-season, and as a result each city was not overrun with tourists. English was commonplace in Budapest and Prague, although I was surprised that Vienna was linguistically the most difficult for us.
If you’re planning on visiting one of these cities, I would suggest seeing all three. We had 11 days on the ground (plus two days on planes) and we spent 4.5 days in Budapest, 3 days in Prague, and 2.5 days in Vienna, with one day taken up by trains. If you can arrange your flights, start in either Prague or Budapest and leave out of the other city, which will save you seven hours of train rides. In each country, though, prepare yourself for a wonderful combination of food and drink, rich cultural history and art, and some of the best pastries and dessert you’ll ever have. Promise.
Current Country Count: 34
With this trip, I now stand at 34 countries. 34 countries in my 34 years on this planet is a pretty good ratio and this trip was particularly fun for me because it was my honeymoon! Even in spite of some of the more difficult moments 2016 has brought, this one trip really brought my spirits up.
Long before my wife and I decided to get married, she had told me about her goal to visit Budapest since her grandfather was from Hungary. Since I’m a travel nut, I knew I couldn’t just do one country. How about Vienna and Prague too, I asked? I led with the coffeehouses and beer and before I knew it, she was sold.
(please note any foreign currency conversions in this post are as of late 2016, so stick with the local amounts for a consistent point of reference)
Day 0 – Transit
Our journey to Europe came on the back of a lot of traveling. My wife and I had just gotten married in Milwaukee (where her family lives) and we’d flown back to San Francisco on Monday, October 31. Our flight east began at 8:30 AM on Tuesday, November 1, and we were lucky enough to get upgraded on the Transcon flight from SFO to JFK.
Once in New York, we had a very fortunate turn of luck. We had planned to use my last few systemwide upgrades to get us into business class, but there were only a few open seats. For some reason, they split up our reservation so I could be first on the upgrade list (which I did not know American did from JFK to London) but I told the gate agent, “If I take an upgrade and my wife’s not with me, this is going to be the shortest marriage ever.” For some reason, my sense of humor clicked with the woman and lo and behold, Caitlin got plucked from the 8th spot on the waiting list and we got our upgrades!
Huzzah! The in-flight service was…filling, to say the least.
We arrived at Heathrow utterly stuffed and refreshed from the lie-flat seats, and within a few hours we were on our way to Budapest via British Airways. Our routing took us on a roughly 20 hour journey that was nearly flawless if not for one hiccup: I had to gate check my carryon at Heathrow and the bag never made the flight. When we landed at Ferihegy Airport, we had to file a claim to get the bag back but thankfully I got it later that night!
Day 1 – Budapest, Hungary
There are cities in this beautiful world that, upon arrival, you know will be dear to your heart for a long time.
Budapest is definitely one of those cities.
Composed of two halves, Buda is the hilly section that lies to the west of the Danube river and Pest sits in the flatlands to the east of the river. Yet both share a common heart and soul that is inviting and accessible. A global capital that possesses a small town feel, Budapest is utterly charming in how it welcomes guests. It’s that rare European destination that caters to all. From cobblestone alleys and delightful art galleries and shops to tasty restaurants and visually stunning architecture, it surprised me from the first moment with how easily foreigners can get around and immerse themselves in the culture. Upon landing (after filing a claim on my missing checked bag), we proceeded to the taxi stand, showed the clerk the address of our Airbnb, and took a ticket and waited 5-10 minutes for a taxi to whisk us off to our home for the next few days.
One thing that surprised us was the quality of lodgings in the Hungarian capital. While there are many fine hotels to choose from, the options on Airbnb are plentiful and offer a great home to retreat to at a mere fraction of the cost. We found our room right on the square at St. Stephen’s Basilica and the view was worth a million bucks.
For our first afternoon, we decided to explore the surrounding area and crossed the famed Chain Bridge, which might spawn recollections of the Brooklyn Bridge. The views from either side are stunning but if you look north, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Parliament building – which at night is the most stunning building in Budapest. If you look south, you’ll be able to sneak a view of Castle Hill, and I promise that either of these views is brilliant and captivating – even on a cloudy day like ours.
Once back across the bridge, our lovely Airbnb host, Kata, generously offered to make a reservation for us at Café Kor, considered one of Budapest’s finest restaurants. Although Hungarian food is generally low cost and delicious, we opted for a finer meal for our first night and we were not disappointed. The prices were what you’d pay for a good western meal (10,500 HUF or Hungarian forints, ~USD$35/per person) but the quality of food was the highlight of our trip:
Day 2 – Exploring Budapest
Once you set out in Budapest under daylight, you begin to discover the city to be an architectural gem built into the heart of a country that has seen tremendous political upheaval over the last century.
With an unfortunate legacy of having aligned itself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II, Hungary provides numerous reminders of its checkered past. There is no more powerful way to see and understand this for yourself than by going to the Museum of Terror.
But if you think this trip was going to be a negative, downer story, you could not be further from the truth. In spite of this history, Budapest is a stunning city that integrates its history into the ease of a very walkable capital. Although Budapest has the distinction of the oldest subway in continental Europe, we never actually used the subway and instead chose to walk everywhere. It was one of the easiest cities I’ve ever navigated and its clean, easy to read signage and directional markers made walking an absolute delight.
Walk east from the city center along Andrassy Street towards the Heroes’ Square and you’ll see some of the most lavish buildings in the city.
Eventually you arrive at a major monument, and this is Heroes Square.
Heroes’ Square is both a monument to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a source of Hungarian honor and pride. Historically it has also played a significant role with the 1989 reburial of the former leader Imre Nagy and it also marks the entrance to a beautiful park with fountains, museums, castles, and one of the main reasons for coming to Budapest: the Széchenyi Baths.
As you pass the iconic column and cross the bridge, you’ll be treated to a large fountain with ducks who await tourists feeding them, a series of colorful benches with eclectic art and a number of restaurants including the best burger in Budapest (if you’re so inclined).
When you enter the baths, the queues form on either side and this is where you purchase admission and any related services. My wife and I only needed one changing room – there’s no need to pay for separate rooms if there’s two of you.
The water temperature varies depending on which pool you’re in but it’s very comfortable and as you’re relaxing in the warm to hot water, you’ll probably hear at least five different languages.
By the time you’re done with the baths, you may be a bit hungry and looking for a non-Hungarian meal. If that’s the case, BRGR is a charming little spot in the park where you can grab a burger, beer and some fries.
Upon walking around the Opera House, we browsed some of the local antique shops and wound up in a delightful place called the Most Kortars Bistro:
This place is half café, half art gallery, and it’s all a lovely experience. I opted for Chicken goulash, a hot cup of soup with a half sandwich, and a beer and afterward I was one happy camper.
We decided to swing home to drop our gear off before heading out to the Ruin Pubs, which are famed as a gathering spot for young people, artists, and lots of foreigners visiting Budapest. We began at Szimpla Kert, one of the most famous of the Ruin Pubs, for a couple beers.
If this scene is a little too hipster or casual for you, then head over to the High Note SkyBar atop the Aria Hotel Budapest. It is definitely a western style bar with western prices, but the views from this seventh floor rooftop cannot be beat.
One fascinating experience came as a result of our being in Budapest on November 4, 2016. This date is significant in Hungarian history because it was the 75th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and the brutal Soviet response, which resulted in thousands of deaths. See the History Channel’s video on this day for more context. Accordingly, the facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica was turned into a projection screen to show people the faces of the heroes.
Video projections using the church façade as its projection screen
Day 3 – Budapest from the Pest Side
As I mentioned, Budapest is comprised of two halves – Buda to the west and Pest to the east. For our second full day in the city, we headed back across the Chain Bridge and proceeded up into the hilly Buda section to explore the castles.
Because of our late start, we did not get to the Budapest History Museum until 2 PM and I would highly encourage blocking more time to explore the museum’s exhibits. The views from the museum’s windows are brilliant (see below) but the galleries provide a deep dive into the historical events that have shaped Budapest and Hungary at large, from its fashion sense to its involvement in World War II to its music and artwork. There was a particularly good exhibit on “The Child in Hungarian Art, Past and Present,” which would be a great place to take kids if the exhibit is there when you visit.
If you exit the museum right at closing, you’ll be treated to a lovely sight of the main building at sunset.
The buildings look gorgeous and are highlighted when bathed in sunset glow.
As we pushed north through the rest of the castles, we came upon Matthias Church, which towers over the Buda side and provides a dramatic sight:
As night set in, we descended from the hill by foot instead of via the Castle Hill Funicular (this word is really fun to say!), which is the cable car that allows tourists to avoid walking up or down the steep hill. The slow path eventually led us to seek refuge from the chilly night in a tiny café near the river where we ordered gluhwein (mulled wine) and a sandwich. The two women working in the shop were crustier than the sandwich and when we saw six loud Italian men come in clamoring for beer and the two women roll their eyes, we knew it was time to go.
We made our way to Bob Restaurant, an oddly named but comfortable Hungarian restaurant where I decided to have a hearty Hungarian meal of beef goulash soup and Hungarian beef stew with homemade noodles.
To end our night, we wandered over to Fashion Street (Deák Ferenc), where a popular promenade of luxury retailers shares its walkways with holiday vendors peddling souvenirs and holiday foods. If you are here during the winter months, this is an absolute must-see area (we’ll talk about the holiday market in my post on Prague and Vienna, since we end back in Budapest).
Day 4 – Skyline Views, Winter Markets, and An Odd Opera Experience
A part of most of our trips involves paying to go to the top of some tourist trap in exchange for breathtaking views, and Budapest was no exception. Thankfully the view was worth the modest HUF 450/~USD$1.50 per person entry fee to access the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica.
If you’re so inclined, make time for the interior of the basilica (HUF 100/~USD$0.67 per person) for similarly stunning views.
After spending an hour or so at St. Stephen’s, we proceeded back to the Christmas market on Fashion Street where more vendors had started opening their stands. My main goal: Langos and a HunDog.
Langos is a fried flatbread served with sour cream and cheese – and at HUF 800/~USD$2.71, it’s an affordable snack. The HunDog is basically a large hot dog served on a huge roll and you get your choice of sausage. I opted for a blood sausage, which if you’ve never had one, is a rather stark contrast to the traditional Oscar Meyer or Costco hot dog. It’s grainy and much grittier than an traditional sausage. The HunDog and a stuffed cabbage will set you back HUF5,500/ USD$19, so prepare yourself for that. With this slightly unpleasant flavor in my mouth, we left the area and after walking less than a mile, we discovered why art in Budapest is so impressive and quirky:
In particular, the Gozsdu Antique Market was a lovely find. A long walkway with tables lining either side and restaurants offering all kinds of food and drink, this market is clearly aimed at tourists but doesn’t give off a touristy vibe like the Gaslamp District in San Diego, Pike Place in Seattle or Pier 39 in San Francisco. The curios here include small artwork, souvenirs, and other curios that would make great gifts.
In spite of the fact that this day featured the worst weather of our trip with some windy rain, we took a visit to the Parliament building and it was as stunning up close as it had been from a distance. With monuments to some of Hungary’s greatest heroes and a number of governmental buildings in the area, Parliament is visible and stands out from wherever you see it in the city.
Our evening ended on a rather sour note. We had purchased tickets to a show of Charles Gounod’s Faust at the famed Hungarian State Opera House (HUF 3000/~USD$10 for two tickets) and although my wife and I aren’t super fans of the opera, we were terribly disappointed with the show. Now to be clear, the performers and musicians are wonderful. But the show we saw was nonsensical, mixing people in cheerleading outfits and traditional soldiers’ uniforms and a 70’s style disco joint. It was deeply perplexing and at intermission, my wife and I looked at one another, shook our heads, and left in order to salvage some part of our night. That said, you should visit the Opera House if only to see the splendor of the building. Ideally you’ll have better luck with the show you see than we did!
Day 5 – A Train Ride to Forget
The romantic concept of training through Europe should be something everyone undertakes…IF YOU HEED ONE WARNING: if you purchase an EuroRail pass before arrival, make sure you get it stamped before you board the train. We purchased our passes through RailEurope and the pass allowed us three one way trips which we planned to take from Budapest to Prague, Prague to Vienna, and Vienna to Budapest for $214.50 per person (which included fees for reserving specific trains/seats).
Our last day in Budapest continued with rainy, gray skies and we prepared for our train ride by purchasing snacks and drinks from the local supermarket.
We took a street taxi to the train station – another thing you should NOT do. We made the mistake of not confirming the price before we got in, but we were running late. He charged us HUF4,500/USD$15 for what should probably have been a ride at half that price. We arrived at Budapest Keleti Train Station with time to spare, but in our rush to get on the train, we headed straight for our seats (BIG MISTAKE!).
When we boarded, we failed to get the ticket stamped, which according to all three conductors we met that day meant that the ticket was invalid. It was strange that they never asked us for our passports and our tickets were valid because we’d paid for them, but nevertheless we had to pay cash for a new one way ticket. This was a problem for several reasons – we only had Hungarian forints and around €100, but we conceded and paid €80 for what we thought was a one-way ticket to Prague.
We soon realized that the tickets we had bought only got us to Slovakia. Once across the Slovak border, we found out that we would need another ticket to get across Slovakia, and then another once we got into the Czech Republic. This was a problem because we were now out of Euros and had no Czech korunas yet. So once we reached the Czech Republic, we had to disembark at Breclav in an attempt to get our ticket stamped. Unsurprisingly, the station agents did not speak English so I had to use my remedial Czech from the internet to explain what was happening. Once that failed, we realized we needed to just pull some money from an ATM and get on the next train to Prague.
We eventually arrived in Prague a few hours late and mentally exhausted from dealing with seemingly unhelpful train conductors. It’s an antiquated system that doesn’t accept credit cards and one which I thought our pass would help us circumvent. If you buy this pass, just follow our advice and get your ticket stamped! Seriously, that’s all it takes. You can even be a wanted criminal because they don’t do passport checks!
Because we arrived so late, most of the local dinner spots were closed, but we decided to have a Czech beer to both unwind from the stress and honor the local product (Pilsner) followed by one of America’s more notorious exports for a late dinner:
For the rest of our honeymoon including time in Prague, Vienna, and our return to Budapest, click here!
If you missed it, here is my post with general suggestions on how to do Budapest, Prague and Vienna.
And for a handy dandy Google map of many of the places we went, click here!