Destination

Prague, Czech Republic and Vienna, Austria (with a bit of Budapest)

This is a continuation of my Budapest article as this was one continuous trip!

Also click here for my pre-trip suggestions on all three cities (Budapest, Prague and Vienna). 

Day 6 – Pastries and Plazas in Prague

Our first full day in Prague was quite a step up from our train gaffe the previous day. We decided to venture out of the Sheraton Prague and explore the New Town district. The Sheraton is convenient for its location – it’s a short CZK 90 (CZK = Czech Korunas)/USD$ 3.50 ride from the train station, and if you head north from the hotel, you’re basically in New Town. My recommendation: start your day off with breakfast at Café Louvre.

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Café Louvre

There are pastries. And then there are pastries. This is the latter.

…okay okay. So I might have borrowed that line from Casino Royale. But that does not diminish the truth of my words, especially when it relates to strudel. Café Louvre is one of Prague’s more well known gathering places for power meetings, romantic dates, and weary travelers. This lovely second floor establishment on the border of Prague’s Old Town and New Town districts is a welcome sight for a visitor looking for caffeinated bliss or sweet desserts for breakfast. On this cold November morning, an Apple strudel and a double coffee were my recipe for warmth. And while apfelstrudel (apple strudel) is more often thought of as an Austrian dish, I can safely say this breakfast pastry was the finest blend of flour, fruit, and sugar I’ve ever had.

As we departed from Café Louvre, we wandered aimlessly and happened to find the famous statue of Franz Kafka’s head. One need not have read Metamorphosis to know that being described as “Kafka-esque” is not always a compliment, but this 36-foot tall art piece will certainly grab your attention with its shimmering edges and constantly shifting levels.

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The Head of Franz Kafka

Wandering the streets of Old Town Prague, we quickly noticed a few recurring things that we had not see in Budapest: Bohemian crystal sold in many shops, a maze of cobblestone streets that you’ll (unintentionally) revisit several times over, and a plethora of tourists. If Budapest was a relaxing haven for locals and tourists alike to blend into a melting pot of a city, Prague brings out the tourists for all to see.

This blend of activity is on full display when you get to the Old Town Square, a sprawling plaza with food and drink booths, people hawking wares and tours, and marvelous buildings. Make sure to snag a view of the Astronomical Clock, Tyn Church (with its beautiful twin spires), and St. Nicholas Church.

We walked south from the square and came to the Havelska Market, which some had touted as a fun tourist activity. But as we learned quickly, every vendor here is stilling the same paintings and wood carvings that you’re bound to see at least twenty more times during your stay in Prague. If you wander long enough, you’ll likely come across the vendor who will immediately discount the prices upon meeting you to see if you’ll bite.

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Havelska Market

 

If instead you’d like some cool artistic gifts, check out Artel – a design gallery and chic shop with fantastic designs on glassware, figurines, textiles, and other small items.

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More public art displays in Prague

As our wandering brought us around the Old Town, we crossed the Charles Bridge, which provides a stark contrast to previous touristy sight on this trip. Whereas the Old Town Square has a lot of people selling things and convincing you to try their restaurant, the bridge had at least a half dozen beggars lying head down on the cold stone asking tourists for handouts. There are also many vendors peddling earrings, paintings and photographs, but this was the only part of the city we came across with concentrated begging.

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The view from the Charles Bridge

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Be prepared to see many beggars on the bridge 😦

By this point, we had walked several miles and needed some rest. We stopped in a small cookie shop as the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread and mulled wine called to us like siren song. If you come off the east side of the bridge (as shown above) and need a similar break, stop at Narodni Banka Vin, which is just down the street from the bridge.

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Narodni Banka Vin, home of gingerbread

Having cider, mulled wine, and some cookies only got us in the mood for a proper dinner, and we recalled a friend’s suggestion. For dinner in Prague, you can not go wrong with a stop at Vinohradsky Parlament, where a mug of beer the size of your head awaits you alongside some delicious Czech cuisine.

Here’s something we didn’t realize until we got here. The concept of dumplings is VERY different than you’d imagine in the west. Or in the east, for that matter. Czech dumplings are more like thick, chewy bread than thin-skinned bite-sized nuggets filled with meat or seafood. They are incredibly filling as well, so be mindful that if you polish off your dumplings, you may not be able to finish the rest of your main course! Our meal cost CZK670/USD$26 (for the two of us), which we found to be very reasonable.

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More amusing advertisements targeted at foreigners

 

With our stomachs filled with delicious meat and beer, we waddled home and proceeded to sleep for the night.

Day 7 – West of the Vlatava River

Our second full morning in Prague was the first moment on my honeymoon when I realized just how fast we move throughout our day. I ordered wiener wurst, which is basically four small sausages provided with some mustard and sauerkraut.

 

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Normally I would have ripped through the dish in a couple minutes but on this day, I nursed my Viennese coffee and slowly cut my sausages into small bites. When I’m home in San Francisco, meals become a time to reload and resupply, when that’s exactly what it should not be. Meal times should be times of quiet satisfaction, joyous interaction, and meaningful nourishment. And this morning it was!

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Sometimes you just need a figurine of a rooster playing an accordion

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Modern architecture also rules in Prague – The New Stage is a building dedicated to ballet, opera, and other performance art

Heading westward again, we decided to cross the Legion Bridge, which at midday provided some stunning river views:

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Crossing the Legion Bridge

Once you’re on the other side of the bridge, the great views do not cease. The famed Lennon Wall was once a portrait of John Lennon and now is covered in the graffiti and artwork of thousands of visitors who have since covered up the former Beatle’s portrait.

 

As you ascend the hill, you’ll pass by many small shops with ceramics, more crystal, and plenty of food until you reach Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.

Once we got to the top, stunning views of the buildings and of the land down below were commonplace:

 

From here, we browsed the area around the cathedral and explored the various historical informational panels. We spent about an hour here before wandering up to the lookout next to the Hanavsky Pavilion. This is where you can get some of the best views of the river and the many bridges:

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The View from the Hill

 

As we descended back into the main town, we sought out Good Food, a local place that serves Trdlo, the famed chimney dessert that resembles a big ice cream cone made of dough and filled with your choice of toppings, including whipped cream, fruit, chocolate, and many other sweet delights.

After we stopped at Novomestsky Pivovar for dinner and the best beers in Prague, we decided to drink the night away. It was election night back in the states and we did not want to spend the evening watching election results. We found ourselves in two of the best bars we’ve ever been to:

 

Funky Bee was a small bar with a few tables and a back section with enough room for two couples. The bartender here made us a martini using Monkey 47 gin, which my wife proclaimed “the best martini she’d ever had.” She’s a former bartender and bar manager, so this is a big statement! We were both blown away by the quality of his drinks and at the end of the night, he even helped us google nearby places that we could continue our drinking.

Rum House was a another gem in the rough. This was not where the Funky Bee bartender sent us (that place was sadly closed) but on the way back to the hotel, we came across this place. They have a rum menu with pages dedicated to every rum producing country in the world, and they even include rums from Nashville’s Corsair Distillery (one of my favorites) and many Caribbean brands.

Our night amusingly devolved into watching a super drunken customer in Rum House walk into the bathroom and take mirrors off the wall before being escorted out of the bar by his drinking buddies and then watching his buddy hit on my wife. Oh Europe, how I love thee.

Day 8 – Election Day

This is not a political blog, but the consequence of being abroad on one of the most contentious Election Days in American history is that you get a lot of foreign perspective. In the days leading up to and following the election, newspaper headlines like this were commonplace and reflected the global interest in the American presidential election:

 

 

When we woke up, we realized our hangovers had decided to stay over with us. So the wife and I decided to explore the city on foot and shake our grumpiness before getting on our train to Vienna later that day. The late morning began with pastries. If you’re in the neighborhood, go visit Krusta (located at Vodičkova 11).

This is the place I described at the start of my Budapest post. This place has crates of delicious pastries behind the counter and a display case offering a plethora of options for snacks at any time of day. We took a sandwich to go, departed for the Prague train station to get our ticket stamped and then took an uneventful (phew) four hour journey from Prague to Vienna. You might be happy to know that Uber works in Vienna and we took a car to the Le Meridien Vienna that got us there in less than 10 minutes.

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I love TV screens that greet me

 

We didn’t arrive at the hotel  until 10:30 PM but decided to walk and explore the area near St. Stephen’s cathedral. It’s a lovely plaza but its beauty is highlighted when it’s not overloaded with tourists:

As we returned to our hotel to end the evening, we discovered a restaurant down the block that we sadly never tried, but that wins an award for clever naming and ads:

This place is called “…said the butcher to the cow” #winning

 

Day 9 – Viennese Museums

 

Vienna has no shortage of museums and activities so we had to carefully select what we wanted to see. We elected to see the Leopold Museum, which had on display art from Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Gustav Klimt, and other Austrian artists, and the Architecture Museum, which features a number of exhibits on design in Austria. Unless Austrian art and design are high on your list, I would skip both places. The exhibits were expertly curated – we just didn’t jive with either place.

As afternoon rain began to fall upon the city, we ducked into Café Raimund for an afternoon snack and shelter from the rain. The schnitzel was good, but the reviews on this place are all average, so our positive impression is probably more a reflection of the fact that it was dry and warm inside.

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We decided to spend the rest of our afternoon and evening exploring the Vienna Naschmarkt, a popular market with hundreds of food stands and vendors selling cheese, sausages, produce, and other delectables. Even on cold nights, you can warm yourself with the smells of fresh pastries and a hot cup of gluhwein (mulled wine made with spices). On the night we came here, a lot of stalls were closed, but we found one still open called Zur Eisernen Zeit:

 

After our satisfying dinner, we went to If Dogs Run Free, a bar that’s well known in Vienna for producing some stellar cocktails (apparently it’s also a reference to a famous Bob Dylan lyric). I really wanted to try their barrel-aged negroni but was saddened to find out it wouldn’t be ready for a few days. After a normal negroni and a corpse reviver here, I can confirm that these are some of the best cocktails you’ll find in Vienna.

We were returning to our hotel when we passed a place called “Addicted to Rock Bar and Burger,” where they claim to have 400 variations of gin & tonic. Bemused and not quite believing this grandiose claim, we hesitated. Then like a five year old pulling his parents into a candy store, I looked at my wife and screamed, “But it has gin and tonic!!!” The Austrian bartender was outside having a smoke and when I said this, she smiled at us, opened the door for us, and said “Come on in!” with a hearty laugh. We went inside and as she poured us the first of two gin and tonics, we began talking to her and found out she had traveled and lived all over the U.S., including time in Nashville!

This place was definitely a hopping spot and more like a sports bar, but the gin and tonic wall gave it a classy feel and the cocktails themselves were beautifully made:

We also discovered an oddity in each of the restrooms:

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Do we dare?

We asked our bartender what it did and she refused to tell us. Despite it being a terrible gimmick, it definitely made us both wonder. In the end, we didn’t push that button…so now the responsibility passes to you, my loyal readers, and I hope you will share with me what that button does!

Day 10 – Carnival

No, we did not take a side trip to Brazil in the middle of our European honeymoon. The 11th of November signifies the opening of Carnival season in Vienna, and to celebrate, at 11:11 AM, a massive Vienna waltz commences in the city center by the Stephensplatz.

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To power up for the morning, I decided to overload on breakfast(also why I am overweight)

As we arrived, we saw a slowly growing crowd moving in semi-coordinated rhythm and we heard someone speaking in German while also keeping a metronomic beat. The photo below shows people learning the rhythm and the video shows them doing what they’ve learned!

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The crowd learns the waltz from professional instructors

This hour was my wife’s main reason for us to be here on November 11 and just as quickly as it started, it was over. At the time, she seemed a bit let down that it was already over, but suddenly I heard her gasp and I knew she was fine:

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The red boot full of gluhwein signifies the holiday markets are open!

Holiday markets are the best thing about Europe in winter. Vendors with their homemade (and sometimes Chinese made Christmas curios, stands of food and drink, and small boot sized mugs of gluhwein or cider to keep you warm in slightly nippy weather (the boots will cost you €2.50 each to keep – it’s a refundable deposit – and then €5 each for the gluhwein).

Proudly sipping at our little beverages, we decided to walk east from St. Stephen’s to Hundertwasserhaus, which is an apartment building designed in the style of renowned architect and environmentalist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

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Rolling walkways

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Hundertwasserhaus

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Walkway under Hundertwasserhaus

His style is unabashedly unconventional with forests and gardens everywhere, vibrant colors, and a complete disregard for linearity. Unfortunately, the outside is the only thing you can see here. People live in this building, so if you’re hoping to get a look at one of the units, you’ll be disappointed. What you can do, however, is walk a few blocks to Kunst Haus Wien (the Hundertwasser Museum). Buy a ticket for the gallery (~€11 each) and be patient with the first floor – the good stuff is on the second level.

Our afternoon turned gray and windy, so we walked back towards St. Stephen’s Square and dropped into the Hotel Sacher, home of the famed Sacher Café and its namesake item, the Sacher Torte. This is something famed far beyond the Austrian border. A chocolate cake with apricot jam, served with chocolate icing and a dollop of whipped cream that maintains its structural integrity without tasting like fondant or anything too unnatural. Add on a couple coffees to warm you up and the combination of sugar, caffeine, and lovely ambiance will put you in a good mood.

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Sacher Torte

With our hearts and stomachs warmed and filled, we walked down the street to the Vienna State Opera House for a tour of this legendary institution (we were too gun shy to try another performance after our debacle in Budapest – see the Budapest article – Day 4 for that story).  A tour will cost €5.50 per person and you can get it in English, Spanish, German, French, or Japanese.

 

The entire tour is brief (less than an hour) and once you finish, you’re in the perfect spot to stop by Café Gerstner to either have *more* sweets or bring home something for family or friends. I recommend the Sisi Torte, which at €26 is an immaculately ornate dessert made of chocolate cake, red currant jam, “flavored with cassis marzipan and crowned with sweet white Massa Ticino” and dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth I of Austria. I always find the story behind food to be just as rich as the sweet frosting on it, and this made for a great family dessert at Thanksgiving with aunts and uncles. (the torte survived well for well over a couple weeks after we returned to the US – just make sure you don’t put it in the refrigerator or it will dry out).

As our improvised walking tour through Vienna snaked us through streets that are not normally on most tourist routes, we somehow found Café Frauenhuber. Let me restate…our hunger found Café Frauenhuber. Located in a former bathhouse and proudly claiming that Mozart and Beethoven once played here, this restaurant also lays claim to being the older coffee house in Vienna. As stated on their website, “Mozart´s last public performance took place in our coffeehouse at March 4th, 1791” and while I personally cannot confirm this, I have to believe it’s been vetted by Austrian historians.

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Café Frauenhuber

 

Day 11 – Back to Budapest

I never noticed that Vienna’s train station bears a striking resemblance to Cylon Basestars (image courtesy of http://galacticafanon.wikia.com/wiki/Basestar/Hybrid_(FCW_-_Present)_(D17)?file=2370744Basestarfinal7.jpg )

The end of our adventure in Vienna brought us back to Budapest for one last evening of honeymooning and we were not disappointed to find the Christmas Markets opened up in full force. I honestly cannot recall exactly what I ate for dinner in the market, but it was a soul-satisfying combination of bread, meat, cheese, onions, and a sour cream sauce that put me into a coma the likes of which are normally reserved for post-Thanksgiving tryptophan shock.

 

The joy of waddling through the market turned from savory to visual as some of Budapest’s best artisans come out to sell their wares here. This is not like most holiday markets in which people sell the same thing in ten different stalls. Each shop had something very unique, and some examples of the variety are shown below:

 

 

We ended our night at Café New York, which boldly claims itself to be the most beautiful café in the world. This claim is certainly true. The restaurant is located in the Boscolo Budapest hotel (part of the Marriott family) and used to be the home for the New York Life Insurance Company’s European headquarters. But the luxury references end at the visuals:

 

The wife opted for the Hungarian cake selection while I had the New York ice cream cup, and as you can see below, the delivery did not match the expectations: (images on the left are from http://www.newyorkcafe.hu/menu.html)

 

After they dropped our food off, they literally never came back to the table. I had to flag down the manager after waiting 30 minutes for anyone to come check in on us, and that included me waving at another server in our area.

Bottom line: come here and look at the inside. But don’t waste your time with eating or drinking here. It doesn’t feel like Budapest and your time and money will be better spend elsewhere.

Day 12 – Returning Home

Our flight from Budapest left early in the morning so we arranged a taxi from the Courtyard Marriott City Center hotel for HUF 7,900/~USD$28. The airport check-in is a bit confusing because they don’t have dedicated lines for each airline. You need to look on the big board for the airline you’re flying and then line up once the lane is assigned to your flight #. Because we were one of the first flights of the day, it wasn’t immediately clear where to stand. For British Airways, if you’re OneWorld Emerald, you’ll be in the far left of their lanes.

Once through security, we grabbed some breakfast in the lounge before our first flight back to London. At Heathrow, we were able to get into the Galleries First lounge, what could be tied for the best airport lounge in the world (with The Wing lounge, which is Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong’s flagship lounge).

From London, we boarded what will likely be my last business class international flight for a long time (sadface), departed for Los Angeles, and headed home to San Francisco. But not before getting another solid dinner on the flight:

As a reminder, for a handy dandy Google map of many of the places we went, click here!

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to ascribe a couple of thoughts or images to each part of the world and this was one of those trips that broke many of my impressions. I freely admit to not knowing a lot about central and eastern Europe and what I did know was limited to historical events and food and beverage…things like Archduke Ferdinand, Czech pilsner, and Viennese coffee and opera.

I would return to any of these cities again, but in particular Hungary stands out. It is not just the cost of living or the fact that everyone speaks English or even that the food is delicious. It goes beyond that. Budapest is a warm and welcoming city that does not present a touristy vibe. There are tourists, but it never feels touristy.

Our tickets on American cost us around $750 round trip from San Francisco to Budapest through JFK and London, so if you can find similarly priced deals, my advice is: take it. And enjoy Hungary!

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