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Vienna, Budapest, Prague: 21st Century Tourism Triplets

September 20th, 2017 · No Comments · Budapest, Prague, tourism, Travel, Vienna

And I thought it was my idea. No, really.

Someone already on the continent who is keen to see some well-known capitals of Europe that are not the usual London, Paris, Berlin, et al.

Let’s get out a map …

Hey, wait!

Budapest, Vienna and Prague are arranged more or less on a straight line of about 340 miles!

Shorter than the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco!

We can do those three in a couple of weeks, three or four days in each, before the weather in central/eastern Europe gets chilly.

And off we went!

In the real world, lots and lots of tourists and package-tour operators were way ahead of me on the Prague-Vienna-Budapest trail.

Turns out, it’s a thing, in this part of the world. Doing Vienna, Budapest and Prague, in some order.

We came to realize this 1) when we found a rail company that offers three one-way trips between those three cities and 2) we arrived and discovered millions of tourists have been traipsing through those cities in recent years.

What ties them together?

Each is the capital of a country.

Each was a major city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted till 1918.

After being on the losing side of World War I, the polyglot empire was broken into its ethnic bits, more or less, with Prague eventually becoming the capital of  the Czech Republic, Vienna of Austria and Budapest of Hungary.

Each has a feel of Old World Europe to it, with lots of quaint sights — churches and bridges and opera houses and symphony halls and statues of locally famous men. Each city offers lots of shopping, from the upper end of luxury to the bottom tier of shlock.

Each loves beer and pork and sausage.

Moving between them by train makes the most sense. Could drive, from France, but getting into and out of those three cities, behind the wheel of a car, seems nearly impossible, having now seen each of them from the inside. Could fly, but then you’ve got a lot of time spent at airports outside of town.

Train is best, and you actually can see the countryside, maybe even strike up a conversation with other tourists.

A few thoughts about each of three cities.

–Prague. The only one of the three to escape major damage during World War II, so it has the most “old” stuff — the 700-year-old bridge, the church on the hill, the former royal residence, and the whole of it is split in half by the Voltava River. (Of the three capitals, it has the coldest weather, generally, and the wind blows for much of the year.) The Czechs use the Latin alphabet but speakers of western European languages will recognize pretty much zero words — aside from “pivo” (beer). Well-placed for a day trip to Dresden (Germany) or Plzen (home of Pilsner beer). The whole region loves pork, but Prague may have an edge there; try the pig’s knuckle, if you are brave. Prague seems most eager to please, of the three capitals, and it also seems the least expensive to visit and explore. But as noted last week, the cozy Old Town is being loved to death by tourists.

–Budapest. Listing these in the order we visited. Prague to Budapest is the long leg of the three, in this itinerary — about 6.5 hours by train. Some of that is along the Danube River, which is key to everything geopolitical, in this part of Europe. The rest is through vaguely recognizable cities like Brno and Bratislava (capital of Slovokia, for toe-touch purposes). We liked Budapest for several reasons. Among them — it has the old and ornate on the Buda side of the river, but the more recent and accessible on the Pest (east) side of the river. The tourist buses are ideal for seeing the basics. This is the home of goulash, and it can be had in many iterations, none of them expensive. Language is not a problem in Hungary because the Hungarians accept that no one understands their language, and we did not talk to anyone who did not know at least a little English. This is another inexpensive city.

–Vienna. A disappointment. I grasp that Vienna was a big deal for several centuries, as capital of the Holy Roman Empire/Habsburg kingdom. Significant events happened there for several centuries. Vienna was a major city when Berlin, for instance, was Hicksville. Vienna is where the Turkish push into Europe came to a halt. And the city has all the trappings of a truly important capital, from coffee houses to palaces to museums … though it also gives off a sense of having the “fifth- or sixth-best” this or that. If you want the best, you need to see Paris or London or Florence. Vienna has been largely rebuilt since WW2 and seems prosperous. Its broad boulevards do a better job of absorbing tourist hordes than does, say, the narrow warrens of old Prague. However, Vienna is significantly more expensive than the other two on this itinerary, and we never warmed to the locals, who are aloof.

So, the final ranking: Budapest, Prague, Vienna. But if you have the time and energy, may as well do all three.


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