I did this exact trip in reverse with my best friend Angela in 2012. It was our first Eurotrip together, our first time with Rick Steves, and a memorable adventure that I can’t remember because we were young and had energy to go out every night.
So naturally, these three were at the top of the list when thinking about where to show my boyfriend, Sean, for his trip to visit me in Europe. Beautiful, iconic, historical cities that are a must-do for any eastern/central Europe trip. We booked Airbnb’s and train tickets, downloaded some Rick podcasts, and said adios to Belgrade.
I ❤ Trains
I have to say, traveling by train is the best. I don’t know if it has to do with overnight train trips I took as a kid from Russia to Ukraine, the fact that there’s no waiting around the way there is with airplanes, or the scenery you often miss when road tripping, but I love trains.
We had our own compartment on the Russian sleeper to Budapest, which was such a fun way to start our adventure. Even though I didn’t sleep well and border control was a pain, the option for blue lights on the train and knowing that I get to wake up in another country made it all worth it.
Incredible architecture, a fascinating history, and funky vibes make Budapesht (as it’s properly pronounced) worth coming to. I loved walking around the castle district, with it’s amazing all-white St. Matthias Cathedral, stunning views from Fisherman’s Bastion, and quaint colorful houses. I also loved the first thing we did after spending way too long storing our luggage in the train station: visit Gellert Baths, one of the most famous baths in Budapest. We relaxed in warm, therapeutic waters, sat in a steam room, and took alternating cold dips in the ice bath. Aaaaaahh.
Something I missed/blocked out of my memory from my previous trip was learning about, and understanding, Budapest and Hungary. We took a walking tour with a very jaded Hungarian, who told us how Hungary “always chose the wrong sides” in wars, and has lost much of its land to neighboring countries over time. A highlight for both of us was the Terror Museum, located in what used to be the headquarters of first Nazis, and later the Secret Police of communist times. It’s a haunting and extremely well-done view into the internal terrorism Hungary, like much of eastern Europe, endured for decades. On a more modern note, our tour of the Parliament, probably the most notable building of Budapest’s skyline, brought us face-to-face with the old crown jewels, beautiful gilded staircases, and even the cabinet where Hungary’s government makes decisions.
Eating and drinking in Hungary was delightful. We tried Hungarian goulash, a more soupy version of the famous dish, and pálinka, local Hungarian liquor. We also went out to one of the ruin pubs, Szimpla, a hipster Budapest staple. It’s full of a mish-mash of objects, from bicycles to chairs to random chatchkis that make this once-abandoned building a fun and funky bar.
We arrived in Vienna in the late morning, marveling at our awesome Airbnb, which had: a bathtub in the kitchen, color-coded books (!), and a sleek but cozy modern vibe that almost made leaving it hard.
What struck me first about Vienna is how beautiful and grand everything is. No detail spared.
We walked around, doing a Rick Steves guided tour, and hit the highlights: the famous Opera House, the entrance to Hofburg Palace, Stephansplatz and St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
We went home to prep for our main event of Vienna: a night at the opera. This was a big must-do that I missed the last time around, so we splurged and bought tickets in advance, though you can buy standing-room tickets for $20 the day of. We saw Turandot, a Puccini opera about a princess who must choose a husband and does so by asking riddles of them. The opera house was stunningly beautiful inside, the singers and acoustics were amazing, and just closing my eyes and getting lost in the music was at times almost an out-of-body experience. The opera’s most famous aria, Nessum Dorma, brought loud cheering from the audience.
Earlier in the day, we had met up with Sean’s friend from college, who’d been living in Vienna for a couple of years. He invited us out, so after the opera, we met him and his friends for some beers, narrowly escaped a very smoky bar, and headed down to the canal to play Flunkyball, which I quickly opted out of.
The next day, we had some breakfast at Karmelitermarkt, an adorable collection of various cafes and stands near our Airbnb, and hopped on the train to Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs. The audio-guided one-hour tour of the palace itself was well worth it. I’m not usually one to love palaces, but there was something special about this one. My favorite room was Maria Theresa’s parlor, the “Chinese room,” both for the upholstery and amazing wooden floors. They didn’t allow photos inside, so this one is from the internet:
Even better than the palace itself were the gardens. They were still in bloom, and seeing them from the windows of the palace, fountains in full gear, made me understand and appreciate why one might run away from Vienna to Schonbrunn, even though it’s a mere 8km away. We climbed to the top of the Gloriette, at the far end of the gardens, and had magic hour wine and a photo session.
After returning to Wien proper, we got ready for dinner at Mottoam Fluss, a trendy restaurant made to look like a boat on Vienna’s canal. We had a lovely dinner, and reflected on how awesome the day was.
We woke early to catch our train, and made it to Prague by late morning. After only a week away, it felt like coming home. It was a relief to know where I was going, what to do where, how to say thank you. Our Airbnb was right in the center of Prague 1, Old Town, and we wasted no time joining a walking tour of the old city. We heard about the Old Clock, with its hourly show, Tyn cathedral, the Charles Bridge, and of course, Prague Castle and defenestration (Prague’s peculiar tradition of throwing people out of windows).
A beer later, we hiked up to the top of Riegrovy Hill to watch the sunset over the city, and then moseyed to U Sadu, a traditional Czech restaurant nearby. We filled up on ribs and hermelin (pickled cheese!), and bar-hopped our way through Prague 3, stopping at Bukowski’s and Malkovich, two trendy bars that were very actually very low-key.
The next day, we walked across the Charles Bridge to have brunch at Café Savoy, a historical café that managed to maintain its beautiful ceiling by the savvy owner covering it up during the Communist reign. Later, we hiked up to Prague Castle and caught a guided English tour. We saw St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which literally took my breath away with its stunning stained glass and magical interplay of light, roamed around the medieval castle, and heard stories and legends of the various rulers of Prague. On our way down, we strolled through the Golden Lane, believed to house alchemists in the 16th century.
We stopped for a beer at Letna Beer Garden – my favorite for its great views of the city – and had dinner at Hergetova Citelna, overlooking the Charles Bridge at sunset. Though we had plans to have at least one night on the town during our trip, after one drink at Hemingway, a trendy speakeasy-style bar, we were ready to turn in for the night and get ready for long days of travels ahead…
I dropped Sean off at the airport and headed to my own train ride back to Belgrade, which consisted of a pretty, uneventful journey through the countryside and a sleeper compartment shared with a pair of young Germans on their own Eurotrip.
I was happy to be “home” in Belgrade, and already looking forward to going home – to New York – for a week in just six short ones.
On Race in Europe
I don’t often write about the fact that I’m a white woman dating a black man. In this particular post, I would be remiss not to. Though I’ve been particularly aware of the homogeneity in central Europe on this trip, it’s been easy to feel comfortable for me and kind of… forget. That first night Sean was in Belgrade (where there are probably 3 black people total and diversity is just really uncommon), I noticed the looks and felt Sean’s tense silence. While less overt in Budapest, Vienna and Prague, it was definitely something that we were both cognizant of during this trip. In Vienna, a Brazilian-Austrian we hung out with told stories of blatant racism in Austria – though without the killing sprees that we see in the US these days. Prague was Sean’s favorite largely because there was more diversity there.
I was once again reminded of my own white privilege to travel almost anywhere without feeling super uncomfortable, rather than having to consider what local attitudes towards me might be when selecting a destination. My friend Mike, who is our only black community member, talked about how negative his experience in Prague was – the city that so many of us considered our favorite in Europe. He was accused of shoplifting, overcharged, and told that he was “ruining the country.”
I hope with time and exposure, parts of Europe that are largely homogenous will open up to other cultures while preserving and enriching the special parts of theirs that make it a pleasure to visit them.