I've been wanting to visit Central Europe for some time now. So when the opportunity arose quite recently, I suggested it to IH and he agreed (other travel options were Turkey and Argentina). We booked our Germanwings flight 2 weeks prior to our trip and started planning our grand European adventure.
We arrived Budapest in the middle of the day and went straight to the info desk to purchase the 24 hours Budapest card. The Budapest card offered unlimited public transportation rides within the city and discounts to restaurants, museums, entertainment and leisure activities. Alternatively, we could have gotten the 24 hour public transportation card for less than half of the price of a Budapest card. Except we won't be able to enjoy the facilities that we did. We dropped off our luggage at our apartment we found via airbnb.com Most of the local businesses dealt with Hungarian forint but Euros were widely accepted. Credit card usage was limited.
Our first stop was Castle Hill. We bought doners a.k.a. Turkish kebabs by the train station, ate them in the park, climbed the stairs and was greeted by Matthias church, a 13th century cathedral with interesting architectures and sculptures. We explored the grounds consisting of the Royal Palace, National Art and History museums and Fisherman's Bastion. The last 30 minutes in the National History museum was free for visitors with Budapest card so we quickly zipped through the museum. One must not missed out on the beautiful vantage of Pest and Danube river that snaked between Buda and Pest. We walked down the other side of the hill and made our way to Gellert Spa and Bath. Built in 1918, it is renowned for its medicinal baths housed in a throwback of Hungarian past. Bathers came from almost all four corners of the world. Nevertheless, the building signs were misleading. Caps were required to enter the pools which was not tightly enforced. Directions were unclear- I got lost a few times finding the main pools. There were pools dedicated for same gender only which was nice since I did not particularly want men ogling at me. We ended up spending three hours until closing time.
We packed up and hunted for Hungarian restaurants. We stumbled across this homely looking restaurant that offered multilingual menus and took credit cards called Alfondi Vendegro. I ordered the classic goulash: beef stew while my partner ordered sausage and cabbage. The meal was very filling so the thought of walking off the dinner was appealing. IH took pictures of the gorgeous Buda castle from Pest and the bridges that crossed the Danube river. After walking in the freezing weather for an hour, we headed back to our apartment, exhausted but happy that our first day went well.
The next morning, we woke up early and traveled to the House of Terror. We took some pictures of the museum and continued our way to City Park. We explored the grounds consisted of Vajdahunyad castle, an ice skating rink and Heroes' square dedicated to the rich historical and political connotations.
We took pictures of the outdoor pools of Szechenyi and had brunch of Hungarian stir fried chicken, sausage, cabbage and potatoes. We rode the train to St. Stephen's Cathedral and admired the interior of the basilica before traveling to our last stop in Budapest, the Hungarian national museum. The museum offered discounts for travelers 26 years of age and under with Budapest card so that was a decent saving. We spent slightly more than an hour learning the history and current events of Hungary which proved to be helpful later in our Austrian part of our trip. We collected our luggage and went to the Keleti main railway station, only to learn that we missed the train to Bratislava by mere seconds. We thought it was the last direct train to the city only to pleasantly discover that there were two more trains leaving later that day. The train to Bratislava only ran at 2 hours interval but gave us sufficient time because we had to purchase our tickets which took longer than 30 minutes and grabbed a quick McDonalds meal. You would think I was crazy to have an American fast food meal but hear me out! I wanted to taste the difference between a McD burger in the USA and Hungary and the difference between chicken and McChicken sandwich. Ordering at a Budapest McD proved to be slightly challenging as they used different terminologies. The portions came half the size one would find here. In short, the burgers, sides and soda tasted the same.
After chomping down our meal, we caught our train, settled in and spent the next 2.5 hours reading and recuperating.
Of these 3 cities, I was most excited for Bratislava. This is because it's the least known city to me and my preconception of the city has been a former Communist capital on the edge of rapid development. We checked in to our hotel called Hotel Blue II, located slightly outside of the old city. We purchased individual tickets for our entire visit since the city was small enough to explore by foot. We rode mainly on buses and trams. A 15 minutes ride costed 70 Euro cents while a 60 (90 for the weekend) minutes costed 90 cents. Since we were not tired, we dropped off our luggage and caught the bus into the old city. One of the passengers spoke good English and gave us directions into the old city. We also gathered some tips from a German couple we met at the hotel.
We took pictures of buildings and sculptures in the old square and climbed the Bratislava castle a.k.a. Hrad hill. The same Danube flows by the old town and offered some great views from the top, including the funny looking UFO rotating restaurant on the newer bridge.
We found a cool bar called Gallery Andy that was designed after a tram, snacked and chatted up with the bartender. We wrapped up the night by catching the cab for 8 Euros since there were no buses running along our hotel route after midnight.
We ate a hearty breakfast at the hotel and visited the St Martin Cathedral the next morning. We observed a quick Latin service and proceeded to the Hrad once again for another view of the city and castle visit. The building and grounds were closed for New Year's Eve fireworks display much to our disappointment. We returned to the old town and tagged along a German tour group. After mindlessly wondering around the town, we had enough of the Slovakian capital and continued our journey to Vienna.
We picked up our luggage at our hotel and caught the hourly train to Vienna. The train ride was approximately 40 minutes, filled with tourists and offered beautiful country side views of Slovakia and eventually Austria.
The train pulled into Wien Hauptbahnhof, the newest train station in Vienna. It was built to be a central point for all trains and public transportation to converge but some locals and tourists felt it was not efficient yet because out of town passengers still needed to leave the new station and enter the old station to catch the U-bahn. IH felt quite at home and appointed himself as the local guide. I willingly obliged. We traveled to our rented room that we discovered via airbnb.com Viennese hotel rooms were obscenely expensive due to the popular New Year's weekend so we were very glad to find this room. The German-Canadian couple received us as their first ever guests and gave some helpful tips. We purchased the 48 hours ticket for 11 Euros which enabled us to use all public transportation within the city limits. However, we purchased a connecting ticket to travel to the airport since it was located in another suburb.
Our first stop was Stephansdom, the mother church and seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. IH guided us in the city, regaling its history and architectures. We dined at Palatschinkenpfandl, a restaurant specializing in pancakes. After a slow service, we continued discovering the city and snapping pictures of famous cafes, Mozarthaus, Anchor clock, Jewish memorial site, Spanish Riding School, Hofburg and lastly the Viennese opera house. We returned to the apartment for an early night.
We began the next day at Prater and rode in Vienna's pride and joy, its 100+ year old Giant ferris wheel. We had Viennese kasewurst and currywurst that came with thick slices of bread before we proceeded to Schönbrunn Palace, a summer castle built to rival Versailles in its Baroque beauty. We did not enter the palace but walked in the gardens.
When we reached the top of the hill, we consumed sachertorte and apfelstrudel at Gloriette cafe. I later learned that Viennese cafes would serve coffee with a glass of water and a demitasse spoon balanced on the glass rim on a silver tray.
We returned to the heart of the city, enjoying the New Year's eve decorations and performances along with hoards of tourists. After watching a few shows, we returned to the apartment to rest our weary bodies before going out later that evening for New Year's eve fireworks celebration.
We bade goodbye to our German hostess since we would leave early the next morning. And made our way back to the city, this time most of the main U-bahn stations were closed because of the crowds. Walking around the city during NYE was an eye opening experience for me as there were fireworks thrown around me. Apparently people usually got hurt so there were emergency vehicles around to usher victims away. I almost thought we were in a war zone! We listened to a couple of performances before parking ourselves on Hofburg grounds to catch the official fireworks. When midnight drew closer, the mayor spoke about his vision to have the city more bicycle-friendly. The countdown began at 10 seconds. Immediately after the clock struck midnight, the fireworks went off for 15 minutes and people brought out their champagne and toasted. We bade Auf Wiedersehen and walked back to the U-bahn station for a night's rest before catching our international flight at the crack of dawn.
Overall, I could not ask for a better introduction to Central Europe. I spent enough time in one city to understand its history, cultures and bearings. Traveling in this region was easy as most locals speak English and tolerant to tourists. On one final note, if you find yourself planning a trip to Central Europe, do invest in a good travel book and do research before hand to optimize travel expenses and schedules. We came under our original budget and did what we were set out to do.
Date modified: Jan 9, 2013