Traveling… again.

We really enjoy our time here in Japan, but one of the perks of this job assignment has been the opportunity to travel to other countries as well. We recently returned from a trip to eastern Europe and we decided we would write about our impressions of the cities/countries we visited.

Vienna, Austria. We had been to Vienna very briefly before — just a one night stopover — but this time we had a few days to actually explore the city.

Karlskirche, and 18th century Habsburg domed cathedral

Our hotel was in the historic city center, so it was an easy walk to many of the popular sites, many restaurants and sidewalk cafes, and plenty of upscale shopping (if you are so-inclined.) We especially enjoyed the sidewalk cafes, and stopping for a late afternoon beer or aperitif.

Transportation to and from the airport or train station is easy and inexpensive, and there is an extensive subway and tram system to take you anywhere in the city. We bought CAT train tickets (City-Airport Train) and a three day city transportation pass while we were still at the airport. The CAT train takes 16 minutes to travel from the airport to the city center station at Landstrasse. From there it was two stops on the subway, and a short walk to our hotel.

Prague, Czech Republic. From Vienna, we got a train to Prague. Again, our hotel was near the historic city center, and easily accessible to most of the tourist sites.

Boats on the Vltava river in central Prague

We had some trouble finding a taxi from the train station, and I think we were overcharged. If we had known better beforehand, I think we would have tried to find other public transit options. Prague has many trams and buses, and daily transit passes are inexpensive. But there is much to see in the city center area, and it is all easily walkable.

View from Vysehrad Fortress

Food is relatively inexpensive if you go a block or two AWAY from the main shopping street through the city center, and there is a great variety of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Everything is much more expensive along the main shopping street, so explore a little farther off the “tourist track” if possible.

John Lennon wall in central Prague

Budapest, Hungary. Our third stop for this trip was Budapest. We took a train from Prague – about 5 hours – to this city on the Danube River. Our mistake was that we booked a hotel near the train station we were going to be leaving from, not realizing that our arriving train came in to another station about a mile away.

Parliament building along the Danube

It would have been easy to get a taxi, but the weather was nice, and we decided to drag our luggage and walk instead.

Lively area around the Danube River in central Budapest

We have been to Budapest before, and were familiar with most of the sites there. We have favorite places we like there, and visited them again. As with Vienna and Prague, public transit is plentiful, and inexpensive, but the city is also very walkable. We walk when we can, because we feel it is easier to get to know a city on foot.

So… which city did we like best? Which city would we recommend for a visit? That, of course, depends on personal preference, but here are some of our impressions. Some bullet points:

  • Vienna is a beautiful city: a city full of art and culture and music. But we felt that Prague had more sites of interest to us, as well as a rich and colorful history. The city itself is clean and beautiful and well-maintained.
  • Budapest is a bit more “edgy” in our opinion. Maybe not as clean and well-maintained as Prague, but a really interesting place — especially for night-life. Examples: the “Ruin Bars” in the old Jewish quarter. Buildings that were slated for demolition, but have been taken over by bars and restaurants, furnished eclectically with odds and ends from second-hand shops. Also… the beer gardens set up in the park not far from our hotel. Exceptionally good beer, and it was VERY inexpensive. We went there with a friend of ours who lives in Budapest. Not sure we would have found it otherwise, but it was a really enjoyable evening.
  • Not that I want to get into the political history of these three cities, but I think it is important to note that their histories flavor the cities they have become. Prague and Budapest, in particular, have gone through some very difficult times, and the scars of those times have influenced the character of the cities today.

As a conclusion, a few brief remarks on other European cities we have visited:

  • London and Paris: We love London and Paris, and have been to both cities many times. We know our way around these cities, have our favorite sites that we visit over and over, and we are comfortable getting around these cities. But… we feel that London and Paris are somewhat “tourist tired.” They are certainly worth a visit, but the burden of tourists over the years has taken a toll. Most especially, watch out for petty crime in Paris.
  • Bucharest, Romania: Some describe Bucharest as a “Paris Wanna-be”… that may be so, but we just didn’t see it. Though we enjoyed our visit to Bucharest, we were much happier taking the train to Constanta, on the Black Sea coast of Romania. It has almost a Mediterranean flavor, and makes us think of Greece and Turkey. Also, if you do go to Romania, a trip through Transyvania is a must!
  • St. Petersburg, Russia. Interesting history, beautiful city — if somewhat run-down and seedy in places… gritty. We visited in late winter, and there was still a lot of ice and snow. The city takes on a grimy, gray color. Still we enjoyed St. Petersburg, and even (once) walked across the frozen Neva river (NOT recommended by those in authority, because if you break through the ice, the current is so strong that you would be swept away before you could be rescued. But… a lot of the locals were walking across, so we did too.)

So, if you only have the opportunity to visit one of these cities? Which would it be…? I think the winner for us… would have to be… Prague.

P.S. If you do decide to go to Prague, be sure to check out this YouTube video collection — The Honest Guide – Prague: