Getting the most out of the Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Vienna Loop
I sat down at the hostel bar and waded into that all-too-common icebreaker with the lone traveler alongside me.
“Where to next?” I asked without making eye contact.
“Prague,” came the response.
“Really? Me too,” I said. “Vienna after that I guess?”
“Yup. And I suppose you arrived from Budapest this morning?” he said.
We both looked forlornly at out beers in disappointment that our respective rail itineraries that we both thought were amazingly inventive, were actually just tried and tested loops done thousands of times by Eurailers before us. But in spite of my disappointment at my lack of originality, the four cities are so perfectly spaced, and each so captivating and unique, that none of that weird rail itinerary pride stuff mattered one bit.
Budapest is a convenient starting point for any Eurail journey. There are often cheap connecting flights to the city from across the continent. It’s also a beautiful and dramatic way to launch into an epic trip.
It’s a city that seems to have it all for the rail traveler. On the practical front, it has easy connections to both Central and Eastern Europe. But it also has a beauty and magnetism that appeals to a broad range of interests.
I spent most of my days in Budapest focused around the Danube. It’s a river that binds several capitals in Europe and is without doubt one of Europe’s most attractive. Fortunately, it’s at its best flowing through the Hungarian capital.
The various bridges that span the width of the river are all worth walking across and admiring from a distance. Margaret Island is a magnificent green lung further north, and the iconic Hungarian Parliament straddles the bank on the Pest side with remarkable grandeur.
Of course, there’s more to the city than the river. The ruin pubs, somber history, thermal baths and the castle on the Buda side of the city can easily soak up weeks of splendid sightseeing.
After more than a week in Budapest, I decided to move on. It was my second visit, but I promised myself I’d return. The town of Bratislava is an easy three-hour train ride away. Also on the Danube, it’s technically the only national capital in the world to border on two foreign countries, in Austria and Hungary. I checked into a large hostel in the Bratislava Old Town with a view of the castle, and then walked the quiet streets.
Bratislava may lack the fame and grandeur of Budapest, but it still has an appeal that’s well worth interrogating. The Danube flows wide and fast along the outer limit of the city, and though the other side may not have much to see and do for tourists, a walk across the bridge to the futuristic flying saucer offers a unique perspective.
Bratislava’s Old Town is best explored on foot, and for context, I joined a free walking tour early the next morning. It highlighted some of the city’s most popular attractions with digestible nuggets of information. Ridiculously, the most popular attraction still appears to be Čumil – a statue of communist-era worker climbing out of a manhole.
There are, of course, other things to see in the city. The Blue Church and Bratislava Castle are two of them. There’s also Devín Castle, which sits right on the border with Austria at the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers. Though the castle itself is underwhelming, it’s a remarkably peaceful place to explore and reflect on any rail journey.
After the magic of Budapest, though, the Slovakian capital didn’t keep my attention for more than a couple of days. Anxious to keep moving, I boarded the train for Prague.
Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, or Czechia as English speakers are now being encouraged to call it, needs little introduction. This romantic capital, nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires”, has a river of its own. It’s not the Danube, but it has a charm all of its own. This, at least in Prague, is due primarily to Charles Bridge, the statue-lined stone structure that connects the Old Town to the Castle.
Prague is also one of the continent’s party capitals. Basement bars, hipster pubs, and high-end clubs set the tone for all of your hedonistic desires. One evening I made the ill-advised decision to join a hostel pub crawl. It involved an overpriced tour of the city’s struggling underground dive bars. If you’re a fan of the occasional tipple, particularly if it’s made with hops and barley, a bit of research will land you in a unique bar loaded with the best and freshest Czech beer. And once the beers take hold, there’s an endless selection of clubs to keep you busy until the early hours.
Most of the daytime action in Prague takes place around the Old Town. The 600-year-old astronomical clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge will take up the majority of your time. But for altogether different views that are mercifully tourist-free, a brisk walk up to the National Memorial on Vítkov is a rewarding workout.
If you can tolerate the crowds, especially in peak season, it’s easy to spend a week or two walking the quiet back roads, sampling local beers, watching the passing parade of people, and marveling at the spellbinding architecture. If time isn’t on your side, a guided walking tour, of which there are many in the capital, will condense this into a few hours and leave you with a handful of factoids to share on your return.
The last stop of this loop is Vienna. If traveling from Prague to Vienna feels like you’re retracing your steps a bit, that’s because you are. Much of the route between the two cities is along the same line you’d have traveled north on. The journey between the two cities is comfortably under five hours. Though both have their own regal presence, the difference is notable.
Vienna’s architecture demands your attention at every turn. As do her museums, palaces, stores and coffee shops. Walking the streets of this Austrian icon feels much like walking the streets of a carefully constructed theme park. Very little seems out of place, from the horse and carriages in the center, to the gargantuan statues lurking around the most inconspicuous corners.
Doing Vienna right requires a lot of planning and plenty of time. Even with these, you’ll have to accept that you won’t get to explore all the attractions you’ve jotted down. In a week I made it to only a small selection of galleries and museums, ventured into only two classic coffee houses, and had just a single schnitzel in a traditional wood-paneled restaurant.
Fittingly, I ended my stay in the Austrian capital almost the same way this Eurail loop had begun — hovering on a small bridge above the Danube. At this point in Vienna, it was canalized and exhibited little more charm than a rather large gutter. But when I noticed a small soccer ball floating in the turbulent waters below, it pleased me to think that there was a possibility, however small, that it would end up all the way back where I’d started.