Budapest, Vienna, and Bratislava
Though I lived in Germany for almost four years, I never made it to this corner of Central Europe. My friend and I visited three European capitals in this one-week trip: Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava. All are within a couple of hours of each other via rail or riverboat on the Danube. We began our trip in Budapest, the edgy Hungarian capital with great restaurants and cafes, un-renovated buildings from the 1800s and a more “foreign” feel than Western European cities. Next was Vienna, the epitome of European refinement, filled with old cafes and churches, and some of the world’s best museums. The last was Bratislava, the underrated Slovakian capital with a well-preserved Old Town, where we spent the afternoon swilling lagers and downing hearty Eastern European food for a pittance.
Day 1: Budapest: Wine festival, Buda Castle
After checking into the Hotel Palazzo Zichy, in the Pest section of the city, we set off to explore. We passed through a crowded shopping district with modern storefronts alongside 150 year old covered shopping galleries. Along the Danube River we got our first view of the famous Castle Hill, where Buda Castle dominates the skyline. The equally recognizable Chain Bridge was our ticket over to the Castle, which by chance was the site of the Budapest International Wine Festival that day. What are the chances?!
The wine festival charged a small admission fee of about $8, if I remember correctly, which gave us access to over 100 wine stands representing different vineyards around the country. I sampled a bunch of different wines at about 10 stands, each charging around $1 to $2 for a half glass of wine. Hungary is actually a pretty major wine grower in Europe, producing tons of grapes in its Tokaji wine region. I was into wine back then but would have appreciated this festival even more if I were as into wine as I am today.
We spent the rest of the day touring around the Castle District, getting some great shots of city from Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque terrace. The sun began to set, and our appetites were calling to us, so we headed back to the wine festival’s food area. There was so much to choose from, but we settled on a stand that was selling pig roast.
Day 2: Budapest: Market, Gellert Hill, Parliament
We started out our second day at The Great Market Hall, a huge indoor market with a soaring ceiling. All sorts of food can be found in the various stalls on the the first floor; and clothing and other household items were being hawked on the upper floors. I had just read Emil Zola’s book The Belly of Paris, about a Parisian market in the 1870s, and the setting here reminded me of the market in that book (Les Halles). One thing that stood out was the huge selection of red peppers and garlic on most of the stalls (and seemingly everywhere around the city, even).
Vörösmarty ter, a big public square, was our next stop. It’s the site of the famous Cafe Gerbaeud, one of Europe’s finest, dating back to the 1890s. Right outside the cafe was the square’s metro station, a really cool example of old-school design. Budapest’s metro is the second oldest in the world and the oldest in Europe.
J and I split for a few hours and planned to meet back at hotel in the late afternoon. I tried out Hungarian goulash at a placed called Bonnie Restro Comics and walked down the Danube to see the Parliament building, the third largest in Europe. An hour or so later I went on to the bridge to take some pictures when guess who I see: J. He had the same idea.
We walked up Gellert Hill to get another view of the city. If you ever come to Budapest, this hilltop is a must see.
After chowing down on some Hungarian fare at a local restaurant, we went to Szimpla Kart, one of Budapest’s “ruin pubs”. Ruin pubs occupy formerly vacant buildings that have been renovated somewhat and configured into bars. Szimpla Kert was enormous; it had a lot of different rooms spread out on two floors, and had weird decorations everywhere, including an old car you could sit inside and drink.
Day 3: Budapest: Jewish Quarter, Szechenyi Medicinal Baths
In the morning, I toured the Jewish area of Budapest, stepping inside the Rumbach Street synagogue, which looked to be either abandoned or under serious reconstruction. Little did I know that right down the street was the largest synagogue in Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue. I missed out on that one. This area of Budapest is really interesting because it contains the remnants of the old Jewish ghetto of Budapest. Many of the buildings where Hungarian Jews were forced to live during World War II still remain; some have been converted into outdoor shopping arcades filled with restaurants and bars.
We hopped on a metro car to the City Park district of Budapest, the site of Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. The entrance fee gave us access to a variety of different indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, and thermal baths. My favorite part of the Baths was the outdoor pool area, with the backdrop of the yellow neo-Baroque archtiecture so recognizable in photographs. It took J and I about 5 minutes to figure out the procedures for paying, getting a locker, entering the correct areas, etc. Once we figured that out, we lounged in the warm pools under the sunlight of a fall afternoon. The indoor areas were really cool too–I enjoyed dipping in the cold water after hot water, and vice versa.
With our bags stuffed with our wet towels (we forgot to bring plastic bags) we went over to the nearby Vajdahunyad Castle and toured the grounds. Although it looks like a medieval castle, this castle was built in 1896 to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of this area of Europe.
Day 4: Vienna: Imperial Treasury, Stephansplatz, Globe Museum, Cafes
Train tickets to Vienna from Budapest’ Keleti train station were about 30 euros one way. The Keleti is a sight unto itself; it was built in the 1880s and appears not to have changed since. Arriving at Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof, I felt like I was in familiar territory–I had lived in Germany for a when was I was in the Army so I was familiar with the language and how to use the Metro. Our hotel was in a convenient location right next to the Danube and about a 10 minute walk to Stephansplatz, one of the city’s main squares and the site of one of its most famous landmarks, the St. Stephen’s cathedral (Stephansdom). The day was a little rainy and cloudy so we decided to go up to the top of the cathedral on another day during our stay.
Vienna is a city of museums, reflecting not only the Austro-Hungarian empire’s past glory, but the city’s more modern reputation as an international city of culture, music, education, and art. A few of these museums are housed in the Hofburg Place, where I visited the Imperial Treasury, or Kaiserliche Schatzkammer. This museum houses thousands of priceless gold, silver, and other jewels. This museum is part of the famous Kunsthistorichse Museum.
Next I visited the Globe Museum, which is part of the Austrian National Library. It’s the only public museum in the world dedicated to globes, some dating back to the 1500s. I am really into maps and geography so I loved this place. I also liked how the globes were lit up in the dark rooms.
Vienna is also known for its classic cafes, which have served as meeting places for Europe’s intellectuals since the 1800s. Many of these cafes still exist, including the famous Cafe Central. I had a coffee and an apple strudel at Cafe Tirolerhof. I would have loved to try out more, but just didn’t have the time.
Day 5: Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Stephansdom
One of the world’s most famous museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) is a world treasure. Even if all the art was taken off the walls and the scupltures hidden, it would be worth paying the $25 admission fee. There were countless works of art, many recognizable even to an art novice like me, including Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Summer, and Rembrandt’s Self Portrait. The interior marble staircases leading up from the main entrance were awe-inspiring, as was the gilded interior atrium.
On one of the upper floors was the Coin cabinet, a vast collection of coins from various periods in world history, beginning in the period before Christ. I loved this exhibit and could have spent hours here.
In the afternoon, we climbed the spiral staircase of the Stephansdom to get a view of the city. It took about 15 minutes to walk to the top of the steeple, so I would not recommend the climb for people who are out of shape. The view we got from the top certainly made it worth it though.
After our descent, we followed the recommendation of our guidebook to see the late Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment building with a colorful facade and fanciful design, almost like something out of the Flintstones. I was familiar with Hundertwasser‘s work from my time in Darmstadt, Germany, the site of the Waldspirale.
Day 6: Bratislava
We did a day trip to Bratislava, leaving Vienna on the intercity train. Not long after crossing the former Iron Curtain from Austria into Slovakia, we arrived at the Bratislava main train station. The station was run down and the area surrounding it was bleak, recalling the days of Communist rule.
We weren’t keen on sticking around this area much longer so we headed down the hill to the city’s Old Town, the well-preserved medieval city center, filled with old churches, monuments, and cobblestone squares.
On our way up the hill to the orange-roofed Bratislava Castle, we had lunch at a brewery called Zamocky Pivovar, where I got a beer and a plate of roast pork and dumplings.
The view from the Castle was amazing; we could see far to the horizon, into both Austria and Hungary. We also had a good sight line into a big mass of Communist block apartment buildings called panel houses (or Panelak in Czech and Slovak) across the Danube River to the south. I’ve always like the look of these concrete apartment buildings for some reason; the first set of these I saw in my life was in the Czech Republic in the early 2000s. There is probably no better physical manifestation of the effect of communism on a civilization than these ugly concrete apartment buildings.
We briefly went inside the castle but spent more time on the grounds because the weather was so nice. There was an archeological dig going in progress behind the castle; a sign next to it said a Roman encampment was being unearthed. I looked into the history of the castle a little more and was surprised the castle served as the main castle of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 1500-1700s.
J and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the picturesque streets Old Town. Around every corner were colorful gothic, baroque, and neoclassical buildings, some of which were many hundreds of years old. My favorite structure was Michael’s Gate, one of the original gates of the medieval walls that surrounded the city.
It was I think 330pm and wasn’t even really that hungry, but I wanted to try some more Slovakian food before our ferry ride home. On our way to the terminal, I happened upon a restaurant called Karmina, which had a sign out front with a smiling cartoon pig on it–definitely a good omen. Downstairs there was a cafeteria off one side of a small lobby, and on the other, a more intimate restaurant/bar where a few Slovakian men were drinking away the afternoon. The waiter spoke not one word of English, and I was not able to understand one word on the menu. Slovak is just as incomprehensible as Hungarian. I took a guess and pointed to a jumbled mass of random letters on the menu representing what I hoped to be a soup or some type of appetizer, based on the smaller price, but ended up getting a three course meal. I didn’t want to offend them so I stuffed as much food into my mouth as possible and swilled down a glass of excellent golden lager. I think I ended up pointing to the daily special, which set me back $4.
I really enjoyed the ferry ride home, down the windy Danube back to Vienna, not only for the views but the calming effect the loud engine had on my senses. Right outside of Bratislava, high up on cliff overlooking the river, were the thousand-year-old ruins of Devin Castle, which was destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, the area below the castle on the riverbank was a border crossing during the Cold War, and supposedly a few Slovaks were killed there trying to escape the Iron Curtain. The Gate of Freedom Memorial stands there now.
On the last stretch of the route, outside of Vienna, the river was lined with wood fishing cabins and weekend pads for the city’s residents. Stepping off the boat and onto the dock next to our Vienna hotel, we were back in the city for our last night.
Summary: I wish we had a few more days, but I thought we saw some of the highlights of these three great cities, got to taste all sorts of awesome food and beer, and got an introduction to Eastern Europe.
- Budapest, Bonnie Restro Comics, Great place for lunch, offering a few different types of goulash. Occupies a quiet street corner with a bunch of outdoor seating.
- Budapest, Puder Barszinhaz: nice Hungarian restaurant with all the big national dishes on the menu. Cool interior that combines rustic Hungarian design with more modern elements of the big city
- Bratislava, Zamocky Pivovar: Brewery restaurant on the way up to Bratislava Castle Excellent selection of lagers and good Slovak food such as roast pork, chicken, and dumplings. Not a good place to go if you’re watching your weight.
- Bratislava: Karmina: See my story above. If you like meat and beer and are cheap, this is the place for you.
- Vienna, Inner Stadt, Ribs of Vienna: Occupying the basement vault of a centuries-old building, this place is famous for its long racks of spare ribs, slathered in your choice of BBQ sauce. The setting makes you feel like you’re in an old castle, but the menu is American themed—go here only if you’re tired of German food.
- Vienna, Cafe Tirolerhof: a traditional Viennese cafe with wonderful coffee and tasty desserts; had an English menu as well as international newspapers you could borrow.
- Budapest, Hotel Palazzo Zichy: J and I couldn’t have been happier with our hotel choice in Budapest. The hotel occupies a century-old building on a quiet little square not far from the main sights of downtown Pest. It was a 15-minute walk to the Danube River, at most, and right on a major tramline too. The lobby is gorgeous; it consists of a huge atrium overlooking the restaurant downstairs. The lounge/bar/café area to the right offers good free coffee all day. The breakfast buffet had a lot of different options and the waiters were really friendly and accommodating to our requests. My only negative comment was the size of the beds. Although they were very comfortable, my friend and I were basically sleeping on top of each other.
- Vienna, Hotel Capricorno: At first glance, this hotel looks a little run down and dingy from the street. The lobby has a Times Square-hotel feel to it. However, the rooms were nice and the bathroom was clean and updated. The single beds were pretty close to each other but that is to be expected in Europe. The breakfast buffet was pretty substantial and served up some good hearty German food. The coffee was really good too–a must have for me when I stay in hotels. The best part about this hotel was the location, right next to the Schwedenplatz metro and the bus line to the airport (8 euros). It’s also right next to the Twin City Liner, a Danube riverboat that travels to Bratislava, Slovakia (one way 30 euros). The hotel is also located about 10 minutes walk to the Stephansdom. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by this hotel and would definitely stay there again.