Eastern Europe

      vienna, budapest, and prague - travel notes

    architecture    art    history    performing arts    judaica    music   
    This itinerary originates in Vienna. If you have more time, you could spend three days in Salzburg prior to going to Vienna. Another alternative would be to travel to Berlin from Prague
    and spend time there.

    Vienna is a suitable destination for anyone. But Budapest is challenging, even for experienced travelers, so keep that in mind.

    Budapest is dirty. It?s so polluted that if you have respiratory problems, you may want to avoid it altogether. Public transportation is unpleasant. The language is totally unintelligible and very few people speak English. This can be circumvented, but it takes more effort to get where you?re going.

    Finally, a significant number of people who serve tourists believe that Americans can ? and should ? pay three times the going rate and will adjust their bills accordingly. For the most part, you can have your check "corrected" if you catch it, but it is a hassle, feeling like people are trying to rip you off.

    Don?t get us wrong. Budapest is a wonderful destination, but to enjoy it, you have to be resourceful, alert, and willing to roll with the punches. With a few caveats, you should be able to tell you whether or not to put Budapest on your itinerary.

    Day 1 - Vienna
    Starting out in Vienna will let you get your sea legs on calm waters. Vienna is great for travelers. There?s lots to see and do during the day, and fantastic cultural events almost every night.

    If you plan to use public transportation in Vienna ? and you should ? we recommend that you pick up the Vienna Card at the Vienna Tourist Office. The card includes free transportation for 72 hours and discounts to many attractions.

    If you want to attend the Opera, Symphony or other performances while you are in Vienna, comprehensive information and performance schedules are available at www.info.wien.at.

    The Spanish Riding School, home of the world famous Lippizaner Stallions, stages performances from March through June and then again from September though mid-December. Reserve tickets by fax, e-mail, or mail as far in advance as possible. If you don?t have tickets, you can get in on a standing room only basis if you line up early enough. For schedules and reservation information for the Spanish Riding School, click here.

    The Vienna Boys? Choir performs in the Royal Chapel of the Hofburg Palace from January through June and then again from mid-September until the end of December. Schedules are available at www.wsk.at. For tickets, fax 533.99.27.75 at least eight weeks in advance.

    When money?s no object, the Hotel im Palais Schwarzenberg is tops in town. Set on 15 beautifully landscaped acres just outside the Ring, this 300-year-old Baroque palace feels like a private estate. It?s gorgeous, outside and in. This hotel is currently closed for renovations, expected to re-open in 2008.

    The Beidermeier Hotel inhabits a renovated 19th-century townhouse on a quiet, pedestrianized alleyway lined with shops and cafes. It?s about a 20-minute walk to the city?s main attractions. But the property has a good restaurant and bistro.

    Hotel Konig von Ungarn is in the heart of Old Town, not far from Stephansdom. The hotel, in a 17th-century townhouse, has been welcoming guests for 400 years. It?s restaurant is one of the best in the city, and extras like 24-hour room service make this a great place to stay.

    Alstadt Vienna is a small pension that feels more like a private home. Each of the individually decorated rooms is comfortable, and there are many restaurants within walking distance.

    Hotel zur Wiener Staatsoper is a little basic. But it?s clean, comfortable, and a terrific value for money considering its sensational location steps from Karntnerstrasse and the Opera.

    For a list of our recommended accommodations in Vienna, click here.

    Day 4 - Budapest
    There are two ways to get from Vienna to Budapest: rail or hydrofoil. The train takes a little over three hours. Schedules and reservations are available through Rail Europe at www.raileurope.com.

    The hydrofoil is more interesting. During spring and summer, it leaves Vienna at 9AM and arrives in Budapest at 2:30PM. Information is available at www.verkehrsbuero.at/ddsg/ddsg_ewien.htm.

    Standards in Budapest are somewhat lower than in Western Europe, so upgrade your hotel a notch or two here. Prices are so reasonable, that chances are it won?t be much more expensive.

    Though we?re not usually big Hilton fans, the location of the Budapest Hilton is so great, we?re eager to make an exception. Located on top of Castle Hill, it is designed around a 17th-century fašade and 13th-century Gothic church. Service is terrific. There are frequent concerts in the lovely courtyard. And because the area is closed to traffic ? except for taxis, it?s quiet. A great choice for people concerned that the pollution may make it difficult for them to breathe.

    Kempinski Hotel Corvinus is in the heart of Pest, just off Deak ter. Opened in 1993, it?s the choice of visiting rock star and celebrities, as well as traveling executives. It?s expensive by Budapest standards. But service and amenities will be acceptable to even the fussiest traveler. If you want western-style accommodations, this German-owned property is a safe bet.

    The Hotel Gellert was once the most gorgeous hotel in Eastern Europe. Built in 1918 in the Art Nouveau style, it?s lost a lot of its luster and could certainly use an extensive renovation. But the real draw here is the magnificent baths, a Budapest institution. The thermal baths and huge, outdoor swimming pool are wonderful. Request a room with air conditioning on the back side to avoid traffic noise. Know that your stay likely will not be perfect.

    Hotel Victoria is a good value in Buda?s watertown district. The location right across the street from the Danube is convenient to both Buda and Pest, but rooms can be noisy. Most of the rooms, particularly the corner rooms, have nice views.

    Those who are on a budget will appreciate Kulturinnov, the Guest House of the Hungarian Culture Foundation. It?s right in the Castle District, not far from the Hilton, but for a fraction of the price. Rooms are clean and basic. But the location is fantastic for the money.

    For a list of our recommended accommodations in Budapest, click here.

    Day 8 - Prague
    The train from Budapest to Prague takes about eight hours. For schedules and reservations visit www.raileurope.com.

    When we needed to switch accommodations in Prague, we moved to another property where we did not have reservations. We were quoted a rate in Czech Korunas at check in, but when we checked out, we were charged a rate in U.S. dollars that was considerably higher. We disputed the charge, but since we were on the way to catch an early morning flight, we ended up just paying our bill. But we did feel we had been taken advantage of.

    To ensure that this doesn?t happen to you, make sure the rate on your registration card is in Czech Korunas and that you receive a copy of the rate you will be charged when you check in.

    Grand Hotel Bohemia was the culprit in the aforementioned dispute, which has never happened to us before or since. Were it not for that incident, which wasn?t really that big a deal, our stay here would have been perfect. In a meticulously restored Art Nouveau building, the hotel is gorgeous, the location just off Namesti Republicy is unbeatable, and service was exceptional. Municipal House is spitting distance, and Old Town Square is a ten-minute stroll. Very expensive by Prague standards.

    Hotel Pariz is in the same neighborhood off Namesti Republiky. This is another one of Prague?s beautiful Art Nouveau hotels and this one too has been lovingly restored. Rooms aren?t as luxurious as the public areas would suggest.

    In a medieval neighborhood a ten-minute walk from Prague Castle, Romantik Hotel U Raka is a bit out of the way. But it?s a charming choice for those who appreciate peace and quiet. With its open beams, brick walls, and Japanese gardens, the U Raka feels like an old Czech farmhouse. You can catch a tram to the Old Town or walk to the Little Quarter. Book well in advance, particularly for the suite which has a fireplace.

    Opened in 1994, the Hotel Savoy is also off the beaten path behind Prague Castle. The choice of rock stars and celebrities. Service, facilities, and amenities here are all first rate.

    Right at the base of the Charles Bridge, U Ti pstrosu is not for lovers of peace and quiet. But for those who want to be right in the heart of the action, this is a great spot. The hotel reopened in 1992 with its beautiful painted Renaissance ceiling intact. The rooms have beautiful wood floors, old beams, and some antique furnishings. Noise isn?t the problem the location might suggest.

    For a list of our recommended accommodations in Prague, click here.

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