After a lazy but lovely time in England, Simon and I packed up our bags full of presents and winter gear and headed for Central Europe. First, we traveled to Prague with 4 others to ring in the New Year and celebrate Simon’s sister’s birthday. Then, we continued to Budapest on our own for a few days of exploration.
The two experiences couldn’t have been more different. One city was visited with a group over the holidays. One city was visited as a couple on a budget. Still, I am going to try my best to compare Prague and Budapest (according to my experience) for others deciding if they should visit one over the other!
Prague: The Fairy-Tale City
All other factors aside, Prague’s greatest asset is the architecture. Prague is that fairy-tale place you imagine when dreaming of old European cities!
Although the Czech Republic has had a tumultuous history, including wars, Nazi and Soviet occupation, the city has suffered minimal destruction. The Gothic architecture dominates, and when you aren’t staring at a creepy, ornate cathedral, you are walking down a cute, pastel-colored alley with old but beautiful shop fronts.
On the other side of the river, the Prague castle commands attention. A wander inside the castle walls reveal more of Prague’s treasures. The inside of the cathedral was like stepping into Harry Potter and a walk down Golden Lane made me want a little colorful cottage on a cobblestone lane of my own.
The Food and The People in Prague
While the architecture of Prague was the highlight, the lowlight might have been our experience with the people and the food. I didn’t notice straight off the bat like the others in our group, but it was true– Czech people aren’t very friendly, very welcoming or in the least bit smiley. I’m sure not all Czech people are like this, but the locals in Prague’s city center were.
Maybe I don’t even blame them. After learning about the history of the country and what the people have gone through (conquests, religious persecutions, wars, revolutions, occupations, Hitler and Stalin) I might be a little rough around the edges as well. Fast forward into the 21st century, and although communism has gone, groups of young Brits on weekend benders are here to stay.
I had a hard time distinguishing my feelings about Czech food. It is possible I didn’t give it a complete chance, or it’s possible I ate the wrong things. Overall, Czech food left me hanging. I had a yummy sausage from the Christmas market (missed out on the to die for looking potatoes though) and another divine sausage dish accompanied by potato pancakes and sauerkraut. On the other end of the scale, I had a mediocre Czech style tartare and a mediocre spicy beef goulash.
The cheap Czech beer and frequent cups of steaming mulled wine made up for the shortcomings though. Still, I left a bit uninspired.
Nightlife in Prague
The six of us had a great time exploring Prague’s nightlife. The highlights were dancing the night away in the bar/club Chapeau Rouge, hitting up an Ice Bar and also bringing some beers to Charles Bridge for a late night wander. On New Year’s Eve we rang in midnight with hundreds of others in the main square. The beautiful tree sparkled behind us, and fireworks were being set off from all corners of the city (from everyone and anyone who wanted to). The next day there was an official fireworks show which we watched by the river. It was gorgeous.
The lowlights were getting ripped off by taxi driver after taxi driver every time we wanted to come home. Paying €3.50 for a taxi from our apartment to the center was great, but paying €25 to come home was horrific!
Budapest: Ancient city full of history
The architecture in Budapest was less impressive to me, but only because it followed Once Upon a Time Prague. Still, it was beautiful and the Paris of the East lived up to its name. Although some of the buildings were really showing their age, they had so much character and grandeur.
We spent most of our time walking around the city, getting to know the streets and the different neighborhoods. No matter where we were, there was always a grand monument close-by to help us get our bearings straight.
I usually don’t like night-time photos, but in Budapest I had to get used to it. It was dark by 4:30! (You can tell I’m a newbie to Europe when this was a shock to me.)
Luckily, this was actually the most beautiful time to see the city. The lights would cut through the fog and mist we experienced during the day, and we could see much clearer than before. I went photo crazy every time we were near the river. The castle, the Parliament, the cathedrals and the Chain Bridge were all illuminated and so majestic looking.
My favorite part of Budapest was probably up on Buda Castle, which is really just a citadel of museums and viewpoints. A walk over to Fisherman’s Bastion showed us what looked more like a true castle, and we towered above the rest of the city. If it wasn’t for the fog, we could have seen for miles. On the other hand, the mist really made Budapest feel very mysterious and eerie.
The Food and the People in Budapest
Maybe this was because Hungarian have a strong command on English, but the people in Budapest felt very warm and friendly. They also seemed proud to share their culture and cuisine. Both aspects we didn’t really find in Prague.
When we bought something at a shop, the people were smiling. When we needed some directions, people were helpful. If we didn’t know what to order, someone informed us. We felt really comfortable in Budapest!
My favorite part of this visit was probably the food. I had no expectations on this cuisine before arrival, but I left completely surprised. Hungarian food is really good! I also had one of my best restaurant experiences ever. Not only was the food fabulous, but so was the service. Our server was very interested in our lives and travels, and she explained each dish so we left knowledgeable about the local cuisine. What pleased me even more was the price! I rarely find quality and service like that anywhere in Europe!
I won’t go on too much about this, though. My next post will be all about food in Budapest. I want to explain where we went so you can have the same day of gluttony as me!
Nightlife in Budapest
I can’t say I experienced enough of Budapest’s nightlife to give an opinion on it, but I know it’s there! After a heavy few nights in Prague, we took Budapest slower, and retired to our hotel room for a few early nights. We did make it to one bar though, and it actually happened to be the coolest bar I’ve ever been to. Really.
Szimpla Kert is one of Budapest’s many ¨ruin pubs¨, which are really just bars that have sprung from abandoned buildings or lots. They usually offer casual seating and a bar, and some are only open in the summer. Szimpla Kert, the first ruin pub in Budapest, however, takes this concept and runs.
When you enter, you aren’t sure if it’s even open. There is no true doorway, just plastic flaps to walk through. You must navigate through a bit of a maze until you reach the actual bar. Once there, it’s almost like you’ve entered a secret location. The bar sprawls over two different floors and also has an outside patio, all of which is covered in creatively outrageous artwork and lights. We ordered some beer, which was less than €2 each, and wandered around looking at all the interesting nooks and crannies. I’d describe the decor more, but nothing I could say can do it justice. Photos just don’t do either! If you are in Budapest, you must go!
Getting from Prague to Budapest: To travel between the two cities, we took the train. It was a six hour ride, and we booked a second class seat ticket for about 30 euros off this site. I think the seats are usually cheaper, but it was during the holidays. The seats were not reserved, but we had no problem finding seats next to each other when we arrived on board. I slept most of the way and I’d like the describe the scenery, but I really can´t! (Lonely Planet forums seem to say it isn’t anything too special, although Simon mentioned he saw many interesting villages along the way).
I can only give observations of the two cities from the perspective of a short visit. If I had to sum up the two quickly, I’d say go to Prague for the sights, but go to Budapest for the vibe!
If you had to choose, which would you pick?