Ask most Americans to reel off the greatest hits of Europe, the travel destinations you can’t miss, and you’ll likely get back some pretty similar answers. London, Paris, and Rome are all likely to figure in. Venice, Berlin, and Barcelona perhaps. And let’s not forget Amsterdam.
It’s easy to see why these cities dominate, of course. For the most part, they’re the capitals of Europe’s major countries. They’ve got famous museums, well-known histories, and skylines familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a few movies. In Amsterdam’s case, it’s pretty much just because it’s easier than usual to get high there, but oh well – it’s still a pretty lovely place.
Unsurprisingly, these cities are all vacation favorites, for American, European, and global travelers alike. Also unsurprisingly, they’re all expensive, crowded, and so driven by tourism that it can be tricky to find the real city underneath all the souvenir T-shirts and over-priced street food stalls. So, where’s a world-weary traveller to turn? Try heading a bit further east, for a few (comparatively) untouched gems in central Europe.
Hungary’s capital is a particularly neglected European gem, but it really deserves more love. Split down the middle by the Danube river, into the Buda side and the Pest side, it’s in fact only been a single city since 1873 – before that the two river banks didn’t tend to get on too well.
The city now bears signs of occupation by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Despite that tragic history, much of the city’s monuments either remain intact or have been rebuilt, and there are plenty of beautiful sights, from the imposing Buda Castle to the majestic Chain Bridge. Best of all, strict planning rules limit the number of high-rise buildings, so the city’s classic skyline so far remains intact.
For the historically minded, the most unique sight is probably Memento Park: a collection of the largest, most extravagant statues installed in the Communist era, all shunted out to a single park after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s a single concentrated burst of Soviet extravagance, from towering workers to grimacing depictions of Stalin. Totally weird, and totally unique.
Part of what sets Budapest apart from its neighbors is one specific period of its history: a 140-year Turkish occupation. Not only did that have a knock-on effect on the city’s architecture, culture, and cuisine, it also left it with an array of Turkish baths pretty much unmatched on the continent.
These thermal baths make for an interesting diversion during the day, but a lot of them really come into their own in the evening, when they’re taken over for late night parties. Sure, pool parties usually suck – but stick them in a 16th century Turkish bath, put on a few good lasers, and throw in loads of dirt cheap beer and you’re usually onto a winner.
If laser-filled pool parties aren’t your thing, find your way into one of the city’s wine bars to try some of the local produce. Hungary may not be up there with the world’s most renowned wine-producing countries, but there’s increasingly interesting stuff coming out of the region, and you’ll never get to try it for cheaper than here. If you want to go rowdier than a wine bar, but didn’t bring your trunks, check out one of the city’s ‘ruin bars’ like Instant or Szimplakert – based in the heart of dilapidated buildings, and usually boasting a motley array of furnishing and art installations.
Once named the City of a Thousand Spires (and for good reason), Prague is an architectural delight. Left mostly undamaged by the 20th Century, the city’s finest buildings remain intact, and it boasts structures from just about every architectural period you could name off the top of your head (and a few you couldn’t), built across multiple empires, two dictatorships, and a few republics.
Prague Castle, the largest in the world, is slightly less exciting than ‘world’s largest castle’ might initially sound – but it does boast the incredible St. Vitus Cathedral. It took 600 years to build, give or take, and is almost comically stunning inside – don’t get me wrong, Europe is replete with pretty churches, but this is one of the finest, all gothic and looming from the outside, but light and sparkling with color inside. Admittedly, not quite everything is as inspiring – the world’s third oldest astronomical clock is, well, a really old, really odd clock that you won’t be able to read.
If nightlife’s more your thing, you’ll want to be aware that the Czech Republic is the home of pilsner, the beer that inspired the overwhelming majority of lager made today. Unsurprisingly, that means Prague is a bit of a beer city. They’re understandably proud of the local stuff, which is plentiful, strong, and usually about $1.50 a pint. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, pop into one of the local absintheries for something a little stronger. Czech absinthe tends to be stronger than the French stuff, contains less anise, and is frequently served on fire, because what else are you going to do with a 140 proof spirit?
Oh, and while you’re here, you’d be remiss not to check out Vytopna – it’s what might be the world’s only miniature railway restaurant. With tracks winding their way throughout the space, your drinks are delivered to your table in the carriages of an array of electrical model trains. Yes, it’s a gimmick. Yes, it’s for tourists. But goddammit, there’s a tiny train bringing me my beer, and what is not to love about that?
Austria’s capital is more expensive than Prague and Budapest, but no less worth a visit. It’s one of Europe’s grander cities, in part thanks to a good few years as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire, and then Austro-Hungarian Empire. Central Europe was pretty big on empires for a while, what can I say?
If there’s one thing and one thing alone that makes Vienna worth visiting, it’s the opera. Even if you’re not an opera fan (honestly, I’m not much of one either), still: go for the opera. This a city where Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Schubert and more live and worked. They know music.
More importantly, they don’t restrict their opera to people willing to pay upwards of $100 for one of the cheap seats. Seats at Vienna’s State Opera start from $6 if you book in advance. If you haven’t planned that far ahead and are feeling robust, you can even buy a standing ticket on the night for as little as $2. 2 bucks. Two. For live opera in perhaps the world’s best and most iconic opera house. $2. Like I said, I don’t even like opera, but that is an impossible deal to turn down.
If you want to make more of the city’s musical history, Mozart’s former apartment in the city has been opened as a museum, with a wealth of original sheet music, letters and instruments. Similar treatment has been given to the residence of Sigmund Freud, a Vienna native until he was exiled by the Nazis, with piles of artifacts and details related to his life and work.
When it comes to food and drink, there’s nothing more Viennese than wiener schnitzel, aka breaded veal, and you’ll find it all over the city. It’s not exactly health food, but it’s worth putting in some extra walking time to burn the calories off. Beyond that, Vienna is basically the original home of the coffee shop, so the cafés are hard to beat. Try Café Hawelka to capture a bit of the city’s old artistic spirit, or Café Benno for a more modern twist – dominated by students and stacks of board games.
Sticking to the Budget
One of the big advantages to visiting Central Europe over, say, Paris or Rome, is that you can do the entire trip on a much smaller budget. Obviously transatlantic flights are going to be a pretty significant cost no matter what, but once you make it to Europe it all gets a bit cheaper. There are incredibly cheap, quick local flights (Skyscanner and Google Flights are your best bets for finding them), but the rail connections are also fantastic, and there are affordable, scenic trains connecting all the major cities – often including overnight options, saving you paying for a hotel room for a night.
Speaking of, don’t assume that a pricey hotel is necessarily the best option. These days there are always lots of great options on AirBnB, and you can get an apartment to yourself. If you’re traveling alone, or just with a couple of friends, a hostel might be an even better option – most of the ones in Europe are much slicker than you might expect (and much less terrifying and murder-y than Hollywood would have you believe) and they’re a great way to meet other travelers and get some local recommendations. And with beds often less than $10 a night, they’re hard to beat on price.
Get Out There
Trekking all the way across the Atlantic for a few days in one of these cities might seem a bit much, but the three together make up a brilliant trip for a week or two – though be ready for a bit of currency juggling, as Hungary and the Czech Republic each use their own currencies, rather than the Euro. If you’re thinking of a longer trip with a few more destinations, then Bratislava, Krakow and Munich (home to the infamous Oktoberfest) are all nearby, and Venice is closer than you might expect if you just can’t resist its allure. Central Europe is dense with stunning cities and rich histories, just waiting for you to find them.