Usually, when I’m in between jobs (and as mainly a freelancer, it happens often) I like to beat myself up and freak out that I’ll never work again. This time around I thought ya know what? Let’s not. Knowing that my boyfriend had a job in Vienna and that the invitation to travel beforehand with him stood, I decided to just do it, Nike-style.
Budapest and Prague weren’t on the top of my travel wish list, but my boyfriend wanted to hit up two cities in a week and these two seemed to be grouped in with Vienna in all of the travel guides and itineraries I had looked at. I’m always down to explore new territory so I was happy to check them out!
Prior to our trip, I had spoken with many people who had visited both locations and it seems people were either Team Budapest or Team Prague. I had expected to favor Prague, imagining a quaint tiny village, where people bust open their windows, waking up to say… Bonjour! (Turns out, it’s not, and people there speak Czech, not French.) I found myself really enjoying Budapest while Prague felt too much like a tourist trap to me.
Budapest had a big city feel to it, but unlike in the US, everywhere you look has gorgeous churches, synagogues, or even apartment buildings with ornate sculptures as part of the architecture. Prague too, has some very impressive buildings, especially when viewed from above, looking down on all of their orange-roofed buildings. Be careful while you look up though, you may get trampled by a giant group of Asian tourists.
In both cities, we spent our first day hitting up all the “must-sees.” Thanks to the wonder that is Google, you can quickly find out what landmarks you should visit in each city. In Budapest, we went to the impressively large Parliament building. Throughout Budapest, there are also underground caves with staircases that seem like you shouldn’t go down, but you should. The first one we saw was right by the parliament and led to a small underground exhibit of statues and fixtures that were a part of the original building. I found the “monkey-dog” both intriguing and the stuff of nightmares.
Budapest is divided into two parts, aptly named, Buda and Pest. I’d recommend staying in Pest, where all the action is. Buda however, has more of an old-town vibe, and that’s where a lot of the beautiful old architecture and buildings are. You can walk over the Chain Bridge to get from one side to the other. After we walked along the waterfront in Pest, and took photos by the shoes, which are true-to-size replicas of the shoes of Jews who were killed by facias Arrow Cross militiamen in World War II, we crossed over into Buda.
It requires a good amount of uphill walking to get to the Buda Castle so for those who don’t wanna walk it, you can take a funicular. Really, it’s more fun to actually say, “funicular” than it is to wait in the line to ride it, so we hiked up a bunch of stairs that were amongst trees and greenery, making it feel more like a wilderness hike than city streets.
We walked around Buda and found another set of stairs leading to an underground cave where we read that Dracula was held captive here! (Wait, did you know he was real?!) We walked down several stairs and then through a creepy hallway before we came to a booth that was charging for a tour. It could have been fun, but we just took some spooky photos and went back up.
We walked to some of the main attractions like Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church and then found ourselves wandering through a more residential area. When we found an intersection with three restaurants on adjoining corners we decided to partake in what became a favorite past-time of ours: drinking beer and people watching. It helps that beer in both Budapest and Prague cost less than $3 for mugs that were (literally) larger than my tiny head!
Here are some favorite spots and recommendations for Budapest:
Mazel Tov: This was a beautiful Mediterranean restaurant that reminded me of my favorite LA restaurant, Bavel. It’s located in the Jewish Quarter which surprisingly, is where tons of hot bars and restaurants are. I think I may have found my location for my bar concept, Bar Mitzvah!
The restaurant was a large space that felt outdoors, even though it was actually covered on top. There were plush green vines hanging from the ceiling as well as lights strung across the place. The food was So.Damn.Good. We got hummus, a communal meat place (community of two), and sweet potato fries with a pesto-tahini dip and ate ’til we couldn’t breathe. #worthit
The New York Palace Hotel: If you want to feel like you’re in the Plaza, but you’re in Budapest, this is a beautiful spot for some afternoon tea, afternoon dessert — yes, that’s a thing — or if you’re feeling the local culture, a bowl of goulash.
Szimpla Kert: This is a ruin bar, which is a type of bar that inhabits an old ramshackle building, and it is weird AF. I’m talking missing-limbed baby dolls hanging from the chandelier, a dwarf statue on a swing, empty bathtubs — obviously, I got in — and a disturbing-looking kangaroo wearing a blouse. There are several bars you can be served out throughout the establishment. We went for drinks during the day and it was a relaxed atmosphere. At night, it had lines around the corner to get in.
Enjoy brunch: We had three egg-cellant brunches all for less than the cost of an ultra-hip coffee from Alfred in LA. If you need an idea of where to start, any of these will do the trick: STIKA, Á La Maison, Cirkusz, and Kaptafa.
House of Terror: Don’t expect a haunted house because the atrocities you learn about here are all real. The museum details the way Hungarians were treated awfully after World War II by the facias and communist regimes. Jews, Christians, farmers…. So many were subject to awful conditions back then and this museum details that dark history.
Etyek Wine Region: This is a wine region only about 35 minutes outside the city of Budapest. We booked a tour through GetYourGuide, but unfortunately somebody… fine, me… got a bit sick the night before and had to cancel. But if you go, use my name and see if you can use that 40% discount they offered us to book again!
Margitsziget Island: Well, well, well. Who knew Budapest had its own version of Central Park? I was eavesdropping on another couple and heard them mention this park so naturally, I followed them there. It’s expansive with walking trails, beautiful flowers, old ruins from a monastery, and a fountain that rivals (but loses to) those at the Bellagio in Vegas.
The Bath Houses: We didn’t do these because someone…not me… didn’t bring a bathing suit. After all that beer, I wasn’t in the mood to suit up anyway, but, I’d love to know if anyone does visit, how they are! It’s certainly an often-recommended activity if you read up on Budapest. At night, I read they have spar-tys, which could be either awesome or completely gross. Please let me know.
And now, on to Prague.
We flew Ryanair, which as to be expected, was garbage. After racing through the airport because our ticket said, “Gates close at 7 p.m.” we stood in a long line, being hoarded like cattle onto the tarmac, for over 35 minutes. But, for $40, you get what you pay for and the flight was so quick, it still made sense.
Our first day in Prague, we took off, following this check-list I found on Instagram.
We walked to Old Town Square to see the Astronomical Clock, which is the world’s oldest operating clock. The square was abuzz with visitors and locals alike.
We stumbled upon an exhibit I’d seen online, called King Kong Balls, and ran to take a photo with it. I tried to understand the meaning behind it, and please read, and comment if you do! But at the end of the day, it was a statue of a giant blue ape with shiny balls and it was one of my favorite sites we saw.
King Kong was right in front of the InterContinental which had a good rooftop to grab a drink and take in the views of Prague from above. It looked out over the Jewish Quarter, which we visited next.
In the Jewish Quarter, we bought the self-guided audio tour which gave us access to multiple synagogues that were now used as museums, and Prague’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. We learned that Jews were persecuted way before Hitler. We’re talking about the 13th century, here. It was sad, interesting, and to be honest, a bit long, but I’m glad we did it.
We then walked to Prague Castle and it is an uphill hike. We met a guy with an owl and like the stupid-tourists we were, we let him place it on our shoulders and take pictures of it while the thing nibbled on my hair. He then asked for $40 and settled for $5.
The castle is actually where the president currently lives and we didn’t want to disturb the guy, so we just wandered the grounds outside. Since you’re so high up, there’s an opportunity for photos of the orange-roofed buildings of Prague, which are pretty cool.
We walked back to our Airbnb over the famous Charles Bridge. No cars are allowed on the bridge so the only thing you need to be wary of is getting smacked in the face with a selfie stick.
We did a ton of walking in Prague, enough to compensate for all the cheap beer we consumed. I enjoyed walking outside of the main tourist zones, namely, Prague 1, and exploring quieter local spots. We walked to Letna Park in Holesovice, which had some nice walking paths and views. We also went to Vyšehrad, a historic fort, which allowed us to walk some more and get some rooftop shots.
On our last day, we stumbled upon a sculpture garden, (In Prague 2, near where we stayed), finding it only after walking up a spiral staircase that seemed pretty random. Then, more walking along cobblestone streets, past beautiful architecture, and unfortunately graffiti, which is on almost every building in Prague. (And not the cool Banksy type.)
A few favorites and suggestions for Prague:
SOVA: While I spent 15 minutes going back and forth with the waiter on what a martini is — it’s a sweet, dark liquor there, not the vodka-based one I know and love — the food was good quality and inexpensive. I’d recommend the duck breast salad which made me like duck breast.
Beer Geek: A bar with tons of different beers, mostly Czech ones, that felt like a local hangout. We did a flight of five different beers and turns out, I’m not as into sours as I initially thought! That’s on me though.
Eska: This is a Michelin star restaurant and was by far my favorite meal of the trip. We did a five-course sharing menu where we let the chef surprise us. The meal started with some of the best fresh bread I’ve ever had and then continued to wow us with flavorful, inventive yet not wildly unfamiliar, courses.
We had the meal along with the wine pairing and felt extra special when the sommelier came over to thoroughly explain the origin and characteristics of every single wine. We found the people to be particularly unfriendly in Prague (try to have a conversation with an Uber driver and you’ll see what I mean) so we were surprised to get such friendly service.
Bankers Bar: This is a bar I’d suggest for a swanky first date if you wanted to impress someone and you happened to be going on a first date in Prague. They offer a unique selection of cocktails or if you tell them what you like, they can craft up something special, just for you.
For both cities, I’d recommend bringing solid walking shoes and a solid walking partner. Luckily, I had both!