East European capitals: Imperial cities of Vienna, Prague and Budapest

Prague and Budapest, together with Vienna, are probably the most popular among the tourist cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Combining the three cities makes for an efficient travel itinerary. We took a train between Prague and Vienna with several times per day to choose from, it was a 4 hour ride. We then took a train between Vienna and Budapest, the train took approx. 3 hours. As we were flying out of Vienna internationally, we took the train back there after our visit.

Everyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old – Austrian proverb

The trains between Budapest and Praque are 7 hours and there is an overnight train, but the fastest way to get from Budapest to Prague is by plane. The direct flights are carried out by Czech Airlines. The journey takes 1 hour 25 minutes. 

When we tried to include Warsaw in the mix, the itinerary did not work as well. The trains between Vienna and Warsaw take 11 hours, and from Budapest to Warsaw, 18 hours. These are not interesting options. Flying is an option but we decided that it was much easier to combine Warsaw with either Berlin or Munich or both.

Vienna, Austria – City of Music

From 1558 to 1918 Vienna was an imperial city—until 1806 the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Along with nearby Bratislava, Vienna forms a metropolitan region with 3 million inhabitants. Today, it is the second-largest German-speaking city after Berlin.

In 2001, the city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger due to the proposal of a 6500sf hotel that is being proposed for the city center, with a height of 66 meters, higher than the 43 meter restriction imposed by UNESCO.

Vienna is rightfully known as the “City of Music” due to its musical legacy, as many famous classical musicians such as Beethoven and Mozart called Vienna home. Although neither Beethoven nor Mozart were actually born and raised here, they did spend a lot of time in the city. Vienna also raised such greats as Johann Strauss I and Franz Schubert. It is also said to be the “City of Dreams”, because of it was home to the world’s first psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.

The Vienna Opera house was build in the Neo-Renaissance style (1861 to 1869) and was the first major building on the Ringstrasse (Ring Road).

Vienna and its Roman past

Vindobona was the original name chosen by the Romans when they founded Vienna around 100 A.D., using its location on the Danube as their militia outpost to defend against marauding Germanic tribes. The foundations of the original garrison have been excavated directly under the Hoher Markt, and many other artifacts of the Roman camp, including evidence of its surrounding wall and moats, can still be identified today in many areas of downtown Vienna. 

Vienna was also the (Imperial) capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The historic center of Vienna is rich with 20th century baroque castles, gardens as well as 19th century Ringstrasse (Ring Road) lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks. A good central place to stay is the Ritz Carlton, a mere 20 minutes from both the Hoher Market and the Museum quarter, and has an pleasant rooftop restaurant.

Vienna – what to see

Karlskirche – St. Charles Church

St. Charles Church, (Karlskirche) is a beautiful one of a kind hybrid, a mix of ancient Greek and Roman elements with Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque Styles. The church was designed by Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach, who influenced the architecture of the Habsburg Empire. The twin columns represent Solomon’s Temple as well as the Pillars of Hercules.

The Schonbrunn Palace

The Schonbrunn Palace is one of the most important architectural monuments in Austria. It was the summer residence of the Habsburg rulers (1440-1806), a 1,441 room Rococo palace that spans over 300 years, thereby reflecting the changing times.

In 1569, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (a member of the Habsburg house of Austria) purchased a property where a former owner, in 1548, had erected a mansion called Katterburg. The emperor ordered the area to be fenced and put game there such as pheasants, ducks, deer and boar, in order for it to serve as the court’s recreational hunting ground. In a separate part of the area, he had put in “exotic” birds such as turkeys and peafowl, as well as fishponds.

In 1693 Leopold I commissioned concrete plans from Fischer von Erlach to plan the construction of a grand hunting lodge.  Fischer was an architect whose Baroque style profoundly influenced and shaped the tastes of the Habsburg Empire. Until Maria Theresa’s reign (1745-1765), the location was used mostly as a hunting lodge. Her reign marked the opening of a brilliant epoch in Schönbrunn’s history, with the palace becoming the centre of court and political life. Under her personal influence and the supervision of the architect Nikolaus Pacassi, Joseph I’s grand hunting lodge was rebuilt and extended into a palatial summer residence.

Vienna Museums

Vienna has over 100 museums. Our three favourite are the Belvedere Museum, the Wein Museum and the MAK Museum.

The themed galleries of the Belvedere Museum are great for historical perspective, not to mention the fact that the museum is in the Belvedere Palace Complex, which consists of two Baroque palaces, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables.

The Wein Museum contains a permanent exhibit of art and the historical collection on the history of Vienna include exhibits dating from the Neolithic to the mid-20th century. It is a great way to gain insight into the history of the city.

The MAK Museum focuses on modern art and architecture. It is a beautiful building that exudes a Viennese feel.  Each permanent exhibition area has a different layout and display concept. For instance, the Asia rooms display wooden scaffolding and glass combined to form giant display cabinets, with item descriptions written directly on the glass or walls. The museum offers a very creative experience.

Vienna – getting around

A cruise along the Danube River is a great way to get a feel for the city. If you go around sunset, the views are memorable and provide for great photography opportunities. You will touch on landmarks from the Danube Tower and Millennium Tower to the Urania Observatory.

We took a segway tour around the city and highly recommend it. Our tour was private so we were able to set our own itinerary. We went around Vienna’s Ringstrasse and learned about its architecture, then traveling through the Museum Quarter to see the exciting complex of art in Vienna’s seventh district, as well as the Old Town, a UNESCO designated site. Tours are generally about 3 hours long.

Vienna Cuisine

The Plachetta restaurants, there are several around the city, offer the classic Austrian dish, the Tafelspitz. It is definitely worth a try. It is a pot of boiled veal or beef with root vegetables and spices. The meat cuts come from very particular parts of the beef. It is served with applesauce-horseradish sauce (or Apfelkren) and fried potatoes, either as Bratkartoffeln (German fries), thinly cut potatoes fried in butter, or as Kartoffelschmarrn, pressed potatoes with flour and salt and fried.

Prague, Czech Republic

As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV (1349-1378) transformed Prague into an imperial capital and it was at that time by area, the third-largest city in Europe. In its 1100 year history, Prague has seen many changes. As the historical capital of Bohemia, Prague was also a capital of the Holy Roman Empire and a key city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Prague Castle is more than 1,000 years old, it was the residence of the early Premyslid (895-1306) rulers, who built their headquarters in a strategic position over the Vltava River. The domain over which the house of Přemysl ruled from Prague was in the early 10th century the largest political unit in Bohemia. Generations of rulers continued to expand the complex with churches and palaces, defensive and residential buildings.

The castle is the spiritual centre of the city and includes the Cath­edral of St Vitus (largest in Prague), it is also the residence of the president of the Czech Republic. 

One of the most recognizable old bridges in Europe, magnificent Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) boasts 32 unique points of interest along its 621-meter span. Charles IV who built the bridge was a superstitious sort, he is said to have consulted astrologers for the exact timing for the start of construction.

Astrologers told him that July 1357 would be a good time as Mars was in the sign of cancer and the moon was in the sign of pisces. Both astrological signs are water signs and good for a bridge over water, they thought. Charles decided that July 9, 1357 at 5:31 am (1-3-5-7-9-7-5-3-1) would be the exact time. This number forms a palindrome, it reads the same from end to beginning as beginning to end.

The Prague Astronomical Clock is a medieval astronomical clock first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest clock still operating.

Prague Unusual things to do and see

The three giant babies at Kampa Park represent the injustices of the communist era.  Unable to reach adulthood, the child’s growth is stifled by this landmark of totalitarian rule.

The Prague Jewish Cemetary – During the more than three centuries in which it was in active use, the cemetery continually struggled with the lack of space. Jewish custom does not allow the Jews to abolish old graves. Only occasionally the Jewish community was allowed to purchase new ground. To solve the space problem, a new layer of soil was heaped up on the available area, there are places where as many as twelve layers now exist. As new levels were added it was necessary either to lay over the gravestones associated with the older (and lower) graves to protect them, or else to elevate the stones to the new, higher surface. 

A Prague Segway tour is a great way to see the city sights such as the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle and the National Theatre. Some guided tours go to places off the beaten path such as the Strahov Stadium, Vila Kajetanka, Brevnov Monastery, Ladronka Park, and St. Wenceslas Church, among others. The stops are brief but you can book a private tour and go at your own pace.

Prague cuisine

The Czech Republic has a very traditional meat-and-potatoes cuisine, with dishes heavy on gravies and root vegetables. Hearty food, especially appropriate for winter.

Two “must try” meat dishes are the roasted pork hock and the roasted pork knuckle. These are served with salad for a very traditional food experience. We have had pork hocks in many parts of the world and confess that the Prague version was one of the best.

Perhaps the most traditional Czech dish you can ask for at for at a restaurant, vepřo knedlo zelo is basically roasted pork with dumplings and a side of pickled cabbage.

A traditional type of Czech soup is tripe soup, it contains beef tripe (stomach), red pepper, onion, bacon, wheat flour, salt and spice mixes. It sounds strange but is delicious and worth a try.

Being a world renounced city, Prague has numerous fine dining restaurants. The are two michelin star restaurants, La Degustation and Field. We tried La Degustation and it was great. Memorable menu with such items as rabbit kidneys and catfish.

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest short history

The origins of Budapest can be traced to Celts who occupied the plains of Hungary in the 4th century BC. The area was later conquered by the Roman Empire which established the fortress and town of Aquincum on the site of today’s Budapest around 100AD.

Since the middle ages, the castle of Buda on the west bank has always been the seat of royal power.

In the second half of the 19th it became the opulent political, financial and religious capital of the newborn Hungarian nation. That development started when Hungary regained most of its independence after a political compromise with the Austrian Hapsburg Empire to which the country belonged. Six years later, Buda and Pest were unified and from then the city started booming.

After Vienna, it became the second main city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In 1849, the first permanent bridge was constructed connecting Buda and Pest. It is known as the Chain Bridge.

During the first part of the 1900s, the country struggled for independence and in 1920 it became the Republic of Hungary. In suffered massive damage during WWII until it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. It remained under Soviet occupation until its collapse.

After decades of oppression, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, which meant for Hungary the end of Communism and a transition to democracy and its independence. In 2004, Hungary became a member of the European Union.

Budapest sights to see

The funicular, which first opened in 1870, is the second oldest funicular of its kind in the world. It is the fastest way to get to the top of Castle Hill, and is a great photography opportunity because of its panoramic views out across the Danube. (You can also get there with this Segway Tour). The funicular takes you to the top of Castle Hill and Fisherman’s Bastion. You can also hike up, a great way to take pictures along the way.

The Buda Castle was first completed in 1265, but the massive Baroque palace today occupying most of the site was built between 1749 and 1769. The complex in the past was referred to as either the Royal Palace or the Royal Castle. The castle now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is named in honour of St. Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). Budapest’s neoclassical cathedral is the most sacred Catholic church in all of Hungary and contains its most revered relic: the mummified right hand of the church’s patron, King St Stephen. It was built over half a century to 1905. 

The Hungarian Opera House was built in neo-Renaissance style, with elements of Baroque. Ornamentation includes paintings and sculptures by leading figures of Hungarian art. Although in size and capacity it is not among the greatest, in beauty and the quality of acoustics the Budapest Opera House is considered to be amongst the finest opera houses in the world.

Budapest cuisine

Goulash is one of the most well known Hungarian dish but the Hungarians feel that it has not been introduced to other regions properly. There are severe misconceptions about the original version of this iconic food.  Almost each region has its own variety, although a basic goulash is somewhere between a soup and stew, with beef (occasionally veal or pork), carrot, potato, spices and the typical paprika.

Chicken paprikash is a typical dish on the Hungarian dinner table, with paprika, pepper, onion, garlic, green, pepper, tomato, meat and sour cream.

Fisherman’s stew is a delicious spicy soup is usually made from carp caught in the river Danube. The recipe relies on the traditional paprika powder, which gives the soup’s bright red colour.

Mondisti Imperial cities trip tips

  1. It is convenient to combine a visit to Vienna with visits to Budapest and Prague.
  2. The museums in Vienna are numerous and some of the best in the world, you should visit at least a few.
  3. All three cities have segway tours, they are a great way to see the downtown areas of these cities.
  4. All three cities have beautiful opera houses but Budapest’s opera house is lavish, try to see a performance, you will not regret it.
  5. A private guide with car is more expensive in Vienna than Prague or Budapest but is highly recommended if you want to see the outskirts of Vienna.
  6. Although all three cities have fine dining restaurants, we enjoyed the local eateries the most. The local dishes are hearty and tasty.