A journey along the Danube: Budapest, Bratislava & Vienna
The Danube river is Europe's second largest river. It flows through ten countries, from Germany to Ukraine, and its banks are the home of four capital cities. Of these, we visited three during our December trip to Central and Eastern Europe.
It was really interesting learning about these cities shared history: through the legacy of great empires (Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian) and of the same trade routes. We found many similarities (in architecture, art, sometimes even in cuisine) but also many singularities (in the languages and customs) between the cities we visited.
We only had one week to visit all these beautiful places before Christmas, and though we could not see everything, we really enjoyed our time there. There are plenty of very good reasons to visit Central and Eastern Europe, especially in winter with all the Christmas markets!
Below is a little glimpse of our journey to Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna.
Our Budapest itinerary
We had not been to Budapest before, but had heard some really good comments about this city. So, for me, this was a place I was pretty keen to visit...and we were not disappointed! We spent four days in Budapest, but found that we could have easily spent another day or two as there is so much to see and do.
We started off by wandering along the Danube river; many landmarks lie along its banks such as the chain bridge - the city's first permanent bridge (which unfortunately was closed during our visit), and the famous Hungarian Parliament building which is the third largest parliament building in the world and today UNESCO world heritage listed (pictured above). The walk is pleasant and a nice way to get to other parts of the city by foot.
We continued on to Castle Hill, perhaps the most visited district in Budapest. Castle Hill is situated in the "Buda" part of the river (The three neighbouring cities of Pest, Buda and Óbuda were merged in the 20th century to create today's Budapest), and contains many monuments of Historical and religious importance. Buda Castle sits atop the hill; built in the 13th century, it used to be where the Hungarian Kings lived. Nowadays, its interior houses some museums and galleries including the Budapest History Museum (which I highly recommend to gain a better understanding of the city), the National Gallery and Library.
My favourite landmark on the hill has to be the Fisherman's Bastion. Named after the fishermen's village below, its purpose was to defend the Castle. Its neo-romanesque architecture with the seven towers has something out of a Disney movie; especially with the statues of knights and dragons which adorn its walls. The fantastic views over the city certainly add to its fairy-tale quality.
Another building worth a mention is Matthias Church, which is probably the most visited religious building in Budapest. What really draws the eye are the colourful roof tiles, which were added to the church during its restoration in the 19th century. The church is most famous for it held many Royal weddings and coronations.
A very surprising discovery during our time in Budapest was the "Ruin Bars". These very popular bars can be found in buildings that have been destroyed and left vacant, most often by the bombings of WWII. Unless one knows where they are going, it is likely they would just walk past them. We were recommended to try Szimpla Kert, and I think that if we had not pinned the location on our GPS, we would never have thought to enter the building! It looked completely dilapidated, and quite frankly, a little disconcerting. But we are really glad we went in.
Once we entered, there was a totally different atmosphere. It actually felt really trendy with the low-lighting, loud music, mix-match furniture and street-art. Szimpla Kert utilises the whole building space. One can easily picture the appartments that stood there, before the war - I thought it had a bit of an eerie feel. But now the space has a functional lay-out, with multiple bar areas and with plenty of rooms to settle into and enjoy a drink.
On the food and drink theme, I have to say that Hungary has a really nice cuisine, and at very affordable pricing. We really enjoyed trying out different national dishes such as Goulash, Paprikash and fish soup. A recommendation would be to eat at Gettó Gulyás, they serve many traditional dishes and everything on the menu is delicious!
One last highlight of our time in Budapest was ice-skating at the "City Park Ice Rink". This is the biggest ice skating rink in Europe and it is set in a gorgeous park, right next to the romantic "Vajdahunyad Castle". As an occasional-skater, I felt a little nervous to skate on an ice rink that had no fence, but it turned out to be just fine, and the fun 100% outweighed the initial hesitation. We skated for a good 2 hours but the rink is open for most of the day - what's good to know is that it does shut in the middle of the day, so planning the visit ahead of time is a good idea.
Bratislava: a charming capital
From Budapest, we hopped on a bus headed to our second destination: Bratislava. This ride took us about 3 hours, and only cost us 23 euros (for both of us!). It was a really comfortable journey, and really good value. We had decided to spend a couple of nights here as we were not sure what to expect from this city. It turned out to be just enough, although I would be interested in returning to Slovakia and discovering other parts of the country.
From the train station, we crossed the old town and were instantly charmed. It is small and cute, with cobble-stones, pastel coloured buildings and pretty Christmas lights. We were surprised to find a few Christmas markets doting the city and spent a fair bit of time looking at the local crafts there. We also stumbled across a few bronze statues, the most photographed being the one of "Cumil" who is a worker poking out of a manhole. There is some mystery as to why he is there, and it certainly feels a little random!
During our stay, we visited the Bratislava Castle. It is quite distinguishable with its plain white facade and red-tiled roof. The castle is famous for being the seat of many great rulers, including Celt, Moravian and Hungarian. Today, the castle houses the National Museum, which retraces Slovakian History; it is really interesting and worth visiting.
The castle's position, high up on a hill, offers beautiful views over the city. It's a great place to admire the unusual "Most SNP" bridge, atop of which is a UFO structure containing a restaurant. We did not get up there but one can enjoy a different perspective over the Danube or dine in style up there.
Bratislava also has its fair share of religious monuments worth a visit. St Stephen's Cathedral is a must-do, as an important monument that has held multiple high-profile ceremonies. But perhaps the most curious is St Elizabeth's Church, otherwise known as the Blue Church. It is painted blue inside and out, and its architecture is a bit of a mix of styles. Certainly a very unique sight.
Once again, we were really pleasantly surprised by the local cuisine. The Slovak dishes we had the pleasure to try were all warm and hearty, perfect for the winter weather. There were a lot of meaty soups, game stews and cheesy dumplings. And all for very reasonable pricing. We also discovered some Slovak wines, which are produced in the southern part of the country, and learned that Slovakia has some grapes that are unique and cannot be found elsewhere.
This was my third visit to Vienna, one of my favourite European cities. I really enjoy travelling to Vienna in the winter, as the city really embraces the Christmas atmosphere. Many Christmas markets pop up all around, and this is definitely the most I have seen (so far!). They are exactly like one would see in the movies, little wooden chalets displaying handmade crafts such as woodwork, little figurines, candles and blankets. Others, which offer delicious treats and hot drinks, you can smell from afar: a mix of sweet spices, toasted chestnuts and firewood. You can see twinkling lights, and hear joyful music. And of course, there is always a gigantic Christmas Tree! (Yes, I love Christmas markets!)
On our short 2-day visit, we stumbled across six different markets, and wandered around all of them! The most beautiful and popular market is held in Rathausplatz; it truly feels like a winter wonderland. One could be entertained there for hours, with over 100 stalls to view, as well as an ice skating rink, carousels, and many light and nativity displays. The only issue can be the crowds, as one of the most popular Christmas markets in Europe, it attracts millions of visitors each year.
Apart from the Christmas markets, the city has a lot to offer. Often nicknamed the "City of Music", Vienna has a rich legacy in this department thanks to many famous past residents such as Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms to name a few. As such, many visitors come to the Vienna State Opera to listen to musical concerts.
Vienna was also the home of many highly praised artists. Art galleries are thus plentiful around the city. When we arrived in Vienna, we walked past the beautiful Belvedere Palace which houses 800 years of art history, and amongdt many masterworks, permanently exhibits a collection of works by Gustav Klimt.
My favourite visit remains the Schönbrunn Palace. Former residence of the Habsburg's (one of the most prominent dynasties in European History), the palace is a gigantic work of art. With 1,441 rooms, each decorated in a distinct style to serve a specific purpose, the visit retraces the steps of the former rulers, most notably those of Emperor Franz Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria (Empress Sissi). I highly recommend purchasing the "Grand Tour" ticket which includes 40 rooms including those of Maria-Theresa (ruler of the Habsburg Empire for 40 years and mother to Marie-Antoinette).
The gardens are also exquisite. Having visited these both in winter and spring, I would recommend a spring/summer visit to enjoy them the most, although they were lovely in winter also. One could spend hours walking through them. There are beautiful fountains, little paths through a wooden area, a maze & labyrinth. It's a perfect spot to have a picnic in spring/summer.
Lastly, I have to mention some of the local cuisine. A viennese staple is of course the famous Schnitzel, which can be ordered in about any restaurant around the city. For me, the most notable culinary delight is the Apple Strudel which is a sweet pastry filled with warm apple and cinnamon. We sampled a delicious one at Kaffee Alt Wien, an old-fashioned cafe with theatre and show posters on the walls. Many locals were sat at tables there, which is always a good sign that a place is authentic!
This was a perfect note to end our week-long journey along the Danube before coming home to our family to celebrate Christmas.