A standout amongst the most prevalent European explorer circuits is an excursion through four of Eastern Europe’s greatest urban areas: Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.
Europe has been the pioneer of the cultural, technological, and societal development of the world for a few centuries. The geopolitical and cultural history of the second smallest continent on earth invites travelers of all kinds. Eastern Europe, long hidden under the Iron Curtain, holds many spectacular examples of European heritage.
Berlin, the city that has had probably the most influence over the geopolitical evolution of Europe through the ages, is one of the largest cities in the continent, and the second most populous. It is the ideal city to start one of the most culturally enriching and deservedly popular travel routes in Europe: the Berlin-Prague-Vienna-Budapest journey.
The Eastern European Journey
This route is one of the most popular among travelers from Europe and elsewhere, and not without good reason! These cities are among the most advanced in Europe, and offer a standard of living seen in few places elsewhere. Behind their modern, sophisticated face, however, lies a treasure trove of wonders from times gone by. All three were crucial at various times in European history, and offer an irreplaceable glimpse into medieval times. Here are some handy tips that will enable you to enjoy this vacation as it should be.
When Should I Visit Eastern Europe?
Statue of Johann Strauss II
➙ The peak time for traveling in Europe is during the summer: Late June to October. Traveling during this duration will allow you to enjoy the full benefits of all travel-oriented facilities.
Traveling off-season is usually a useful tip to lower the costs of any trip, but braving the freezing winters or annoying rainfall just to save some bucks can be pointless in this case. Unlike most tourist hotspots, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest are all bustling capital cities, and don’t rely extensively on tourism for generating income for the locals. Hence, the prices in such urban travel hotspots tend to not vary too much seasonally. But going off-season will ensure that you at least beat the rush, and still can sneak in a good deal or two. If you notice most of the rooms’ keys still on the racks, you can often bring the quoted price down to surprising amounts. Pretend to be a cash-strapped student or beleaguered artist, if you must!
➙ Going in the winter by design, to experience the Christmas and New Year celebrations, is another excellent option. This way, you can be prepared for the bracing cold, but still beat the peak-time rush of tourists. Off-season is also a better time to pursue artistic endeavors. Given the vibrant cultural and artistic background flaunted by cities like Prague and Vienna, dodging the rush of tourists is the way to go.
➙ All in all, going just before or just after the peak time, i.e., April-May or October-November, should work out well.
How Do I Move About?
➙ All four cities are connected to most major airports all over the world. Berlin, especially, will almost definitely be within your reach. If this trail is just one of many sections of your European vacation, the Eurail is the most convenient option. However, last minute reservations on the train can be expensive, and buses or low-cost airlines emerge as better options.
➙ As for traveling between the four cities, many tour operators offer an 8-night, two-nights-per-city package. If you are not the sort of traveler who likes having things done his own way, this is an excellent choice. Some operators also offer 11-day packages.
➙ If you plan to travel on your own, getting a Eurail pass is your best choice; most commercial operators also use the train. If you want to fly, try low-cost airlines such as Wizz Air.
➙ For visiting tourist sights in a city, use the local bus or tram network. This is more often than not the cheapest option, and will also allow you to experience day-to-day life in that city. In some cities, especially Berlin, you can also hire bicycles and explore the city’s myriad streets on your own.
Where Should I Stay?
➙ If you are a premium traveler, these cities will leave you spoiled for choice with their collection of high-end hotels and resorts. Being national capitals, all four contain countless high- and mid-range options for your stay.
➙ If you are traveling on a budget, couchsurfing can be a huge help, since it will cut down on the cost of accommodation altogether. If not couchsurfing, look for other options of homestays, which is quite popular in Europe. This will also reduce your cost of food quite drastically. Though some homeowners may charge a fee (which is not the norm, but is understandably common), it is much less than any hotel or even hostel.
➙ European hostels are an important part of the experience of traveling through this continent, and are a lot cheaper than hotels. Budget travel guru Nomadic Matt personally recommends hostels such as ‘Aboriginal’ in Budapest, and ‘Wombats’ in Berlin and Vienna.
How Much Will It Cost?
➙ Most commercial tour packages charge well below USD 2,000 per person for this sojourn. If you are traveling on your own, a standard 8-day itinerary will cost, according to your starting point in the U.S., up to USD 2,200.
➙ Cut down on needless, frivolous spending. Go to bars during happy hours, or buy your liquor in stores. Or else, just jump onto the wagon for the duration of your trip; your liver will thank you for that! Cut down on impulse buying. Put aside a certain amount of shopping money before leaving, and if you see something you really like, compensate elsewhere to make up the extra expense.
What Should I Beware Of?
➙ Get your mobile coverage and credit cards sorted out well in advance of your departure date. You don’t want to come home to see a huge mobile bill that you weren’t aware you were accruing, and you really don’t want to have any problems with your credit cards in a foreign country!
➙ In general, Europe is a very peaceful continent, and violent crimes are rare. But tourists are scammed quite often, and in ingenious ways. So, take some necessary precautions. Always order your cab from your hotel, or if you are staying with someone, ask them the rates. If a cabbie demands more than adequate, let him know that you know the correct rates; most cabbies gamble on travelers not knowing the correct charge. Another notorious scam is fake police demanding to check your money, and taking some without you being any wiser. If a suspiciously dressed or mannered cop does stop you and makes such a demand, politely ask for his ID. Explain that you aren’t making any accusations, but you are a tourist and really don’t know if he is a cop. Be pessimistic, and always assume that any spontaneous scuffle on the streets is meant as a ruse for pickpockets to get to work, and stay well away from such crowds. Even if you are not a ‘mark’, you don’t want to get caught up in matter you don’t understand, in a foreign country.
Why This Route?
Western Europe, particularly France and Italy, have become so popular among global tourists that the previously Soviet-aligned Eastern Europe remains criminally underrated. Berlin is, of course, one of the most influential cities in human history, having been a crucial junction in Charlemagne’s kingdom, Barbarossa’s Holy Roman Empire, and the Third Reich. It also houses the most notorious symbol of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall. In modern times, the city’s progress has gathered tremendous pace, and it now has one of the best standards of living in the world.
Fernsehturm TV Tower, Berlin
Prague, like Berlin, having played a vital role in the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has been an important cultural and commercial center for centuries. It is one of the most attractive and appealing cities in Europe, and its city center is a UNESCO Heritage Site. Before the German annexation of Czechoslovakia, Prague was home to a flourishing Jewish community, and artifacts from the period have now become very popular tourist sites. It is also famous for its busy art scene.
Natural History Museum, Vienna
Vienna is an important nexus of Germanic and Western European cultures, and flaunts its Baroque past with pride. It has a long tradition of music, having been home to legendary musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Strauss. Other performing arts, such as drama, are also held sacred in Vienna, with the city housing the oldest English-language theater outside the UK. Vienna’s cafes are also very popular.
Budapest, like Prague, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and lies on the picturesque location beside the Danube. The banks of the iconic river are a World Heritage Site complex. Like Vienna, Budapest is famous for its cafe culture. It is also the best place to sample various Hungarian delicacies, such as a plum cake. Various sightseeing programs can be arranged to properly enjoy the numerous sights of Budapest. Hungary has a rich political and cultural history, and Budapest’s museums pay a fitting tribute to that very aspect of Hungarian life.
If you are really intent on discovering more of Europe’s historic architecture and exploring another of its disparate cultures, you can take the Danube Express from Budapest to Istanbul―another bedazzling jewel in the wonder that is Europe.
So, when you plan your once-in-a-lifetime European vacation, don’t forget to include this stunning journey through the sands of time!