Some European cities are imprinted on our imaginations. Heading into countries like Czechia and Hungary, however, not everyone knows quite what to expect when they hit the ground in Prague or Budapest, beyond the fact that they’re about to explore a beautiful city. Whether you have to choose between them or your Central Europe tour takes you to both, here’s our guide to what to do when it’s time to say dobry den to Prague, or szia, Budapest.
Prague & the Surrounds
Few cities in Europe can capture the romance and uniqueness of Prague. A few days visiting the surrounding towns is the perfect way to extend a Prague city break, or enhance a return visit.More Details
Must-See Sights of Prague and Budapest
Many non-European tourists visiting a European city for the first time make a beeline for the city’s castle and ‘old town square’ (extra points for those ‘cobblestone streets’). Touristy as this is, if you only have one full day in Prague or Budapest, it isn’t a bad strategy, though if you can, give yourself at least one more day to explore each city proper.
Comparing castles, there’s really no contest between the Gothic, fairy-tale atmosphere of Prague Castle, and Budapest’s post-war rebuild. Visiting the two is also a completely different experience. Prague Castle sells tickets based on pre-set routes, which allow you to pick and choose the highlights you want to visit in a logical order. Just about every ticket includes St Vitus Cathedral, with its glorious Mucha stained glass windows.
Take your time and perhaps invest in a guide or read up on the castle’s history before you arrive to fully appreciate its charms. It isn’t hard to spend a full day in Prague’s Castle Quarter, with attractions like the Lobkowiczky and Wallenstein Palaces, the Loreto Sanctuary, and the glorious Strahov Gallery and Treasury within easy reach. Perhaps have a lunch plan in place before you set out, as the area is replete with tourist traps.
Budapest Castle’s main attractions are the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Budapest History Museum. Both are impressive if you’re feeling the subject matter, but if not, simply take your time enjoying the castle grounds and Danube views for free before moving onto the more unique attractions of Castle Hill, including the Hospital in the Rock, Matthias Church, and the iconic Fisherman’s Bastion.
This area offers excellent views of Budapest’s Chain Bridge, and the Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament Building, which is arguably more impressive than the city’s castle. Pre-book your tour before you arrive. It’s not a cheap ticket for non-EU residents, but it’s absolutely worth it to appreciate the building, and understand just how vast and influential the Austro-Hungarian Empire once was. If you have time, the Hungarian State Opera is another architectural marvel with a superb tour on offer.
There isn’t really an ‘old town square’ in Budapest, though Heroes Square, separating downtown Pest from beautiful City Park immortalises the founding Magyars and is flanked by two of the city’s top museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Kunsthalle, showcasing contemporary art. You can reach it with a ride on continental Europe’s oldest metro line, Line 1, which rumbles beneath Budapest’s stylish Andrassy Avenue.
Prague’s old town square is a different story! Each day, thousands of visitors swarm beneath the spires of Our Lady before Tyn church, or the Old Town Hall, ready to watch the intricate beauty of the Astronomical Clock. Arrive early and try not to eat or drink here unless you’re okay with paying a hefty premium.
The Oddball Explorer’s Guide to Prague and Budapest
Once you’ve ticked off the big attractions, both Prague and Budapest have plenty to offer the more curious traveller. Both cities have become major artistic hubs, with street art and surprises to spare, though their respective aesthetics are very different.
Prague is a city every street art lover should visit at least once in their lifetime. From suitably eccentric Kafka tributes dotted throughout the city, to unnervingly alien bronze babies, the entire city is dotted with enough unusual and offbeat sculpture to keep urban explorers on the trail for hours. Even beloved King Wenceslas gets a somewhat ‘creative’ tribute, riding his upside down horse in a shopping mall.
Both Czechia and Hungary shared an often painful few decades of communist rule, and the ghosts of this era aren’t hard for the curious traveller – or ‘dark tourist’ – to track down. Hungary’s Communist icons are banished to Memento Park, an odd memorial garden of sorts in Budapest’s southwestern suburbs. The statues grow more outlandish and stark the further into the park you go, while Stalin’s boots, disembodied in the 1956 revolution, guard the entrance. You can also visit Red Ruin, a ruin pub (see nightlife, below) that reclaims the era for stylish urban kitsch.
While Budapest looks back on communism with resignation and even a little dark humour, Prague generally preserves the era only through memorials to its victims. If you are curious about the regime’s history in Czechia and other countries, visit the somewhat ramshackle, but fascinating Museum of Communism near Namesti Republiky metro station.
Is the Nightlife Better in Prague or Budapest?
First off, we are not going to try and answer that question.
Having what’s probably the best ‘quality to price’ ratio for beer in Europe, Prague is a major party spot, which hasn’t always been to the city’s benefit. Fortunately, there’s plenty of night-time Prague to enjoy away from the bachelor/ette parties, particularly in atmospheric districts like Vinohrady. You’ll also find plentiful live music spots, particularly in the Old Town and Zizkov, and of course, there’s a wide range of old style Czech pubs for a traditional meal and some of that amazing beer. Neighbourhoods compete fiercely for the title of Prague’s coolest (Holesovice arguably wears the crown at time of writing), and while a lot of ‘hipster Prague’ looks much the same as ‘hipster anywhere else,’ it isn’t hard to find a cozy café or bar to suit your taste. It might even sell work by local artists or designers for a unique Prague souvenir.
Then, there’s Budapest, whose nightlife has a unique feature Prague’s doesn’t. Resembling a cross between a hip club and your favourite eccentric aunt’s attic, the ruin pubs of the Jewish Quarter have become synonymous with Budapest nightlife. While they also attract their share of young partiers, these fortresses of night-time creativity, forged in the shells of once derelict apartment buildings are something to behold. Szimpla Kert is the most renowned name (and by the time you’ve toured its bar, dancefloor, live music room, games room, café, green house, and farmers’ market, you’ll understand why), but don’t let it be the only one you visit. Each ruin pub has its own unique take on the concept. Budapest’s famed thermal spas also get in on the nightlife fun. Szechenyi Bath on the edge of City Park is famous for its Saturday night outdoor spa party, thought to be the only one of its kind in the world.
Czech vs Hungarian Food
If you visit either Prague or Budapest, you’re going to eat well! Both are big, modern cities with a wide variety on offer, though if you prefer to try the traditional specialties, you’ll find the local cuisine as hearty as it is tasty.
Hungary’s signature of course is goulash, so try ‘the real thing’ at least once while you’re in town. Almost as flavourful is the vegetarian fozelek stew, while those who like things on the spicy side will want to dive into a plate of chicken paprikash or fish and paprika based halaszle soup. As for street food, the langos, a deep fried bread topped with sour cream, cheese, and whatever extras your taste buds desire, is king. Sweets? Don’t mind if we do! Chocolatey kakaos csiga, strudel-like retes, and multi-layered somloi galuska will get your started. Sample your way through Budapest’s Central Market Hall for satisfying, if belt-loosening lunchtime graze.
Czechia doesn’t share Hungary’s penchant for paprika, but if you’re looking for good comfort food, you’ve come to the right place. Sample your way through a few of the local soups including zelnacka (sauerkraut), kulajda (mushroom & potato) and cesnecka (amazing for a hangover… so we’ve heard). One of Prague’s surprise specialties is steak tartare, which pairs spectacularly well with beer. Alternatively, order up some traditional Czech sausages, ideally in a dark beer sauce, with a plate of bramboraky potato pancakes, Prague ham, and fried cheese to share. Return next mealtime for sauce-drowned beef, duck, or pork dishes served with dumplings, and if there’s room for dessert, try a kremrole, boiled fruit dumpling, or sweet poppy seed roll before waddling back to your hotel.
Finally, we’re sure you know Czechia is a beer country, but Hungary is better known for its wine. In Budapest, be sure to finish off at least one meal with a glass of sweet tokaji.
30 Jan 2020, 4:26 p.m.