Country Counter: 13, 14, 15, 16
Cities Visited: Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava
Timeframe: May 2016
This trip was officially the last one during my ‘student status’ in France. The whole thing was born out of a certain frustration. It’s kind of annoying that every single time I’m at a party, someone unfailingly brings up the “I was backpacking across Europe for a year” story. One day I said to myself, let’s see what all the fuss is about. So I went out and bought a backpack.
Since I’m always planning my next trip (because who knows which one is going to be the last one), I realised that if I’m ready to stretch it out a bit, I can get really good travel deals across Europe. It sounds laborious to many of my friends, but I feel I’m getting the hang of this and can travel anywhere I want on a budget.
I stumbled upon this great service called RegioJet, which operates buses across Central Europe. Not only did I get a great deal (€19 from Prague to Lyon direct), but I also found out that this service isn’t like the traditional carriers I’m used to. For starters, there’s a ton of entertainment options to choose from, including movies and TV series, which really help pass the time. Coffee, tea or hot chocolate at no additional charge! There is no WiFi on board, which was a bit disappointing at first. Later, I felt that this helped me disconnect. All the service patrons on the bus were cheerful and helpful (apart from one, on my return journey from Bratislava to Prague). I didn’t want to make this post about a bus service, but I just had to mention the fact that these journeys, although long, were a breeze. Thanks to these to-and-fro trips by RegioJet, and student hostels, I managed to keep my total cost of trip to a minimum. And no, the company isn’t paying me to write this!
View from Letná Park
First stop: Prague. The bus drops you at ÚAN Florenc, which has good connectivity to the city. You can buy travel cards for public transport at the station itself, which includes discounted entry to museums. The city has a good vibe with loads to see. I stayed at the Czech Inn, where they were kind enough to check me in early and let me drop my bags. I found all the hostels on Hostelworld. There was a direct shuttle leaving from the hostel with a tour guide, who leads a couple of daily walking tours. One of the things I enjoy the most about European cities is the ability and facilities provided for exploring places on foot. The city can be covered in two days if you’re on a tight schedule and would like to see the most in a short amount of time. Most popular places include the Charles Bridge, the Prague astronomical clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague castle, Wencelas Square, the Dancing House, the Lennon Wall, and my favourite: Žižkov Television Tower. There is something quite creepy about a television tower if it has giant babies painted in black crawling up and down. I kept the second day to visit Letná Park which offers amazing views of the Charles Bridge lined up with other bridges.
Next stop: Budapest. Another RegioJet trip from ÚAN Florenc Praha to Könyves Kálmán in Budapest. This city also has much to offer, especially if you’re on the younger side of life. Fully equipped hostels everywhere with an excellent nightlife.
The Hungarian Parliament building from across the river
I chose to explore the city on foot mostly, but there is ample public transport for those who don’t prefer walking all day. I stayed at the Unity Hostel, booked via Hostelworld. It’s ideally located near public transport and touristic spots, and boasts an in-house bar with a lively atmosphere every evening. They even have currency exchange machines, which is a good thing as Euros will only take you so far. The hostel manager was kind enough to let me check-in in the wee hours of morning. The rooms were clean and well maintained. For breakfast, I’d recommend the place right next to the hostel.
Major tourist attractions include the Buda Castle, the iconic Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Hősök Tere (among the most beautiful squares I’ve seen) and St. Stephen’s Basilica (climb up for incredible city views). The Hungarian Parliament building is a magnificent sight in itself. Be sure to take pictures from the front, back, across the river, and at night. Also, check out the shoes on the Danube bank as you stroll along the river. I’d recommend keeping some time aside to trek up to Gellért Hill for beautiful views of Budapest.
View of Budapest from Gellért Hill
Next, I took a RegioJet (again!) from Budapest to Vienna. Ah, the German touch. You could feel it as soon as you enter Austria. Vienna was also the most expensive among the 4 cities, although nowhere near as Western Europe.
It’s no wonder why Austria constantly features among the best places to live. The city had an atmosphere unlike I had ever seen before. I met one of my friends who had arrived from India and was doing her own “backpacking across Europe”. One evening, as we set off to experience the nightlife, we were greeted by two complete strangers, who led us to this street party with a very relaxed vibe. Apparently, that night, playing music outdoors was permitted and under every bridge along the river, we found a makeshift DJ setup and pop-up beer and street food vendors. Almost everyone who was passing by stopped, forgot about their destination, and joined in to dance. Literally one of the most enjoyable nights of my life.
For my stay, I booked an AirBnB. It was an extremely neat and well maintained place hosted by a Korean family. I cannot post (find) the link as it appears that they don’t host anymore.
Must see sights include Schönbrunn Palace (climb up the hill for amazing views), the Belvedere (be sure to check out the sprawling lawns behind), St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Museumsquartier (they had an open air music and food festival on that day), Karlskirche (even though they will try to convince you otherwise, it is not worth climbing up to the top) and Hundertwasserhaus, the organic and colourful apartment. Oh, and don’t forget to try the Weiner Schnitzel with beer!
The last leg of my trip was Bratislava. Ever since I watched the movie Eurotrip, I had always wondered whether Bratislava was actually as gloomy as it was portrayed. Turns out, it was an over-exaggeration (I still love the movie though). Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is a tiny and charming city. There might not be much to do or see, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy your time there.
I started off with another free walking tour, where we were divided into two groups to keep it manageable for all parties involved, something that I really appreciated. The guides were entertaining and knowledgeable (ours was really pretty as well – Soňa), and we got a good lesson in history. The prices are rock bottom here compared to other cities, so I indulged in a bit more. The best deal I got was on a really cheap bottle of pure Absinthe, which is not available for sale in France. I stayed at Hostel Blues, which claims to be the best hostel in Bratislava (or perhaps Slovakia), and rightly so. Perfect location, super friendly staff and fantastic cleanliness. No complaints whatsoever. I forgot to mention that all of these hostels had pub crawls and tie-ups with walking tours, which is always an excellent deal and an opportunity to meet people from around the globe.
The climb to Bratislava Castle
Must see attractions include the Church of St. Elisabeth (also known as the Blue Church), the Bratislava Castle (climb to the top), Čumil the Man at Work (there are some pretty interesting stories about him floating around) and the UFO tower (visit the top viewing deck for amazing views. You can see three countries from up there). Take some time out and trek your way up to the Slavín War Memorial. This beautifully designed area didn’t have a lot of visitors when I arrived, and offered amazing views and tranquility. You’ll find innumerable statues all across the streets of Bratislava. I still remember walking around the city and finally getting that much needed break I was dying for. On my way back, I took the direct RegioJet route from Bratislava to Lyon.
View of Bratislava from the UFO tower viewing deck
Maybe this wasn’t as flashy or exciting as the “backpacking trips across Europe” you’d see or hear or read about all over. But I do know this. It was one of the most memorable and refreshing breaks of my life, and I’d do it all over again. Cities like Bratislava remain underrated when compared to Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. However, if you’re looking for a good time without burning a hole in your pocket, Central Europe is the place to be.
Total Cost of Travel: €83.5 (Lyon -> Prague -> Budapest -> Vienna -> Bratislava -> Lyon)
Total Cost of Stay: €85 (for 6 nights)